One morning when I was 23 years old, my mother did not wake up. I got the phone call several hours after the fact: It was an undetectable heart condition. It had no symptoms. She went to bed the night before, and a few hours before the sun rose, her heart stopped.
Sudden loss amidst perceived stability throws a series of metaphysical punches that you’d better be ready to receive. How does the universe hold you? Can you face your own death with something more than your fear of it? Exactly what is the connection between the dead and the living? The questions will be merciless and rapid. Those metaphysical punches… They’re going to hurt like a bitch regardless. But if you don’t have some mechanism in place, if you haven’t thought about these questions beforehand, and I mean thought about them hard, then those successive blows are going to bowl you over. And you might drown in the grief that follows.
My mechanism was my atheism.
Per most dictionaries, I am “a person who disbelieves or lacks belief in the existence of God or gods.” Though I’d prefer to say, “As far as I’m concerned, gods don’t exist.” I don’t expend any effort actively disbelieving: It’s just that they aren’t real for me.
When my mom died, I went home to a deeply Christian town. And I felt scared. Not of her death. Not of the grief itself. Not of the gaping hole in our family structure. She had imbued in me the fortitude in mind and spirit to face all that.
I was scared of being isolated in my grief.
Would anyone understand? Would anyone even have the compassion to listen?
The most minor chores could be emotionally disastrous. I had a breakdown in Kroger’s tupperware section because I realized that we no longer needed the “family of five” package. Clearly I lacked the emotional stamina necessary to explain why my atheism (or at least, why my personal network of beliefs, atheism included) was just as critical to my coping as someone’s Christianity would be in a similar tragedy.
In a state of mind so fragile that tupperware marketing could shatter it, how could I bear the burden of explanation? How could I explain, gently and patiently and thoroughly, that the anarchy of the universe is profoundly comforting to me? Things don’t happen “for a reason.” At least not in any cosmic sense. Things just happen. There is no “why.” And that, to me, is liberating. In my grief, that knowledge allowed me to breath. Biology isn’t conscious. It just is. And that, to me, is consoling. In my grief, awareness of that allowed me to let go of my guilt.
In short, I came home scared of confrontation over my most precious and stabilizing beliefs at a time when I needed them most. I was scared of being “outed” while facing intense attention in a small town keenly aware of my mother’s loss. I was scared because experience told me, unequivocally, that especially anywhere south of Ohio, my most deeply held beliefs were considered offensive at best.
Within the context of that story, there’s a happy ending. What awaited me in the town of Ft. Thomas, Kentucky was compassion. Overwhelmingly, the actions and words of those around me, even those people I hadn’t known prior to the event, communicated a single message: “You are home, and you are loved.”
This story grows increasingly important to me as our country demonstrates a growing hunger for what I can only describe as theocracy. Preachers shall be politicians, Trump announces. Schools shall pray. Governments shall bear the symbols of gods. Or at least, of a god, in this case the Christian one (or maybe “one of the Christian ones,” given the enormous and deepening divides among Christian faiths).
Betsy DeVos, our likely new Secretary of Education, will use our education systems to bring her god’s kingdom to bear upon the children of the United States. Trump will repeal the Johnson Amendment. Neil Gorsuch, from his new position as the youngest Supreme Court judge, according to his past work, will strive to free government property from secularity requirements.
One hot Peruvian night, over our fourth or fifth round of Pilsen and Cusqueñas, a friend in Peru expressed to me his belief that, in the United States, atheists hold enormous power. Christians, he thought, or the god fearing in general, were silenced by the minority. The origin of this observation, namely a very smart man whose opinions I consider informed and carefully reached, made me re-evaluate this impression. Kudos to him, as I’ve generally and immediately dismissed the assertion.
Indeed, atheists comprise at the most generous estimates maybe around 10% of the United States. In contrast, about 70% of US citizens are Christian (Pew Research Center). Atheists have little power in terms of population size.
The USA has had approximately 1,300 senators in its history. Exactly one has been openly atheist. The idea of an atheist president is still laughable, per most studies on perceptions of atheists. Atheists do not hold much, if any, political power either.
So why does the USA mandate secular spaces? Why can’t governments, even local governments, erect Christian displays on public property? Why can’t the Ten Commandments be posted in courtrooms? Why can’t public school teachers and coaches lead prayers? Why can’t—at the very least—small American towns have their way when almost every single person in the town agrees that they want the Christian god permeating all public and political features of life?
I have a two-part response after reflecting. First, the USA is not a “majority rules” country. Yes, we vote on our leaders, and the majority will win the election. But our system is actually designed to prevent majority rule. We have abundant laws in place to protect our minorities. And this, to me at least, is among the most inspiring features of the United States. Even the Americans who are in the vast majority, even the Americans among those who could easily crush the speech and ideas of those in the minority, choose not to. We choose, in short, free speech. It’s an act of extraordinary courage and patience. It’s the act of a people who are open minded and driven by a heated curiosity.
Second, and maybe more importantly, secularism is not an endorsement of atheism. Atheists do not have a set of symbols. Getting atheists to organize in the first place is, as Richard Dawkins put it, like herding cats. By nature we’re all at least a little shy of organized anything. We’ve got the tongue-in-cheek Pastafarian atheists, which comprise a group that unites under the symbol of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. We’ve got a group presenting themselves as Satanists now (to great effect, in fact), but they’re anticlimactically using the term “Satan” as a sort of symbol of rebellion against deity worship rather than literally worshipping “Satan” as a demonic creature that they actually think exists. For the most part, though, atheists are just non-symbol possessing.
So imagine it this way. If US law mandated that we not only remove the Christian symbol, but also erect in its place a banner that read “Gods don’t exist” or “Atheism 4 Evur” then, yes, atheists would be a spiteful minority bending the majority to their will. If the law mandated that we not only forbid teacher-led and coach-led Christian prayer in public schools but also replace it with a chant about how atheists rule, well, then atheists would be dicks.
However, in reality and in contrast, secularism is simply about sharing. Secularism is an active choice to ensure every public space is welcoming to literally every member of the public, even if that member belongs to a minority with a population of just one.
It is to say to the minority, despite the power you may hold as a member of the majority, “You are home. You are loved.”
As this administration advances its disturbingly theocratic agenda, I hope the same people who exhibited such grace in sustaining me and my family in our need will exhibit the same grace in standing up to these efforts. I am confident doing so is not always easy. I am equally confident it is both morally correct and profoundly worthwhile.