What Does it Feel Like to Be an Atheist?

Tomorrow morning I’m going to be interviewed in the Finnish national public radio about my deconversion from Christianity. One of the questions will address my feelings about my current atheism. After learning this, I suddenly found myself really thinking about this. That’s something that hasn’t happened in a long time, so I thought I should write this down. I mean, the question doesn’t really seem to be answered anywhere, online.

It appears to me that we can go about the question in three ways. Either it means what is it like to be an atheist compared to when you were a theist, what is it like to be an atheist when most people are theists or, the hardest of them all, what does it feel like to just be an atheist.

Compared to a theistic past, life as an atheist is simple. There are no sermons or worship to attend to, no prayers to be said and no worry about how God might feel about what you’re doing. You have a bit more time to yourself, less expenses than when you were a member of a church, and sometimes you can feel just a bit special about how you are. It’s sort of a relief as well—you don’t have to wonder about things quite as much, and when you shut the door, you know there isn’t an omnipotent being eavesdropping on you. You sort of feel you’ve finally opened your eyes and seen something real. All in all, it’s pretty good and level, and you really don’t think about it too much—it’s far too self‐evident to bother about.

There’s the downside as well. You no longer get the warm vibe of belongingness and reassurance theists do. You know your life is going to end one day. You have to fend for yourself, take full responsibility for your actions and actually use your brain: there are no longer any hard and fast rules to guide you to the right decisions, or to make you feel good for abiding by. From this viewpoint it’s kind of like waking up from an intense daydream to discover the dream was simply too good to be true. In fact, it’s like waking up from a daydream just in time to notice that you have to step off the train. It’s not much fun as such and it will make your head spin for a short while, but after that it’s a big relief to discover you snapped out of it before it was too late.

Relations with theists tend to be easy as long as nobody brings up belief. Atheists do not think religious thoughts, so we usually won’t. But as soon as something like belief in an afterlife or praying comes up, atheists become wary. Most atheists have learnt to skate beside the issue, but some, like me, return by mentioning our disbelief. That’s when shit usually hits the fan.

If theists cannot understand why someone wouldn’t believe, atheists consider it silly to believe in fairy tales. That’s a big difference. It’s also one which will incite a lot of trouble. To theists, belief is typically a very comforting and necessary part of life, even when it’s not the central part. (In Finland, precious few structure their lives around religion.) Even so, having someone question the belief seems pretty intolerable. On the other hand, it often takes considerable self‐discipline of an atheist not to blurt out the obvious—that God is on par with Santa, pixies and Ra.

Theists and atheists can easily live together, and even marry. It’s just that the debate had better never surface: atheists tend to be stronger in it, and more unscrupulous. This will cause us to seriously offend the emotional basis of theist belief. And since atheists have nothing to attach religious emotions to, there’s no way a theist can not offend the atheist’s common sensibility. The brawl ain’t nice at all, but you can’t always avoid it—of course the other party is wrong. And it always ends up in one of two things: stubborn silence from there on, or severance of friendship. That makes things quite tricky for atheists amongst a theistic majority.

Finally there’s the question of how atheism feels as such. This is the hard part, because atheism doesn’t feel like anything. It has no substance, since it’s the negation of something that does, namely theism. I’ll try a couple of explanations, but of course they won’t capture the theme perfectly. But I hope they will shed at least some light on the issue.

First, no theist thinks about God all the time. Christians might go to church, pray, wonder what God might think of their doings every once in a while and so on, but even the most profoundly Christian person doesn’t devote all of his time to God. They don’t eat God’s chewing gum, wear God’s jeans, utter God’s word quagmire, shit God’s excrement, sleep God’s sleep and have God’s orgasm, all in one unbroken succession and fully aware of the fact. Not everything is about active knowledge of God even in theistic life. So if you want to imagine atheistic life, cut all the God‐parts out of yours. No prayer, no thoughts of God, no worship, no God‐given duties, no idea of God, no works of God, and so on. Then stretch what is left to cover your whole waking hours. Then transfer all the nice feelings you get from religion to deep daydreams, artistic expression, the wonder of nature or maybe a consuming passion. What you get is the atheistic mindset.

Another way to see what I’m talking about is to consider the following. What if someone suddenly came up to you in the street and asked you point blank how it feels not to believe in Ukko Ylijumala? Could you just go and describe your lack of belief in said deity? Most likely not, because they’re inquiring about a lack of a thought pattern. You’ve never thought about Ukko because you’ve likely never heard of Him. The belief just isn’t there. They’re talking about a thing you do not understand, recollect or feel for.

That’s pretty much how an atheist feels about mainstream gods, or Santa for that matter. He can tell you how happy he is that he is what he is instead of the alternative. If he’s like me, a deconverted Christian, he can tell you what it feels like to shed the faith. He can even go on to speculate what it would be like to have belief and compare his lack of belief to his chosen fantasy. But it takes a long, long rant to really explain the void that is atheism, as such. Atheism is simply the absence of something theists profess.

Thirdly, think about a world which is totally atheistic. In such a world neither the idea of gods nor any word describing such an idea exists. Nobody ever thinks about things like afterlife, divine revelations or a purposeful Creator. Those things seem just as preposterous as a flat Earth seems to today’s folks. No concept or practice of sermons, worship, supernatural or divine are to be seen, If you want to name those concepts, you’ll have to dig through thousands of years of history in a more or less forgotten library. Deities are totally out of the picture in all regards. Do you think you could explain atheism to your fellow atheist, then?

Of course not. Just as you couldn’t explain what it is like to be a mammal to a fellow mammal today. So we see that atheism cannot really be explained without referring to it’s (insensible) antithesis, religion. We have to explain it as the lack of religion (insensibility). This makes atheism stand out like a sore thumb against religions as a whole. Basically to be an atheist means to not feel the theist vibe, and nothing else.