I’m in high school. A boy I’m meeting for the first time asks me very seriously “Do you believe in God?”
I think about it for a second. I’m not sure what I believe in at this point, but I know that it’s not the Father-Son-Holy Ghost my mom and grandma taught me about when I was little. I’m experimenting a bit with some paganism but I don’t know if I really Believe in it or not. But I know that’s not really what he’s asking.
So I say: “I believe in a god…”
“Oh,” he says. “So you’re going to hell?” Smugly satisfied that he’s categorized me correctly, he smirks and turns away.
I’m stunned. I’ve been a non-Christian in a high school dominated by smug evangelical kids for two years, but I’m still not accustomed to this. Who is this kid? And where does he get off?
* * * * *
I’m twenty-two. I’ve stumbled into a good job that I’m shortly going to lose, doing data entry and correction for a state government agency. Going to work at 8 in the morning is wreaking havoc on my not-a-morning-person body, so I compensate by flooding my system with caffeine and nicotine. Every two hours I meet up with some friendly ladies from the building and we hang out and smoke.
The ladies are much older than I am, but I like them. They know that I’m young and always broke, so they don’t mind sharing their cigarettes with me. They are friendly and encouraging and sweet, and I enjoy their company.
One day one of the ladies mentions that she found out that “The Atheists have their own tv channel, can you believe that?”
The two ladies agree that this is appalling and disgusting.
A wall has gone up. One one side are the nice Christian ladies. On the other side is me. I smoke my cigarette and I wonder: is it just being atheist that is the problem? Or is it only talking about being atheist that is beyond the pale?
And I shrink away and feel the loneliness of the knowledge that these nice Christian ladies whom I have always gotten along with so well hate something about me. They don’t know it, because they don’t know that they’re talking about me, but it’s still true.
I watch the smoke drift lazily into the air and I wonder what would happen if they knew.
I don’t say anything. I have to see them every day. But I remember.
* * * * *
I’m twenty-nine years old. I’ve been living in California for a while, but less than a year. It’s summer. My soon-to-be-husband and I are sitting outside drinking homebrewed beer with a friend. I say something that prompts the friend to ask me with surprise “Are you Catholic?” (he is).
“Sort of,” I say. “My mom is Catholic and I’m… I don’t really believe in it, but culturally, I’m Catholic. A Catholic atheist, I guess.”
“That’s the wrong way to go,” he tells me, seriously. And goes on to explain why it would be ok to be agnostic, but atheist is Just Terrible. He doesn’t ask why atheist means when I say it or why I identify that way. He doesn’t assume I might have Reasons for the way I identify or that I might know more about what it means than he does. He just projects his idea of what an atheist is and tells me why I’m not one.
I don’t want to have this argument. So once again, I stay silent. I gaze away and stop listening. Behind my sunglasses, my eyes sting with the frustration of once again having to choose: defend my right to exist, or not?