In an American social climate growing more and more hostile to anything outside ultra-conservative or fundamentalist forms of religion, introducing oneself as an atheist (or even as a liberal) can be quite problematic. It’s not as if I go out of my way to advertise my atheism. Even though I am well beyond outspoken in print, I do occasionally choose to remain silent on the subject of religion should it come up in business meetings, at the gym, or at gatherings among those who haven’t yet suffered through a lecture on my philosophical outlook on everything. Even the closest of my friends can’t bear more than one or two ‘pontifications’ a year, and I try my best to accommodate them.
Overall, I’ve noticed that believers tolerate other believers of different faiths (and agnostics) better than they do non-believers. As long as there is a belief in some sort of monotheistic deity, be it a moralistic god or otherwise, one won’t encounter too much nervous tension. One could assume, in our day and age that, were one to profess belief in the gods of
So why does my non-belief in this eternal, transcendent, all-powerful being make others so uncomfortable? There are two explanations. First, there is the assumption that my non-belief is also a rejection of any moral or ethical standard that the believer mistakenly claims as synonymous with his or her god and religious doctrine. How many times have we heard it said that “
The second reason is closely linked to the first and although they are not mutually inclusive, they sure seem pretty damned close to it. First, consider the emotional attachment one develops in regard to ingrained and cherished ideals. One doesn’t build their whole life and hope around something without becoming emotionally involved. Then, mix in the reality of human beings as creatures of habit and routine. Once we factor in the pain caused by an attack on any of those ideas or behavior patterns, it becomes apparent why some would be so offended by my non-belief. It would be great if rationality always prevailed, but I’ve learned to expect that this just isn’t so. The affronted party will likely remain civil to my face, which is great, but even from afar, it is preferable that nobody engages in hearsay or negative conjecture on my behalf. Who needs that kind of karma?
Therefore, in order to avoid the initial uneasiness and fallout of an oft-disliked opinion, I simply say “I am still exploring my spiritual and intellectual options.” The listener generally smiles and replies “Well, it is good that you are searching. So many people don’t even make the effort.” I feel just a little dishonest in holding my tongue, but it’s always easier to take a compliment than to start an argument or forego the possibility of forming a lasting connection with someone you have just met. Besides, they will have plenty of time to know me better after I create that first ‘good’ impression and earn their willing attention. As my friends would attest “Shlomo is a really nice guy, but he has some crazy ideas.” If all people hear is the ‘crazy’ part, I’ll never get to show the ‘nice’ side, and there will be no opportunity to dispel their misunderstanding of my atheism. You can always argue with a friend and remain friends, but you have to make friends in order have someone with whom to argue safely.
(There are rare occasions when I am asked to discuss religion, science, and philosophy with someone who has already been forewarned about what they are getting themselves into. Some people just love a challenge. My response always comes in the form of a question asked of anyone who has ever sought out confrontation for any reason. “Do you really want to do this?” I leave it up to them. I know how to walk away from a fight. Hell, I’ll run if I have to! I like peace better than war anyhow.)
Why push it? Isn’t that what friends are for?