There are many reasons you may have clicked on this article, but there are likely going to be two main responses here: disapproval, and approval. I want you to know that you should go into this article with an open mind, even if you feel atheists are wrong. Just keep in mind we are people too, and although I cannot speak for all atheists I have taken this opportunity to tell you what my personal experience has been. That being said, I know there will be plenty of feedback--positive and negative--and I appreciate it all! Now, here's the top ten things I've wanted people to know and haven't been able to tell them all these years.
1. Just because I am an atheist does not mean I live my life without morality or values.
My lack of belief in religion or a higher power does not automatically negate my ability to judge between right and wrong. I learned many lessons from my parents, from my own experiences, and from the experiences of others that helped me form my own belief system, which stands alone from any religion. Simply because I do not rely on a religious text or anecdotal fables to invoke or reinforce morals does not mean I lack them. I did however, form my own set of opinions and conclusions about the world that may not match up with what you or your respective religion adheres to. Just keep in mind this could be true of anyone, regardless of religious belief. Please don’t hold the fact that I’m atheist against me when it’s wholly irrelevant.
2. I am happy to respect your belief, if you are willing to respect my lack thereof.
The most popular thing that people believe about atheists’ lack of belief is that it is disrespectful to those who are theistic and believe in or practice religion. My aim has never been to negate or challenge the beliefs of religious individuals. The only statement I am making about being religious by being atheist is just that: I am atheist. You can choose to believe whatever you choose and I will respect that choice. As long as you are confident in your belief, I am happy that you have found what is right for you, and I respect and support that choice! I just hope you will do the same for me.
3. Please, I beg of you, don’t invite me to church services or any other religion based event.
Let’s just get this out of the way: this type of invitation is unwarranted, awkward, and most of the time it puts me in a precarious situation. I am being disrespectful if I say no, but you will believe there is a chance to convert me if I say yes. Let me be clear: going to one church service, worship concert, or college outreach event is not going to change my mind about my beliefs. Trust me! I’ve been to dozens of these types of things, even before I had my mind set on atheism, and I can tell you they have no effect on me. Imagine if I asked you to go to an atheist gathering where we would discuss our lack of belief despite knowing that you practice religion. Wouldn’t that be awkward? I’m glad we agree on this one.
4. I really hope you won’t write me off over my lack of religion.
The first time I lost a friend to my atheism I was in 9th grade. I told someone offhandedly that I didn’t attend church and they asked why. At the time, I was not a self-proclaimed “atheist” but I did mention something to the effect of “not believing in that kind of stuff.” That was the last I ever heard from that friend, and even her mother was cold to mine. Our differences are what makes us unique, and I hope that if you befriend me or remain friends with me we can revel in our similarities, but also celebrate our differences. Without them we would all be the same, and I don’t think my lack of belief should cause anyone to cut ties with me. If someone you know reveals to you that they’re an atheist, consider that you’ve been friends with them all along without knowing this difference—and that maybe, just maybe—it’s because atheists can be just as great at friendship as those who practice religion.
5. If you practice what you preach, it will make it a lot easier for us to get along.
If you do practice religion, I will expect you to practice it the same way you preach it. If I am friends with you and I see you going against the religious values I just heard you shouting from the rooftops for others to follow, I will likely question your morals and motives. The largest dissonance I see in religion is what is offered by believers as a “code of conduct” (i.e. The Ten Commandments), and the actions they commit that go against it. If you cannot even follow the most basic of religious principles that you are supposed to practice, I will have no choice but to question your commitment. This doesn’t mean that I won’t be your friend anymore, but it will definitely change my view of you. Thankfully, as an atheist, we don’t have a universal set of rules, so I get to choose what I believe, but the beliefs I have chosen are ones I stick to each and every day—and I expect you to do the same.
6. I am happy to answer questions, as long as they don’t have underlying motive to convert.
So you want to know how I chose to be an atheist? How I came to the conclusion that there is no higher power? Or maybe you want to know where I went wrong and crossed over to the dark side that is atheism? I am happy to answer any questions that have a direct, unbiased delivery, because I do want people to know that coming to this decision was not easy, and I did struggle with it the same way believers can and do struggle with their faith. However, if you have a negative bias just in your first question, I can guarantee our discussion will not be civil, and I may choose not to answer. Please understand that I have no ill will toward those who are curious, only toward those who seek to undermine my reasoning and convince me I should change my mind. Those are the ones with whom I refuse to engage, because I don’t want to fight about who is right and who is wrong.
7. I don’t believe that my religious worldview is necessarily correct, it’s just what I choose to believe.
There is a saying that my now fiancé, who was my boyfriend at the time, discussed my lack of religion with me for the first time. He said “If I’m wrong, I hope you’re right.” I do not believe that everyone should be an atheist, and I do not try to convert believers into nonbelievers. Why? I see the value that religion adds to the lives of believers and those they touch with their faith, despite not being a believer myself. Religion serves a purpose in our world, and although I don’t personally participate, I believe that everyone should have the right to choose. Religion helps people overcome hardship, forges connections across the boundaries of space and time, gives people something to believe in when it seems that there is nothing good left, and in many cases promises a glorious afterlife for those who follow its path. For that reason, if I’m wrong, I hope you’re right.
8. When you make a biblical reference, please don't judge or degrade me if I don't understand.
This is something I have come across frequently as an atheist living in the Bible Belt. Whether I am participating in a literary discussion in class, discussing an interesting topic with friends, or just having a passing conversation with someone I don’t know, I am often looked down upon for not being familiar with the fables and morals the Bible describes. “You don’t know the story of Solomon?” or “You really don’t know John 3:16?” No, I really don’t, but I would never demean you for not knowing a very specific piece of knowledge about something you lack interest in, the same way you shouldn’t demean me. If anything, use it as a teachable moment, even if just to portray the sentiment or moral of the story.
9. I am open about being atheist, but don't take it as an invitation to judge or question my beliefs.
Do you display and practice your religion without shame? Is your religion respected among the majority of your peers? Do you proclaim your religion without fear of persecution or prejudice? If so, please provide others with that same dignity and honor. Just because someone believes something different than you doesn’t mean they are your enemy, or that they deserve to be berated for it. Imagine what life would be like if someone constantly challenged the validity of what you believe and practice. Put yourself in the shoes of those you are tempted to judge and hopefully you will rethink it. “Treat others the way you would want to be treated”—this is a moral that transcends religion and applies to all.
10. Every atheist is different!
The things I have written here are all my opinions and viewpoints as an atheist, but I am one among many. You may or may not interact with atheists in your daily life—maybe you do and you don’t even know it!—but I can guarantee you one thing: they are not all the same. The one thing that all atheists share is the lack of belief in God. Beyond that? We are all different! The friendships we have, our favorite foods, our major in college, our taste in movies, music and books, and all the other things that make us unique are worthy of your acknowledgement too. Get to know an atheist for who they really are, despite your potential disagreement with their religious choices. I guarantee you will find that they are people, just like you, who deserve more than being written off just for being atheist.