I don’t know why you write, he said (in a text). You don’t believe in anything. But is that true? Sure, I’m a self-proclaimed atheist and I get annoyed when people try and re-label me – as if my declaration needs to be mitigated with more acceptable terminology. “You’re not an atheist, you’re an agnostic,” they say with an apologetic smile as if they knew better. Or you’re a “deist” (I’m not even sure what that means, so rest assured I am not) or, worse…you’re very “spiritual.” Why should I care if people find me spiritual? I don’t, really. I just don’t want them to tell me about it, especially in a condescending way. My friend’s husband called me her guru. This I found flattering, until I realized if it was yet another affront to my status as an atheist. How about just saying that I’m someone she goes to for no bullshit advice? Isn’t that what you want from your wife’s guru?
Interpreting my atheism as a rejection of religion, one of my friends started signing her notes to me May the force be with you, instead of her usual God bless. She was missing the point – and I’d rather she signed her notes the way she wanted to without making it about me. Yes, I am the person who complains about the robocalls from the public school telling me to have a blessed day. I’m told I shouldn’t make a big deal out of it. That I should blow it off when people bless me or pray for me because if I don’t believe in it, why would it matter? It matters because I don’t like it. I resent having to succumb to other people’s religious infringement out of politeness. And don’t tell me that they mean well. Some might, but “they” as a whole don’t. For those who know that I’m an atheist and insist on blessing me or giving me a religion, it’s an act of disrespect or even hostility. For those who don’t know me, it’s presumptuous. When I was getting a blood draw and refused to give my religion a matronly nurse told me that she would just put down Christian, if that was all right. No! I said emphatically. I haven’t always been an atheist, but I have never been a Christian. Marginalizing my beliefs (or lack thereof) is not exactly harmless. We live in a country where we still have the right to freedom of and from religion, but it gets harder and harder to deflect the barrage of blessings and religion when our leaders appeal to the idea that this is or should be a Christian country. It makes me worry about the ramifications for all of our civil liberties and I find it chilling. But enough of this (impolite) ranting.
Back to why I write. I do it because I believe that writing can enact change. I believe in words and definitions. I believe that I am an atheist if I say I am regardless of your perceptions. I believe in my actions. If you think I’m spiritual because I use religious symbolism in my writing or because your wife calls me her guru or because I practice yoga, that’s fine (Namaste!). My platform of non-belief is not a rigid stance that says I profess to know “the answer.” I don’t. I believe the answer may be unknowable. But it doesn’t change my decision to identify as an atheist. It’s not only the best word I’ve found to express my disbeliefs, it also tends to shut down the conversation about our differences and put it back on what we have in common like maybe our humanity or how much we love our dogs.
I do however believe that religion serves a purpose, and that it helps people make sense of the world. Joseph Campbell describes religion as “linking back” – a way to connect with our histories, our traditions, our ancestors. One could say that I ascribe to a religion of narratives, in that narratives give me context and shape my reality. But I don’t have to believe that those stories are true. I don’t have to believe in anything.
There are things that we don’t need to believe in. Things that just are, like gravity. One day when the icecaps melt and the earth spins off its axis sending us all flying into orbit somewhere along with the polar bears, I may have to reevaluate. However, for the time being, I am tethered to the planet by gravity, and I don’t even have to believe in it.
When Reverend Jesse Jackson came to speak at my high school as part of The War on Drugs (this was the 80’s, after all), his words had a huge impact. His message “Down with dope, up with hope!” didn’t stop us from doing drugs, but I still remember him saying, “Your mind is a pearl, you can learn anything in the world.” We joked that pearl and world don’t rhyme, but that’s how I feel about writing. I can write anything in the world. Anything I can imagine.
I believe words can guide us through the darkness of the soul. They don’t have to be scripture. But they could be. Whatever works. They could be plays, poems, rap, articles in the newspaper, or the ingredients on a soup can. They can ground us. I believe in the hope of exploring possibilities and alternatives. In asking questions and looking for answers. Without words I am in limbo. Words keep me from floating away. Words are kind of like gravity, but I believe in them (even though I probably responded to his text with a thumbs up emoji).
Janet Colson is currently studying playwriting in the MFA program at Goddard’s Vermont Campus. In addition to writing plays she enjoys acting in them and directing them. Recently she directed Sam Shepard’s Buried Child at Riverwalk Theater in Lansing, MI where she lives with her family. Janet teaches English as a Second Language at Michigan State University, yoga at the Y, and is an aspiring pole dancer. She loves dogs.