I had a mini-revelation this morning while doing my daily blog read-through. Somebody — I don’t remember who or on what blog — mentioned that they’re an atheist now but grew up in a Christian home where grace was said before meals and church attendance was expected. The attitude with which they spoke about their Christian upbringing was both casual and unquestioningly distant: it was a piece of their personal history, but far, far removed from the person they were today. They talked about it the way I think about horseback riding or Girl Scouts, two activities that were hugely important in my childhood and have the occasional quirky relevance to my life today, but don’t have any real bearing on my sense of identity and purpose today. And that’s when I realized: I don’t feel that way at all about my Christian past. Although it’s been over three years since I called myself a Christian and over six years since I regularly practiced the religion in any way (prayer, Bible reading, churchgoing), that part of my history is with me every hour, every day. I publicly identify as an atheist, but in terms of my internal sense of identity, “ex-Christian” would be much more accurate.
Since this realization came upon me just this morning, I’m still sorting through exactly what it means and why it is. It’s partly how emotionally reactive I am to many things pertaining to Christianity, reactive in the way you can only be toward something that’s intimately intwined with your identity. But it’s partly the void of cultural identity that might replace Christianity. I don’t have this sense of practicing atheism, of atheism as serving a central function in my identity, the way I did with Christianity. One might say that that’s because atheism has no defining practices, and that could be part of it, but at the same time, I read a slew of atheist and skeptic blogs every day. (I almost certainly spend more hours weekly reading atheist and skeptic writing than I used to spend reading the Bible or other Christian writings.) I live with four other atheists and discuss matters of religion and skepticism with them regularly. I’m connected to a larger community of atheists and skeptics, and occasionally go to large conferences which are every bit as enriching and satisfying as the church retreats I used to go to.
So perhaps it’s nothing to do with how active and engaged I am as an atheist, and everything to do with how deeply engraved Christianity was on my heart. Perhaps it’s simply that the first 25 years of your life never get erased, never really fade into the background… or if they do, it takes longer than 3-6 years.
Whatever it is, it’s something I never feel I can adequately communicate to people who were never devout believers. Dan Fincke, whose blog I love reading partly because his experiences mirror mine so well, asked a month or so ago about differences between de-converts and never-believers, and as (I think) I replied then, this is the biggest difference I see. I feel like my personal history is broken — not in the sense of “destroyed and dysfunctional”, but in the sense of “has a giant hulking crack down the middle.”
Or like this tree. Pretty much exactly like this tree, actually. I have no idea what other people see when they look at me, but this is what I see when I look at myself: healthy and strong, but with this massive twist, this course correction that dominates the entire shape of my existence. Growing and thriving, but forever and unmistakably different from those trees that grew straight up.
And I wonder if that feeling will ever go away. If it’s just that I need more time to establish myself as a secular girl in a secular world… or if there will always be that sense of being defined by what I’ve left behind, what I’m not anymore.