I’ll never forget the first time I came out to a stranger. Another mom trapped with me at a first grade Halloween parade. I think I was driven to honesty by sheer boredom; coming out was like biting the inside of my cheek to keep myself from nodding off. The topic was preschools. When I mentioned a synagogue school I had avoided, I explained, “too religious. We were raised Jewish but we don’t believe in God or anything.”
“You mean you’re atheists?” I nodded. She marveled: “I’ve never met an atheist before!”
When I wrote last week that I wanted to be braver about outing myself in casual conversation, I may not have been totally clear. I didn’t mean responding to “Gorgeous day, isn’t it?” with “God has nothing to do with it!” That would be obnoxious. “And how do you know the bride?” “Well, I didn’t meet her at church since I’m an atheist!” Not believing in God is neither all I do with my day, nor the only subject I can discuss.
“Definitely not a supreme being!”
When I am trying to be brave, I am simply making myself give the true answer. In the Halloween Parade Conversation of 2006, the question was, “Why not the Ohav Shalom nursery school?” I took a chance that day and gave the true answer: that I didn’t want my kids spending a significant portion of their week learning prayers.
The response I got—“I’ve never met an atheist before!”—wasn’t negative, but it was depressing. I mean, of course I’m not the first atheist this highly educated professional woman had met; I’m just the first who was honest about it.
There’s a risk in being honest, I know—that’s why it makes my cheeks flush and my stomach clench. But the rewards can be remarkable. Surprisingly often, when I find the courage to be honest, I get honesty right back: people telling me what they really believe. Like that nice doctor down in Virginia who said he liked his church but didn’t cotton to the anti-scientific Bible stories. Like the mom of my daughter’s friend who said she didn’t like her church, but wanted to give her daughter something to soothe her fear of death.
Like my son’s teacher, who frowned at me when I told him I was writing about raising atheist kids. Shaking his head in disapproval, he told me that in not giving Jesse religion, I was wrongfully denying my child “something ridiculous to reject.”
We all go around—me included—assuming everyone else is a believer. I’ll bet every atheist except Richard Dawkins and Bill Maher knows someone who thinks she’s never met an atheist before. I’ll bet every atheist in America feels sometimes like he is the only atheist in the room. But he won’t know the truth until he tells the truth.
And what happened after I applied the conversational defibrillator to our afternoon among the Disney princesses? What havoc did my honesty wreak? As far as I can remember, she told me about her conversion to Judaism and her children’s religious education. I told her about my upbringing and my Jewish wedding. And then we discussed . . . the reemergence of Star Wars characters in the Halloween lineup.
I mean, I can talk about other things . . .