Why I Envy Atheists

Every so often you read a book or watch a film that you need to put down or look away from because it cuts too close to the bone.

So it was for me the other night when my husband and I finally finished watching the 1981 British television adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s novel, Brideshead Revisited, an 11 episode meditation on privilege, family, religion and sexuality, all set in England between the Wars.

Most people – even those who haven’t read the book or seen the series – use  “Brideshead” as shorthand for the flamboyant excesses of the British aristocracy on its last legs. And make no mistake, there’s no shortage of champagne flutes, dinner jackets and preposterously polite banter. In short, it’s the kind of thing that Americans tend to lap up. (See: Upstairs, Downstairs, Gosford Park and most recently, Downton Abbey.)

The actors are to die for. The series launched Jeremy Irons’ career and also features outstanding performances by Diana Quick, Anthony Andrews, Lawrence Olivier and more. Plus, any film that dwells on extensive bouts of family conflict, alcoholism and unspoken homo-eroticism? I’m there.

So that was all well and good. But as the series wore on, it became increasingly clear that this wasn’t just another voyeuristic journey into the heart of Oxbridge-bred England. Rather, it was essentially a protracted tale of one family’s inexorable, inter-generational and self-destructive struggle with Catholicism.

I’ve written before about my own personal struggles with my family’s faith. How my husband and I have tried, through the years, to reconcile my religious Catholic upbringing with his cultural Jewish identity. And how that has led me to become, begrudgingly, over time, a sort of reluctant secularist.

What Brideshead Revisited added to that equation was the pain and guilt that goes along with that decision. I wanted desperately, as I watched, to identify with Charles Ryder, the protagonist of the story. He is the stoic, eternally rational hero who can’t quite fathom why this otherwise well-educated and cultured family in which he has become enmeshed – The Flytes – is so hopelessly caught up in their Roman Catholic faith.

Instead, I ended up identifying with Julia, his beloved, who tries her very best to leave her religion (and thus, to some extent, her family) by embracing Charles (and divorce and modernity) and the skepticism it implies. In the end, however, it’s too much for her and she can’t quite bring herself to do it. It breaks her heart, but she chooses the Church over her true love. It is her destiny.

I won’t do that. I left the church long ago and save a few masses here and there and the occasional compunction to pray on airplanes, I don’t think I’ll ever go back to Catholicism. Or any other religion, for that matter.  Even Judaism.

But I experience that as a loss. And it’s a painful one.

And that’s why I envy all the atheists I know, who make up about 90% of the people around me, including my husband. They don’t share this anguish. It doesn’t keep them awake at night.

I would love to have that peace of mind.

But I don’t.

And that, my friends, is one price of adulthood. At least mine.


Image: IMG_2994 by Franie Frou Frou via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.


  • Reply Naomi J. Williams

    November 8, 2011, 10:12 pm

    Boy, can I relate. And I did the first time I watched “Brideshead” back in the early 80s, when I was an evangelical Protestant teenager dating a Catholic classmate over the objections of parents and church “friends” (my family & my church, not his). I, too, went on to leave my faith and marry a secular Jew, and his lack of spiritual angst is something I truly envy. I now find myself in this weird middle space, freaked out by devoutly religious people of any stripe but deeply offended by the smugness of atheists who dismiss all religious faith as if it were some form of arrested development. It’s all so much more complicated than either side make it out to be! I do have to say I flinch when non-religious people claim to “envy” people of faith. It always sounds a bit superior, like when well-endowed women see fit to tell me they “envy” flat-chested women. Yeah, right.

    • Reply delialloyd

      November 9, 2011, 11:40 am

      Yes, @Naomi, I know that you are a fellow traveler. I don’t think there are too many of us, at least in our circles and I think you and I move in the same demo, as it were. I remember having a chat with a philosopher friend of mine once who quipped, “I can”t believe in God; it’s bad for business.” It was funny and true. But when I said that I did – or at least that I was agnostic – he looked like he might fall over. It was like he suddenly realized that he didn’t really know me at all. And I completely understood why. One of these days you and I must have a long chat about this, here, there or in between…hang in there, sister.

  • Reply alex

    November 8, 2011, 11:37 pm

    I liked this a lot. Thanks for sharing. I still tend to find myself in childhood, which is why I wanted to make sure that you had heard/ seen this from Steve Martin…one of my favs:




    • Reply delialloyd

      November 9, 2011, 11:43 am

      Thanks, Alex. This made my day. I’m going to include it in my Friday pix and also share with a few of my near and dear atheist buds. It just screams “share me!” Thanks so much for dropping by.

  • Reply daryl boylan

    November 14, 2011, 8:24 pm

    To be a true atheist one has to be sure about it. The older I get the less sure I am about anything (except certain people), but I can’t say that keeps me awake nights. I have long since come to terms with liking certain things about religion (in my case, Roman Catholicism, but pick any persuasion) & rejecting others. This has been sneered at as “cafeteria Catholicism”, but when the shoe fits…as for “Brideshead”, I loved the book — even more the TV film — and much as I deplored the religious craziness, I have known in real life good people who were even nuttier on the subject.

  • Reply Jenny

    November 15, 2011, 4:35 am

    I’ve always found it to be a very moving series, as is the book (worth reading, even tho’ the TV adaptation was quite faithful). The position of Catholics in British aristocracy is also worth exploring in more detail. Can’t for the life of me remember the books a friend recommended on the topic.

    Every time I see this series, I ponder Julia’s dilemma. I think once the spiritual conscience is enlivened, it can’t be turned off.

    • Reply delialloyd

      November 15, 2011, 6:51 am

      Thanks for such a thoughtful response, Jenny. I couldn’t put it more eloquently. Julia’s dilemma really spoke to me and you could feel the anguish in her decision. Thanks for stopping by.

  • Reply Lynn Townsend

    November 15, 2011, 4:50 pm

    I’m an atheist who envies people with faith. I don’t mean it as superior or condescending or anything else negative that Naomi is implying. I wish I did have faith. I’ve watched faith comfort a lot of my friends who are religious. But I don’t have that comfort. I don’t feel that anyone is looking out for me, or that anyone cares when my life is hard. I don’t believe that anyone’s got a “plan” when kids are in pain, when people are starving to death, when there is war and hatred. I don’t think that these people will be better off after they die and get their reward in Heaven. I wish I could feel it, but I don’t, and I don’t believe that it’s right of me to pretend that I do.

    • Reply delialloyd

      November 15, 2011, 5:01 pm

      Yes Lynn I completely agree. I think that’s one of the reasons that I’m reluctant to call myself an atheist. I don’t like to think of the emptiness – and lack of comfort, as you say – that comes with acknowledging this, even if part of me suspects that it may be the case. I know it’s not rational, but it is a sort of emotional resistance to giving up some modicum of faith, along with other things. Thanks for weighing in.

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