Growing Up Humanist in Christian Culture

One day at the gym while waiting for her turn on the trampoline, a 4 year old said to me, “God gave me my blue eyes.” Having heard both children and adults utter similar God-crediting phrases my entire life, I passively responded “Ah, did he.” The 5 year old standing behind her, who just happened to be the daughter of a Spanish teacher I had in high school, turned to me and asked, “Who’s God?” I froze. “Uhhhh…” I glanced down the trampoline and noticed it was nearly her turn.

Somehow I had to come up with a response in about two seconds for one of the most difficult questions a Humanist could answer in an overwhelmingly Christian society. I replied, “God is a person or a thing that some people believe in.” And without even a pause, just before hopping down the trampoline she said: “I don’t believe in God. I believe in gods.” I smiled at her and answered, “That’s cool.”

As it goes with children, I don’t know if she really meant what she said she believes or if she was just saying it to be different. I have no idea what sort of religious education she’s been exposed to, and I couldn’t remember any particular indication of faith from her mother when she was my teacher. But I know I gave that child something in that moment. I gave her validation of her beliefs. I did not judge, I did not question.

Thinking back on that exchange makes me think of my own childhood experiences surrounding my beliefs. My parents were both raised Catholic and both decided Catholicism, and Christianity in general, were really not something they could buy into. For awhile they were without religion. It wasn’t until I was about 5 years old when they had an educator assess my intelligence that they realized I needed some sort of education on religion. The educator showed me a page full of symbols. I was able to identify every symbol easily… all except for the cross.

Eventually they found the Ethical Society of St. Louis. The tagline is “A welcoming home for Humanists.” My younger brother and I began attending Sunday School there, and that’s when I started to form my own beliefs. The centerpiece for the curriculum at this Ethical Humanist Sunday School is the 12 Core Values. The core value I recall striking me the most was “I am free to question.” And question I did.

Like my parents, I found it hard to buy in to the Christian culture that surrounded me. I did try but I just could not believe in God, it didn’t feel right. To me, not believing in God felt very normal– but as I got older I realized that many people around me would consider myself the oddball.

The first friend I ever had came from a devout Christian family. I can remember going to her house for dinner and having to pray every time before eating. I felt uncomfortable but sat with my head down out of respect. The more peers I met, the more I realized how pervasive this God thing really was. At first it was surprising and uncomfortable how casually people referenced God, in passing, speaking like he was just some guy everyone knew and had a relationship with.

People assumed I was a God fan just like them, assumed I was another Christian. I can’t remember a single instance in my childhood when I was asked about my beliefs outside the Ethical Society. And if I had been asked, I don’t know that I would have felt comfortable being honest about my beliefs. God was just so commonplace to the people around me that the possibility didn’t even occur to them that I might not be a subscriber to God. I didn’t want to be the person who rocked the boat, I had no idea how people would react. So I kept quiet about my beliefs.

The truth is nothing has changed since then. My experience as a child is exactly the same that it is now in terms of God culture. People still blindly assume I’m a Christian just like them. Except now, I take offense. Quietly, but offense all the same. Culture will be culture, and it will always pervade any government we have in place, but the very First Amendment on the list says that we can have freedom of religion. This means anyone should be able to hold whatever belief they want and feel protected.

That’s a beautiful and open state of mind which looks really good on paper, but it simply isn’t translated into a culture where 83% identifies as Christian.

With those statistics, I suppose any Christian could argue that their presumptions of my faith are justified. And that is, in fact, how many Christians operate. But how the hell is that American? It’s not an act of inclusion to go around assuming everyone is Christian because that’s the majority– it’s lazy. Here we (ideally) accept all faiths (or lack there of). So even though the majority is Christian, because of the First Amendment, everyone should be approaching everyone else with zero assumptions about their faith. But alas, culture imbues.

It does not surprise me that, now, 57% of Republicans want to make Christianity the national religion. This country has never been able to separate religion from politics, despite taking pride in that very separation. (Even the phrase “separation of Church and State” implies Christianity as the only religion to be mindful of separating!) With the way I’ve been treated as a “non-believer,” it’s really no surprise at all that the closed-minded Christians are finally being real with themselves; they don’t want a plurality of religions, they just want their religion only.

As if it wasn’t enough that over four fifths of this country is Christian. As if it wasn’t enough that “In God We Trust” is on every dollar bill. As if it wasn’t enough that “Under God” is in our pledge to the country. As if it wasn’t enough that women are denied birth control and abortions because of Christian ideology, that homosexuals and genderqueers are treated as lesser because of Christian ideology, that you really hold no significant political influence unless you openly endorse Christianity.

I’ve arrived at a place in life where I no longer judge people for what they believe, but I feel for all those people that Christianity excludes because that exclusion is felt exponentially with the mass indoctrination of our society.

I often think of Muslims and how horrible it must be to live here in a place with so much hostility and so little understanding of their faith. At least as a Humanist, when I am antagonized, it’s as an individual. But with Muslims, their entire culture is generalized and belittled. It’s insane to me that now, the same people who want a national religion of Christianity can turn around and alienate Middle Eastern countries for having Islam as a national religion. Not only do they alienate, but desire to point guns and drop bombs on them. That’s not American. That’s not even Christian. It’s maliciously hypocritical.

To this day, I still don’t feel I have much of a voice in this country as a Humanist. Yet bizarrely enough, many Christians feel threatened by Humanists like me. They think we’re out to get them, out to squelch their faith. Nope. Humanism is about inclusion of all people– all identities, including faith! If anything, Humanists are trying to find other ways to connect and engage with Christians that hate on Humanism. Still we are seen as dangerous, rebellious, faith-killers. It is quite ironic to see Christians express this, when all my life I’ve experienced the very same thing from them that they accuse Humanists of doing.

And the truth is, the Christians themselves who react so negatively to Humanists are the ones stepping into the realm of questioning their own faith. Humanists only open the door. It’s uncomfortable, to have your strong and sheltered faith shaken, so they seek to blame those who dare to open up such unnerving questioning– those damn Godless people.

This Fox News-fueled rage supported by unbridled paranoia of those who don’t believe in God makes it damn near impossible for me to be heard saying: “This is what I’ve experienced from you all along. You never even asked what I believed in. You just assumed I am what you are. So after years of keeping my head down and my beliefs quiet, I’m finally speaking up. And now you feel attacked. How am I to ever live my life honestly when you’re automatically offended whenever someone doesn’t buy into what you’re selling? It’s a personal choice. Let us choose.”

All I want is to live in a culture that respects my beliefs. I’m not asking everyone to believe what I believe, nor am I asking anyone else to change. I just want my personal choice respected, as I respected the choice of the 5 year old girl who told me she believed in multiple gods. I want my ability to believe validated. Is that really so much to ask for?