Last weekend we hosted an Open House and invited about 45 Holly Springs folks. Althought it wasn't "that kind of party," a number of guests brought housewarming gifts. Isn't it curious how a gift often says more about the giver than the recipient?

Ms. F's gift was a pair of faux wood oval plaques with matching ornate display stands. The plaques each bore a line of scripture. I only remember the one that I found especially provocative:  "But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord."  To my credit, I did not immediately erupt. Instead, I thanked her (sincerely) for the kind gesture and complimented the attractiveness of the wrapping.

Then I excused myself and made another bowl of champagne punch (Note:  I knew from the moment I spotted the recipe on that I would mix the punch. Many on the guest list are "religious non-drinkers" so depending on who showed up, I might have to drink the whole thing alone...)

Later, I was seated near her for a few minutes and I told her that I appreciated her good intention. 

I told her that I am not Christian, as in wearing that label as part of my Human Personality uniform.

while the plaques are undeniably charming but I do not "serve the Lord."

I told her I believe that believers and non-believers can coexist peacefully.

Then --  and I know

I could have just stopped talking. That's what you're thinking.

But I didn't stop talking. Last year the city drafted a Master Plan in response to a perceived surge in public support for a focused, intensive "revitalization" effort. This is part of the reason I moved here four months ago from the San Francisco Bay area. I shared with Ms. F some of my impressions and experiences in the community since my arrival. I told her that while people here, overall, have been hospitable and welcoming, religious belief is touted and assumed with an intensity I've not encountered anywhere else. I suggested that some newcomers might find it offensive and oppressive and walk away from Holly Springs, perhaps in significant enough numbers to diminish the "revitalization" efforts.

She was defensive but gracious and remained in good humor. "Okay, okay...  I have a better gift for you," she said. "I'll bring it by." The party went on from there with no less laughter and good spirits.

Today, 3 days later, Ms. F stopped by with the better gift:  a plaque boasting a "Laundry Prayer"

I think it's all turned out very well. I am fond of Ms. F and she of me. When she stopped by this morning we had a visit marked with much laughter and talked about our upbringings -- hers in southern Mississippi and mine in southern Indiana.

I am convinced it's important for "non-believers" to be visible and vocal members of their communities. Our interactions with religious people don't have to be argumentative or volatile. In fact, it's important that we continue to learn ways to communicate peacefully across lines of differing opinion and belief.

There have been enough religious wars on the planet.

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Comment by The Flying Atheist on March 26, 2013 at 11:55am

I'm a little late to the conversation, but I just read it today.  What a great story.  You and your new friend both handled the situation respectfully and tactfully.  Hopefully your new friend has learned the lesson that in the future she should not assume all persons are religious.  I commend you for handling an awkward situation with grace.

And what a culture shock!  Moving from San Francisco to Mississippi.  I hope you are adjusting well.   

Comment by Alan Perlman on January 4, 2013 at 2:02pm

Good story, very telling.  Religion will never go away, not until we have openly secular political leaders (don't hold your breath), so a very constructive course for atheists is peaceful coexistence.  I ask only that believers keep their beliefs to themselves, don't assume anyone else shares them -- and PLEASE confine your religion to your homes and places of worship (which should be paying taxes, BTW), and not try to take over education, government, or society.

Comment by Ted E Bear on January 3, 2013 at 7:54pm
It sounds weird, but I got one those atheist Dawkins pins, not so that I could talk about atheism, but so I could avoid situations like that. It's bright red, and stands out on most cloths. Because of this, people always ask what it is, and i always force myself to say nothing more than, "it's just an atheist pin I ordered online". At which point, I will change the subject. It's give people a chance to note that about you, without it seeming forced or in their face.
Comment by Michael Penn on January 3, 2013 at 11:25am

   Thanks for the story. I love your laundry prayer. LOL

   Atheists need to be vocal and visible in their communities, but my actions here are subtile in many ways. I do this because I'm not happy or content with words like OUT to describe me or my beliefs. In a "religious" discussion I make my views known, and I can do it well because I studied for the ministry. I believe you have to know the Bible to put it down in any way, and I've read all of it, and know the contradictions, etc.

   Those who hear me say "My God, you sound like an atheist." I smile and neither deny or confirm, but most of them go away from that discussion with a new point of view. A direction of belief that maybe they had never considered before.

Comment by Loren Miller on January 2, 2013 at 7:42pm

The problem remains ... we have to TELL them before they get it.  The theist's natural modus operandi is to ASSUME that they're dealing with other theists because to them, that's the default.  And let us not forget - the word ASSUME puts an ASS in front of U and ME ... and I STILL don't care for either the view OR the smell!  And yes, the gift too often tells more about the giver than the recipient.

Granted, I don't know how public an atheist you are.  Me?  I'm OUT and I don't care who knows it.  Further, if they want to attempt to foist their misbegotten belief on me, I have no problem about correcting their misapprehension - FIRMLY - and maybe next time they'll think before they assume.

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