I have two dear friends who are atheists. Though I wouldn't have thought it would be so, we have a lot to talk about when it comes to religion and spirituality. This pair of lovely people may not hold the same beliefs I do, but they are genuine in their desire to understand why I believe the things I do, and I am open enough to share my thoughts on the matter. (In other words, they are nice enough not to tell me to shut up.) Happily, we can hold vastly different ideas about how the world is structured and find enough common ground to grin at the other people and say "How fascinating your mind is!" when we come to different conclusions in discussion, and no one gets their feelings hurt.
However, this is rare. I don't discuss religion with a lot of people, simply because it is one of those things that most people just can't help but take personally. It's understandable, especially if you're talking with one of those folk who haven't closely examined their own beliefs. Having someone else question them can be disconcerting, if not alarming, and quickly devolves into fights. Which is exactly what happened in my mom-group recently. On an online forum where several of us have accounts, a couple of religious discussions got out of hand, defenses and hackles were raised, and a minor fight ensued. I was (so so so happily) not involved, but having observed them, a few interesting elements occurred to me.
The first is, this is why I don't discuss delicate topics on the internet. I am as guilty as the next person of typing furiously to post a comment on some forum, all wound up and twisted. And when my husband asks me what is up, I respond "SOMEONE'S WRONG ON THE INTERNET!" and continue typing like a mad woman. It always ends badly. But we all do it. And sometimes, it actually is a whole lot of fun to be a snarky twerp when another poster is being truly ludicrous.
The second is that as a pagan, it's difficult to find other children for my kids to play with whose parents share similar worldviews with me. I love my atheist friends for this. I don't have to mince words with them, remembering to say "Easter" instead of "Ostara," "Halloween" instead of "Samhain." I can go ahead and pagan-out. They might have to ask "What the hell is an athame?" but at least when I tell them, they'll shrug and go "Whatever, hippie" instead of getting weirded out. And we can carry happily on in our discussion while our kids throw mud and chase dogs.
But why is that? Why can I, with my happy-go-lucky paganism, frequently and comfortably debate spirituality with two flaming atheists, when many people whose beliefs are fairly close together fail to discuss religion peacefully? I think the problem is wound up in the word "belief." My ideas are fluid; they're more a collection of theories than a solid belief system. I don't have a hierarchy to follow, a priest and church to support, historical documents to refer to and so forth. I just feel like this view of the world makes sense to me. It's how I think it all works.
Christianity - and the other major religions too, for that matter - is more dependent upon a house-of-cards type structure of belief. And it HAS to be belief, mind you, not just shifting ideas that are constantly revised and expanded based upon individual experience. In order to believe in Jesus Christ as the son of God, as a Christian, one must also believe that Jesus died for the sins of mankind. In order to believe that, one must also believe that it was necessary for Jesus to pay the debt for man's sinfulness, and furthermore, that man is inherently sinful. Take away any one of those standard beliefs - the sinful nature of man, the exacting judgment of God, the forgiveness of sins through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, resurrection and eternal life - and the whole theology falls apart. It's really a remarkably intricate and complex system. This is not meant as a criticism, mind you - simply an observation on how different the Christian world view is from my own. It's a whole different type of structure.
All of which, I think, contributes to the flavor of religious discussion. Questioning the basis of my paganism gives me a chance to expound at length upon my theories and how I came to them. My atheist buddies aren't attacking me personally when they ask me to explain part of my religion, they're looking to understand it better. And the ideas in my version of paganism are not so hard and fast that I could not change my mind if they stopped making sense. With a structured religion, change is a much bigger deal. Shaking each card in the aforementioned house of cards to see just how sturdy they are can make people very nervous. No wonder it leads to so many fights on the internet - and elsewhere.
That is one thing that I had not considered before that I am happy to be able to share with my children - the capacity for change in belief. Because it's not belief, not really, not so essential that what we think about the nature of the universe is true, just that it makes sense to us and is useful in the moment. Naturally I would like for the little ones to grow up identifying with paganism the way I have, because I think it's a healthy, relatively realistic and logical system, good for the soul. Also, I think I'm right. But more than anything, I want them to be able to examine their own beliefs and, if they find flaws, to also find the strength to change. Hopefully, one side effect of raising them with this view on religion is that they will be able to discuss religion with other people in a compassionate, rational fashion. It's a hard topic to address, and is likely to be a factor in many of their relationships, like it has been for me.
I think I will also teach them not to argue about religion on the internet.
About the Author: Julie Cox is a new pagan writer and artist who lives with her two young children and husband in Texas. She carries degrees in both Art and Religion. To see more of Julie's artwork go to Shopping and Art gallery on our main menu.