Posted by on Oct 16, 2011 in Essays | 5 comments

Name: Ann Norman

Born: 1962

Location: Pittsburgh, PA, USA

Organization affiliation: none

Label: Atheist (but still getting used to it)

Former religious affiliation: Christian

My Story

In my early 20s, I un-became a Christian. I did not “lose my faith” or “reject God”: I un-became a Christian—-a positive act.

I had been a serious Christian. Our family went to church twice every Sunday, which we called the Sabbath, and my social life revolved church camps and youth group. I was missing out on some things—-particularly every TV show that aired on Sunday—-but I thrived on the community and social justice message of the church.

Because of my religious commitment, I joined a Christian relief and development organization right after college. All the volunteers had to fundraise for their 2-year service. I showed a slideshow and raised the $20,000 from hundreds of friends and family at several churches, pledging about $10 or $20 a month each. The organization sent me to Thailand to administer a supplemental feeding program in a camp for Hmong refugees.

At the camp, we worked with people from around the world. The Protestant and Catholic groups were surprised to find many Buddhists and secular humanitarians selflessly working alongside us in organizations like the International Rescue Committee, Doctors without Borders, and UNHCR. (I remember a Thai worker saying “They are our brothers and sisters” when explaining why she helped the Hmong.) The high quality of their service was disturbing for many of the Christians volunteers who, before arriving, had expected our Christian good-works would be a light to the world. Instead we blended in with all the other lights. The example of the non-Christian volunteers was inspiring, but also challenging.

My church’s particular brand of Christianity was very intellectual. The cerebral Paul was our favorite apostle. I had been assured that faith and reason were compatible and, since God had made the world, I could pursue any question to its logical conclusion because the evidence would point to God. So I had been rationally pursuing philosophical questions my whole life since about the first grade. Consequently, by the time I arrived in Thailand, I understood that most of the Bible, if taken literally was utter nonsense. Yet I still believed (OK, desperately hoped) it contained some uniquely profound, transcendent message for the world. Towards the end, I could only maintain this hope on Sundays WHILE singing some particularly inspiring hymn. Even there, the hymn would probably have been about the tortured death of Jesus, and working myself up over this ancient event, again and again, was becoming dull and just a little twisted. I recognized that my internal struggle to believe things I didn’t really believe was getting to be a mental illness.

So one night I was at a prayer meeting with the Christians, when one of my best friends began praying about a coworker. Our eyes were closed, and she was going on and on in her prayer about how she feared for this person, that he was going down the wrong path. She was working herself up towards some real tears. Finally she got to the point: she was worried for his soul because she had seen him reading (horrors!) a book about Buddhism!

Well that was it for me. Suddenly I knew with total clarity that I identified more with the guy reading suspect books than with my friend who was wringing her hands about it at the prayer meeting. I stood up right there, left the circle of the prayer meeting while the others had their eyes closed, and walked out into the night. It was a beautiful warm night. The craziness was over. I was free from religion. And I never looked back.

The next day, I went and found the guy caught reading a book about Buddhism—-because I needed to talk with someone normal. The next Sunday I stood up in the little home church service we had in Thailand and announced to the small congregation that I was no longer a Christian because I just couldn’t force myself to believe it all anymore. I had no idea what would happen next.

It was scary, but mostly I remember the HUGE relief. No more internal conflict. No more lying to myself. And I must give them credit: my Christian friends and coworkers took it remarkably well. Everyone needed to have one heart-to-heart talk with me; they felt it was their duty to try to change my mind—to try to “save me.” But of course there are no magic words that can cause a person to believe something once they are convinced it’s nonsense. So they each gave it one good shot and then dropped it. Everything went on as before. They accepted me. And why not? Nothing real had changed. My best friends from that time are still my friends to this day. We used to exchange Christmas cards, but now I see them on facebook. I didn’t even lose my job. I served out my last six months with my organization. They treated me very respectfully, and I still send the volunteer organization money whenever there is a humanitarian crisis.

Coming out as non-Christian was one of the best things that ever happened to me. Suddenly my world was so much bigger. I was able to connect with people of differing beliefs and backgrounds, whereas previously I was detached from those outside my tiny subculture. If you think your friends are going to hell, it’s risky and painful to get too close. As a nonbeliever, I was free to gravitate towards things in the real world that seemed truly good and fulfilling and fun! I became a happy person. I wasn’t wasting my time pursuing a futile fantasy.

So I was an agnostic for about the next 25 years. I’ve been happy, especially as a mother. I raised my 3 children to be free thinkers. Now they are happy, moral, loving, successful young adults. I’m so glad I spared them the pointless traumas I suffered over religion. My husband is in fact a practicing Christian, but he knew I wasn’t when we married.

For the longest time, I felt compelled to tell my “coming out” story to anyone who would listen. Mostly they would watch me with a worried expression. Of course, the Christians worry because my experience is challenging to their faith, but even my secular children will have that cautious expression, like, “There she goes again: Mom hating on religion. Why can’t she let it go?” I’ve NEVER met a person who shouts OMG! ME TOO! That’s exactly how I FEEL!” So I’ve always felt a little odd and lonely in this area or my life, until last year. Last year, I went to Jon Stewart’s political Rally to Restore Sanity in Washingon DC; its stated theme was “moderation.” On my sign for the rally, I wrote, “I’m proud to be an American, Where at least I know I’m free” (because I am proud of our American freedoms and the song itself always chokes me up, despite its “God Bless the USA” refrain.) On the other side of the sign, I wrote, “Thomas Jefferson was a Deist, and Thomas Paine was an Atheist.* Just saying . . .” (Because I’m sick of hearing that United States was founded on “Judeo-Christian values.” It was founded on Enlightenment values, which are also my values.) The sign got a HUGE reaction from about 10% of the crowd. It really hit a cord with some, while most still gave me that familiar worried look. As I walked down the street with my sign, people here and there would read, then burst into a smile or give me a thumbs up. They’d ask to take my picture, or just look moved and say, “Thank you.” One young man ran up to me and shared that he was an atheist at a Christian college, and he got so emotional expressing his solidarity, I thought he was going to hug me. There were others with signs announcing their atheism. It was the day before Halloween, and one person was dressed as the Flying Spaghetti Monster. In one surreal moment, I found myself face to face with a man holding a sign saying, “Read the AGE OF REASON” (Thomas Paine’s devastating critique of Christianity.) Only one person got angry with me, starting an argument and shouting that I was a heretic. He seemed a little unglued so I melted into the crowd. A moment later I was parading again with my sign. A man raised his hand over my head and I ducked. He looked hurt: “I wasn’t going to HIT you. I’m giving you a high five!” Then he proceed to pretend to hit me, joking, “You evil atheist!” and I laughed happily.

That was the day I finally became comfortable being called, and calling myself, an “atheist.” I saw the importance of non-religious people speaking up and supporting each other in this mixed-up world. Someone once told me an agnostic is just a wimpy atheist. I’m done being a wimp. I’m going to go for it!

*I didn’t’ realize this at the time, but Thomas Paine, author of “Common Sense” and “Age of Reason” actually identified as a Deist. I had remembered correctly that he was strongly anti-religious (which is an understatement, lol . . .).

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