How has my life changed since I realized I was an atheist?

It was somewhere around 2006 or 2007 that I came to the conclusion that I no longer believed in God (or any gods, for that matter). How has my life changed since I started labeling myself an atheist?

The short answer is: Not much.

For the long answer, let me start by saying that I didn’t wake up one morning and say “Oh my God, I don’t believe in God!” It was a long and slow journey, a tale I will tell on these pages some other time.

I generally don’t say that I became an atheist, although at some point I must have, because there was a time in my life when I believed in God. It was more that I realized I was an atheist.

Post-realization, I’m still the same person. My opinions, my morals, my political persuasions, my career choices, my parenting style and my general outlook on life have not changed.

How my friends reacted to my atheism

There’s been no appreciable effect on my relationships. A lot of my friends and acquaintances—more than I realized—are atheists, or at least skeptical of religion. Many of those who are religious see my atheism as a novelty. They enjoy engaging with me, often have questions or opinions, and I am always happy to discuss belief and non-belief with them. Indeed, I have learned a great deal through these conversations (and I hope I have returned the favor).

I have some friends, devout Christians, who have expressed concern for my eternity. I think this very sweet—not that they are upset, but that they are concerned (and good on them for being honest about the implications of Christian teachings on us otherwise-good non-Christ-accepters). These friends don’t treat me as an object of condescension or pity; we still have great conversations. They are genuinely concerned, as any friend would be for another. At least one friend has told me he includes me in his prayers, and while I think his effort is futile, I genuinely appreciate it.

So far, everyone who knows I don’t believe in God has been respectful. No one tries to tell me the Christ-died-for-your-sins story, which I really appreciate as, having grown up Jewish, I’ve heard it quite a lot. Maybe they think now that I no longer believe in any god, rather than merely the wrong god, I’m a lost cause.

How religious people reacted to my atheism

I have had only one person (who did not know me particularly well) react negatively, though not to my face. It was at a conference of freelance writers given by a site for which we all wrote, and I happened to mention to the group (in context) that I was an atheist. Later that day, one woman (who had mentioned to the group that she was a devout Christian) headed for our lunch table, and when she saw I was there, turned around and went elsewhere. I didn’t see this—my back was to her—but the person next to me, who told me about it, said she looked quite horrified.

I don’t think she was trying to be rude; apparently some Christians believe an atheist is genuinely harmful to their spiritual future. (If I recall correctly, my table-mates included one writer who covered Catholicism and another who wrote about Christian music, two brave souls who were not afraid of hanging out with a heathen.)

Robin and I have a close friend who is married to a very devout Christian, and I would think that hanging out with a couple of atheists (and, worse yet, liberal Californians!) makes her uneasy—but if that’s the case, she doesn’t show it. We’ve visited them and vice-versa, and she’s always sweet and polite.

Actually, my wife Robin and I have found that religious people are surprisingly eager to open up to us. When the death of my stepbrother’s infant made my father question his belief in God, it was Robin in whom he confided. My ex-father-in-law, a devout born-again Christian, has opened up to Robin as well. I’ve had discussions with preachers about issues they took with their own religion’s teachings, concerns that would probably have consequences if they voiced them to their peers. (What a shame so many preachers have no one to talk to!) I think religious people feel free to talk openly with us because they know we will not judge them, and I am pleased and honored to be able to listen and provide an outlet.

How my parents reacted to my atheism

What about my parents? (I have four.) My father was disappointed. He was raised as a Conservative Jew, and I think he felt that he had failed somehow by not raising an observant Jewish child. I told him he should be proud that he raised an open-minded son, which I genuinely think is one of my parents’ great accomplishments, but he didn’t see it that way. I think he was upset with himself, which is kind of the way my father was. It certainly had no negative effect on our relationship that I could see.

My mother was proud of me, a state which, I am pleased to say, is a near-constant one for my mother. She told me my maternal grandfather was an atheist, which I never knew—he was raised in a stringent Orthodox Jewish household, and when he did go to temple (which was rare) he could daven with the best of ‘em. He died when I was 19, and I regret not having been able to discuss that aspect of his life with him. I would have loved to have heard what he had to say. (I guess if the Christians are right, I’ll have that opportunity eventually.)

I think my stepmother thinks my non-belief is a bit silly, but it doesn’t get in the way of our relationship. I have no idea how my stepfather feels about religion or my atheism. We talk about lots of things but never religion, which I don’t think plays much of a role in his life. He’s what I think of as a functional atheist, though I’ve never asked him about his beliefs.

My kids and my atheism

My kids were young at the time of my coming-out. My ex-wife is a Christian and belonged to a church near us (the one where Phyllis’ character from The Office got married), and we drove the kids to Sunday school and other church events. I even drove the church van for one of their retreats. The kids knew we didn’t believe, but we tried to give equal weight to belief as well as non-belief. The staff at the church were as lovely as could be, by the way. The senior pastor, his wife, and the youth minister all knew I was a non-believer, and all treated me like like I belonged.

My older son now identifies as a LaVeyan Satanist. (He might get mad when I read this, but I sometimes wonder if annoying his mother didn’t play some role in his choice of religion.) My younger son has decided he does not believe in God. I always told my children that I would respect their beliefs if they came from inside themselves, far less than I would if I thought they came from me. I am very proud of both of them for looking at the world through their own eyes and deciding for themselves how the world works.

How I reacted to my atheism

How does it feel to realize one is an atheist? It’s quite wonderful, and very liberating. I was hugely relieved to realize that my mind is truly my own and no one else’s—that there is no omniscient father-figure-in-the-sky monitoring my thoughts and passing judging on them. Oh, how much pressure I felt when I believed God was watching! Now I know I can think whatever I like; it’s what I do that matters.

Believing there is no life after death has its downsides. My father died in 2012 and I miss him terribly. It makes me sad to know that he is truly gone and that I won’t ever get to talk with him again. But that knowledge makes life that more precious: This is my one shot and I have to make the best of it.

That knowledge also brings its own pressure: I cannot refer the world’s problems to a higher authority. If I want to make the world a better place, it’s up to me and my fellow humans. I have to accept that as one person I can only do so much, which can be frustrating. But I appreciate all the more how lucky I am to be able to enjoy the one life I have. For many people, the hope of an afterlife is the only reprieve from the difficult circumstances of their existence. (If more people agreed with my worldview rather than theirs, perhaps my fellow citizens of the world would try to harder to make existence more bearable for those less fortunate.)

Non-belief also comes with the satisfaction that I have given myself a great gift: A promise to be honest and live with the truth, to live my life based on what I observe to be true rather than what I want to be true.

How God seems to have reacted to my atheism

And what about divine retribution? As far as I can tell, it hasn’t happened. There have been no mysterious lightning bolts, no sudden downturn in my fortunes, and no run of bad luck. If there is a god who disproves of my non-belief, he has yet to give me any clear indication. (My Christian friends might say that’ll happen after I die, but since I was a Jew who was familiar with Christian doctrine, I was hell-bound anyway.)

Now, I realize that accepting one’s non-belief can be a difficult situation if one has a very religious family or lives in a very religious subset of society. For me, it’s been no big deal. Life goes along the same way, and it feels that much sweeter—because I know I am truly free!

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