I am an atheist. A person who doesn't accept the notion of any deity, spirit, or any other supernatural being.
I was born and raised in southern West Virginia. As far as household religious indoctrinations go, mine was relatively mild. I was not raised with brimstone or snakes in my hands. My parents came from split Midwest Episcopalian and fallen-away Catholic backgrounds. They reared their home in the Episcopal Church, baptized me without consent (and without record of the fact), then jumped ship to the United Methodist church after discovering the local Episcopal vestry was an Oliver North fan club.
The "regular" church services bored me...though in my hometown, many people regarded this as their sole excuse for societal interaction. Sunday school was a bit more interesting, thanks to the intriguing plot lines we loosely skimmed through. Adam and Eve showed up to get the ball rolling and were promptly punished for the silliest of offenses. Moses came on the scene, spoke in the style of Charlton Heston on TV, and did some stuff, and God killed the whole world (save Noah and his brood) in one of his many sadistic fits. Eventually Jesus rolled around, lived, died, lived, then kind of faded away while continuing to be invoked by everyone else to this day. Bible stories seemed just like fairy tales, apart from the air of seriousness about them. And somehow, they were all supposed to be about love...tough love so it was.
Needless to say, there were some things I didn't understand about this, and some things I didn't understand about the religion I was surrounded by. I never prayed, and never understood why anyone would want to: Even from the beginning, it seemed to me like an activity completely without efficacy or point. I didn't understand why the Bible was supposed to be more important than any other book, and I didn't know who wrote it..."the word of God" wasn't satisfactory enough an answer to me. But I believed in his existence...surely, everyone wouldn't talk about God and heaven so often and so seriously unless it was absolutely true! I also believed in Santa Claus, and I believed in the Tooth Fairy. There was even more evidence and substantiation for that than there was for God: Not only did the Fairy leave a few cents to a dollar every night I lost a baby tooth, but she even answered the letters I wrote to her and left the replies under my pillow. I kept right on believing in the Tooth Fairy until I was more than seven years old.
One factor easing me towards deconversion, oddly enough, was Jesus Christ Superstar. My dad's musical tastes ran mostly towards classical and 1950s schmaltz, and the concept album stuck out on his shelf like a sore thumb. It centered around an unorthodox view of Jesus' life and death with a sympathetic view of Judas, and treated the gospels as just another source of plot elements for a musical piece...not the inerrant, unquestionable word of a god.
Another specific stumbling block was the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod...the virulent Midwestern sect that had a penchant for sniffing out former members to excommunicate and excluded women from serving in leadership positions, voting on church matters, or even speaking aloud. A branch of my extended family (who I only saw once a year) aligned themselves with this church and sent their children to parochial school, and I often wondered what mental convulsions my cousins were forced to endure six days a week when I wasn't around. I was used to a more forward-leaning brand of Christianity, so the destructive tendencies of the WELS came as a nasty shock.
The biggest issue dragging me down, however, was the notion of salvation in an afterlife. I liked the idea of heaven that C.S. Lewis alluded to in The Last Battle as a place similar to Earth, except you could see for miles and nothing good was destroyed...but that was nothing more than a description in a fiction book that I disliked otherwise. What evidence was there for heaven? What was the precise criteria for salvation? Good luck getting a straight answer out of anyone about that. Since the Christian form of heaven was...well, a proprietary Christian concept, it seemed obvious that Christian belief was the minimal base prerequisite stipulated to "get in." This clashed with the liberal theological notion that Mahatma Gandhi, Anne Frank, and other non-Christian people who were good by any objective measure should have access to Christian salvation in spite of never accepting or believing in anything about it themselves...a kind sentiment, but one that just seemed logically impossible. And what was the alternative? Was I going to be sent to a lake of fire (Revelation 20) to be burned and tortured for an eternal number of years just because I didn't pray and didn't look forward to church every day of my life? My parents and my church did their best to shoo that unpleasant concept under the table, but that didn't mean it wasn't there.
Long before that, it became apparent to me that our church denomination was simply one small corner of one of many religions extant in the world...that in spite of their apparent similarities, remained mutually-incompatible to the point where people were reduced to elimination and bloodshed in the bargain. The last point shocked me when I first started reading up on history and world affairs, as I had assumed to that point that religion was a benign characteristic as unimportant as a shoe brand. My family knew friends who had survived the Nazi Holocaust, and the implications on these people of ideology motivated and perpetuated by religion was anything but benign.
Not everyone in the world was a Christian. There were Christians and Jews. Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Shintoists, Confucianists...er, all sorts! Which hypothesis was correct? The only option I didn't know about was the option of no religion at all.
At some point along the way, I tried getting serious about faith. I tried laying down what I'd have to do to be a "good" Christian and go to heaven...or be a theist of any sort. I tried thinking over the various aspects of Christianity and attempted to reconcile their implications: "Is the Bible true? If so, how much of it is literal and how much is figurative?" "If it is figurative, why do so many people think otherwise?" "Why does the Bible consist of what it does? Why does our church leave out the Apocrypha?" "Is it commendable to adopt idealistic viewpoints in the pursuit of religion? Is it even sensible?" This was before the Internet was widespread, so I had to do all the digging myself.
But the more I thought about religion, the less I liked it. For half of my questions, the answers never came. For the other half, I could never get a satisfactory or evidence-grounded answer. In the case of Christianity, the presentation of the Bible as an infallible reference proved to be one stumbling block: Even if I gave it the overwhelming benefit of the doubt, the book came across as being unverifiable, factually-inaccurate, glaringly inconsistent, and at times morally-reprehensible at best. But the crux of my problems with religion wasn't an unverifiable book...it was the unverifiable itself. It was the notion that it was justifiable or noble, even, to believe in invisible spirits, hypothetical places, undetectable forces, and things for which there was no evidence. It was the unique characteristics that defined religion as religion.
Before I knew it, the religious fire that I had been seeking to fan had been extinguished like a wet match, and God had slowly but concretely followed Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy as the next illusion to fall. I don't consciously remember the day I had this realization, but it had to have been when I was about eleven years old.
When the dust cleared, it felt like nothing short of a revelation: A mask was thrown off, and a hundred-pound weight was lifted from my body. All sorts of issues that had dwelled on my mind, held up by the difficult task of being reconciled with ridiculous dogma and doctrine, began to promptly snap into place. I began sensing an urge to live my life and appreciate the natural world for what it was, without being constantly worried about invisible entities, trivial issues, and what went on beyond death in the bargain. In a sense, that was the end of the story. But in reality, it was only the beginning.
I lived in southern West Virginia. This was the heart of rural Appalachia, the same strain of cultural topography that brought us the angry hillbillies of Campbells Creek and the Scopes Monkey Trial of Dayton, Tennessee. There were crosses on hillsides, ministries being promoted within the windows of public buildings, unsolicited telephone calls from people sharing bible verses over the phone, and on and on. My hometown of Athens was one of the saner enclaves of the area...but it was also just half a mile square marooned in the hills. Any time you stepped out, it wouldn't be long before you ran into one of the three Cs: Crosses, Churches, and allegiances to the Confederacy. West Virginia was technically a Union state, but the boundary line of the Civil War was only seven miles away and you'd never know it was there at all from the ground.
Christian religion permeates lives in this locale. Christian religion was peoples' lives. It formed a cloak of identity, it monopolized their social interaction, it normalized things what would be unjustifiable otherwise, it defined their actions regardless of their consequences. This was a place where people would wear T-shirts emblazoned with the image of a man on a torture rack doing push-ups and not see anything the least bit cruel or ironic about it. There showed a constant disconnect between empirical evidence or logical analysis and what people wished to be true, that overspilled from pulpits into politics more often than not. My hairdresser had a sign on her wall that damned with faint praise: "Christians might not be better than other people, but they are better off." Within the confines of Mercer County, West Virginia, it was hard to argue the point.
I vividly remember doing an art project around Christmastime in eighth grade. I painted a rather serene portrait of evergreens, and the girl seated beside me painted a gruesome picture of Jesus with blood dripping from the orifices shot through his limbs. I couldn't help but ask her to consider whether that was really a good idea. She asked: "Are you an atheist?" "No," I replied as reflexively as an electrical shock. At the time, it was an honest thought: I wasn't sure what word to use to describe what I was. But it was also a symptom of the social environment I was in.
1999 began ninth grade, and with it I transferred to a place called PikeView High School. PikeView had a sprawling campus located in the middle of nowhere, and was essentially a consolidated dumping ground for the ultraisolated, ultraconservative, and (of course) ultrareligious rural hinterland of the county. I had a phobia that people would adversely judge me by my beliefs, my attitudes, even the kind of music I listened to...so, I led a life as insular and invisible as possible. What sort of dialogue went on in the back corners of classrooms and in the hallways? "Yeah, let's bash some gays." "Faggots don't deserve any rights at all." "The Ku Klux Klan is fine by me." "The South will rise again!" Atheism was barely mentioned at all...it just went without saying that it was an invitation to be lynched in an alley behind a fire station in Matoaka. The people dressed in neo-Confederate garb from head to toe were the ones to avoid, but not only thus.
The Secular Student Alliance didn't exist in 1999, and neither did GSAs. I never knew a single "out" gay person or atheist the entire time I lived in southern West Virginia...but how could I tell who was who? They were there somewhere, no doubt, but they were living their lives in stony silence like I did. I had few real friends and they all congregated in the band, which I wasn't in. I wound up being firmly in the closet, and the sense of isolation I experienced there went on to be excruciating.
One day my first semester, some students interrupted the monotony of English class by passing a note around the room. Eventually the note came up to a rather short, rotund fellow seated ahead of me, who enthusiastically asked me to sign it. I read the note. It was a screed blaming the Westside and Columbine school shootings on a alleged lack of religiosity on the populace, and petitioning to "bring prayer back into the public schools" as a reaction. I nearly crumpled the note, and bitterly informed the classmate that I did not support his cause. The corner of the room turned on me, and one person opined that Jews and Buddhists would be free to make their own personal prayers (atheists were never mentioned) provided that Christians could take time out from school and control the discourse for everyone else. The cognitive dissonance of the incident made my head spin, yet it was nothing compared to what was around the corner.
Take that favorite bogeyman of subjects among the Religious Right: Evolution. Many years earlier, my parents gave me a picture book on the subject written by Joanna Cole and illustrated by Aliki. I loved the subject, I thought it was a fascinating aspect of biological science, and until my second year of high school it didn't occur to me that anyone would think there was anything objectionable or controversial about it at all. I assumed it was just a coincidence that all my teachers seemed to run out of time in the school year before getting to the "Evolution" chapter of the science book. Oh, naïve me.
In tenth grade, I took an Environmental Science class. It was taught by an elderly, bald man who seemed more interested in planning his upcoming retirement than teaching. As soon as the subject matter veered into evolution, he laid his foot down: "Evolution is a THEORY. Remember that! It's not a fact." Gravity is also a theory in the exact same terminology, but there was no use explaining that to him. He delved into the cliched and inaccurate "tornado in a junkyard" argument. Never mind the fossil record and radiometric dating, never mind vestigial organs and homologies between disparate species, never mind the peppered moths, never mind a hundred-odd years of accumulated research, experiments, and observations that have never contradicted evolution in any significant way, never mind transitional species and the logic of the phylogenetic tree...none of that mattered. It was "junk." His point was, "Why bother understanding and learning a natural explanation about the world when we can just say 'God did it' instead?"
Even though he was endowed with teaching the subject, this teacher not only was willfully clueless about evolution but proved that he understood (or chose to understand) nothing about naturalism or the natural world at all. "The problem with science," he said at one point, "is that it doesn't allow for miracles." DUH! One day, someone asked him what the maximum lifespan of a species was. "960 years," he said without a lick of humor implied. "Methuselah lived that long. After that, God kind of made it so that you couldn't live that many years." Global warming "he hoped would be proven wrong," he said. Yet he frequently stressed out about the sun imminently engulfing the earth as a Red Giant star (due to happen in about half a dozen billion years) and "how we've got to get off the planet when that happens." His hypotheses and priorities about the world were so ludicrous that it was downright astounding.
Unfortunately, no matter how bad the arguments were, he didn't get much disagreement from the room. A good number of students agreed with his sentiments and raised their hands in lockstep agreement. "I believe men were created by God and Jesus Christ!" There was a quiet and artistic person in my homeroom class who I had a sympathetic relationship with until he let loose his thoughts on someone I knew: "He must be a Communist. He believes in evolution...which is crazy." And so on, seldom questioned, in and out of other classes, over and over again. Mind you, this was the norm in a secular, public school. I shudder to think of what went on behind the closed doors of Mercer Christian Academy several miles away.
These people were Christians, theists, and religious believers. They had been indoctrinated into their faiths, raised under the illusion that the unsubstantiated hypotheses of their religion were the only correct ones available, and taught to ignore or reject any evidence, no matter how significant or grounded in evidence it was, that didn't fit neatly into it. Evolution had to be wrong, just because it contradicted their interpretation of some passages of Genesis in a religious bullshit novel that they staked their entire social identity upon written by men of limited knowledge in the bronze age, and that was that. Granted, they were free to ignore other passages, such as the ones they didn't read or their pastor or parents didn't sermonize from...otherwise they'd be raising hell and spitting venom when farmers mixed seeds (Leviticus 19:19) or patrons ordered shrimp at Captain D's (Leviticus 11:9-12 and Deuteronomy 14:10). But Genesis establishes the context of the Bible: If it isn't true, they might think the whole Bible isn't true, they might think that God isn't true, and they might realize that a matter that's monopolized their life is built on nothing but a house of cards.
There was another theme of evolution-denial: The arrogant religious notion that the human race was the most important thing in the universe, that everything else was "created" solely for its benefit, and that any attempt to deny this...say, by underscoring the factual biological similarities between humans and apes, or humans and any other animal...was insulting. This came to heed in another class I took relating to government and civics. The room was having a discussion over the implications of manslaughter and murder degrees on law, and one student asked whether shooting a deer was a similar scenario by analogy...a completely reasonable question in my mind, but one that somehow touched a raw nerve. For a minute on end, the teacher exploded into a tirade delving on and on about the ridiculousness of the question, spouting forth that "a dumb deer" had nothing whatsoever in common with a person, that he was offended by the idea, and that he "couldn't believe that you weren't joking." This person's beliefs were not only anthropocentric, but apocalyptic: A few weeks earlier in the year, he expressed that he was glad the modern-day reconstitution of Israel was politically supported "for religious reasons," because Jews in the Middle East were a prerequisite of incineration for his Biblical rapture fantasies to come true.
Of course, this was just a small cross-sampling of schoolday life in Mercer County. There was the daily halfhearted mumbling of the Pledge of Allegiance, which was almost never presented as anything other than a mandatory exercise in spite of a 1943 court case (11 years before "under God" was added) implicating the West Virginia State Board of Education itself. There was the Project Yes "abstinence only" sex non-education endeavor, which for fear of offending the fucked-up religious sensibilities of its audience amounted to absolutely and literally nothing at all. A friend of mine later shared tales of a few PikeView characters I didn't meet, such as a health instructor who allegedly commanded his room to view 16mm propaganda films produced by Christian organizations in the 1960s (he retired weeks before I took his class), and a short-lived band instructor who reportedly opined that women shouldn't be allowed to vote. I don't regret not experiencing that.
When I was sixteen years old, I was personally selected to attend Mountaineer Boys State...a summer camp program sponsored by the American Legion. In each and every year since 1936, a few hundred junior high school students from around the state were whisked off to the isolation of the Jackson's Mill 4-H camp compound (near Weston, WV) to endure a week in June that was ostensibly a mock government simulation. Students would run for mock political office, hold mock jobs, attend mock court trials, and be lectured and schooled on the ways and means of law and citizenship. For seven days, you were in a world within a world. Your car keys were confiscated, and there was no going out until the task was through.
One of the most obvious ways in which the simulation differed from actual society was in its composition. It was Boys State. The program was completely single-sex to adhere to the Legion's archaic religiously-influenced notions of gender delineation and segregation. A separate and no doubt unequal "Girls State" program allegedly existed, but I heard almost nothing about it the week I was there.
The American Legion was an organization whose preamble gave equal weight to "God and Country"...a red flag, if there ever was one. Three times a day, everyone would march in formation to the flagpole, stand and wait for seemingly an eternity for every part of the camp to come together, and enter the historic Mount Vernon Dining Hall for some semblance of a rudimentary meal. And on every day, the meal was accompanied by a guided prayer that every person in the room was obligated to listen to, bow their heads to, and endure...except for dinner on the final day of the week, when a member of the administration wheeled out a piano and sang a Christian hymn to go along with it. I found the coerced religiosity of the meals extremely off-putting, but there was no one in the audience who worked up the nerve to protest or complain. American constitutional law is secular, specifically prohibits religious tests in Article VI, and holds as principle that government must not favor one religion over any other...but in the context of the Boys State pseudo-government, it might as well not have existed at all.
Each day's itinerary included one or two lectures by a political, cultural, or military dignitary. Some of these were more memorable than others. Governor Bob Wise discussed the success of the "Promise" scholarship program and gave a sympathetic speech about his own experiences at Boys State years before...and the predominantly right-wing authoritarian audience acted as if they couldn't care less. Congressperson Shelley Moore Capito gave a mostly-apolitical fluff talk, as did WVU president David Hardesty. The Secretary of State came on one day; the head of the state National Guard came on another. And on the third day in, we heard from A. James Manchin and Michael Hummel. It was not an experience I was liable to forget.
Antonio James Manchin was future-governor-senator Joe Manchin's uncle and an active figure from West Virginia's skeleton-filled political past. He served as State Treasurer until 1989, when he resigned amidst an impeachment scandal. He wasn't there to discuss that, though. He was there to egg on the audience with jingoistic blather. He told the room to recite the words "Thank God I live in America" as a lockstep oath, dismissed complaints about discriminatory religious mottos as "whining," and implied that secularists such as I should be told to "get the hell out of town."
But as obnoxious as Manchin was, his tone was almost polite compared to the dinnertime lecturer of the day. Major Michael Hummel was a decorated soldier who participated as a paratrooper in the American invasion of Grenada in 1983 and gained his top rank while serving in the Persian Gulf War eight years later. Clearly, he was used to getting points across by force...and that, he did. After the obligatory Christian prayers were over and the dinner food was consumed, he started his tirade with a trick question about loaning a dollar bill. Somehow, he attributed the lesson to "Christian values"...and from that point on, he did almost nothing but page Bartonesque bullshit into the room for a quarter of an hour straight. He name-dropped Billy Graham and George Patton in a single breath. George Washington was motivated by "Christian values," said he...never mind that the historic picture suggests a different story. Likewise, America was founded on the "patriotic ideals" of "Christian values"...never mind that the Biblical model of government was divine-right theocratic monarchy and the U.S. Constitution is literally and deliberately godless. No citations, few specifics given, just "Christian, Christian, Christian" hammered in as a rallying call over and over again. And what did the audience think; the audience that was supposedly a representative cross-section of eleventh-graders from the whole state over? The audience worked themselves into a revival-like frenzy, swallowing every lie and spontaneously bursting into a chant of "USA" with their fists jamming up and down. Any dissent, if it existed, was literally drowned out of earshot. It was a scene out of Jesus Camp, or the Values Voter Summit. It was disturbing.
For its mock election, the Boys State camp body was arbitrarily divided into partisan party lines (arbitrarily dubbed "Nationalist" and "Federalist") and ordered to draft mock political platforms. No third parties, independents, or write-ins were permitted, and the mini-government of Boys State was effectively a male-only theocracy. The Nationalist attorney general candidate proposed a "short prayer" to be orchestrated each day, and acted as though a long prayer was the only alternative to his policy point present in the realm of conceivability. During the debates, the Nationalist nominee for governor (who called himself "Afroman") devoted time to bragging about his religious upbringing and promptly segued into an anti-abortion monologue, delving into all the usual cliched rhetoric in the process. To "oppose" him, his Federalist equivalent took it upon himself to produce an even more shrill anti-legal-abortion screed justified by religious opinions and nothing else.
Again, this was Boys State. These speakers were male, the audience was completely male, and there was not a single female person anywhere in earshot personally affected by the rhetoric they were spitting out; vocally trashing the bodily autonomy of over half the population in the process. Evidently, they were fine with rape victims drinking bleach or turpentine in desperation or bleeding to death of a punctured bowel in their bathroom, coathanger in hand, because safe and legal abortion services were unavailable. They were fine with women undergoing physical trauma and duress for months on end and being forced to give birth against their will to children that they didn't have the financial ability to care for and would resent or mistreat. They were fine with all of that...because of the notion evidenced in Christianity and common to nearly every religion in the world that women are inferior to men and should suffer consequences for sex.
The lives of women were just collateral for the well-being of...what, exactly? A first- or second-trimester embryo is not a person. It's a clump of cells. It is not conscious, it cannot feel pain. As Carl Sagan noted eloquently in Billions and Billions, it cannot yet think. It cannot survive independently of the person it feeds off of. It is, quite literally, a parasite. "But they're living human cells." So are organs, but no one is going to propose that a liver transplant or blood transfusion is grounds for voting or paying taxes twice and no one is going to hang a man for 180 million counts of murder each time he spaffs sperm into a dirty sock. "But they look human." So do department store mannequins. "But a fertilized egg is endowed with a 'soul.'" Neuroscience offers plenty of evidence that mind activity is the result of physical causes and nothing but. And even if the thing were a person, it wouldn't matter. No person is entitled with the right to use the organs of another person against their consent and will.
But good luck trying to get an analytical or evidence-based conversation out of anyone who boils all of this down to the manipulative sound bite of "baby killer." I was in a state where anti-legal-abortion, anti-contraception, and anti-sex-education zealotry was as common as the religion it was inseparable from, where universities refused to even include abortion in their medical training programs, and where politicians like Leonard Anderson routinely spouted out rhetoric about "heathen nations" and burst into tears. None of this was surprising in the least, but it served as the final straw in a hellish week.
And what else is religion used to justify, in inverse to empirical evidence and rational thinking? Backtrack to the concept of heaven for a moment. As the legend goes, as a reward for fulfilling some completely arbitrary directives with little connection to what was actually good, you experience eternal bliss. Your actual life...your real life...becomes a trivial and unimportant blip, because in another dimension, you get to live forever.
If the real world is just an unimportant blip, a waiting room to reluctantly slog through until death strikes or the Rapture arrives, what's the point of doing anything to improve life in that world at all? What's the point of making progress in civil equality, or doing anything about anthropogenic global warming, or establishing a social safety net with universal access to healthcare and education, when all that matters is "pie in the sky?" What's the point of doing anything; aside from just twiddling your thumbs, waiting to die, and becoming a lemming in the meantime to anything your Bible, pastor, priest, or favorite authority figure tells you an invisible, unverifiable entity wants?
With heaven as a reward and motivation, held out like a carrot on a stick and free of reality checks, people will do anything. This is what persuades people to sit on an uncomfortable bench, dress in uncomfortable outfits, and feast on unpalatable crackers up to twice a week. This is what persuades people to tithe ten percent or more of their income into church coffers, even when they're barely hovering over the poverty line themselves. This is what persuades people to vote bigoted garbage like North Carolina Amendment 1 and Wisconsin Referendum 1 into law. This is what persuades people to align themselves steadfastly with organizations that shelter child rapists. This is what persuades people to fly planes into buildings.
If religion was different, I might not have a problem with it. If all religion was sex-positive, gay-friendly, and science-supportive...if they regarded scripture as nothing more than literature that wasn't worth taking seriously, and were ecumenical and tolerant of other beliefs and disbelief...and didn't run schools, didn't run governments, and didn't try to indoctrinate children into religious identities without allowing them to choose them for themselves...if all religion worldwide were something akin to Unitarian Universalism, or maybe Reform Judaism in a pinch...I still wouldn't believe in it, still wouldn't agree with it, but I wouldn't care much about it at all.
But that isn't what religion is like in the world. Moderate and liberal religion is the exception, not the rule. And the moderate, liberal varieties delve into the exact same notions of the unverifiable and make use of the exact same scriptures, traditions, and brands of identity as their equivalents on the intolerant, destructive, extreme side of the aisle.
The lesson hammered into me over much of the course of twenty-two years...from family acquaintances and total strangers, from the creationists and neo-Confederates I uniformly rubbed shoulders with in high school, from Boys State, from graffiti (seeing "kill all fags" spray-painted on the rocks at Brush Creek isn't a memory you're likely to shake), from newspaper editorials by locals demanding that the Christian majority "stand up for their rights" by bullying non-believers into submission, from the words, appeals, and policies of West Virginia politicians up to the Governor himself...was that, as a gay atheist in the heart of rural Appalachia, I was not welcome there. But, in a way, I'm grateful for my experiences. I'm glad that the injustices I saw firsthand...seeing scientific theory being stifled, seeing women and gay people treated as chattel, seeing people actively harm themselves in the pursuit of making an invisible entity happy...lit a fire under me, drove me into activism, and persuaded me to be open about who I am.
I'm glad that the atheist activism movement exists. I'm glad that it's gone from an invisible sideline of society to a force to be reckoned with in an incredibly short time. I'm glad that atheist-oriented books are topping best-seller lists. I'm glad that explicitly secular summer camp programs have emerged. I'm glad that the Secular Student Alliance has exploded dramatically over the last few years, providing support resources to atheists in peer-pressure environments where none existed before. I'm glad that atheists and supporters of secularism united to help students such as Damon Fowler and Jessica Ahlquist when they faced assaults, violent threats, or disownership by their parents for having the audacity to challenge a church-state separation violation in a public school. I'm glad that events like the Reason Rally and Rock Beyond Belief are being organized to dispel stereotypes about the least-trusted, least electable demographic in the nation, demonstrate that secular Americans exist in all ways and means of life, and drive home the fact that the impact of societal and political discourse on them can no longer be ignored.
I'm glad that other atheists are "coming out of the closet" and being upfront about their views. I'm glad that the notion of unchecked religious privilege is finally being questioned in the public sphere, and I'm glad that there's finally a growing push-back against the influence of the Religious Right. I'm glad that people are consciously choosing to think their way out of religion, and I'm glad that the fastest-growing religious identification in all fifty states of the USA is "none."
I am an atheist and a secular humanist. I have no dogma. I believe that decisions ought to be made on the basis of critical thinking, empirical evidence, and scientific inquiry...not blind appeals to faith. I believe that morality is dictated by an objective measure of what maximizes happiness and reduces suffering in life for all...not selfishness, and not arbitrary clauses that semi-literate bronze-age scribes created out of thin air thousands of years ago. I believe in sustainability and accountability for actions. I believe in social progress, equal civil rights, and equal opportunities for all. I believe in asking questions rather than maintaining blind, fearful obedience to sources of authority or any matter taught. Furthermore, I believe I have a practical incentive to enjoy life and make a difference in this world; not to merely be as ineffectual as possible while on a fleeting stop en route to an afterlife.