Not Discussed in Polite Society

As the readers of this blog probably know by now, I focus my writing here on academia and on personal stuff that relates to my work, my experiences as a woman in science, or on being a “high-tech” immigrant in the US. I don’t discuss politics or religion or current affairs in general. Mostly, I don’t because I have limited time and energy, and I like to expend both on things I have some actual control over, such as my day-to-day life and the lives of people I am intertwined with (family, students, coworkers). I am, however, a bleeding-heart liberal. I feel passionately about civil liberties and social justice; I hope everyone has the right to marry whomever  they want, gets access to a broad and affordable education in order to get trained for the type of job that best suits them, has a satisfying career among respectful colleagues while having unfettered access to healthcare for themselves and families, and that everyone can go into retirement with enough financial security and dignity.

We had dinner with a couple of friends a little while ago. It was fun and pleasant, but at one point we started talking about religion. Although you could say that it went well, it didn’t really; these things never do, unless you are with like-minded folks. The ordeal just reinforced my belief, which is a generally well-known rule for socializing in the US, that religion is something best not discussed.

I am not religious. See, even the way it’s phrased is couching it. A lot of people cringe at the word atheist, but can swallow “not religious.”

I respect the right of people to believe whatever they want; what they think or feel is their personal business. But I admit outright I have serious issues with all organized religion, and that I resent the aspects of religion that spill over onto policy (e.g. you won’t be successful running for office unless you are at least nominally religious), touch important aspects of everyone’s daily life (erosion of a woman’s right to choose and access to birth control), or result in unexpected annoyances (having to partake, or technically pretend to, in a collective prayer at a colleague’s wedding). To be completely honest, had I known as I do now how important religion is for every aspect of life in the US before I came here, I am not entirely sure this is the place I would have ended up immigrating to; at the very least it would have given me serious pause in my deliberations.

My religious friend is a smart, educated, and generally progressive Christian. We discussed the friend’s attitude towards the Bible, its necessity for faith or lack thereof, how people interpret it and what it means in this day and age. Ultimately, this is an aspect that will in the future best remain closed to us if we are to remain friends.

It comes down to this:

Do you or do you not believe in a God who is interested in and interacting with humans? We can pretend that the answer to finding religion is to use analytic thinking to examine the stories in the holy book within the appropriate historical context, but bottom line is that you believe in a loving or meddling God because you just do, usually because that’s what you were taught as a kid. You cannot convince me that it makes objective analytical sense (even though it may be personally fulfilling and there are utilities in finding a community or ethical guidelines) or that it is something that one can reason towards. And I have to pretend we are having this analytical conversation, when I really have to mince words and filter hard what I say in order not to offend you. Ultimately, you believe because you do and want to continue to do so, and that is fine and should probably be the end of it. Trying to convince me that it’s objectively meaningful and rational and a self-consistent worldview at best ends with me biting my tongue so hard it bleeds, and at worst we stop being friends because I didn’t bite my tongue hard enough.

Another aspect came up, which I honestly don’t understand. Why is it the job of the people who are outside of a certain religion to keep an endlessly permissive and open mind about said religion and avoid citing its horrific, disgusting, fringe aspects in order not to offend the religion’s moderate/progressive practitioners? If you are a believer associated with a religion, and you recognize there are destructive forces that give your religion a bad rep, then it is your job as a moderate religious person to distance yourself and to make sure the fringe becomes disenfranchised and disempowered. I don’t understand why it’s supposed to be the job of everyone else to ignore the humongous piles of turd in your living room that make everyone sick; it’s your house, you clean it up.

There are a lot of religious professors at my university. With most, the religion never comes up explicitly, which is for the best, even though it does come up indirectly in how different people handle conflict or their attitude towards the personnel or political aspects of academia. The best I can do is just accept it as another aspect of diversity. A unique aspect of diversity that, unlike others, appears to be off limits to discuss.


  1. We feel your pain too. Except ours is with our family as well. We say “we do not believe in god” which is more to the point than “non religious” but more palatable than atheist.

    I was raised in a very religious household and 2/3 children ended up atheists…

    I am always floored when I meet fellow scientists who are religious. Looking at it as an aspect of diversity is a nicer way to think of it. Still I am so surprised!

  2. I don’t try to persuade anyone about anything concerning my religious views. I do, however, quote the Bible on occasion. It is a book of great historical, cultural, literary, and intellectual significance. There are many parables and examples that can be quoted to make a point without any appeal to religious authority or belief systems. It is a book that recounts the debates and discussions of people grappling with timeless questions. It even has a lot of passages that are scathing critiques of extremism, zealotry, and public displays of piety. (Admittedly there are also calls for extremism, zealotry, and public piety, but it is a book with many authors from many times and places. This makes it a great survey of the human condition.)

  3. This fits with a conversation DH and I had last night–I was noting that I had become boring in terms of small talk with his family (can’t discuss crafting, don’t want to discuss poo, etc). He asked why I don’t have tons of potential discussion topics from all that internetting I do. Well, I can’t talk about feminism, racism, my special kids, etc because one does not discuss them in polite society with those of uncertain politics.

  4. My husband and I are atheists, and for me the hardest thing is figuring out what to tell our kids about religion so that they don’t go to school and make trouble for themselves (until they are old enough to handle said trouble). I have been trying to explain religion, why people believe, and how to handle the fact that her school has some quite religious kids in it to my older daughter, who is perhaps even more firmly atheist than I am. I haven’t quite got it right, because now when she is asked at school about it she says “my mom doesn’t want me to talk about it,” which probably makes it sound like we’re members of some weird cult.

    I took a history sequence in college that covered Zoroastrianism, Judaism, early Christianity, and Islam, so I often shock my more religious friends by knowing some obscure religious texts. Details have faded into a haze, though, so I could not hold my own in a serious religious discussion!

  5. This problem doesn’t seem to come up much in Santa Cruz, which has a wider variety of religious beliefs than the mid-west, where I grew up. I’ve had Jainists, Hindus, Jews, Moslems, Christians, Buddhists, atheists, and probably people with other less widely held beliefs in my classes. People here are generally pretty tolerant of other belief systems, though they don’t have much patience with people trying to convert them—the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormom missionaries are not popular.

    A lot of traditional religious fervor is transmuted here into dietary and alternative medicine belief systems. People do seem quite willing to push their beliefs on those topics on others.

  6. Yes! Yes! Yes! all of it. Especially this:

    ” And I have to pretend we are having this analytical conversation, when I really have to mince words and filter hard what I say in order not to offend you. Ultimately, you believe because you do and want to continue to do so, and that is fine and should probably be the end of it. Trying to convince me that it’s objectively meaningful and rational and a self-consistent worldview at best ends with me biting my tongue so hard it bleeds, and at worst we stop being friends because I didn’t bite my tongue hard enough.”

    How do you handle your children and their school? Do they come home with questions about religion and why you don’t go to Church? How do you deal with this and can you tell them it’s not something you do without telling them it’s b.s. and risking their saying this to their friends and teachers?

  7. How do you handle your children and their school?

    Eldest will be 15 this year. He says his friends sometimes ask him if he believes in God, and he says that he doesn’t want to talk about it. That works well and he’s friends with some kids who apparently go to church. At that age, kids still do what their parents want them to do, and there’s little point in arguing one way or another. Once they are through college, they’ll probably have more ownership over whatever they end up believing. He’s probably even more of an unapologetic atheist than I am, but he knows he’s not supposed to go around calling people stupid or ignorant or telling them that God doesn’t exist. Basically, he avoids the talks.
    It helps that his best friend is also an atheist (he’s from a divorced family where mom is a believer but dad isn’t and wouldn’t hear of his kids going to church).

    When Eldest was little, he got really upset when a friend asked if he believed in God, he said no, and then the friend told him that he (my kid) would burn in hell for all eternity. My son was obviously terrified because, even if you don’t know what hell or eternity mean, you know that burning is a very bad thing. After the friend freaked him out like that when he was 4-5, he was saying for a while that he believed in God and asked for assurance that nothing bad would happen to him. Yes, I am very ticked off by that; unfortunately, I suppose everyone has the right to terrify their own kids into obedience/whatever with threats of eternal damnation (although I wish it weren’t so because I think that’s awful and cruel), I most definitely don’t want anybody terrifying my kid.

    Also, one time Eldest was sent to the principal where he spent the whole break, missing lunch, because a kid had knocked him over on the playground and my kid said “What the hell?” A teacher heard him and sent him to the principal because apparently to (some? all?) Christians it is a very bad blasphemous word. I am very resentful of that incident, because I personally think hell is not a swear word at all, and this encroaches on my family’s freedom of expression.

    For the middle one, who will be 8 this year, it hasn’t really come up much with his friends. His best friend’s family is not religious, but there are other friends whose families go to church. I asked him today if he believed in God, he said “No. God doesn’t exist. Earth was made from rocks in space like we saw on Cosmos.” I told him some people might be offended if he tells them God doesn’t exist, so it’s best not to talk about it. (He did, however, decide that Santa and the Tooth Fairy are real because they leave presents.)

    The littlest one is too little, so it hasn’t come up yet, thankfully.

    I am wondering if religious parents worry and coach their kids about not hurting the feelings of atheists. I am guessing not. (Yeah, I am just a touch bitter.)

  8. Ugh. The hell-burning experience of your eldest is what I wondered about. I’ve heard similar stories from friends who are parents.

    Your description has given me a new appreciation for the importance of Cosmos. It’s an external reinforcement of the rationalist world view your kids are getting at home.

    I’m so weary of the arrogant religiosity and the I’ve-got-mine-Jack attitudes here (combined seemingly without irony) that I’m about ready to pack it in and move back to Europe.

  9. Another unapologetic atheist, bleeding-heart liberal and immigrant from Europe here, feeling your pain. Although I am always respectful towards the beliefs of others (and teach my children to do so), I cannot possibly take seriously anyone who is religious. None of my close friends are religious (although many were brought up in religious households), because I cannot relax while constantly watching what I say.

    While it does not bother me at all if random acquaintances go to church, it never fails to amaze me when I learn that a colleague scientist is religious. I feel almost offended, and have to work hard at staying respectful and not saying “Seriously??! I mean, really??!”…

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