Atheist Stories Pt. 1: Speak
The line spilling out from CU Boulder’s Mackey Auditorium was a long, slow one. The people waiting in line wondered aloud if the author would be able to sign all of the books of everyone waiting in line. One person said that they overheard one of the security guards say that the author would only sign about 100 books and turn everyone else away. To be fair, it was late. It wasn’t hard to imagine that Richard Dawkins would probably prefer to return to his hotel room, or wherever he was staying while touring the United States, rather than entertain the crowd of fans all night.
As I stood with my copy of his newest book, The Magic Of Reality, the very book that he had just finished giving a presentation on, I kept my hopes up. Just being here meant a lot to me. That man’s work has had a lot of influence on who I am and how I see the world today. It was amazing to have had the pleasure of hearing him speak in the auditorium, where he had the full attention of the audience. He was every bit as intelligent and witty as person as he’s ever been in his books or on film, and with that same dry sense of humor.
There was only one more thing that could have made the evening perfect. All I wanted was a signature. I said to the gentleman ahead of me, “Well, if Mr. Dawkins doesn’t have to hear every single person’s personal atheist story, we might get our signatures.”
The man grinned cheerfully and responded, “Oh, don’t worry. Mine is only about 20 minutes long.” And then he proceeded to tell me about some project he and some other people were working on, atheists tracts fashioned as elaborate satire of the infamous Chick Tracts. Later, an excited woman who had evidently been at the head of the line told the man that she’d had a chance to talk to Mr. Dawkins about their tracts, and Mr. Dawkins like the idea. I was happy for them, although they were strangers. But I was happier still that they, and a group of other people, left the line soon after.
I think that every atheist has a story. For most, it involves escape from the religion that they were brought up in. For such people, de-conversion isn’t always easy. Investigating what you’ve held so deeply to be true, and rejecting your old notions if you could not justify them. To do so means changing who you think you are, how you perceive yourself as a human being, because it means re-defining your identity, to which religion had for so long played a major role. It means admitting that you were wrong. Doing this requires lot of honesty and courage. Being “out” as an atheist requires even more, as it means dealing with the judgments from society, and possibly even being ostracized by family and friends.
Even those who have never had never been part of any religion from which to escape have stories. Nearly everyone has at least heard of religion. And despite how evangelists seem to believe as they knock on my door to deliver me “the good news,” I have heard of Jesus, as has everyone in the US and much of the rest of planet. It’s unlikely that anyone who has never subscribed to religion in their life time has never been proselytized to, directly or indirectly. At such an occasion, the non-believer was in a position to consider religion, even if just long enough to reject it.
What’s more, whether we were always atheists or escaped from atheism, we are affected, as is everyone else on the planet, by religion in some way. All too often, religion impacts scientific advancement, education, domestic laws, and foreign affairs, and never in any positive way. All the more reason to speak up and be heard. Tell politicians who pass laws based on their personal convictions to their myths of choice, “Speak for yourself.”
Every atheist has a story. I think most of us would like to tell them. I had an atheist story that I, of course, would have liked to tell Richard Dawkins. I wondered how fast I would have to speak to be able to tell it in the moment it takes for him to write his name.
Well, it didn’t matter. The late-night book-signing was neither the time nor the place, and I’m sure Mr. Dawkins must be just about sick to death of hearing everyone’s story by now anyway. Heck, he looked like he had just about had it with singing books by the time it was finally my turn (Yes, I made it!) It seems signing books was every bit as tedious as I expected it must be. I can’t imagine what it must be like to have everyone want to tell you their story too. He smiled politely.
I said “Hello, sir.”
He said “Hello,” back. Then he quickly signed by book, returned it to me, and waved the next person forward.
I was happy, absolutely giddy, to have gotten his signature. That was more than enough for me. I believe my exact thoughts at the time were, “HOLY CRAP! Richard Dawkins signed my book! He even smiled at me! He is so awesome! Squee! Forget rock stars, I want autographs from kick-ass biologists! Oh, hi, boyfriend. I totally didn’t forget you were here. OK Maybe I did a little. But isn’t Richard Dawkins great?!” Yes, it seems that I might just be a bit of a fan-girl over a 71-year-old science man. Is that weird?
So I didn’t bore Mr. Dawkins to death and irritate everyone who stood behind me in line by telling my story. Still, I think it’s important for atheists to tell their personal stories, even if we can’t deliver them in the three seconds it takes scientists to scribble their names. The perspective of atheists is a valid, yet tragically overlooked one. Mr. Dawkins himself spends a great deal of time speaking about atheism, and even endorses the Atheist Out Campaign which encourages atheists to come out of the proverbial closet in the same manner as homosexuals. The goal is to foster a visible and vocal atheist community. To speak about being an atheist is an important part of being “out.”
So speak up. Speak out. Be heard. Tell your story. You might just inspire someone else to do the same. Each voice may be small by itself, but together, we can be hard to ignore.