I'm always hesitant to admit that my partner is an atheist, instead using the term "non-religious" to label him when I'm forced to. This hesitation is partially because many people will automatically and unfairly judge his character once they learn this, and partially because I know they will think his lack of belief must negatively influence my own faith. This is surprisingly untrue. As a non-religious person (ok, atheist), he has never once tried to convince me that God doesn't exist. I have always been incredulous about this, asking, "But don't you think I'm stupid, or kidding myself?" (Obviously, I must have my own unfair impression of what atheists are like). His response has always been a vehement "No!" and he even encouraged me to pray and attend church, knowing that in many ways my faith was a positive force in my life.
In fact, he's more likely to waste his breath condemning evangelical atheists than fundamentalist Christians. "Those atheists doing it wrong," he says. "They're organizing and writing books and thinking about religion more than religious people do. Being an atheist means you don't do that stuff. Why is religion a part of their lives?" Yes, he oversimplifies to make the point. But even so, I have trouble agreeing. Many atheists do have a story I want to hear, and it still feels novel and alien to me to be exposed to them.
Growing up, I didn't know any "nonbelievers," although I was warned about them and their alleged sad, unfulfilled lives. Many Christians tell me that it's bad to read too many books arguing for atheism, since that may weaken my own faith. We're taught that anything that makes us doubt should be avoided at all costs. While I agree with my partner that some of the "militant atheists" are "doing it wrong," some do have a story I want to read. I want to know what they think and feel, and I want to know if their stories mirror my own. Do other people have the same doubts and fears that I do? If people that I know in real life have doubts, they are rarely willing to discuss them candidly, and only in terms of how we can pray for them to disappear.
I've been taught that people who lose their faith are wrong, weak, and led astray by society's increasingly secular worldview. I don't want to be wrong, weak, or led astray, but I do want to be exposed to a worldview that's different from the one I've always known. And so I appreciate these stories of "de-conversion," and I want to read as many of them as I can.
I'm starting up a reading list for books on both sides of the debate. I am willing to read and explore anything I can get my hands on, from The Case for Christ to The God Delusion (which, incidentally, I found kind of disappointing). I have yet to read that perfect book that summarizes my own feelings and experiences. I also have yet to read a book that I feel does the perfect job convincing either Christians or atheists to convert to each others' camps. And that's ok. For now I'm just enjoying the fact that I can read and think whatever I want without any shame or guilt, even if I end up being considered wrong, weak, or led astray.