I have spent the past twenty years hiding. That sounds awfully dramatic, but in many ways, it's true. I grew up in small(ish)-town South Carolina, and I've felt like my beliefs were just things I wasn't allowed to say out loud since I realized them. It's an odd cycle, to be sure; all of my religious friends are allowed to flaunt their devoutness, and we respect them for it. We don't claim offense or demand they remove the verses from their Facebook "About Me" section. It's normal and completely expected, and most of us could care less. They can go to Bible study or celebrate their cousin's Bat Mitzvah or fast or don a hijab, and that is all well and good, this wearing their belief in their own god as a badge they will proudly display to the world.
I, however, have no badge, and if I did, I don't think I could flash it. I am an atheist. It's probably, in this modern world, one of the words with the heaviest negative connotation, aside from feminist (which I am) and liberal (which I am as well. Maybe I just delight in having an unpopular opinion?) It's not one I use often, if ever, outside the confines of my keyboard. I'm not sure I've ever actually used that word to describe myself before in a conversational setting. For many people, it's scary and harsh; it conjures immediate images of someone grungy and rude and hateful. I am proud to say that this description doesn't fit me; I am very clean, my mother raised me with manners, and I think sometimes I am a little too apt to love people. So why can't I tell people what I believe?
I've always been afraid it would stir up trouble. In fact, I'd be willing to bet a lot of people think that way. Today, I went through the profile of all 304 of my Facebook friends. 198 of them self-identify with some religion. (Of those 198, 169 of them are Christian. I am from South Carolina though, so this demographic makes sense.) Of the other 106, I know that a vast majority of them are atheists. So why doesn't their Facebook say so? (Only three of them are willing to label themselves as atheist on a social media network.) Are they afraid of persecution from friends, relatives, and future employers just like I am? Are they ashamed of their beliefs? I always wonder if they grew up like I did, if anyone besides their friends knows who they are and what they think.
None of my friends from home do. I kept that card close to my chest, uncomfortable sharing my lack of belief in a sea of devout, church-going Christians with fish bumper stickers and matching Vera Bradley bags. I wanted to be the same as everyone else, to be accepted, and some small part of me, even then, knew that what I believed would burn some important bridges. And now, I don't mind if it does.
I am through with hiding. I want every person in my life to know who I am and what I believe. My name is Casey Ellen Clough, and I'm an atheist. I don't want or need a god controlling my life; I have gotten pretty good at taking care of myself. I have given and received unconditional love that didn't require me to go days without eating, wear special hats, or stop eating seafood. I am a body. A beautiful, amazing, powerful human body with no special, magical force like a soul to keep me living. I exist based on the blood in my veins, the oxygen in my lungs, the synapses firing in my brain, and when they stop, I stop too. At the end, I want to look back on my life and be pleased with everything I did, so much so that I do not need the belief in something further to keep me going. Nothing more, no special place in the sky where the afterlife will be wonderful, no horrible place below where I can burn for an eternity if I am bad. I am very confused by the concept of a merciful, loving being that condemns love outside of its own narrow boundaries; I don't think I'll ever believe that any kind of love between two consenting individuals is wrong. Without a god or a religion, I am moral; I might even venture to say good. I give a substantial portion of any money that I make to charity, I take care of my friends and spend an extra hour at my grandmother's house uploading pictures to her Facebook profile, I talk to my mother at least once a week, I delight more than anything in making other people laugh. I don't do drugs or commit crimes or hurt others in any way. I believe in love and helping others. Above all things, I believe in the constant collection of knowledge; if I could learn every day for the rest of my life, I would never cease to be happy. I do not hate people who believe differently from me; in fact, I try not to hate anyone. (It's something I'm still working on, to be honest, but who isn't?)
After I finish pouring my soul onto this silly Internet forum where my ideas go to die, I will probably share it on my Facebook. I will lose friends, I am willing to bet, and I am fine with that. If you cannot love me knowing that this is what I believe, maybe you just cannot love me. I would love to listen to your side of the story, but only if you're willing to listen to mine.