Memoirs of a “nothing”

Nothing by Nica LalliAustin Line form reviews Something to Believe In by Nica Lalli which “explores the ways in which her skeptical, freethinking atheism has intersected with the religious beliefs of the people who have moved in and out of her life. Lalli remembers that even as a child she and her family were different: everyone else she knew was “something” — Catholic, Jewish, or Presbyterian — but according to her father, her family was “nothing.”

For her parents, this was simply the way things were — with one originally Jewish and the other an Italian Catholic, it probably seemed easiest to be “nothing” if neither had any strong attachments to their ancestral religious faiths. Young Nica was devastated, though. How could she be “nothing” if all her friends were “something”? Where’s the fun in that? Nica eventually grew out of this disappointment — in large part because as she had more and more encounters with people who were “something,” she found that that something could get pretty ugly. In far too many cases, being something also meant not being a very good and friendly person.

On the one hand, Lalli’s memoir demonstrates how “nothings” like her are much like everyone else: they have many of the same concerns, fears, hopes, problems, joys, etc. On the other hand, her memoir also reveals how different they are — or perhaps I should say how differently they are treated by “somethings.” In many ways, religious theists didn’t treat Lalli so much as a real human being but rather as an object for conversion or a lesser person to be pitied and prayed for. Religious theists rarely treat each other with such contempt, even when coming from different religions; but when they encounter atheists, freethinkers, skeptics, and other nonbelievers, so much changes….

Contrary to the title of the book, though, I’m not so sure she’s a “nothing.” She may be nothing from the dominant perspective of religious theists, but why should their perspective be accepted as the natural default? I think that Nica Lalli believes in a number of things, like other people and the importance of human values — that’s definitely something.”

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