A few years ago I was Christmas* shopping at a Border’s book store near where I live. The checkout line was long, and the woman next to me tried to start a conversation with me. I was not exhibiting signs of friendliness or a desire to converse. Nevertheless, she spoke to me. I can’t remember exactly how the conversation started, but within the first 20 seconds of speaking to me she asked, “Do you live nearby?” and when I responded in the affirmative she asked, “Where do you go to church?”
I responded by telling her that I don’t go to church. She was rather taken aback. She asked me what I church I went to growing up and I told her I was an atheist and did not attend church as a child (well, not much – I’ve attended a few random services for various reasons: I’ve sat through Catholic mass, a Lutheran service and baptism, and too many religious weddings that seemed to be more about religion than marriage).
She, not surprisingly, found it necessary to ask if I believe in god. You must realize that not everyone realizes that “atheist” means “no, I don’t believe in god.” When I said I didn’t believe in god, she told me I’d change my mind when I got older.
This woman was clearly dismayed by my atheism. When she questioned me and when she suggested I’d change my mind when I was older I do not think she meant to insult me. Rather, she thought she was making polite, friendly conversation and her admonishment that I would someday believe was meant with goodwill. That’s actually a problem.
I am tired of being treated as if being an atheist is to be pitied. I am tired of people acting as if my disbelief and the disbelief of many of my peers is a passing phase. It’s irritating because my worldview is at least as legitimate as any mainstream religious view.
Had this woman asked a Muslim woman, for example, (some Muslim woman do not wear headscarves and are therefore not conspicuously Muslim) where she attended church and then learned that the other was, in fact, Muslim, she would not have gone on to say or imply, “You will change you mind and believe in Christianity when you’re older and less silly.” Same goes for Hindus, Buddhists and Jews. That’s not to say the woman wouldn’t have attempted to persuade these people to attend a Christian service or something, but she wouldn’t have treated them like silly children for believing something other than Christianity because they adhere to a worldview considered mainstream.
This is a somewhat dicey topic. I don’t want to imply that I can criticize others’ beliefs, but they cannot criticize mine. I welcome the criticism – sometimes it is actually constructive for me, but more often it gives me a chance to dispel rumors and falsities about atheists. I want to say that, if I am expected to respect the right of others to hold their beliefs and not call, for example, Christianity a passing fancy of youth, then Christians (and other religious individuals) need to recognize that neither is my lack of belief a passing fancy of youth.
I would also like them to recognize that being an atheist does not mean living an unhappy, empty life without meaning. I am not to be pitied – my life is very fulfilling.
Most of all, I want people to recognize the legitimacy of nonbelief. They don’t have to like it or respect it (I don’t respect the majority of Christian, Jewish or Muslim beliefs – I think it’s mostly all silly or worse), they simply have to stop treating me like I am not an adult with my own ideas. I prefer an attempted conversion to the “passing phase” treatments because at least hopeful converters recognize that I have an alternate belief system and am not just a silly kid going through a phase.
*Christmas is a secular holiday about giving and receiving, pretty lights and Christmas trees.