I grew up in a small town called Walnut, Ill. It was your typical small town—picturesque white fences and a Main Street that was home to all the local businesses. My family was from Chicago, where we lived until I was about 2-and-a-half years old. One can imagine the difficulties for a new family with a strange last name moving to a town where nearly everyone is identifiable by a complex network of cousins and marriages. We were also at a distinct disadvantage in Walnut.
Unlike most of the town, the Heing family did not go to church.
Therein started what has been a long and complicated relationship with religion. At a young age I had a sense of being an outsider to faith, despite attending every single church in town and several in the surrounding area with friends. I was keenly aware of missing out on something integral to small town life, the lack of a church community highly pronounced as my friends went to church each Sunday and occasionally during the week. Sometimes it saddened me, since I was someone who already didn’t fit in yet wanted to very badly. Other times it angered me, like when students took it upon themselves to let me know I was damned to Hell at age 7 if I didn’t accept Jesus into my heart. The near-constant tension between what I saw as a defining characteristic of my hometown, something I distinctly lacked, and my own budding atheism was the source of a great deal of struggle for me. It’s something I still struggle with today, but over the years I have developed a sort of code by which to live and find meaning in life.
We’re living in an interesting time for religion. On one hand, interfaith conflict has become a defining issue with the rise of religious extremism and the resulting commitments to embrace religious diversity and expand dialogue. On the other hand, more people than ever do not identify with specific faiths. Atheism and agnosticism, along with non-denominational spirituality, are on the rise. A 2012 WIN-Gallup poll found that those identifying as religious dropped around the world by about nine percent, while those identifying as atheist rose by three percent. The United States specifically saw a 13-percent decrease in religious identification, a number that may come as a surprise given the religious overtones in our public debate. About five percent of Americans consider themselves “convinced atheists”, higher than the global average but still landing in about the mid-range of countries in the survey.
Millennials are particularly changing the religious landscape, with about half of Americans between 18 and 29 not belonging to a religious affiliation. More of us were raised without religion, which could be part of the upswing. We’re also a generation with wide access to world culture, giving us a perspective that may not align easily with specific dogma. Studies also suggest that higher education leads to less religiosity, and Millennials are nothing if not educated.
Growing numbers aside, atheists aren’t well-loved in the United States. Public polls often put them at the bottom when ranking the trustworthiness of groups, and many feel they are unfit to hold public office. Perhaps that’s why there are no openly atheist or agnostic members of Congress, despite there being several who have made their lack of faith known after leaving office. Many of the atheist icons are imports, such as Stephen Fry or Ricky Gervais, rather than American-made. Often times interfaith discussion excludes atheism despite its rapid growth, neglecting the often tense relationship between those of faith and those of not-faith.
Is that why I was nervous to write this piece and shout my lack of religion from the proverbial rooftops of the Internet? Atheists may have a growing platform, but defining ourselves is difficult. When one says “atheist” they could mean any number of things, any personal system of spirituality or moral code. The only thing universal for atheists is our lack of belief in the supernatural elements of organized faith, and beginning from a negative statement such as that seems to taint the rest of the discourse. The question of where one fits within atheism is perhaps more complicated than where one fits within a specific dogmatic tradition, and requires a great deal of internal reflection to understand what meaning we personally need.
That has been part of the above mentioned philosophical struggle of my life. As do many atheists, I find the “new atheism” of Richard Dawkins and the like entirely repugnant. Combative atheism is reactionary, pushing against organized religion in a way that does little to foment coexistence and a great deal to further alienate us from the larger faith community. I think of it as being an Atheist at something or someone, no different from the evangelical strains of Christianity that make so many of us extremely uncomfortable.
My atheism grew out of my life experiences, molding and forming around each small humiliation and moment of clarity. It has folded into it the things I love and the things that hurt me, including my relationship with religion as a child. And what’s more, it continues to evolve as I age and grow. Some may describe me as a Humanist, which I suppose works as well. But rather than adopt the term, I continue to use atheist, because I think it’s important for the world to see that we, too, can be good people driven by love for mankind and the desire to leave behind a better world.
What does the belief system of an atheist look like? Well, mine is built on a fundamental belief that all of humanity deserves equality and compassion. It’s through my political ideology that I express this, because as a teenager it became clear to me that in its most pure form, governance and international relations can have a profound impact on moving mankind forward and providing for the needs of so many. Granted, that’s a difficult ideal to keep in mind as politics seem to grow uglier and uglier, but it informs my own political opinions in a large way. My political ideology can be summed up with the simple statement, “We’re all in this thing together.”
Woven into that is an awareness of the world around me. I loved nature and cared deeply for animals as a child, as I still do today. I spent five years a vegetarian, although health problems made it a difficult lifestyle to continue when I went to college. Over the years that has translated into an interest in alternative agriculture and the expression of love through food. I consider it a connection to the seasons and to the planet when I’m able to cook meals based largely around in-season produce. This combines with an admiration for science to create an all encompassing respect for and at times bewildering awe of the world we live in.
I’m anxious by nature, and I use yoga to keep my worrying mind at ease. It also serves to connect with my own body, giving me time to appreciate what I’m capable of and feel 100-percent in my own skin. I seek out music, books, and films that remind me of the bigness of life and the beauty in the everyday, including the works of people like Jack Kerouac and Hafiz of Persia or the songs of Devendra Banhart and Old Crow Medicine Show. I have mantras inked into my skin that honor my most treasured values, such as exploration and the duality of the human experience. Some of the things that inspire me draw on religion or come from religious texts, but almost always have a secular theme or application.
I understand the role religion and faith play in the lives of others, but have never had the oft-spoken-of void that needs to be filled. I do not see my belief that life ends at death as contradictory to the value I see in existence. I need no overarching, supernatural thread to hold my life together; the moments of beauty have enough meaning to make my heart swell every day. The big picture of my so-far 25-year life—all the little pieces that have gone into creating it and all the little pieces still to come—provides the inspiration I need to continue pressing forward and living my truth. I, like million of others, am good without God.