My whole life, I’ve been riddled with the deep-seeded fear of revealing to others just what I was: a non-believer. Since sixth grade when I declared myself, without provocation, an atheist, I have always felt like I’ve had to hide myself amidst the masses. I can’t tell you how many times my position–my views–have become the subject of conversation when discovered. I can’t tell you how many times I had to shrink away in embarrassment as a group of people descended upon me in an attempt to proselytize to me about Jesus “my personal savior.” It even happened once at a party within my own extended family (when, by the way, I was sticking up for a cousin who wasn’t present in her stated convictions that she had also decided she was atheist). So suffice it to say, I’ve spent a good portion of my life avoiding bringing up the topic of my religious beliefs. Or lack thereof.
Fast-forward several years. I found myself a young widow, wandering listlessly along in the now wildly scary world, looking for a spiritual bearing. What happened? I started attending rites with some pagan friends. I moved to Colorado. I went to a UU church. I came back from Colorado and continued attending pagan rites. I met a Christian. I mingled with Christianity for a few weeks until I kept hitting the same walls I hit with it all those years ago…
And then. Well, I found a wonderful church community that spoke to me. Another UU church, this one in Kent. The next thing I knew, I was signing a book and calling myself a member. I started attending church services on a semi-regular basis because I felt profoundly called to a faith for the first time in my life. Ever.
I feel kind of sheepish about the whole awakening I had. While simultaneously attending some Christian catechisms at a local mega-church at the urging of said Christian friend, I watched a video in which a man described his elation at his conversion to Christianity. And I was so utterly stunned in that I had felt the same thing. At the UU church. If I was ever capable of a spiritual experience, it happened the moment I walked through those doors, sat in the pew, and listened with apt attention as Hal (the music director) sang one of his own songs during the beginning of the service. I don’t remember what this song was (even though I have all of his CDs now), but whatever it was, it called to something in what I always call my soul despite its spiritual connotations–that incorporeal part of me that exists above and outside of my body, the part of me that is not physical but emotional, mental, spiritual. I don’t know if this thing is something more than a bunch of neurons firing in my head (and it’s all right for me to doubt the existence of my own soul in a UU church), but Hal’s music, and this the people at this UU church, called to these spiritually yearning neurons firing in my head.
In those first days that I chose–chose, such a beautiful word–to become UU, I did feel the elation, the serenity and security, described by the recent converts to Christianity. I felt like a new person. I felt like I’d come home. I suppose finding a “spiritual” home makes people of all faiths feel as if they’ve reached a new place in their lives. Those neurons firing in our heads again, most likely.
But I live in a secular world. And it’s really weird, but now I feel as though I’ve switched positions in life. Now it seems vogue to not be religious at just the time when I’ve chosen for myself a religion. And I’m suddenly very conscious of what people think of me when I mention that I know such-and-such from church. Or when I off-handedly start a story, without thinking, “Oh, I was out with some people from my church…” Or when I decline a Sunday morning invitation to hike or bike or ski with someone by telling them that I have to go to church because I’m scheduled to greet (one of my only consistent volunteer positions within the church).
I immediately think in panic, “Oh, God (no pun intended), do these people think I’m some kind of evangelical? Do they think I’m not a rational human being?”
I find myself quipping, defensively, “Don’t worry. I’m Unitarian Universalist.”
As if that explains everything. As if it exonerates me from being like “those other people.” It really doesn’t because most people wouldn’t know an Unitarian Universalist from a Hare Krishna. In fact, if anything, it makes me look even stranger, a member of some new age hippie cult. Which, to some, is almost worse than calling myself Christian. (And some Christians fear us more than the “soul-less” atheists.)
And then I experience this weird duality of personality where I am my past self looking at my current self and I hear the accusations, “Geesh, girl, what’s wrong with you? Are you weak? I don’t need faith of any kind.”
So I feel kind of self-conscious about admitting I’m going to a church. Even if referred to in the generic sense. Despite the fact that probably most of the people in my life as I grew up told me that they attended church. So how come I’m doing something socially acceptable, like attending a church, and I still feel like I’m on the outside? Even if I don’t specify what specific church I attend (which raises just as many eyebrows as declaring I’m atheist ever did, if not more), I feel weird. Like I don’t want to be associated with those people. Which to me is really just most Christians because that’s the religion I grew up in and ultimately rejected. I find myself much more open to people who are Jewish or Muslim or Buddhist. Pagan. Hindu. In fact, being a member of the UU church has made me more accepting and respectful of other faiths (though I still struggle with giving Christianity a fair shake, I admit).
Yes. I go to church. In fact, in the month of January, I attended church four out of the five Sundays. That’s a good track-record for an errant Catholic. But I found a place I enjoy spending an hour or two of my Sunday. The conversation between services is great, the people are really interesting, and the services provide great insight about the world and other religions. I hate to say it, but being a member of a church community has really helped more than anything else I tried to bring me back among the living after Mike’s death. I don’t always agree with what my fellow parishioners say… and I’m sure they don’t agree with me… but at a UU church, diversity of thought is welcomed, not rejected.
It still feels weird to admit to people that I go to church. It has almost the same effect in some social circles–such as with my atheist friends–as whenever I tell someone knew that I’m a widow. I feel as though my (atheist) friends feel I’ve failed them somehow… like I’ve gone to “the other side” despite my multiple claims that there are atheists in our congregation. I seem to get the attitude from these groups that says, “Well, I don’t need that sort of thing.”
I do need what the UU church offers–compassion, community, worship of the life we do know exists. It’s made me whole to become a part of a place where the congregants strive for social justice and gender equality. These are my people and I belong. The Seven Principles are something I can get behind no matter what my spiritual mood of the day is.
Anyway, it’s just kind of weird that I’ve switched places with myself. I guess the whole religion thing will never fit comfortably on me, ever, no matter what I’m feeling about God, the Universe, and Creation. I’m neither out nor in. I’m the same atheist I always was, only now I’ll admit to agnostic and sometimes quasi-spiritual. My mind is always firmly rooted in science while recognizing also the beautiful artwork of life that is evolution. It doesn’t matter what I think, actually. I’m liberal. I’m loving. And I’m happy. Which is more than I could say for myself for several long post-Mike years… Awkward or not, I’m in the right place. I guess I should just stop worrying about what other people think. The most ardent of believers of every faith don’t care what anyone else thinks of them. Why should I? My religion–or lack thereof–doesn’t define me. Only my actions do.