I had an experience recently I feel I need to share. I’ve written before about atheists being the “silent minority”. People react to atheists in ways they would never react to people who were different in any other religion, philosophy, or lifestyle vector. To wit:
I was having dinner at a large gathering, and sitting next to a wonderful woman whom I have known for years. She is likely the sweetest most earnest person you can imagine. (She’s the sort of woman who would assure Quasimodo that the hump was kinda cute. You get the idea.) At one point, the conversation at the table turned to politics and it didn’t surprise me at all that she was a dyed-in-the-wool Bush fan. But, I had already tipped my hand by then. So I asked her what she admired about Bush.
She went on about how spiritual he was and that she admired how he exercised everyday. I noted that it wasn’t clear to me why his work-out habits made him a better leader and that while I respected his spirituality, it was also his over-the-top zealotry which made me nervous. She then stated/asked, “Well Tim, you must be a spiritual person, aren’t you?” While I didn’t wish to make a big deal of the statement, it would have been disingenuous for me to just nod and let it go. So I said that while I had a very strong personal philosophy and morality, that no, I was not spiritual as she defined it. I was an atheist.
She reacted with, “Oh Tim…”, and an expression on her face which would have been more suitable had I just revealed that I had terminal cancer and 3 weeks to live. She clearly had no idea how to handle this information, and the conversation abruptly turned to lighthearted things. We went on as if the last five minutes had never occurred.
To be clear, I wasn’t offended by the reaction, and I’m not picking on her. I’ve seen this reaction over and over – and still it amazes me. This is a world where a person saying they are Jewish, Muslim, gay, lesbian, etc. is taken in passing. Yet it seems atheists must still be invisible and outside people’s conscious experience. (Everybody probably knows a few, they just don’t know they do.) Jews used to note that well-intentioned people simply assumed that they were Jewish only because no one had yet brought Jesus into their lives. I doubt many people would view Judaism that way today. Yet atheism is viewed that way. It is viewed as a deficiency (or worse, an opportunity) by well intentioned Christians.
There are certainly “default atheists” out there. People who are atheists because they’ve never been exposed to anything else. Curiously, there are way more “default Christians” out there. Both are worthy of pity as their lives remain relatively unexplored. But inasmuch as you would probably not proceed from the assumption that the Methodist dining to your left is in need of your pity, why would you assume the atheist is?