Let’s Be Serious, Shall We? What is the Import of Calling Yourself an Atheist?

There is a scene in Woody Allen’s film, Husbands and Wives , in which a couple comes over to Woody Allen’s and Mia Farrow’s apartment. (Let’s call the other couple “Max” and “Sally.”) They sit together at a couch, and Max blurts out: “Sally and I—we’re getting a divorce. We’ve thought about it, and we’re staying friends, but we’re divorcing.” Then Sally smiles real large and says, “Now let’s go eat!”

Naturally, Mia Farrow cannot bear the disconnect. “How do you eat after such an announcement! My god! Everything is changed!”

That’s what it means to be an atheist. You don’t just, after announcing your atheism, say “Let’s eat.” It’s too absurd. The same is true if you convert to, say, Christianity. Our culture has made these choices super-easy, like picking a Coke off the shelf. Just another consumer preference. “I believe in Jesus.” “I don’t believe in gods.” But the absorption of the consequences of such statements are too often glibly shrugged off. There’s a fencing off that makes it easy to say.

But many of the old Christians and unreconstructed free thinkers of the past didn’t shrug these choices off with quite so happy faces. Not even Voltaire could bring himself all the way to calling himself an outright atheist. He scarcely believed those who declared themselves such in his presence. He didn’t think that they were absorbing the import of their own words.

Christians, of course, do the same thing, and the story of the rich young ruler in the Gospel of Mark is trying to say: “Call yourself a Christian? Sell all you have. No bullshit.” But just like there are a lot of marginal Christians in the world who have scarcely absorbed the consequences of what it means to be a follower of Jesus, so there are a lot of glib atheists who say, “I’m an atheist—now let’s have lunch!” But perhaps their ears have not heard what their mouths have spoken. Voltaire trembled before that last step. But fools rush in where angels fear to tread?

But go on. Get on that atheist bus! Let’s see a big smile, now! No poo-poo faces on this ride. Let’s all sing a song, shall we?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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1 Response to Let’s Be Serious, Shall We? What is the Import of Calling Yourself an Atheist?

  1. rwzero says:

    I agree.

    I do not agree in some glib and intellectual sense. I agree in the sense that I have personally discovered that the full import of calling myself either of those things (and perhaps the full import of my existence in general) has the potential to physically incapacitate me.

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