I went to Catholic school for 9 years – my atheist parents sent me as it was the best education available in my hometown of 20,000 people. My best friends and extended peer group, the same 15 other kids in my class for those 9 years, thought that I was, at my core, wrong. We found other things to talk about. As the only atheist in the class, I was constantly and consistently told I was going to Hell by other students, instructors, and priests. In response, I vindictively aced “religion” (not really “religion” but rather “teachings of Catholicism”) class – I knew what answer was wanted, and it drove them nuts that I would answer what they were looking for, rather than what I believed. On bad days I would get in arguments with teachers about conflicting parts of the bible. The day I found the passage on questioning faith as the best way to strengthen it was particularly rough. Occasionally it would escalate to tears – rarely mine. And the whole time, they didn’t kick me out because my parents didn’t belong to the parish, and so they were providing income sorely needed for the school. Talk about weird privilege.
From this, I learned to stand up for what I saw in science, even when every. single. person around me (peer and authority) thought I was drastically wrong. I learned how to have long-term, deep relationships with people with whom I had conflicting core views. I also learned to have an immediate and visceral reaction to people who expressed strong religious views. There were a few years where I envied people who were religious, seeing it as an easy comfort I was fighting so hard to gain. After resolving to learn more about this thing that had such a strong hold over me, I took one of my minors in Religion, specifically around the Old Testament. I learned that others had celebrated, and continue to celebrate, the questioning of those texts. I learned to think about religion in a sociological context, and became more fascinated than envious. But still a visceral reaction, even if more subtle.
When I moved to Camberville, my new set of friends meant that I was invited to a few Judaic holiday gatherings. I heard stories, drank wine, and asked questions; comfortable with friends I already knew and respected. Their joy at sharing upon request, without expectation, was a different interaction than I had experienced in the past. Far enough from the Catholic structures of my youth, curiosity bloomed in a way that was safe for all of us. More of my generally-directed anger faded. I learned to think about religion as a way of describing the world, rather than as a mandate of being.
After begin in Camberville for about a year, an academic cohort I thoroughly enjoy working with, who does incredible things around gay rights and gender equality, “came out” to me about being Evangelical. I got my still-present visceral response in check, and we talked. They experience incredible ostracization in both of their main groups – from those with whom they has a spiritual home because of the work focus, and with their academic crew because of their beliefs. This caused a lot of mixed feelings in me. This is someone I care about, who is in turmoil, and who I had no way of helping.
At a dinner gathering a few days after this conversation, I was still mulling it over, and brought it up while keeping the person anonymous – I could only assume people would be dismissive of my friend in the same way of my now tamped-down knee-jerk reaction. But instead, these friends told me about their similar experience – bringing equal access to their churches in the South. Using sermons to teach about inequality and to support those most in need. Their being ostracized by those who would otherwise have been their friends in social and academic circles. This also made me sad. Unable to provide these amazing people the solidarity they needed, I put them in touch with each other. They’re now all meeting regularly, along with other people in similar sets though different faiths.
From all this, I’ve started noticing how dismissive and demeaning the attitudes around religion are in my social groups. It reminds me of when I started understanding the language of feminism, understanding how it relates to me, and being hyper-sensitive to the smallest turns of phrase and utterly oblivious to some of the worst bits. I’ve started looking for signals that friends are closeted in their faith, trying to make safe space for discussion. One amazing, long-time friend ends up to be Mormon. And I realize how many times I’ve made off-handed comments which must have cut to the bone. But that’s just a part of his everyday existence.
I still don’t know what to do with all this. I love my friends, and I want them to be safe and welcome for who they are. I also believe in critiquing flaws in systems, and that religion (on the whole) allows and encourages flaws, as well as detracting from the encouragement to examine and act. But, just like everything, it can be more nuanced than that. In their religion, some of these folk are finding language to discuss experience and intuition that otherwise doesn’t have definition nor words. They’ve found a way to express care and intent in the world, both of which tend to be sorely lacking. But now, instead of being jealous, I’m deeply grateful they’re willing to share that, without expectation that I’ll carry it in the same way. We’re seeing each other as individuals, not as the systems of which we are a part.