“The only man I know who behaves sensibly is my tailor; he takes my measurements anew each time he sees me. The rest go on with their old measurements and expect me to fit them.”
-George Bernard Shaw
As an unbeliever, I seem to be one of the easiest people for my friends, family, and acquaintances to stereotype. I hope that doesn’t sound like whining because I’m really aiming for frank observation. Once anyone I know finds out I don’t believe in God, it seems they know everything about me in a matter of seconds. This isn’t a new thing, of course – everybody stereotypes. In fact, it’s a fast, effective, if unfair, way to assess a number of things. And now that I’m no longer of the same religious persuasion, many of my acquaintances really have my number. I’m told atheists want to be atheists, want to do whatever they wish, want to disobey God, and are, frankly, arrogant. It’s easy. Jarring too: any criticism, any inadvertent cough of laughter on my part is perceived with understanding of the highest magnitude. A wrinkle of a smile on my face causes eyebrows to raise as high as they can go. It’s like I’m stealing a candy bar from them while looking them in the eyes.
At an event recently, a television program about the Bible (and also called “The Bible”) was playing. It wasn’t that bad, all things considered, but it was more than a little anachronistic in many parts, and not even true to the Bible in others. The production and acting were, in my humble estimation, God awful, and therefore easily subject to – and deserving of! – mockery. I use “mockery” here in a way specific to me, like a fun romp a la Mystery Science Theater 3000. But every turn, whether I was jokingly yelling at Peter to get out of the boat, or an involuntary chuckle at Jesus’s random premonitions (I’m pretty sure this is a theological conundrum), were countered by those around me with a half-serious silence at my “impiety” and half-serious incredulity at my irreverence. I should add that I well know this company, and they behave the same way I do under other circumstances. This isn’t even hypocrisy – it’s just weird.
Stranger still was this encounter. I had a recent lunch with an old Christian acquaintance who’s of the exact same belief I once was. He was sharing stories of miracles, acts of evangelism, and all the good news. And that was perfectly fine! Later in the conversation, he found out I was an atheist. The change was visible, immediate, and as palpable as a thunderstorm. One moment I was treated with the respect of a confidant, and the very next, I was the master of conspiracies and a known criminal. It was as if I changed genders in a blink – and here’s the kicker – he did not find that odd. Everything suddenly clicked – nevermind that I was a different person seconds ago – the only thing that mattered was that I didn’t believe. I had never seen nor experienced anything quite like it.
I prefer those interactions, though, truthfully. Most people elect instead to use tried and true clairvoyant quips: “you’ve changed before, you’ll change again,” as though admitting I was wrong and adjusting accordingly were a bad thing. This, however, successfully classifies me as capricious above all else, mainly as a way to be ignored (who listens to someone who constantly changes?). Other sentences begin, “You never used to…” – an orthodox assessment of my present savagery.
But here’s the main takeaway: now, more than ever in my life, people know the most about me. They say I stopped believing because I learned too much, that I flew too close to the sun, as it were. Others tell me I stopped because I simply wanted to. Still others, with a shake of their head, plain don’t know why (note that this is actually a commentary on my state – e.g., why would anyone not believe in God? – i.e., Why would anyone kick a puppy?)
But this is all to be expected. After all, Jesus was the one who said, “They hated me first.” And everyone who’s ever had a single thing thrown at them loves to hide behind that. See? I can find common ground in scripture. We’re not so different after all.
If you need further evidence, check out this article on whether or not it’s OK to marry an atheist (hint: it isn’t). To quote: “Marrying an atheist is far more controversial. Nearly half of the public, 49 percent, would be upset if a family member married ‘someone who doesn’t believe in God.'” It goes on.
So it’s all to be expected in the end. And that’s fine. More than fine! I mean, at least I can’t be executed for my unbelief anymore (thank God!). I suppose my message is this: if I say something sometime and it offends you, I’m sorry. I’ll try not to do that. Though sometimes you (and I) really do need to be offended a little. But let’s see if we can’t just both understand each other a little better soon. Maybe I’ll find I know less about you than I thought, and perhaps you’ll find the same of me.