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art generated by Midjourney

If you were to ask me, as many people have in the past three decades, if I believe in god, I would say, “No.” When I was a little younger and edgier, I would have said, “Which one?” But if you followed up with, “So you’re an atheist?” I would again say, “No.”

That contradiction might lead you to assume I am agnostic. That would miss the point, because there are all sorts of things I don’t believe in. I do not believe in leprechauns, Santa Claus, or werewolves. But it would be ridiculous to label myself an aleprechaunist, an asantaclausist, or an awerewolfist.

Why would I define and label myself by one singular thing I do not believe? What matters to me is what people do stand for, or believe, or are simply interested in. Classifying myself as an atheist would be defining myself in negative terms, but it would give zero information about what I find important.

I am uninterested in defining people in negative ways about things that are irrelevant to them. I’m interested in knowing what does matter to them, in a positive sense. Telling me you don’t believe in Santa Claus would establish there is one form of nonsense neither of us has an interest in. But it does nothing to identify what common interests we share.

Most people over the age of seven agree with me that Santa Claus does not exist, but many disagree with me on everything from what makes good prose to what makes good government and a good society. The fact that we are all asantaclausists doesn’t matter.

The term “atheist” might do non-believers a disservice. It assumes that a belief in a god is so important that we need to identify those who do not have it. But from my perspective, it is no more important than not believing in the tooth fairy. No fully grown, sane adults define themselves and form social groups based on the fact that they share a disbelief in the tooth fairy. That would be silly and fail to establish any meaningful common ground.

In recent years, I have noticed a tendency among atheists—especially in the younger ones who have only recently liberated themselves from whatever mythology they were indoctrinated with as children—to make two tragic mistakes I often made in my early twenties.

The first mistake is to become as evangelical about atheism as the obnoxious and often dangerously fanatical christians who think they have been tasked with a holy mission to convert other people to their way of thinking. Some people cannot keep their beliefs to themselves and need to wedge them into every conversation. They are often so judgmental about everyone else that only other zealots can enjoy their company. But many young atheists become just as abrasive as the “christian soldiers, marching as to war” that they quite rightly want no part of.

The second and more insidious mistake happens when people who have been raised as devoutly religious abandon their religious beliefs but not their religious way of thinking. I struggled with this in my late teens and early twenties, much to my regret, and I see it all too often in other people. When you are indoctrinated from childhood to be religious, you will often behave in religious ways about new concepts and ideologies you discover, even when the external trappings of your original religion have been discarded.

It’s like the religion has disappeared, but the religious way of being has not. In that state of mind, one can easily get attached to all sorts of other nonsense such as healing crystals or extremist political causes, magical nonsense such as the Carlos Castaneda novels or the Law of Attraction, or even zealotry about certain lifestyle choices.

When a person is raised in extremely religious circumstances but makes the intellectual and moral leap to reject that upbringing, they are left with a void. A significant part of their identity has been erased. What will fill that empty space? Nature abhors a vacuum, so other nonsensical ideas often rush to fill that space. I know it from firsthand experience, and I have no easy solution to overcome it. All I can do is offer a word of caution to those who abandon any religion: You can take the boy out of the church, but it is much more difficult to take the church out of the boy.

I advise young atheists to consider how their popular role models will be remembered in a positive way. Richard Dawkins? An accomplished scientist, brilliant author, and public speaker. Penn Jillette? A stellar magician, speaker, and entertainer. John Cleese and Douglas Adams? Outstanding humorists and writers. Neil deGrasse Tyson? An influential astrophysicist and lecturer. The list goes on. But it’s a positive list, defined not by things these people did not believe in, but by the legacies of their contributions to our lives and culture.

If someone else wants to call themselves an atheist, I don’t mind. But I’ve never felt the label was a good fit for me. Remember me as a writer, editor, poet, musician, or painter. Remember me as the party animal who stripped down to his Jack Daniels boxers and a feathered mask for Mardi Gras. Remember me as a massive geek for comic books and dinosaurs. I don’t care, just so long as my life is defined more by what I cared about and found meaningful, fun, and interesting instead of by things I found irrelevant.