An Atheist In The House Of God: Celebrating The Holidays As A Non-Believer

Young Girl praying in a San Cristobal Church, Traveling Mexico.

If I were the kind of person who could believe, I would believe.”

I have been an atheist—at first, secretly, from about age 12, and then openly from my mid-20s on—long enough to know that there will always be times when I wish I still had God. I feel the absence of faith most profoundly when someone dies, and I have no heaven in which to imagine them, but there are other times, too: When violence shakes me temporarily from a foundational belief that people are wired for empathy, not hatred. When children suffer.

And then there’s a lower-stakes version of this absence during the holiday season, when I feel distanced from the rituals that characterized my childhood, along with a communal way to take inventory, reflect, and make meaning of our short, complicated lives on Earth.

Growing up, I attended Northminster Presbyterian, a small, quiet church in Endwell, New York. Northminster was the same church my mother had attended during her childhood, the church of my grandparents. I accepted Northminster as part of the landscape of my life the way I accepted who my parents are and what street I lived on. It was a fact, and I saw it as unchanging as any other fact of my life. Having things I thought of as immutable brought me a sense of security and belonging in the world. At Northminster, I was as at home as if I were in my own living room.

Doubt in God’s existence crept into my thoughts during confirmation classes. Part of a group of seventh graders intensely studying the Bible together in the evenings, I found myself at odds with my religion’s lack of evidence, especially when pitted against my science classes at school that came loaded with it. Unlike some, I couldn’t reconcile. By the end of confirmation, I had become a full-fledged member of Northminster’s congregation, but in my mind, God became fiction, the Bible turned to story from doctrine.

At the time, before these losses manifested themselves as the deep gutting they became when I was an adult, I was not particularly sad to question my faith because I was still getting so very much out of my church experience: the friendships of my Sunday school classmates, the routines and calibrations it provided throughout the year, and the presence of Northminster’s longtime minister, Reverend Barry Downing.

Barry and I had a special relationship from the beginning, a bond that has lasted decades beyond my faith, and that I still consider one of the most important of my life. Physically, he was imposing: tall, black-haired, and dark-eyed. He had an intensity about him that sometimes scared the kids. But Barry seemed to understand me innately—what drove my interests and fears, what made me come alive, what tapped into my best capacity for compassion or joy—and because he also knew my grandparents and my mother and my aunts and uncles, too, he had a great deal of context for his observations about me, and how those observations could translate to advice. I enjoyed talking with him; his words made me feel cared for, truly listened to and heard, even as a young child. This only deepened as I got older. It deepened even when I stopped believing in God.

Northminster’s ethos was rather stoic. I liked that. I was an only child who spent a lot of time alone with her journal, and I liked the church’s implicit encouragement of contemplation during recitation and prayer. Sure, Barry and his associate pastor would occasionally put on wry-humored puppet shows (oh, how giddy I became when I saw the green-felt covered puppet stage emerge from the utility closet), and Northminster made the paper every Christmas for displaying a living Nativity on its front grounds, with Barry’s very own cows and chickens and goats set up in makeshift stalls in the moonlight, where members of the congregation played the parts of Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and the wise men.

But it was Barry’s sermon each Sunday that kept me coming back to church long after I stopped identifying myself as a Christian. Barry’s sermons, I realize now, were my first exposure to personal essays. In them, Barry became a subjective “I” who grappled with himself and the world, using explorations of the Bible situated in a contemporary context, driving toward either discovery or a new and better question. Current events were woven into the narratives, lending the sermons urgency and applicability. And Barry’s persona—human and flawed, a sinner and an agent of God, always reaching for a higher truth, but only ever permitted to glimpse certainty through faith—captivated me.

I picked up copies of the sermons and read them again at home, studying their moves.

It was inside that church that I became a writer. But life took me away from the church and into the classroom. In college and graduate school, I studied writing in earnest and began working on my own essays, my own books. But I took Barry’s sermons with me as early models of the power of inquiry, and I see now that writing is my way of praying to no god at all.

When my grandfather—the powerful, often intimidating head of my family—died just days before Thanksgiving in 2008, I delivered a eulogy that attempted honesty in its portrait of a man who rained both terror and love down upon his family, and grappled with the questions my grandfather’s life had raised in me, never, perhaps, to be answered. Barry was there, and as I was getting my coat after the service, he stopped me, his eyes filled with tears.

“Well, what does a writer do in situations like this?” he said. “She writes.”

So much has changed. Barry retired as the reverend of Northminster when I was in college. My grandfather’s death seemed to lift a spell on some members of my family. Now, none of us attend Northminster. A sizable part of my family joined evangelical churches, one inside an old elementary school in my hometown. Their sermons are loud and exuberant, the Bible augmented by rock music and large projector screens. I get the appeal, but even if I still believed, I’d never be at home in such a church. I couldn’t think there.

I tend to get melancholy at Christmas, angry at Easter. Thanksgiving has become my favorite holiday, and not only because I like go-for-broke eating at noon. I also like Thanksgiving because it’s where the secularists and the Christians in my life can meet in the middle. Where prayer and reflection can be interchangeable ways of exploring gratitude. Where my deviance from what I was taught in childhood is less obvious. I can participate.

Sometimes, when I admit my atheism in mixed company, I can tell I come off as arrogant. Like, how dare I think that I don’t need God? Who do I think I am to eschew a higher power? What proof do I have that God doesn’t exist? And I want to tell these people how I hurt sometimes. How losing my religion has been one of the greatest losses of my life, along with my grandfather and my grandmother and my father, whom I know only to be ash, returned to the Earth. Whom I see only in memories or dreams.

When I see Christians angry about the holiday cups at Starbucks, when I hear their dismissal of the inclusive sentiment of “Happy Holidays,” I’m reminded again how lonely it is at the holidays for a non-Christian. How the secularists of America were often raised in Christian households, and have given up quite a lot, and not always willingly. In his moving segment on This American Life, advice columnist Dan Savage describes the comfort and pain he feels when he walks into a Catholic church now that his mother is dead:

This inability to reconcile myself to death has not been good for me. I visit Saint James like an addict drops by a crack house. For a fix. To deaden the pain, by losing myself momentarily in the fantasy that she lives, and that we will be together again. There’s an inscription on the ceiling of Saint James, “I am in your midst.”

If I were the kind of person who could believe, I would believe.

There have been days when the losses of my life have felt like an abyss. When I would have given anything to feel presence instead of the great gape of absence underneath me, all around me. But sometimes, when everlasting absence threatens to swallow me whole, I think of Barry Downing and Northminster. I think of Dan Savage. I think of my husband and my daughter and all I have to be grateful for (and it’s so much, really; it’s so very, very much). And then I do my version of prayer. I reach. I write.

Amy Monticello is an assistant professor at Suffolk University. Her work has appeared in many literary journals, and at Salon, The Rumpus, and The Nervous Breakdown. She currently lives in Boston, MA with her husband and daughter. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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