On my worst days, I feel that my atheism — a byproduct, no doubt, of my education and racial privilege — has cost me my place in this country.
Donald Trump’s inaugural address broke from recent tradition in several ways, and was his most religious to date. His speech stressed unity and solidarity as the way forward in a divided America, but author and historian Peter Manseau describes Trump’s rhetoric as a conflation of “faith and nation.” As a secular humanist without religious affiliation, I’m one of a growing number of Americans left on the outside of Trump’s assertion that, “There should be no fear. We are protected, and we will always be protected . . . And most importantly, we will be protected by God.”
A 2014 Pew Research study found that an increasing number of Americans identify religiously as “nones,” including atheists and agnostics. It’s now believed that up to a quarter of Americans are religiously unaffiliated, and due to the demographics and privileges of the “nones,” they likely make up a sizable portion of the 66 million Americans who voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election.
In other words, I find myself among the largely white, college-educated, middle class people who, according to some analysts, have failed to communicate with a plethora of other demographic identities who saw Trump as their only answer. On my worst days, I feel that my atheism — a byproduct, no doubt, of my education and racial privilege — has cost me my place in this country.
Until now, the biggest price to pay for being a “none” came when my father died in 2012. Comfort that came packaged in platitudes about Christian heaven couldn’t reach me; neither could any talk of a plan in which my magnificent loss served a purpose. I felt frustrated with otherwise well-meaning people’s assumptions that I was a believer. At the same time, I knew my atheism might read as arrogance to many of them. Who are you to say whether or not there’s a God? is a sentiment I’ve become familiar with—and it rightly echoes other sentiments on the lips of Trump supporters: Who are you to call me a racist/misogynist/xenophobe?
It’s true, America. There are so many ways we don’t know each other.
Here’s my profile, folks: I’m a 34-year-old, heterosexual, white woman who can buy clothes off the rack. I have two degrees (both of which I paid for myself, but that’s too fine a point). I teach freaking English and creative writing at a small liberal arts college in Boston. I have little savings and plenty of debt, but I don’t struggle to pay my rent and utilities. I have a three-year-old daughter with blond hair and blue eyes who is medically healthy and typically developing. I struggle with clinical depression and generalized anxiety disorder, but through medication I can keep my neurodiversity largely invisible.
I am the poster child of the White Liberal Elite. The out-of-touch, aloof academic. The over-educated coastal dweller. Someone who can speak the languages of intersectionality and Black Lives Matter without suffering the historic, systemic discrimination that gave birth to these discourses. A person so autonomous and lucky that she doesn’t need to pray to a higher power. These are privileges, among others, that I must claim.
I’m all shell, no meat.
In the wake of the election, I’ve been consumed by self-doubt. I’m trying to ask myself some hard questions about how I’ve communicated with conservative-leaning friends and family over the years, trying to honestly assess where my ideologies and actions have met. And, most of all, I’m trying to raise my daughter from our new place on the fringe, worried that our views may one day challenge her American identity, which our new president has firmly linked with his own Christian identity.
Recent research helps alleviate some of my fears. In “How Secular Family Values Stack Up,” Phil Zuckerman highlights studies that support his position that children raised without God often display “rational problem solving, personal autonomy, independence of thought, avoidance of corporal punishment, a spirit of ‘questioning everything,’ and, far above all, empathy.” These are certainly qualities I’d be proud to see in my daughter.
But while I’m thrilled to be reminded that my kid still has a chance of being awesome despite the heathenism in our house, I can’t help but notice that Zuckerman’s list echoes the tenets of white liberal moral superiority. As Trump begins to deliver on the campaign promises we find most odious, I’m a bit shaken to think that my daughter may face the social accusations of arrogance that have hounded secularists for millennia. I’m even more disturbed to think that she might adopt that arrogance as a defensive strategy. I know I’ve done that myself.
To see the confluence of liberalism, secularism, and moral superiority, one needs only to read the title of a follow-up piece on Zuckerman’s op-ed over at Jezebel: “Godless Parents Are Doing a Better Job.” You can see how an argument framed like that could be sourly received.
The safeguard — and the conduit to any real solidarity between polarized sides — may be in the very foundation of non-theism: uncertainty.
In her TED Talk, “The Power of Vulnerability,” Brené Brown recognizes that religious certainty makes the political environment more combative. “Religion has gone from a belief in faith and mystery to certainty,” Brown says. “This is what politics looks like today. There’s no discourse anymore. There’s no conversation. There’s just blame.”
My realization that I no longer believed in God was not accompanied by relief. It ushered in one of the darkest depressive episodes of my life. I mourned my Christian identity; I mourn it still. As Dan Savage once said in an emotional episode of This American Life — that bastion of liberal elitism — about the death of his devout Catholic mother, “If I were the kind of person who could believe, I would believe.”
Instead, I live what economic and social theorist Jeremy Rifkin calls a “one and only life,” While that might seem terrible at first — no heaven, no reincarnation, nothing guaranteed after death — it has created a sense of urgency that Rifkin associates with empathy. “If you think about the times you’ve empathised [sic] with our fellow creatures, it’s always because we felt their struggle,” he says.
And here is where Americans might meet again. Not under God’s protection, not under political ideology, but under the humility that comes with knowing so little except that we are, in Brown’s words, “wired for struggle.” Inside the worries that are carrying me through each day and night, as I wonder how to raise my daughter in a world of walls, is a small hope that the shaky ground of doubt will ultimately lay the strongest path toward connection.
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 with her husband and daughter. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.