Yesterday I got onto my last train to get home after work. I only ride it for one stop, so I was only on it for a couple of minutes. When I got on, I stood in the door opposite the exit side. Two men were standing on the exit side having a very lively conversation that I, of course, came on in the middle and because the train was noisy, I could only hear a few things here and there. I don’t normally eavesdrop…at least, I don’t make a point of it when out (eavesdropping was how I got a lot of my on the job training for my current career and we don’t particularly have any rules against it in our home. In fact, we encourage each other to pay attention to what’s going on at any given time, so yes, I am basically always listening in general), but this conversation caught my ear.
One of the men looked pretty young, possibly in his early 20’s. The other looked older, probably in his mid to late 30’s. The young man was explaining that there had been just too many things that the church he used to belong to was doing that was against things that are non-negotiable.
Before I heard the next part, I just assumed that the young man was explaining how he lost his faith, how he was an atheist now or something. Then the older man said,
“Yeah, I mean, their whole elder structure was totally not even biblically correct. It’s the Bible! How are you going to argue with that?”
“Exactly,” said the young man, “You don’t go against the Bible. I’m going to trust in God and you’ve got to do what the Bible says. So, I left the church.”
I was astounded; not because it turned out that while these men had generally been so offended by their church that they left, but remained faithful, but because I am still so unaware of the reach faith has everywhere and how most people do not just leap from “My church is full of it” to “and so is religion”.
After I got off the train, I made a stop at the market near the station. There were long lines and so I was idle for a while. A group of people who vaguely knew each other were saying hello and after a couple of minutes they were asking each other what church they go to…and they all had an answer.
I continue to be impressed by how skewed my vision of all this is. Even though I now know (finally) that atheists certainly do not make up the majority of the American public, I still have this lingering sense that most people still don’t really believe. But lately I’ve had quite a bit of evidence that this is not the case at all.
But perhaps it is all about identity. How important is the actual belief and practice of belief to most people versus simply calling yourself a person who believes? When I was growing up and generally surrounded by a whole host of odd things, I suppose I believed in them to a certain extent. I think it was always a sort of tongue in cheek belief though. Astrology was not something that I defined myself by. Sure, I liked a lot of the qualities that are classically assigned to Aries people and liked to believe that I exhibited them. Even moreso, my mom had this book that talked about each individual day of the year and what a person born on that day is like and man oh man was mine good. My birthday is the last page in the book and because the year is cyclical, people born on my birthday were supposedly the most evolved…somehow. Talk about ego stroking. But all the while as I was reading it, I knew that it was ego stroking. When I finally let go of all of that, I don’t remember it being horrible and I didn’t feel emptier because of it. I hadn’t lost community because of it. My identity remained unchanged (if not a little stronger without all the woo woo stuff getting in the way).
Spirituality was never honestly part of what I considered as my identity. Wes reminds me that I used to believe and I was resistant to forsaking it completely, but whenever I finally did I felt better for it. It’s how I feel whenever I get rid of something that effectively closes my mind or stops me from being the ultimate person who I want to be. Each layer gets cast off and I feel freer.
But religion is a very different thing. Many are indoctrinated into it from a very young age. Their impression of themselves is built around it. If they have reason to doubt their faith, they have reason to doubt themselves. And if they make the step of leaving everything of faith behind, they are also leaving behind the entire world that they knew. So I guess it makes a lot of sense why leaving a particular church doesn’t immediately lead to leaving faith altogether.
I had a friend who was going through a major crisis of faith a few years ago. I couldn’t understand why it was a crisis. I looked at not being able to believe anymore as some kind of gift he was giving himself. I thought it should be a happy occasion, “You’re free now!” But I couldn’t possibly understand. I have never lost something so fundamental to my sense of self. Apparently, I have a bit of atheist privilege…something I didn’t even know you could have.
Ginny is an excellent source for me to start to understand what this is like as she has gone through (and continues to go through) this very thing. It is a world that I have been so far removed from that I still don’t really get it. I have discovered that my identity is pretty fluid. I change things, I accept others, I evolve, but I generally always feel like myself. I have sometimes felt a small sense of loss when friends and I don’t really relate anymore, but it isn’t ever that painful because the people close to me are rocks that keep me grounded in all of it. I have never been abandoned by anyone or anything that really mattered…and I’m starting to see that this is a privilege and a rarity as well.