This past Sunday I went out for coffee. Actually, I go out for coffee just about every day, but my weekend excursions are always a little more elaborate, i.e., I linger and I tend to order a meal with my coffee rather than a pastry. Last Sunday, I decided to go to a new place and sat at the bar ordering coffee and breakfast. Next to me was another black woman, and she was also there alone. Out of the corner of my eye, I could tell she wanted to talk. In contrast, I did not want to talk, at least not to her, not at that moment. Generally, when I do coffee, especially on a Sunday, I am there for me and to center myself, so talking to other people is not really on the agenda unless there is something very intriguing about that person or the conversation. However, she looked desperate for company, so when she finally found a way to speak to me I responded.
We started talking about ourselves. She noted how much she liked Atlanta; actually it seemed a little over-the-top for me. I am not that fond of Atlanta, but I acknowledged that it is not the worst city where I could be in my life at this time. In addition, I shared that I had been back in Atlanta about four years, but that originally (in 2009) I had planned to be here just temporarily. Then, out of the blue, there it was…she said it…that “God” had other plans for me. To that I said (very immediately and graciously I might add), “Well, I don’t believe in any gods, I am an atheist,” and I continued with my story. Of course I noticed the confusion on her face, and as soon as she could find a moment to interject she came back to the god question and she proceeded to tell me that her god was in charge of my life and that he had other plans for me (I guess her god told her that in those brief moments). Pausing briefly, I decided to nip it. Taking another breath, I said, “Listen, I’m not trying to disrespect you, but you don’t know me, and I DO NOT believe in any gods, period…I do not order or explain my world via a belief in a god.” Looking at me with condescension and pity in her eyes she said, “Aw, I feel sorry for you, really I do.” She continued, “Life is so much better with God in it.” So, okay, by that time she had managed to seriously annoy me. I mean there I was trying to enjoy my coffee and food and I had to sit next to a Joyce Meyer wanna-be! Still trying to be gracious (versus cancelling my order and leaving to go to another area or another restaurant to get away from her), I asked, “Are you saying that it is impossible to reject a belief in a god?” She did not answer me directly, but I knew that she did not think that it was possible to reject a belief in god. Her response to that was that if I really had believed then I could not have rejected a belief in her god. Of course, that was the answer I expected. That was the simplistic line of thinking that I expected. In no way, shape or form could she allow herself to think that a belief in a god could be flat-out rejected. For her it was once a believer, always a believer. For me that’s a bunch of crap! Any belief or philosophy can be rejected.
At that point I told her that I did not agree with her and that I was also a former ordained minister (from the United Methodist Church). That information didn’t seem to phase her until I mentioned that I had been a pastor to six churches. Though she did a quick double-take, even that bit of information did not stop her proselytizing. Finally, after she said that she was not trying to convert me or anything (which she was doing), and after she used her age as a factor to tell me that I did not know what I was talking about – that I had not lived long enough to decide whether or not there was a god (though she had not asked me my age at all) – and so that I could enjoy the rest of my outing in peace, I ended the conversation by saying to her, “Look, you have your belief and I don’t believe, and that’s okay.” Then I turned face forward to resume my Sunday ritual and it was back to breakfast.
So, there I sat, finally eating, but wishing that I had gone somewhere else. She too was served and finished her meal in the next few minutes. We barely even looked at each other at that point. Then, as she rose to leave the restaurant, as she began to gather her things and walk away, she leaned over, near my ear and said, “Well, ‘God bless anyway.’” I suppose that you can imagine how I felt. I wanted to send her straight to the bathroom if you know what I mean! Instead, I chuckled (to keep from cussing her out).
This is an aspect of engaging believers that I find to be quite difficult. I was minding my own business and acknowledging her presence, I was willing to share bits and pieces about my life, and she wants to witness and try to tell me that I could not reject a belief in god as if that was even a logical or valid statement? I suppose that when she realized her efforts were not working she had to get in that last jab. She had to find a way to say “God Bless” as if that saying has any mystical, magical powers to affect my life or anybody’s life for that matter. Nowadays, ‘God Bless You’ is the new ‘Eff You.’ Somehow, someway, I guess, she had to do it; she had to symbolically cuss me out and hit me with her god-paradigm before she left and went on with her day because prior to that I had effectively shut down the conversation. That’s when I looked at her, chuckled, and resolved to write this blog.
If you are a believer, I hope that you don’t act this way (at least not after reading this blog). Truth be told, when I was a believer, I never encountered an atheist one-on-one, and definitely not a black atheist. However, more than likely you will encounter an atheist in your lifetime because here in the U.S. it is a population that is growing and seeking to make itself visible and heard, and black people are a part of that population and that effort. When you do encounter atheists, I hope that you do not behave like this woman forcing your ideas and beliefs on them without invitation. Once you see that someone has said, ‘No, I am not interested,’ please, don’t make a fool or nuisance of yourself badgering others with questions that you don’t even know how to answer, logically. That is not your “calling.” That is your ego. That is your pride and fear playing on the insecurities that you have about your faith, your belief system. When you are not in a position to comprehend how someone could reject a belief in your god narrative, don’t jump in. Don’t assume that you have the vocabulary or the capacity to understand anything. Before you start the conversation, you are probably out of your league, because… if you don’t understand the theology or the epistemology (how you know what you know) behind your own belief system, then how you could begin to understand how or why someone does not believe is beyond me. If you want to witness to your faith, do it with someone who wants to know or hear about your god, not with those who are diametrically opposed to you and your beliefs. In other words, don’t go starting fights that you probably can’t finish.
The bad thing about religion and especially Christianity, as a conceptual or ideological framework, is that as a socio-political framework (and yes it that too) it has the power and the privilege to encourage and produce control freaks. As a construct it works structurally and socially the same way that white supremacy has worked upon the thinking and practices of white people who think that they are superior to non-white people. The ideology gives them a false sense of superiority and entitlement and that position and their notions of reality are supported systemically across the board (socially, economically, politically, and personally in day-to-day relationships). In addition, many believers think that the belief in their god or gods gives them some special powers over others and others’ thinking, and that perspective (the power to define and control others) is reinforced day in and day out, ad nauseum, in American society. However, the truth is that many believers are often the most fearful and powerless people that I know, and they often CANNOT explain what they believe in a logical, coherent way. For example, advocating for the existence of a god she or he may say, “Well how else would I be here?”, or, “There’s got to be a god somewhere in charge of all of this.” Ah, hello, that is not an explanation folks, that is a JUSTIFICATION, or an excuse and, frankly, it is one that is based on the unknown or upon that which cannot be explained. In return, one might say, “Well, can you prove that there is not a god?” And the answer to that is why would I do that? I have not made a claim that there is a god, so the onus of proving that there is a god is not upon me. And, pragmatically speaking, I’m not going to sit there and make up reasons for a god that I don’t believe exists in the first place. I’m not going to spend much time and effort talking about something that is not even real to me. There is no evidence of a god, and that’s all I can say. One’s faith or having faith is not a valid justification for a god; rather, it is simply the means to one’s alleged belief or assertion for the existence of a god. All narratives about a god or gods (stories about what gods have done) have been constructed in an effort by humans to explain the questions and experiences that they have had about their existence here on Earth. At the time that most of these mythological narratives were developed there were limited ways (tools or technologies) of understanding the events on Earth experienced by human beings (i.e., including thunderstorms, earthquakes, illnesses, etc.). Today, we can do better, and in another one hundred years or so, if we don’t destroy the planet first, there will be even more tools and technologies that lead to the uncovering of realities that can be verified.
In my opinion, the most logical answers to whether there is a god are as follows: I believe that a god exist because I want to, and because I have been taught to believe in a god by those who know and love me. Belief is deeply personal, social and cultural. In spite of what many may claim to think about their beliefs, they believe because of what they were taught to believe, and thus they believe what they want to believe or what they have chosen to believe. But, if you had no choice about belief from the time that you were born, then you were probably indoctrinated into belief and therefore into a particular belief system. If your parents, your loved ones and your education did not present you with a choice between belief and disbelief, then you were, pragmatically speaking, made to believe. You had to believe or risk social and familial isolation. Perhaps your loved ones guided you into a belief system and practices and they exposed you to many other types or forms of belief, but if you were not presented with a choice between believing and not believing then it is fair to say, in spite of all good intentions, that you were coerced or indoctrinated into being a believer. And, realistically, why would you reject a belief in a god when rejecting that belief may cause you to face unprecedented rejection from those you know and love? I know what it feels like to ask that question, and I know what it feels like to answer it. Indeed, holding on to a belief may, at times, may be considered a form of self-affirmation and self-preservation.
Of course I know that there are many black people who will never reject a belief in a god. And that is okay. I am not advocating that one should become an atheist, or reject his or her beliefs, but I am advocating, and I have been openly advocating for a little over a year now that those who are atheists or non-believers don’t deserve to be harassed or discriminated against by those who do believe. Can you imagine the scene that I just described? I mean here was this woman telling me how sad she was for me when more than likely she was the sad one. More than likely her sadness was a subconscious projection about herself, about her inability to imagine that she could be free enough, brave enough, to reject a belief in a god, an idea that she grew up with from birth and was not permitted to doubt, let alone reject, at least not openly. My guess is that deep down it was very scary for her to be confronted about herself via another black woman who would not allow herself nor her place in life to be defined by an ancient, mystical idea. My idea of who I am and how my life is situated, how it is progressing, had to be constructed on the same terms as her idea, which revealed her need to control me to affirm herself and her need to feel good about herself and thus superior to me (e.g., hence the need to feel sorry for me). When you sit back and think about it, really think about it, exactly who was it in that encounter who was being controlled? Exactly who was it in that moment who felt insecure and inferior? Well, let me submit to you that it was not me. Careful dear believers of what you say or do to others, because when you behave as this woman did, you just might be revealing some truths about yourselves that you are not even remotely willing or able to admit.
© 2014 annalise fonza, Ph.D.