Growing up, there was a scientist living in my small community who people spread rumors about. Some said he was a genius who solved a mathematical riddle for ‘Chaos Theory’ (which at the time meant something sinister to a child’s mind–rather than what it really meant: quantum mechanics).
Others said he was a loon. Some crazy guy who solves the formula for a new rocket fuel that could power civilization and launch us to the stars and into a new era. While, still, others called him a “godless” atheist. I remember that pejorative term “atheist” was so horrible, so detrimental, that it meant this scientist, while going about his own business in the grocery store buying food, as I once saw, local shoppers would go out of their way to avoid him.
They’d either turn the other way or shuffle to the far side of the aisle and attempt desperately to avoid eye-contact. Or, on some occasions they would even mumble insensitive remarks. All this is the product of…
Gossip. Gossip. Gossip.
All they really knew what that he was different.
Small rural communities often have a similar tribal mentality. This is what living in a small, close-knit, community of like-minded people, raised together, and who are–for the lack of a better word–uncultured–is like: they become cliquish.
Being odd, or being different, is not easy in such communities. Just ask my brother, he’ll be the first to tell you the EXTREME bullying he endured for his artistic ecentrisms and personal quirks which make him such a unique and wonderful individual.
To stand out, in other words, is to go against the grain, travel up stream, it means to embrace the role of a black sheep, and all the other cliches. Like most cliques, people who do not appreciate your autonomy or respect your difference of opinion will bully you into silence or use peer pressure to ostracize you, not including you in their backwards microcosm of one subculture within one pocket of larger society.
I know. I saw it happen daily growing up.
As you may have guessed, if you are a nonbeliever or Free Thinker living in a small town, which tends to be conservative in practice and so too their religious beliefs, discrimination against atheists is common practice. Those to subscribe to the teachings of “Churchianity” (a pejorative term in this case) rarely have room for the godless in their hearts. In fact, from my experience, it seems they barely have room for each other.
Forget about being “different.”
Gossip usually circulated around people who were new to town, or people who disturbed the equilibrium of society. If somebody rocked the boat, even just a little bit, people would talk about it.
I often have people share with me that they are ‘closet atheists’ who are still in the closet due to the terrible stress and conflict which would be inflicted if they should come out, they sit in the pews–the silent atheist–stuck going through the motions–because to do otherwise could tear apart a family and rattle an entire society.
So they stay quiet–as if by necessity. Sometimes, the hard truth of the matter is, it’s safer–easier–and perhaps even better to keep quiet. But it is also lonely. The solitary life of a Free Thinker, the black sheep, in a flood of white woolly brained regular sheep–can be a difficult path to take.
How does one cope?
The best advice I have is advice I learned from the brilliant female comedian Julia Sweeney.
When asked in a recent interview why it is that atheists seem (seem being the keyword here) so stigmatizing, she replied:
They’re saying unpopular and different things that aren’t what we’ve all been inculcated to hear as part of our general culture… they see how much religion — but particularly the Christian religious right — has used our government and taxes and our common will for their own ends.
So what’s Sweeney’s advice on dealing with people who think you’re being stigmatizing when all you simply do is hold a different opinion? What do you say to people who look at you with a sideways glance? Or what do you say to your own Christian mother, who would be terrified to learn you’re a disbelieving atheist? Should you tell them? Or just go through the motions?
Sweeney says there is nothing wrong simply going through the motions and sitting down to pray with the family, or even just going to Church on Sundays. She says:
I would totally do it, because to me, I become Margaret Mead. I become an anthropologist and go, “Oh, the customs of these people! They hold hands and pray to their god!” Humans are social animals, and part of our cohesion is based in ritual.
That’s good advice, I find.
So maybe this is what the poet Robert Frost meant by the road less traveled by? Not simply daring to do things differently, but to be true to who you are in the process.
I can’t tell anyone how they ought to go about living their own life. All I know is, it’s nice not having to have the constant burden of pretending to be something I’m not.
I feel totally free as an atheist.
If people don’t care enough to ask what it is I believe and sit down and have a good conversation about it, then those people aren’t probably worth my time in the first place.
That’s my two cents anyway. As always, feel free to take the best and leave the rest.