Summers are isolating. Money gets tighter, and with all four kids, it can be challenging to get out and about easily. This year, Spousal Unit’s outpatient surgical procedure complicated things, too. It kept us pretty low-key for a week afterwards, and we’re only recently getting back to normal activity levels.
That means I spent a lot of this summer on my own, or with the kids. There wasn’t really time to meet up with our local group of nonbelievers and recharge. It really bubbled to a boiling point about a month ago when I had lunch with my best friend.
Now, my best friend and I have been friends for coming up on fifteen years this September. She was one of my only friends to make it through my pregnancy with Big A, and she has tenaciously clung to our friendship even when I was working and going to school and parenting and didn’t have much time for her. She’s been a huge source of support.
But truth be told, we’re two very different people. Maybe that is why the friendship works, I’m not sure. She’s more outspoken. Loves NASCAR and wrestling and reality TV. She’s never seen Star Wars. And, of course, she’s a believer—a Baptist to be precise.
She’s also expecting her first child, a girl, and I’m elated. It’s been a busy summer preparing, throwing a baby shower, etc, and I’ve made the trek back to our former town several times to keep her company. This lunch date was one trip.
It was mostly pretty usual for us. Taco Bell, followed by a trip to the mall. We finished up by grabbing some ice cream and sitting in the food court chatting, and that’s when she revealed that when her husband had suggested me for a guardian for their soon-to-be-born daughter should anything happen to them, she’d turned me down. Flat. Without even talking to me.
You see, they are believers, and I am an atheist. So even though she accepted that I could provide a home, financial support, and emotional and psychological support, she vetoed me on the grounds that I could not support the child spiritually. Instead, they were considering some cousins that lived half a country away.
In that moment, I was confronted with the fact that if anything ever happens to this woman that I love like a sister, I will lose not only her, but also a child that I already love so completely. It sucked the wind out of me to even imagine it, even momentarily. If something happens, and my best friend dies, her daughter will move halfway across the country, and there’s a significant possibility that I will never see her again.
And my friend made this decision for me—I feel this bears repeating—without even talking to me about how I would handle guardianship. It’s really a profound type of rejection that I’ve never experienced. It especially surprised me because my friend has seemingly been supportive. She’s said, “I’ll pray for you,” and she’s asked if I’ve seen God’s Not Dead, but other than that, I’ve experienced no pushback from her.
I really didn’t know what to say. I’m still processing it, if I’m honest. These last few weeks have been a complex emotional roller coaster, because I still want to support her, but I’m honestly afraid to connect with her daughter, because I don’t think I could bear to lose them both if something terrible did happen—and then on the flipside, I know that it’s likely to never be an issue. My friend is in good health, takes reasonable precautions, and lives a quiet life. Chances are good, I’ll never have to deal with it, and yet, it’s still there, whispering, “what if?” at the back of my mind.
And you know what I’d like most of all? I’d like to be normal. I’d like to be able to believe. It’s so frustrating because I’ve tried, and it just doesn’t work. I’d like to fit in with my community, I’d like not to wonder how my atheism is going to affect me next. I’d like not to worry about how it makes other people view me.
I’m not willing to hide. I never hid when I was a Christian, and I refuse to hide who I am now. I shouldn’t have to.
But still, I wish that I could blend in. I read the RationalDoubt blog. For those of you who may not be familiar, it’s a blog by one of the co-founders of the Clergy Project, an outreach effort to ministers that no longer believe. Occasionally, it’ll feature an interview or piece by a clergy member who no longer believes, but is still active in church life. They’re still leading and praying and counseling. I really try not to envy them—because that’s a rough place, where they can’t be true to themselves, and many of them feel anxious and trapped—but I do sometimes. I wish I could chameleon my way into our mainstream religious culture. In a world where often the only thing that matters is whether you believe or not—with what you believe coming in a far second—I feel like I am a fish gasping, trying to find my way to some water so I can catch my breath. It makes me angry. It makes me despair to think that the only standard by which I am considered worthwhile is one that I cannot achieve. No matter how moral a life I lead, I’m still “less than” to those believers that know about my atheism. I’m still defective. I’m rebellious. I’m sinful and corrupt. I donate my time to the animal shelter, I support causes close to my heart, I’m raising kind, caring kids with big hearts, I’m a good friend and a good person, and all that matters to them is whether I can tick that “Yes” box beside Christian. If I can’t do that, then I’m automatically at a disadvantage. So I wish that I could pretend, I wish that I could camouflage, I wish that I was normal.
I can’t, and I’m not, though, and so I’ll remain as I am, and sometimes, it’ll mean risking relationships with those that I hold most dear.
I can’t say it’s worth it. I don’t know if it is or it isn’t. All I can say is that it’s the path I’m on, and I’m going to keep walking it. I’ve learned the hard way that denying who you are does no one any favors. I’ll keep walking, and I’ll light the way for any who might come after me. Hopefully it chips away at the misconceptions. Hopefully it makes it easier for those that may follow.
It’s really the only choice that I have.