At some point you've been asked The Question.
"So where do you go to church?"
In Tulsa, The Question isn't confrontational. It's small talk. For many of us, it's just as natural as asking about the weather. We're just curious. What Holden Caulfield says about Catholics in The Catcher in the Rye could be applied to Tulsa Christians generally: "Catholics are always trying to find out if you're a Catholic."
But for the city's small but dedicated group of atheists, The Question can be anxiety provoking. Most of them do not go to church. They don't believe God exists, or even if he does, they don't believe he takes an active interest in human affairs.
For the majority of Tulsans who believe in God, it's a mind-boggling opinion. It's hard for atheists to express their views without receiving, at best, a look of confused pity.
Perhaps for that reason, many atheists think The Question is offensive and shouldn't be asked. They believe religion is, or should be, a private affair. For some people, a co-worker or stranger asking about their religion is akin to asking about their sex life or family difficulties. It just shouldn't be done.
Religion -- especially Christianity -- is deeply ingrained in Tulsa's culture. Its effect has been overwhelmingly positive. The John 3:16 Mission gets homeless people off the streets. Catholic Charities provides foods, clothes, immigration help, and a number of other services. Oral Roberts University educates thousands of students every year. B'Nai Emunah synagogue holds lectures on a variety of ethical, religious, and secular subjects.
(During Greek Fest, Holy Trinity Orthodox church sells the world's best tzatziki sauce. I'd call that a positive contribution.)
Indeed, Christianity is so deeply a part of our city's culture that our religious organizations often don't reach out specifically to nonbelievers. Denominations may poach each other's members or attempt to appeal to the growing group of people who call themselves spiritual but not religious. Atheists are left out of the evangelistic equation.
You can see this at events like the Nightmare at GUTS Church. The haunted house consists of a series of horrifying images followed by an evangelistic message. The intent is to scare patrons out of going to Hell. That's unlikely to work if you don't believe in an afterlife in the first place.
In the buckle of the Bible Belt, it's easy for atheists to get defensive when they are asked The Question.
This article is aimed at both atheists and believers, especially but not necessarily Christians. (Full disclosure: I'm a practicing Catholic.)
Atheists frequently don't have the opportunity to air their grievances in a mainstream publication. However, most of the atheists I talked to appeared to distrust religious people to an extent that didn't seem justified.
At the same time, Christians have such a strong majority here that they don't often think about how their words and actions can affect people who fundamentally disagree. It's useful for both sides to take a step back and think about how to engage without defensiveness or condescension.
The biggest indictment against believers is that some atheists feel uncomfortable declaring themselves. It's bad enough to feel judged, but atheists can feel like they might be ostracized. It's sometimes so scary to "come out" as an atheist that one person interviewed for this piece requested anonymity.
This Oklahoma atheist, a 28-year-old, female TU grad, was raised Methodist. "Growing up, I was pretty heavily involved in my church's youth group," she wrote in an email. "When I was about 16, I began thinking more about the doubts or concerns I had about religion. ... I don't think it was until at some point as an undergrad that I really started to identify as an atheist."
She didn't point to a negative experience or single moment of realization. For our anonymous source, it wasn't so much a crisis of faith as a gradual realization that she never believed what she was taught in the first place. "I don't think I ever had faith in God, so the only change was coming to terms with and realizing that fact," she wrote.
She said her atheism does not affect her on a daily basis. She may not pray, but lots of believers don't pray. She said that she finds what she called "platitudes" annoying, but not debilitating. "For example, I had a lot of people in professional positions tell me to 'have a blessed day' rather than just goodbye or have a good day. I learned to smile and nod," she wrote.
Nevertheless, our anonymous source has worried that her non-religion could have negative job or career implications. She has felt like she can't talk about her lack of faith the way other business leaders and politicians frequently invoke their faith in God as inspiration. "[E]ven working for a particularly socially liberal organization in Tulsa, because I had a public job, I knew I couldn't be open or vocal about my atheism for fear of offending my boss or board members," she wrote.
Certainly that is a unique challenge atheists face. Christians and others can speak openly about their belief in God in social settings, as long as they're not perceived as going overboard. It probably would not be controversial for a Christian to say publicly, "My faith is important to me." (Some of the implications may be controversial, of course.) But atheists can have a harder time receiving acknowledgement that their non-belief is important as well.
Our anonymous source indicated fear for her social acceptance as well as for her career prospects. She said that when most people ask her The Question, she doesn't say she is an atheist. Instead she says she is not very religious. "It feels safer to me because there are a lot of extremely negative connotations associated with the label 'atheism,'" she wrote. "A few years ago I read a poll or study that said something like most Americans marked atheists behind rapists on a scale of trustworthiness. That broke my heart. I feel like I'm a person of good character."
In her experience, however, some people will only see her beliefs and not her good actions. "I know firsthand that it can change the way some people think about you ... or treat you," she wrote.
Nevertheless, certain areas of Tulsa can be more accommodating to nonbelievers than others. "For my entire decade in Tulsa, I pretty much stayed within my little midtown triangle of TU, downtown, and Brookside. This felt like it was just about the most liberal group of people and businesses in all of Oklahoma," she wrote. "But even there ... there were frequently times when I knew I needed to just smile and nod whenever religion was mentioned."
Another local atheist, Jessica Criswell, 28, agreed that public atheism can have negative consequences at work. Even if she has no fear for her job security, she said that the prevalence of Christianity can lead to trouble. "I feel very uncomfortable as an atheist in this setting," she wrote in an email.
More disturbing, Criswell -- who teaches in a public elementary school -- said some of her Christian co-workers behave in an unprofessional manner. "I have been directly asked by a co-worker, 'Are you a Christian?' At work! I have also walked into a classroom while the teacher was reading Bible stories to the class," she wrote.
According to Criswell, closed-minded forms of Christianity can affect the ability of some teachers to do their job. "I have heard a teacher talking about how she didn't want to communicate with the parents of a child because they were lesbians and she didn't support that lifestyle," she wrote.
It's not a matter in which religious teachers bite the bullet and deal with uncomfortable situations. Rather, Criswell believes it is the non-Christians who have to make compromises, possibly to the detriment of students. "We have an increasing number of non-Christian families with children in our schools, and they often feel public schools do not accommodate them," she wrote.
One potential solution is to adopt a more open-minded approach to religion. This was the thinking of the Tulsa City Council when it began to encourage persons from a variety of traditions to offer the opening prayer at meetings. Petitioners are encouraged to make use of their religious beliefs rather than to offer something generic.
Dan Nerren, the first person to offer an atheist invocation at a Tulsa City Council meeting, addressed the councilors instead of God.
"Rather than bowing our heads and closing our eyes in deference, we should open our eyes widely to face the reality that confronts us, without losing sight or our ideals of what we could achieve," Nerren said at the beginning of the Aug. 30 council meeting, according to KRMG.
That prayer could be perceived as the same problem from the opposite perspective: an atheist acting confrontational without intending it, offending those who disagree.
But Nerren, a former railroader worker, is not a confrontational person. He is a kindly retiree married to a church-going Methodist. He was raised Southern Baptist. As a teenager in the mid-'60s, he worked at a Baptist camp in New Mexico. Every night at camp he listened to a different sermon. "I think maybe the doubts started ... because I heard many sermons out there," he said. "I noticed their [the preachers'] behavior didn't always coincide with what they were preaching."
He became an atheist in college. Like our anonymous source, he cannot quite pinpoint when he stopped believing in God, but credits his studies for solidifying his non-belief. "I think the ideas I was exposed to [in college] had a great deal to do with the transition," he said.
In 1988, he co-founded the Humanist Association of Tulsa. Several years later, he began setting up local atheist meet-up groups. Nerren said Tulsa atheists were able to connect with each other because of the "effect of the Internet on free thought ... we started growing." Regular meetings can attract upwards of 40 people.
Discomfort with Tulsa's religious culture is a common discussion topic in atheist meet-ups. "We usually start off with how bad things are," Nerren said. Conversations often drift into politics. The mostly liberal atheists have no shortage of grievances there either, according to Nerren.
Unlike the younger atheists who were interviewed, Nerren never had difficulties talking religion at work. "I didn't have a problem at work," he said. "I had some good conversations ... But that's all it was, conversations."
This may be because, despite his strident rhetoric, he's a very approachable person. Nerren is willing to discuss what he believes (or doesn't believe) without either defensiveness or proselytizing.
Nerren is also a practicing Unitarian. He said atheists and humanists form a significant contingent of the local Unitarian community. He insisted that, despite what many people may think, atheists can be just as moral as believers. As with any basically moral person, helping others is important to Nerren.
For him, the this-world focus of Unitarianism helps. At the church service he attends, "the object is not to get your soul to Heaven; it's to help mankind on earth," he said.
All the atheists interviewed for this article -- especially Nerren -- undermined the stereotype that atheists can't or shouldn't be moral.
Theologically, this shouldn't surprise believers, especially Christians. The Bible says that God provides the same basic moral law to everyone, whether or not they believe: "[W]hen the Gentiles who do not have the law by nature observe the prescriptions of the law ... [t]hey show that the demands of the law are written in their hearts" (Romans 2:14-15). At minimum, atheists in Tulsa deserve to be judged socially by their actions, while letting God judge the state of their souls.
Still, sometimes it's hard for believers to understand why people wouldn't believe in God. Frequently this comes from a shallow understanding of what (or who) God is.
Rev. Marlin Lavanhar -- senior minister at All Souls Unitarian church -- is not an atheist, but many of his parishioners are, at least when they start attending. "I often ask people who say they are atheist, 'Tell me about the God you don't believe in, because I probably don't believe in that God either,'" he wrote in an email. "Usually people will describe a God that they learned about in a fourth grade Sunday school class or a very superficial idea of God they picked up from the culture at large."
Many of these people "eventually discover ideas about God that begin to make sense to them," Lavanhar wrote. "For this group, atheism is one stop on their journey of faith development, but with more introspection and exposure it is not their final destination."
Nevertheless, some of Lavanhar's parishioners come to the honest opinion that God doesn't exist. "These are people who do not find their inspiration for living an ethical, moral life from ideas of God or scripture, but who still have deep convictions and live principled lives," Lavanhar said.
He estimates about a quarter of the 2,000-member congregation at All Souls consider themselves atheist, agnostic, or humanist. Some Unitarian churches in Tulsa offer humanist services every week. All Souls' atheist services are Sundays at 8:30am.
"It is a service that draws inspiration for living a meaningful and principled life from history, philosophy, literature, poetry, and nature," Lavanhar wrote. "No robes, no hymns, no prayers, or scriptures. Just a relevant message, inspiring music -- jazz, classical, improvisational, and more -- and a community committed to the common good."
It may be difficult for believers to conceptualize a church service without prayer. Most religions boil down to some form of "love God and love your neighbor." This type of religious atheism drops the first half of that definition. But it helps some local atheists in their journeys to live moral lives.
A humanist church service doesn't appeal to all local atheists. "I could never wrap my mind around the idea of community or fellowship at a church where there was no shared doctrine," our anonymous source wrote. She doesn't feel the need for fellowship with other atheists. "I'm very lucky to have such open-minded people close to me. We may not agree on religion, but they still love me." (Of course, that doesn't make it easier to live in "fear that the wrong person could find out" about her non-belief.)
Nevertheless, atheist services like the one at All Souls provide an opportunity for fellowship and personal exploration.
Most of the atheists I interviewed feel defensive in Tulsa. It's as if they feel like there is an edge behind the questions Christians ask. "When I observe how judgmental and self-righteous some of these Christian teachers are, it really troubles me," Criswell wrote. While these atheists never indicated that Christians try to convert them, they do feel like they are or could be condemned because of what they (don't) believe.
Nerren was the exception. He seems to enjoy intellectual sparring with believers as much as he enjoys playing ain't-it-awful with fellow atheists.
On the one hand, it seems the younger atheists could take a page from Nerren's book. Religion is private and personal, but if it doesn't affect how one views the world (and therefore how one talks in casual conversation), it may not be much of a religion. Believers expect their religions to impact how they speak and how they live. When believers say "praise the Lord" or similar things, they are usually expressing their deepest selves, not trying to make somebody feel uncomfortable.
At the same time, many Christians in town are, shall we say, aggressive about their Christianity. For example, we remember the backlash when it became widely known that the Parade of Lights had changed its name to the Holiday Parade of Lights. Last year, devout Christians in T-Town pulled out of the official parade and staged their own, calling it a Christmas parade in order to keep Jesus in the season. (Both sides presumably had Santa.)
The spectacle continued this year. Though Christmas parade organizers said it wasn't intentional, the two parades began at the exact same time on Dec. 8.
The protestors could be accused of forgetting that Jesus would remain part of the celebration (or not) regardless of what they called the parade.
It's possible that both atheists and believers just need to lighten up, but that seems a simplistic explanation.
It's more likely that neither side does nearly enough listening.
Christians tend to congregate with other Christians socially and professionally. (It's hard not to when there are so many!) Many churches have their own schools, and many of those that don't have vibrant youth groups. These set the stage for lifelong relationships among those who believe in God -- and who believe roughly the same things about God.
Likewise, if atheists are going to broach the topic of religion at all, it is often with other atheists or skeptics. Our anonymous source said she has a close Southern Baptist friend, for example, but they usually avoid talking religion.
Both groups can fall into an echo chamber where they forget that the other group has some good reasons (and some not-so-good reasons) for believing what they do.
Both sides need to respect that sometimes the other can feel attacked. When it became known that the name of the Christmas parade was changed to the holiday parade, some Christians felt attacked. First Amendment issues aside, it is how some believers felt, and it would be wrong to call their feelings invalid.
But staging an alternate Christmas parade probably doesn't let atheists feel welcome in town either.
Put another way: Yes, it is wrong for Christians to feel social pressure to say "Happy Holidays." But it is equally wrong to say "Merry Christmas" as if expecting to be challenged.
Competing parades seems particularly distressing because it causes even more self-segregation of believers and atheists than we already have. Not only do believers and atheists talk past each other, they don't even see each other at the parade anymore!
Christians won't make many converts if they don't engage atheists, and atheists won't find cultural acceptance if they don't accept that religion is both a public and a private thing in this city. Neither side will grow -- personally, communally, or spiritually -- without interreligious conversations.
If conversations can take place without confrontation, we might move as a city toward open dialogue like the type Nerren has in his own life. He maintains friendships with people holding a variety of religious opinions while not avoiding controversial subjects. "I'm friends with a lot of [people] in my wife's church," he said.
Even if no one changes their mind, there's nothing wrong with a good conversation!
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