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Atheism as a Minority Experience

April 14, 2010

Over at Friendly Atheist, Hemant posted a request from an author wanting to hear about young atheists’ experiences. Even though I’m pretty young, I supposed that I was just barely out of the “teenage” category to really fit what he was looking for (plus, my story is a bit different.) Yet, when I looked over the questions, I thought about how I would answer them.

If you were raised with religion, how did you become an atheist?

For me, even though I certainly did grow up with religion, being from a Mormon family and all, I didn’t have a matter of “becoming an atheist.” As I have said in the past, the real issue for me was realizing that I was already an atheist and realizing the extent of what I had been saying about my beliefs. I can remember saying to many people from church, “I don’t really believe x”…but it was only until a certain point when I realized what I was saying. The “really” was a buffer that prevented me from understanding what I was saying. When one day I took out the “really,” I realized I was saying things like, “I don’t believe in God.”

What really made me want to answer these series of questions wasn’t a question like that first one, though. Rather, it was David’s next question, which I’ve hinted at in the title.

If you were raised without religion, how have you dealt with being part of a minority group? For instance, how have you handled relationships with believers, religious holidays like Christmas, and other aspects of growing up without a church?

You know what I like about this question? I like how I can answer it even though I was raised with religion.

Mormonism is a minority group. Can’t just group all the religions together and assume that because most of the country is religious, all religions are equally regarded.

So, I’ve found that my experience as a member of a minority religion, like my experience as a member of a minority race, has greatly tempered my view of the world. That’s part of the reason why I identify as a cultural Mormon…because Mormonism was always unique, peculiar, and in the front.

It wasn’t so bad before we moved to Oklahoma, but of course, Oklahoma is within the Bible Belt (and how). Being in Oklahoma made me realize a few things. 1) MOST people I must deal with on a day-to-day basis won’t be Mormon and 2) most people will not even like Mormonism, to the point of attacking or criticizing it.

I remember getting into several scripture fights with people who knew more about scripture than I did (but fortunately not too much to make me think I was getting ripped every way). I remember looking for select scriptures from the topical guide or bible dictionary to support my cases (doubtlessly abusing and ignoring context in the process). And I remember hating it. For I didn’t fully comprehend it, but I felt just miserable trying to defend something I didn’t “really” believe in. But the challenge, the opposition, made it a must. The rudeness of others made me resolve that I wouldn’t be like them. Wouldn’t let them win. Even now that I do not feel compelled to even pretend to agree with certain claims of the church, I don’t say I agree with my high school or middle school critics. I certainly didn’t change my mind because of them.

So, how has atheism as a minority experience been different?

For one, it fits more like a glove. Of course, there are still discussions and debates (although I try to keep things relatively lower key now). But now, I don’t feel forced to defend something contrary to what I believe. I feel like I’m defending something that comes naturally, rather than picking around scriptures and articles looking for foreign arguments for a shared cause.

If you’ve told your family and friends that you’re an atheist, how did you tell them, how did they react, and (if the reaction was unfavorable) how have you dealt with their reaction?

This is interesting…I don’t know if I ever actually told my family at first. I would say clear statements, “I don’t believe in god,” but wouldn’t say things like, “I am an atheist.” However, I wouldn’t deny it either — so I’d confirm it when they brought it up first.

Many people didn’t care all that much. Some people thought the worst, but I didn’t care in contrast. I think I am fortunate to have many people who realize that I am the same guy I have always been. I didn’t become some drastically worse person.

Funnily enough, my dad thought some things. He had some…I guess..preconceptions or stereotypes. He thought I got this way because of taking a philosophy class at school (I laugh at that thought.) And he thought that my atheism would bring with it many other things. In the past few summers, I’ve been trying to convince him too that — nope, I’m the same guy I always was. Just honest with myself now.

Has being an atheist affected your life in school, in dating and in other areas?

Contrasted with the school strife of being a Mormon…atheism has been daisies.

What do you like most about being an atheist, and what’s the biggest problem that you’ve faced?

By far, what I like most is the personal sense of authenticity. I feel like I’m in my own skin, not the skin of my fathers and community. I am defending my own ideas, taking ownership of my own ideas, not just adopting the hand-me-down mantle of my upbringing.

The biggest problem? I guess it’s the inability truly to understand where religious people are coming from. I try to trust that people are (mostly) being genuine and candid when they talk about the positives of their religions, or the tremendous experiences they’ve had, but I can’t say I have been in their shoes.

As a result, I know when many conversations are just going to go past each other. In particular, when some people argue that things like grass or trees or babies being born is evidence of god…I just cannot imagine what the heck they see.

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  1. Atheism usually is a lonely experience.

  2. Daniel,

    Thanks for the comment. However, that has not been what I have found. Rather, I have found theism and religion more particularly as an *alienating* experience.

  3. On the other hand, it would seem that being named ‘Daniel’ is not a minority experience.

    I actually became an atheist. I was in church at my Click Moment when it all gave way and I couldn’t take any steps in any other direction while still making sense. I remember it as a conscious choice.

    What do I like best about being an atheist?

    Not worrying so much about being wrong.

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