The Agnostic Answers
When returning to class after my absence, I hadn’t expected to be speaking to my instructor in great detail about my grandfather’s death. He was very interested to know not only how I was handling the loss, but how the funeral ceremony was held. My explanation was stumbled, as is always the case when faced with unexpected questions, but not as stumbled as when he asked me a particularly daunting question:
“What is your religion?”
My religious beliefs had been something of a mystery throughout my life, to myself especially. Growing up, I had not been taught any particular religion, and various attempts by neighbors and extended family members to introduce me to Christianity went in vain. The more questions I asked about it, the fewer answers I seemed to receive. Upon entering my teenage years, I began to explore other religions and decided to become a Buddhist. When attempting to meditate one day, I came to a realization: I didn’t know what I was doing. Perhaps more importantly, I didn’t know why I was doing it.
The exact purpose of religion had never been clear to me, but everyone seemed to find it extremely important and I felt very left out by not having one. That was the real reason for my pursuit of Buddhism: to have a title to call my own. The more I considered this, the more it seemed a bad idea to pursue religion for the sake of having a religion. I decided that if religion was a solution to something, it would be better to learn about that something before making a decision about the solution.
In my late teens, I went to a technology center to learn about computer networking. In doing so, I entered a strange new world of religious awareness. There was an outspoken Muslim, a defensive Jew, a proud Catholic, many confrontational Baptists, a quiet Mormon, and something called an “atheist,” which I learned was someone who doesn’t believe in any religion.
This idea of an atheist was entirely new to me. Despite never having seriously followed a religion, I had never heard of someone rejecting the notion of religion altogether. My previous assumption had been that nearly everyone was religious and I was a rare exception. Furthermore, I had assumed that there was a religion for everyone and it was only a matter of time before I found mine. This idea changed all of that. It meant that there were others who also felt no connection with religion. It also meant that I now had a title.
I had a new confidence. Not only was I not alone in my lack of religion, but I was free of the burden of finding one. I could throw aside my previous ambiguity and proudly declare myself as an atheist. That is, until I learned that there was another word, “agnostic,” which referred to someone who doesn’t know if God exists or not. So was I an atheist or an agnostic? Both words seemed to fit me equally well, as I don’t believe in any religion, but also don’t know for sure whether or not God exists.
“What is your religion?”
That was the question my instructor proposed, and finally I answered.
“I am agnostic.”
The answer was perfectly correct, but that’s not why I chose it. Religious definitions were not the only thing I had learned since coming to this school – I had also learned about reactions to those definitions. I had learned that many people responded with intrigue and interest to an “agnostic,” but with disdain and scorn to an “atheist.” An “atheist” was perceived as a hater, a sinner, someone who had no respect for morals. Meanwhile, an “agnostic” was a thinker, an intellectual, someone driven by reason.
Choosing to call myself “agnostic” was an act of cowardice. My mind pictured the scowl I expected to see had I answered “atheist,” and I chose the safer word. Regret entered my mind almost immediately. Even while I had imagined myself as a proud non-believer who would speak his mind without fear of what others thought, the truth was I did fear, and that fear defeated me.
That day has drastically changed how I view religion and atheism. Before that moment I didn’t understand how the mere opinion of others could feel oppressive, or why someone would hide their beliefs in a modern world of religious freedom. Even now I wonder why I would feel such fear from the threat of something as harmless as a scowl.