My Turn: As much as it feels like, this is not a Christian nation

Posted: Wednesday, January 12, 2011

I was born an atheist. Unlike most atheists, I never had a relationship with any supernatural being; I never believed in a god. From the time I can remember, my relationships were with other living organisms and the natural world that surrounded me. I tried occasionally to start a relationship with “God” but I could essentially never find “him.”

I grew up in a small, conservative town. It was never lost upon me that most, if not all people I knew, were religious. By being religious, all those people out there were united within a Christian nation. They shared some basic, important assumptions about the way the world worked that I did not share. I felt on the outside, and I felt it best to keep my non-belief to myself.

In school, my peers would categorize themselves as either Catholic or Protestant. Those were the choices and everyone belonged to one camp or the other. It was a homogeneous community on at least one level — everyone that professed any belief, expressed a belief in the Christian God and no one openly expressed non-belief. I could not say, “Neither,” when asked, and they knew I attended a Catholic church.

I kept my non-belief to myself for most of my life. When I was living in Ecuador, working in the Peace Corps, I was asked by many people if I was Catholic. Being a single blonde in my late 20’s, I was already viewed as different, so it seemed okay for me to say that another difference I had was that I was an atheist. It surprised some people, but the world did not end. People did not seem to find me immoral or insane for stating that I had a different world-view than they did. They had a relationship with someone I thought fictitious, but they seemed okay with knowing that about me. To be able to, after all those years, let the world know the non-religious part of me was liberating.

Once my children were born, it was very important to me to be able to share my non-belief with them, openly. However, I would not impose it upon them. No one had made me an atheist- it was how I developed in spite of my mother’s intentions to make me Catholic.

In kindergarten, my son was sure that Raven was actually “God.” He had heard quite a bit about Raven’s role in bringing the light and suspected that the raven he had seen in Noah’s ark in a picture book was in charge of the whole affair. I was worried, but within time, he would modify his thoughts about Raven and turn away from supernatural explanations for most things. I realized how impressionable a young mind is about religion and I realized that as much as I wanted to raise non theists, I was no more in control of my children’s belief systems than my mom was of mine.

My kids are growing up in a community that is more religiously diverse than I knew- they know atheists and a few sorts of theists that they believe to be good, kind people. They do not harbor fears of being seen as “less than” for their religious beliefs (or lack thereof). I am only about 30 years older than my kids, yet they are not growing up just like me. They are growing up with the perceived freedom to express their religious differences, which I never had.

Maybe you have never considered what it would be like to have to keep a central aspect of who you are to yourself — could be your religious beliefs, sexual orientation, language, ethnicity or culture. However, in our society, it happens to people everyday. People perceive that the way they are different makes a difference.

Participating critically in a democratic, pluralistic society requires, well, a pluralistic society! We need diversity and it needs to be affirmed every day in social life, in simple and complex ways. Sometimes we forget that as much as this can feel like a Christian nation, it’s not. For that, we should be thankful at any time of the year and in all parts of this country, no matter how apparently homogeneous.

• Sheila Keller lives in Juneau and is raising children with a little time on her hands this time of year.

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