I like talking with people who have changed religions. Here is one of them. Previously: Martin Sherman-Marks.
Kellee Nicole is a proud two-time college dropout who aims to be as ratchet and Southern as possible. She writes about mental health, sports, music as therapy, and small-town/rural life, among other topics.
Hi Kellee! Can you tell me a little bit about your religious background growing up?
I consider my relationship with Christianity brainwashing, which may sound severe, but it felt that extreme to me. We attended an Assemblies of God/non-denominational church for a while, but my family is devoutly Black Southern Baptist. Once I was older and tried to pick my own religious expression within Christianity, my family tried to steer me back to their church, which was big on prosperity theology and respectability politics, which is very unhealthy financially, socially, etc, especially considering that church’s location and its demographics.
My religious upbringing, and my family’s perpetuation of it, directly affected my views on sexuality and gender expression and identity, in myself and others. Coming out to my family as queer/questioning is not even a possibility as long I still need their financial support; they would not hesitate to cut me off. I consider my Twitter “family” more supportive than my actual family would ever be, which makes sense because Twitter is where I unlearned every bigoted ideal that had been instilled in me since birth, learned from amazing intersectional people, and started being my true self. I somewhat envy those who were raised in an atheist/agnostic or non-religious home, though I’m sure everyone has their own issues.
Can you tell me a little bit about what atheism means to you?
Thanks to sources outside of my family, namely my frustration with a college philosophy course and certain YA fiction series, I’ve come to consider the religious spectrum as a way of coping with the extreme weight of human existence. This revelation has made me a MUCH better supporter on people of all or no religious practices. My mindset is, “Who am I to question others’ coping mechanisms?”
Growing up as a “Christian”, I believed praying to a Higher Power/God would somehow “fix things” or at least make them more tolerable. In Christianity, I had a “built-in” history of human existence (aka the Bible). With atheism now, I don’t personally know most of the answers that are supposedly answered by many religious texts, but I’m HAPPY with that confusion, mainly because that confusion came on my own terms.
Religion, to me, is closely linked to my mental health. Despite my intelligence, my mental health illnesses, at times, make me very susceptible, even as an adult. Telling me that I wasn’t getting “better” because I wasn’t “praying hard enough” was not a fun experience. So, “accepting” atheism has made me more tolerant of all forms of mental health treatment, even the types not “professionally” prescribed.
Atheism to me is FREEDOM. It’s freedom to set my own “standards”, based in both research and personal, lived experience. It’s freedom not to impose those standards on others. It’s freedom to be happy when others are happy and satisfied in their religious practices. It’s freedom to feel bad when I see friends or others have mental health crises solely based on grappling with their faith, but knowing there’s nothing I can do to help unless they ask.
My atheism means that I try to inform my family-by-choice about my preferences about religious words/topics in the most respectful way, especially because I still have to be Christian in front of my family for now. If it makes them feel better, I’ll let them “pray for me”, but I’ve told a few that it’s “pointless.” Though I’m staunchly against going to places of worship currently, I have promised to go to my BFF’s church wedding. It means that I only make sacrilegious jokes, a coping mechanism, with people I know are comfortable with that type of language.
My atheism means I have a new appreciation for gospel/Christian music. I used to think I felt so strongly towards it because of the messages, but that’s not the case: it’s the ACTUAL music that I loved and still enjoy to this day. My favorite part of church services has ALWAYS been the music. Black church music is an experience that one can only understand by being there. It’s intoxicating…but looking back, I didn’t believe the religious parts, though some messages are universal. I loved the band & composition, the poetry of the lyrics, the harmonies and voices, the joy it brought everyone. Gospel music is one of the reasons I have such a sincere appreciation for music of all genres today.
My atheism means freedom to learn about and support people of all gender identities and sexual orientations, including myself. I’ve had friends, or acquaintances may be a better word, who were Queer, but I never saw it as a possibility for myself, if that makes sense. I’d been so indoctrinated that I was able to be sincerely happy and supportive of Queer people, but never consider myself one until very recently.
How long have I been atheist?
This is actually a really tough question. I’ll start from the most recent and try to go back from there. I first (re)tweeted about it sometime in Fall 2015, I think, so some could say a few months. The last time I was physically in a church was early 2013 for a funeral service, and that was a turning point in my religious path, so some may say then. I really can’t recall the last time I went to a church service, which probably says a lot. I could also say I’ve *always* been an atheist, but that’s a much more complex answer.
When I enjoy or am passionate about something, I’m dedicated to it, both consciously and subconsciously. I find ways to go “above and beyond” to learn more about it, in my own time, not just the time usually dedicated to it. (I can go into more detail about this, as it compares my other passions, if you want.) There have been fun and thought-provoking times in my religious past that I’ll never forget, so I don’t mean to suggest it was all bad, but for the most part, Christianity was just a set of rules I “had to” follow, not something I really believed in.
Can you remember the first time you came across the idea of atheism, and what did you think of it at the time?
I grew up in and live in a small, Southern, rural, mostly Black town, so religion is already “weirder” here than in many other places. Christianity/believing in God was truly the default, so it was/is a strange path for me to understand anything that isn’t Christianity-linked. For the most part, churches were separated by race, and then denomination. The most popular churches were Baptist. Though we went to one of the biggest Black Baptist congregations when we first moved from NJ in the mid-90s, my family went “against the norm” and attended two of the more racially diverse churches in town. All I remember about the first is that it had a separate service for kids where we got snacks and played outside, which was AWESOME because I normally just doodled during Adult Service anyway. We didn’t stay there that long, but I remember the lessons being more suited for kids, and they may have had separate age groups. I also don’t remember which denomination this church was.
The church my family (as a whole) attended and were members of the longest here was an Assemblies of God church when we started, but eventually became non-denominational. I went there from late elementary to early high school, though I was still connected to it until years later. It had a Black male pastor, who was also a principal at our town’s elementary school, and a single (yes, somehow we only had one) white male deacon. This sorta race-neutral setup was VERY different from my grandparents’ Black church I attended while at Penn, but that’s a whole different story.
The first time I remember encountering a non-Christian in this town was at gymnastics practice. People were whispering about a (White) girl my year who believed in reincarnation. We were young and ignorant and raised in the Bible Belt, so I’m sure we asked her some really offensive questions, but she was mostly nice about it. In high school, because my sister and a few friends were a part of the band, I met the one Jewish boy I’ve ever known to live in my town. It was a HUGE DEAL in high school when my white friend, whose entire family were members of the biggest (white) Baptist church in town started dating him, because people, both kids and adults, were constantly telling her she would go to Hell. There were some (Black) Jehovah’s Witnesses in town, but their church was in a suburb, and transportation is already difficult enough here, so it makes sense that there were a lot less. JW wasn’t openly called a cult in any churches I attended, but it was NOT treated as a denomination of Christianity. I’m sure there were more “anomalies” than those I’ve mentioned, but I’m just trying to give a description of the mindset here.
I realize I’ve gone off on a slight tangent and circled around the question, but my point is that, in none of these settings in my hometown do I remember the words atheism and atheist being regularly used. It was always “non-believers” or “non-followers”, or the worst one, “heathens.” I believed back then if you didn’t believe in God, you were going to Hell. It was a “Death Wish” to just be openly atheist AND Black AND part of a Christian family in my town, so I don’t even know what that looked like.
Much of my religious awakening happened once I left that town. College was eye-opening, but the religious “culture shock” wasn’t a big deal to me, possibly because I was never a “True Believer.” I learned about Judaism from my cheerleading teammates. We’d modify practices and games depending on which teammates were fasting. At least one teammate invited us non-Jews to celebrate with her. I just feel very lucky to have been a part of a group like this that was not only religiously, but racially diverse. I was also, at one point in college, a Middle Eastern studies major who was considering minoring in Arabic, so I learned about Islam in the classroom. I did this all while painstakingly attending my grandparents church in Jersey on Sundays, which was stressful in many ways.
I say all this to say, I’ve always been interested in religion and its practices, but never for myself. Though I enjoyed learning a lot from Jewish teammates and Muslim friends and classmates, I never thought about converting. (Though I’m sure there were many, I can’t remember too many college classmates who were “openly” atheist.) I don’t think it was because I didn’t respect their religions, but that I didn’t think organized religion made sense to me at all. Even still in college as a 22-year-old, in my brain, Christianity was the default.
It’s been the past year, when I had a lot of time by myself, that I was able to truly consider atheism as an option for myself, and it’s actually opened my eyes to a lot, which is funny because my upbringing in Christianity was so close-minded. Something I’m still so baffled about, coming from an education-centered background, being raised by two generations of teachers and as a former teacher & education major myself, is consent wasn’t really even considered among children in religious settings in my experience. If a child says they’re uncomfortable in most environments, it would be taken into consideration, but not in religious settings I experienced. I think the lack of choice may be while I’m “rebelling” so hard now.
Sorry about all the tangents, but I think the final thing I want to say about my “early” thoughts on atheism is how it was shaped by popular media. All the “popular” atheist were white males, and their atheism seemed to involve science somehow. Yes, atheists had been “called” many things in my Christian upbringing, but the title, and who “owned” it and “wore it proudly” was important to me. That may be one reason it took me so long to realize I was “part of the club.”
Can you tell me a bit about how you decided you were ‘part of the club,’ despite not being a white male scientist? Do you feel like you’ve been able to find other women who are atheists but aren’t part of the New Atheist group?
I’ve always either been on teams or had a team-oriented mindset. In sports, academics, social groups, even with my siblings. Looking back, as soon as I started to realize I didn’t agree with the person in charge – be it a coach, teacher, captain or other leader – I started to pull away. This line of thinking is why I left Christianity but it’s also why I didn’t initially think I was part of the atheist “team”. I looked at the (highly visible) leaders, the white male scientists, and thought if they were the people leading the conversation, there’s no point in me even trying out for the team.
I know “gatekeepers” is probably too strong a word here, but in the past few months, I’ve made it a habit of avoiding places where I don’t or wouldn’t feel welcome…or where I could imagine other people feeling uncomfortable. I’d felt for years that I “wasn’t Christian,” but to me, taking the next step to calling myself an atheist was hindered by all the popular guys. Twitter helped to change this. Through careful curation of my timeline, I was able to discover non-judgmental people from various religious and non-religious backgrounds. By non-judgmental, I meant people who I felt weren’t trying to preach nor judge, but merely share their insight, if that makes sense? It’s where I learned the difference between being culturally but not spiritually of a certain religion or philosophical mindset.
Before all this, I thought there were certain boxes I had to check to be the big “A”. I thought of atheism, and many other religions as an absolute, not a spectrum. Twitter helped change that. So, yes, finding fellow Black woman atheists, like Ijeoma Oluo, helped pave my way, but also other people of different intersections that helped me realize I didn’t HAVE to check certain boxes. I could create my own, unique flavor of Kellee Atheism, so that’s been pretty awesome.
Mallory is an Editor of The Toast.