An Atheist in a Christian World, She Feels Isolated from Her Family and Community
To start off, two things. I am very sorry to hear about your family member! I've had a TON of surgeries, like, 12? (I have a MAJOR fear of them, though. It's the only thing that can make me break down nowadays.) I definitely feel their pain, and I hope for their quickest recovery. Can you make them some yummy hot chocolate, on me?
Second, you're probably wondering, "What's with this secrecy?"
Well... I have written to you once before, only once, and I just don't want to feel like I'm swamping you with letters. I was so excited and overjoyed by your response and the way you responded, I kinda forgot to proofread my comment... Heh... Whoops. My mind kinda just tends to word vomit like that, and the product is anything but graceful.
Speaking of word vomit, I should probably start with my question now.
The subject of this letter is a bit of a sore spot for me. I've dwelled and dwelled over it almost all my life: Religion.
I don't live in the Bible belt, but the community I'm surrounded by is extremely Christian. My family, my friends...
My friends go to church, I'm not sure if they truly believe in God, and my family does believe in God.
Now, being Atheist... I feel a little exiled. As if I don't belong. Just last Sunday, a friend spent the night. They left for church early the next morning. This wasn't a problem for me, didn't make me feel awkward. Later, however, I went over to my best friend's house. I've know her since kindergarten, but ever since I became Atheist, I feel so unwelcomed in her home. I've always felt kinda awkward there, her parents aren't the nicest folks and always made me feel awkward, but when they left for church, too.... The feeling of being a black sheep was overwhelming.
I don't know your religious beliefs, and I hope mine do not offend you. I really do apologize if they do. A lot of families here are religiously involved. There's this friendly priest that visits our house. I hide up in my room to avoid said priest, even though I really think he's a nice guy. Nobody knows about my beliefs. My mom knows I'm not 100% into the whole "God" ordeal, but she doesn't know about my beliefs. Told my friend jokingly, so I don't think she believes that these are my thoughts.
To sum up.... How do I get over this looming feeling of exile around such a religious community? Should I tell my family the whole story, or keep my trap shut?
Thank you again. You're an amazing guy!
From your slightly embarrassed fur,
Anonymous (age 14)
* * *
Hello, Fellow Furry,
Gosh, I’m sorry for all your surgeries. I wonder, offpaw, if your suffering in any way contributed to your becoming an atheist? Sometimes, when people endure a lot of pain and personal loss, they begin to question whether God really exists and, if God does exist, why do awful things happen to good people and good things happen to wicked people? But that’s an entirely different topic....
Quickly about my personal beliefs, so you understand where I’m coming from: I’m not a religious person in that I do not follow any organized, culturally approved faith; however, I am a spiritual person in that I believe there is a lot more going on in the universe than simply the matter, energy, and physical laws we can observe around us. Do I believe there is some guy with a white beard and robe sitting on a throne on a cloud surrounded by pearly gates and fencing with little cherubs fluttering around? No, that’s silly. I don’t think God is a separate being; rather, everything around us and in us is God; we are bits of embodied spirit unified by spiritual energy. Because we are limited by our perceptions within our physical bodies and living in a physical universe, however, we are vulnerable to misinterpreting the true nature of existence. This has resulted in many people being disconnected from their true spiritual selves, which, in turn, leads to the misunderstanding that the only way to reach God is through a priestly class that serves as an intermediary.
You do not have to be religious to believe in spiritual energy and the beauty of something beyond and grander than our physical world. And, actually, the more we learn about physics—from the incredibly tiny to the mind-boggling immense—the more I believe in a greater spiritual existence. Science and God are not incompatible; they are one.
Your friends and family are allowing themselves to be led by social convention (as you note, a lot of your friends go to church but they probably just do so because that is what is expected of them, not because they are particularly religious). The vast majority of people who consider themselves religious follow those faiths they were raised on and told from a very tender age were “the truth,” and anyone who believes differently is wrong, misguided, or even evil and a threat. This mindset becomes particularly bad when it becomes an extremist faith that says it is okay—even righteous—to kill others who don’t believe as they do. The result has been a string of religious conflict that has murdered untold millions. Many people who realize this have lost their faith because they have seen all the suffering it has caused and they blame religion. Actually, it’s not the religion, it is the people who practice it and warp it who are causing the pain.
People do not like to have their beliefs challenged. That’s because to be told that something you believed in from the time you were able to understand language is wrong (or, at least, not entirely correct) is frightening. Not only is it frightening, but it challenges one to think, and many people do not like to think for themselves; it’s much easier just to do as one is told and then call it “faith.”
The reason you feel isolated and rejected, therefore, is because you represent a challenge to the shelter of blind faith that so many people take comfort in. To use a pop culture metaphor, you are like the red pill in the Matrix: when swallowed, it shows them that the world is entirely different than what they thought; not only is it different, but it requires action on their part to return reality to its proper path. That’s scary, even terrifying. Much more cozy to take the blue pill and believe the virtual world of your existence that you understand so well is the truth (interestingly, there is now a theory proposed by Gerard t’Hooft that our existence is, in fact, a giant hologram).
To your question of “How do I get over this looming feeling of exile around such a religious community? Should I tell my family the whole story, or keep my trap shut?” Let’s take into account, firstly, that you are 14 years old. This is awfully young to reach any definitive conclusions about your belief system and, trust me, it will likely change in some or many ways before you’re my age. (I applaud you vigorously for not blindly accepting what you are told about God, however). So, instead of telling your parents and others that you are an atheist, tell them that you are undecided and that you wish to actively explore your religious/spiritual side. To do so, you should keep an open mind about all faiths, including Christianity. This means, in turn, that you must socialize with people in your community who are Christians to further observe the practice and consequences of their faith.
In addition, you need to recognize that people are more than just their faith (just as they are more than just their sexual orientation, gender, income level, physical abilities, etc.) The fellow you mentioned who is a priest and a nice guy: he sounds like someone worth knowing. There is absolutely no reason why you cannot have friends—good friends—who have a belief system that doesn’t match your own. I have some very dear Christian friends and I wouldn’t trade them for anything. Even the religious community is beginning to realize the advantages of interfaith organizations (often teaming up Jewish and Christian communities, but others as well). It is the wise person who recognizes that one can learn a lot about life by talking to others who have a different interpretation of the world.
Talk less, listen more.
I would like to further recommend to you that you go out and explore other faiths. Visit a Jewish temple or Islamic mosque. Try a Unitarian Universalist church. Learn about Eastern faiths and philosophies, such as Jainism, Shinto, Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Sufism, Zoroastrianism etc. etc. Also, there is much to learn of shamanistic beliefs of indigenous cultures, such as in Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. You can, even further, study the great philosophers and schools of thought, including Sophism, Deism, Stoicism, Platonism, Neopositivism, Hedonism, Existentialism, Epicureanism, Agnosticism ... well, you get the idea.
Since the first primitive human gazed up into the sky, looking at the stars and Moon, and wondered what they were and what he was, people have been trying to figure out their lives and find meaning in them. By questioning what people believe and why people believe, you will embark on a spiritual quest that can last your entire life. And! To do this properly, you will need to talk to people, which will, in turn, do the OPPOSITE of isolating you. Instead of hiding from the nice priest or minister who comes into your home for a visit, come down the stairs from your room and start asking him questions about his faith. Talk to others in your community as well; and, if you can, find people who are Jewish or Muslim or follow any other faith and ask them about what they believe and why.
Truth be told, hon, none of us mere mortals truly understands what God is. My belief is just what I've come to given my experiences and readings. Exploring that side of ourselves is part of what makes us human. You have concluded you are an atheist, but that is a conclusion based on a mere 14 years of life! So, I say to you, don’t be too hasty. Open your mind and heart and you will see that there are many paths that lead to the same goal. As long as you are a good and kind person, your path will lead you in the right direction.
Leave a Reply.
A note on comments: Comments on letters to Papabear are welcome, especially those that offer extra helpful advice and add something to the conversation that is of use to the letter writer and those reading this column. Also welcome are constructive criticisms and opposing views. What is NOT welcome are hateful, hurtful comments, flaming, and trolling. Such comments will be deleted from this site. Thank you.