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Navigating the Social Waters of Unbelief

Submitted by Ken Watts on Fri, 07/27/2007 - 12:28

There's a great post by bbstucco at, about his difficulty answering the "Who is God?" question for his four-year-old daughter. It's very human, and highlights an often unmentioned side of the current struggle between Faith and truth with a small t.

"So far I haven't lost a friend, but I've had some very uncomfortable moments."

Those of us who find ourselves disconnected from traditional belief systems often also find ourselves constrained, especially in private contexts, by a desire not to offend those who still believe. We have no desire to start arguments, hurt other's feelings, or cause them to wonder whether we have gone over to the dark side.

On the other hand, some believers tend to assume that anyone who believes differently has a problem, often a moral problem. Sometimes they have no difficulty at all pushing their own viewpoint—other times the disapproval just sits not so invisibly beneath the surface. This is not because they are objectionable people, but because whenever belief is involved, there are assumptions that go along with it.

One of those is that there are no really legitimate alternatives. Anyone who thinks there is must be deeply confused, and desperately needs to be corrected. Another is that unbelief is not just mistaken, but perverse. In either case, it's not only the right, but the responsibility of the believer to speak up.

I know very few unbelievers who feel the same way about believers. I except, of course, a handful of professional atheists—but they are the cultural equivalent of Billy Graham; we expect them to peddle their wares.

So the playing field is somewhat tilted. Belief, or the pretense of belief, is still the norm. Never mind that the pretenders know nothing of the details, and the believers don't agree on the details.

Bbstucco tells of trying to explain to his daughter why he doesn't believe in God while at the same time trying not to damage her relationship with a believing playmate. Any nonbeliever has had this experience many times, maybe not with a four-year-old, but certainly with their own friends. When pressed, we bend over backwards trying to find a way to explain our position without seeming to judge the other's.

In many cases, of course, the person we're talking to is doing the same thing. The great divide between belief and unbelief leaves both sides completely convinced they are right. But, having actually been on both sides (there was hardly a more fervent believer than I was—at least not a sane one) I think I can say that it's harder to talk about unbelief to a believer than the other way around.

And of course, the second I wrote that, I began to doubt it—after all, that's what we unbelievers do. Perhaps it's just harder for an unbeliever who used to be a believer, and understands something of the mindset of belief.

One of the effects of this general uneasiness is a tendency to fluctuate between over-politeness and over-aggressiveness. I often avoid saying what I really think to a believer, because I don't want to hurt their feelings, or be put on the spot, until whatever they're saying becomes unbearable—and, at that point, find myself being overly aggressive.

It's a problem, and will probably only be worked out conversation by conversation.

A good friend asks me at his wife's funeral if I'm not overjoyed that we have such a wonderful savior who has taken her up into heaven, and I say, "Yes," even though I feel myself blush at the hypocrisy. What else am I to do?

A pastor friend—from my old life, but still a close friend to this day—asks me to help her plan a program for teaching preschoolers about God. I try to dodge the question politely—my internal pressure mounting by the second—until she sees what I am doing and confronts me. Then I blurt out that I won't help her, because "I don't believe that kind of teaching is good for children." She's understandably offended.

So far I haven't lost a friend, but I've had some very uncomfortable moments.

And, to tell the truth, I almost didn't post this, for fear that I might, well, offend someone.

It's tempting to long for the days when talk of religion was off limits in polite company, but I think we're beyond that now. The recent militancy of the religious right, spurred on by neocons who are probably unbelievers themselves, has made the gap impossible to ignore.

And probably we shouldn't. If the human race is going to survive the next century, we will have to find a way to base belief in fact, and to escape the kind of political manipulation that accompanies belief without evidence. We will have to forge a spirituality that is not threatened by truth with a small t.

And, I suppose, that's worth a few uncomfortable moments.