unity and exclusivity

I try to be sensitive to certain times when my Christian friends might not want to be around an atheist.  When I was at Wheaton, I stayed out of the way when my roommates came home from church or worship services, in case they didn’t want me to impinge on their spiritual time.  After I graduated, I purposely never called my Christian friends on Sundays or on significant days like Easter or Good Friday.  When I was a Christian I tended to be finicky about these things– even if I knew there wouldn’t be any conversation about religious matters, sometimes I just wanted to be around other believers who I knew were of like mind.  So as an atheist, I keep that in mind and make myself scarce at religiously sensitive times.

On Christmas Day I was busy not calling or emailing any Christian friends, and it occurred to me to wonder whether there is an atheist analog.  Are there any parts of an atheist’s life that Christians can’t take part in?  Are there any occasions when an atheist might only want to be around other non-believers?  Not for me.  I can’t think of any times when I would rather not be around Christians, although there are times when I would just rather not talk about religion or atheism.  But even my most spiritual moments, which involve things like science or nature or art or music, can be shared with and appreciated by many Christians.

Atheism lacks a unifying element, and that is a good thing.  But sometimes I miss the central element of exclusivity in my life.  No life is lacking in exclusivity, to be sure– there are times when I have little tolerance of anyone who doesn’t accept and appreciate modern science as I do, or who is disparaging of baroque opera.  I wouldn’t want to be accompanied by those people while going to an opera or a scientific meeting.  (Although, would a scientific meeting really be complete without the wacko conspiracy theorist who makes everyone cringe?  I’d honestly be a little disappointed if none of them showed up to hog the microphone at the AAAS meeting.)  Just as an atheist’s life lacks the cohesiveness of religion that permeates every cell of our lives, we also lack that common understanding that would allow us to share in wordless fellowship in each others’ presence.  When I was a Christian and surrounded by other Christians, I felt a certain warm fuzziness in knowing that we all shared a devotion to Jesus Christ, no matter what other differences we had.  But merely being in the presence of other atheists makes little emotional impact on me, because I know that we all have different reasons for being atheists and different interpretations of atheism.

I find atheism neither exclusive nor unified.  The fellowship of atheists requires more nuance and explanation, and there is no guaranteed agreement or common ground.  In a beautiful way, that exemplifies the labyrinth of reality.  Still, I sometimes miss the feeling of belonging to a secret society, where a wink and a shrug could get you in to a circle of like minds.  Where sometimes, you could look at the people around you and know that the thing that is bursting in your heart is also bursting in theirs.


3 thoughts on “unity and exclusivity

  1. Santiago

    I have had a similar feeling with very good friends, which are generally people I identify strongly with and with whom I’ve shared a lot of experiences with. A wink or a shrug is exactly what I get when me and a good friend are with other people, and something funny or interesting happens that we alone understand, and we just look at each other knowing pretty well what’s going on in the other’s head.

  2. Alice

    In response to your last paragraph, I have to say that my atheist group is way better than church has been in the past five years. Maybe that’s more the fault of my churches. But when I’m at an Inland Empire Atheists meeting, and the speaker is trying to quiet everyone down so we can begin, and I yell, “Shut the hell up, you godless heathens,” and they all laugh… I love that feeling, that we share something that is a rare and secret thing. I never had that as a Christian. And the last time I called us all infidels, a man responded by looking at me in some amazement and saying, “It is SO nice to hear someone say that.”

    In conclusion… I heart atheist groups. I hope you have one to heart, too.

  3. Dan

    One may have atheist groups, but atheism really isn’t a religion. Nor is it even the least bit organized. The central problem is that not believing in God makes for hard edged debate with theists at times, but people have to share common beliefs and practices in order to have that warm and fuzzy feeling.

    I used to have a community like that in martial arts before I graduated from college. For some reason none of us were Christians. We spent long hours hitting each other and discussing the philosophical concepts in martial arts.

    In short, find or found a community of people you can share some beliefs and practices with. Shared disbeliefs are enough to form a herd of cats, but not enough to satisfy many people.


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