Neighbors: Why an Atheist?

Oct 24, 2007

He was reared in the Episcopalian tradition, and he knows it well. It is easy for him to acknowledge the role his church has played in his personal and cultural growth from birth. That is why, of all the religious traditions he has come to find wanting over the years, this one holds a special place in his heart. He declares it “my own ‘Thing That I Don’t Believe In'”, as opposed to the many other Christian assemblies and world faiths to which he feels no connection at all.

Growing up in Poplar Bluff, he visited churches with friends, perhaps less in a pointed quest to find a spiritual home, and more in search of the answer to three key questions which continue to intrigue him even now: “What do they believe?”, “How do they express it?”, and “Why?” to both.

This information technology worker is of the generation weaned on “personal” gizmos, uniquely troubled pop divas, gravity-challenged trousers, and the lightning pace of information transmission and tech development. What they can conceive requiring a computer, an entertainment module, or a handset, they can bring into play with ever-increasing speed and sophistication. There is little in the prevailing culture encouraging them toward anything other than well-wired lives of large-scale consumption.

And yet, amid the busy-ness and noise, we affirm that there are fundamental enquiries common to persons of every era. But as we can see, the answers are not always swift in coming, nor do they always set one on the path of the majority.

This man does not believe there to be an ordering force in the universe beyond nature itself; this renders questions on the nature of God impractical, in his case. As to whether he has had spiritually significant experiences of any sort: “The problem is that I don’t know what ‘spiritual’ means. It’s such a fuzzy, vague term. Words have meaning for me; I want to know what people mean when they say ‘spiritual’.

“Have I ever experienced something larger than myself? Certainly—the world around me. Every time I look at it. But I don’t need to make it into anything supernatural.”

His perspective has not caused division within his family or personal circle, but he recognizes that it is problematic in the minds of many. Still, he says that he would give any children of his own the opportunity to “make up their own minds” on issues of God, and of our role in the complex web of life on earth.

“You hear about how terrible atheists are,” he notes, “but most people don’t actually know an atheist—or know they know one. They haven’t had that conversation yet.”