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  • Writer's pictureCourtney Heard

How To Know You're An Atheist

I thought my cousin was being murdered. The way he screamed as the man handled him still haunts me all these years later. I was maybe 6 or 7, and I had no idea what was going on. I was sitting on a cold, hard bench in a dimly lit building with ornately stained glass windows and impossibly high ceilings. When I looked up at the wall, I saw the bloodied carcass of a man who’d clearly been tortured. I can still feel the shockwaves that ripped through my body when I noticed it. That had been the first time I’d ever seen a dead human being. I turned to look away and was met with the sight of another emaciated body, cradled by a woman hanging on the wall. The safest place to look was back at my cousin who was exhausting himself, red-faced and shrieking as the man held him above the water and appeared to be about to drown him. I started to cry. I couldn’t understand why my parents had brought me here. I was terrified, and I had no idea what was happening. My mom reached her arm around my shoulder to comfort me, but I was inconsolable. I sat, frozen with fear, sobbing along with my cousin. The man was chanting now and handed my cousin to my aunt, where the two of them cradled his head in their hands. Were they going to hurt him? The man dipped his hands in the water and splashed it on my cousin’s head. He cried harder. I was waiting for someone to go up and stop the man and rescue my cousin, but no one did. Scanning the room, I just saw quiet smiles as everyone looked on. What was wrong with them? Why aren’t they horrified like me? Why is no one helping my cousin? I was fixing to run up there myself when my mom leaned down and whispered, “See? It’s all over. That wasn’t so bad, was it?” Was she crazy? I watched a man almost drown my baby cousin in a room decorated with dead guys on the wall. Yes. It absolutely was that bad.

Of course, this was my cousin’s baptism, and hopefully, you’ve picked up on the fact that I had very little experience with churches, let alone their strange and eerie ceremonies. I had not been prepared beforehand, clearly, and this was still 3 or 4 years before that time my parents let me watch Stand By Me and then expressed deep regret when I was too terrified to sleep because the film had depicted a dead body. It was perfectly normal and acceptable to drag your six-year-old to a building adorned with the tortured body of a man who had been murdered, but it was too much to let her watch Stand By Me in fifth grade. The logic is wild.

But, before you go crucifying my parents, try to remember that this was a normal part of life. Church was supposed to be wholesome and the center of every community. Though my parents were not religious, my mother had been raised as a Christian and hadn’t really considered how terrifying it all might seem to someone who had never been exposed to it before. My dad was never religious, but I guess it all seemed normal enough to him. But this was what it was like for someone who had never been told what or who God was, what churches were for, what prayer is, or why they chant and splash water at each other during offputting rituals that belonged in a horror film. It was weird. It was so fucking weird. From my cousin’s baptism onward, any time someone told me they went to church, I felt unease like there was this subset of humans who were entirely unhinged, and I would picture them chanting to themselves under crucified bodies while some man in golden robes dunks babies in magic water. Even now, in my forties, I don’t fucking get it. I could not begin to explain to you how otherworldly it all feels to me.

But I can try. A thought experiment, if you will. Imagine you’re eight years old, and you’ve been invited to your friend’s house for dinner. You and your friend are busy huckin’ rocks at the frisbee stuck in the tree in the backyard when your friend’s mom calls you in for dinner. Giggling, you race your friend inside to wash your hands and to the table. You’re both huffing and puffing and smiling at each other as you sit down. There’s a delicious meal in front of you. You’re so hungry and can’t wait for that first bite, so you grab your fork and go to dig in when you notice everyone is slapping their thighs and staring at you. An ice-cold shock runs through your body.

“Does your family not slap before you eat?” Your friend’s mom asks.

You shrug, unable to comprehend what she just asked.

“In this house, we slap our thighs to the tune of Like A Virgin before we eat.” She explains.

You stare. Words are not coming.

“I can see you have never been taught the path to functioning household appliances.”

“What?” You couldn’t help it. It just slipped out.

“Well everyone knows that if you don’t slap your thighs to Like A Virgin before you eat, your household appliances will fail.”

“Okay…” you’re mumbling, looking at your friend for any sign that this is all a joke and at any moment everyone is going to start laughing and say, “Got you!”

But they don’t. And there are no signs. They are waiting, staring at you as they slap their thighs.

touched for the very first time…

“Ahem,” your friend’s mom is starting to look angry.

There’s only one thing you can do. You start slapping. You’re slapping your thighs like your life depends on it. You are, at this point, willing to do just about anything for this moment to end.

Later, your mom comes to pick you up, and you tell her what happened. She laughs and says that there are lots of people like that. They all believe that if they slap their thighs to Like a Virgin before dinner, their appliances will never fail. But then she points out that our appliances always work fine, and we don’t do that, while people who do still have appliances that break from time to time.

“So, it’s not true?” You ask.

“It’s not true, honey,” She says.

That’s when you start noticing it everywhere. Appliance stores advertising instructional courses on how to slap your thighs to Like a Virgin most effectively. Thigh-slapping arenas where people congregate once a week and slap thighs together, led by a slap-instructor dressed like Madonna. One day, you answer your front door, and two men dressed like backup dancers ask if you’ve slapped your thighs today. As you get older, you notice more. Politicians base their entire platforms around thigh-slapping and propose rules that would force people who don’t believe in thigh-slapping to slap their thighs before testifying in court. And then you notice that some thigh slappers think you need to slap the inside of your thigh for best results, while others believe slapping the top is best and they fight over it. You learn in history class that wars were fought over it. Then you notice thigh slappers look down on you because you don’t slap thighs and some even go so far as to accuse you of being anti-household appliance. One even has the nerve to suggest you hate Madonna. They will debate non-thigh-slappers about the legitimacy of thigh slapping and suggest that there is scientific evidence for its efficacy in improving the performance of appliances. But of course, they will be able to produce none except for their own anecdotal experiences. But not a single day goes by that you’re not every bit as weirded out about the whole shebang as you were that first night when you were eight years old at your friend’s house for dinner. The world has never stopped slapping its thighs and staring at you, waiting for you to join in.

That is how it feels to grow up without religion. This is how it felt to watch my friends’ families pray before a meal, and it’s what it felt like to drive by a church and wonder what when on in there. It honestly felt like my family were the only sober ones in a world full of people high on mushrooms. Religion was so foreign to me it could have come from another galaxy.

It was because religion was so far off my radar that I also had no idea what an atheist was. Despite the fact that I have been an atheist my whole life, I really didn’t fully get what the term meant until I was in my late twenties. And that, of course, was thanks to Reddit. By this point, I understood what religion was. I’d read the Bible and the Quran and taken an Anthropology of Religion class in college. I’d read a bunch of Joseph Campbell and even watched his wonderful interview at Skywalker Ranch, so I was fully and completely aware of the role religion played in our culture. I understood that, to everyone else, it was normal and common and part of everyday life. I knew all about it and still could not bring myself to believe in one single, solitary lick of it.

So, in my adulthood, I found Reddit, and I would scroll and scroll and scroll. In those days, the atheism subreddit was one of the default subreddits. You didn’t have to subscribe to it to get the posts in your home feed. So, I’d see quotes scroll by from famous atheists and posts from ex-believers, and each time I saw them, I would nod in enthusiastic agreement. It didn’t take much of this before I realized I was and always had been, an atheist. I also realized I was from an atheist family and, on my dad’s side, I was a third-generation atheist, at least. We aren’t sure if my great-grandparents were religious.

That’s how I figured out I was an atheist. But for most of you, discovering that you don’t believe in god is so much more challenging, heartbreaking, and world-shaking. For many of you, your entire life was intertwined with your religious beliefs. You met your friends at church. Every family event was celebrated at church, every holiday, every Sunday. Your entire community came from the church. Your education was derived from your religion. Your behaviour, your fears, and your purpose were all derived from your religious beliefs. Some of you were even heading down a career path tied to your beliefs. Realizing you no longer hold them meant your whole entire world crumbled down around you.

It is nothing short of catastrophic. And that can make coming to the conclusion that you’re an atheist a very difficult thing to do.

The good news, though, is that atheism is pretty easy to identify. While accepting that it might apply to you can be scary and challenging, recognizing it is simple:

You are an atheist if you lack an active belief in any deity.

That’s really it. You don’t have to accept the reality of evolution. You don’t need to have a desire to sin. You don't need to wear a religion poisons everything shirt. You don’t need to reject the idea of ghosts, souls, and psychics. You don’t have to be angry at god, or hate religion, or feel miserable. The only thing that determines if you are an atheist or not is whether or not you believe in a god. End of.

While other books and articles about atheism will insist that you must identify as an atheist if you no longer believe in god, I’m not going to push that on you. There was a time when I would have. But I have grown and realized that you need to come to it on your own. If you feel better saying you’re an agnostic, then do it. Take your time, and only do what’s right for you.

But for those of us who openly identify as atheists, it is solely because we don’t believe in a god. Nothing more, nothing less. That’s all there is to it.

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Frank Troyan
Frank Troyan
Jul 20, 2023

Might just be the best analogy yet! Well written!!


John T
John T
Jul 18, 2023

I was raised catholic but my mom never let us go to baptisms. I had 4 younger siblings but did not see them being baptized. It wasn't until I was older that I saw my younger cousin being baptized. I thought the whole idea of putting a baby through that was crazy. I could see why my mother didn't want her kids seeing a baby screaming bloody murder at the hands of the church. By that time I already believe religion was a joke that only people who were brainwashed as children could believe. They tried that on me, but for some reason I was immune to it. My other siblings were not.

At any rate, before the baptism we…

Courtney Heard
Courtney Heard
Jul 18, 2023
Replying to

Thank you for reading and sharing your experiences. It sound like you were a pretty clever kid and I'm glad all of that indoctrination didn't take for you. Well done on raising your child without it.


Benin Oakland
Jul 17, 2023

I have made this observation many times over the years. The people who get incredibly upset about the visibility of gay people in any way whatsoever seem to have a very peculiar perspective on what's appropriate. They have no problem with the violence of most movies. They have no problem with mass murder, as in Star Wars. They have no problem with the glorification of violence. they have no problem with the torture, murder, and Mayham depicted in so many Catholic churches. (There is a church in Palermo that has a saint with a meat cleaver in his head. That's standing right over the entrance). They have no problem with the rape, mass murder, slavery, incest , and misogyny of…

Benin Oakland
Jul 19, 2023
Replying to

I like your columns. Unfortunately, I don't have the patience to listen to the podcasts. I much prefer to read so that I can think about what's being said.


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