I remember bits of a conversation with my father, who was a devout Catholic, and along with my mother raised all of his five kids in the Catholic religion. I was an adult at the time, living in California, and back in Buffalo for a visit. I’m not sure what led to his question, which was this: “You believe in God, don’t you?”
I didn’t. I’m an atheist. But I didn’t come right out and say it. I could see that not only did he want me to say I believed in God, he needed me to—he was concerned for my well-being and soul. I said something like “I’m not sure” or “I don’t think about it that much.” My answer surprised and distressed him, and it embarrassed me.
And not too long ago I was having a personal conversation with a professional colleague who said at one point while we were talking, “I guess I believe in God. I do.” I said nothing.
Why? Because in this country, where “In God We Trust” is stamped on our money, God is invoked in our Pledge of Allegiance, and Christian Nationalism is on the rise, atheists are looked upon with suspicion, or even as the enemy.
Author Kate Cohen, in her new book We of Little Faith: Why I Stopped Pretending to Believe and Maybe You Should Too, writes that atheists (and vegans, in her example) “are widely disliked cultural minorities. An atheist’s existence says, ‘You have been duped’ . . .”
It’s kind of like saying to a Trump disciple that they’ve been duped. You’re not going to change their mind, and they’re going to be pissed off at you for questioning their “beliefs.”
Cohen’s book is an important one for both believers and nonbelievers. Believers might gain some empathy for atheists, and atheists can hear from a soulmate(!) about a shared experience. The book reads like a meticulously researched and footnoted memoir, blending facts, science, and personal experience into a thoughtful, easy-to-read, and comprehensive narrative.
Cohen isn’t trying to convert people who believe in God; she’s standing up for those of us who don’t and encouraging us to put our non-beliefs on the table. She writes: “I acknowledge the utility of religion, even its virtues, and have no interest in convincing others not to believe.”
Jewish by upbringing, Cohen details the tricky journey of someone who embraces the cultural aspects of Judaism while rejecting the God part of it. She talks about the challenges of raising her own children as an atheist and denying them the comforting fiction of life after death; dealing with religious parents, in-laws, and friends; how morality and knowing right from wrong does not need to have its foundation in God or religion; the role of prayer; how to handle religious-themed holidays; and the ‘coming out’ process for atheists.
She also addresses how to handle the fact that when we die, that’s it. Finis. When you don’t believe in God or in God’s will or God’s purpose or God’s mysterious ways, what are you left with? You’re left with yourself.
To be an atheist is to be completely accountable for your life. Maybe more of us should be that way.
Disclaimer: Kate is a writer friend of mine, and I play tennis with her husband, Adam.