I'm an atheist surrounded by Catholics

I try to go along but it's hard concealing my beliefs

Published November 18, 2009 12:20AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I've recently realized that I am atheist. Now being that atheists are 1 percent of the population, this could produce a lone sense in anyone. However, I feel especially alone. My husband's family -- I have no family of my own to speak of -- is intensely Roman Catholic and close-knit. I love them very much and have for many years, but their Catholicism is their identity. The holiday and social gatherings all revolve around a conservative Catholic faith and a conservative political base. I have always been the token liberal, politely placing counterpoints to their own. Or simply staying silent with the more reactionary members of the family. It is a somewhat lonely existence as a result of the only other liberal being a poorly read and largely ignorant knee-jerk friend of my husband's.

I just had a baby and do need the support of my husband's family but the constant silence and playing along is causing me depression. I have no real issue with religious people, I'm certainly not one of the in-your-face New Atheist types. But to be unable to share this with even my husband forces me to live an endless lie of church services and religious gatherings. I do not believe in the miracles they constantly trumpet or find comfort in the theological books they offer! I do not feel any kind of supernatural presence in my life or feel that birth control is inherently evil. Yet if I shared these beliefs I would be shunned faster and with more passion than a leprous Nazi with a rotting cheese on her head. I hear the passionate gossip they speak of other wayward family members all the time!

I look down at my son and realize I even must lie to him. I must parrot the tired myths to him or else risk the natural talkative nature of children to spill my words to everyone. While there is no real evil in living out religion, any more than there is deciding to dance in a circle in your yard with a flowerpot every day, it is not some truth. Nor is it a surefire cure for what ails you. To me it represents wasted time and effort. I do not know what to do because I love these goodhearted people. They are the only family I have. My constant silence and lies depress me greatly because I love them so much.

Thank you for your consideration of my issue.

Surrounded by Saints

Dear Surrounded,

Is faith a matter of choice? Is it an act of will? Are we therefore to be held accountable for the presence or absence of faith in our lives?

I don't see how that can be.

Is it not possible to be a person of goodwill who honestly has no faith? If people who profess to have faith cannot accept that, then it seems to me they lack some essential element of understanding.

How could people of faith accept as a miracle an event in which faith came unbidden to someone, and yet condemn the opposite but equally plausible event in which faith did not come unbidden, or departed unbidden never to return? Why should one occurrence be treated with reverence and the other with scorn, if they are both equally mysterious in this putatively mysterious, god-infused universe?

I would think that people of both good faith and goodwill would accept your atheism as simply another miracle.

But I am obviously not living in the real world.

If the people around you lack deep understanding and intellectual capacity, what is to be done? I do not know. Can they be educated? Not by you.

If they cannot accept your difference then that is their own personal hell; that is their tragic incapacity of perception.

If you would like something to read, let me suggest the estimable Terry Eagleton's small book, "Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate."

Let's hope that there is a God, and that she shows her hand in such a way that these people are struck with sudden holy forgiveness, and that they see, in this moment of wholly improbable struckness, how you, too, and your atheism, are part of their perfect godly world.

And let us hope that this merciful God tells them, in a few simple words, to leave you the fuck alone and not try to convert you.

Wouldn't that be a nice kind of God to have?

Write Your Truth.

What? You want more advice?


By Cary Tennis

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Atheism Catholicism Family Religion Since You Asked