I can distinctly remember my first interactions with devoutly religious people. One was our neighbour who lived next door to us until we moved when I was in grade three. A single mom with two children, she preached to whoever was listening (or not) and held bible summer camps in her backyard. I hardly recall a sentence coming out of her mouth that did not mention God or Jesus. The second was one of my best friends in elementary school whose father was a pastor and her family religious to the point of nearing judgmental. If the words, “Oh my god” slipped from my mouth in front of them I would instantly be reminded that, “God has nothing to do with this.”
For a child who grew up in a non-religious household these examples set before me were extreme and, at times, terrifying. It all seemed a little too restrictive, a little too much to handle.
I want to make one thing very clear before I continue this piece: I am not religious. I do not believe in God. I do not pray. I believe in karma and the loose axiom of “everything happens for a reason”. To some, that may be the beginnings or the root of a belief in God. For me, it is the end of my belief in something more.
Due to my earlier interactions with those that were highly involved in religion and the church, I shied away from the whole idea. Someone who was described to me as religious was instantly set apart from others in my mind, someone who would have to, inadvertently on my part, work a little harder to gain my good graces (ironically enough). I assumed that those who were devoutly religious were judgemental, oftentimes cruel, and, in layman’s terms, not my people. God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens was my bible and Ricky Gervais said it all when it came to my thoughts on religion itself.
Imagine my inner conflict then when I was still a manager and received a resume from a girl attending Tyndale University College and Seminary – a Christian university in Toronto – and found her previous work experience to fit the required bill perfectly. Knowing her as I do now I am ashamed to admit that I almost did not contact her for an interview based solely on the religion-heavy extracurricular activities listed on her resume. I assumed she would not fit in and that, when put in a group of people, she would be preachy as well. Despite these reservations I contacted her as her experience in the cafe world was something I couldn’t rightfully deny.
It has been approximately nine months since I first sat down with her at the interview and I am happy to report that she was not only hired but also went on to become one of the best staff members that cafe has ever seen. But I suppose I’m getting ahead of myself.
We first bonded over Ireland. When she found out that I was going to be travelling there she told me all about her missions that she had participated in and would be participating in there. She gave me helpful tips on what to see, where to shop, and tidbits of information about the culture I would be immersing myself in. When I came back we bonded over our immense love and deep appreciation for that country.
Over the summer I learned about her life, her history, and watched as she got her heart broken by the boy she thought was her future husband. I listened to her stories about her past, at times quite awful, and never once did I hear a quiver in her voice. She showed up to the cafe every day with a smile on her face, ready to work, even when she would admit to me at quiet times that she had spent the entire previous night awake and crying over her ex-fiancee. I’ve found that I surround myself with immensely strong people, people who inspire me every day to get up and get at ’em, and I was coming to realize she was no different.
But there was still that religious thing. And those moments when she would say, “I love Jesus” and I would fail to understand, Jesus had done nothing for me as far as I was concerned and deserved the same in return, were difficult for me to look past.
One day we were standing at work talking and the conversation fell on the ever controversial subjects of abortion, marriage, and gay rights. Tricky topics to begin with let alone when you’re discussing them with a devout Christian. I was ready for a disagreement and even more ready for preaching. As I suspected we disagreed on the abortion issue but I have come to understand that this is not a religion-exclusive viewpoint. It appears that many people are pro-life (a term which I find offensive in that it assumes that I am pro-death, but that’s another blog post) who may not be described as highly religious at all. But she didn’t lecture me about it. In fact, she eloquently and respectfully said, “I try not to share my opinions on this too much because I know that many people disagree with me. I don’t want them to think I am a certain person because of that and I don’t want to cause tension over something we would probably never have to deal with together.”
I couldn’t argue with that.
And then she followed it up with something even more surprising to me: a sound, logical judgement that everyone should be allowed to get married (yes, everyone), and that she feels that marriage is important to her because she is a religious person but understands why other people (like me) may not find it important at all.
Well at that moment you could have just slapped a sign on me that said “gobsmacked” and sent me on my way. Everything I ever thought I knew about Christians was instantly dissolved by a five-foot-two (and I think that’s being generous) girl who wears Christmas sweaters in September. And I couldn’t be more thankful for that.
Since that conversation I’ve discovered every day through her that someone who does not believe in God can easily get along with someone who does. It takes an intelligent mind, an understanding of differences, and a respect in debate to do it but it can be done. I think back now to when I had almost not called her for an interview because she was Christian with much chagrin – isn’t that instant judgement the same thing I had persecuted Christians for doing to us for all these years? Somehow in all these conversations she has stripped away my barriers between myself and the religious sect. Don’t get me wrong – I won’t be looking for a church any time soon but I had never realized how much I had separated “us” from “them” until she came along. As she has sat and talked with me over the months about her broken heart and her first date mishaps and her friends that have become family, I have had my eyes opened to the fact that I always thought the religious folk were much colder and less able to experience what us non-religious folk do.
It sounds absolutely ludicrous to some of you, I’m sure, but I’m not going to sugar coat things now. Somehow I had come to believe that anyone who could be described as a person of faith had used up all of their emotional resources on that and were now just shells following blindly in the path of God without ever giving themselves over to real human emotions. And I was wrong.
In the same way she has apologized on behalf of Christians that make a bad name for Christians everywhere, I apologize on behalf of myself who has made a bad name for atheists everywhere. In a world where we all keep asking why we can’t just get along, perhaps it is more important to look at ourselves and ask how we have perpetuated the problem. I feel I would be naive to believe there will ever be total peace among us, we are animals at our roots after all, but maybe if we all just sat down in a coffee shop and had an honest conversation with someone of a different belief than us we could at least be a little more understanding.