One day a week during lunch, I attend a meeting to work on public speaking skills. This meeting is held at a well-known corporation, and what has always struck me is the number of people who talk about God. Every single meeting–sometimes even as the topic of speech. So I felt it was time for me to speak up, not only because I figured it was only a matter of time before someone found out that I don’t believe but also because I wanted to increase awareness. (Hello? We don’t all believe the same things.)
So I gave the following speech last week on the heels of another presenter’s speech about Jesus. Two interesting things happened. First, it was surprisingly well-received. A couple of people came up afterwards and told me that they were inspired to live rather than preach the word. (Which, to me, is a good thing.) And one person came out to me, stating that knowing another nonbeliever gives him inspiration. Nearly everyone mentioned the word “courage” because, I believe, people are aware that there are still negative stereotypes and discrimination towards those who don’t believe in God.
So, here’s what I said., and I think one reason why this speech worked was because, for so long, I didn’t say anything. They got to know me as a person rather than as a label first:
We make a lot of assumptions about people.
We make these assumptions based on the way people are dressed, based on their hair and skin color, based on the way they speak. The list is long, actually.
Some of these assumptions are true. My accent tells people I am not from Texas.
But there is an assumption that a lot of people make about me that is not true.
You see, I am not a Christian. I am not a Jew, not a Muslim. In fact, I don’t even believe in God. Please don’t take this personally. It is not personal. It is simply my conclusion. It is not an assault on your belief.
I have a great deal of respect for people of all faiths. And I know a little about many religions and enjoy learning and listening to people talk about their faith. I know that it is a great source of hope and comfort for many, including my family and friends.
However, I am not a potential convert. And one of the first things people try to do when they learn that I’m a free agent is sell me on their religion. “Come to my church. Try it out,” they say. “We’re not like the rest.” This may or may not be true, but it’s of little relevance for those of us who are not in the market. The second thing people usually do is ask, “Have you read the bible?” And yes, nearly every nonbeliever I know has read the bible at least once, and oftentimes the Qur’an, the Vedas and other religious texts, too.
And, no, I’m not angry with God or the church. I don’t feel let-down or betrayed or abandoned.
There are many misconceptions around those of us who don’t believe in God. What do you normally think of when you hear the word agnostic or atheist? Someone who worships the devil? Has no morals? No hope? No direction? No Truth? Someone who is taking an eternal trip to an extremely hot destination?
Atheism and agnosticism, for me, is not that complicated.
It simply means that I don’t find enough evidence to support a belief in God. It is not logical for me. That’s all. It doesn’t change who I am, doesn’t make me more prone to steal or lie or cheat. Belief in God has no bearing on morality. None. And it doesn’t change the way I see others. I find a lot of good in humanity. This where I find my hope: In the mother who stops on the highway to give another woman’s baby CPR. In the people who make anonymous donations to help others in need. In the smiles on the faces of strangers.
Some folks get very upset with dissenting views. For this reason, many nonbelievers stay in the closet, fearful of losing friends or family or even their jobs. There may be others here, in this room, who don’t believe but are afraid to come forward.
You may be wondering how I arrived at my conclusions. Well, I will tell you. I grew up Catholic. My mother was very devout and my dad was not really a believer of anything, though he did not admit to this when I was young. But they agreed that children of the marriage would be raised in a church. So I went through all the rites and rituals of a neophyte Roman Catholic. In my early 20s, my belief started to unravel. The more I learned about history and religion, about logic and about the fallibility of memory, the more it all started coming apart. It was a process, an undoing, and, although I remember the exact moment everything shifted for me, it took several years before I actually let go of the rope.
I know that there are many good things in belief. For one, you always can find comfort in your church community or in praying. There are lots of beneficial outreach programs that stem from churches. There is hope that you will see your loved ones again. I get that.
But it’s not for me. And there’s no going back.
My lack of belief is very personal, and something I don’t usually talk about with acquaintances. But I’m telling you here today because it’s a topic that I write about, and you may run across my work. I don’t want you to feel as if I’ve tricked you.
You see, I look and act just like a Christian, but I’m not.
And that’s okay. In fact, we’re all okay, just the way we are.
As the writer Paulo Coelho said, “In order to have faith in [your] own path, [you] do not need to prove that someone else’s path is wrong.”