by Latoya Peterson
“What do you mean you don’t know what Easter is?”
I appraised Best Boy with all the understated annoyance I could muster at the ripe old age of fifteen.
“Again,” I said with an eye roll, “not raised with a religion. And all that comes out around Easter time is new patent leather shoes, dyed eggs, and ham.”
He would not drop the subject.
“How do you not know what Easter is?”
“Did the Rugrats make a special about it? Then no, I don’t know.”
Since I had opened up the lines of fire, he launched his own smart ass attack.
“How do you not go to church, anyway? What kind of black person are you?”
His words struck me deeply, and from time to time I’ve revisited that short conversation and wondered about his motivations and beliefs. This is not a new idea, but one I am starting to hear more and more often:
What kind of black person am I, if I grew up without a religion?
I’m sure that if that had been an off-handed comment, outside of any sort of context, I wouldn’t even remember that story. But as it stands, it was the first articulation of how others would perceive me later – as something strange and stateless. When Atlasien wrote her piece asking if Buddhism is the anti-Islam, there was one passage in particular that resonated with me:
If the phrase “culturally Christian” strikes you as jarring, it’s actually a pretty simple concept. It reflects the fact that when it comes to cultural institutions, the United States is very much a Christian nation. Hey, I mean this in a sociological sense, not a legal one… I love secularism and I donate to Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. But when you’re raised within a majority culture, you become fluent in that culture’s idioms and ways of making sense of the world, no matter what you believe on an intellectual level. Even if you were raised in a family that never even went to church, you’re almost certainly a cultural Christian. I’m a Buddhist, and I’m a cultural Christian. If I spill a hot cup of coffee on myself, I say “Jesus ****ing Christ!” not “Amida ****ing Buddha!”
For me, cultural Christianity is like a stream I’m standing in. I have to stand inside it in order to live in this society and understand its values and language. I don’t have a choice. It isn’t good or bad, it just is. But I’m also outside the stream, to some degree… I can reach out my arms towards other streams and pools.
I could relate. I, too, pepper my speech with references to Jesus, though I would be classified as an unbeliever by many Christians. And I understand a lot of morality and society through the Christian lens it is often presented through. But I still hold back from committing to Christianity as a religion. Partially, it is because I share my mother’s distrust of organized religion – the hard sell, the profiteering pastors, the obnoxiousness of the sanctified trying to inflict their moral authority. It’s all equally grating to me.
However, I’ve been standing in this stream long enough to absorb some of its water. I am loosely monotheistic (in that God is in everything kind of way) and I have a lot of trouble rejecting that frame, even when I acknowledge that growing up in the States probably influenced that way of thinking. I, like atlasien, default to using a lot of Christian phrasing and framework. But I am always aware I am not a part of this stream, and there is some disharmony when I begin to walk against the current.
I do not hate religion. I see religion as a tool, kind of like a knife. A knife can be used to provide sustenance, to free people, to protect one’s self against those that will do you harm. And it can also be used to inflict damage. Neither of these is the inherent nature of the knife – it all depends on the wielder. In this way, I disagree with some atheists who believe that all religions are harmful. I have seen religion become a positive focus and direction for men of my acquaintance, both through the paths of Christianity and Islam. So I am not willing to chuck the entire idea of religion, part and parcel.
And yet, I still resent a lot of the ideas propagated along with religion. One of these is the idea of proselytization, where those who feel obligated to spread the word of God do so by infringing upon my personal space. And another is the idea that Christian is synonymous with black, which does more than erase the experiences of blacks that have chosen another path, but requires a certain adherence to religion to move about freely in black society.
When Tami talked about the plight of a black agnostic who wrote to Salon’s Cary Tennis for advice, she noted:
Tennis gave one of his predictably lofty and meandering non-answers to “Churchgoing Agnostic”–advice that, I think, doesn’t take into account the unique relationship the black community has with Christianity. The Black Church, as an institution, is about more than worship. It is about community, history, activism and more. For many, Christianity and churchgoing are part of the very fabric of African Americanness. For a people whose African ancestors practiced indigenous religions far removed from the Western view of worship, we have embraced Christianity as ours. A recent survey revealed that blacks are more religious in key ways – including frequency of church attendance, daily prayer life and certainty of belief – than the U.S. population as a whole. Quiet as it’s kept, a whole lot of those presumably white, conservative, Evangelical Christians that get so much ink, look like me. [...]
So, what advice would I give Churchgoing Agnostic? If he were a friend, I would suggest he not make any major pronouncements regarding his beliefs. After all, faith–or lack off–is very personal and needn’t be a public affair. I don’t care for proselytizing of any stripe–religious or secular. I would suggest he dialogue more with his wife about his beliefs on religion to ease her into understanding his views. The hard part will be shedding religious rituals that feel uncomfortable to him, especially ones that are part of his community and family. If he has been attending church every Sunday and prayer service every Wednesday, a sudden disappearance will guarantee some sort of prying confrontation. What then?
I feel a little icky about my advice. It feels like recommending that the letter writer lie to both himself and those he loves. But don’t we do that sometimes, where other things are involved, to keep the peace?
Tami’s advice was a bit jarring to some, but I completely understood what she was saying. For you see, many of us without religion know what comes when you admit who you are. To come out as a non-Christian is to bring about a wave of misplaced concern, where people suddenly need to pass you booklets and pamphlets and to encourage you to come back into the arms of Christ, even if you’d never been there in the first place. And that’s probably the best case scenario. The worst case is to be ostracized from your peer group because of your lack of faith, to have people call you wicked, to have former friends avoid you because they think your existence as a non-believer is a threat to their faith. It’s a tough and lonely road to walk. So we engage in a form of religious covering, masking our ambivalence about Christianity with what we have learned standing in the stream.
When I worked in a predominantly black work environment, many of the people there had printed out passages from scripture to line their walls and had a bible displayed somewhere in their cubicle. Occasionally, after meetings, some one would call for a group prayer. It was then that I covered, not wanting to be marked as different by those I worked with. I participated in the prayers, though I resented the imposition of religion in my work life. But I felt the social cost of public protest was too high of a cost to pay.
When I attended a wedding recently, I covered. Again in the predominantly black company, I sat through what felt like hours of prayers and discussions, jokes about praying for the right man and the right weave, watching Tyler Perry’s “Why Did I Get Married” as a call-and-response exercise, and almost got my eyes stuck in the back of my head when I listened to the bride tearfully announce she was ready to submit to her husband. But, again, I covered. It was not worth rocking the boat.
When I visited my boyfriend’s family in the south, I ended up having dinner with his aunt and uncle, both of whom are ordained. It’s stressful enough trying to make a good impression. It’s even worse trying to make a good impression while covering. Before dinner, his aunt asked for us to do a common family ritual. Everyone was to go around in a circle and recite their favorite verse of scripture.
The first thing I thought was “Fuck!”
This was taking covering to Olympian levels. But what to do? I didn’t want to shift the focus on myself and start going on about how I wasn’t raised with religion – that tends to make things worse, because then people feel obligated to “save” you, and I wasn’t trying to spend dinner talking about the glory of coming to Christ. But if I didn’t cop to not knowing a bible verse, I would be stuck trying to pull something out of my ass before my boyfriend’s family. Vaguely, the edges of my secular brain pulled something together. Hmm, the lord is my shepard, I shall not want… that should work. Three people to go, and it appears that the custom was to cite the beginning of the passage and every one else would chime in.
I was pleased with myself. Successfully covered!
Or so I thought. The turn was passed to my boyfriend’s uncle, who was also a pastor but currently suffers from severe Alzheimer’s. The aunt lovingly turned to him and said “Repeat after me. The Lord is my Shepard…”
One person to go, and I was about to be outed. I scanned my brain for anything, anything at all to fill the gap. About to admit defeat, and resign myself to a really awkward dinner, I remembered a passage printed on my old supervisor’s wall. Right on beat, I chimed in:
“You shall not fight this battle alone…”
Which was actually incorrect. What I was referring to was this:
17‘You need not fight in this battle; station yourselves, (T)stand and see the salvation of the LORD on your behalf, O Judah and Jerusalem ‘ Do not fear or be dismayed; tomorrow go out to face them, (U)for the LORD is with you.”
But I had apparently confused multiple quotes and mashed them all together in my head. But it didn’t matter in the end. The moment passed, and later – when more trust was established – we actually had a decent conversation about the nature of seeking religious insight. But, in that moment, I still covered.
To uncover still holds significant costs. I operate in a strange space – someone who believes in one god, but not a religion. As a result, I normally get along well with people of many different faiths, as well as atheists. As I am only interested in beliefs, and do not seek to change them, I find that more people are willing to engage with me in religious conversations. However, I am often reminded of my nomad-like status when it comes down to making life decisions.
My ex-boyfriend continually brought up the fact that I would need to convert to Christianity before marrying him. His speech was always the same, beginning with “and once you have accepted Jesus Christ as your lord and savior…”
Interestingly enough, these conversations were apropos of nothing. I wasn’t interested in marrying him and never broached the subject myself; his insertion of religion into the opening conversations was a way of reminding me that my heathen lifestyle was unacceptable.
My current boyfriend also expresses his discomfort with my lack of belief. As a strong Christian, he entered our relationship content in the knowledge that I was not an atheist. But as the relationship progresses, it no longer seems to be enough that I believe in a God. It actively troubles him that I am not a Christian. Once, he asked “What kind of black people don’t go to church,” and I asked him to think hard about whether he really wanted that answer.
I asked my best friend, L, for her perspective, and she explained that dating a non-Christian is a bit of a strain. Her boyfriend is also a non-believer, and she has the same reservations about advancing their relationship. When I asked her what did it matter, she pointed out that there is a loss of intimate space when you and your partner cannot speak the same language when talking about God. And for her, that type of distance was painful. I wondered aloud if that kind of idea forces others to pretend. Isn’t a sincere declaration of ambivalence better than an insincere declaration of faith? We agreed to switch topics, coming no closer to a mutual answer.
L recently grew in her faith as a Christian. She is happier for this and more grounded in her community. I noticed the positive change in her, and she asked me to reconsider my relationship with Christianity.
A couple years ago, she asked me to come to her church for an Alpha session, a program designed to give seekers a better understanding of Christianity, specifically focusing on the life of Jesus Christ. Seeing as I didn’t know the origin of Easter, I figured I might as well drag myself to a church and at least get correct, non pop culture saturated knowledge. For a few weeks, I traveled to church after work to have dinner and discussions with other people about the Christian way of life. It was interesting. But there were a couple things that stood out to me.
The church my friend attended was predominantly white. There were minorities, yes, but a large number of converts – especially black converts – ended up switching to an affiliated church with a predominantly black congregation. I always wondered how and why that happened, even while attending the program.
Secondly, I realized why I’m not really a fan of churches in the first place. For my friends who are Christian, a church provides a place for fellowship, a place to connect with others who are seeking enlightenment and fulfillment along the same spiritual path. For me, as a person raised both secular and skeptical of organized religion, this is not a great place. While I often enjoy sermons and quizzing the pastors about the meaning of faith and life, I hate the hard sell that accompanies the church, the self-policing among the flock, the rigid adherence to a certain set of norms. And I hate the posturing that accompanies those who feel that they are saved, the pronouncements, the ego clashes. A friend once told me that he is anti-church, that he believed the only things required in a religious relationship was “a man, his book, and his God.”
After heading to Alpha, I was inclined to agree. I learned a lot. I received a lot of books which were provocative reading. I had great discussions with great people. But religion still left me cold. By the time we neared the end of the program, each pastor stressed that if we had not yet come to Jesus, we needed to figure out why not. If we had not accepted Jesus Christ as our lord and savior, we needed to figure out which of our “pet sins” were keeping us away from God. I searched myself for the answer. I didn’t know. Ignoring my growing discomfort, I agreed to make one last effort, heading to the Alpha Retreat, a two day intensive in the country where all of the Alpha classes got to leave their lives and just bond with each other while participating in discussions about the word of God.
The first night, there was a sing-along of sorts. I’m not sure if it was the food I ate before the sing along, or something else, but I felt myself falling ill. I listened to the pastors, but felt disconnected. Then, the singing began, and people began throwing their hands up and surrendering to Christ. I felt like I was watching the assembly scenes in Saved, and wondered what I was doing there. After the singing stopped, I went back to my room to rest. The rest of the weekend was kind of a blur, and I felt like I was going through the motions. Unfortunately, after I had rested, I discovered that the answer was inside of me all along: God, as I understood it, was not to be found here.
After the Alpha retreat, I did not return to the church. L stopped asking, mentioning friends I had made there from time to time. However, she too began to have issues with the church we attended together – in addition to moving to a new neighborhood and wanting to be connected to the people there, she was noticing a strange rift in the congregation that had formerly felt so welcoming. The Obama election ended up rocking the church, often splitting it down racial lines and prompting these normally moderate Christians to post things on Facebook that would have been shouted at pro-life rallies or birther functions. Disgusted, L invested herself in her neighborhood church, one that is predominantly black – and, interestingly enough, the same church that my boyfriend’s family attends. They have both, separately, asked me to attend services – I’ve left my answer vague, intentionally.
Perhaps I’m just not made for church. Apparently, this tendency runs in the family. At a family reunion in South Carolina, where our relatives are so populous we occupy large chunks of a certain town, and where everyone heads to church on Sunday at 9, stays for dinner at 2, and won’t get home until 5, I was wondering how to deal with the church question. In these situations, it is hard to cover. But luckily, I didn’t have to. Seated at a table during the reunion dinner, the family elders began singing a series of hymns. They explained that our family lineage was firmly rooted in the church, and after slavery, our oldest ancestor rejected his slave master’s surname (Thompson) for the self selected name of Priestly. The hymns were then sung, but without a book, I was lost. However, I wasn’t alone. Stealing glances around the table, I noticed that no one was singing. Most were just starting off into space politely, waiting for the songs to end.
After the food was served, I decided to take a chance.
I told my grandmother that while I respected other people’s religion, I really wasn’t much for church. She smiled.
“Oh, me neither,” she said. “I always thought it was more about what’s in a person’s heart. I’m sure God thinks that too.”
The next day, we opted to miss church services. My father blamed our absence on his aching back, but somehow we managed to make it to lunch on time. Our relatives each commented on our absence at church, but generally let the matter drop.
Since that day with my family, I’ve felt more at peace with my decision to stay a seeker. I enjoy learning about religions, talking to adherents, having intense discussions with atheists. And I love using multiple concepts to steer my understanding of faith, like the concept of jihad as in internal struggle with the will of the self and the word of God, or exploring the eight-fold path, or untangling Wiccan theology from stereotypes.
While seeking, I’ve learned that I like the idea of a deity. I like that feeling of being overwhelmed by something you can’t explain, but feel close to. I find it hard to articulate why I think that feeling is God, but I just do. And I am starting to understand that the general absence of this feeling in church, but the presence of this feeling when I am doing mundane things like looking at the clouds through an airplane window or walking in the woods makes me think I will only find what I seek if I am willing to just be.
But, I must admit, I do slightly envy my friends of faith.
I often dream of Death. Not the bad-ass Tori Amos inspired Death that Neil Gaiman dreamed up and illustrated into existence, but the more grim, river Styx kind. Death is the largest unknown, the only non-negotiable, the reality that begs the question “what is my purpose on Earth?”
One of the things I often envy about my more religious friends is that they have peace. Or more specifically, a belief, one that allows them to just know the answers to the questions about the after life. My boyfriend sleeps peacefully throughout the night, untroubled by the universe. He believes in heaven and hell and that’s it, while my mind endlessly explores the possibilities.
Sometimes I wish the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything really was 42.
The number feels concrete, final, unlike these nebulous ideas of faith and practice, complicated by race.