This I Believe

Ola - Londonderry, New Hampshire
Entered on October 30, 2007

I am an atheist. And while it would sometimes be easier for me if I did believe in God, I just don’t. But it’s what I do believe that makes us much more alike than you might think.

I believe in raising my children to be kind, thoughtful and respectful. I believe in making a difference in my community and in the world. I believe in honesty and compassion for others.

Yet a recent study showed that Americans rate atheists as the “least trustworthy group,” ranking us below countless others in “sharing their vision of American society.”

I never understand that, how so many people think this one thing defines the rest of me. I’m a lot of things: I’m a woman, a mom, a small business owner. I have a great marriage based on love and respect. I read voraciously, am active in my PTA, give generously to charity when I can, and take my children to art exhibits and farms and exploring in the woods. A few years ago I helped pass legislation that protects college kids who get sick and risk losing their health insurance. I spend hours helping family and friends and aging parents and in-laws, until I’m as stretched thin as any member of this so-called sandwich generation. When I want to reflect, I take a cup of tea outside, sit in my garden and look at the frog pond my husband and I built from local stones.

Am I really so different because I lack one belief that you have?

Last year, I was saddened to hear an NPR radio host whose views I normally respect, make a comment to the effect of, “you can’t teach values without a belief in God.”

Maybe she should meet my daughter. When she turned seven this year, Amaya asked her friends to bring donations, instead of gifts for her. She raised $152 and bought a llama for an unknown family through Heifer International. I was so proud. This was entirely her idea, but I like to think that our regular discussions about giving to others, and her witnessing that behavior in our home may have planted the seed for this selfless act.

Not believing in God doesn’t make me a bad person, or an immoral person. It just makes me a person.

My mother-in-law is a devout Catholic. Shortly after my husband and I became engaged, she learned that I was an atheist. I remember we were in the car, and she looked dismayed. “Can’t you just believe in God,” she asked, “For me?” She asked this out of some mixture of love and possibly fear. How could I not believe? What about our future children?

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I can’t believe in something for someone else.” Then I pointed it out to her: “You know, Rose, I’m still the same person I was five minutes ago, before you knew that about me.”

She took a moment to consider that, and to her credit, accepted it.