Atheist in America

We bought a home for our family in an East Bay suburb of San Francisco a decade ago. It promised good public schools, and gave the impression of a safe, friendly neighborhood in which to raise our children. A month after moving in without any neighbors coming over to welcome us, I went down to the end of the cul-de-sac to meet a few of the residents gathered there. A warm afternoon, several of the local moms were hanging out at the end of the block, sipping iced teas, sodas, and sharing casual conversation while watching their kids play together. I joined them, introduced myself, and my [then] one-year-old daughter and three-year-old son, who both ran off to play with the other kids.

The new neighbors asked me about my children, their ages, where we’d moved from, and the like, then went back to watching their kids play. There was a moment of awkward silence, then one of the women, with a bad blond dye job, asked me to repeat my last name.

When I told her again she said, “Oh, you’re the Jewish couple then? I heard that there was a Jewish family that had moved in recently.” She smiled cordially, practically giggled as she stared at me in wonderment.

The three other women standing there looked at me, their interest suddenly piqued. They each wore a tight lipped grin. It was clear that they were tickled by the idea of living near Jews. Unlike L.A. or New York, the Bay area’s Jewish population is comparatively small. Though our last name was often mistaken for Jewish, its derivation is German, and isn’t always a Jewish moniker. The woman’s assumption was ignorant, but typical, especially in areas where Jews are a novelty.

“Actually, we’re Atheists. We don’t practice any religion.” I tried to sound casual in my reveal, as so often my lack of religious orientation was met with disdain.

Blank stares. Total silence. It was like I had just said that we were registered child molesters. My words hung like lead in the dead air until one of the other moms broke the silence.

“You know,” she tried to sound casual. “I read this article in Cosmo the other day about Atheists. They’re actually supposed to be non-violent people. The writer pointed out that you never hear about Atheists blowing up buildings or hijacking planes.”

The vacuum that followed her comment made it clear that the new neighbors would have preferred we were practicing Jews, or Mormons, Buddhists, or even Muslims at that point.

“You mean you don’t participate in the holidays?” the blond mom asked, mortified. “Not even Christmas?”

“No. Not even Christmas.”

“Well, Christmas isn’t a religious holiday,” she said with certainty. As absurd as her comment was, I hear it all the time. I refrained from reminding her that Christmas celebrates the birth of Christ, the very foundation of Christianity.

“We have five nights of winter presents which compensates quite nicely,” I explained. “And we celebrate birthdays, special occasions, Fourth of July, Thanksgiving and so forth.”

She bobbed her head up and down, but I could tell I’d already lost her. She looked towards her kids with pursed lips of concern. And I got that she was afraid of me. I was the anti-Christ, the infidel, the soulless. Though her fear was unwarranted, there isn’t a religious, or even self-proclaimed “spiritual” person I can recall that I don’t get the same bounce from when I reveal I’m an Atheist. No God? No values. It’s common [religious] wisdom (rhetoric), right?

I didn’t set out to set myself apart. My brief stint in Sunday school was forced upon me until I was 13, when my parents had to acquiesce to my unshakable conviction that there was no God. My mother spent the next 30 years convinced that I would come back to religion when I grew up, got married and had kids. But the certainty of a godless universe, one ruled by entropy, not empathy, still resonates with me. A lifetime of observing humanity’s unrelenting self-interest, the values, the morality I question are of those who focus on rewards in an afterlife, instead of the contributions we each can make to each other, and this planet we inhabit, while living.

My husband and I have chosen to raise our kids without religion. Instead of the indoctrination we had to endure, we have given our children the opportunity to discover their own spirituality.

Most every household in our neighborhood attend the same church, as do the families at our kids elementary and middle schools. Both children and adult basketball and baseball teams, and most neighborhood gatherings, from potlucks to local politics, are sponsored by this church. Their priests are honored members of the community and often influence the election of city officials. They ‘guide’ the decisions made by our mayor and city council members in issues regarding the welfare of all 75,000 residents. Housing developments, to strip malls, to the stores allowed in them are all monitored by this church. Public school policies, from the books our kids get to read, to the subjects they study are determined by this church and its members. While these same churchgoers will loudly defend their 2nd Amendment right to “bear arms,” none of them support or even acknowledge our 1st Amendment rights to keep the church out of state affairs.

Every December several neighbors adorn their front lawns with scenes of Mother Mary birthing Baby Jesus. Santa on his sled pulled by five reindeer is attached to the roof of the blond mom’s home. A speaker blaring, “Ho ho ho,” fills the cul-de-sac from sunset until after 9:00 at night. Christmas lights go up in late November, and stay up well into the new year on most homes.

Since that first encounter over ten years ago, most of our neighbors have ignored me when dropping our kids off or picking them up from school. The moms and dads are curt with me when they see me volunteering at school events. They do not acknowledge me or my husband at the store or in local restaurants. They do not include our family in their neighborhood parties. Their children ignore our kids in passing, and have excluded and bullied our kids in and out of school.

When we moved here, I didn’t stop to consider the religious leanings of the community. As an atheist, in a monotheistic society, wherever I live I’m on the fringe. I am deeply saddened that my children are being ostracized because of our lack of religious identity. In allowing them to define their own spirituality, I fear I have inadvertently set them up for rejection, condemned them to the fringes, which is a very lonely place to live. But I do not foresee bringing religion into our home. My husband and I will not teach our children what we do not believe.

This last holiday season, in a brief lapse of reason, I thought of throwing a Hanukkah party and inviting the neighborhood. If they needed us to be something, we could pretend to be Jewish. But, the thing is, I am proud of who we are, how we live—the moral compass that guides us. And I’m equally proud that we are raising our children with the freedom to practice any religion they choose, or none at all.

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