“When people tell me all the problems they have with organized religion, I think to myself, ‘Well, yeah, but you’ve got to admit, it is organized.'”
That’s how Washington Post columnist and author Kate Cohen opened her talk last week at an event in Washington, DC co-hosted by the American Humanist Association and Washington Ethical Society.
Cohen was in DC to talk about her recently released book, We of Little Faith: Why I Stopped Pretending to Believe (And Maybe You Should Too), which chronicles her journey of embracing her atheism and raising her children as freethinkers.
“For years, I pretended to believe — sometimes through outright deception and sometimes through simply not correcting the assumption — that my beliefs matched my behavior. Why did I pretend?” Cohen said.
For Cohen, it all comes down to niceties and optics. Growing up as one of the few Jewish families in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, she assumed that everyone else’s beliefs matched their behavior. That everyone else in her synagogue believed that a supreme being was listening to their prayers, and she didn’t want to go against the grain and be different.
“I read for context clues, and I understood that a good person, a likable person, a normal person, believed in God. Americans believed in God,” she said.
In her remarks to the crowd, Cohen detailed various stages of her life where religion seemed to be an ever-present undercurrent — in college, while writing her first book, and even her marriage ceremony. But it was having children and becoming a mother that gave Cohen the push she needed to begin vocalizing her nonbelief a little louder.
“I thought, here are these little developing brains, and it’s my job to shape them and to help them understand the world around them. I conceived an almost physical aversion to telling my kids something I didn’t believe to be true. And I didn’t believe God was anything other than a very popular human invention. So, that is what I told them,” she said.
Cohen’s talk covered many aspects of her book, We of LIttle Faith, which she says can be broken down into two parts. The first half of the book entails stories from Cohen’s past that help to illustrate one key takeaway: we can all overcome the fear we may feel by speaking our truth as nonbelievers.
The second part of the book includes stories from Cohen’s past that encourage the reader to examine and evaluate aspects of their own relationship to religion. Cohen recognized that there are positive aspects of aligning oneself with religion, which could make nonbelievers hesitant to speak their truth.
“What do people get from religion? Do we need it? And if so, how can we nonbelievers get it?” she said.
Cohen argued that there are some tangible benefits to organized religion, and the second half of her book includes stories about how she navigated motherhood as a nonbeliever, covering everything from death and rites of passage to holidays and celebrations.
Ultimately, Cohen wants We of Little Faith to be a book that spurs reflection and discussion about our relationship to organized religion as a society.
“We of Little Faith simply aims to encourage nonbelievers to be more honest. And it aims to make everyone — believers and nonbelievers — think a little bit more about the culture that we live in, and which parts of how we were raised we want to keep going, and which parts we maybe don’t,” she said.
Cohen’s hour-long talk included a Q&A portion with in-person and virtual attendees, which can be viewed in full here.
If you’d like to learn more about Cohen or purchase a copy of We of Little Faith, you can do so here.