Fifteen months ago, I published “The Post”. I feel comfortable calling it that, because to this day people come up to me at events and want to talk to me about “The Post”. I know what they’re talking about, and they know I know what they’re talking about.
“Why I am an atheist and a naturalist” is by far the longest thing I’ve ever written in my life. It took me 30 days to write it. It was also a huge emotional leap for me. Not only was I putting my personal journey from faith to skepticism out there for the whole world to read, I was also dealing with my own thoughts about my upbringing and my struggles with religion in a very intimate way. Sometimes it takes writing about an experience to realize how you truly feel about it.
My expectations for the post were modest. I thought a few friends would read it, and that most would see its prohibitive length and skip on by. I was overwhelmed with the response by its tens of thousands of readers. I made the decision not to open comments on the post, and I’m really glad I did that. People from all over the world wrote emails to me. Dozens upon dozens of emails. Some pithy, but most quite substantial. The people varied: some were fellow out-and-proud atheists, some were still keeping it private, some weren’t sure what they believed, and some were still fervent believers. They were as young as their teens, and as old as 70. But the one thing that was constant was that they were all supportive. Not a single person told me I was going to burn in hell for renouncing God. No one told me I was a bad person for doubting.
We’re conditioned, especially Americans, to treat the continuum of skepticism and faith as a private topic. This artificial public reticence can have serious consequences. The most heartbreaking responses I got were from people who were questioning their faith or had lost their faith, but who couldn’t tell anyone… because they were depending on their parents to put them through school, or because they were afraid their spouse would leave them, or because they feared being shunned at work, or in their local community. This can’t stand. It’s often said that being religious just requires faith. What is gained by pressuring the unfaithful into lying to themselves and to others about what they believe? That’s not faith — that’s fear. This cannot stand. Social pressure doesn’t make believers out of skeptics, it just tortures them with the pain of living a lie. It makes them feel like they have to choose between their loved ones and their own integrity.
Don’t put people in that situation. Don’t make your love or respect for someone conditional on something they can’t change.
And if you’re having doubts, express them. People may surprise you, and you won’t believe how light you’ll feel, unburdened by the contradiction.