Recently, a woman named Pat posted a quick message on her tumblr blog about how she left the New Atheist Movement. Intrigued, we began talking and what follows below is a transcription of our interview. Pat would like to remain (mostly) anonymous. Since her first language is not English, some substitutions have been made and designated in the bracketed dialogue below. This interview was our first time having an actual conversation aside from the occasional miscellaneous comment online.
[The interview was preceded by a short introduction of my blog and its purpose. Pat shared with me a photo of her dog, Monica, named after a character from the tv show Friends.]
Interview with a Former Movement Atheist
Sarah: Before returning to the university, you had been out of college for almost five years. What made you decide to go back to school? Particularly as a student of theology?
Pat: My husband and Fidel Castro. [laughs] We moved from Florida to New York when Castro stopped being President in 2008. Or maybe right before, I can’t remember. Castro is in my imagination a lot. . . I wrote a paper once about how Castro is a symbolic figure for extremists. Some people go straight to Hitler in history. For me, it’s Castro.
S: Did your view on Castro have anything to do with your atheism?
P: Not really. I became an atheist, because I identified with that community. I didn’t like the term New Atheist very much, so I called myself a Movement Atheist. It’s more neutral. . . When I signed up for my first intro class, I was a New Atheist until I discovered the meaning of Movement Atheist. Really, I had been in the Movement the whole time.
S: What aspect of the community did you particularly find yourself drawn to?
P: Social justice, the more friendly part. That part [distinguished] itself from the misogynistic and racist parts of my life.
S: You said that you were a New Atheist before you “discovered the meaning of [a] Movement Atheist.” What drew you away from considering yourself a New Atheist? Was there anything specific?
P: As I took more and more course[s] in religious studies, it became clear to me that the New Atheists were largely ignorant of the work done in religious scholarship and dismissive of very real work done by theologians [who] are developing ideas that aren’t based on a face-value reading[s] of scripture.
S: I don’t want to misconstrue what you’ve said, but it seems like you developed a heightened appreciation for religion during your time as a student which is what ultimately caused your departure from atheism. Is this true? Or am I reaching too much with that statement?
P: No, this is true. Definitely. I appreciated what religion does for people, for the positive aspects, and for the ability of people to have spiritual lives outside of the monotheistic worldview. . . a more classical worldview. . . Learning about religious experiences led me to doubt more and more. . . I finally rejected believing things that have not been verified as a [moral] hazard.
S: I am actually glad to hear you mention the word ‘doubt’ in relation to atheism. Were there any professors who stuck out to you during your studies?
P: Yeah! [laughs] Having an atheist rabbi for a professor helped me a lot. . . There was also a Buddhist professor who said he didn’t believe in literal [post-mortem] rebirth.
S: Essentially, during your time as a religious studies major, you stopped believing in an empirically verifiable objective reality. Did either of those professors help you or push you toward that revelation?
P: I didn’t notice when it happened, so not really. Not them. . . It’s only looking back on it that I’m aware of it. This isn’t to say that I reject the scientific method or that I don’t believe in the possibility of objectivity.
S: You’re just more open to a subjective reality, then?
P: Exactly. Yeah. . . I believe in human existence being subjective. There may be an objective reality. I don’t know. Although, I think there is, but it is unknowable. . . I think that’s when the Movement began to look, well, really silly. Trying to deconvert people to a rational worldview was impossible, because a rational worldview was impossible.
S: What was one of your least favorite aspects of the atheist movement?
P: Mockery [of religion] as a way to advocate secularism.
S: What about your favorite part?
P: The community. The community was awesome.
S: I read on your tumblr bio that you now identify yourself as a “closet-case agnostic mystic.” Can you talk about that little bit?
P: These days I practice Zen Buddhism. Olaf Stapledon is why I call myself a mystic. I don’t know whether a personal God exists, but I doubt it. But I also believe there is a benefit in attempting to contact to the [ineffable.] I don’t know whether [post-mortem] existence happens, but I doubt it too. But I think that the time I’ve lived is some sense eternal. I don’t know a lot of things, and I think a lot of them either aren’t knowable at all. . . or maybe can only be known outside of words.
S: I don’t want this question to sound as if it has an obvious agenda, but I’m curious to know if whether you stopped believing in the possibility of perceiving objective reality before or after you began practicing Buddhism. I’m asking only because I think the direction of cause-and-effect could be interesting to consider.
P: I would say before, but I’m not certain of it. That is tough. Buddhism definitely strengthened my [conviction.]
S: Are you asked to speak about your religious ideas very often?
P: Not a lot. My husband asks. Not my family. . . I am rambly when I talk about religion. This is why I can’t be a teacher. [laughs] Or maybe I’d make a good one, who knows. I’m not very good at public speaking.
S: Are you able to pinpoint the exact moment when you weren’t able to regard yourself an atheist any longer?
P: I didn’t so much leave the Movement as I drifted away. . . It happened over several months, and I don’t think I can pinpoint the exact moment when I no longer considered myself one. But that’s neither here nor there.