I’ve mentioned before that I work for a Catholic school. And that I like working for a Catholic school. Especially this particular Catholic school.
I think I’ve probably also mentioned that I’m an Atheist. Luckily this works out at my job, because my coworkers aren’t pushy about religion – you’re free to go to Mass during work hours, and hang religious paraphernalia in your office, and pray at work, but no one pushes it on you. And they’re very open about the fact that you don’t have to be Catholic or even Christian to work there. They definitely have an environment of tolerance, which I appreciate.
That doesn’t mean I’m not occasionally uncomfortable. When coworkers want to say grace before potlucks or pray before meetings, I have some mild discomfort, but I keep it to myself. I have a coworker who has a thing for collecting crosses and displaying them on his wall, and he’s got damn near twenty or so now – so his office freaks me out a little bit, but I still go talk to him. But those things are totally NBD…just reminders that I’m kind of the oddball in this work environment.
But sometimes, it also makes me feel a bit disconnected from people.
Earlier this week, I sat through a well-intended lecture about the sacred heart (it’s a Catholic thing), and for the first time since I’ve worked here, I was profoundly uncomfortable. There was talk about the getting in touch with the heart, and how feelings come from the heart as an organ of perception, and not from the head, and I was sitting there thinking…I have no idea what’s going on right now. Then the lecture leader asked us to meditate on the exterior of our heart for 4 minutes, and then on the interior of our heart for 4 minutes, and I was sitting there like…um, I don’t understand the assignment.
But looking around the room, everyone else seemed to. And when the group discussed it later, people seemed to have some pretty profound experiences. Meanwhile, I took an 8 minute nap.
Throughout the talk, the more people got into discussing the symbolic/metaphorical heart and drawing in religious themes, the more I really wanted to run away. Grief was discussed. Joy. How one can grieve for a loss, but feel joy that a loved one is with god. And I was sitting there like, I just can’t.
All week, I’ve been asking myself why. I’m fine discussing religion as a concept or as an academic topic. Most Atheists are remarkably well-educated about various types of religions (an actual study was done on this), and I’m no different. In fact, one of my favorite college courses was called Early Christian Women, though it was a history course, not a religion course. Through that filter, I was absolutely fine.
Jump to actual experiences of religion and suddenly I’m wishing the floor would swallow me. The last time I felt that way was at the last funeral mass I attended. I really don’t enjoy religious services. I really don’t enjoy listening to people describe religious experiences.
I don’t think it’s unfamiliarity – usually I’m either intrigued by the unfamiliar, or simply not interested. I don’t typically feel uncomfortable.
But religious expression definitely makes me feel weird. Initially, I thought, maybe it’s the emotional aspect. Religion comes with a lot of feelings and a lot of opinions and a lot of them are very intense. But I can tolerate emotions in other situations – it’s something about the mix of emotional religious experiences that makes me want to run the other way.
I should say that my own lack of belief doesn’t mean I don’t believe that other people genuinely have them. It doesn’t make my question the sincerity of what others express. I don’t doubt that the people I was in this lecture with were having genuine experiences. I could see it before they even affirmed it. They felt connected to something and I wasn’t able to tap into, because they believe in something that I don’t. Really, it seems like I was the close-minded one in that room.
But I was sitting there kind of wallowing in my disbelief because of some of what the lecturer said. I.e., “I embrace religion because I don’t like the answers science gives me.” Um…well…okay…that makes me wonder if your faith is real, or if your faith is rooted in fear. And for some reason, the admission that you embrace faith because you dislike the alternative invalidates faith-based beliefs in my mind. Which is unfair, I admit, but that’s just something I know about myself when it comes to matters of faith-based beliefs.
I realized that I’m so good at finding like-minded people that I don’t know anyone who is super religious, as far as openly expressing religious sentiment. I know some lackadaisical Christians, but no one who is super involved with a church or religious movement. Some of my coworkers are, but I’m not comfortable enough with any of them to say, “Hey, explain this to me, because I don’t get it.”
I’m parsing through this because I’m starting to draft an essay on my personal discomfort with religious sentiment, versus my total comfort with religion as a concept or a subject. Because it’s interesting to me that what draws some people in also turns some people away. And more often, it seems it’s starting to turn people away…which, believe it or not, actually strikes me as odd.