Why I Quit Atheism
slightly different version of this essay is included in the second edition of
Uphill: Realizing the Honesty of Atheism (2014)
If you came here looking only for the link to that batshit crazy
conversation with the woman who responded to me to tell me she
wasn't going to respond to me, you can find
July 23, 2013
I quit atheism this past June.
It's funny how events and ideas converged over just about a week.
I was attending the Florida Tech
Creative Writing Institute, four days of lectures and workshops
on writing; it ran from Thursday through Sunday. On Saturday
evening, I'd ended a brief engagement in yet another trivial
argument with an atheist on my atheist Facebook page and decided I
was going to give up atheism.
Yes, I said I was arguing with an
I planned to delete the Facebook atheism page, the Atheist View
Twitter account, and scale the Atheist View website down to the bare
bones until its paid time ran out and then take it down. This was
all very drastic so I decided I ought to sleep on it. When Sunday
morning arrived and I was getting ready to attend my final day of
workshops at Florida Tech, I told my husband, "I'm thinking of
giving up on this whole atheism thing." I told him I was tired of
arguing with atheists.
His response was, "What about the
[now defunct] Poultry Apologies
blog?" I didn't see the connection, but told him that, yes, I
was thinking about giving that up, too. I was tired, I realized, of
arguing with people, of being angry and frustrated all the time. He
was not happy. Let me paraphrase: "If you're not arguing with the
atheists and you're not pointing out everyone's grammatical and
spelling mistakes...where will all of your aggression go? Toward me,
I had to laugh. Because maybe he was right. But I was at a point
in my life where I just wanted to enjoy. Enjoy the Internet, mostly.
Enjoy the good things in life. Enjoy my day without having to focus
on all things negative. I'd already started trimming down my
Facebook "friends" list. You wouldn't believe (well, maybe you
would) what people post to their walls. And for years I was looking
at it and starting my day off with it--essentially, I was getting
pissed off every morning.
When I joined Facebook, I started "friending" atheists. It
was as if all the atheists in the world were trying to connect and I
was part of it. But after a while I stopped actively seeking out
connections and just let them come to me. And then, about a year
ago, I started to whittle away at the list.
People who posted pictures of suffering animals had to go. "But,
wait," they would cry when I clued them in on my plans, "We're just
trying to make you aware of the awful things going on." And I said,
"You think I don't already know? And you think I need a picture on
my wall of a dead and bloated dog tied to a tree during breakfast?
Post a link instead," I said. "Be thoughtful of what you're showing people."
But they didn't care. So, I "unfriended" them. I "unfriended" anyone
who posted pictures of dead and suffering people, too. And children!
How they loved to "make me aware" by posting pictures of dead or
dying children. Maybe something is wrong with me, but when I see
things like that, I cry. And I don't want to cry when I'm sitting at
my computer trying to enjoy the Internet.
And anyone who posted pictures of nearly naked women in sexually
suggestive poses--always an abundance of those. "Unfriended." And
anyone who posted too many pictures of himself or herself, especially
nearly naked in sexually suggestive positions. One guy posted a
picture of himself masturbating. I had to suppose he didn't have his
mother on his friends list. All gone from my list.
Once I'd finally cleaned up my wall of the lovers of torture and
sexual exhibitionism, most of whom were atheists, I was satisfied.
Until June. When I decided to quit.
Sunday morning, after I told my husband my plans, I checked my
email before going off to Florida Tech and coincidentally enough, there
was a message from the leader of an atheist group near me wondering
if I wanted to speak at one of their meetings. I was surprised. "I
can't do that!" I said to myself. "I've just quit!" But, I decided I
would do it anyway. I was still an atheist, after all, and maybe I
could talk about how I'd just quit atheism.
This person, however, suggested that I talk about something else:
The Honesty of Atheism. I'd written an article by that name, and it
was published in Russ Kick's anthology,
Everything You Know about God is
Wrong. He said that my article was still relevant. "Okay," I
told him. "I'll take a look at it and see what I can come up with."
After reading it, I was reminded of one of the lectures I'd sat in
on at the Creative Writing Institute on
Jackson was a poet and an intellectual. Born in New York, she
lived in Europe for about fourteen years and after marrying Schuyler
Jackson, moved to Wabasso, Florida, of all places. She and her
husband lived in a
Cracker Style house with no electricity, but she claimed to be
happy. I can't imagine it. The man who spoke to us was with the
Laura Riding Jackson
Foundation, an organization formed to preserve her home after
her death. He read some of her poetry. It was poetry--but I liked
But then he told us that Jackson and her husband set out to
rewrite the dictionary. [The result was
Rational Meaning: A New Foundation for the Definition of Words and
Supplementary Essays] Jackson didn't believe in synonyms. She
believed that each word had a distinct and precise definition. I was
instantly a fan. And I was reminded of it, when I reread my article,
The Honesty of Atheism. Because, at heart, it's about words and what
they mean and how they ought to be used. And it was then, there in
June, that I knew I was going to give up on atheism.
My history with atheism began in my thirties. I won't get into
how I realized I was an atheist. I talk about that in my book,
Like Rolling Uphill: Realizing the Honesty of Atheism.
I've never been a social person. As a youngster I was socially
inept. Unpracticed. And too particular. The biggest problem facing
me at adolescence was that I'd never found a voice. Growing up in my
family, I learned that expressing my opinions or extremes of emotion
was bad. Such things were too often met with derision, criticism, or
even punishment. As a young teen, I learned not to have an opinion
of my own. I believed whatever you believed. If you believed that
abortion was wrong, so did I. And when I talked to someone who
believed abortion was a right, I agreed.
I had very few friends and looking back now, I can understand
why. I was what they called "two-faced." But I wasn't that way
because I was a naturally backstabbing bitch. I was that way because
I hated confrontation and was terrified of being wrong. So, if you
hated Julie, so did I. But of course, I liked Julie and so couldn't
be cruel to her (not that I was never cruel, because if the girls I
was with at the time wanted to be cruel, I was cruel) so when with
her, I hated the people who hated her.
Once I realized atheism, I started to find my voice. There I was,
finally, with an opinion! And it was an opinion I could stand
behind. Trust me, I'd thought about it. A lot. I'd even read the
Bible (that had pretty much cinched it). Atheism was logical. It made
sense. It was honest. And so, I started to learn my own
opinions on everything else, as well. I was growing a backbone. It
was very painful.
At some point, I had this epiphany (if you can call it an
epiphany when it's completely wrong). I thought that my social
isolation, my lack of friends, must be because I'm an atheist. I'm
not weird; I'm just trying to socialize with the wrong sorts of
people. Once I find the atheists, I'll be just fine! I'll be like
other people. I didn't for a second think there were any atheists
living near me, or that there were more than, say, fifty, in the
country. So, there wouldn't be parties. But there would be friends!
I believed that atheists, by definition, would be committed to
reason, to truth and honesty, and to individual freedom.
My first foray into finding other atheists was in the AOL
forums--this was back when AOL was the thing. While there,
trying to learn and socialize, Christians would dart in and scream
at us about how immoral we were and how happy they were going to be
watching us writhing in pain in hell for all eternity. Over time, I
learned to give just as good as I got and began engaging in email
lists, mostly designed for debating Christianity. But I became
acquainted with other atheists that way, too.
After a while, however, I got tired of arguing the same things
over and over again with new Christians--or the same ones who just
couldn't accept logic and reason. So, I backed off a bit. I created
a website, Atheist View, and then wrote my book. The book was
cathartic--like a life dissertation. Here it is. This is what I
think. Don't ask me any more stupid questions. And I got to the
point where religion no longer bothered me. When Christians
attempted to tell me how wrong I was about their beliefs, I either
responded with sarcastic humor, or ignored them. My time and energy
was wasted there. And I no longer enjoyed the debate--probably
because it was fruitless. It had become boring.
I sought more real association with atheists. Even though I
didn't think there were any around. I created an email list; I think
it was called Atheists of Brevard, and was surprised to see the list
grow into the hundreds. At some point, my brother and I attended an
atheism convention in Tampa, probably
International, and there was a table set up there with
information on starting up a local atheist group. I told my brother,
"That's what I'm going to do." So, I founded
Freethought Association. We thrived for a while, with a
newsletter, meetings, and a website. The group still thrives, I
suppose, as a Meetup.
Our first meeting was in a local park and only my brother and I
showed up. But the next month, a few more people were there. And the
next month, more. Right away, we got crazy people. The first was a
man who wanted us all to go to his house for our meetings, and for
dinner. He told us that what he did was to go around to all the
restaurants at night and get their leftover food, the stuff they
were going to put into the dumpster. And he fed people with it. He
claimed that the mayor had even been over to his house for dinner!
I finally grew a pair and told him, "We are not meeting at your
house." Luckily, I had a good excuse. We needed a neutral place,
where people would feel comfortable showing up and could easily
escape when they decided they wanted to. That was the main thing I
looked for when attending a meeting with people I didn't know,
So, we started meeting regularly in the local library.
crazy people turned up. There was the perpetual victim. Before she
found us, everything bad that happened to her was because she was a
woman. After she found us, it was because she was an atheist. I can
tell you neither of those was the reason for most of her troubles.
Then there was the Aussie who insisted that voting in our country
ought to be mandatory--by law. That's right. If you don't vote, you
risk going to jail.
There were the people you thought were wonderful and sweet--but
they couldn't function logically. Like the sweet old man who
believed that passages in the Bible told of aliens visiting earth.
There was no other explanation! No one at that time could have
described such a machine! Therefore: aliens. And then there were the
people you respected, the ones you thought were intelligent, until
they started appeals to authority and ad hominem attacks.
The email list was
much worse than the meetings. We engaged
in a lot of arguments. It was a wonderful learning experience, at
least. I learned to argue out and parse my thoughts and opinions.
But some others didn't seem to be able to examine their own
arguments during the engagements. There were people who would change
their stance on an issue mid-argument. If you quoted them verbatim,
it didn't matter. They'd see it, and then claim it wasn't they who
were changing stance, but you. There were people who would
make bold statements of fact and refuse to support them with
sources. And there were people who stomped their feet and called me
names. I was always willing to label ideas and opinions, as
opposed to people. I once called one man's opinion about some issue
"fascist." He threw a tantrum, called me a diva, and stalked off.
There were liberals, conservatives, Objectivists, socialists,
fascists, and more. All trying to convince me they were smarter than
I was. And, well, I wasn't buying it.
And sure, you can say that maybe I was the stupid one, the
unreasonable one--those people certainly would say so. But I had
some back up. I had some study and research and discussion with
others to boost my confidence. I was never, ever the type of person
to be confident in myself. I was always quick to be the one who
admitted she was wrong. But I was finding that, more and more, that
wasn't the case a lot of the time. And I was no longer willing to
claim fault, where I was sure the fault wasn't with me. I backed up
my assertions with supported facts and evidence. They didn't. I
stuck to my premises, they didn't. So, arrogant as it might seem, I
came away fairly certain I wasn't the one in the wrong.
I lost a lot of respect for a lot of people on that list. And no
doubt, a lot of people lost respect for me--if they had it to begin
with. But I learned something very important:
Atheists can, and do,
believe in a lot of weird things. Atheists are not immune to being
But some things, you have to learn over and over again.
And look, I'm not saying that I'm reasonable all of the time or that
I'm smarter than everybody else, or that I never made mistakes. It
was just these few instances in which I felt I was being wronged and
it was edifying for me.
So I quit the group. I took to my website and blog. I started a
Facebook page just for atheism. At some point I joined
through it all, I realized another very important thing: I don't like
atheists any more than anyone else in the world. Just because
someone is an atheist does not mean he is committed to reason.
And I have a serious issue with that.
I like reason. I consider myself a rationalist. Am I perfectly
reasonable all the time? Of course not, don't be silly. But I strive
for it. And I recognize stupidity when I see it. Unfortunately, I
tended to not just let it pass. I'd learned to shrug off the
religious who tried to argue with me, because I knew that they would
not, could not, be reasonable. I still hadn't learned the same about
Hence, finding myself once more in an argument with an atheist
on Facebook in June.
Pope said something ridiculous like, wasting food is equal to
stealing from the poor. I posted the link and said that it was
stupid. I said, "Please. Every smart kid
in America knew his mom was full of shit when she told him he had to
clean his plate because there were starving kids in China."
An atheist challenged me. He said,
"Are you suggesting we do not have a culture of waste and it is a
Right then, I should have realized this person was not
reasonable. Nothing in my statement hinted at either of those
things. I was talking about wasting food not equaling stealing. But,
though I had learned my lesson over and over and over again and had
backed off from trying to reason with atheists, once again, I had to
learn. I replied, "I'm
saying that me buying too much roast beef doesn't make me a thief."
It was as simple as that for me. You see, the word "stealing"
means something. But he replied, "I
think culture of waste says it pretty clearly. I find it hard to
imagine any thinking person reading this piece and only finding
fault with it."
So I handed him his ass. "Ah,
well, then there you have it. I'm clearly not a thinking person.
Thanks for clueing me in. I'll try to remember that, but not being a
thinking person, I might have difficulty. You know how it is, oh,
wait, no you don't because obviously you're a thinking person who
can't manage to find one thing to complain about in the idea that
wasting food is stealing. As if, if I only wouldn't buy too much
food, the poor would magically have it. Yes, we absolutely live in a
culture of waste, and a culture of throw-away products. But that
culture is not what creates the poor, and conserving is not what
will help the poor, in my totally thoughtless opinion."
To this person, the article was about
the feelings he had
regarding the poor not having enough to eat, and the wealthy having
more than they need. That was all that mattered. But to me, what
mattered was the word "stealing." That was what elicited my response
to the Pope. I balked at the idea that wasting food was stealing.
Because it absolutely is not. I was only arguing that word.
But this person was arguing his feelings about the poor.
didn't work. It can never work. I can't argue with someone who can't
even see what the argument is about.
I realized that my "friends" list on my regular Facebook page and
my "likers" on the atheism page were, for the most part (by far),
liberals who, though they're certainly not alone in it, think with their emotions and not their
intellects, or the
facts. And the funny thing is, this makes me more liberal than a lot
of the liberals I know. During the gay marriage flurry, I posited
that marriage equality was for everyone, not just gays. Plural
marriage should also be legal. But some of the liberals thought I
was out of my mind. They had an emotional reaction to plural
marriage, probably because of their tiny amount of misinformation
and, most definitely its religious affiliation, and so could not get
past their feelings to accept what real freedom must mean: we
ought to be able to enter into marriages with any other sentient
adults without interference from the State.
I have said, occasionally, that my politics align most closely
with Libertarianism. I have, however, not gone so far as to claim
that I am a Libertarian. Because I don't like a lot of Libertarians
(they can't reason any better than other people) and certainly not
Libertarian politicians--I can't say I agree with each and every
point in their platform. I had an altercation with a woman some time
ago that perfectly illustrates how people think, and especially how
liberals view Libertarians. I made a status
update that simply said: "My views are too complex and thoughtful to
be reduced to an emotionally charged sound bite, to be cut, pasted,
and spread like a virus, in an attempt to subtly shame anyone who
dares not participate."
Clearly, I was getting tired of the sound bite nature of Facebook
[and it sounds like this was referencing one of those viral "share
on your wall or I'll know you're evil" memes].
But this woman with whom I couldn't recall any previous interaction responded by saying she wrote out a response explaining how I was
wrong, but wasn't going to post it, because doing so would be
useless, much like arguing with Rush Limbaugh. She'd apparently read
somewhere that I agreed with a lot of Libertarian principles. So,
she wanted me to know that she wouldn't bother to respond.
Seriously. You can read the altercation
This was not the only problem I encountered being a socially-liberal, fiscally-conservative atheist
(and don't even try to assume you know what I mean by fiscally
conservative--because you don't). My wall was constantly
filled with statements of bigotry and hatred toward conservatives,
namely Republicans and Libertarians, known to most of my liberal
"friends" as Republicunts,
Repubtards, and the childishly selfish. Ayn Rand was called every
vicious name in the book by people who had almost certainly never
read her philosophical ideas, because they clearly didn't understand
them, and most often attacked her as a person instead. There
were constant diatribes against capitalism, as if we actually live
in a true capitalist society instead of a formally government-controlled capitalistic nation, and a current corporatocracy.
I formed new standards for "unfriending." Anyone who called Ayn
Rand a cunt was gone. And then, anyone who called any woman a cunt
was gone. Anyone making bigoted and hateful statements about large
groups of people was gone. Many were...gone.
I have family who are still Republicans. Sure, I can't understand
it completely, but I'm not going to stomp my feet and call them
names. I used to be a Republican myself and only left when they
started going batshit crazy--due, in my opinion, to religion. Every
now and then someone on Facebook would post the question, "How can
an atheist possibly be a Republican?" As if they couldn't fathom the
fact that most people don't fit ideally into either party and choose
the one they can stomach the best. And they apparently don't know
about the existence of decent social liberals who are also fiscally
conservative--they call them Libertarians, as if it's a slur, and lump them all in together
because it makes their world neatly compact.
[Of course, by
2021, the so-called Conservatives--namely Republicans--had gone
complete bonkers, so this argument hasn't the impact it once did.]
Of course, they're also asking how blacks and gays can be
Christians, trying as hard as they can to deny the enormous
propensity for hope and fear, and the need for belonging, in the
And so, there I was, arguing once again with someone who couldn't
understand something as simple as the meaning of the word "steal," and was emotionally
committed to the idea that his not finishing his Big Mac was
stealing from the poor homeless man down the street. The guilt!
And he dared to tell me he was the thinking one in the discussion.
I'd had it.
I didn't want to talk to
unreasonable people anymore.
And then I remembered Laura Riding Jackson. The lecturer told us that
day that Jackson renounced poetry at some point in her life because
it had failed in its mission. Call me skeptical, but I am fairly
sure that poetry has no mission. Jackson disagreed. The speaker read
a few paragraphs from Jackson's treatise explaining why poetry had
failed. When he was finished, he sighed and admitted he didn't
understand any of that and he often had to leave interpretations of
her essays and poetry to people smarter than himself.
I didn't understand it either, and when I was asked to speak to
that group of atheists, and so reread my article, The Honesty of
Atheism, I finally put it all together.
I finally got it.
Jackson chose the exact words she felt conveyed her reasons. And
she failed to communicate.
Yes. Words have precise meanings. As an author, I must choose the
right word. Not just the right word for its meaning, but right for
the sentence, the paragraph, the novel, the tone, the voice--my
audience. I can't
just insist that this word is the only word that means what it means
and therefore, I must use it. It's no good to use the precise word
if people can't understand what I'm saying. While I stand by my
article on the honesty of atheism, while I agree with it completely,
I understand that it's meaningless. Because people don't care.
Too many people think with their emotions instead of using their
sense of reason. When the
Zimmerman verdict came in, my Facebook wall was flooded with
outrage. Never mind the truth. Never mind the actual facts of the
case; and never mind the fair application of the law. I "unfriended"
more than fifty people who were thinking with their emotions instead
of seeing objective reality. Why? Because they were upset
that Trayvon Martin was dead.
I was upset about that, too! I was horrified by what had
happened. But I didn't let those emotions guide my thinking, or my
search for the facts. I didn't let a media more concerned with
ratings than truth tell me what was true. And I
couldn't reason with any of those who were crying out injustice,
when in fact, justice and the law were adequately applied. I can't
argue with emotions.
I am not immune. When the Newtown school shooting
happened, I was incredibly upset--sick with it. And I am still
working out my position on the issue of guns in America. I struggle to leave
my emotions out of it, to set my fears aside, but I strive to remind
myself that freedom, above all, is paramount. It's just like
Franklin said (and my husband dared to remind me during my
period of anger and emotion): "They who can give up essential
liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty
[I no longer hold
this view. While "freedom is paramount" is a lovely idea, it's
elusive. Because we're talking about people and society. We don't
live completely and totally free. To argue that guns should be
easier to obtain than a drivers' license is, in my opinion, inane.]
And so, the moral of the story is this: No matter who they are,
no matter what they believe or don't believe, most people don't want honesty and precise word usage and logic and
reasoning. People too often think with their emotions, not their
intellects. Objective reality, facts, evidence, the law, justice, and
freedom are all too often cast aside in the rush to assuage
They just want to feel.
They want to feel alive. They want to feel important. They want
to feel right, and justified, and useful. They don't care about
words and reasoning and what's right or wrong. They only care about
how it feels.
I can't argue with that.
I don't want to.
So, I quit. I quit trying to reason with people who didn't want
to. It wasn't good for me and it wasn't good for them.
I quit atheism.
And by that, I mean
that atheism can no longer be a defining characteristic for me. It says
absolutely nothing at all about who I am. But I don't want to stop learning. Not having to be acquainted
with people for whom I'm not a good "friend" fit, doesn't mean I'm
not paying attention to the world. Just like not wanting to see
pictures of suffering animals almost daily doesn't mean I don't
occasionally read about, and make myself aware of, the situation.
I have come to
realize that you don't learn by arguing with people who don't share
your passion for reason and preciseness of language. You learn by
talking with intelligent people, reading their books, reading
articles and discussions, etc. So I didn't give up learning. And I'm
still an atheist. But from what I've seen of the atheism community
(do I need to mention the feminism fiasco and atheism+? And they
can't even come to terms with the definition of atheism), I just
don't fit in there.
I don't fit anywhere. I never have, and I guess I never will.
There is no club, no political party, no group into which I would
put myself. And
I'm just not the type of person who doesn't mind aligning herself
with a group even if she doesn't accept all of its values and views.
To me, that would debase my own. I'm just
not willing to sacrifice my viewpoint to any group, or mob, to
So, I'll just stop trying. I emailed the leader of that
atheist group and declined to speak to them. I have no interest in
Now I'm just looking for awe, education, reason, logic, science,
nature, art, literature, fun...cats and chocolate. I think those things
will do me just fine.
If you want to find
out why I'm still here, you'll have to read the essay, "Confessions
of an Exhibitionist," also known as Chapter Seventeen in
Like Rolling Uphill: Realizing the Honesty of Atheism.