When I was a teenager I used to think a lot about the question “Who am I?” Lots of descriptive words would pop into my mind: daughter, student, reader, Christian…the list could go on. But the more I thought about these words the more I realized that they do not say a thing about who I am. They only describe different aspects of me. I read during my exploration of Buddhism that the thing we know of as “I” disappears when you look for it and that indicated that it is does not really exist. This is consistent with my own experience.
However, I still feel some need to identify myself, and my list has changed quite a lot since I was a teen. You will probably note that I listed “Christian” as one of my identity words. Yea, “Christian” was a huge part of my identity and for a time in my life my life practically revolved around that piece. If you asked me who I was when I was a teen, that is likely one of the first words I would think of after my name. A lot has changed since then.
I’m aware that lots of atheists out there do not consider “atheist” to be a large part of their identity. And it’s probably fair to say a lot of Christians do not consider it to be a huge identity issue either. I’m sure that the reason it is for me is the huge importance religion has always had to my sense of self. When I eventually found the teachings to be Christianity to be out of sync with what I knew of the world, I went through a major identity crisis. I was at a bit of a loss on how to act in certain circumstances–like how to react to parents and family members who still strongly identified with Christianity. (From stories I’ve read from other atheists with Christian parents this is a very, very common issue.) Since I’d always been taught that morality comes from God, I had to completely rework my understanding of morality. It was no longer about obedience to a higher power, but about human wellbeing and happiness (a great improvement, since obedience is a very poor and childish basis for morality). One example of major change in my thinking is that I could no longer find any good reason whatsoever why gay people should not be allowed to marry. I am still of the opinion that the reason that Christians are so strongly opposed to homosexuals is that one of the very, very few issues that the Bible seems unambiguous about. Actual unambiguous direction from the Bible? That is something you don’t see every day.
I strongly identify as an atheist. But having come to the conclusion that it’s not healthy to identify only as one thing (especially something that is just saying what I don’t believe), I’ve branched out into other areas of interest as well. Yoga, of course—though that does at time create some tension with the atheist label. I am also a nature lover, and love camping and kayaking. I’m interested in improving my communication and public speaking skills so I’ve signed up with Toastmasters International. My first meeting as a member is this coming Monday.
Identity is a complex thing. Atheism is only a starting point, and part of a realization that you are responsible for creating your own self –according to what kind of person you want to be. And not waiting around for a god to “reveal his will for your life.” It’s a start.