The Reluctant Atheist (April)

This is a topic I generally avoid because I hate reminding people about it, though I’m sure it is often on the minds of my friends that I communicate with regularly. I just thought I’d try to give you a little bit more of an idea of what is going on in my mind and heart about this atheism business.

I don’t know how common I am, but I feel I must be one of the more unwilling atheists that has ever been. Ideologically I am happy with my lack of belief, and I am sure, whenever presented with a reason to give it thought, that I could never truly believe in God. However, I do so WISH I could believe in him. I miss believing. I miss my life when I believed. I am sad because there were things about that life that I will never have again because of my profession of unbelief. I wonder how many atheists do the dishes while listening to Relient K or DC Talk or Rebecca St. James, or who sing hymns while scrubbing the toilet, or who play “Name that Veggie Tale Tune” with their kids, but these things are remnants of my Christian past that I cannot put away (one of my strongest, most frequent, and often most sweetly painful moods is nostalgia). I imagine that if you are a Christian, you will say it is because these things have some supernatural value, but I have always, even in my past when I believed but knew I didn’t have saving faith, felt that one of the greatest values in the Bible stories that I miss reading now was the comfort of the familiar.

The thing is, the Christian (evangelical, American-style) culture is really the only one I’ve ever known. Almost all of my friends are Christians (certainly every person that I knew and was close to before the age of 17), and they are the people I feel most comfortable with. Of course, because we waited until crossed an ocean before telling our friends, I don’t really know how it would be if we were together on a regular basis, in person, but I am afraid, aside from a few exceptions, that it would be very difficult for us to continue our relationships as before. When you have the faith that our friends do, it is woven into every conversation, and is an integral part of who you are. I know that if I were with them, moments would present themselves, over and over again, that would be a painful reminder to the people that we care most about that we no longer share their faith. It seems unavoidable that these moments would either result in debate or in awkwardness. I feel like when I was a Christian, or even when you just thought I was a Christian, I was just myself in your eyes, and now I come with the label ATHEIST in big red letters that you cannot help but see. Before you knew I was an atheist, but when we were still together, and you would talk to me about your troubles and what you thought were our shared beliefs, I sympathized and I cared and I was not secretly deriding you in my thoughts. I was just the same person as I was when I still believed, and I am the same person now. The only difference is that now you know that secret I carried at the time, too.  All of those moments were real, by the way. I know it’s hard for you to look back at it without calling into question the things that I did and said, but if I showed you that I cared, if I listened with a sympathetic ear, if I said words of encouragement, if I confided in you, I meant it all with my whole heart, and I never once thought disparagingly of your faith, maybe just a little jealous that you could still believe, and sad that once you knew, our friendship wouldn’t be the same, and that I would inevitably have to hurt you by telling you the truth.

The thing is, I still feel like I can put on the Christian hat, so to speak, and enter fully into a conversation as though I am a Christian, with all my old Christian sympathies and shared interests. I still value a lot of the same things that you do, the parenting books I know best are still Christian ones, the music I like best is still Christian to some extent, I still post on Facebook keeping in mind the feeling of my Christian friends and, more importantly, the children that I once worked with who are now my friends. I don’t bring up past memories from Freshwater because I feel I have tainted those memories and have no right to bring them to people’s minds, and I don’t try to contact those who haven’t contacted me since we “came out.” I don’t want to push myself or my lack of belief onto anyone, or into anyone’s mind who would be hurt by it. And once in a while, I still wish no one knew.

I had one of those moments last week. Six months ago I met a woman here in Tianjin, a fellow expat, who knew of a home-school group here in the city. I asked her if she could get me the information about it and she said she had to email them and let them know I was interested and they’d contact me. I never heard from them, and I hate to be a bother, so I didn’t bring it up for quite a while. That expat moved back to the US, and last week, I finally asked again about the home-school group, and she told me that they were a Christian group and weren’t open to other members. I’m sure she was hoping I’d forget about it, and my feelings would be spared (and I guess I wish I’d never asked again). But it was among the first reminders, in my new life, that I am different from the people I am most accustomed to being with, and it was a painful experience to be on the outside of something (particularly what is probably the only home-school group in this city) because of my difference in belief. I fully accept that they are within their rights to do so, and I sympathize; what place would I have in a group like that? I just wish I wasn’t so different.

I think, though I could never confirm it, that my lack of faith has cost me another potential friendship here, one that I wanted badly, and really needed when we first arrived. Of course, it could have been one of those moments where we didn’t hit it off, and I didn’t pick up on that. I’ll never know. But it’s still difficult for me to think about. The problem is that, even when meeting people whose religious backgrounds I don’t know for sure, I inevitably have to explain myself, either because they ask what Brian did before we came here or about my major in college. Of course, I am always a little dreadful (what I mean is full of dread, but perhaps I am dreadful, too) when I have to make the confession. It’s hard to imagine it becoming easier, but maybe practice makes perfect.

I know that if I had never really been a Christian, if I had just been an ambivalent, half-hearted believer in God, it wouldn’t matter so much, but because I have been there and then rejected it, I have alienated myself from a lot of people I would otherwise have close friendships with. And a lot of my new life does not force this to the front of my mind on a daily basis. I am lucky in the friends I have made here, and feel no lack in my day to day life, but, being the chronic nostalgic that I am, I often think of what was and can never be again, and occasionally I am reminded even here in China of the full implications of my new(ish) spiritual position. So I thought I’d mope about it a bit and share it with you. I love you, all my dear, Christian friends, and I wish that in rejecting the most important thing in your lives, I had not also been rejecting you. And thank you, to all of you who have continued to talk to me and post comments on facebook as though I have not mutated into an alien with two heads, four extra arms, and a tail. It brings tears to my eyes sometimes when I think of how it could be, and then I see how kind-hearted so many of our friends continue to be.


I guess if you don’t know what I’m talking about, I should point you in this direction:



  1. April, thanks for your courage in posting this. I’ve traveled the same path, with the same history, and the same discomfort. Now that my kids are starting to ask questions, I’ve finally been forced to define exactly what I believe…and don’t believe any more…and it’s actually brought peace to finally say it out loud, although it’s still very, very awkward with people I knew in the past who assume I still believe as they do. Like you, I can still “talk the talk,” but it feels more fake every time. As you said, sometimes it does mean the end of a relationship as we knew it before. Painful, but I’m feeling too old now to play such games with myself and others and would rather just be honest. I hope Serendipity (that’s what I tend to call it now, rather than God) brings like-minded people into your life, along with peace that you’ve chosen the right path for yourself and your family!

  2. Kristen · · Reply

    Good for you for having the courage to bare your heart and be honest, in the midst of such potential hurt and ridicule. Our beliefs are different, but I still enjoy our friendship, and miss hanging out with you on Monday nights, and other times. When we look at the globe, the kids usually ask where China is, and when we can come and visit you guys. Maybe some day… 🙂

  3. A Greek philosopher once said that, “Nothing exists except atoms and empty space; everything else is opinion”. So too religious dogma, as well as atheism, are just opinions. Yes, your old friends have their faith but it’s a blind faith – based on someone else’s opinion.

  4. Marty Horton · · Reply

    Dearest April,
    Your writing is extraordinary, it is so clear that you are expressing your heart. It is so interesting to me that you said, “when I believed but knew I didn’t have saving faith” and later “I have been there and then rejected it.” I wanted to believe that out of loyalty to your husband, you left the faith, but you have so clearly expressed yourself that it is obvious that the words of your own heart have been spoken. I am just so sad that you haven’t known the joy of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. That you could be so close and yet not understand the spiritual reality of Christianity is a mystery to me because the spiritual has become so important to me. Belief itself is both an act of the will and a gift of God. I love you April and will always be your loving Uncle Marty.

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