I attended a private Christian school with a strong evangelical bent for 11th and 12th grade. There was one particular teacher there who I connected with so closely that he became almost a family member to me. He fostered my intellectual development in a way no other teacher had, praised my creative writing and singing, and supported me emotionally when I was struggling with abuse at home and undiagnosed mental illness. I used to spend hours with him – both in his classroom after school and over email – discussing philosophy, politics, literature, theology, music, psychology… anything my anxious, nerdy mind could grapple with. He was my intellectual mentor and the person who taught me almost everything I know about theology and epistemology.
We continued our friendship into my college years, but (as is the way of many life changes) our relationship eventually dropped off, and as of the time of this post, I have not spoken to him in about 3 years. For context, I have been involved in the atheist community in varying degrees for about 2 and a half years, and totally out as trans for about a year.
This is an open letter to that teacher.
Last night I dreamed that I went to visit you, and I had a lot of explaining to do.
Your classroom door was open when I approached. You were teaching Biblical Worldview to a gaggle of baby-faced, credulous 16 year olds – just like I was when I first met you – showing them a video on the follies of non-Christian ideologies. As I waited outside for your class to conclude, I watched along. At one point, the video cut to a few heavily edited and out-of-context clips from The Atheist Experience, which the narrator amusingly referred to as The Life Of The Atheist. Matt Dillahunty and Phil Session were on, explaining to a caller that some percentage of people who self-identify as atheist later express regret at their decision to leave religion. (I have no idea what the stats really say on that or even if it’s ever even been measured, but hey, this is a dream universe.) Before they could elaborate or clarify, the clip ended, the narrator matter-of-factly stating something akin to, “Even atheists agree that a worldview without God is devoid of hope and meaning.”
When your class was dismissed and you had finished cleaning up, you walked out of the classroom to find me in the hallway. After the hugs and joyful tears were exchanged, you asked if I saw the video you played for the class, and what I thought of it. As I was forming my thoughts to speak, I realized that I couldn’t answer honestly and still be the same person you used to know, because you didn’t know the current me.
You have no idea that I’m no longer a Christian, much less much less an atheist activist. You don’t know that I contribute to a podcast and a blog focused on LGBTQ issues in a non-religious context. You don’t even know my current name, since the last time we spoke was about 2 years before I changed it socially, and over 2 and half before it became my legal name.
I knew my answer to your question about the video would be surprising for you, so I tried to soften the blow a bit by leading up to it slowly, hedging. “Well… I actually watch that show, The Atheist Experience. Every week. Actually, I know some of the people involved in that show, and I don’t think what the video showed was true to what they actually believe. It left out a lot of things.” Distancing myself from the “them” of the hosts and strategically declining to state my own opinions on the subject, I explained that in the broader context of the quote, the hosts relayed that the research attributed the majority of this dissatisfaction among a minority of atheists to social pressures like loss of community, family conflict and discrimination rather than the lack of belief in deities itself.
And like you always do, you listened and learned. Just like you did in reality when I told you about my bisexuality, as I would have called it then. Just like when I told you that I’m not actually a girl, that last time I brought dinner to your house and you prayed over the meal while I sat quietly with my eyes opened. You didn’t preach or judge or condemn or pull out your Bible to show me that I was wrong. You listened, asked sincere and well-thought-out questions, made some brilliantly groan-worthy puns, and left your own prejudices behind.
As we continued to talk in the dream, you dragged more and more nuggets of Ari-truth out of me. I mentioned briefly and flippantly that I now co-host a podcast called the Gaytheist Manifesto. Then, as if I were drunk, I felt a sudden compulsion to divulge everything. (“Look, I know this is going to disappoint you, but let me explain this fully. I’m polyamorous, which means I’m in love with more than one person at once…”) And even when you didn’t understand or have the vocabulary to place these concepts in your mental framework, you listened to me.
I don’t remember much more than that, but I’ve been thinking about this dream all day. I don’t believe that dreams have any sort of special, hidden meanings behind them. There’s no spiritual or Freudian symbology behind them that one needs a dream dictionary to interpret. Psychology hasn’t yet determined the exact set of factors that influence the contents of dreams, but according to one of my undergrad professors who is a sleep expert, dreams mostly consist of imagery, themes and emotions that occurred during the preceding waking period. The process of dreaming serves to strengthen neural connections that were created during waking and thereby consolidates memory.
All that is a nerdy way to say, I don’t think there was any sort of overarching fate behind the contents of my dream. No god planted that in my mind; no nebulous cosmic force influenced my sleep imagery with omens. It may have just been totally random, a byproduct of specific areas of my brain being activated and bringing to mind memories of the past. But I’m glad I did have this dream, because it got me thinking about time and circumstances, and how they’ve changed me into someone you may not fully recognize or understand if you were to see me now.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m very, very proud of my current self. It may not even be too terribly different from the version of myself you knew, the one you now hold in your mind as the Platonic ideal of me. I still have the same esoteric sense of humor, the same passion for pursuing knowledge and nuance, and the same fear of losing control of my mind that I used to write to you about when I was experience the height of my panic disorder. But there are lots of things about me that are different now. Some of them were inside me all along, waiting until it was safe to come out. Some of them were simply a result of chance events building on one another to result in an incremental but ultimately monumental outcome.
I think about what you would say if I told you I don’t believe in any gods anymore, much less the God of the Bible. You were one of the first people I came to when I was first filled with the Holy Spirit, and I still remember well the joy you expressed when I told you the news that I had been saved in spite of my many months of pestering you with relentless cynicism and doubt in Worldview class. I drifted away from the faith again in the years after that, but even when we were still close I didn’t let on about it to you. I didn’t want to take that joy away from you. I didn’t want you to worry about me and the fate of my soul. I didn’t want to disappoint you.
Would you be disappointed in me now if you knew who I’ve become since then? If I told you that I inject myself in the thigh once a week with testosterone out of a vial, would you furrow your brow in confusion, or would put your thumb to your chin with a curious smile and ask a hundred questions about every relevant aspect of endocrinology, anatomy and psychology that you could conceive of? If I told you I changed my name, would you tell me my new name suits me better, or would you mourn for the old one that I hate? If I told you that I co-host an atheist-targeted podcast about LGBTQ issues, would you express sadness at the loss of my relationship with Jesus, or would you ask for links to my favorite episodes and begin an hours-long discussion about how to be a better ally to queer and trans people? If I told you I’m in some form of romantic relationship with three different people right now, would you recoil at the rebellion against God’s plan for love, or would you earnestly want to learn about relationship arrangements you weren’t previously aware of?
What would you say if I told you that the critical thinking and reasoning skills you spent hundreds of hours fostering in me inside and outside the classroom caused me to abandon your religion? What if you knew that by teaching me in-depth about apologetics, you armed me with the very ammunition I now use to try to convince your peers to discard their belief system? What would you think if I told you I went to Washington, D.C. this summer to gather with thousands of other atheists to protest your religion’s influence in our secular government? What if I told you I make fun of your deeply-held beliefs on a daily basis and that I think you have no good evidence on which to rest the foundation of your life?
Would that hurt you? Would you be saddened and confused by the life that gives me so much fulfilment? Would you pray for me and petition the god I no longer believe in to guide me back to the religion I’m now both intellectually and morally opposed to? Would you wish I could return to the days before I understood my gender, when things seemed so much more simple and natural from the outside?
Or would you be proud of me for becoming myself? Would you look at me and see someone who is more genuine, fulfilled, confident and comfortable in my own skin than the me you used to know? Would you be glad that I and my community don’t live up to your expectation that most atheists are perpetually angry, despondent and selfish people? Would you hug me like always and challenge me to our customary six-hour-long verbal sparring match?
And most importantly for you, would you usher in a whole new host of puns based on my new name?
I don’t know if I’ll ever get the courage to send this to you. I hope I do, because I want you to get to know me again. Not the me you used to know, but the real, current me. The one named Ari. The one with the same cynical bite, the same crippling fear of failure and the same inexplicable love of all things Japanese that you remember… just with broader shoulders, more healthy skepticism, and less giving a shit about social norms than before. Because even though I’m anxious about the prospect of disappointing you, I really want to hear you say you’re proud of me.