I like talking with people who have changed religions. Here is one of them. Previously: Kellee Nicole.
Tamelonie Thomas is a, writer, activist, and pre-law student in Georgia.
Hi, Tamelonie! Can you tell me a little bit about your religious background growing up, as well as an overview of what atheism/agnosticism means to you now?
I am a Black woman who grew up attending African American Southern Baptist and Church of Christ congregations. Atheism is usually judged and assigned as a lack of faith which I view as being very narrow. To me, no belief in something is just as much as a stance as a belief in something and is not about a lack of anything.
Being an atheist to me means being free and open to the unknown as I view belief as encompassing all that there is and isn’t. There are some religious observers who share a free-thinking stance and that in itself shows the ability of free-thinking to coincide with religion as they accept the possibility of other beliefs to be correct.
To me, if there was a God, then I do not believe that there would be a beginning, middle, and end that could concisely represent him/her/them in entirety as I believe that God would someone/thing that is infinite. I have began a more stringent and disciplined spiritual journey this past month that has involved me reading Taoist and Buddhist texts and I am seeing where that leads me. I find more comfort in philosophies without deities. The meaning in my atheism does not solely surround my belief in a lack of a deity (as we popularly construct the idea of one through many western religions) but it is more surrounded by the acceptance of the unknown and that there are infinite possibilities. That is why I declare myself an agnostic/atheist which changes on any given day as I am still constructing what both words and definitions entirely mean for me. Being an atheist allows for me to freely and truthfully decipher what I feel and what I learn.
So pretty much what I have constructed as being meaningful icludes all that is also not meaningful to me. With Buddhism I have learned how to create the right questions and I have learned that ‘What is the meaning of life?’ is an impossible question and not that because it is difficult, but because it discounts what is not meaningful to us which is the entirety of life’s existence. I have learned that learning what is not meaningful to me is equally as important and valuable as learning what is meaningful to me and all of it is a part of my atheist/agnostic experience. I do not view myself as having a lack of anything.
Do you remember when you first encountered the idea of atheism? What did you think of it? When did you first start to think, “Oh, this might describe me”?
My first encounter with atheism came in the form of sermons that denounced non-believers. Then, being a young devout Christian (although I hated going to church) I thought negatively of those who did not adhere to the Bible or Christian teachings. I was taught and believed that they were going to burn in Hell upon their death.
When I started to identify with atheism, it came at a time after I began to move away from Christianity into a more spiritual/nature-based focus on life and meaning. It was a gradual process of being a Ben Carson-approved literal believer in the Bible to believing the stories were allegories to not believing the Bible was written by God but by scribes to “there really is no one religion.” Labeling is weird. I feel like so much and so many can fit under the label of atheist depending on their view. I realized that I could be considered atheist when I no longer felt like I could identify with being Christian. That left me with no religion as I had a clean slate and had opened my beliefs up to all possibilities. I also stopped believing in God as I realized that my belief in God and identity of God was still deeply rooted in Christian theology (male, spirit that creates all, gives free will, 24/7 surveillance, etc.)
How have you been able to talk about your atheism with other people? Do you find they have a lot of preconceived ideas of what atheism means?
I have told my friends that I am atheist. They have been very accepting as one of my closest friends is also atheist. The other is a Christian but is a millennial-type Christian who typically does not attend church outside of holidays and is open to other world views. I have not told my family that I am atheist. At this point they just know that I do not attend church and to them if you are not a member of the Church of Christ then you are not a true Christian anyway. Church of Christ is the church of my maternal side of the family. I found out recently that they are considered a cult. It has been easy publicly self-identifying as Atheist as the world is more open and accepting. I think that many people believe that atheists are cynical and (negative connotation) nihilist. Google even uses nihilism as a synonym. We still have a long way to go to get people informed and to change the narrative on atheists being those people who sit behind a computer and write about how awful God and religion is in the comment sections of the Internet.
It’s interesting that you’ve gone from being part of a religious group that’s seen by some as a cult to a member of a group that is sometimes perceived, as you say, to include a lot of rude, anonymous online commenters. Do you feel like you’ve often had to correct other people’s preconceptions of your beliefs?
I feel that I have had to correct or redefine other people’s preconceptions about my beliefs, but not out of necessity, but out of wanting to be transparent and open. I also want to create dialogue that others may be too afraid to start. I openly tell others that I am agnostic/atheist and that I can answer and discuss anything they would like.
My hope is that we get more respect from others with different beliefs. Me telling someone that I am atheist should not be an open invitation to their religion. I would like to see more representation in the mainstream. I would like to see the unhappy atheist idea challenged and changed around, especially in mainstream entertainment.
Mallory is an Editor of The Toast.