I grew up in a town where the phrase “religion is the opiate of the masses” is pretty apropos. Teachers preached to us regularly in the hallways of our public school, there were regular conversion experiences in the choir room where the Student Christian Association met during lunch.
It hasn’t changed much in 15 years. When my father was sick a few years ago, preachers we didn’t even know showed up at his hospital room to pray with us. My mother and I spent many nights running interference with the ministers, trying to keep them out as much as possible. My father is a man of science.
Many of my friends who don’t come from the Bible Belt regularly question how I can stand to live down here, considering I can’t really call myself a Christian because I don’t go to church. I’m a woman of science too, who believes it’s possible I don’t know everything. I am much too liberal to fit in with the general tendency toward Evangelical Christianity. Sadly, I’m also sort of an evangelical magnet.
I’m regularly approached by people looking for converts on the street. If I’m standing in a crowd of people, somehow, those seeking to spread the word of God manage to single me out. This goes across cultural boundaries too – the Hare Krishna’s make a bee line for me as fast as the Jehovah’s Witnesses. There are entirely too many examples of this in my life to list.
Once, in exasperation I asked one of these people why he picked me out of the crowd. He said there was something about me, some kind of positive aura that he could feel.
I realized that this probably the same reason why pushy sales people follow me around. I’m subconsciously exuding “sucker” energy into the universe. I’ve developed a few strategies for dealing with this situation over the years, strategies which come in handy this time of year. I thought I would share.
1. ------ Learn Tolerance. So you’re an agnostic liberal, or a Wiccan, or a Muslim, or Jewish, or you’re just a secular humanist. Whatever you are, if you aren’t openly a Christian, you’re probably in the minority anywhere in the Bible Belt. The best way to survive this experience is to simply learn to tolerate the religion of others. Actually put it into practice by simply not allowing yourself to get annoyed at all the daily reminders of your minority status.
Learn to translate what people say into something useful. If someone at work says, “Jesus will help you through it,” understand that what they really mean is “I know you’re going to be okay because I believe in you.” If someone offers to pray for you, simply say “thanks” and take it as “I’ll keep you in my thoughts and I have sympathy for your situation.” Don’t hold their preachiness against them, it’s their cultural context. You can’t force other people to remove themselves from their cultural contexts. It takes an intellectual and philosophical leap that a lot of people simply can’t make.
2. ------ Calm down, already. It’s not worth getting yourself worked up into a hissy fit over every expression of religious belief around you, even in public places. Learn an old writer’s trick, “If the comment doesn’t apply, ignore it.” You wouldn’t go to Mexico and take offense at every religious icon you saw, right? It’s part of the landscape, part of the way people explain themselves to themselves. Learn to step out, and away, from the tendency to take personal offense unless someone personally offends you.
3. -------- Learn the Art of the White Lie. Down here, when you meet someone new they ask three questions: “Where do you live,” “what do you do,” and “where do you go to church.” They ask these questions because they are trying to situate you into their world. If you know people they know, well, that makes you almost kin. Down here, we figure out people by figuring out how we’re connected to them. Ask any southerner, they will back me up on this.
I avoid answering the third question by lying, simply to add grease to the social friction. Who really wants to get into a debate about religion every time they meet someone new? I have various approaches to this kind of white lie. The first approach is not to mention a church specifically. Just say, “I’m Episcopalian” or “I’m Unitarian” and change the subject. This usually satisfies most people. If they insist on a particular church, I tell them that I go to church someplace out of town, but close enough for me to reasonably drive there every Sunday.
4. ----------- Learn Graciousness. If you live in the Bible Belt, at some point someone is going to tell you how Jesus can change your life. It’s sort of inevitable. At my last job, the secretary regularly sat me down and explained to me that if I would just get Jesus, I would be so much better off. In this situation, it’s not a good idea to lie, because it’s going to end in an uncomfortable invitation to a church that you can’t avoid. It’s better to simply learn a little graciousness.
First, thank the person for their concern. Tell them you will seriously consider what they have to say, and that you respect their beliefs. Explain that you do have a relationship with God (you don’t have to give the details) and that there’s really no reason to worry about you. Explain that you feel religion is private and that you don’t like to talk about it, but that you sincerely appreciate their desire to see you have a better life. Then, smile, say God Bless You, and get out of there as soon as possible.
5. ---------- Don’t Assume. Don’t assume that other people share the same ideas about the basis of the universe as you do. If you get into a discussion which requires the assumption that the universe wasn’t created by God or that evolution exists (which happens more than you’d expect), explain that you are speaking in general terms about what most people believe. Leave a small opening for the fact that you might not be “most people,” this will avoid a very difficult devolution of the conversation.
6. --------- Adopt tactics to scare away door-to-door ministers. They are rampant and they don’t go away. We get at least three visits a week from our local “community ministry.” Generally, I just don’t answer the door unless I’m expecting someone. This has a downside, though. They keep coming, and they always leave pamphlets stuck in the screen door. There are other tactics that work better. Hang a pentagram over your door. Answer the door in your underwear, holding a beer (this works especially well for women). Get one of those signs that says, “Solicitors will be mauled by angry dogs.” Turn up your death metal the minute they walk up to the door. Anything that might broadcast “evil sinner” as opposed to “poor lost sinner.” All of these, of course, have the side effect of making your neighbors talk about you behind your back.
7. ------------ Quit worrying about how people judge you. Pretend they don’t. Ignore the neighbor gossip. My personal tactic is to simply pretend it doesn’t exist and assume everyone likes me anyway. If I went around worrying that every Christian I met was secretly judging my worthiness in the eyes of God, I’d go insane. A little denial is not always a bad thing. Live your life the way you want, and let that speak for itself.
8. --------- Don’t Be a Hater. That old Christian commandment “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is an excellent motto to adopt in this circumstance. Don’t assume you can’t be friends with someone because of their religious bent. There’s a lot to be learned from people of faith, even if you don’t share their beliefs.