The problem with leaving religion behind is that your family usually doesn’t do it with you. This Easter, as with every Easter, I went home in honor of a resurrection I don’t believe in. Although I’m an atheist, my mom still made me a basket lined with candy and filled with things like face-wash and socks, my relatives still greeted me with variations of “He is risen!” and there was still an Easter egg hunt for people under four feet tall.
Even though I no longer believe in my family’s god[cq], my behavior at these kinds of functions isn’t much different than it was when I did. I exchange gifts at Christmas, and if someone forces me, I’ll help decorate the tree, or put antlers on the dog. The same goes with Easter – I still participate in the traditional activities (most of which have been comfortably secularized), but diplomatically avoid the religious aspects.
My own spiritual beliefs aren’t something with which I’m overly occupied, so holidays have a way of reminding me of how much I’ve changed since I was a Christian. To me, marriage is not a requisite for sex; secular feminism is not a bad thing, and neither is homosexuality; abortion should be legal; any crimes committed by members of any church, including the Catholic church, should be subject to prosecution by the law.
Holidays also remind me that I sometimes miss the experiences religion can offer. Although I rejected my parent’s Protestantism in college – yeah, I know, everyone finds themselves when they go away to school, but I think of it as the culmination of years of doubt – there were, and still are, a lot of habits yet to be broken.
I still, for example, catch myself singing the Ten Commandments Song; Protestantism’s pragmatic DIY dogma has made for tunes that teach lessons and glorify god at the same time. My baptism certificate, nearly 15 years old, is still in its frame, somewhere, and my mushy feelings for it haven’t abated. And even if I don’t buy into what they say about atheists in foxholes, I still have to repress the impulse to fling out prayers, impulses that spasm like spiritual muscle memory, during moments of fear or worry.
Holidays also present the pressure of being the only open atheist at a religious gathering that includes people who’ve been going to church since before the Depression. It’s one thing to have a series of intellectual arguments about the failings of organized religion, and another entirely to confront someone’s faith with your own lack of it. Metaphysics, by its very nature, cannot be argued on any intellectual level, extant as it is on a plane apart from empiricism. As a person who at one point couldn’t understand why anyone wouldn’t believe in Jesus Christ, I can see why the faithful of any religion have difficulty accepting those who leave the flock, as it were.
These misunderstandings happen on the other side of the fence, as well. As much as I vehemently disagree with the patriarchal structures of most mainstream religions, falling into the trap of being the atheist who thinks theists are unenlightened is a huge mistake. Individuals practicing the ethical parts of religion are what redeem it (I’m definitely not going to get into the definition of ethics here).
My personal bitterness against a faith that construes women as lesser than men and is led by an anthropomorphized being in the sky, should have nothing to do with my opinion of the people who are charitable, compassionate and self-sacrificing in the name of that faith, or any other.
That said, accepting others’ beliefs is still something I struggle with. As many religions teach, we humans are imperfect. But there is room for moral growth in the secular-minded. The reasons for my family’s Easter gathering, to express gratitude and love, are universals that work just as well with a deity as without one.
HALEY DAVIS apologizes for all the kumbaya stuff and can be reached at email@example.com.