photo by mr lynch

Being around open-minded young people has caused me to forget just how jarring it must be for some older folks to meet a self-assured, public atheist. This happened at choir practice:

* * *

While waiting for warm-ups to begin, an older woman and I gathered our music from a table. Generic small talk ensued.

“What company do you work for?” she inquired, sitting down at the music table and smiling up at me as I stood across from her.

With trepidation I said, “[Company Name Here].” I hate answering this question… When you work for a Christian business, people tend to assume you’re Christian. It’s totally understandable, but a bit of a headache for me.

Her eyebrows climbed up her face in interest, and I knew what was coming next. “So, you’re a good Christian girl, eh? That’s nice. I used to sing at mass every Sunday. Love the Latin …. ” She trailed off a bit at the end, nodding her approval.

Looking her full in the face, I smiled back and declared, “No, actually I’m an atheist.”

Her jaw nearly clattered to the table in visible shock. “Don’t say that. Say that you’re not sure or that you’re figuring things out. You’re not an atheist.” She crossed her hands and clutched her music folder tightly.

“Oh, but I am an atheist. I do not believe in God.” I returned, still smiling. “And I was a Christian my whole life.”

“Well …” She searched for something to say for a moment. She finally settled on, “You’re young.” And with that comeback she looked away as if begging for someone else to make her feel more comfortable.

Lamely, I murmured, “I just wait for the evidence.” Not the smartest retort, I admitted. But our small exchange had ended. Swiftly, I took three steps back from her and made my exit.

* * *

I’m not used to shocking people with that news. I am so used to being atheist now and having it be normal and unremarkable. These types of encounters tend to make other people feel discomfort, and I admit I enjoy the confidence and feeling of, “Yeah, that’s right! I’m a scary atheist. And your problem is…?”

Apparently my certainty was the most horrifying trait. If I’d been an agnostic, she probably would have thought God was still working in my life or that I was just a Catholic-in-the-making. But no, being an atheist just about tipped her canoe.

I wonder how much longer it will be before saying one is an atheist in the United States will not send someone into a tizzy.

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16 thoughts on “Just How Shocking Is It?”

Charlie Kilian · October 26, 2010 at 1:49 pm

My own mom said more or less the same thing to me when she found out. She decided I was going through a phase, and ended the discussion. Six years later, the phase is still going strong…

Ali · October 26, 2010 at 1:56 pm

My Atheism makes EVERYONE uncomfortable.

While reading GOD IS NOT GREAT by Christopher Hitchens, a lady sitting across from me on the train sent me ‘a look’ then pulled out her rosary.

    ChristopherTK · October 27, 2010 at 6:52 pm

    I actually had a good experience on the train where a person walking by happened to glace at one of the books at my side and then asked if she could sit with me.

    She said it was nice to know she was sitting with a rational person for once.

      Godless Girl · October 28, 2010 at 12:18 am

      If this were facebook, I would “like” this.

Tris Stock · October 26, 2010 at 2:13 pm

I lived briefly in the Philippines, that bastion of Catholicism in the East, and found it hilarious how people reacted to my unchallenged admission of atheism.

The two main forms of over-reaction both involved incredulous jaw dropping horror at the mere mention of the ‘A’ word, but the more tolerant and inquisitive of the two camps gathered their thoughts and would ask questions like ‘How can you not believe in God?’ or ‘Aren’t you scared of going to hell?’.

Such is the level of religious indoctrination in this part of the world, that they would shake their heads in utter incomprehension of my replies. The response to the first would be ‘Which God?’ and to the other ‘What hell?’. I would challenge them warmly and without accusation, just as they did me.

I would eventually stop having my fun with them and explain the tenets of atheism in a way that they had never heard before, and they seemed grateful for having being informed of its true nature. It must be said, though, that they maintained, what I considered to be, a healthy scepticism towards my claims. I informed that their scepticism might serve them well if they were to apply it to what they believed themselves.

But what of the other camp? Well, they wouldn’t so much as stop to gather their fallen jaw before jumping out the back of a moving vehicle. This happened twice.

I am happy to report, though, that the vast majority were keen to engage in understanding and were very friendly and unassuming, but for those that thought I was such a devil that they would rather suicidally deal with Manila’s traffic than sit next to me on a jeepney, I fear there is a lot of work to be done.

Jeremy Witteveen · October 26, 2010 at 7:59 pm

I long for the day when saying, “Oh, I’m an atheist” is as normal and acceptable as saying, “I’ll have fries with that.”

Jenny · October 26, 2010 at 11:01 pm

That reminds me of one of my first experiences coming out.

Me: I’m an atheist.
Her: …really??? But you’re so nice!

I really resented that. Apparently atheists aren’t very nice people.


But the best shocked reaction I got was from somebody else who was an atheist.

Me: I’m an atheist…
Him: Really?! I didn’t know that.
Me: Yeah. You don’t hate me now, do you?
Him: No, not at all! I’m an atheist too!
Me: Really?!
Him: Yeah!
Me: No way!

mcbender · October 26, 2010 at 11:23 pm

Oh, I’ve definitely experienced this. I’ve even gotten this from other atheists – my family in particular. My parents do not believe in any gods, they’ve made that perfectly clear to me on multiple occasions, but they still call themselves Jews and get very angry with me when I discuss atheism openly and/or call myself an atheist. I think they have a bad case of accommodationism and belief in belief, in that they seem to care less about things being true and more about not offending people and driving them away (they have no problem with my being an atheist, just with my being confrontational about it).

I encounter relatively few religious people, and most of the ones I do are on the liberal end of the spectrum (and they also have the decency to keep quiet about their religiosity most of the time), so I don’t get much of this phenomenon in the specific sense you’re describing. I have occasionally gotten the shocked “I’ll pray every day for your soul” once or twice… but that’s rare, and more often what I get is much less blatant.

A few weeks ago I had somebody trying to recommend I read C.S. Lewis (although when I said that I had and found his logic to be faulty, she didn’t have anything else to say to me), although she seemed comfortable enough with the idea that atheists exist (just perhaps a bit shocked that I had turned out to be one, after our previous conversation had established that we had had a few views in common). I think, however, that I may have been more shocked to encounter somebody honestly recommending Lewis than she had to encounter an atheist…

Henway · October 29, 2010 at 5:07 pm

Heh, I had a few awkward situations when I declared I was an atheist. One was when I was when I was holding a Bible (we needed to read it for some philosophy class), and I gave up a seat in the bus for an older woman. She told me “thanks, it’s good to see a good Christian, they are so rare these days”. i said, no problem, but I’m not a Christian, I’m an atheist. Her warm smile turned into a plain face, and she turned away, pretending she never asked.

Brad Foster · December 18, 2010 at 3:40 pm

What I’ve noticed about people who are truly horrified to find out I am an atheist is that, in their minds, saying I am an “atheist” is not that I am simply a non-believer, but I’m an ANTI-believer. ie: If you believe in God, even a different one than mine, you are “good” in some way. But if you don’t believe in a god, then the only algernative, at least to them, is you have to be evil. It’s that all-or-none thing that so much religion sets up. It’s very sad, expecially from people who happened to like and respect me up to that moment: somehow everything they knew about me goes out the window, and I am now evil.

    Godless Girl · December 18, 2010 at 8:57 pm

    Yes, you expressed my thoughts exactly!

Veronica · March 3, 2011 at 2:06 pm

Haha great! Well, in a funny way.

This is how my grandmother reasons. “Those guys aren’t getting the christian confirmation?” (something we do in scandinavia when we’re about 15, generally a blessing and teachings about the faith)
(we have these guys who offer up non-religions ceremonies for everything, even gay marriages:, but accordiong to the nutcases OH I MEAN .. religious, it’s not “real” ceremonies…)

And I just said “I guess they don’t believe in God, their choice?” “But but but, why can’t they just recieve the blessing anyway?” …

I wanted to ask “why recieve something you don’t believe in?” but I guess I know the answer to that…. 😛

What is the internal dialouge of these people anyway?! Do I want to know?

Kelly · March 20, 2011 at 2:33 am

A few days ago, I finally informed my mother that I was an athiest. I was shocked by her reply. She said, “If I felt the way you do, and didn’t believe in God, I’d just kill myself. I really would, because I wouldn’t want to go on living anymore.”

I was speechless. I mean, how do you reply to that?

    ChristopherTK · March 20, 2011 at 11:06 am

    O.K., so your mother is not a humanist of any kind.

    If I give her the benefit of having been surprised by your proclamation and I assume her terrible reply indicates she has never questioned her own beliefs honestly, I might give her an opportunity, say 15 min. to think about what she said and then offer her a moment to apologize and clarify her position — with reason and without her pained emotion.

    This is a display of your mother’s failure, not your own.

    Good-luck Kelly.

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Myth: Atheists Believe in Nothing | Godless Girl · March 17, 2011 at 3:23 pm

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