I like talking with people who have changed religions. Here is one of them. Previously: Leah Libresco.
Emily Stewart is a civil engineering student at the University of Utah. She enjoys long walks on the beach, all dogs but especially corgis, and summoning demons in her bedroom in her spare time.
Hi, Emily! Can you tell me a little bit about yourself before we get started?
Here’s some quick summary info:
– Emily, 32, trans (I am a literal infant when it comes to being a woman, only two months old!!), gay
– Grandparents and extended family on my both sides of my family are all fairly religious (I think everyone is Lutheran), though neither my parents or my mom’s siblings are particularly religious.
– I experimented a lot in my early teens, trying to actually read the Bible (I did not get far), but mostly was on the Wiccan/general neo-pagan spectrum
– then I discovered Richard Dawkins and was an awful, awful teenager and 20-something
– these days I still consider myself an atheist if pressed but have largely backed away from the term because of those awful New Atheist guys, and have generally become more open to considering religious people as, like, actual rational actors who know what they are doing and not the misguided idiots I tended to assume they were
– at this point I’m actually kind of jealous of religious people?? like, I’ve seen enough studies showing the benefits of having a religious community and faith in general that even if it’s just a placebo, it seems like my life would be significantly better if it was something I was capable of, but I can’t seem to shake the materialism I picked up as a teen
– but i do find myself attracted to this resurgence of kind of a queer mysticism as embodied in things like Eliza Gauger’s problem glyphs (http://www.problemglyphs.org) and there was an article on Offworld that I can’t seem to google up about similar things
Isn’t it the WORST, realizing you’ve been an atheist jerk? Congratulations to all the atheists who have always been kind, but when I first got started, I was such a bag about it. Richard Dawkins’ books should be illegal for anyone under 25. They’re not great in general, but they’re dangerous for the Youth.
I should draft a letter to my awful, awful congressmen to replace marijuana’s place in the drug schedule with Dawkins’ books.
Right-ho! Let’s get started!
The standard atheist narrative is – at least the one I see most frequently – something along the lines of “free-thinking person is raised in various flavors of unsatisfying religion, begins to question their beliefs, rejects said religion, and moves out of it.” And it’s not a bad narrative! But I find it doesn’t always cover the whole story. Atheism is presented as a reaction to a religious upbringing rather than a worldview that can, you know, stand on its own. It’s often judged by what it isn’t, rather than what it can be.
So I’d love to know what being an atheist means to you now. What aspects of atheism bring you joy and delight? What have you constructed for yourself that’s meaningful? Dish!
You’re absolutely correct to surmise that my atheism isn’t so much a reaction to my upbringing (except inasmuch as I was raised on Carl Sagan). I suspect he’s going to be coming up a lot, both with me and others. In fact, let’s start with him, because he’s a very good starting point.
In 2007 I went to see a panel at Sundance on the depiction of space in film with Darren Aronofsky (who had just released The Fountain), Brian Greene (author of the Elegant Universe, which I’d tried to read once and didn’t get into), and Annie Druyan, who was married to Carl Sagan for many years. I knew I was fond of the Druyan-Sagan partnership conceptually, but I hadn’t actually read any of their books or even seen Cosmos in conscious memory. Really, at the time I thought I was going to see Aronofsky, but he was pretty boring, while Annie completely blew me away. I realized that she and Carl had laid a lot of the foundations for everything I believe in, and I tearfully told her as much when I got a chance to meet her after the panel.
None of this is very obscure stuff, really. I think most people (in the West, in our generation, who live on the internet) are pretty familiar with the pale blue dot, know that we’re made of starstuff, etc. But I think the thing that’s always resonated most with me is what Annie said about Carl’s death (and I actually hadn’t read that preceding paragraph before, which makes him sound like Mr Rogers as a scientist, which I don’t think is entirely inaccurate). I think those things give a really solid sense of what my atheism means to me; how incomprehensibly vast the universe is, and how small we are, but also how intimately connected we are with it; how amazing it is that in this essentially amoral world, we’re still able to find beauty, and joy, and love; how fragile all of it is, and how precious.
The funny thing, though, is now that I’m a few months into my transition, a lot of things from when I first knew that I was trans, as a teenager, are coming back. Most notably in this case my interest in the occult, and the idea that some form of spirituality could be a positive force in my life. I think my essentially materialistic worldview has more or less cemented itself at this point, so it’s not so much that I believe that you can divine the future from a deck of cards or cast a spell that makes actual physical change in the world. But I do think you can use the tarot (or tea leaves, or the stars, or the I Ching, or chicken innards, or whatever) combined with our natural tendency to seek out patterns to find insights about your mental and emotional state that you might not otherwise have realized.
I also think that you can perform whatever ritual works for you to give yourself more control over what your mind does than you normally have access to, and that can allow you to do things you wouldn’t normally be able to (not in the supernatural sense, obviously, but by adding motivation, or letting you attack problems in a different way, things along those lines). All of that is more or less theoretical to me at this point, though the fact that I’m taking an interest in it rather than dismissing it as hogwash (as I would have a couple of years ago) is pretty notable. The more concrete thing is that I’ve reconnected with a more physical love of music that I had in my teens and early twenties and had lost touch with — at least twice this year I’ve had basically dissociative experiences while dancing at concerts (Yob and King Dude), which hadn’t happened as an isolated event in at least a few years, and probably hasn’t happened with any regularity for at least a decade.
I’ve also recently considered going to the local Buddhist temple, if I can ever wake my ass up at 8 AM on a Sunday (spoiler: I can’t). Buddhism is one of the few religions I’ve never really felt any hostility to, and reading about the particular sect of the temple here (Jodo Shinshu) it frankly seems more like a philosophy than a religion, in that there’s not necessarily a supreme being, and it doesn’t even seem to take the idea of reincarnation particularly literally, which would be my most major point of reluctance. So the Buddhist thinking about the nature of life (suffering), the necessity of compassion, and the possibility of enlightenment, in this world, in this life, really resonate with me, and don’t require me to believe in something that I just can’t comprehend.
And like I said in my first email, I realize the benefits that being a member of a religious community brings, and I’ve wanted to find some way to do that without compromising my beliefs. The “rationalist” community, uh, didn’t quite fit, and there’s plenty of good criticism of Eliezer Yudkowsky that I could dig up to explain why if you want. But I think, maybe, this one, in tandem with joining in with my trans sisters in shouting “HAIL GAY SATAN” whenever possible, might do the trick.
Oh, look at all the multitudes YOU contain, Emily! I think that is another point about atheism that often gets lost, the fact that you enjoy messing about with tarot cards and gay Satans and the occasional temple. The New Atheists generally give off the impression that all things religious are Bad and also Nonsense, right, and there’s nothing or little of value to be found in any spiritual traditions. But I think one of the lovely, freeing things about atheism is that you can muck around with spiritual things with a sort of lightness and frivolity, if such a thing interests you.
Not to say that atheists are all half-mockingly touring places of worship, I should say; I think what I mean is that atheists don’t necessarily have to be hostile toward all spirituality, and can often find a lot of meaning in it, if they want to. Was there a moment, or moments, when you first started to think of atheism as something you were? Or has it always been with you?
All I really have to say about the New Atheists is FUCK THOSE GUYS, and also I wish I hadn’t spent as many years listening to them as I did. In case it wasn’t clear: Fuck those guys.
I don’t know if there was a specific moment of realization. Like I said earlier, as a young teen I explored different faiths, landing in the same general neopagan neighborhood that I’m now gravitating back towards, though I’m much more confident about the way I’m using it not being utter nonsense than I was then. My family is more or less secular; my grandparents were all fairly Lutheran, my dad’s brother and my cousins on that side inherited it, but I don’t think I’ve seen my mom or any of her siblings do anything religious ever; as far as I know my three cousins on my mom’s side are all actively professed atheists or agnostic, though I guess we’ve never actually talked about it.
And my dad, like me, is very specifically an atheist. So like I alluded to earlier, I definitely didn’t have a religious tradition that I was rebelling against, and in fact I remember enjoying going to church with my grandparents when I was very small. I just looked through things, and nothing really fit (though, the attraction to Buddhism and also Taoism, philosophically, has always been pretty strong), and so at some utterly nonspecific point I must have thought to myself “gosh, I guess I’m an atheist!”.
It sounds like there wasn’t a big transition for you from religion to atheism, but maybe an evolution of your own atheism, away from a sort of Dawkins-and-Hitchens-centered way of thinking to something more your own. Can you talk a bit about that experience? How has your atheism changed over the years?
So, I talked about this a lot in my answer to your first question, but it’s been on the back of my mind since then too.
To start from a slightly odd place: I’m currently working on my much belated undergrad degree, in civil engineering, at the University of Utah. As you can probably guess, I’ve set myself up to enter a field of mostly old white dudes, but in my defense I planning on becoming an old white dude at the time I set this course (with the intention of trying to make space for people wot are not old white dudes, granted). Fortunately for me, the U of U requires engineers to take a two semester sequence of classes in “being a goddamn human being”, which have been, by far, the most interesting and enriching classes I’ve taken, even if they don’t tell me a damn thing about how to build a better bridge.
The first of them focused on the ethical values and sustainability of various technologies. I think I was generally aware that yes, people can transmit their values through things that appear to be purely mechanical tools, and that various cultures will have different views of certain technologies, but this class really focused in on how the somewhat standard (to people like you and me) Western technophilic viewpoint comes out of a very specific system of knowledge (we really focused on the roots in logical positivism in the early 20th century, but of course this extends back through the industrial revolution, the enlightenment, and eventually to ancient Greece), and how that (or any other!) system of knowledge can produce information that is “correct, but not complete” (IIRC this specific formulation is from Heidegger? I don’t feel like digging up the citation, though I probably still have it somewhere).
And that’s how I look at my atheism, these days. It’s correct! Nothing short of unambiguous divine intervention (and I don’t even know what that would look like) is going to convince me that there is any sort of Higher Power. It’s also very incomplete! Just because they don’t have any causal relationship with reality in the way that their most fervent adherents would insist doesn’t mean that tarot, or astrology, or ritual magic, or plain ol’ vanilla church don’t mean anything or do any good for the people who practice them. And so, I’ve become open to the idea of using them for myself, again (since these are all things I was interested in as a teenager). My interest actually started out purely aesthetic – definitely there’s some witchyness in the zeitgeist of the queer/trans circles I was on the periphery of before I came out and am now much more a part of – but it’s definitely become genuine, even if none of them are things that I’m actively practicing/using.
Another really important aspect thing is that these are interests that have recurred. I haven’t really talked about my transness much yet, but it absolutely critical here. I’m a bit older (33) than the current crop of trans folk who are really pushing the boundaries of what it means to be trans. Ideas that are now fairly mainstream (at least in the circles that folks like myself and your fine readers tend to travel in) like non-binary genders and polyamory and believing people when they say they’re not the gender they were assigned at birth were pretty radical concepts when I first encountered them in the mid-late 90s. I also knew pretty much immediately upon encountering them that that’s what I was (though my identity fluctuated between genderqueer and binary female, I was very certain that I was Not A Boy). I was not at all closed about this; I told anyone who would listen (and many people who quite frankly would rather not, I suspect) about my Gender Feels, including my parents.
As far as I can tell, they thought it was a phase. And they basically just said “that’s nice” and let me do what I want, but offered as much support as they did discouragement: none. Since teenagers transitioning was just not a thing that was done back then, I had no familial, social, or medical support so I just…let it go, after a while. I actually tried to keep it a secret after that, because I was worried about my history being weaponized against people who were actually trans, which is something that I definitely was not no sirree, even though I did occasionally think about it, and wonder what my life would have been like if I could have transitioned then, and would I be happy in that life (yes), and did I regret not being able to transition (nah). Until one day last summer when the answer to the second question shifted from “nah” to “HELL FUCKING YES” and I realized that I’m an adult and no one can fucking stop me, so I started hormones and, with the one major caveat of my otherwise very happy marriage disintegrating on account of my ex being straight, being a girl is 100% the best thing that has ever happened to me, and at this point I’m now actively angry that I didn’t do this sooner because my life has been so good these last few months and I could have had that for fifteen years.
So that paragraph got a bit rambly, but I do think that is important. I think I mentioned earlier that my early-mid teens were when I was most heavily experimenting with spirituality and hey, guess what: all the things I was interested in when I first knew I was Not A Boy have come back to me now that I know for sure that I’m Not A Boy (and am, in fact, A Girl). Like, to the extent that I am writing this from a bed that now has a gauzy canopy wrapped in fairy lights, because this is a thing that I really desperately wanted when I was 15 and it turns out that no one can stop me from doing it anymore. Which also means if I want to look to the (totally arbitrary) position of the stars and planets at the moment of my birth (and what even is that moment, even if the heavens did have an effect on us (which they don’t, incredibly weak gravitational pull notwithstanding) why on earth would we trust a doctor to write that time down correctly when they can’t even write our genders down correctly), or the random & functionally unique shuffling of a deck of cards, or burn some incense and ask an imaginary friend for help figuring out myself or what’s going on with my life, I can do that too. I know the effects will be all in my head, but who cares? My head is where I go to figure out how to make my life and the world around me better, so that’s a pretty good site for change to take place.
So, yeah, that’s actually the way it’s changed. I wasn’t a boy, and I was spiritualish. Then I thought I was a boy, and I was a New Atheist Dickbag. Now I’m not a boy, definitely for sure, and I’m spiritualish again, even though I know it isn’t terribly real, but that doesn’t really matter, does it?
Mallory is an Editor of The Toast.