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What an atheist is teaching me about the nature of faith

The day after Thanksgiving, my son and I talked about God and gratitude, religion and reason, faith and Ricky Gervais.

I knew the British comedian as the originator of The Office. Turns out he’s also a “pathological atheist,” according to former CNN talk-show host Piers Morgan, and a surprisingly articulate authority on the wisdom of living in the here and now.

“I get frustrated when people say that atheists live a less fulfilling life because they lack spirituality and they believe nothing comes after we die,” said my son, 19, a college sophomore and recently declared religious studies major.

“Ricky Gervais made the point — and somewhat facetiously, because he’s a comedian — that atheists have more to live for because they’re not spending their lives anticipating what comes afterward. So they want to make the most of what they have.”

And so commenced a conversation that held more meaning for me than the facile reminders of “gratitude” that every listserv and website I subscribe to threw at me in the days before Thanksgiving.

Christmas Christians

I regret that my husband and I didn’t raise our children with a stronger religious faith. They don’t know the Lord’s Prayer or a Thanksgiving grace or the traditional Christmas hymns, and I feel the loss of that during these frenetic five weeks we have come to call “the holidays.”

Baptized a Methodist (my childhood religion) and raised in a Unitarian Universalist fellowship during his elementary school years, Nate at 19 is now an atheist. He questions why I would pine for some shared, sentimental religious feeling that our family hasn’t earned.

“An atheist’s approach to the holidays isn’t that different from the average Christian’s approach,” he says. “Christians will just say grace before the meal. I think Christmas has been secularized in the majority of the United States. There are plenty of casual Christians and families that aren’t religious who celebrate Christmas for the sake of giving gifts and having a meal.”

Studies support his claim. According to the Pew Research “Religion and Public Life” project, 90 percent of Americans celebrate Christmas, but only half view it as “mostly” a religious holiday, and fully a third say it’s cultural — a chance to gather with friends and family.

My own family celebrated Thanksgiving this year at the home of non-religious friends. No one offered to lead a prayer before the meal, so I raised a toast to the cooks who had prepared two entrées, three desserts, four appetizers and more.

During our talk the next day I asked my son whether he prays, in any form.

“No, not prayer,” he said. “Because prayer implies something religious, and I’m not religious. It doesn’t mean I don’t hope for things. I hope that I’ll do well on my finals, but I’m certainly not going to pray to God to let me get an A.”

What about offering thanks to whomever or whatever may be guiding our lives?

“For the most part, I think gratitude is expressed in small moments on a day-to-day basis. You make me a sandwich and I say, ‘Thanks, Mom. That was nice of you to do.’ There are bigger things, like being grateful for the people in your life who are a constant, who are there through thick-and-thin.”

And whom you can love and honor, he contends, without attaching those feelings to religious faith. “I’m grateful for things that are tangible, as opposed to thanking God when there’s no apparent intervention on God’s part.”

An atheist explains

When I tell my son that I am “saddened” by his atheism, or find it to be a cynical choice at his age, he points out that this is a considered decision — not a failing or a whim — and that believers have no corner on moral virtue.

“If I was being very cynical,” he counters, “I’d say a lot of people weren’t fully educated in matters of religion. I think a lot of people just grew up in a church: ‘Well, it’s how I was raised, it’s what I’m going to stick with.’ ”

Schooled in the importance of what he calls religious literacy, Nate would choose Buddhism if he had to follow a particular practice. “But that’s true of many non-religious people,” he says. “Buddhism involves coming to terms with yourself and your surroundings, and involves less of the dogma that comes with other religions.”

However reasoned his choice, my son will have an uphill climb to convince anyone other than his mother that atheism makes sense. Americans overall regard atheists only slightly more warmly than they do Muslims and seven points below Mormons, according to a July 2014 study by Pew Research.

Black Protestants and older Americans hold atheists in especially low esteem.

Asked what frustrates him most about people’s misconceptions of atheists, Nate said it’s “the idea that every atheist hates religion and is against religion.” In fact, he says, knowledge of the world’s religions helps him understand other cultures and history’s course.

“Even though I’m not religious, I think it’s important that I understand how and why other people are religious. By being religiously literate, people can better understand what’s going on in the Middle East, why 9/11 happened — almost all that happens in the world.”

He challenges whether I, as an unchurched believer, am willing to learn more about what atheists do believe. I begin with Ricky Gervais’ distinction between spirituality and religion: “One is a very personal feeling, a journey, a hope, a need, a joy,” the comedian said on CNN last year, “and the other is an organized body that uses that for power and corruption, in many cases.”

This post was written by Amy Gage and originally published on The Middle Stages. Follow Amy on Twitter: @agage.

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Comments (14)

  1. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/09/2014 - 12:40 pm.

    It’s kind of funny.

    I keep haranguing young Atheist these days because they seem to want to substitute the term: “Non-believers” for “Atheist”. As an Atheist for 40 years I’ve spent a lot of time to explain to religious the fact that Atheist believe in a lot of things, god just isn’t one of them. The term: “Non-believers” just reinforces a stereotype that Atheists don’t believe in anything or are Hedonists. By and large most Atheist I know have the same basic moral principles as religious people, we just don’t claim our morality originates with a higher power.

    I don’t know why a parent should be “saddened” by a child’s Atheism? On the other hand that’s a typical response. But know that such sadness is selfish and driven by abstractions. You’re not sad for the Atheist, the Atheist life, and I know religious people have a hard time getting their heads around this, is just as rewarding, joyful, and successful as anyone else’s. After all, being religious doesn’t guarantee a wonderful life now does it? The parent who is saddened by a child’s Atheism is morning a loss of their own, and failing to recognize their kids accomplishment. A child is not obligated to be what you want them to be, so know them for who they are, and celebrate it, don’t be saddened by it just because it isn’t “you”.

    • Submitted by Andy Dunn on 12/10/2014 - 07:53 am.

      Or bemoan the fact you didn’t provide a stronger religious upbringing for your children. It’s very possible a parent could have taken their children to church every Sunday and for every major religious holiday or observation, and one of them still could have become an Atheist.

  2. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 12/09/2014 - 07:10 pm.

    Good point: atheists do believe in many things; one of them is that there is no God. In that they are very similar to religious people who also believe in many things one of which is that there is God.

    • Submitted by Dan Bosch on 12/09/2014 - 08:28 pm.

      If you propose the existence of a god(s)

      then the burden is on you to show observable, testable, concrete evidence. If you don’t provide it, then your claim is just set aside until you can. If you provide the world with the valid, concrete proof I expect and I reject it, then you can state that I don’t believe in god(s). Until that time, there really is nothing to believe in or not believe in. No offense, but your claim of the existence of god(s) is still at the hypothesis level.

      • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 12/10/2014 - 09:42 am.

        Oh ye of little faith

        That’s why they call it “faith,” sir. The faithful don’t need to see air to know it exists.

        • Submitted by Jonathan Ecklund on 12/10/2014 - 01:29 pm.


          You can still sense air with touch, which is one of the five senses… so you know it exists. God cannot be confirmed by any sense.

        • Submitted by Dan Bosch on 12/10/2014 - 08:03 pm.

          Can your “faith” tell you the exact psi in your car tires?

          If not, they make a calibrated instrument that can detect and measure it.

    • Submitted by Jonathan Ecklund on 12/10/2014 - 09:12 am.

      That’s not how it works. Not believing in god ISN’T a belief. It’s the absence of that belief. The absence of something isn’t itself a thing.

  3. Submitted by Meg Watson on 12/10/2014 - 07:25 am.

    The tone rankles

    The tone of this article rankles, as the author seems to think she is coming from some “greater knowledge” and shaking her head in sadness at her son. I applaud him in his willingness to discuss and confront these issues with his mother. It couldn’t have been easy. And I’m guessing she won’t let it rest, either. “However reasoned his choice, my son will have an uphill climb to convince anyone other than his mother that atheism makes sense.” She is ASSUMING that all of her readers will share her viewpoint!

    I spend the Xmas holidays with an extended atheist family–the father is in his 80’s. In my experience there is no shortage of older atheists, though they are probably not as vocal as the younger folk. My own father, who recently passed away at the age of 100, was of the firm opinion (which I share wholeheartedly) that religion has caused far more problems than it has solved. There was no quicker way to lose his respect than to espouse some religious belief.

    Many people use religion as a support in hard times, and use it uncritically as a moral compass. I see no harm in that, but it gives them no right to make any judgements on MY moral compass. And I would bristle at anyone who was “saddened” by my atheism.

  4. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 12/10/2014 - 09:23 pm.

    Beleifs and non-beliefs

    Some people believe in aliens and some people do not believe in aliens – since there is no proof of either, both are still beliefs. Some people do not believe that Osama bin Laden organized 9/11; the wording that they “do not believe” doesn’t change the fact that they still have a belief that someone else did it (except in this case one can say that it is a false belief). Not believing in something is the same as believing in the lack of that something or opposite of something. Monotheists have absence of belief in multiple gods – they are still believers in one God. Atheists have absence of belief in one God – they are still believers in no gods.

    This is a definition of belief: “Something believed or accepted as true, especially a particular tenet or a body of tenets accepted by a group of persons.” Believers accept God’s existence as true while atheists accept God’s non-existence as true – both are beliefs fitting this definition. There are other definitions but the result is still the same. As long as there is no proof of God’s existence or non-existence (and there may not be a proof of that by definition) atheism is as much a belief as monotheism or polytheism.

    • Submitted by Jonathan Ecklund on 12/11/2014 - 09:52 am.

      No, no, no

      I don’t assert that a god exists. You do. Therefore, the burden of proof is on you, not me. I don’t ‘accept the non-existence of god.’ There is simply zero proof that one exists, therefore there is nothing to accept.

      Beyond that, most people, at least most sane people, don’t go around describing themselves in… i don’t even know how to define what you’re suggesting. I mean, you’re a Republican, but you don’t go around claiming that you’re a “non-Democrat,” right? How many Christians do you know who claim that their religion is a “non-belief in pantheism?”

      Our non-female parental unit, who art in not-Valhalla, nor the Elysian Fields, nor hell nor limbo, desacralized be thy designation that is not sound nor image.
      Thy egalitarian, democratic nation-state that has not not descended upon us,
      Thy will be not-uncompleted, on all planets not named Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, as it is not uncompleted in the place that is not hell nor valhalla…

  5. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 12/11/2014 - 08:06 pm.

    Proofs and beliefs

    First of all, I do not assert anything – I admit that I do not know (and no one does and can). You, on the other hand, assert that God doesn’t exist. So you have to prove that He doesn’t exist. But while there is zero proof that God exists, there is also zero proof that He doesn’t exist.

    Logically, there is no difference between atheists’ position and believers’ position. Person A believes that there is a cat in a closed dark room; person B doesn’t believe that there is a cat in that room. Both of them believe in some kind of statement of existence, whether positive or negative. Now, they can enter the room and resolve their dispute about a cat. People cannot resolve a dispute about whether God exists or not but they still belong to one of those two categories, just like A and B. The only other option is to not care and not think about that but atheists do not fit this category: they actively deny God’s existence, just like B denies cat’s existence in a room, without proof, just based on some belief (maybe his mother told him that there are always cats in dark rooms).

    Interestingly, I do go around claiming that I am a non-Democrat, the same as I am a non-Republican. People like me are also known to be called independent.

    • Submitted by Jonathan Ecklund on 12/12/2014 - 01:36 pm.

      Logically, there is a huge difference in reasoning- the scenario you’ve described with the cat it itself a logical fallacy, as the the existence of the cat would be apparent simply by opening the door- which you state, but then say it’s identical to an unverifiable claim about the existence of god.

      I don’t assert a god exists. I don’t assert a god doesn’t exist. The entire premise of a deity is unverifiable by design. I’m not here to knock down someone’s belief system or faith system, only to say that a lack of a belief is NOT a belief… and that for someone else to foist their entirely unverifiable belief structure upon anyone unwillingly is wrong.

  6. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 12/12/2014 - 08:31 pm.

    Atheists and not

    Mr. Ecklund, my cat example is logically the same because a way to verify a belief is irrelevant to the belief system. Imagine that the room is locked and A and B cannot come in and check; only C can do it when A and B leave so for A and B it is unverifiable – what does it change?

    However, if you are saying that you do not assert that there is no God, then you are not an atheist. Atheists do claim that God doesn’t exist and do try to assert their system on others by advertising, billboards, displays, etc. In this case you and I agree also that it is wrong to force someone’s belief system on others.

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