The God thing.

I've always been fairly vocal about my atheism. I could afford to be. Being brought up in the French middle classes in the seventies and eighties, atheism was the norm. There were catholics among my peers, but aside from bragging a little around first communion and confirmation time, when they'd get to go on retreats and miss school and then get presents, they pretty much kept it to themselves. Nor did we receive any kind of religious education. Christmas was about decorating the tree, big family dinners and presents. Easter was all about hunting for chocolate in the garden. Of course we'd occasionally wonder why people had nativity scenes near their Christmas trees, and why the church bells made such a racket on Easter morning. But even that made sense to an atheist child. Different families had different interpretations of the whole Santa thing. We had Father Christmas, but some people in the East had Saint Nicholas, and some baby Jesus. Either way, the presents got delivered. As to the bells, well we don't believe in  anything as improbable as the Easter Bunny in Paris (improbable and a little freaky, if you ask me). It is the bells that drop the eggs in the garden. So there.

As I grew up I learned about tolerance, about accepting that people believe different things and that these things matter to them, so that it's not ok to be in your face about your own conflicting beliefs.  I even learned that there might be some value in knowing a little about those beliefs you don't share. They are, after all, an important part of what shaped our culture. So I learned about the lives of the Saints and stories from the bible by looking at pictures. Not terribly reliable, I know, but better than nothing.

What I never experienced, was the need to be tolerated. As an atheist, I've always felt I was part of the righteous majority. Those who believed otherwise had to tiptoe around me. I was the norm, they were the ones seeking acceptance. And then, I came across this post. Someone was writing that as an atheist, she had to be very careful about revealing her beliefs - or lack thereof - and worse, had to watch her children's behaviour. I'm not talking about Iran, here, people. I'm talking about America. It turns out that in America, whereas it may be ok to choose one religion over an other, it's not ok to be an atheist.

This was brought home to me again the other night when I watched Glee. So this show is like the Breakfast Club meet Fame. A bunch of geeky kids meet up and sing songs so they can win a competition and become popular. Every week there's a theme. There's been Funk, Madonna, Gaga, even Britney Spears. But this week was God. One of the characters, Kurt, is facing tragedy. The others want to help him by singing spiritual songs. He thanks them but no thanks. As a gay teen he's never felt that welcome by religious communities, and also, he doesn't believe in God. But, says one of his friends, you can't prove God doesn't exist! So Kurt replies:
You can’t prove that there isn’t a magic teapot floating around on the dark side of the moon with a dwarf inside of it that reads romance novels and shoots lightning out of its boobs but it seems pretty unlikely doesn’t it?

A good point, I felt. But his friends were offended. They thought he'd gone to far. And then, they gathered round the place where Kurt's tragedy lays (sorry, trying to avoid spoilers here), and prayed. At the end of the episode, Kurt breaks down, agrees he's been a bad boy and goes to church with Mercedes. The moral of the story is: if you have to be an atheist, make sure no one has to know about it, it's offensive.

Well, I guess it's useful to know what the other side has to put up with. What do you think?


Ayak said...

I think this is an interesting post. No-one should have to apologise for being a non-believer (or a believer for that matter). Coincidentally it's a subject I touched upon in a blog post I did yesterday ( http://ayak-turkishdelight.blogspot.com/2010/10/slow-progress.html )

Sarah of 'Catching the Magic' said...

A great post and subject. There's a lot of Kiwi Mummy bloggers who are Christians, which is fine but I sometimes feel cut out of the loop because I don't write about Him. Personally I have no firm beliefs. I like to think there is some kind of spiritual world, or perhaps we reincarnate, but just in case we don't and I'm going to make sure I enjoy every moment of this life!

Sandrine said...

@Ayak - Great minds think alike! Just been over to yours, and tried to comment but blogger is playing silly buggers and won't let me... Will try again later though.
@Sarah - didn't realise this about the Kiwis! I have to say that although a lot of my friends have religious beliefs of one kind or another, none of them tend to talk about it much. So I've never felt left out or isolated. I'm with you on wanting to enjoy life! But then, I'm sure a lot of religious people are too.

She Means Well... said...

Thanks for posting this. I too feel I have to tread carefully around my atheism, having married into a fairly typical Greek Orthodox family and living in Athens.
It has taken a few stand-offs over the years, but we have settled into a quiet mutual respect for beliefs/non-beliefs among those closest to me (those not so close to me, quite franly, don't count), and I am no longer given lectures when I refuse to kiss icons, curtsey in front of altars or cross myself when attending weddings, baptisms, funerals etc. I suspect the main reason is that I retaliate with a lecture on the evils of hypocrisy (and believe me, when the mood takes me, I can pontificate with the best of them).

A part of me is quietly proud that two of the three leaders of the main political parties in my homeland have openly declared their atheism - and non-one bats an eyelid. It would cause a few flutters here in Greece, and maybe some lost votes. But in the States? Pure political suicide.

Makes you wonder how things would be if, as Lennon imagined, there was no religion: "No hell below us, Above us only sky".

Like the London buses were saying earlier this year (thanks to the Humanist Society): There's probably no God, so stop worrying and enjoy your life.

JulieB said...

Interesting post. I guess living in the UK I am lucky in that this is not really an issue. It does, however, remind me of an episode of the West Wing where there was great discussion about one potential candidate's atheism and how this was seen as an issue, which always struck me as very strange.

Anonymous said...

It's a sad truth that often when someone says "freedom of religion" the mean freedom to choose one, not the freedom to choose none at all. I don't think it's my place to tell anyone what they should or shouldn't believe. I actually like to learn what others believe and why because I find it fascinating.

Sandrine said...

@Shemeanswell - Greece must be hard with all the paraphernalia of orthodoxy and the long long masses... I think I would feel smug about the atheist politicians back home too, if I were you. Turkey is actually very tolerant of our lack of religion. I can imagine it would be different if we had family ties to someone who was muslim though.

Sandrine said...

@JulieB Yes, it does come as a surprise when this sort of stuff comes up and people take it seriously. I can't even begin to imagine what it would like living in the States where that would happen all the time.

Sandrine said...

@mommylebron: Not only it is a sad truth, but it's one I wasn't really aware of till recently. Although historically it's always been about tolerating people from a 'minority' religion, or at least not killing or torturing them. But yes, atheism seems never to have been a candidate for toleration! How strange.

geekymummy said...

the nice thing about being a scientist, even in the US, is that most of my peers are atheist. It probably depends a bit on where you live too, Sam Fran is definately acceptig to all including the non religious

I enjoyed that Glee episode, made a good point

Sandrine said...

Yes I couldn't imagine San Fransisco as a religiously intolerant place!
I am so looking forward to watching the Rocky Horror episode of Glee tonight. Is that sad?

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