February 5, 2015

Atheist Nonconformity: Against the Grain

Wooden bleachers
Wooden bleachers (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This post was inspired by a recent 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 would probably prefer not to. We humans, are social creatures, and the power of the group is tremendous in shaping behavior. Going against the grain is rarely easy.

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 a god. I have seen it before many times, and I have participated in it many times without thinking. But I'm thinking 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 but because my employer, the 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 state university. It certainly doesn't matter that not all of the students, staff, and faculty present here today are Christians. Those who organized the event are not interested in these things.; they saw an opportunity to promote their faith and seized upon it. And now it is 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 in a meeting. Someone has just asked everyone to bow our heads. Nobody bothers to use the cover provided by "a moment of silence;" they have asked 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 cannot bring myself to fake it.

There are two things I'd like to say about these 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. And second, I am getting really damned tired of finding myself in these situations. One would think that nonconformity would have become slightly easier for me over time, but I still find these situations exhausting.