So how does being an atheist affect my daily, practical life? What do I do that’s any different from the mostly theist people around me?
As I noted earlier, I feel a strong moral impulse, just like most of the people around me. (And yes, I do notice that the impulse to do bad things appears to be just as prevalent among believers as among non-believers.) I wake up feeling the same desire and drive I see others manifest to protect and provide for loved ones, do good work, follow (and improve!) the law, and generally take care of our planet for current and future generations. Atheism does not stop me from wanting to live well, do good, and seek and speak the truth. Arguably, my belief that we have no God to fall back on strengthens my desire to do those good things—if we want anything done right, we have to do it ourselves.
My not believing in any God or gods seems to distinguish me mostly in things I don’t do.
Obviously, I don’t go to church. (Neither do 10% of Americans, who say they believe but don’t attend organized services.) On regular Sundays, my Lutheran pastor wife goes to her church early to get ready for services. Later I drive my daughter to the church so she can attend one of the worship services and go to Sunday school, but I go to get groceries or work on the blog, or read a book or go for a long bike ride.
Note that even as I don’t go to church, I don’t try to keep anyone else from going. I don’t spend time trying to deprogram my daughter from my wife’s Christian teachings. I’ll consider our parenting successful if my daughter adheres to any reasonable facsimile of my wife’s sensible Christianity.
I don’t go to atheist meetings. Some nonbelievers host “Sunday assemblies” or “atheist church,” but my immediate reaction is, “Why? Taking one more obligation off the calendar is one of the most obvious perks of atheism!”
Actually, I understand the impulse to fellowship. Nonbelievers may benefit as much from spending time with each other and reinforcing each others’ beliefs as believers do. But I don’t feel that impulse. I don’t feel an urge to talk about and explore my atheism on a regular basis (these essays are an exception). I’ve never sought out the company of fellow non-believers. In college, all of my friends were Christians. I didn’t seek out an atheist for marriage. I concluded at SDSU that if marriage happened, I’d be stuck with an atheist, since no sensible Christian woman would tolerate an atheist husband, but my Christian wife has proven that conclusion wrong. I attended an atheist conference a couple years ago in Sioux Falls, and while I had some good conversations with people I knew through the blog, I left early and spent the day having fun conversations with a UCC pastor, a Catholic weatherman, and a Protestant immigrant to America. Maybe I find greater fellowship in contrariness. Maybe if I turned into a believer, I’d want to hang out with atheists all the time.
My atheism creates occasional social awkwardness. I omit “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance, as did the Pledge itself until Red-Scared Congressmen added that phrase to our socialist flag-marketing chant in 1954. I don’t feel too badly—I pledge my loyalty to the United States of America every day by following the law, paying my taxes, and blogging for liberty and justice for all. Besides, an intelligent Christian critique says pledging allegiance to a flag isn’t really Christian.
Similarly, when drawn into group prayers—grace at someone else’s dinner, invocations or benedictions at public functions—I do not participate. If everybody joins hands, I’ll usually join—nothing wrong with a physical demonstration of human solidarity. Occasionally I’ll slip and say Amen, either because I succumb to social inertia or because, on some special rare occasions, I’ll hear a public prayer so good and true that I heartily second its secular message. But usually I stay silent. Sometimes, particularly in official public or political meetings where I feel sectarian prayers are uninclusive and unconstitutional, I won’t even bow my head. I don’t raise hell, but I don’t acknowledge Heaven… or at least not inappropriately timed and placed assertions of one group’s particular vision of Heaven.
I don’t get to resort to the same stock phrases my neighbors use to soothe others in times of calamity. I’ll pray for you… She’s in a better place now… God is watching over us… I can’t say any of those things to someone facing sickness, loss, or travail. But I also don’t take advantage of such moments to say some crass thing like, Where is your God now? I just listen, hold a hand, hug, and try to help.
These differences in my daily life seem minor. Beliefs matter, but 99% of the time, I’m living, working, playing, and loving like pretty much everyone else around me.