JENNY: When I was a kid, I started thinking about how I couldn’t remember what it was like before I was born, how we have no memories of what it’s like to not exist, and then I thought, So this means that when we die, we will have no memories of what it was like to ever have existed. That scared me, because I wanted to remember my mother and my father and my LIFE. I wanted to live my life and always live it—but always living it was as scary a thought as one day never living it again.
Then I thought maybe reincarnation would be a nice thing, but the thought of dying and being born all over again was terrifying too. All of it was terrifying. I wanted to believe in God, and I wanted the comfort of believing in heaven to keep me from obsessively thinking about death; but every time I tried to imagine heaven, or reincarnation, or life after death, the thought just felt completely empty. I felt no connection to the idea of an immortal soul—it didn’t have the urgency of truth. The only thing that felt true was that when we die, we cease to exist—and that was terrifying. Some days I’d be watching cartoons and eating Twinkies and then suddenly it would hit me: I’m gonna die. I won’t know any of this one day or remember it ever happened. I wanted so badly to believe otherwise, but it just didn’t feel right.
DANIELLE: But I think for a lot of people religion is mainly about finding a community that shares your beliefs—getting together with family and neighbors over a common idea—which can be rad. I don’t want to discount the positive side of religion, you know?
JENNY: I sometimes envy the instant community that religion affords. And I’m very moved by the ways in which organized religion has contributed to so much beneficence in the world. I’m thinking about the very important and deep connection between the Civil Rights movement and Christianity in America, just to point out one of many, many examples When I moved to San Francisco after college, I realized most of the city’s services for homeless folks were being run by churches, and I was like, “Dude, atheists, STEP UP YOUR GAME.”
Martin Luther King used the cadence and command of religious sermons in his speeches, and I remember listening to his “Beyond Vietnam” speech and feeling like I understood what it must feel like for a believer to receive a message from God, or to listen to the messages of a prophet. I mean, for an atheist like me, it’s the closest I have ever felt to having a holy experience.
DANIELLE: Sometimes being an atheist feels like there’s extra room for apathy. Then again, maybe that’s just who you are as a person—if you’re apathetic, religion isn’t going to fix that. But too often atheists are pitted against people who believe, and that’s just damaging and short-sighted.
JENNY: Yeah, it’s not a good idea to pit atheists against people of religious faith like I just did right now. A love for compassion and a desire for more of it in the world does not have to come from religious faith, but it also very well can. I feel like not growing up religious has helped me recognize the things I think are good about religion, as well as the things I think are not so good.
DANIELLE: It helps you stay a little objective.
JENNY: Do you think it’s arrogant of us to say we are atheists and not agnostic—that we don’t leave room for the possibility of God or any god(s)?
DANIELLE: I don’t. When I was a teenager I used to work at a Catholic convent (long story), and I would constantly ask the sisters questions about their role in the community, or why they drove brand-new cars if they had taken a vow of poverty—things like that. The only answer I ever got was “Because!”—like I was a toddler asking why the sky is blue. But one day, one of the sisters said, “It is not wise to question religion as if you could possibly know the world at your age.” And I was like, did you just dismiss my curiosity because I’m a teenager? How rude! At that point in my life, I think I was an atheist who thought that maybe one day I’d find the “right” religion—atheism was more about not wanting to be Catholic than it was about knowing what I really believed or didn’t believe. But that nun was so dismissive about what she saw as my arrogance that she didn’t even recognize her own.
So I’m not saying that it’s OK to be arrogant as an atheist because others are arrogant about their religions—I’m saying that it’s not arrogant to know what you do or don’t believe, as long as you don’t dismiss the beliefs of others as ignorance or naïveté. Being an atheist, for me, isn’t about condemning religion or pointing out fault—I just want to go through the world without someone else’s consciousness oppressing me.
JENNY: That is beautiful, bb.
DANIELLE: Do you feel arrogant because you don’t call yourself an agnostic? (Aw, thank you!)
JENNY: I don’t know. I guess, for me, it’s like, how can it possibly be arrogant if my beliefs will never affect anyone other than me? If I don’t try to convince anyone that I’m right and they’re wrong? I will never shame someone for not believing what I believe. (And I will never support any legislation that restricts anyone’s freedom to believe what they want.)
JENNY: I will never go to another country and try to convert the people who live there to my system of beliefs. I will never ask anyone to donate money to me or my religious beliefs so I can persuade other people to believe what I believe. I mean, I could go on and on. But it just seems the opposite of arrogant because I am not denying anyone anything.
DANIELLE: I want to print that on a pillow.
JENNY: It can be powerful to ask yourself, OK, what if there is no higher power? What if there is absolutely no one, no deity who cares if I exist or not exist? What if there is absolutely no reason or purpose for why I was put on this earth? Would I still want to be a more loving person and want the world to be full of more compassion, more kindness, more beauty? I’ll answer for myself, and the answer is yes, yes, YES. ♦