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.