Kate Cohen says, to save the country, atheists should make themselves known

— Photo by KT Kanazawich

Kate Cohen sits on the porch of the New Scotland farmhouse where she and her husband, Adam Greenberg, raised their three children.


NEW SCOTLAND — When Kate Cohen became a mother a quarter-century ago, she decided she would not lie to her children.

That decision led to her third book, published this week: “We of Little Faith: Why I Stopped Pretending to Believe (And Maybe You Should Too).”

“Basically, I finally took a stand against passing on a religious tradition I didn’t believe in. And I was very scared to do it and nervous about it even though I was a grown woman, which is a little embarrassing but there you go,” Cohen says in this week’s Enterprise podcast.

She started her journalism career, right out of Dartmouth College, as a reporter for The Altamont Enterprise three decades ago. She is now a contributing columnist for The Washington Post.

Cohen and her husband, Adam Greenberg, raised three children on their New Scotland farm. The children, now grown, inform the book as Cohen relates the conversations she had with them as they  learned about the world.

Her book is more exploration than polemic.

The first part of the two-part book is a coming-out story as Cohen evolves to embrace being an atheist. She was brought up in a Reform Jewish congregation in a small town in Virginia, the daughter of a college professor.

What Cohen calls the “memoir part” of her book, she says, does not portray “a very arduous journey” from Reformed Jew to atheist. “It’s not the most dramatic story that a person could tell,” she says

 It lacks the drama of a hero’s journey, says Cohen. “It’s not that I was ever really threatened because of being an atheist.”

Rather, she explains, “It was all about these tiny little moments in your head where you don’t want to correct someone in a conversation because you want to have a pleasant interaction or you don’t want people to think that they aren’t smart or that they believe something that’s incorrect.”

Cohen found instead, when she was honest, conversations opened and relationships improved.

If the first part of her book is a coming-out story, the second part is a how-to DIY manual. Cohen, in seven chapters, looks at ways atheists can deal with what religions offer: dealing with death when there is no afterlife, celebrating holidays, knowing right from wrong, finding places to gather, praying, going through rites of passage, and unplugging from a higher power.

“I do love churches,” says Cohen, “and what I love about them is that they render in physical space the ideas and values that people hold.” Her book suggests that, say, Baker Library at Dartmouth College, with its Green-facing gravitas, spire, and tower, is a sacred center for the campus.

“It could be your minor-league baseball park; it could be your favorite theater,” says Cohen. For her family, it was a local music studio where her children learned and performed.

“It’s kind of magical, these spaces that are, strictly speaking, not necessary for the continuance of human life, right? I mean, we can survive without them but we build these things because certain ideas are important to us.”

Holidays are important because they mark time, which was a point underlined during the pandemic shutdown, says Cohen.

“More importantly,” she says, “they help us take a moment to pause and look around us and rejoice, celebrate.” She says she loves to be part of Christmas or Jewish holidays but they don’t give her “that real sense of transcendence” because she doesn’t believe in the stories that are central to the core of those holidays.

Still, looking at, say, the Passover story as literature, Cohen said, she found ways to make it resonate.  “Or I found ways to think about Hanukkah that wasn’t like ‘This story is really true.’ And more like: We should celebrate light and we should celebrate beauty.”

Her family also developed their own holidays, like the midwinter holiday, International Pizza Day.

“It celebrates the things that my family values, which is getting people together, cooking things from scratch, being a little bit silly, taking things that are cheap — like flour and water — and turning them into things that are wondrous like pizza dough.”

In her book’s epilogue, Cohen calls on atheists to make themselves known.

She gives two reasons why atheists should “out” themselves. The first is to give others permission to live their lives more honestly.

“I wrote this book,” she says, “to give courage to people who don’t believe in God as a supernatural being in charge of the universe — and I think there’s a lot of those people.”

She concedes, “Some people are in situations where it would be risky professionally, or for their kids. And I feel like that gives me, as a person who’s in the Northeast, who’s white, who is surrounded by liberal people, whose families are all more or less understanding, it’s more incumbent on people like me to self-identify because some people can’t.”

The second reason atheists should make themselves known is to “save the country.” Cohen writes, “Religion is at the center of every battle against scientific and social progress.”

While writing the book started as “a personal journey” for Cohen, “a discussion of the personal rewards of being honest with your kids,” the changing politics in America have forced the second point.

“A lot of our rights are under threat now and specifically because of the rise of Christian nationalism and the weakening of the protections of the Establishment Clause; the separation of church and state is no longer the … lodestar for the judicial system.

“When I started writing, I wasn’t worried that there would, for example, be a Catholic school that was chartered as a public school in Oklahoma, which just happened. I wasn’t worried about religious liberty as a concept being used to excuse discrimination against the LGBTQ community.

“So,” Cohen concludes, “things have changed and I feel more and more … it is an important political act, if you don’t believe in God, to make that clear to other people and to make it clear that you don’t believe that any public policy should be based on the law of a fictional character.”


The 248-page hardcover edition of “We of Little Faith,” published by Godine, costs $28.95 and is available on Kindle for $11.95.


More News

The Altamont Enterprise is focused on hyper-local, high-quality journalism. We produce free election guides, curate readers' opinion pieces, and engage with important local issues. Subscriptions open full access to our work and make it possible.