I’m afraid one of my new friends will find out I’m not religious. One of the first times I met her, she told me she didn’t like hanging out with another group of people because so many of them were atheist and she herself is religious.
I found myself smiling uncomfortably, wondering what I should say. I’m an atheist, but it’s only recently I’ve felt free and secure enough to openly say that. Growing up in the Bible belt, I definitely did not.
My entire childhood, I always thought there was something missing in my life since I didn’t have a religion while everyone else I knew did. My parents were Mormon before I was born, but left the church a few months after I received my blessing. After a few years of bouncing around, my family started going to the Unitarian Universalist church, but stopped once it got ‘too Pagan’ for my mom. Other than that, we weren’t excessively religious. The extent of my religious education at home was my mom buying me a Bible coloring book and telling me I needed to be familiar with these stories because they were important to our culture.
This made me an instant target for the religious people surrounding me. I wasn’t actually smart enough when I was a child to keep it to myself and I remember loudly commenting in elementary school that the Bible should probably be in the fiction section. Shortly thereafter, a classmate started trying to ‘win my soul’ and would follow me around during recess and read me the bible. When she moved away, she wrote me letters for many years imploring me to get saved and mentioning the ABCs:
Admit you are a sinner
Believe that Jesus Christ is the son of god
Confess your sins.
I never did, and eventually I stopped replying. Eventually, so did she.
Not having a church meant I had Sundays and Wednesday nights free…to get invited to go to church with my friends. In a lot of ways, I didn’t mind because I got to hang out with my friends and they had quite a bit of fun. Then we would watch videos about kids who died and weren’t saved and how they would spend eternity getting poked with sticks in hell fire and my friend would give me nervous glances all throughout.
It’s no wonder I thought I was the weird one. When I hit adolescence, I started thinking about getting a religion. Christianity was out–continuous soul-winning efforts had made me perfectly immune and I was already ethnically christian, anyway. But I did like Judaism. Oldest monotheistic religion in the world, still going strong and they’ve been persecuted nearly ever where! They must be on to something. But I didn’t convert. I knew Judaism was pretty iffy on having converts and I learned that if you converted to reform, orthodox Jews wouldn’t accept you. Just as in every thing else in the world, every religion has its idea of what a real Jew/Christian/Muslim/Hindu/Buddhist/etc. and you probably don’t qualify and are going to hell. Sorry.
Secondly, I figured if I actually did convert I’d have to marry someone who was also Jewish and I didn’t feel like narrowing the dating pool anymore than it already was.
So I looked into Buddhism. Buddhism is a fun religion and I actually agree with a lot of the things it says. Wanting is a large source of unhappiness in the world and not wanting anymore would be a good thing to accomplish. But I read a few books on Buddhism by western converts and that put me off it. What is is about western converts to Buddhism that makes them all so damn sanctimonious? My Actual Buddhist friends weren’t like that. They even invited me to go to a celebration at their temple, but my mom forbade me to go. Maybe she was afraid I would convert.
But there were always my Christian friends, a clear majority in my group of friends, though it also had Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists. One of my friends and I actually discussed religion quite a bit and she convinced me to read “Mere Christianity” by C.S. Lewis. He was an atheist convert to Anglicism and a pretty horrible writer in my opinion, but maybe that’s what happens when you read the Chronicles of Narnia when you’re 16 instead of 6. Oh well. I got to the chapter on “Christian Marriage” before I gave up, but I did agree with a lot of things he said. Like how “Love thy neighbor as thyself” means you should make allowances for your neighbors’ faults just as you make allowances for your own. You love yourself in spite of your imperfections, so you should do the same for others as well. Makes sense. Doesn’t explain what you should do if you don’t love yourself and can’t tolerate your imperfections. I guess you just hate everyone then?
I enjoyed discussing religion with my Christian friends. It was a nice change from just getting preached to about how I was going in hell and I was genuinely curious. Then I posted a quote by Richard Dawkins to my friend and she got really upset:
We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.
In all fairness, I didn’t actually know who Richard Dawkins was at the time. I thought the quote made a good point. No one worships the Greek or Roman gods anymore, after all. Well, maybe some loonies do. But loonies.
But it was the last time we discussed religion. After that, the fun in the debate was gone. Areliigious people growing up surrounded by religious people are required to respect religion and I think it causes you to grow up thinking you’re inferior to those with religion. You have to respect their beliefs, but they don’t have to respect yours.
Religious people claim the moral high ground. A friend of my sister’s who I never thought as religious caught me completely off guard when we were at her house for dinner and they prayed before the meal. I asked my sister about it later and she told me they had also started going to church so her daughter would “grow up with good morals.”
Aside from the fact that going to church doesn’t actually make you moral, this is pretty common in the Bible Belt. So common that they actually have churches people can go to that aren’t really religious. It’s just so you can feel like you’re going to church and, more importantly, have a church to refer to when people ask you what church you go to. Because that does happen.
Then I moved out East. Obviously there are still religious people out here, but it’s not as religious as the bible belt. I think I know 4 people out here who go to church regularly. There rest of us…atheists. When discussing religion, one of my friends said he was an atheist, but considered himself an “ethnic Christian” because that’s his cultural background. He celebrates Christmas and (kind of) Easter. I didn’t realize how stressful it was to be constantly feel like you were the strange one for not being religious until I moved to an area where people were less religious. I’m now ok with saying I’m an atheist, but knowing that atheists are overall the most hated group in America, I don’t wear this on my chest. I like to keep it under wraps. If I don’t know someone well, or I know that they’re religious, I just tell them I’m areligious, or an agnostic. Saying you’re an atheist tends to be very confrontational and everyone takes it badly.
I’m a negative atheist. That means I don’t believe there is evidence that a god exists. My husband, on the other hand, is a positive atheist. He thinks that there is evidence that god does not exist.
Strangely enough, he’s the one who grew up with a more religious background. He’s been baptized and confirmed in the Finnish Lutheran Church. His mother is religious for a Finn and goes to church about 4 times a year. She doesn’t believe in evolution and prayed with our kids when we went out without them.
My husband left the church when he was 15 and it took him a while to lose the feeling that he would go to hell if he didn’t believe in god. He was actually quite afraid and now considers religion to be child abuse since you’re essentially telling children they will go to hell where they will be tortured if they don’t believe a certain thing. He later became involved with a movement to get people to leave the Finnish State church, which is funded by an optional tax. By leaving the church, you no longer have to pay the tax. It bothers him to no end that the rest of his family are still members. His sisters aren’t particularly religious, but ‘it’s tradition.’
He’d be perfectly fine if our kids were raised without any religious input whatsoever. But, like my mom, I understand that it’s an important part of American culture. So I’m alright with telling them Bible stories. I don’t tell them they’re true; it’s like reading other myths and fables from the past. I also have a great book from the German “Wieso? Weshalb? Warum?” Series called “Unsere Religionen.” It discusses the 5 largest religions in the world (Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) and does a good job of explaining why some people are religious and what some basic beliefs of these religions are. They don’t need to be religious, but I don’t see my job as to automatically impost my beliefs on them. They can decide for themselves what they want to believe.
Interestingly enough, I think my religious friends from high school have moved more toward my point of view than me toward theirs. They no longer go to church, something which I didn’t expect would happen. They probably aren’t atheists, maybe not even agnostics. But religion has moved more into the background in their lives than I would have ever expected. It’s nice to know I’m no longer the odd man out.
I still don’t know what I should tell my religious friend. I’ll probably take the easy way out and not discuss it.