I don’t think many religious people understand what it’s like to be an atheist. They often conceive of religious belief as a quality that a person has, rather than a truth claim about reality. This is why, for example, even growing up as a nontheist UU I thought of atheism as just another kind of religious identification. (Some people are Christians, some people are Muslims, some people are atheists — just like some people are short and some people are tall, some people have dark skin and some people have pale skin, and so on.)
When you actually step out of the religious currents running through society and take a look around, you begin to realize that religions are, in fact, asserting that certain statements are true. It’s not like a hairstyle or a certain taste in music, or an immutable characteristic about a person — a religion is either true or it’s not. And it’s okay to criticize someone for believing as true things that are actually false, in a way that it would never be okay to criticize someone for having a particular hair color or for being right- or left-handed, or even for having a favorite food that’s different from yours. Being an atheist means noticing that difference, and refusing to blur the line any longer.
Once you’ve begun to see religion as a set of beliefs about reality, it starts to get pretty uncomfortable just existing in modern American society. I don’t mean to say this is debilitating or anything like that; most of the time, I get by just fine distracting myself and ignoring it. But every so often, walking down a neighborhood street and passing half a dozen churches, or finding Chick tracts littering a parking lot, or suddenly being inundated with advertising about a holiday commemorating a “virgin birth” that people actually think happened … well, life just seems surreal. Even if you have no specific objection to gathering with friends, talking about the big questions of life, and singing pretty songs. Even if you like the Christmas season. When you’re confronted with the stark truth that people actually believe all this weird stuff, as in actually think it to be the truth about the universe, it’s quite unsettling.
I used to go to a Renaissance Fair most summers, as a kid. I really liked it, and I even saved up to buy myself a simple costume. I still occasionally wear the pewter pendants I bought myself there. I remember one summer, at the Renaissance Fair with my mother, we ran into this guy — a fair employee — who looked like Mandy Patinkin when he played Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride. I’m sure the period costume helped the look, but he had the hair and the mustache going on too. For whatever reason, my mom decided to approach him and tell him this observation. (I guess it was a compliment, or something she thought he’d find amusing.) Of course, as someone working for the Renaissance Fair, he couldn’t step out of character, so he was coy with us. “The princess bride? Is the queen’s daughter already betrothed?” My mom tried to say it was a movie, but only got more evasion. “Moving pictures, you say? I have not heard of one possessing such a device, even in the royal house!” For me, thirteen years old or thereabout, I was just embarrassed and trying to get my mom to leave the whole thing alone. Kind of funny in retrospect, I suppose.
But imagine — because that digression was not a random tangent — imagine that Ren Fair enthusiasts like me all talked like our friend Inigo, all the time. Imagine that we carried on our lives just like you in most ways, except that we refused to admit that it was any later than the 1500s, that we used modern technology but referred to it by archaic names or avoided acknowledging it at all. Imagine that, if pressed, we would insist that the government was a Tudor monarchy. Imagine if you couldn’t have a conversation about a movie or a basketball game with one of us, because we would keep on maintaining our stance that no such things existed. … Now, imagine that the majority of people in the country where you live, your friends and neighbors, your coworkers, just about everyone you encounter on a day-to-day basis is this disconnected from reality.
That’s exactly what it’s like being an atheist.