I have often tiptoed around stating my lack of religious beliefs because, like many people in a minority, I fear being shunned and judged. I've described myself with words like non-religious, humanist, and freethinker and have most recently been playing with the "Unitarian" label. But as my kids get older, I don't want them thinking there is anything wrong with me saying exactly what I am, in terms of my personal religious faith: an atheist. There, I said it. I am an atheist. I AM AN ATHEIST!
Ah, that feels better. Now, it's time to get at the root of why this particular announcement has been difficult for me. Come on, I live in the United States of America, land of religious tolerance, right? Sure, we tolerate Baptists, Catholics, Pentecostals, Methodists... Jews... Muslims-- wait I think I'm getting a little carried away here! As a reminder, I live in Kentucky. We have a Creation Museum. Political candidates campaign with the agenda of having the Ten Commandments displayed in public schools. Many of them genuinely think and assert that we are a "Christian nation" and that our Founding Fathers were all Christians. Actual history appears to be irrelevant.
Because I homeschool my children, and over 80% of homeschooling families in this country are fundamental Christians (likely higher in Kentucky), it is often assumed that I am likewise a Christian. I've had to make some fairly difficult choices reconciling my want to have my kids around other kids and not wanting to paint myself as something I am not. For example, I could join one of several wonderful homeschooling co-ops that are available in the area, if I were willing to sign a statement of faith and either teach my children creationism, or teach them to lie and say they believed in it. Neither route is acceptable to me, as I am homeschooling with the goal of better education for my children, not with the goal of indoctrinating them.
Another example was this past winter when I signed Bonnie up to play Upwards basketball through the local Baptist church in town. (By fourth grade, there are no recreational basketball leagues in the county, because most of the kids can play for their public school teams.) I asked before signing up if it was ok if we were not a Christian family and was assured that would be fine. I knew ahead of time that Bonnie would be given a Bible verse to memorize each week, and I was ok with that as well. I am absolutely not opposed to my kids learning about religion. On the contrary, I try to teach them about as many faiths as I can. I am an atheist after all, but only my children get to decide what they believe. Bonnie enjoyed the basketball season, and I thought it would be something we'd do in subsequent years, until we attended the "awards ceremony" at the end of the season, which ended up being a 2+ hour-long proselytizing session in which kids gave canned answers and were steered to the "correct" answers if they got off track at all. There were games, music and mascots, all to pound in the same message: Believe in Jesus or burn in Hell. But God loves you, and he's merciful! There are so many contradictions in Christianity that I simply cannot get past, but this is definitely the major one.
Another reason I have been hesitant to "come out" as an atheist is the negative connotations that come along with the word. Somewhat humorously, it's often assumed that atheists are Satan worshipers. Just to clarify, we don't believe in him either. Right-wing media like to paint atheists as "godless," as if believing in a god is somehow intertwined with personal morality. I hope that anyone who knows me knows that I believe in treating others with respect, not killing people, and generally trying to be a good person. (That doesn't mean I always succeed!) These are all basic humanist beliefs, and I don't need a Bronze Age text to teach them to me. (Anyone interested should check out this fantastic video that explains why the Bible is not a valid source for morality. I would welcome rational discussion after you have viewed it!)
Some people don't understand how an atheist can believe in nothing. But I believe in the inherent goodness of people and in the beauty and wonder of the natural world. I don't feel like I'm missing something by not believing in any gods. When I start thinking about the injustices and randomness of the world, I don't understand how that could be compatible with an all-powerful, and also all-loving deity. In fact, my head starts to hurt when I consider all of the rationalizing that has to occur to reconcile those two qualities that are attributed to the Judeo-Christian god. To quote Richard Dawkins, "We are all atheists about most of the gods that societies have ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further."
Finally, I have avoided stating my atheism openly because most of my friends and family are religious to some degree. I don't want to sound condescending or hurtful when I dismiss religious beliefs as something I simply cannot understand and don't necessarily respect that much. That doesn't mean I don't respect the right to have religious faith, and it certainly doesn't mean I don't love and respect every single one of my god-loving friends and family members.