From Chapter 1
There’s Nothing Worse Than a Faitheist
The chief deficiency I see in the skeptical movement is its polarization:
Us vs. Them—the sense that we have a monopoly on the truth; that those other people who believe in all these stupid doctrines are morons; that if you’re sensible, you’ll listen to us; and if not, to hell with you. This is nonconstructive. It does not get our message across. It condemns us to permanent minority status.
I had never heard the word “faitheist” before, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t a compliment.
I blushed and ran my hands through my short coffee-colored hair—a nervous habit—and cleared my throat, asking if it was intended to be an insult.
“Yes,” he said without inflection. “There’s nothing worse than a ‘faitheist.’”
It was my first experience with the atheist movement, and for at least a moment I thought it might be my last. I’d been an atheist for a while, but I had hesitated to seek out a community of nonreligious people. I imagined that secular folks would be difficult to organize; that assembling atheists, agnostics, skeptics, freethinkers, and other nonreligious individuals would prove tricky because our common thread—that we are not something—underscores only what we do not believe. But as I progressed in my work as an interfaith activist, I noticed that one of the things that actually made people good at it was a groundedness in one’s own identity. That, paired with my longing for a community of common belief, led me to begin searching for an organized community of nontheists.
The brusque brush-off occurred at a reception following a public discussion organized by a nonreligious group; the topic had been how the nonreligious—more specifically, atheists, agnostics, and other nontheistic, nonreligious people—should approach religion. I had suspected that there would be mixed feelings about religion. After all, I knew of the popular atheist discourse on the subject, which cast the religious not only as incorrect about metaphysical realities but as standing in the way of social and intellectual progress. But I had also hoped that someone might offer a more balanced perspective on religion, locating within the beliefs, desires, and actions of religious people similar values held by many nonreligious people.
I had gone with optimism and excitement. At the time, I was both an atheist and an intern for Interfaith Youth Core, an organization that helps mobilize young people to change the public narrative on religion from one of conflict to one of cooperation by engaging in dialogue around shared values and collaborative action. Because of my work, I felt I was in a particularly good position to discuss religion in the lives of nonreligious folks. I pictured myself saying with a well-meaning grin, “Hey, I work with religious people every day and my atheism is stronger than ever!” I hoped I might even serve as a bridge between two communities that are so oft en pitted against one another, to offer my insights as a nonreligious person working in an interfaith environment.
That aspiration was quickly curtailed. Throughout the program, religion—and religious people—were roundly mocked, decried, and denied. I’d arrived hoping to find a community bound by ethical and humanitarian ideals. Instead, I felt isolated and sorely discouraged.
Though I was disheartened by the event, I went to the post-panel reception, held at one of the panelists’ apartments, because I hoped that if I spoke with more of the group members I’d find some people who shared my opinions or learn a bit more about why they believed differently than I did. Also, as a thrift y graduate student, free dinner and drinks were hard to pass up!
I walked in and instantly removed my shoes. The apartment was beautiful; the ceiling-to-floor windows allowed for a stunning view of Chicago’s orange-and-white-lit skyline. The living room was impeccably clean. (I made a mental note to at least shove my dirty laundry in the closet when I got home.) I stood there and scanned the crowd; I was easily the youngest person there and unfashionably underdressed (nothing new there). Looking down at my feet, I noticed there was a hole in each of my socks. Maybe I should’ve left my shoes on, I thought.
I sat down on the couch, carefully balancing a mint julep in one hand and a plate of hors d’oeuvres I couldn’t name in the other, intensely aware of how out of place I must have seemed. Next to me on the couch were a woman in her mid-forties with a shimmering peacock brooch and a man in his late thirties wearing a denim shirt and a tan corduroy vest. I introduced myself and asked what they’d thought of the panel. They raved: “Wasn’t it wonderful how intelligent the panelists were and how wickedly they’d exposed the frauds of religion? Weren’t they right that we must all focus our energy on bringing about the demise of religious myths?”
I paused, debating whether I should say anything. My “Minnesota Nice” inclination warned me to let it be, but I had to say something. So I started small, asking them to consider that diversity of thought and background fosters an environment where discourse thrives, where ideas are exchanged, and where we learn from one another.
I was stonewalled: “We have the superior perspective; everyone else is lost,” said the woman with a flick of her hand that suggested she was swatting at an invisible mosquito.
As a former Evangelical Christian, these words were hauntingly familiar, and they represented a kind of sure-handed certainty and dismissal—a kind of fundamentalist thinking, really— that I’d hoped to leave behind with my “born again” beliefs.
Our conversation continued, and I offered up petitions that the positive contributions of religious people be considered with equal weight alongside the negative.
“I understand what you’re saying,” I said, trying to weigh my words carefully, “but how can we discount the role religious beliefs played in motivating the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or
“Oh, I get it,” the man jumped in with a sneer. “You’re one of those atheists.”
I wasn’t sure what he meant, but it didn’t sound like a good thing. I shifted my weight from one side to another—another nervous habit—and picked at an hors d’oeuvre that I thought might be some kind of cheese.
“What do you mean, ‘one of those atheists’?”
“You’re not a real atheist. We’ve got a name for people like you. You’re a ‘faitheist.’”
Not a real atheist. I’d heard words like that before—in my youth, when I was told I couldn’t be a real Christian because I was gay. Once again I didn’t fit the prescribed model, and I was not-so-gently shown the door.
Now, atheism is a bit different from Christianity in that atheism isn’t a belief system. It’s an identification marker that unifies a minority of Americans who do not believe in God. But the implication was clear: you’re at the wrong party, kid.
The next day, I attended my weekly religion class at Loyola University’s Institute of Pastoral Studies, a Jesuit Catholic–run program for priests, nuns, and lay leaders. As the only self-identified nonreligious person in the class, I was regularly met with many questions. Once, a Catholic classmate cornered me in the elevator after class, proclaiming, “I’ve been dying to ask you about your atheism!” Yet it never felt like an affront—she and the others were genuinely (and understandably) curious.
Sitting in class the day after my botched attempt at seeking secular community, I realized that I felt more at home with my religious colleagues than with the atheists from the day before. I looked around the room, focusing on each individual face; here were people who believed in a God I had theorized away years ago, yet they felt more like kin than most atheists I knew. While my classmates felt that their religious beliefs were right, they not only tolerated my beliefs but also enthusiastically embraced and challenged them.
Even though many parts of the United States remain incredibly segregated, we live in the most religiously diverse nation on the planet, so one doesn’t need to be an atheist enrolled in a Catholic institution to know that many American citizens are by default required to coexist with people who believe radically different things. The question I found myself asking that day, however, went a step beyond that.
It was not, “Can religiously diverse people coexist in peace?”— because, with some notable exceptions, Americans generally manage to tolerate one another’s differences. It was, instead, “Can we learn to seek out our commonalities instead of solely fixating on our differences?” This idea that it is worthwhile to make an intentional effort to find common ground is, to me, the difference between mere diversity and engaged pluralism. It is a question that our nation—in which a solid majority of Americans associate the extremists of 9/11 with all Muslims—is not close to resolving.
The challenge of engaged religious diversity—of intersecting religious difference—is one that atheists know perhaps more intimately than most. In a nation full of believers of all stripes, we are, in a sense, outliers. This is perhaps why so many atheists today ask for equal airtime alongside our religious neighbors—we want to be taken seriously, to be seen as equally ethical individuals. The unfortunate side effect is that many atheists demand this at the expense of talking to our religious peers in a way that affords them dignity and respect.
Several years ago, Harvard Humanist chaplain Greg Epstein wrote a book called Good Without God, and his thesis was a simple but important one: our society must move beyond the question of if one can be good without God to how this may be accomplished.
I join Greg in wanting people to move beyond wondering whether I am a moral individual, but I also join him in a companion call to our own community: atheism must move beyond defining itself—both in thought and in practice—in opposition to religion. If secular Americans want to be respected in our religiously diverse culture, we need to recognize that there is nuance and complexity in the diversity that defines it.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, a forefather of modern Humanism, is often said to have written these lines: “That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives and character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshiping we are becoming.”