What an Atheist Is Teaching Me about the Nature of Faith

The day after Thanksgiving, my son and I talked about God and gratitude, religion and reason, faith and Ricky Gervais.

I knew the British comedian as the originator of The Office. Turns out he’s also a “pathological atheist,” according to former CNN talk-show host Piers Morgan, and a surprisingly articulate authority on the wisdom of living in the here and now.

“I get frustrated when people say that atheists live a less fulfilling life because they lack spirituality and they believe nothing comes after we die,” said my son, 19, a college sophomore and recently declared religious studies major.

“Ricky Gervais made the point —and somewhat facetiously, because he’s a comedian — that atheists have more to live for because they’re not spending their lives anticipating what comes afterward. So they want to make the most of what they have.”

And so commenced a conversation that held more meaning for me than the facile reminders of “gratitude” that every listserv and website I subscribe to threw at me in the days before Thanksgiving.

Christmas ChristiansXmas Tree

I regret that my husband and I didn’t raise our children with a stronger religious faith. They don’t know the Lord’s Prayer or a Thanksgiving grace or the traditional Christmas hymns, and I feel the loss of that during these frenetic five weeks we have come to call “the holidays.”

Baptized a Methodist (my childhood religion) and raised in a Unitarian Universalist fellowship during his elementary school years, Nate at 19 is now an atheist. He questions why I would pine for some shared, sentimental religious feeling that our family hasn’t earned.

“An atheist’s approach to the holidays isn’t that different from the average Christian’s approach,” he says. “Christians will just say grace before the meal. I think Christmas has been secularized in the majority of the United States. There are plenty of casual Christians and families that aren’t religious who celebrate Christmas for the sake of giving gifts and having a meal.”

Studies support his claim. According to the Pew Research “Religion and Public Life” project, 90 percent of Americans celebrate Christmas, but only half view it as “mostly” a religious holiday, and fully a third say it’s cultural — a chance to gather with friends and family.

My own family celebrated Thanksgiving this year at the home of non-religious friends. No one offered to lead a prayer before the meal, so I raised a toast to the cooks who had prepared two entrées, three desserts, four appetizers and more.

During our talk the next day I asked my son whether he prays, in any form.

“No, not prayer,” he said. “Because prayer implies something religious, and I’m not religious. It doesn’t mean I don’t hope for things. I hope that I’ll do well on my finals, but I’m certainly not going to pray to God to let me get an A.”

What about offering thanks to whomever or whatever may be guiding our lives?

“For the most part, I think gratitude is expressed in small moments on a day-to-day basis. You make me a sandwich and I say, ‘Thanks, Mom. That was nice of you to do.’ There are bigger things, like being grateful for the people in your life who are a constant, who are there through thick-and-thin.”

And whom you can love and honor, he contends, without attaching those feelings to religious faith. “I’m grateful for things that are tangible, as opposed to thanking God when there’s no apparent intervention on God’s part.”

An atheist explains

Nathaniel Gage Studer

Nathaniel Gage Studer

When I tell my son that I am “saddened” by his atheism, or find it to be a cynical choice at his age, he points out that this is a considered decision — not a failing or a whim — and that believers have no corner on moral virtue.

“If I was being very cynical,” he counters, “I’d say a lot of people weren’t fully educated in matters of religion. I think a lot of people just grew up in a church: ‘Well, it’s how I was raised, it’s what I’m going to stick with.’”

Schooled in the importance of what he calls religious literacy, Nate would choose Buddhism if he had to follow a particular practice. “But that’s true of many non-religious people,” he says. “Buddhism involves coming to terms with yourself and your surroundings, and involves less of the dogma that comes with other religions.”

However reasoned his choice, my son will have an uphill climb to convince anyone other than his mother that atheism makes sense. Americans overall regard atheists only slightly more warmly than they do Muslims and seven points below Mormons, according to a July 2014 study by Pew Research.

Black Protestants and older Americans hold atheists in especially low esteem.

Asked what frustrates him most about people’s misconceptions of atheists, Nate said it’s “the idea that every atheist hates religion and is against religion.” In fact, he says, knowledge of the world’s religions helps him understand other cultures and history’s course.

“Even though I’m not religious, I think it’s important that I understand how and why other people are religious. By being religiously literate, people can better understand what’s going on in the Middle East, why 9/11 happened — almost all that happens in the world.”

He challenges whether I, as an unchurched believer, am willing to learn more about what atheists do believe. I begin with Ricky Gervais’ distinction between spirituality and religion: “One is a very personal feeling, a journey, a hope, a need, a joy,” the comedian said on CNN last year, “and the other is an organized body that uses that for power and corruption, in many cases.”

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9 thoughts on “What an Atheist Is Teaching Me about the Nature of Faith

  1. Renae

    Amy,
    As you probably know, my family background was dogmatically and fanatically religious–different approach, same result. I am also an atheist. I think the potential gift here is that your son was probably spared, through the inclusiveness of his religious upbringing, some of the religious wounds that probably helped push me over the edge. As for the choice of non-belief, I never personally experienced it. I was trying to find a way to get my “faith feet” back under me when I realized that I simply didn’t believe anymore. It was more a matter of discovery than volition. At an point earlier on the timeline, I did decide to stop privileging certain propositions and to be willing to test my assumptions, so I suppose there was an element of choice, but that’s really not how it feels for the most part. There are aspects of faith that I genuinely miss, but wishing them does not make them so for me.

    Still loving your blog,

    Renae

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  2. Kathy Gage

    Hi Amy,
    I enjoyed this piece and am impressed by the thoughtful expression of your son. Religion has some good practices, such as forgiveness, thankfulness, giving, honesty, etc. that when used consistently help us to live happy and orderly lives. But, I agree with Nate that believers do not have a corner on virtue and one does not have to be religious to embrace these ideals.
    I’m glad you had such a memorable conversation with your son. Thanks for sharing.

    Kathy

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  3. Emma

    Great piece, and I’m impressed that Nate is so articulate about his beliefs at a young age. I am also an atheist. I find that spiritual fulfillment primarily comes from the relationships I have with other people. Just as Nate says, I find it frustrating when some people assume atheists are spiritually lacking. I think atheists’ beliefs lead to a strong sense of morality: all we have is each other for our too-brief lives, so how we treat others matters. And I don’t need to believe in a higher power to feel wonder and joy as I experience life on our beautiful Earth. The only thing I feel I have missed by not belonging to a church is the sense of shared community and history. But the sense of community that comes with church rituals is independent of religion.

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  4. myatheistlife

    Question everything. Your son seems to do just this. There is no harm in it and it leads to a better understanding. Whatever his life brings him, whatever he decides, you have raised a man who will not be fooled by feeble attempts to control him. So long as he thinks for himself and strives to learn all that can be learned he will stand head and shoulders above most of the rest of the world.

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    1. Amy Gage Post author

      Thank you. That’s gratifying to hear. I give my son the credit, however, for anything “well spoken” in this piece. We did raise him to think for himself. My role is to be willing to listen.

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  5. Lou Anne

    I learned so much from your son with this post. He is helping me broaden my definition of atheism and religion. Thank you for this thoughtful and thought-provoking blog post.

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  6. Matt Johnson

    I appreciate your son’s journey, but am sad that his being an atheist will influence believers to view him with suspicion. As a reporter in small towns, I’m rarely able to be let people know that I’m an atheist. The backlash, I’ve found, makes doing my job difficult. I hope your son does not encounter similar barriers in his chosen vocation.
    Hatred and fear of atheists is a terrible attitude to encounter from people who were supposed to have learned from Jesus to love all the people they encounter. But, I understand it. If, for some reason, atheists have a point, it undercuts the very meaning of the lives of billions of people. And that makes being an atheist not only uncomfortable, but dangerous. It shouldn’t be that way.

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