Owning my atheism. Well, next time.

Last night I met one of my neighbors and ended up giving him a ride to his AA/NA meeting. I don’t know this guy well, and probably won’t run into him very often in the future (living in a city means you have lots of neighbors). When we were driving over he told me that I’d be blessed for giving him a ride (I didn’t know that’s all it took) and he asked/told me to pray for him that he would keep being able to go to his AA/NA meetings.

He paused for an answer. It was a long pause. I said, “I will.” He smiled and went back to looking out the window and chattering away.

What I wanted to say was, “Well I’m an atheist. I don’t think there’s a god up there and I don’t pray. But I hope you do keep going to your meetings if they’re working for you.”  But I didn’t. I told him I’d pray for him. Why’d I do that?

I didn’t know this guy, didn’t want to forge a deep relationship with him, and didn’t feel like sharing intimate details such as my lack of belief. Which would normally be fine – I’m a fan of people keeping their god beliefs to themselves. But when he didn’t keep his god beliefs private and asked me to pray for him, that would have been a great time to be open and honest and to throw atheism into the conversation. Instead I pretended to share his beliefs in order to avoid potentially turning an otherwise bland car ride into an awkward or unpleasant moment.Agreeing to to pray for him was easier, but it wasn’t the truth. He doesn’t have any power over me – we’re not friends or business partners. We share a city block.  I had nothing to lose, and if the guy had judged me, fuck it – he could have walked the last half mile to his meeting.

I chickened out, but after unpacking this interaction, I’m pretty sure that next time I won’t. This will stick in my craw and I’ve  issued a challenge to myself to act with more integrity the next time I’m in a similar situation. These little conversations with strangers, with neighbors and casual acquaintances are important. By putting ourselves out there and owning up to our non-belief, by refusing to nod our heads and go with the religious flow – this is how we will normalize and destigmatize atheism.

Owning my atheism. Well, next time.
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19 thoughts on “Owning my atheism. Well, next time.

  1. 1

    Usually, when I want to side-step the religion issue (like with a boss who had a history of making decisions that are hard to believe aren’t influenced by his desire to work with Good Christians), I’ll say something like, “I wish you the best.”

    That way, I don’t have to lie (I’m a crap lier anyway), but I don’t have to bring the religion thing out. Usually, though, I’ll just say, “Well, I’m not religious, but I do wish you the best. Is there anything I can do to help?”

    Typically, I only talk religion if pressed into it and often am uncomfortable when I do talk about it (I worry that I’m going to get called a Satanist or punched again like I was in high school – it’s been 6 years and the aquisition of two black belts since I had to worry about it, but old habits die hard, especially when they were learned through pain and bruising). People think I’m super-private about my beliefs, which is sort-of true: I’d be more open if it weren’t for the fact that I grew up in a religious right area and learned the hard way why saying, “Wait, you believe that whole died-and-rotted-for-three-days-and-then-came-back-stuff? Really? What about Eve being made from Adam’s rib? Really?! So you think the Theory of Evolution is a Satanist plot? Okay, I’m sorry, but that’s freaking ridiculous.” is a risky move, even when faced with someone who everyone in the school agrees is a bit off for being a Creationist and Biblical literalist. Creationist >>>> Athiest, to some self-described-moderate religious types.

    My current workplace is like 65% nonbeliever (yay for working in science in Canada) and there’s an unspoken rule of “You don’t proselytize, we won’t ridicule.” So far, nobody’s called us “strident” or “angry”, and I haven’t been told to let God into my life, so that’s good I guess.

  2. 2

    When I was young and working at a restaurant, the manager pointed out that if the customer had great service, they may talk to a person or two. However, if they had poor service, they will likely mention it to a good dozen of the customer’s friends.

    When confronted by the strongly religious, I know that I end up calculating internally whether this is something that I want to deal with. If I simply nod and go along with it (although I’ve used phrases like “I have faith that you will persevere”), not only will there not be an immediate confrontation (which doesn’t particularly bother me), but there won’t be a future confrontation / rumors spread to a good dozen others (which may spread even further).

    I’m not sure about the situation in your area, but I have little doubt that being known as an atheist in my community will definitely inhibit my ability to contribute (I’ve sat on a couple of boards and perform other works of charity). Personally, I would rather be able to continue to contribute to my community unimpeded than spend time mired down in a debate about whether I am fit to support my community, deal with kids, etc.

    Am I being a coward about it? At this time, yes. In the future, however, I will reveal that the person that has contributed so much to this local community was actually an atheist. However, that time is not now…not for me.

  3. 3

    There’s always “I’ll keep you in my thoughts”, or just stony silence, if in the moment you don’t have the emotional energy to fully own it. And yeah, when this sort of thing comes up for me, it tends to depend on my mood. If I am really not feeling like facing any sort of awkwardness, I’ll just go with the stony silence route, or the smile-and-nod route. I refuse to acquiesce to it, but I don’t always have the emotional energy to resist it either.

    On a side note, don’t be surprised if some commenters derail by going after 12-step programs. I would myself if it were centrally relevant to the post; I have major philosophical objections to 12-step programs, and the evidence suggests they don’t work all that well either. The best thing one can say about AA is that it is ubiquitous and free (unlike the far more effective treatment of cognitive-behavioral therapy, which, in the US at least, is outside of the financial reach of the uninsured and under-insured), and it appears to work slightly better than just going it alone…

  4. 4

    As the gentleman in question was a recovery person I can shed a little light here for you. I doubt seriously he’s overly religious. The actual percentage of religious people in recovery is somewhere around 5% from my observations. In fact it’s quite taboo to bring up religion of any type in recovery meetings. Most recovery peole are agnostic with probably more athiests than Christians in the mix. That said us recovery folk do talk quite a bit about god, and prayer. To recovering people though those words mean different things than they would to you or me if I was not a recovering person myself. When recovery folk talk about god they are refering to their Higher Power. Most simply say god because well it rolls off the tounge a bit easier. Higher Power means something different to every single recovering person out there. Some use the group, some use a door knob and some like me yes do use God. In its simpilest terms a recovering person’s Higher Power is that force, what ever it is, that helps the addict stay clean. When we talk of prayer we are speaking of the thinking of good thoughts. The power of positive thinking. Its a great thing. We think positively of our fellows to help them stay clean. We think positively of our own recovery to help ourselves stay clean. As for you amd what you wer doing, I don’t think you were being a coward at all. I think you were just being what you are, a nice person. You were being kind and considerate, a credit to your beliefs. See too many people on both side of our debate belive the other side is wholly populated by mean spirited people that simple want to force others into their way of thinking. this is not true and most know it. This fact does not prevent our guards going up though when put into situations where we have to deal with it. Why? because when someone on the other side from us acts in a way we expect it only enofrces our stereotype. Don’t be that person. It’s not you. Really what this man was doing was asking you is to think good thoughts that his higher power will help him to stay clean. I know you well enough to know you can and want to do that. A great response, if your ever put in a similar situation again, would be “I hope your Higher Power gives you what you need” That’s what recovering athiests say. All in all though Bri I think you did good.

  5. 5

    I think you should not be so hard on yourself for going with the flow. There was more vulnerability on his part than there is in most conversations that turn in the “I’ll pray for you” direction. That you didn’t want to complicate the car ride by declining to pray for him doesn’t mean you chickened out. You just chose your battles.

  6. 6

    re Chris: while I seriously disagree that God and/or Higher Power is just a convenient nickname for “whatever works for you”, it’s a good point that people going through AA recovery aren’t necessarily religious. They’re just as likely to be closeted nonbelievers as the person helping them is. I’m going to try and have that point inform my reactions whenever someone expects a casual religious response from me… for all I know, meeting a nonreligious good person could be very important to a stranger.

    A couple days ago I crossed paths with someone collecting donations for a recovery program; I said “I don’t believe in God. Still want my money?” (He said yes, and that they accept people like me, queers, anyone. I gave him a dollar but I’m still going to double-check their website. ;> )

  7. 7

    Higher Power means something different to every single recovering person out there. Some use the group, some use a door knob and some like me yes do use God.

    Really what this man was doing was asking you is to think good thoughts that his higher power will help him to stay clean. I know you well enough to know you can and want to do that.

    Shouldn’t we first ask whether the “higher power” is a doorknob? I mean, if that’s the best this person has for help, wishing that would be more like a curse, if wishing or cursing or praying did anything useful.

    1. 7.1

      My own HP has evolved over time. When I first got clean (something like 20 years ago now) I had no concept of God or any type of Higher Power except of course my drugs. It took a lot of searching not only of the soul but though many subjects to arrive at my Christianity of today. My own journey started with a chair (you higher power supports you), then was a table (your higher power surrounds you), then a rock (your high power is always with you) eventually over time did I arrive at the Christian God. Some like a doorknob because it always listens and doesn’t talk back. But my point in sharing these concepts in relation to recovery was not to get into a discussion on the existence of God. Such would be pointless on an atheist blog site. It was to point out that all of us on both sides of the discussion need to make our points in a civil manner in an atmosphere of DEBATE not ARGUMENT. We can be what we are without throwing it in someones face that may not be ready to handle such discussions. Newcommers in recovery would fit that description.

      1. I think you are absolutely right about that doorknob: it listens and responds in exactly the same way God does. And the doorknob has the added advantage of being visible and having a practical function.

  8. 8

    I don’t think you chickened out at all.

    You were just giving him a ride. That’s it. you did’t have to start making dinner dates with the guy. You didn’t have to develop a friendship with that person. Personally, I would have said the same thing because i would just be giving him a ride not trying to start a philosophical discussion with him.

    And this happens all the time. Sometimes I might open the door for people and they will say “God Bless you,” or i give a homeless person some change and they say they will pray for me. Those are everyday exchanges that really don’t need to go any further.

    If i said something to someone who said “god bless you” or “I will pray for you,” or God loves you, i would never make it home at night.

  9. 9

    I often give tech support to a professor whose office is a shrine to his son who was killed in the line of duty. This reverence is couched in overtly religious terms; he is suffering and that is his defense. There’s no way I’d engage him in a debate about his religion.

    Way back in college a seminary student told me; “People have their defenses because they need them”. If someone is suffering I am not qualified to rock their boat. But the game changes if they go on the offensive and try to convert me. Then it’s game-on.

    Your response was compassionate. Maybe next time you will decide to be noncommittal but when someone is hurting it’s OK to just do as little damage as possible interacting with them.

  10. 10

    I’ve spent a good deal of time with drug addicts (I was once one myself) and I know from personal experience that trusting them on anything is generally a losing proposition. There are exceptions, but once the logic of desire for the drug rules one’s life, you kind of become like Mitt Romney: you’ll say anything to get what you want.

    Anyway, In this little encounter what I see is this guy was playing the Jesus card in order to try to play on your sympathies and get you to “fulfill his prayers” by offering to give him more rides in the future. Once was not enough, and he was calculating a way to get more, and he tried to guilt you into offering further help by drawing you into his prayer wishes. Fortunately you had other things on your mind, even if you perhaps wisely kept it to yourself. Alone in the car with a drug addict, even if they claim to be reforming, is not a good place to push your luck. This guy may not even be sincere about quitting; he may be going to NA to comply with a court order. If you let him wheedle his way further into your life at all, I’ll give you very good odds that if he is still using drugs, he will find a way to try to get money from you, so he can buy more drugs.

    Of course he may be the nicest guy in the world, down on his luck, who leaned too heavily on the pleasure of drugs to escape some misery or pain of living. In this situation, even nice people will make bad choices and take short cuts they know to be wrong.

    I like to remind anyone who talks about prayer as a shared or public activity, or as a means of obtaining things they think they want or need, that they should carefully read Matthew Chapter 6. Even as an atheist, it’s good to know what’s in the Bible and make Christians stick to it. There’s nothing worse than getting the self-righteous God bullshit served up with an additional seasoning of hypocrisy and ignorance of the teachings as well.

    According to Jesus prayer should be secret, and that God already knows what you need before you ask. Christians should be encouraged to test this hypothesis. I suspect most often when somebody finds that one in a thousand of their prayers is actually answered, it’s only because they spend so much time broadcasting to the world what it is they are praying about, eventually they get lucky and a human being responds by “becoming a servant of God”.

  11. 11

    I use “I’m not religious” too if I don’t feel that I can just say “I’m an athiest” to a particular person. I no longer pretend that I’m going to pray for someone, but I’ve also said “I’ll keep you in my thoughts.”

    What Jeff at #10 says above is something to consider – just be careful.

  12. 12

    You told him you’d do that, not because you’re a sell out or a bad atheist, but because you have the intelligence to realize that you’re not going to change his mind or give him the courage to question his faith. You probably have some inner sense of how traumatic and difficult of an ordeal that is, either through personal experience or through your empathic imagination. So in actually it’s because you’re a classy atheist who knows how to pick the right moment and avoid picking the wrong one, and not a contentious jerk who has to feel superior to people at all cost. We can wear our atheism on our sleaves in other ways than pissing down people’s throats. It’s when we come across oppressive jackoffs that we need to have courage and fight the good the fight, not when in th presence of random struggling alcoholics. Kudos.

      1. Think of it this way: sometimes you meet a stranger and they something you think is really stupid; maybe they say a band is great that you hate, or they really liked a movie or a politician that you can’t stand. Sometimes it is polite and easier to just nod or avoid conflict by making a neutral statement. It really depends on your intuitive feeling of the person and the situation whether anything you can say would matter, or whether one should leave well enough alone.

        I would definitely not recommend pissing in someone’s mouth. It would definitely give atheists a bad name.

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