As I’ve written before, I’m an atheist. I was raised Catholic, but the day my father died, I stopped believing in god. I had just turned 8 the month before, so some might argue I was too young to make the decision, but I remember the day as if it was yesterday. My grandmother, who was quite devote, brought me into her arms and said, “Your daddy is gone. God has taken him.” When I asked her why, she said, “God has taken him because he needs him.”
For her, there was comfort in that belief. I realize that now. But for me, there was proof the god I had been taught to believe in didn’t exist. If he did, he wouldn’t take my daddy away from me because I needed him, too. That day I became a committed atheist. However, it’s not something I talk about very often.
This past weekend, The Good Wife, starring Julianna Margulies, took on the subject of atheism. First, a little background:
Margulies plays the character of Alicia Florrick. Alica, is married to, but currently separated from, her husband Peter Florrick, (played by Chris Noth). Peter is the Cook County’s State Attorney and he is running for Illinois Governor. Mattie Hayward, (played by Maura Tierney) a rich, fiercely independent woman, is running against him.
In the episode, Mattie Hayward, appearing at a campaign event, is videotaped not bowing her head during prayer. The Florrick campaign decides to use Hayward’s “insensitivity to religion” to their advantage. Eli Gold (wonderfully played by Alan Cumming), Peter Florrick’s campaign manager and close friend, comes to Alicia and asks her about Mattie’s view of God. Alicia says, She’s an atheist. Levi thinks this will be a gotcha moment in the campaign.
Eli: So, where are you on the believe in God?
Eli: What, it’s for the campaign.
Alicia: Yes, I know. Your friend Jordan (a Florrick campaign staff member) already asked me.
Eli: He was here?
Alicia: No, at the campaign bus.
Eli: Oh, what did you say?
Alicia: I said it was personal.
Eli: For him, right? But not for us.
Eli: Great, I thought so. Do you have a minute?
Eli follows Alicia to her office
Eli: So, that is almost a belief in God.
Alicia: How is that almost a belief in God? I have a husband who believes in God, and a daughter who might..
Eli: And yes, what about Zach?
Alicia: I don’t know, but I don’t.
Eli: But the point is, you could believe in God.
Alicia: But I don’t.
Eli: Yes, but, if Jesus showed up in your office right now you’d believe in him, wouldn’t you?
Eli: Yes you would. If he performed a miracle.
Alicia: Well, if Jesus walked into my office right now and performed a miracle…yes I would.
Eli: Good, see you are a seeker.
Eli: Alicia, I know it sounds stupid but voters hate atheists. They think they spend all their time fighting mangers outside of City Hall. They want people who are open-minded and you are open-minded.
Alicia: OK, is that what you want me to say?
Eli: I want you to be Saint Alicia. It is a selling point and voters don’t want to think Saint Alicia is an atheist.
Eli leaves Alicia’s office thinking all is well, and that they’ll nail Mattie Hayworth on the religious issue.
Later that day Alicia goes to an event attended by both Peter Florrick and Mattie Hayward. While Alicia, Mattie Hayward and Peter are pretending to exchange pleasantries, a report approaches them:
Reporter: Ms. Hayward, how do you respond to the controversy over your actions at last weeks benediction?
Mattie: My actions? You mean the video on the web of me not bowing…
Mattie: During prayer.
Reporter: There has been some chatter about your insensitivity.
Mattie: Well, I apologize if it seems insensitive. I was trying to avoid being hypocritical. I am an atheist.
Reporter: Really? Don’t you worry about how that will play in a State where only 15% call themselves non-religious?
Mattie: I worry about everything. But, I am who I am and I don’t think you should run away from that. Let’s just let the voters decide.
Reporter: Well what about you, Mr. State’s Attorney?
Peter: I respect Mattie’s point of view.
Reporter: But, you don’t share it?
Peter: Well it’s different. I was in prison. Belief means a great deal there. It was sometimes the only thing we had.
Reporter: And your wife?
Peter: Oh…well…I think my wife can speak for herself.
Alicia: I’m an atheist.
Peter and Eli are speechless. I laughed out loud for lots of reasons– because of the looks on the characters’ faces; because it was a great line delivered well; because I loved seeing the character, Alicia, assert herself; and because I have wanted to utter that exact phrase more times than I can count.
That the likelihood of a candidate or a candidate’s spouse ever uttering those words is less than zero, however, pains me. Despite the fact that the fewer and fewer Americans self-identify as christian and despite the fact that those whom we so fondly call our “founding fathers” were not christian, few of us are speaking truth the lie that we are a christian nation.
As the second anniversary of my Mom’s death approaches, I’m growing less and less tolerant of the endless talk about faith in God as the only consolation for grief. I don’t find solace the idea that my Mom or others whom I have lost are in heaven. I don’t believe in heaven or the christian idea of an after-life. And guess what, I’m perfectly fine with that. It doesn’t mean that I grieve anymore or any less than do those who believe in such things, and it doesn’t mean that life and death have any less meaning for me.
What it means, as Susan Jacoby so eloquently writes in a recent New York Times piece is that I am “free to concentrate on the fate of this world — whether that means visiting a friend in a hospital or advocating for tougher gun control laws — without trying to square things with an unseen overlord in the next.” She continues:
Atheists do not want to deny religious believers the comfort of their faith. We do want our fellow citizens to respect our deeply held conviction that the absence of an afterlife lends a greater, not a lesser, moral importance to our actions on earth.
Jacoby writes in the aftermath of the massacre of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hill Elementary school in New Town, Connecticut, and does so as a kind of call to atheists to speak up in times of national and personal tragedy and loss, “in order to take responsibility for whatever it is humans are responsible for — including violence in our streets and schools.” As she suggests,
We need to demonstrate that atheism is rooted in empathy as well as intellect. And although atheism is not a religion, we need community-based outreach programs so that our activists will be as recognizable to their neighbors as the clergy.
Jacoby says all this so much more forcefully and eloquently than I can, so I encourage you to follow the above link to her article.
But here, today, now, I want to stand up and say, as have Mattie Hayward and Alicia Florrick and Susan Jacoby and so many others, “I’m an atheist.” I’m not plotting to destroy christianity–frankly, the institution is taking care of that on its own–but I would like my position to be recognized and not pitied, honored and not ignored.