Seriously, I am not in denial about Christianity’s continuing tenacious hold on the American mind. But I’m an optimist, and I’ve noticed precious little is forever.
My optimism was recently reaffirmed in a very surprising, hopeful way.
I recently began writing what I hope will be regular op-ed articles about humanism and unbelief for the Argus Leader, a newspaper serving the metropolitan Sioux Falls, South Dakota, area. My plan was to educate people—religiously faithful folks and others—in the basics of humanistic godlessness. After all, roughly a fourth of the US population now self-identifies as nonreligious, including atheists, agnostics, and the religiously uninterested or dismissive. As our Christian counterparts generally believe in invisible divinities and realms, the rest of us realize these imaginings can’t be substantiated, most likely ever, and choose to rationally accept their non-existence and then figure out some kind of life hack to compensate.
My first unbelief article, a primer entitled “Meet the Nones” (as in “no religion”) and published on September 11, opened with this: “It’s not exactly like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but still, you should know we’re out here. Living amongst you. Unseen.” I didn’t expect much in response, maybe a few cranky letters to the editor, a couple of death threats (kidding!), and possibly one or two glowing kudos from the already avidly deconverted.
But what I got was as unexpected as it was elegantly charming and hopeful.
An obviously very nice, thoughtful woman from the Sioux Falls area—let’s call her Mrs. Parker because that’s actually her name—wrote a long letter to the editor in rebuttal to my piece. Parker said that her “heart was heavy” just knowing there were people known as nones—“such an empty term.” She seemed surprised nonbelievers even existed in the world.
She wrote that she couldn’t understand how I could deny the existence of “a loving, powerful, but gracious God.” She responded to my expression of godless awe at nature’s magnificence with a kind of poignant sadness: “The world in all its glory has shown me, many times over, the awesomeness of God, our creator.”
Parker contended that nature’s miracles are a gift that can only be from God, “fearfully and wonderfully made.” My reverence for the natural world, she believed, simply revealed an inadvertent acknowledgement of divine providence. Her words, though critical, were kind, elegant, and generous.
Perhaps oddly, to my mind Mrs. Parker and I have almost identical humanist impulses. The difference is she believes they derive from God, while I see them as natural traits derived from human biological evolution and the social imperatives of life. She is a true Christian believer as far as I can divine from her writing, and a good, loving person harming no one and helping others. As I also ardently try to do. So, why fight about what paths we might take to arrive at almost same place?
Indeed, this is what I suggested in an email I wrote to her after her letter to the editor was published. She emailed a lovely note back.
“Just because someone sees the world differently doesn’t make it wrong necessarily, just different,” she wrote. “And that’s ok. So I respect your view as I know you respect mine. I salute us. Good people trying to do good in the world.”
Her daughter had noted to Parker how peaceful our debate seemed. I agreed, responding: “It is nice to have a peaceful debate. … Sadly, they’re getting far too rare in our country.”
In a final exchange between us, she said she wanted to be “a more understanding person in this world of varying opinions and beliefs.” She signed off, “Blessings to you and yours,” which I found authentic and charming.
I, too, hope to nurture more tolerance while spreading the kindly, evidence-based philosophy of humanism.
And so, Mrs. Parker and I have, so to say, disagreed to agree rather than the other way around. As scripture promises, “blessed are the peacemakers.” And so they should be.