Atheist Nonconformity: Going Against the Grain Can Be Exhausting

football bleachers

This post was inspired by a comment from 1HappyHeathen on this post that struck a nerve. Thanks for the inspiration!

Sporting events, commencement ceremonies, and even government meetings often begin with a group display of respect for faith. Everyone is asked to stand, remove their hats, and/or bow their heads in prayer. And almost everyone does so even though some in attendance are undoubtedly atheists would prefer not to participate. We humans are social creatures, and the power of the group is tremendous in shaping our behavior. Going against the grain is rarely easy, especially in large public gatherings.

As I write these words, I have a clear image in my head of sitting in the bleachers at a football game and everyone standing to recite some sort of nationalistic pledge or anthem that makes reference to gods. I have seen it before many times, and I have participated in it many times without thinking too much about it. But I'm thinking about it now, and I realize that I do not agree with it. The god references do not belong here. And so I do not stand with everyone else. I feel the glares, and I hear the insults. I imagine young children asking their parents why I am not standing. It is terrifying. I have to will myself to brush it off, to somehow convince myself that I have every right to be here anyway. It is far from easy. But I won't go along with something in which I don't believe. I can't go along with something in which I don't believe.

The image now shifts. I'm sitting in another set of bleachers, but this time the scene is the commencement ceremony at a state university. I'm there not for my own entertainment. I am there because my employer, a state government, requires me to be there. They have just brought an evangelical fundamentalist pastor on stage to lead everyone in a sectarian prayer "in Jesus' name." It doesn't seem to matter that this is a public university. It certainly doesn't matter that not all of the students, staff, and faculty present are Christians. Those who organized the event are not interested in these things; they saw an opportunity to promote their particular faith and seized upon it. It is now time to stand and feign respect for something that violates my conscience. I feel close to a panic attack as I realize I cannot do so. I cannot do so even though I am literally surrounded by the people I work with every day, including some who have the authority to fire me. But this is wrong, and I know it is wrong. I cannot make myself go along with it.

As the scene changes again, I am now in a meeting at work. Someone has just asked us to bow our heads. Nobody bothers to use the cover provided by "a moment of silence," explicitly asking for prayer. Someone we all know is sick, and we are instructed to pray for them - not to keep them in our thoughts but to pray for them. I feel bad for this person, and am sorry to hear about what they are going through. Everyone around me drops their heads in prayer. I can only imagine what they will think of me for not doing the same. And yet, I will not do the same. I cannot bring myself to fake it.

There are two things I'd like to say about these unfortunately common situations. First, I think the image of one atheist remaining seated in a crowd of Christians standing or refusing to bow amidst a sea of bowed heads has to be one of the most powerful images there is. Maybe one person doing it today means that there will be two people doing it tomorrow. It will only grown from there. Second, I am getting really damned tired of finding myself in these situations as often as I do. One would think that nonconformity would have become easier for me over time. I suppose it has, but I still find these situations exhausting.

This post from 2015 was revised and expanded in 2021 to improve clarity.