Seeing Is Believing: A Non-believer in a World of Believers

4 Dec

In attempting to answer a question posed by a peer, I inadvertently insulted him [according to others at the time, but not by his own admission–later he acknowledged that he had taken no offense to the issue].  But as I considered the question and my answer again, I could not force myself to feel at all wrong for saying what I said.  The “insult” was perceived, and therefore not on my conscience as a wrong I had committed.  As a matter of fact, I found this interpretation of my peer’s ‘insulted’ reaction, itself, to be insulting and manipulative (at least after thinking about the exchange).

As an irreligious/non-believer/atheist-agnostic, I find that my absence of faith seems to inflame the faiths of those around me. When I officially left the Church, it was considered quite the scandal (since I grew up in a small town).  My own family acted as though I should feel some shame for the (what they perceived as negative) attention I had drawn to them.  But I felt quite strongly that I had been indoctrinated into a system of faith at an age that did not allow me to fully understand what I was doing.  I was told what to think/believe. (That always bothered me: whatever religion one’s family identifies with becomes your own religion when you are born into that family–seemed a bit suspect that religious affiliation was inherited in the same way that eye color was). But even when I have done nothing more than to explain to someone spouting religious jargon at me that I am not a believer, the initial reactive facial expressions of shock and dismay are most common.

Here’s what happened (roughly) between peer (X) and I:

X: “Well, you were raised Catholic, so didn’t you believe (in “God” ) when you were younger.”

Me: “No more than I believed in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny.  Childhood was a period of my own ‘willing suspension of disbelief.’ You always know your parents are behind the scenes, right? But you like the idea of these complete strangers giving you stuff for no other reason than you’ve been a decently behaved kid, so you buy into the story. It’s like ‘believing’ in magic.”

X: “So when did you get to the point when you stopped believing [in God] completely?

Me: “I don’t think I ever really did ‘believe’ in the first place.  That’s my point.  I never saw Santa and kind of suspected all along that he was make-believe.  And I don’t think, prior to being able to understand what it was to “believe,” that I can be said to have believed in him because I was not entirely sure what that meant. I guess the same is true of ‘God’ for me.  I was told stories, but never saw or heard him.  It just didn’t make sense, you know?”

At this point, we were interrupted by others who were present and moved on.  Later, some of the others informed me that comparing ‘God’ to ‘Santa’ was a bit drastic.  It was not, apparently, appropriate to equate ‘God’ to a fictional character because of how it could have made my peer feel; it belittled his God, and therefore, his faith.  I had not, however, been concerned with this, as I was attempting to explain my experience as a non-believer.  It was as honest an answer as I could provide.

But after this exchange, and considering the input of others who were present, I began to think about why concern over his faith outweighed concern for my absence of faith.  On a larger scale, I began thinking about how frequently I am confronted with religious symbols, jargon, ideals, etc…, and how I am expected to comply with the social norms of graciously accepting others’ expressions of faith when, at the time, I am generally expected to suppress my own beliefs (well, lack thereof) to preserve social pleasantries.  Because, as a non-believer, I rarely utilize religious jargon, when I am confronted with it in everyday interactions, I feel immediately obligated to ‘just go along with it,’ never letting the people who say things like “By the grace of God,” or “I’ll keep that in my prayers,” etc…, know how uncomfortable and awkward I feel as a result.

I began thinking about how overwhelming it is to see crosses and stars of David around people’s necks, jesus fish on cars, people wearing the hijab or burkas, nativity scenes at Christmas, crucifixions or crosses on church lawns, Biblical passages on cups at In and Out, etc… I thought of how many times I had been approached by religious individuals attempting to evangelize me, save me, share the good word with me.  And after years of being inundated with overt expressions of faith, I have realized how unfair this all seems. If seeing is believing, I certainly believe that the majority of individuals are believers.  But all of the symbols I see have been created by the hands of men, just like the Bible.  I have never seen any evidence of ‘God,’ and anticipate no such evidence to be introduced to me in the future.  I do understand the idea of ‘God’ to be similar to the idea of ‘Santa,’ a character created to provide hope, joy, and to establish some level of behavioral regulation to the masses with consequences should any misbehave (Santa gives you coal, God smites you).  But I intentionally do not share such irreligious convictions with too many people unless I am specifically asked.  I do not have a symbol to mark myself as a non-believer so that others can see it and recognize my lack of faith (and if I did have one available I would not wear it like a badge of pride).  I don’t laugh at believers or become enraged when they impose their beliefs upon me in everyday interactions. But believers seem entitled to do all of these.  I find this to be quite an impolite and presumptuous mindset.

So, going back to my interaction with peer ‘X,’ I am a tad put-off that my response, an attempt to explain my absence of faith to an individual who inquired, was interpreted by any of those present as ‘insulting,’ or inconsiderate in light of my peer’s religious affiliation.  I recalled seeing Bill Maher’s film, Religulous and how it felt to see a film that acknowledged the atheist/agnostic perspective as legitimate.  While I do think Maher went out of his way to highlight some of the more ridiculous religious notions and practices in this country, I found comfort in feeling less like an outcast by default. Others found the phenomenon of compulsory religiosity to be similarly jarring.

But what should/could I do about this?  The first amendment allows for the free exercise of religion, and I fully support that.  But I still find it irritating to be confronted so frequently with religious symbols and jargon in the public realm on a daily basis.  And I have no intention of adopting similar tactics in some vain attempt to convert believers into non-believers. It seems tawdry and pathetic, in my opinion, to require the support of others in formulating a system of beliefs.  I wish I could experience the same respect from believers that I try, as a non-believer, to show them.  I feel that if people were able to understand their religious convictions as their own, their faith in God as a personal thing that need not be shared so openly with strangers, then the prevalence of an assumed religiosity would wane.  But for some reason, more believers than non-believers (in my experience) want to share their faiths with total strangers, without asking if this stranger shares a similar system of beliefs or would appreciate/mind being forced into a religiously motivated discussion.

What’s a non-believer to do (especially when I do not want to impose my ‘beliefs’ on others)?



One Response to “Seeing Is Believing: A Non-believer in a World of Believers”

  1. John Erickson December 5, 2011 at 12:11 am #

    I don’t feel this is “imposing your beliefs” on somebody. I feel that it is you, clearly speaking, how you feel (just like they do when they talk about God). It is all how we frame and talk about the arguments at hand. If someone is easily offended (even though you say they weren’t) should they be engaging in this type of discussion? Is it even worth talking to them at all if you are only going to piss them off, make them cry, or create a tension between the two of you?

    These are all hard issues we must deal with and I feel that feminist pedagogy (I am sure you have comments on what this actually looks like) tried to dismantle the power dynamics present in these conversations.

    Great post Katie, as usual!

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