DANIELLE: Do you struggle to talk about religion, or feel freaked out about it? I sometimes do. It seems to mean SO MUCH to people, and I’m always afraid of offending super-religious people by accident. Sometimes it feels like EVERYTHING is possibly offensive—the book I’m reading, what I’m listening to, how I talk.
JENNY: Oh yeah, I’m always afraid I’m going to offend someone who is religious. I think as you get older, at least for me, you start to self-select and meet people who are open and tolerant and able to accept views that contradict their own. But when I was a teen, I had encounters with people who were “threatened” by my atheism.
I remember once I was at this summer camp for philosophy nerds at Stanford University and me and a bunch of high-schoolers were sitting around talking about religious beliefs and somehow it came out that I didn’t believe in God. The other kids were like, “But, surely you believe in something—you can’t just believe there’s nothing.” I was sort of excited to articulate my thoughts on it, because I had never done so before, so we ended up getting into a huge conversation about it, and one of the things that kept coming up was, like, “BUT YOU ARE SUCH A NICE, POLITE, THOUGHTFUL, SWEET PERSON,” as if believing in God is the only thing giving us any reason to be loving and kind to one other. A couple of people asked me, “So if you don’t believe in anything, what’s stopping you from just stealing stuff and MURDERING people?” That question blew my mind—it assumed that religion and faith are the only way to regulate your behavior or formulate moral codes. Yet somehow I had found my own understanding of morality that wasn’t scarily deviant or threatening, and I had done so without religion, without faith, without God, without believing that there is some purpose to life or a master plan or a scheme for the universe. Some of the really religious kids were bewildered when I told them, I stop myself. I live up to my own expectations.”
DANIELLE: It is so weird that people think religion is the thing that keeps us from turning into savages—um, murder is still happening, even amongst people who believe in God!
I think this kind of thinking can lead people to sometimes use religion as an excuse for moral laziness. Like, “As long as I’m ‘guided’ by something, I don’t actually have to put thought or effort into being a decent, engaged person.” Catholicism, for instance, has the sacrament of penance and confession, where if you confess your sins to a priest and say 10 Hail Marys or whatever, you will be absolved of your sins. To me that seems both terrible (so you can just treat people like crap and then be given a clean slate?) and wonderful (redemption and change are nice!).
It’s a shame that something as personal as religion is so often used to regulate others, too. I think that’s what really turned me off from organized religion in general—most of the religious people I’d been exposed to wanted everyone to think like them, believe like them.
JENNY: Yeah, I can’t get down with that either. I have a lot of respect for people who consider themselves extremely faithful and religious but are still like “Let me do my thing and you can do yours.”
DANIELLE: Totally. Do you think it’s difficult to be an atheist as a teenager?
JENNY: It was mostly that I often felt left out at school. I remember reading books in English class and somehow everyone in my class got the religious references, the Christ references, everything. I was the only person who needed all that stuff to be explained to me. And sometimes kids who weren’t Christian would complain that their religions weren’t given as much time and respect in class as Christianity—and I get what they were saying, but I thought the conversation should be not about how any one religion should get the same amount of air time as any other, but rather about respecting people of all faiths, including those of us who have no faith, equally.
And then when my teenage friends read Sartre and went through these “rebellious” periods of existentialism or nihilism or whatever, only to later return to some idea of faith, I felt like, Dude, been there, done that my whole life, and still doing it ’cause it’s not rebellion for me, and it’s not a phase.
DANIELLE: I feel like atheism is often invalidated when you’re a teenager because it’s seen as some social rite of passage, just a way to rebel or to question what you know. But if you’re figuring out your relationship to religion/spirituality, I think it’s a good place to start from, to kind of give yourself a blank slate and think things through from there on your own—which, especially at that point in your life, can be pretty revolutionary.
But it wasn’t really weird for me to be an atheist as a teenager, because I didn’t live with people who were on my case about it; I can see how it would be more difficult if you are still forced to go to church every week, or you want to respect your family by sharing in their traditions. It’s tough to navigate your own beliefs when so much of your life is tied to other people.
JENNY: I should add that when I was growing up, the impulse to “pray” for stuff was very much alive in me. The idea of being “good” and wanting goodness is so deeply tied to the idea of religion. So whenever I felt guilty about something or wished for good things in my life, I would end up “praying.” When I was in middle school, a close family friend was hit by a car and I was afraid he would die, so one afternoon I knelt by my bed like I had seen in the movies and I just kind of sat there for a while, not knowing what to say or whom to say it to. I just didn’t know how to wish this man a miracle recovery outside the context of prayer.
DANIELLE: We don’t have a model, outside of faith, for valuing or demonstrating hope.
JENNY: Does it scare you to think about what happens to us after we die?
DANIELLE: I’m terrified of dying. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing—we’re afraid because we don’t know what happens after we die, but that lack of knowledge motivates me to be my best right now, in this experience of living. That sounds like something Oprah would say, but I guess what I mean is that I’m most afraid of dying when I feel like I’m not doing a good job of being alive. I don’t just roll around thinking about death all day and being afraid of it, but I definitely have introspective moments where I think, If you died right now would you die happy or fulfilled? As an atheist, I don’t have any comforting story to tell myself about a life after this physical life is over. Does it scare you to not believe in some idea of heaven?
JENNY: YES, OH GOSH. (Is it weird that I wanted to type OMG but felt really self-conscious about using phrases like that in a flip way because here we are talking about how we believe there is no G?) I really empathize with what you’re saying. I’m also terrified of dying.
DANIELLE: (No, use the OMGs! They can just be oh my goshes instead.) When I was a teenager, I used to lie down in my room and try to imagine what it would be like to be dead—not thinking, not hearing, not knowing anything. (I listened to a lot of Morrissey back then.) I think for a lot of people religion is a way to explain that nebulous place where we cease to exist.
JENNY: I did the same thing! I would lie down in my room and try to evoke how it would feel to cease to exist.
DANIELLE: I think we both needed to get out more.