The first time I stepped inside a church I was eight years old, on vacation in Montreal. My mother was eight months pregnant with my brother, and she and my father wanted to take one last trip together as a family of three. The church was beautiful—stained glass, big paintings of Jesus in various states of suffering, candles flickering everywhere. I knew I was in a holy place, but inside I felt empty.
We sat down on a pew and my mother said that we should pray that my baby brother would come into this world safe and healthy. “How do you pray again?” I asked my parents, afraid to admit that this whole business of holiness and worship felt fraudulent to me. None of us knew, so we put our hands together, bent our heads down, and closed our eyes. My head was spinning; my “prayer” turned out to be more a confused cry for mercy: I love my family, I love my family, I love my family. I’m sorry I don’t believe in you, God. I’m sorry I don’t think you exist. I can’t wait to meet my brother, but I don’t think this is going to work. Sorry. Sorry. Sorry.
I have always known, deep down, that I don’t believe in any kind of higher power. Just as some people have always felt connected to some kind of holy spirit, I have always not felt such a connection. The idea that there is nothing beyond the material world, that after we die the only thing that happens is that our bodies decompose and decay, may be unfathomable to those of you who believe in heaven/paradise/immortality/reincarnation/etc., but for me, that’s the only thing that has ever felt true and real.
It can be kind of daunting to tell other people that you are an atheist. You get the question “You mean you don’t believe in anything?” so many times that it starts to feel like a more polite way of saying “What’s wrong with you?” A lot of people treat atheists like we’re total bummers and/or intellectual snobs. When I was a teenager, my atheism felt like one more thing that made me weird and unlikeable. But nowadays, it is just one more thing that makes me me.
In the spirit of love and acceptance, I had a conversation with my girl Danielle (who couldn’t be more magical) on atheism—how we both got here and what it means and doesn’t mean. —Jenny
JENNY: So, fellow NONBELIEVER, how did you come to be an atheist?
DANIELLE: It happened when I was a teenager, but it wasn’t spurred by a specific event. My family was mildly Catholic (we were baptized, we celebrated Christmas), but religion was never really pushed too heavily in my house. I had friends who were Jewish, and I started asking about what that meant. I think I had always questioned the role of religion in my life, and one day I just sort of realized, Hey—I don’t actually have to believe any of this. I stopped going to church after my first communions, when I was seven or eight. I was interested in religion, it just wasn’t personally important to me. What about you?
JENNY: Well, my entire family is atheist—parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, everyone. Religion was banned and religious texts were burned during the Cultural Revolution in China in the ’60s and ’70s, so there’s an entire generation of Chinese, including both of my parents, who had no exposure to religion, or were brought up to believe that religion was bad and bourgeois, etc.
I know a lot of Chinese people who are casually Buddhist, and I don’t mean that in a pejorative or dismissive way, but like, for example, people in my family will honor certain Buddhist practices such as burning incense for our ancestors and visiting the deceased on Tomb Sweeping Day, but those practices have always felt more cultural than religious to me. It was never about faith in some kind of deity, it was more a way of organizing our day-to-day lives, of building community and establishing rituals.
I have this weird memory of these Jehovah’s Witnesses coming to our house in Queens when I was in elementary school. I hid behind my father and tugged at his leg when he slammed the door in their faces. He used to say to me, “Just remember one thing: There is no God. God is money.”
That scared the shit out of me because I was like, Wait wait wait, my father has no soul. Money cannot be God!
DANIELLE: That is amazing.
JENNY: But personally, I always felt in my gut that after we die, nothing happens. We become nothing and remember nothing, and our lives just end. I mean, that was a horrifying thought to have as a child, but I had it, and I struggled with it, and I flirted with ideas of God and heaven and life after death and having a soul, but ultimately I knew in my heart of hearts that I did not believe any of that stuff.
When did you “come out” to your family and friends as an atheist, and how did they respond?
DANIELLE: You know what? I never have! I never felt I had to, because my family just doesn’t place a lot of emphasis on religion. Growing up, when we talked about religion, we talked about lots of different belief systems—including atheism [the view that there is no god or “higher power”] and agnosticism [the view that we can’t really know if there is or isn’t a “higher power”]. It was sort of a package deal—if you’re going to mention religion, you can’t talk about just one; it always came with talk about “options.” I think this may be the first time I’m mentioning my atheism publicly.
JENNY: Your family’s attitude seems ideal to me!
DANIELLE: And I don’t start a lot of conversations about religion, so maybe that’s why I don’t feel that I’ve had to come out with my atheism too much? I think it only comes up when you are talking to someone who is intolerant in some way. As long as there is a base level of respect, I can talk to anyone about who or what they believe. If someone comes at me and is like, “I’m Buddhist,” “I’m Wiccan,” etc., I can be like, “Cool! Tell me about your life.” I’m not hostile about being an atheist—but I also think that being an atheist is not an open invitation to try to convert me.
JENNY: I know exactly what you mean. If someone is talking about their faith, my natural impulse is to listen and inquire, but rarely to be like, “Yo, I am atheist. Gotta put that out on the table.”