True Story: I’m Atheist

This is one of many True Story interviews, in which we talk to people who have experienced interesting/challenging/amazing things. This is the story of Millie and her relationship with Atheism.

Tell us a bit about yourself!
I’m Millie, I’m in my late twenties, and I grew up in a fairly boring stretch of suburban Southern Ontario. I’m a PhD grad student in the physical sciences at a Canadian university, and I’m cautious about putting identifying details about myself on the internet.For those of us who don’t know, can you tell us what being an Atheist means?
Atheism is the lack of belief in God, in whatever way you formulate an external deity. It’s not a belief in an anti-God, and it’s not mutually exclusive with being a spiritual person in some way. Atheists are not by a priori immoral, angry, unhappy, or selfish, though for some reason some people seem to think so.How is being an Atheist different from being Agnostic?
While an atheist does not believe in God, an agnostic is uncertain whether or not God exists. The way it’s usually framed, atheism and agnosticism are mutually exclusive — atheism is definite and absolute, while agnosticism is sort of wishy-washy. I’m not keen on this interpretation, because while I’ve been an atheist for some time now, I quite readily admit that I could be entirely wrong about it. A few weeks ago, I read a comment on a blog post that said that atheism answers a question about (lack of) faith, while agnosticism poses a question about knowledge, and since faith and knowledge are not the same thing, the two are not mutually exclusive. This was a real lightbulb moment for me.

What are the biggest misconceptions surrounding Atheism?
I think the biggest misconception is that atheists are by definition amoral, selfish people because they lack a religious moral code. This is just not true; of course some atheists are amoral and selfish, but there are amoral and selfish people in any group of humans, including those who identify as religious of any stripe. I don’t follow a moral code written in a specific holy book, but I have a strong secular ethic that I adhere to as best I can. My moral code centers around empathy, compassion and co-operation, which are all values that transcend specific religions. I try to work to make the world a better place for all of us to live in, and I do that because I think that’s simply the right thing to do. Respect, understanding and compassion are universal goals, and no one faith group can claim them solely as their own.

Can you tell us about your relationship with faith growing up?
The short answer is I didn’t have one. My parents raised me without organized religion; the only time I ever went to a church was for funerals or music lessons. While my Mom said in later years that she wished they had raised me with a religion, I’m glad they didn’t, because it allowed me to start from a clean slate when I started thinking about religion on my own. I didn’t have to step away from anything to reach my own conclusion about faith and God, and I think that made the process considerably easier than it is for some people, for whom questioning their faith can mean a rejection of their community (or their community rejecting them).

How old were you when you began to question the concept of a higher power?
I never really formulated any concept of an external God growing up, none was introduced by my parents, and any that I was exposed to otherwise didn’t stick. The main exposure to religion I had at the time was from my grandmother, and her religiousness was so cloying yet empty that I was totally uninterested. I never really questioned the concept of a higher power because I never believed in one in the first place, since it just didn’t make sense to me.

How did the people in your life react when you told them that you didn’t believe in God?
Most of them are unsurprised and unfazed, though I suspect that’s more a testament to the tolerance and acceptance of people that I associate with than evidence that atheism is well understand and accepted by everyone. I don’t go around advertising my lack of faith, because while it’s a part of who I am, it’s not the most important part or the part that most clearly defines me. That said, if someone asks, I’m quite open about it.

Many people turn to faith during challenging times in their lives – if they lose their job or go through a divorce or lose a loved one. What do you do in those situations?
I have a wonderful support circle of friends and family, and I rely on them when things get rough. Dealing with death (or other challenges) without faith cuts both ways: I don’t have the comfort of the concept of Heaven (or believing that God will see me through), but I don’t have to contend with the death of my loved one (or the challenge) being a result of that same God. Death is due to sickness or accident or whatever it was, rather than a higher being saying β€œit’s time” and leaving me to deal with the aftermath.

Do you actively debate religion with others? How do you feel about people who are religious?
I have absolutely no beef with people who are religious. Quite a few of my friends are religious to varying degrees and faiths, and they’re all lovely people who I’m very fortunate to have in my life. Tolerance works both ways: I don’t like having someone’s personal religion being forced on me, and I have no business forcing my lack of faith on someone else. I like talking about faith or lack of it, but I’m avoid debating with people I don’t know well, because it so often devolves quickly into mudslinging. I’m frustrated that both sides of the public discussion trade mostly in mud, with a heaping dose of arrogance and the occasional personal attack. It gives a bad face to atheism as a whole, and misrepresents much of the (unorganized) community.

Do you ever wish that you believed in God?
No, not at all. I see how important religion is to some people, but I find the world much easier to make sense of without having to account for an external being tweaking and planning and running the world. It’s easier for me to take the world at face value and deal with what’s laid out in front of me, rather than trying to account for something so integral to a world-view as God but which I can never fully understand.

What advice would you give to someone who’s questioning their faith?
I think trying to remove as much bias as possible from your thinking is really important. Being able to step back and look at your faith, others’ faiths, and a lack of faith in the clearest, most objective light you can is helpful for trying to determine what resonates with you personally. Don’t assume that atheists are all selfish, or that a faith of some stripe has all the answers. Ask lots of questions in good faith (ha!) and keep an open mind to what you’re hearing. But keep in mind that atheists are individuals, and just because you agree or disagree with one atheist doesn’t mean that atheism is or isn’t for you. Take your time and go with what truly resonates with you, regardless of what other people think about it.

Are any of you Atheist? Any questions for Millie?



I am an atheist. One time someone asked me where I thought people came from…when I told her evolution, baby, evolution, she made monkey whooping noises in my face. I have lived in NY, NC, SC and AK so I think I've heard it all…

I've gotten the "then why do you do the right thing?" question too. Totally get the that, Millie.

There is so much I do not understand about religious beliefs, but I do not question people on them….I wish I received the same respect.


Something about this post rubs me the wrong way, and I'm pretty sure it's the Atheist Barbie. I guess it's meant to be ironic or something, but it doesn't really help to fight against stereotypes. I will readily admit that I don't have very much humour left here, because even though I grew up in a country where atheism seems to be so much more accepted than in the U.S. I've had my share of "If your life has no meaning why don't you just kill yourself?" I haven't yet managed to rise above remarks like that and it's a bit of a touchy subject for me.

To say something about Agnosticism:
Theism and Atheism are about believing.
Agnosticism is about knowing.
Hence, Agnosticism is no "inbetween" thing, because it asks a different question; you can be an agnostic theist or an agnostic atheist if you say "I don't know for sure, but I believe that…". And then there are lots of theists and atheists who are convinced they know that there is (no) God.
Millie already explained it quite well, I just thought I'd add the explanation I got when I had my own lightbulb moment.


I consider myself agnostic and I agree with just about every sentiment in this post. I was raised Christian and decided that there was no one "right" religion for me. I'm sure Christianity's morals were a big influence on me but I like to focus on "being a good person", "being compassionate", and "treating others like you'd want to be treated". I love the way you said it – they transcend specific religious views.


I am European, and would call myself an Atheist, too. I moved to a city where religion plays a rather important role (Cologne), and people are sometimes amused by my lack of Christian background knowledge (in which I am interesteded, just lke I am interested in literature or politics). They have always taken their time to explain whatever it was I wanted to know, and there have never been harsh or judgemental words.

Only once I got into a fight with a very religious man (Christian) who tried to tell me about God at the day of a friend's funeral (27, died from an aneurysm) and I just couldn't hear it.

One of my best friends is very Catholic and gay, so I guess if he fiends his place in faith, people with faith can find a place for "us" in their lives, and vice versa.


Thanks for the post! As a Mormon in Utah (Hello Mormon Central)… it can be pretty common for one's community to reject them for choosing to be Atheists. It's pretty unfortunate to me that people would do something like that to someone else… especially because some of the most interesting people I've ever known are Atheists, and not because all I talk to them about is faith or lack thereof..

Just goes to show, I suppose.


Thanks for the post, Millie! Box Brown has been writing a comic called Everything Dies for a while now, dealing with the history of atheism as well as contemporary debates. It's very clever and often completely hilarious, check it out if you haven't seen it yet.


This post was so interesting! I guess I have a question for Millie or anyone who identifies themselves as atheist~ in advance, I'm not trying to be rude or anything!

If you are an atheist and don't believe in God or any kind of interconnectedness among humans, what is it that makes you want to "do the right thing"? What is the logic behind it? As a religious person, my perception of right and wrong and even love for other people is very much tied to my spiritual beliefs. It is hard for me to imagine what kind of person I would be if I didn't have that.

This isn't to say I think all atheists ARE unmoral and cruel, because I know that's not the case. I just want to understand how it's possible. Or even, what is the point? "It just feels like the right thing to do." has faith written all over it, so that's out. There is no karma, no "We are all God's children" no heaven and hell, no written code for atheists.

I hope I worded this in the kindest way possible, because I really don't want to disrespect anyone. This is something I've thought about for a long time! I also realize this is probably a question that atheists get asked ALL the time when discussing beliefs, so thank you to anyone patient enough to answer it again for me.


Dear Kylie, I will try to answer your question as best I can.

First of all, not believing in God does not rule out believing in an interconnectedness between people. Just as Millie said, Atheists can be spiritual. We just don't believe in the Sky Daddy Who Arranges It All.

Our 'reasons' for doing altruistic things have mostly to do with compassion and imagination. Do unto others as you would like to be treated etc. The very basic realities of living in a society, where being a nice & kind person, though not always being rewarded as you might like it, certainly has its social benefits over being a totally selfish a-hole.

Simple love/liking/findind someone or something sympathetic is also a very powerful motivator to be good.

On the more 'embarrassing' level, again the social thing of not wanting 'Them/Others' to perceive you as mean, nasty, stingy or selfish.

Another thought that springs to mind is the sign that beggars used to have in the past, which said 'hodie mihi, cras tibi?' which is Latin for: 'today I, tomorrow you?' So you give/help/care now bearing in mind it coudl be you in that situation too.

This is often a question amongst us unbelievers;-)…If one only gives/helps out of fear for God's wrath, then how sincere is this giving?

Wow , that's a whole slab of text, there…I am very interested in your thoughts on and questions about the above, and I hope I have been able to answer at least a bit of your question!

Love, Eliza


Thanks for this. Although I've never said one bad word about the religious I've had every slur imaginable hurled at me for being an atheist. Atheism is lack of belief in god. I don't worship the devil (yes, I've heard this) and of course I am a good person. Goodness for goodness sake is better to me than doing something out of the reward and punishment system advocated by religion.

I think more atheists will "come out of the closet" so to speak as the world moves towards more of a humanist perspective and churches lose more and more of their power.


Thanks, Eliza, for taking the time to answer my questions.

I guess I missed what was said about Atheism not rejecting ALL types of spirituality. That one fact changes most of what I understand about atheists. Cool. What's interesting is I don't believe there is a magical grandfather in the sky either. To me that interconnectedness between people IS God – in part anyway. But that's another discussion and I could write a novel here if I ran on about that. My point is that in the same way I didn't fully understand a part of Atheism, perhaps many Atheists don't realize that not all Christians perceive God as the "Sky Daddy" (that cracks me up, you have no idea).

I agree that giving solely for the sake of being rewarded in heaven or something like that isn't ideal, but it is certainly a motivation for many religious people! And anyway, it's still a step up from being a selfish a-hole, as you put it.

Thanks, again,


Interesting, thanks for sharing. πŸ™‚

It boggles me that people can be so certain either way. Even from a scientific viewpoint there is so much we cannot explain or understand.

It takes audacity to say, "there is (or is no) God."


I just wanted to say thanks for raising this subject as it's really quite relevant at the moment.
Kylie (and anyone else) if you want to learn more about this I would highly recommend watching Christopher Hitchens and Tony Blair's debate, 'Is religion a good force for the world?'. Very insightful and Hitchens can definately talk about atheism more eloquently than most! I quote:

"…it's found in the heart of every person in this room. Everybody knows that much. We don't require divine permission to know right from wrong. We don't need tablets administered to us ten at a time in tablet form on pain of death to be able to have a moral argument. No, we have the reasoning and the moral persuasion of Socrates and our own abilities, we don't need dictatorship to give us right from wrong"

I would also recommend reading 'God is Not Great', although I imagine it can sound quite threatening it is really quite persuasive in regards to the morality issue.


The debate itself:

Hope this is of some benefit, I suppose it will seem a bit biased but unfortunately I am an unashamed Hitchens fan-girl as well as an atheist! ^_^

Thanks again

Heather C

trevor the lion hearted

I have never been able to consider myself an atheist, primarily because I think it takes the same leap of faith to definitively believe there is absolutely NO god as it does to believe in God. I am simply a skeptic. I am not convinced that any religion's set of beliefs is right. I just believe that it's so out of our reach that we should be focusing on learning about the world and the universe around us, empirically. I mean, God gave us eyes, ears, touch, and a brain… I think that means he wants us to use the shit out of them while we are able to.


Hi everyone! Thanks for the positive feedback (and comic recommendation) — it's always nice to hear people come out of the woodwork about their atheism.

Kylie: Don't worry about asking, especially in a forum like this! Eliza covered a lot of what I was going to say (thank you!). The way I see it, we don't live in a vacuum. We live in societies and communities, and ignoring the impact that our lives have on others in a tangible sense (let alone an emotional one) is irresponsible. I don't need a religious text to tell me that I should say donate my money and time to charity — I've got a responsibility as someone with means to work towards a world where everyone has means to put food on their plate and a roof over their head. (I also identify as a socialist.) I don't feel that connection to community as spiritual, though certainly some people do.

Of course, not everyone sees things the same way, and just as there's many flavours and interpretations of say Christianity, there's many flavours and interpretations of atheism. I, for one, cannot stand Christopher Hitchens: I think he's arrogant, condescending and has a tangible contempt for religion. How he and I approach atheism are very different, even though the basic lack of belief is the same.

Fawn: This is about belief, though, not certainty of knowledge. I very readily admit that I could be entirely wrong, and if I am, fine! It wouldn't be the first time. But I don't believe that there is one, and thus, am atheist.


Not to knock Millie's experience, because I enjoyed the piece and I think atheism and agnosticism are a great thing to raise awareness of in general, however you come to it. But I'm always more interested in hearing people's stories about atheism if they include escaping from religion. My interest in the subject lies more in the transformation from one religion to none (or even to another religion) than in just growing up one way and staying that way, which to me feels almost as pat and easy as staying in your parents' religion. It's not, of course, and for every person who just accepts what they've been told all their life, I'm sure there's another person who struggles with it and has to come to their own unique acceptance of it before they can move forward.

But maybe I just favor those stories because they're more personal to me, and to most of the people I know who have come out as atheists or at least as not very "good" Christians ("good" in this case meaning homophobic, anti-abortion, gospel-of-the-rich Southern Baptist evangelicalism, such as tends to proliferate here in Alabama).



I do the right thing because I have empathy for other people. Even if they are strangers, or on the other side of the world, I know they are like me in some way, with hopes and dreams of their own, and they deserve to be live a good life just like I do. My life will be short, it will be fragile, it will happen only once ever in the entire history of humans — and so is everyone else's life. Every single one of us is valuable and we should act to make those lives as good as possible.

In the real world, there are plenty of people with empathy who are atheists, and there are some people with no empathy and no feeling for other people, and if they call themselves believers they can do worlds of wrong in the name of a god. I'd much rather know (and be) the first kind of person than the second.

Kristie Lynne

I am a Latter Day Saint (Mormon), and I really loved this post. I mainly loved her comments and respect for people who do associate themselves with a specific religion. If everyone were as tolerant as her, the world would be a much better place. Everyone deserves to be respected.

Chrissy (The New Me)

@Kylie – I'm sure I'm echoing a lot of other do-gooder atheists, but for me it's easy to see right from wrong, even without believing in a god. All humans feel pain and desire love and acceptance, no matter what their religion. I try to do the least harm and the most good I can. Obviously, my definitions of right and wrong will differ from someone else's, but even religious disagree about some points.

One of the my relatives scoffed when I told him I was a vegetarian for moral reasons, because according to him, vegetarianism isn't in the bible and you can't have morals without religion. I beg to differ. πŸ™‚


I'm an Atheist, and I'm happy you did this post! You are exactly the kind of person I want representing my religion.


I'm atheist and, being born and raised in a country where Catholicism is considered common knowledge (Italy… and even though Vatican is another State it is always considered in the italian parlament too…), sometimes it's hard.

Though sometimes I wish I believed and had faith, just to be able to close my eyes and wish for someone up there to help me, maybe this makes me agnostic… but in the end I really love the idea that I am the one and only responsable for my life and also for others.

Thanx to Millie for pointing out that atheist DO have morals πŸ™‚

Emy Jo

This was indeed a great post, and was so totally respectful of all viewpoints. That's why, and I hope this isn't going to sound too nitpicky, it really bothers me when Eliza answered Kylie's question very nicely, but chose to start the whole thing off by referring to God as "Sky Daddy Who Arranges It All." Sure, Eliza doesn't believe in God, but that's no reason to use a belittling pseudonym.

To be fair, if we're going to couch this discussion in respect, let's keep all our comments respectful.


@ Emy Jo. Thanks for pointing that out to me, reflecting on that, it indeed wasn't a respectful thing to say. I sometimes do tend to sacrifice other people's feelings on the altar of (perceived) humour and over-the-top-ness.

Then again, I insult everybody equally, so you don't have to worry there! πŸ˜‰


Loved this guest post, and interesting comments afterwards!

I am an atheist also, and the question about 'why do you do the right / moral thing' etc astounded me! I may be naive but I never really considered that people would think atheists to be amoral!

It makes sense to treat people the way you want to be treated, to be kind to all, inclusive of all. Love & acceptance goes a long way in this world.


This just seems sort of odd, because I guess I would identify myself as atheist, but I have never experienced any sort of questions from people I have met as to how I know what is right etc. It seems to me you have to be pretty pessimistic or a little bit crazy that people only do things because their faith tells them to. There is a whoooole lot of bad things that happen because of religion as well.

I guess I just believe in "free choice" following a religion seems to me more like believing in fate.

Katie, Interrobangs Anonymous

I'm not an atheist, but I do count Millie as one of my dearest friends. And I'm so thankful to have a friend who is so frank, honest, compassionate, thoughtful and considerate – both in what she does and how she treats others.

Before I knew Millie, my idea of an atheist was largely based on Richard Dawkins (as a biologist you can't escape him), and it was a representation that less than thrilled me. Millie (and others) have shown me a definition of atheism that I respect and value for what it adds to the world's discussions of faith, morals, and humanity.

Well done, darling!


Kylie, I must say your question seems genuinely driven by curiosity, not judgement, so I appreciate that. Having said that, I find it hard to understand why you think faith is the only reason for trying to be a good person.Is your motivation to do the right thing driven exclusively by the fear of God's judgement if you don't? Would you lie, cheat and steal if God took the day off? Surely not…

I've always thought that doing the right thing for the sake of being a kind person is a perfectly good reason. I don't do it for recognition or getting into heaven. I do it because, well, it seems like the right thing to do. I don't think that reeks of faith.


I grew up in a very conservative catholic family. As a teenagers all the incongruities of the religious foundation made me take something of a break. As a child I was sent home from Sunday school with a note to my mother that I was to enquisitive, among other things I had asked how on earth the universe could have been created in 7 days. And how was there light before there was a sun?

As an adult I returned to a more progressive and liberal catholic church. I don't reject science and my partner who is catholic as well is an astro physicist. I'm a tolerant person, or so I imagine myself to be anyway. People are fit to live and categorise their lives the way they want, including religious affiliation or none. I have, unfortunately, run into many atheists and agnostics who do their best in telling me how I'm wrong and they're right. Among other things sciences are invoked. How could I quite possibly believe in a deity when there's no scientific basis to back it up, or believe in a god when the world is obviously messed up (a k a the theodice problem).

All in all it goes towards respect. I respect you when you respect me. I don't try to push my belief onto others. I imagine that people are quite capable to make a decision themselves. I can't explain faith. It's just something I feel but which remains un-explainable.

The most fringe parts of religion is the urge to war over whose beliefs are the most correct. I still can't wrap my brain around the concept of killing thousands of people out of the belief that their beliefs are wrong.


Hi Laura,

It's not really that I thought faith was the only reason, because I personally know atheists who are amazing people, who add a lot of good to the world. And look how many atheists are commenting here, and duh, you just can't read yes and yes and be a crappy person. πŸ™‚

I asked that question because I just didn't understand WHY an atheist would even care about being a good person.

It's hard to explain, but for me, "doing the right thing" isn't about being rewarded after death (I mentioned that because I know that is the case for some people.) My reasons for being a good person are the same as what many people have said here. I view other humans as a part of my family basically. The whole thing feels spiritual to me, and that's why I wasn't able to understand how atheists could feel that way. I now see that they can, and also that it is possible to feel those things without having it be related to a God or anything. It all comes down to me misunderstanding what atheism was, I guess!

I hope this makes sense, it's hard to explain..

Thank you so much for answering my question everyone.. I learned a lot today. πŸ™‚


Being an atheist doesn't exclude, nor should it for anyone, respect for others and a basic sense of moral and ethics. Morality need not be of a religious nature, or call it a set of convictions. Not surprisingly every culture on the planet seem to be built on some universal rules of society as to what is acceptable and what isn't. Murder is un-acceptable, as is marrying within family (con-sanguinity) although the concept of who you are related to varies. The "rules" are not bound so a specific religion, rather they are tied to a basic premise of survival. I don't mean this to be utterly darwinian in its worst form (think King of the Flies) nor The Selfish Gene. Merely it is a set of laws that allow a culture to thrive.
There are more examples but then this would turn into quite an essay.


This is an absolutely fantastic post – thank you so much. I'm 15 and have been exploring what I believe, especially in the last few months, actually. I consider myself an atheist – I've been brought up without religion and although I am extremely ready to admit that I could be wrong, I don't believe that there is a God. I've been talking with a good friend (who is very active in her Catholic church) about our beliefs and I've started to figure out what I think.

Echoing many of the beliefs in these brilliant comments, I do the right thing because we live in societies, we are social creatures. All in all, we are just another of nature's species gifted with something extraordinary – the human brain – which has allowed us to be able to make up for some of our other physical shortcomings – we can fly, we can travel extremely fast, we can talk across oceans etc. I believe that everyone in our society has something to help the human species survive or to assist in making life easier or more pleasant for everyone else in the society – we're pretty much one big family and we do what we can for each other. I'm yet to figure out how people who do things like kill others fit into this idea – I guess I'm still working on it. πŸ™‚

I guess this is similar to Kylie's belief that we're all connected – I believe it's through society and she believes it's through a God. To be honest, I don't think that matters – belief and spirituality is personal, but the wish for a functioning, happy, purposeful society is mostly universal.

I'm very interested in hearing what everyone else thinks. Thanks again for such a fabulous and necessary post.

April in Autumn

I loved this post! I grew up Catholic and identified myself as agnostic for awhile before starting to work for the Catholic church and now I'm pretty much back to being Catholic, having realized that I wasn't aware of all the nuances the religion can have.

I was just discussing with my roommate the other day atheism and agnosticism. I thought they were mutually exclusive and told her so. I LOVE Stefanie's comment up toward the top. It definitely gave me an A-HA! moment. I think I can now qualify myself as an agnostic Catholic if that makes sense.

I love talking religion and spirituality and, Millie, I would love to hear more from you. It makes me very happy when people of all different belief systems can have a conversation that enriches each others' beliefs rather than engenders hatred.

I just discovered yes and yes today and will definitely be reading this regularly.


Hey Sarah! Thanks for including this post; it's an interesting read, as always. I think it's fascinating, too, how many atheists do "come out of the woodwork" (as a commenter above phrased it) when given the chance (that said, I think it'd be super interesting to somehow take a poll of your readers and see where we stand!).

For the record, I also consider myself an atheist, despite (or, perhaps, because of! [JUST KIDDING]) being raised Catholic (all-girls school, plaid skirt, et al!). Though I still have Catholic friends, for me, it was the ultimate liberation letting go of a religion that did not speak to me personally (as much as I wanted it to when I was younger!).

Or maybe I just feel liberated because now I walk around without pants on, in search of an orgy.



I'm with them ^^ … and the dyslexic agnostics who wonder if there ever really was a dog.


Wow, if I had written this post it would have sounded exactly the same (if I could find such eloquent words)!

I didn't grow up in a religious family, though I have been to many services in various churches and other places of worship, and I simply never felt connected to them.

I feel that I am the opposite of Kylie, I generally consider myself a good person and try to make the world a better place and I don't see how that needs spirituality or God. Others above have explained this better however, so I won't go into detail.

For those people trying to figure out their own spirituality, I think that this post is an excellent beginning point to help them understand atheism, thank you Millie!


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