Text of my opening message at West Hills Friends on 5/19/13
Evangelicalism taught me to be a fighter. Fight for the truth, no matter what it costs. Fight for God, even at the expense of others’ feelings. Fight for the Bible, even if faith is all you have to fight with. Nobody told me that faith is a fleeting weapon.
Quaker retreat stirred some stuff up within me, and I’ve been struggling to put them to words. The group was invited, without the usual pre-requisite that one be prompted by the supernatural, to speak about what they were feeling, about their current situation, whatever it may be. It was my chance, I thought, to say the things I’ve been feeling without having to pretend that a spirit wants me to say them. But I couldn’t speak. I bit my upper lip and tried to keep the tears silent.
When I realized I didn’t believe in God anymore, intellectually or emotionally, I thought I did a pretty good job of putting my history in its proper context. Church and faith had been a result of family influence, as we went every Sunday. I, as the child of two confident people, had become zealous in my faith, sometimes obnoxiously so. This would have happened to just about anyone in my situation, so I reasoned. And it’s true. Most kids who grow up with a faith system in their pocket tend to hang on to it. Other religious ideas seem foreign, not part of the safety of home. This attachment isn’t a good measure of the validity of these beliefs, but it’s a good explanation for why it’s so hard to leave the faith of our childhood. Attending West Hills has made me see, by contrast, the damage that evangelicalism did to me, separate from issues of faith.
Evangelicalism taught me that it is virtuous to be stubborn in one’s convictions. Adulthood has shown me that this is wrong. The fool, upon being shown his errors, should change his mind. It is not virtuous of him to cling to his error. What began as stubborn apologetics became stubborn insistence that we should watch Survivor first, then go to bed. Your valid argument that sleep is more important loses to my virtuous hold on the remote. Evangelicalism taught me it’s a good thing to stand out from the crowd, that your message is more likely to be received if people know who you are. What started with zealous evangelism became a narcissistic need to be special. I have to stand out wherever I go. If we’re all playing golf, I’m special because I’m left-handed. If we’re having dinner, I have to find a conversation topic that I’m more knowledgeable about than you are. And if we’re sitting in silence, I have to stand out because I’m an atheist. As if non-belief is somehow inspirational.
I think I recognized my need to be special just as I should have been standing to speak at retreat. And in this rare moments of honest self-reflection, this community invalidated my argument. There is nothing I think or feel that isn’t being felt by someone else in this group. When someone stands to say she doesn’t know if anything is going to happen when she dies, I’m with her in that thought. Someone spoke of her husband who is on a different faith path, and how much he’s enjoyed the retreat, and for the first time in a decade, I have good news to share with someone about church! I am not alone in my doubt, but I am also not alone in my feelings of home within this community. I am not special, and it’s a relief.
Not being special is a realization that is healing a lot of wounds. Being special lets me be separate from, or outside of, groups of friends and family. Being special assures me that if something goes wrong, I can exit painlessly, because I was never really on the inside. But one can’t experience the full benefits of community while insisting on being special, and outside of it. For my growth as a person, even if never as a believer, I must learn how to envision myself as part of a group, not a special visitor.
To close, I want to comment on Greg’s message regarding evangelism from 2 weeks ago. While you and I may disagree on whether or not certain beliefs are worth sharing with others, we all agree that embracing our gay brothers and sisters as equals is an essential element of this community. When I see A.J. being welcomed as a member of this meeting, another piece of my anti-religion worldview disappears. This has been happening more and more recently. What I want to say about evangelism is that if churches want to bring in people from the outside, be they disillusioned Christians from other denominations, or an ex-Baptist atheist who would love to find God under a rock one day, that church must embrace the gay community. It’s practically a consensus among non-believers, and much to my surprise, a growing contingent of Christians are taking the brave stance that the God they believe in doesn’t intentionally create people that She thinks are genetically flawed. This stance you have taken is the biggest reason I came here in the first place, and if the rumors are true that this church marches in the Pride parade, you can count this atheist as someone willing to march in line behind a church banner.