Positive Atheism Forum
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Moving Beyond
Just A Polite Response?
from Jane

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Jane's Letter:

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    To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
    Subject: An atheism question
    Date: Wednesday, August 02, 2000 8:24 PM

    Dear Mr. Walker,

    I hope I am neither intruding nor imposing by sending this Email, but I have a question, and don't know where else to ask it. Thanks for taking the time to read this.

    I am 17 years old and an atheist. My best friend is a very strong Catholic. We've discussed our religious beliefs before, and both of us are fine with what the other believes; however, I don't think her parents know that I am atheist (they would probably not be as fine with it). This only presents itself as a problem when I eat over at their house, and they say a prayer before they eat. I choose not to participate in this, and I also don't say Amen at the end. Last time I noticed her dad giving me a funny look. So my question is this: should I say Amen, even though I don't believe it? I don't really mind saying it, I just feel very awkward and uncomfortable when I do.

    I hope you can provide some insight to this, I would be very grateful.

    Thanks again for your time.

    Jane

 

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Cliff's Initial Response:

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  From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: Re: An atheism question
Date: Wednesday, August 02, 2000 10:49 PM

This question is right up our alley: we get so many letters from theists who wish to convert us, but who fail to respect the fact that this magazine is for atheists; we are not here to deconvert theists or anything like that.

I will post this as a question to our list members to ponder, and if we get any replies, I will post them in our Forum section.

This, to me, is a private matter. A correspondent from Iran (whose letter was woefully lost when I caught the happy99 virus last year) tells me that fully 40 percent of his fellow-citizens are flat-out atheists -- when in the privacy of their own homes. In Iran, you see, you could lose your freedom and possibly your life if you push your atheism too far (as in admitting your atheism to anybody or as in refusing to participate in public prayer).

In our branch of the family, nobody is religious. In the other branch that we visit regularly, they're all religious. We have the luxury of knowing that whatever our reaction, we will not lose the love and respect of our religious family members, but you don't sound so fortunate. If it is important to keep your friendship, and if you think being openly atheistic could jeopardize your freedom to remain friends, then you'll definitely want to weigh your friendship against your desire not to be a hypocrite.

This is a tough decision, but you can repose in the fact that you are not bringing this dilemma upon yourself. This doesn't mean that the father is some kind of culprit either: he is doing what his parents and his religion taught him to do. This is making the situation unfair to you, but I cannot fault him for it: it is the religion which teaches exclusivism -- an us-versus-them mentality -- and this is hard to break. Most importantly, though, he is the father of your friend, and it is his responsibility to protect his children to the best of his abilities.

If he holds his religion dear, he might see you as a threat. Even if he is dead wrong about you being a threat, he is absolutely correct in wanting to protect his children from what he thinks are threats.

You might want to work together with your friend and see if you can think of ways to show the father that your friend's faith is solid as a rock, and that your views are not a threat. This responsibility is more your friend's than yours, but you would be right in suggesting this and in helping work out the approach.

Meanwhile, you do well to learn to communicate your position to others. I've spent a lot of effort trying to work out the most effective ways to tell someone I'm an atheist. Lately, I've begun to first explain to them that an atheist is simply one who has not encountered a convincing argument for the existence of a god. We don't hate God, and we don't think that no gods exist, we just have no reason for believing at this time. (I may or may not go further than this, but this is the traditional meaning for the word atheist.) This puts the ball in the theists' court by implying that if they think they have a valid reason for believing, they are welcome to share it with you. I never turn down somebody's offer to explain their beliefs to me. If they simply explain, I can ask questions about it that pique my curiosity. Most people, particularly Christians, love to share their faith with others; this can work to your advantage toward disarming them of their fear and hostility toward you (though this is not foolproof by any means).

If they ask, "Isn't an atheist someone who thinks that no gods exist?" or something like that, I say, "No, this is a common mistake; the word atheism means "no theism." Most atheists simply lack a god belief, but since we are so widely misunderstood by others, many of us call ourselves by other names ranging from freethinkers to Humanists to Unitarians to Pantheists (yes, there are atheistic Unitarians and Pantheists). I can then point out that studies show that more Americans think it's okay to discriminate against atheists than think it's okay to discriminate against homosexuals ("The Last Taboo" by Wendy Kaminer). Even people who fear atheists tend to be shocked upon hearing this fact. And everybody seems to want to do something about bigotry these days.

 

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Jane's Initial Afterthought:

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    To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
    Subject: Re: An atheism question
    Date: Thursday, August 03, 2000 12:29 PM

    Dear Mr. Walker,

    First off, I would like to thank you for your timely response to my Email. This question has been nagging at me for a while, and it was very nice to not have to wait two weeks for an outside opinion.

    I thought the advice you gave me was very good, and I do plan on talking to my friend about her father. First, however, I need to figure out exactly what I wish to say :) I will make sure to keep you updated on the situation, and I do not mind if you post my Emails on your page.

    Thanks again

    Jane

 

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Jane's Later Decision:

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    To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
    Subject: Re: An atheism question
    Date: Monday, August 07, 2000 4:25 PM

    Dear Mr. Walker,

    This is not in response to any specific post, however, after reading them all, these are my thoughts and comments.

    I was raised in a non-religious environment, although my parents and brother are Christian. As a child, I was told of God, although I was never really taught. I was taught, however, to think for myself and to be firm in my beliefs, whatever they may be. Years later, these things have come together to create an atheist who is not ashamed of her beliefs, and who does not try to hide them. I do not flaunt my atheism (that seems silly to me), but when asked a direct question, I give a direct, and honest, answer.

    Because of my intense desire to not lie to anyone, least of all myself, the question I'm now pondering is: is saying Amen at the end of grace the same as saying I am Christian? To me it doesn't seem so. The former could be interpreted as the polite or respectful thing to do in that situation; whereas the latter is a downright lie. But whatever the difference, I still find myself unable to say Amen in good conscience. Right or wrong, my heart is telling me to stick to my guns and be true to myself, come what may. If this results in conflict between myself and my friend's father, I suppose I'll cross that bridge when I get there, although I will probably enlist the help of you and the others who gave me advice :) Thank you to all the people who did respond to my question, and if anyone has anything else to say, I would love to hear it.

    Thanks again,
    Jane

 

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Cliff's Final Response:

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  From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: Re: An atheism question
Date: Monday, August 07, 2000 5:27 PM

    Because of my intense desire to not lie to anyone, least of all myself, the question I'm now pondering is: is saying Amen at the end of grace the same as saying I am Christian?

This, to me, is the crux of the issues raised by your original question.

It seems that to act like a Christian is to say that you're a Christian. Conversely, most Christians would complain if one of their fellow Christians were to act like a non-Christian (common complaints I've heard from the pulpit range from sexual lasciviousness to practicing astrology). Though one form of this complaint regards what kind of message the Christian is sending about Christianity, the other form regards hypocrisy: saying one is a Christian but acting otherwise.

In the same sense, an atheist who engages in religious ritual for show is committing the very hypocrisy that the Christians complain about within their own fellowship. Gora called such atheists "opportunists" and shunned this practice at all costs. Gora's position was a harsh one, indeed, but it was one he could live with -- one that gave him the peace of mind he required of himself. Gora was a friend of Gandhi, and we could only hope to emulate Gandhi in our daily affairs. Gora actually tried to outdo Gandhi in many respects. (See An Atheist With Gandhi.)

On the other end of the scale, a woman who writes me frequently asks that I not publish her writings: she is afraid she will be ostracized by her Jehovah's Witness family if they found out her true feelings. She would not be able to attend weddings or see her grandchildren. This is a tough reality that makes her decision to be a hypocrite very easy.

Your situation is somewhere between the two examples: your entire life will not collapse if you refuse to make a show, and you are not making a show simply to appear religious. Thus, your decision is tougher than Gora's or the woman's because you are having a harder time weighing between truth and living -- one or the other is not going to crush you if forced to choose between the two (unless you are like Gora and Gandhi and, to a lesser extent, myself, in which case, you'd already have sacrificed your friendship for the sake of truthfulness, without giving it a second thought).

What I am tempted to think is that nobody's perfect and we cannot strive for perfection at all costs without severely impairing our lives. We can only do the best we can with what we've got. We also make decisions (sometimes when neither option is a good one) and we agree with ourselves to live with the results of those decisions.

When making decisions, I strive for the one that produces the least overall damage (not necessarily the least damage to me). Questions such as yours are tough ones, and we are all faced with even tougher decisions than the one you face right now. Whatever your decision in this matter, my hope is that you learn just how much damage bigotry causes and that you strive to reduce any tendencies toward bigotry in yourself -- if not trying to reduce it in those you encounter.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism"

 

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From: "yooden vranx"
To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: Re: QUESTION: Going Beyond Just A Polite Response?
Date: Thursday, August 03, 2000 5:51 AM

She may like to ask her friend whether she thinks responding hypocritically to Family Prayers is the correct thing for her to do. Friendship includes the sharing of problems. Faced with the possible threat from the father to terminate the friendship -- she will just have to say prayers as the price to pay. She might try keeping a blank facial expression whilst participating. Like the 19th-century advice given to women when having sex, 'close your eyes and think of England'.  |;<

'yooden vranx'

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From: "Roberts, Dr. Michael"
To: "'Positive Atheism'" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: RE: QUESTION: Going Beyond Just A Polite Response?
Date: Thursday, August 03, 2000 6:45 AM

Dear Cliff,

I think you are right to point out that Jane's decision is a personal one and that she will be a hypocrite if she chooses to participate in prayer while in her Catholic friend's home. However, I'm not comfortable with your statement that can Jane take comfort in knowing that she is "not bringing this dilemma on herself."

This sounds like a potential cop-out. I suggest that Jane needs to think very carefully about her choice. Deceiving her friend's parents will inevitably have negative consequences for Jane's self-esteem. Even if she tells herself that no harm is being done, or that it's only a little white lie, or that she is being "forced" into this by other people's hostility, deep down Jane is going to know that she is not being honest about who she is and what she believes. I suggest that Jane continue not participating in the pre-meal prayers and if she is questioned by her friend's parents about her nonparticipation, she can reply simply and honestly. Something like, "I'm not religious. I know that _____ (my friend) is, and I respect that." If she is questioned further, then I think the example you gave about your own way of handling questions from theists is very good advice. There is a risk that the parents may forbid their daughter from associating with Jane, and Jane could lose her best friend as a result. But the alternative is worse: Jane would be alienating herself from her own values and her motivation for this would be her fear of others. This is not a good way for a 17 year old to begin adulthood.

There is more than mere "discomfort" at stake here. For Jane to choose to be a hypocrite would mean that she is giving up her right to live her life and her values openly. She would, in effect, be accepting the (im)morality that is the basis of christianity, i.e., self-sacrifice.

-- Michael Roberts

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From: "Lee Salisbury"
To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: To Jane
Date: Thursday, August 03, 2000 8:26 AM

Compliments to Jane for her willingness to think through issues such as the place of religion in our lives. It is encouraging that there are young people today who are not so caught up in peer pressure that they swallow whatever has been foisted upon them.

May I suggest to Jane that there are many battles to be won before one wins a war. Expecting to influence the religious by declaring ones atheism is most times more than the religious can comprehend and usually gets an irrational defensive response. Instead of declaring yourself an atheist "right off the bat" you might declare yourself as one who is searching for truth and because of the many contradictions with Christianity don't feel comfortable with embracing it as your religion. With that said for openers the religious person will respond with a feigned surprise at the notion that there are contradictions. This then opens the door to explain a few contradictions to which they usually have no rational answer. At this point you've not won the war but you have at least won a battle or planted some seeds of doubt which some day may bear some fruit.

The deconversion process is a very gradual process. In the meantime we "out-love" them, "out-ethics" them, and live free of all their guilt and fear. An excellent book which equips us for these battles is, The Origins Of Christianity And The Bible by Andrew Benson

Be encouraged, I speak as a former evangelical minister. Even we can be born again to atheism.

godlessly yours,
Lee Salisbury

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From: "Dan & Marquerite Johnson"
To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: Re: QUESTION: Going Beyond Just A Polite Response?
Date: Thursday, August 03, 2000 9:00 AM

I see changes occurring in small increments over periods of time. There need not be an all-out reversal of figure and ground in such matters as religious behavior and testimony.

I would say that my own trek from being a "Jesus' Little Lamb" toddler to an old goat atheist took decades. I recall the first time in church when I did not bow my head when a prayer was the next item on the agenda.

My first awareness was that God had not done anything about my independent rebellion, and the next was that I was not the only one in the congregation whose head was erect with eyes open. Do what breaking away seems easy in the situation. You don't have to tear fabrics; you can take unwanted threads out one at a time. (For this metaphor I am indebted to Jonathan Swift and his "Tale of a Tub")

You can not have as much influence after a direct confrontation as you can over a period of time while you explore your overlapping points of view.

Dan Johnson,
Sonora, California

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From: "James Call"
To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: Re: QUESTION: Going Beyond Just A Polite Response?
Date: Thursday, August 03, 2000 9:47 AM

Whenever I visit my parents a similar what-to-do-while-they're-praying situation comes up. And generally it's not just them. My four sisters and their families are often around when I'm there. They are all Mormons. Mormons pray a lot. It's not that I have to hide anything. We've had many spirited religious discussions and my position is well known to them. But here is what I find myself doing when they pray. I try not to make myself obvious to them. They sit or stand with their arms folded, heads bowed, and eyes closed or looking at the ground. So I stand or sit still. I don't even move my head. Any movement, really, would call attention and be at least slightly disruptive to them. There is, of course, no reason for me to say "amen" and I don't. So for me, being still is just being polite. Saying "amen" would be engaging in a charade.

Just what level of charade is necessary in your life in order to live comfortably with the people around you is something for people to gage for themseves. It's somewhat ironic, I suppose, that as a Mormon I was taught how important it was to have the courage of your convictions. It was a lesson I learned well and carried into atheism. I think that has garnered me more respect from my family and others than any kind of compromising would have. I don't think I'd feel as good about myself either.

Never allow a religionist to claim the high moral ground. As an atheist I claim that for myself. Belief is immoral. When you accept as true, things that are not, you hurt yourself and others around you. Ideally, nothing should be done to mollycoddle religionists in their immoral beliefs.

James Call

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From: "Dennis Blankenship"
To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: FW: QUESTION: Going Beyond Just A Polite Response?
Date: Thursday, August 03, 2000 10:05 AM

Here is my advice to young Jane regarding dinner prayers at her catholic friends house.

I am guessing that the catholic friend in question is either the oldest or youngest daughter to her father. As the father of three, I can assure you that this automatically means she is over-protected. In addition, I am married to a disillusioned catholic. While my wife still believes in god in the Christian sense, she sees Catholicism as misguided. Her father, however, is devout in his beliefs. So I have experienced some of these same feelings myself.

From my perspective, it is hard to gauge where the line falls with Jane's friend's father in the respectful bowing of head question. If I were in that situation, I would look for subtle cues from him to guide me.

Here are some points Jane may want to consider in this to add some perspective:

When my wife left college, she moved in with me. The thought of informing her family is something that petrified her. Nonetheless she moved in and lived together. Some time later, during dinner with her parents, this little fact slipped out. It was only a vague reference to the fact that our apartment only had one bedroom. To my surprise, this brought no response whatsoever. Nothing. It was as if the words had been buried in a box and covered over. And all this happened AFTER they found out that I was (horrors!) divorced.

We married in a civil ceremony about a year later (twelve years ago) and now have three kids of our own. I get along with my in-laws just fine, thank you. The subject of atheism has never been discussed with them. They know that we don't attend church, but they may think that that's just lack of motivation (like almost all of his other kids).

I do not bow my head at meal times, but I do sit respectfully quiet.

I doubt that Jane's situation is all that different from my own. After all I married the daughter of a devout Catholic.

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From: "Vincent M. Wales"
To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: Re: QUESTION: Going Beyond Just A Polite Response?
Date: Thursday, August 03, 2000 11:02 AM

Cliff:

Here's my reply to Jane's question.

Jane, I think probably every atheist teenager has encountered your situation. I know I did. Fortunately, it almost never went beyond what you described: odd looks from the parents. They never spoke to me directly about it.

But it will happen throughout your life, and it's something you need to prepare yourself for.

I agree with Cliff's assessment that you must weigh things carefully. If your friendship with your Catholic friend is strong, however, then it shouldn't matter what the parents think. And, to my mind, no one should ever have to feel uncomfortable just to placate someone else's prejudices.

I'd suggest talking with your friend. Find out how she feels about the situation with her parents. It could be that there's not really a problem there, or that she's already spoken to them about it. The one thing you don't want to do is let your concerns fester inside. At the very least, tell your friend of your worries.

Good luck, and I hope everything works out for you.

Vincent M. Wales
The Atheist Attic
www.bee.net/cardigan/attic/attic.htm

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From: "Bruce Gowens"
To: "Positive Atheism" &rt;editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: Re: QUESTION: Going Beyond Just A Polite Response?
Date: Thursday, August 03, 2000 11:16 AM

I disagree with your definition of the word atheist in your response to the young woman's letter, and think the confusion it might cause would do harm in the long run.

In brief, a theist is one who believes in a god (which would include more than one). Since the word is from the Greek, the Greek way of making the opposite by prefixing with an "a" is used to indicate someone who does not believe in a god (any god). If an atheist can believe in a god, then what do you call someone that does not?

In addition, there is an appropriate word for those who think there may be a god, but do not believe in any that have been presented. It also comes from the Greek: agnostic. Like atheist, the "a" prefix means the opposite of gnostic--one who knows.

The harm comes from the confusion your incorrect definition can lead to. As long as mankind believes in supernatural creatures, especially gods, mankind will be shackled in ignorance and be lead astray from truth by the priests and other patrolmen. It is necessary to make people understand that atheists do not believe in any god in order for the concept to be even considered. As long as atheists do not present themselves as they are, then they can be dismissed as some form of insanity. I am not saying that an atheist should or need to proselytize for non-belief, merely that to hide behind a false description is to permit the fanatics to burn the truthful since minorities of any stripe are targets.

As for your strange statement that seems to imply that "no theism" is different than being an a-theist, what is theism but a belief in a god (the belief, rather than the person that does not believe)? A difference with no difference (a difference with a difference? ;-} Naw, the root isn't Greek).

If someone wants to be somewhere between an agnostic and an atheist, then let them call themselves a "freethinker." It's a good word without the specific meaning of atheist.

More generally about the letter, I think your comments about the father wishing to protect his child (daughter? not stated, of course) were right on target and worth while. One problem the young man has is simply his age, a time when so many adults can have important negative consequences for him. It will be easier to be honest (less consequences) as he gets older, although that is no help right now.

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From: "Gregory Tinker"
To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: Re: QUESTION: Going Beyond Just A Polite Response?
Date: Thursday, August 03, 2000 1:57 PM

I would say that the best course of action is to not do anything at all right now. Just keep not participating if that is what you feel is right. However, you do not owe anybody an explanation. If you are asked, you might simply state (politely, of course) that what you believe is not what they believe, and while you respect their right to worship how they like, you don't wish to discuss it. If they press you, just ask them what difference it makes. This way, you need not disclose your heresy, as most people will simply assume that you're another brand of Christian. Note that I'm playing the odds here. In my experience Catholics are generally one of the least intrusive sects when it comes to everyday interactions (i.e. your average run-of-the-mill catholic) unless you are actually a family member. Things are oh so different once they have that jurisdiction over you!

Being older than you when I became an atheist, I have no idea what its like to be in the environments that you are in. I'm glad I missed that, honestly. Life is much easier in college, as people tend to be more open and accepting on the whole. But since you're still a minor, in most people's eyes you don't have any rights whatsoever, especially not the right to independent thought ("Oh, it's just a phase").

Good luck.

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From: "Ruth L. Capella"
To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: Re: QUESTION: Going Beyond Just A Polite Response?
Date: Thursday, August 03, 2000 3:18 PM

Hi, Cliff.

Just a comment so you don't forget that some of us on your list are hard atheists. Many of us have no problem saying that no gods exist. I don't have proof that there isn't a Volkswagen beetle circling a planet in a distant solar system, yet I have no problem saying no Volkswagen beetles are circling a planet in a distant solar system. With all the information available to us, I can safely say with conviction that no gods exist. If someday some extraordinary evidence presents itself and proves beyond doubt that there is some sort of god, or any other paranormal belief (and this would have to be some incredibly extraordinary evidence), I will digest the new information and adjust my views accordingly.

Ruthie

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Cliff Responds:

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From:
To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: Re: QUESTION: Going Beyond Just A Polite Response?
Date: Thursday, August 03, 2000 5:19 PM

Jane,

Life does present these situations to us. Our reaction, or choice not to react impacts our life.

What I have learned to do in my own personal dealings is to make an attempt to logically evaluate all of my options.

Make lists, pro and cons.

For example, if you chose not to bow, or say Amen, but say nothing.

Or: You approach him and ask, "I hope you don't mind if I decline to say Amen?"

Acting or pretending may or may not have other ramifications.

Then Evaluate all your known options.

Seek which ever seems the most correct, and the most comfortable to you.

In the end, only you will deal with the results of your choice. Be prepared to make mistakes, don't beat yourself over them. Embrace your mistakes as lessons, profit from them.

Life is for living, being an active decision maker in your life, can bring you great satisfaction. Be brave, and don't worry so much about what others think, that you can' t live with yourself. That may be the worst scenario of all.

Someone who is struggling with similar issues.

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From: "USAF Buttcrack"
To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: Re: QUESTION: Going Beyond Just A Polite Response?
Date: Thursday, August 03, 2000 5:27 PM

Jane,

Obviously you value the relationship you have with your friend. Part of relationships is not placing one another in awkward positions.

I'm not referring to your awkwardness, but your friend's. If you believe your friend's father would seriously disapprove of you after knowing your beliefs, then continuing to "put on a show" will only ensure your friend will have problems with her father if he learns about your beliefs.

You shouldn't allow your friend to potentially harm her relationship with her parents. If you know her father would disapprove of your presence, don't be present. He will feel betrayed regardless of his opinion of atheists.

Children should honor their parent's customs and wishes as long as they are not dangerous. Your friend will soon have the opportunity to mange her own life. Adulthood may seem a long way off, but you and your friend will be able to make your own choices of the company you keep very soon.

At any rate, this is your friend's issue to deal with. Better or worse, they are her parents. This simply is not your business, even if your friend invites you into it.

A final thought. Even if you were a Catholic, he still might not approve of you. The best tactic to win the approval of your friend's father is to demonstrate maturity, compassion, and honesty.

Randy Balsom
www.gotnukes.com

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From: "Bill Garrett"
To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: Moving_Beyond_Just_A_Polite_Response_9565
Date: Thursday, August 03, 2000 6:24 PM

Dear Jane,

My suggestion, for what it's worth: It is not hypocritical to be respectful of others beliefs and ceremonies, even if you don't believe in them. Personally, I could join in an "amen" and not feel that I had betrayed my values. However, I'm 44 and you're 17. I well recall how differently I felt at your age. Establishing your integrity, in your own mind as well as in the minds of others, is a very powerful factor for a young adult. If you just can't stomach it, don't say it.

You mentioned that your friend's dad gave you a funny look. That's still a far cry from assuming that you are an atheist, and he's most likely wondering what's going on with you rather than jumping to an extreme conclusion. If he's known you for some time, he's more likely to assume that you are either rebellious or uninterested, but he probably won't allow himself to think that you're apostate unless you tell him. If you are pressed for an explanation, I think you could easily and honestly say that you are uncomfortable with public expressions of religious feeling. That's not giving anything away, nor is it lying.

Another thing to remember: the apple never falls far from the tree. If your friend is accepting of your non-belief, it's quite likely that she got her accepting attitude from her parents. You should get some feedback from her, of course, but don't close off the possibility that her folks will still be able to accept you and tolerate your friendship with their daughter. Especially if you both explain that you understand each other and are not out to convert each other.

You didn't say whether you were raised religious or not. May I say that I admire your intellectual fortitude in coming to an atheistic outlook, and maintaining it in a society that does not always make it easy to do so. And also for being best friends with someone who believes so differently from yourself. Both of you prove that it's what's in our hearts that matters most.

Hope this helps,

Bill G

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From:
To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: Moving_Beyond_Just_A_Polite_Response_9565
Date: Thursday, August 03, 2000 7:48 PM

Dear Jane,

I have a similar situation at my In-laws whenever I visit them with my wife (Christian) and children (growing, learning, and making up their minds). Before dinner the routine is to hold hands around the table, bow our heads, and Dad says the prayer. It is usually something fairly "canned" but the sentiment toward his beliefs is sincere.

As an atheist, I also feel somewhat uncomfortable "playing along". However my relationship with this family is important enough that I do not feel the need to "grandstand" my atheism. I have no interest in changing anybody's beliefs. I know my Christianity well enough to realize that any such attempt would be futile and the only results would be to alienate good people for the purpose of meeting my own needs. I have also been indulged by Mom and Dad, on occasion, when I wanted to watch the baseball game on their TV. I feel that they have bended over backwards to accommodate my interest on occasion. Why should I not treat their interest with similar respect.

However, I do not feel that a total sell-out to theism is necessary. For example, I happen to know that everyone around the table is aware of my atheism. It is not a secret. I will not discuss it unless others do so with me, but then they are asking for it. On rare occasions, I had to point out that another person started the argument, I only finished it.

I hope this was helpful. This above all else, to thine own self be true.

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From: "Dan & Marquerite Johnson"
To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: Re: QUESTION: Going Beyond Just A Polite Response?
Date: Thursday, August 03, 2000 11:24 PM

In Texas, where I was born and grew up, there were lots of adages and bits of wisdom . One of them was, "The man who always tells the truth had better keep his horse saddled."

Dan Johnson,
Sonora CA

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From: "Duane L. McCormick"
To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: Moving_Beyond_Just_A_Polite_Response_9565
Date: Saturday, August 05, 2000 4:26 AM

I think the comments posted have given you (and me) a lot to think about, and I like a lot of what's being said. I think what's important is not to feel like you "should" do anything. There is no one to judge you if you do the wrong thing here. I do think it's important that atheists are counted and respected, but if you don't know how to do that in a particular situation to your complete satisfaction, simply understand that you have to allow yourself the time to learn how to do that.

We want to be respected, so in turn we have to learn how to respect others. In order to allow people to be where they are, sometimes it's necessary just to be respectful and quiet and not say anything. Sometimes it means respecting people enough to tell them the truth. It's not always easy to tell which is which.

Explore your emotions, are you trying to avoid something out of a fear of what might happen? What is the worst that could happen? What would happen if you led the prayer yourself? Would you be struck by lightning by the god of atheism? No. Take your time and have fun with it.

Duane L. McCormick
http://www.pmtinet.com/rev.gorgo/duane.htm

End the murder of the Iraqi people:
http://www.nonviolence.org/vitw
http://www.iraqaction.org
http://www.iacenter.org
http://www.iacenter.org/index.htm

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From: "John Brienesse"
To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: praying
Date: Saturday, August 05, 2000 12:28 PM

Hello!!

This is a letter in response to the Young person who has problems with sitting on the same table with a family that prays. I am a seventy year old man who has had the same problem. It was nearly the same situation as that young person .

I have a friend who I had the pleasure to be called to dinner. The first time was not very nice. They looked at me if I was dirt.

But it came to pass that they had to call me to dinner, (because I was tutoring my friend, and they were grateful for that. So before I went, I told my friend that he should tell his people that I have nothing against them praying, and that I would even close my eyes out of respect for the people there while they did that ; and yes I would say "Amen", (Amen to me means "I am glad its over") as long as they understood that I was not praying.

I also told him to tell those people, that I will not speak about Atheism unless they wanted to hear what I had to say. And the same was meant for my friend. When I got there; I was greeted very nice, and guess what! After the meal was over, they asked all kind of questions.

Maybe I got some of them thinking. Then they told me they did not care if I said amen or if I closed my eyes.

A Humanistic standpoint
     John Brienesse
     Hamilton, Ontario.

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From: "Blake Bouillion"
To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: Moving_Beyond_Just_A_Polite_Response_9565
Date: Sunday, August 06, 2000 1:14 AM

I've been reading the responses here and I think I can relate. Recently I was asked, by a group of devout Baptists, what my religious preference was. Seeing as how I am an atheist, and generally an atheists' viewpoint is based on questioning dogmas, investigating assumptions, and continually trying to find the most logical answer, I told them I was "between religions." And I really don't feel as if I lied. They accepted that answer, and luckily delved no further. (Pitchforks and torches just ain't my thing.)

I have no problem becoming a Christian, just as soon as they can explain the last 2000+ years of torment and anguish dealt by their own hands, the continued "absence" of their god, and the lack (and conveniently lost) evidence of anything in their doctrine. As soon as they do that, sure, I'll become a Christian. However, I feel they are never going to get it right. And they are never going to awaken from their diluted reality. So when I say I'm "between religions" I really am.

Unfortunately I must admit that I have not the courage, nor the devious desire, to tell my family or relatives. Sadly, to a deeply-religious person, at least an intolerant or uneducated one, we are, and always have been, the enemy. A family should love it's own, no matter what. And I know they still would, but to some people, admitting my atheism, would be emotionally similar to a knife in the kidney. Questions or statements like, "How? Why? What happened? Did we raise you wrong?? We must have! We are failures! Oh when will he see the light???" would mystically appear in their heads. Then would come the looks. Those awful, stomach churning looks, that we've all seen when our mother found out we smoked pot, or we had sex before marriage, or did some unthinkable act. That, including the forever-looming questions they would have, are simply too much for me. I cannot emotionally or mentally take the scorn from admitting such a simple idea. Perhaps it's just my family, but I do believe others can relate. I am saddened and shamed that my family could not accept me, and I do hope I can one day tell them.

Sorry to ramble on, but I feel this is, at least a little bit, related to her problem. Just remember Jane, whose friendship/respect do you want? Hers or her parents? Perhaps they would respect you more if you told them. What if you did lie and say you were a Christian, and they find out later that you were a total atheist? What would detest them more? You lying or you admitting that you are a member of one of the most misunderstood and disrespected groups in the world? If they are understanding and tolerant, they will respect you more. They may try to convert you, and hell, even atheists try and convert people all the time, so you should still be ok. Anyhow, good luck.

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From: "sarah dearne"
To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: Moving_Beyond_Just_A_Polite_Response_9565
Date: Sunday, August 06, 2000 8:44 PM

Hi Jane,

I'm the same age and in exactly the same position as you, so I thought i'd share my experience :).

A couple of months ago (after a particularly awkward dinner) I told my friend how uncomfortable I felt about saying grace and that I was sorry if my silence had offended her family. Although she knows I'm an atheist she apologised for not noticing my dilemma. She then confessed that she felt equally unsure about the issue when eating with my family, which, ironically, had never occured to me either.

So my question to you is: what does your friend do at your house? Would you take offence if she said grace before a meal with your family? If she chooses to say grace at your house then it's perfectly fair for you not to say grace at her house.

Try discussing how she feels about eating with your family -- chances are she has the same dilemma as you. As guests you both have to choose between going along with the customs of your hosts for etiquette's sake or expressing your own beliefs. My friend and I chose the latter option but whatever you and your friend decide upon is fine too.

Anyway, I hope this is of help! Feel free to email me.

sincerely,

JS Dearne

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JohnPaul Slater:

Praying, socially speaking, would seem to be a lot like smoking. If people want to do it at their own dinner tables it is up to them. If they want to do it in your house, you have every right to ask them to take it outside. Either place, you don't have to join them.

The opposite of Jane's predicament happened to me last weekend.

I was holding a large backyard party with many friends and colleagues and a number of neighbors. One of my neighbors phoned to ask if she could bring a houseguest of hers along who turned out to be an evangelical minister.

As soon as everyone had settled in to eat their hamburgers and potato salad the minister called out, "Everyone, everyone! Quiet please. I would like to lead us in a short prayer."

All eyes turned to me.

All that is except my wife's who had closed hers knowing that I would feel compelled to say something, and willing me not to.

"That's okay," I said, ignoring her silent plea, "no thank you."

"Excuse me?"

"That's all right, you er -- you don't have to say a prayer."

My guest's heads went back and forth as if they were watching a tennis match.

"It is no bother, I assure you. Praising the Lord is a joy."

"Er -- umm -- no, you see, ah, this is an Atheist household. We don't pray here, but thanks anyway."

"Oh, ho, ho," he replied, "there is no such thing as an Atheist. Everyone believes in something."

This was too much for my wife who stopped wishing that I would keep my mouth shut, and opened hers.

"Excuse me," she said, "you seem to have Atheism and Nihilism confused."

"You must believe that there is something greater than you are!" the minister shot back.

"Ya know, it's funny," I said, "we Atheists have almost the same expression. But we say that there are no real Christians because nobody could possibly believe that stuff."

A fistfight did not break out. The minister (whose name I never did catch) helped himself to three of my hamburgers and an equal number of martinis. At one point he sidled over while I was grilling hot dogs and observed that I was toiling in the fiery pit but that was as far as things went.

JohnPaul Slater

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From:
To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: Moving Beyond Just A Polite Response
Date: Wednesday, August 09, 2000 8:57 AM

The original question is "should I say 'amen' even though I don't believe it?" I propose the only rational answer to be "no."

Every definition of "amen" invokes a statement of belief. What you say when you say "amen" is "I believe," albeit (and suspiciously) in another language.

I'd also suggest that Jane not sell herself short. She says "I don't really mind saying it, I just feel very awkward and uncomfortable when I do." If you feel awkward and uncomfortable then you do mind saying it! And you should!

Jane seems to me an enlightened 17 year old, far more than I at the same age. Be proud of what you believe, Jane, and don't use a purposefully ambiguous word like "amen" to condone what you don't. Your rights do not end at any theist's front door.

Eric

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From: "mdmp" (Montreal, Quebec, Canada)
To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: Moving_Beyond_Just_A_Polite_Response_9565
Date: Sunday, September 10, 2000 7:31 PM

Hello,

I just found your site. I am 41 years old and have been an atheist since I was old enough to know what the word religion meant, which was probably 5 years old when I entered elementary school. However, I was never able to admit it because of fear of being judged and misunderstood. Being born and brought up in Quebec city , Canada where 98% of the population was white, French and Catholic by birth and not choice, you can understand how I felt. I never talked about it with anyone, not even my parents. They did not practice but I know my mother is a believer of the Catholic religion. My father , now that I look back, was probably an atheist too. He passed away 6 years ago and we never had a chance to discuss these things.

Everytime I was asked about my religion, I would just say: "Well I was born into the Catholic religion, but never practiced". This answer saved me from many discussions that I did not want to get into. But still, I wish I could have admitted the truth.

But now that I have found your site, Wow! -- what a revelation! There are people out there who see things the same way as I -- what a relief. Thank you so much for opening my eyes. I will come back to your site for more!

Regards,

Marie Dionne
Montreal,Qc

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From: "Duval Cellai"
To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: Moving_Beyond_Just_A_Polite_Response_9565
Date: Monday, August 14, 2000 6:09 PM

Re: Jane's Friend

During the 1950's when I was a freshman in high school there was a school prayer mandated by the State of New York. First there was the pledge to the flag then there was this so-called non-denominational prayer. I quietly used to sit down and contemplate for the length of this prayer. Eventually I was asked by the teacher why I didn't participate? My answer was it was not in my culture to pray to or at anything. The teacher shot back with "You have no respect for others in the class" To which I replied You and the State of New York have no respect for people who don't believe as you do. I quietly sat down and contemplate; and by the way read the Constitution that you teach in your history class and more importantly understand what the constitution is saying.

I was told to report to the principal immediately, which I did. He was very understanding of the situation and after discussing the incident with the teacher had him apologize to me. The principal, by the way, was a Christian who disliked bigoted Christians no matter who they picked on.

The point is there are people out there that at least have a broader view of others.

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From: "Mike N' Heather"
To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: Moving_Beyond_Just_A_Polite_Response_9565
Date: Thursday, August 17, 2000 11:21 AM

Like Jane and a lot of other people, I am in the polite mode when people around me are discussing their religion and why their god is the only god, their god is all powerful and yaddah yaddah yaddah. I am frankly getting sick of my co-workers need to express their views in the middle of an eight-hour shift and their need to convert me. I don't want to be rude -- but I don't appreciate them telling me that I'm not going to be saved when I don't believe in salvation anyway. My problem is that I am in an uncomfortable position all around -- how come they can get offended if I happen to say that I don't believe in a god, but it is their duty to save me and I should be all gracious to them? I am getting really short on patience and would appreciate any help anyone can give me.

Heather

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From: "kayfgibbs"
To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: Moving_Beyond_Just_A_Polite_Response_9565
Date: Sun, 1 Oct 2000 11:16:12 -0400

To Jane,

I have some wisdom I'd like to share here. The beginning of the "Fall" starts by trying to be polite! I am certainly not advocating rudeness or anything of the kind, but strengthening your own convictions requires staying true to your beliefs and asking for the same respect you would give religious believers. Not praying or saying amen is not impolite, as I see it. Now if you were making rude comments or purposeful noises during their prays, well, that's a horse of another color -- this is the dilemma of non-religious believers. I have been bombarded by this sort of thing and found myself nearly changing places with the believers. People have tried to scare me into joining a church, etc. -- if you get what I mean. Maybe saying it keeps it where it came from, I don't know, but religious believers are strong in their beliefs because, some of them practice it fervently. Saying nothing seems more honest and polite than saying it.

Kay

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From: "Engel"
To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: Moving_Beyond_Just_A_Polite_Response_9565
Date: Sunday, September 03, 2000 10:28 AM

I take a "When In Rome" stance when it comes to religious ceremonies such as weddings, or if I was at a religious family's home for dinner. If I'm in a Church, I'll (to some extent) act like a Christian to blend in. If I'm in a synagogue, I'll act like a Jew. If I was in a Hindu temple, I would attempt to do the same.

I'll walk the walk, and say the mumbo-jumbo, and not feel the least bit hypocritical about it. I don't feel like I'm lying in any way as a result of participating in a silly ritual. I know who I am and what I believe, and anyone who asks I am only too happy to explain my beliefs (or lack thereof) to. I don't see any purpose to stirring things up when I'm on "their turf".

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From: "STYLISH"
To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: Moving_Beyond_Just_A_Polite_Response_9565
Date: Thursday, August 31, 2000 2:29 PM

This is to Jane.

How does one become an atheist? I have conversed with cross-sections of many people of different beliefs and have learn to come to learn to respect all regardless of what they mayn believe.

Susan

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From: "Jesse Ziser"
To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: Moving Beyond Just A Polite Response 9565
Date: Monday, August 21, 2000 11:15 AM

I have a friend who is Presbyterian and his parents are very religious. They know I'm an atheist and they seem to disapprove, in fact they even seem rather wary at times, but they haven't banned me from the house or anything. I'm pretty sure they understand that I am not out to convert anyone; my beliefs are my personal concern.

If I were in this person's situation, I would not give in and say "amen". That would be wrong. What I would do is continue to sit quietly and respectfully at the table while they pray. I would certainly not bring up the subject unless asked. If asked, then I would deal with the problem. I would do so by explaining clearly and matter-of-factly that I am an atheist, and then trying to explain rationally to the person that although I understand that they are very religious, there is no reason for this to be a problem. I am not out to preach atheism or convert anyone, but I can't in good conscience say "amen" to a prayer. Other than that, I would explain that my religion (or lack thereof :) is my personal business and need not affect my relations with them or their child.

Perhaps this response is too wordy, but I am a very wordy person. It usually works well for me because I communicate my exact feelings. I think this is the technique that should be applied in this case. It might not work, but I think it has a better chance of working than "hoping they don't find out." Honesty is the best policy.

www.ccsi.com/~jz

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From:
To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: Forum: Moving Beyond Just A Polite Response
Date: Wednesday, November 01, 2000 7:17 AM

I think the "when in Rome" attitude is a bad choice. Religion isn't just about a belief in a god, it's about the death of reason, which has immeasurable repercussions. It's my opinion that humans need a developed ability to reason in order to live together peacefully, to evolve together.

But religion is the death of reason. Is it reasonable to believe in wives turned into pillars of salt? How about arcs filled with two of every animal? Yet this, for example, is what is taught to certain children, along with ideas on an afterlife that includes heaven, hell, and purgatory. They are told to believe it, to not question it, and to defend their "faith." They are not taught to reason for themselves, rather to accept authority. This damages the child's reasoning capabilities. This is child abuse.

So it's no surprise that human beings can be convinced of any number of unreasonable things, like that a stack of money is worth more than even one human life How unreasonable! And why would anyone be so unreasonable? Because they were taught to be when their unreasonable "philosophy" was, more often than not, decided for them at birth and classically conditioned into them during their formative years.

Now, not all religionists are murderers, of course. But the ones that aren't are governing us, sitting on juries, operating on us, in law enforcement, etc. If you were on trial, would you want the jury to be comprised of people that believe a woman who never had sex gave birth to the son of God? No thanks. Give me someone reasonable any day.

If Atheists keep their mouths shut, these religionists will never know that other opinions exist. If we sit on our hands and just try to fit in we're helping them and hurting ourselves.

Shame on any Atheist that keeps his or her opinion locked away. As is quite apparent from this site, it's possible to state your case and be polite at the same time.

-eric

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Added: March 22, 2002

From: Marilyn La Court
To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Date: Sat, 04 Nov 2000 15:16:39-0800
Subject: Moving_Beyond_Just_A_Polite_Response_9565

Eric: Thank you for your strong and passionate response. I agree with you that religion is the enemy of reason. To be apologetic about my beliefs is like denying reason itself. It's dangerous. I proudly celebrate my atheism.

Jane: You are in a difficult position primarily because you are not in a relationship of peers with your friends father. That situation can put you on the defensive. Being on the defensive puts burdens on you that you may not be up to. You also may not be prepared for the more sophisticated arguments of a much older more experienced person. My advice to you is don't sell out your integrity, and don't box yourself into a corner. Keep it simple and respectful. You could respectfully tell your friends father who you are rather than who you are not.

It makes a lot more sense for me to explain who I am than to explain who I am not. For example, it's a lot more positive to state what I do believe i= n than what I do not believe in. To argue the existence or non existence of god is futile. It can only get us into a lot of trouble. We must take the reasonable position. When it comes to empirical data, we must, as skeptics accept the fact that we can neither prove nor disprove the existence of god empirically. I maintain that both theism and atheism require a leap of faith. I do believe. I believe in the "glorious contingency" as coined by Stephen J. Gould.

I have many good relationships with people who are not atheists. I call them the non believers. That is they don't believe in science, reason, or evolution, and they don't join my celebration of the glorious contingency. I would not deem to be so disrespectful of my theist friends as to ask them to denounce their belief in god at my table. They will not be asked to say amen to my prayer.

Perhaps my "prayer" can be helpful to you.

Here is my "prayer," paraphrased from: "Finding Meaning in a Contingent Universe" by Michael Shermer, How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science (Pg. 236-8):

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We did not have to be, but here we are!

How vast is the cosmos. How contingent is our place.
Yet out of this apparent insignificance emerges a glorious contingency,
the recognition that we did not have to be, but here we are.

The universe takes on a whole new meaning when you know
that your place in it was not foreordained,
that it was not designed for us -- -indeed,
that it was not designed at all.

If we are nothing more than star stuff and biomass,
how special life becomes.

A world without monsters, ghosts, demons, and gods
unfetters my mind to soar to new heights,
to think unthinkable thoughts, to imagine the unimaginable,
to contemplate infinity and eternity
knowing that no one is looking back.

To be a part of a single species on a tiny planet
orbiting an ordinary star
on the remote edge of a not-so-unusual galaxy,
itself a member of a cluster of galaxies
billions of light years from nowhere,
is sublime beyond words.

Emancipated from the bonds of restricting tradition,
and unyoked from rules written for another time
in another place for another people
gives me a sense of joy and freedom.
Freedom to think for myself.
Freedom to take responsibility for my own actions.
Freedom to construct my own meanings
and my own destinies.
With the belief that is all there is and that
I can trigger my own cascading changes,
I am free to live life to its fullest.
Amen

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Marilyn La Court

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From: "Dan Bralski"
To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: Moving_Beyond_Just_A_Polite_Response_9565
Date: Sunday, November 05, 2000 10:39 PM

Years ago, my wife , kids and I moved into a new Levitt development. All young people of various religious backgrounds. On two occasions, my atheism was put to the test.

One of our sons was ill and was being treated in a hospital which was 2 hours away which meant that my wife and I had a hectic schedule: working, being at home with our other son and having one of us always being present at the hospital. Occasionally one of us would be invited to supper at one of our neighbors place. A couple who I liked and with whom my wife and I were friendly invited me over for dinner. I sat down with my friend, his wife, and three teen-age children. The mother asked one of the boys to lead us in grace. I was totally surprised and petrified. For the first time in my life I was being tested on the extent of my atheistic beliefs. What should I do?

They all bowed their heads and said grace with the usual amen. Throughout this, I kept my head up and a million questions were running through my brain. What should I do after grace was said? Should I mention why I had not participated in grace and if so, what should I say?

Should the subject of atheism be brought up before their children or should I just keep quiet on the entire matter?

As grace concluded and they lifted up their heads, I felt that I owed it to them to give a reason for my silence. I looked at my friend and his wife and said, "The reason that I did not join you in grace is that I am an atheist". It was as though the atomic bomb fell on the table without making a sound. Silence. Embarrassing silence on everyone's part. They were all stunned and did not respond. I can't recall how the silence was broken but I do know that the subject of atheism was not raised that night. The uncomfortableness of everyone at the dinner table was palatable. I tried to leave the uncomfortable position as soon as I courteously could.

I would say that our friend ship cooled a little after that occasion but was by no means broken.

The other occasion was at the circumcision gathering at my next door neighbors house. My wife and I and a Catholic couple across the street had been invited. During the festive gathering, while my Catholic friend and I were talking, the rabbi came over and started talking to us. He asked my friend what religion he was. He then asked me what religion I was. Stunned by his nosiness and not wanting to create a scene at my neighbors celebration I said that I had no religion. He looked at me with surprise. "Surely you must have a religion. What is it?" Again I responded that I actually had no religion. He continued his bothersome quest to find out my religion until I could take it no longer. "I'm an atheist". His face turned to horror and he screamed out loud so that everyone in the entire house and next door could hear him, "an atheist. He's an atheist."

He kept shouting this while walking away to join the main group of people who were talking to the host and his wife. The Rabbi pointed at me and kept shrieking, " He's an atheist." At that point I felt like going over and putting my fist in his mouth. I was angry. I was much angrier and disappointed with my neighbors for not quieting the Rabbi and then, later, coming over to me and apologising for the scene the Rabbi made. My neighbors and I never talked after that occasion.

Whenever the situation presents itself, you must say, am an atheist."

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