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What I Mean When I Say “I Am an Atheist”

atheist section in heaven
Cartoon by Mike Lynch

While my deconversion from Christianity was a gradual process, I mark the last Sunday in November 2008, as the day when I finally admitted to myself and my wife Polly that I no longer was a Christian. On that day, Polly and I, along with our three youngest children, ages 19, 17, and 15, walked out of the doors of the Ney United Methodist Church never to return. Several months later, I sent a public letter to several hundred family members, friends, and former church members. Titled, Dear Family, Friends, and Former Parishioners, this painfully raw letter sets forth some of the reasons why I deconverted. While I still left the door open for some sort of God belief — say a deistic deity — it was clear, at least to me at the time, that I was an agnostic. After several months of having to repeatedly explain the term “agnostic,” and gaining a better understanding of atheism in general, I decided to jettison the agnostic label and self-identify as “atheist.”

I quickly learned that the label “atheist” carries with it all sorts of meanings and implications. Many Evangelicals, for example, think I am a “hardcore” atheist, whereas some atheists doubt whether I am an atheist at all. I have found that some atheists can be every bit as Fundamentalist as Evangelical Christians. If I am not their kind of atheist, I am no atheist at all. Years ago, I tangled with the promoters of Atheism+. While I am, politically, a liberal/progressive/socialist, because I refused to buy into or accept all the social justice baggage attached to Atheism+, my atheism was called into question. I lost numerous readers as a result of my refusal to bow to the Atheism+ god. I also faced reader defections from the other side of the atheist spectrum: libertarian (often Trump-supporting) atheists. These readers loved my atheism but hated my politics.

Atheism, by definition, is the lack of belief in the existence of deities. Some atheists are anti-theists; a philosophical position that says all theism should be opposed. Christopher Hitchens was an anti-theist:

I’m not even an atheist so much as I am an antitheist; I not only maintain that all religions are versions of the same untruth, but I hold that the influence of churches, and the effect of religious belief, is positively harmful.

Other atheists are misotheists; people who actively hate one or more deities. While I can, at times — depending on the deity and religion in question — be an anti-theist or misotheist, I best describe myself as an agnostic atheist.

Wikipedia defines agnostic atheism this way:

Agnostic atheism is a philosophical position that encompasses both atheism and agnosticism. Agnostic atheists are atheistic because they do not hold a belief in the existence of any deity, and are agnostic because they claim that the existence of a demiurgic entity or entities is either unknowable in principle or currently unknown in fact.

Practically speaking, I don’t believe in the existence of deities, but I cannot know for certain whether some sort of deity may one day make itself known to us. Likely? No. Probable? No. Possible? Yes. I can say with great certainty that the God of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity does not exist. He is a mythical being created by humans centuries ago to explain their world and existence. I can say the same thing about the rest of the deities presently (or in the past) worshipped by humans. I see no sufficient evidence for their existence; thus I live my day-to-day life as an atheist.

While I have many other beliefs, none of them is contingent on atheism. I am a humanist, but humanism does not require atheism. The same can be said for my leftist political views. I have religious friends who are also humanists and socialists. I eat dinner with them once a month. We have friendly, spirited discussions, debates, and arguments about all sorts things, including religion and politics, and then we eat good food and drink beer. Granted, none of these men is an Evangelical. All of us share the same disgust and contempt for what Evangelicals (generally speaking) are doing to our country. Do we “hate” Evangelicals? Of course not. We hate their beliefs and behaviors, seeing and knowing firsthand the harm caused by their theology and politics. While I am the resident atheist, my friends and I share many commonalities and that’s why we enjoy one another’s company.

Yes, I am an atheist — proudly so — but I am much more than just someone who doesn’t believe in the existence of God. If you want to know what I believe about some other issue, ask.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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2 Comments

  1. Avatar
    ObstacleChick

    I have always squirmed when it comes to accepting labels for myself. My brain works in a way that it processes everything from many angles and perspectives. Not much can be separated into “either/or” categories. It can be a hindrance when I am forced to make a quick decision regarding a weighty matter, but it serves me well in general for making big decisions and for considering issues. Once I have examined an issue from multiple angles, I am confident in my decision.

    That said, and having examined the issue of existence of deities from many angles, I fall into the agnostic atheist category. I haven’t fully settled onto anti-theism yet but often lean that way. I simply think that in the 21st century, humans should be beyond the need for beliefs in invisible deities. But most people are not beyond that, so I have accepted that I am among the rare birds who are and hope that humankind will progress in that direction in the coming centuries. I am, however, anti-fundamentalist. Fundamentalism is incredibly harmful and infringes on human rights. Right now, I am pretty livid about SCOTUS overturning Roe and telling a huge amount if people in the US population that their state is responsible for determining whether they are human beings with full agency or if they are subject to breedstock status because of characteristics that they didn’t choose for themselves (and no, it isn’t so simple to just get birth control or have surgery or keep from being sexually abused).

    Sorry, I am ranting. I can see that kind religion can be helpful for some people, even if I think it’s better for people not to live in fantasy-land. Fundamentalism needs to die.

  2. Avatar
    MJ Lisbeth

    Obstacle–You more or less articulated my philosophy. I am indeed an agnostic atheist. However, I wouldn’t say that I am anti-theist as much as I’m anti-religious institutionist and against the deplorable behavior of too many believers. While I think most churches, even the non-fundamentalist or “liberal” ones, can’t die fast enough, I am not about to tell, say a recovering addict who’s trying to put their life together that they shouldn’t believe, if that helps them to change. I would, however, try to steer them away from those religious people and institutions who can and will prey on their vulnerability.

    Bruce–A onetime idol of mine–ironically, when I was a Christian–was a libertarian atheist: Ayn Rand. There are some, like her, who use their non-belief as a reason not to care about other people.

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Bruce Gerencser