So, I have this friend who lives in the Midwest (nearest large city of consequence is Chicago1), who shall remain nameless (well, she has a name and all but I’m not telling you what it is) who brought up an interesting, not unusual, and sad dilemma.
She has just moved into a new living situation, and has several roommates none of whom she knows very well. During a conversation not long after she moved in, one of the roommates made a god reference during a conversation. This was a comment that clearly indicated that this person is religious, probably Christian. It was also one of those conversation enders … like, here we have an interesting question of how life works, but no, the truth is that this is just how god wants it to be so we can stop talking about it now.
That situation is not terrible. Having a religious roommate is not necessarily a big issue … it all depends on the person. But what is interesting is this: Do religious people know that their religiosity can be a pain, even offensive, to others? Would religious people be surprised that someone might think twice about having them as a roommate because they are religious? No, of course not. Being religious is normal. Being religiou provides privileges in our society. In fact, not being religious is what requires the explanation!
My friend told me “I’ve not encountered this in a long time. I don’t know anyone on a day to day basis who is religious. I’ve had dozens of roommates, and I’ve never had a religious roommate.”
How many atheists can say that they don’t encounter religious people in day to day life outside of work (where we may have little control over such things)? Well, many. How many Christians can say that they can’t think of too many atheists? Well, a lot can say that, but I strongly suspect that in many cases they have friends who are atheists but they don’t know this bout them. Why don’t they know it? Because the way our society works, you better not speak out that you are an atheist unless forced to do so, or unless you are an activist trying to make a point. When the two worlds collide … religion and atheism … there is almost always conflict, and religion almost always wins.
Another reason for this is that Atheism does not have a lot of built in cuing mechanisms. Many Christians go around saying “Praise god” or “God bless” or “By the love of god” or “Whatever whatever” but you don’t hear similar things coming out of atheists. Maybe we need to get some of that stuff.
Anyway, the point is that in our society religion is de facto, default, and normal, and atheism is looked at askance, at best.
To demonstrate the veracity of this claim, consider the following thought experiment. We go to a fifth grade classroom in a public school in a moderately conservative district in America’s Heartland. Perhaps the public grade school that my friend went to. Or the grade school my daughter went to. It is lunch recess and all but one of the kids has piled out of the room. The one kid left behind has a question for the teacher.
“Ms. Brown, what religion are you?”
Now, since this is an experiment, we need something to measure and compare, so if you please we will split this thought experiment into two alternative universes.
Universe A: Ms. Brown is a Catholic.
“Well, Jane, I’m a Catholic. But this is a public school so we should avoid talk about religion, OK? Now, go outside and play. Or eat your lunch. Or whatever.”
Universe B: Ms. Brown is an Atheist.
“Well, Jane, I’m an Atheist. I don’t believe in god. No, go outside and play. Or something.”
What would happen in each of these two universes? Well, in Universe A the kid goes outside and plays and by the end of the day has forgotten the encounter and can’t even remember why the issue came up. In Universe B little Jane goes home and tells her parents that her teacher is an atheist and does not believe in god. A few other parents find out. The principal is called. This is brought up before the school board. The villagers become increasingly agitated, and eventually Ms. Brown is driven into the swamp by a crowd bearing pitchforks and torches.
Or, at the very least, Ms. Brown gets a lot of dirty looks from then on for the rest of her life. Which is unfair to her, but it is, in fact, and you know this, the very least that would happen to her.
The truth is that when the Atheist World and the Religious World overlap or interact in the United States, the Atheist World is expected to give sway, make the excuses, back off, or shut up.
When bus ads saying “Don’t believe in God? You are not alone” were placed by Iowa Atheists and Freethinkers just recently, the religious world of Des Moines was deeply offended, they complained, and the bought and paid for, constitutionally protected ads were summarily removed from the buses. (See this writeup.)
The other day a few of us were casually conversing about the new Minnesota Atheist podcast project. This is an extension of Atheist Talk Radio. The question at hand was: Should the podcast be called “Atheist Talk.” The reason to NOT call it Atheist Talk is that some people get put off by the word “Atheist.” I’ve seen this happen. I know of at least a couple of cases where someone was reluctant to be a guest or otherwise involved with Atheist Talk because they were put off by or worried by the word Atheist. The upshot of that conversation was this: The whole point is to move this society closer to not being put off by the Atheists. So dropping the name would be a truly counterproductive thing to do.
So, my friend and I talked about her dilemma. There was no plan, no conclusion, no substantive reaction, we just talked, which had no other effect than to verify that it is she who is normal and everyone else in this world … well, it depends on the person. That conversation was a while ago, and I just heard today that she’s feeling much better about the situation. She is being annoying, though. She happens to be a scientist who studies evolution. What kind of roommate would THAT be if you are a Christian! OMG!
1At least according to the people in Chicago.