Stereotypes Broken, A Winner is Chosen


On Monday, I asked the fine readers of this here blog if a religious person had ever surprised them. Not a jump-out-and-say-boo sort of surprise, but rather the kind where a religious person acts or believes in a non-stereotypical way. I also told you that one lucky commenter would be chosen at random to win a copy of The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies — How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths by Michael Shermer.

By "random," of course, I meant that my assistant, Isabella Bird, would draw the name. Because, frankly, it felt weird drawing the name myself. And also: It was way cuter this way.

The answers I received were great!

• One of the most touching to me was Karen, who wrote about her next-door neighbor, who is a devoted member of a local mega-church.

“She invited me to her Bible Study once,” Karen said, “but I declined, and without ever having a real conversation about it, she has picked up on the fact that I don’t have a spiritual bone in my body. She is a wonderful neighbor and would do anything for me, so I was afraid her realization would hurt our friendship. To my surprise, she is just as sweet as ever, and never brings up anything religious around me. One day when her teenage son had some friends over from his youth group, and he invited my son to come over as well, my neighbor was quick to assure me that they wouldn’t be sitting around talking about church stuff. I think she goes out of her way not to make me uncomfortable in any way. She has also surprised me by being quite liberal, and sharing many of my political views. I’m sure we’ll get around to talking about religion one day, and I think it will be an interesting conversation. But right now, I am just glad to have her next door.”

• "B" told about a pastor who once contacted her regarding her opinions on religious prayer at City Hall. She assumed the pastor would try to convert her, but it was the opposite: “He surprised me by genuinely wanting to understand why I do what I do, and what led me to not ‘believe,’” she wrote. “We have since met several times, and the conversations are always interesting.”

• Elaine was able to name four people in her life whose open-mindedness has surprised her. One conservative friend, she said, “has told me she loves the fact that I know more about her Bible than she does, and that inspires her to learn more about her own beliefs.” And two Mormon friends “continuously support me, in every way” and “give me space to even discuss and ridicule their beliefs.”

• Ben said the two most religious people he knows are both people he respects: his father and a colleague. “I respect my father because of the consistency of his belief. He set up a foundational belief that God is first and the Bible is his word. Everything in his life rises and falls on that. Of course, I see this as a house of cards, but I admire his dedication and conviction. I respect my coworker for the humanity of her faith…[She] describes herself as a fundamentalist (Pentecostal) Christian. In spite of her conservative bent, she consistently surprises me with her tolerance and concern for others.”

• Lisa told a fantastic story about how her mother never experienced “faith” so much as she experienced “knowledge.” There wasn’t a part of her that doubted the existence of God or Jesus, or her relationship with them both. As a result, church was a place she went to be with God, not to prove herself to God — or anyone else. "She would sometimes nap during the sermon and when nudged by one of her four children would say, ‘I’m here for God. I can sleep during the sermon.’”

• Annie Neugebauer learned that you can’t tell a book buy it’s cover, or a man by his tattoo. She said she once met a guy with a “religious” tattoo but later found out he doesn’t believe in organized religion at all, but rather “faith and personal study.”

• Melissa said she is constantly surprised by a Christian missionary named Jamie Wright who writes a blog from her home in Costa Rica.You can find it at Perusing some of Jamie's old blogs, I found this paragraph:

“When I get out of the car and am walking up to the entrance of Target, it makes me physically happy. Like, I get this full feeling in my chest, and I get a little pep in my step, and by the time I get to the door a smile has spread across my face.”

That's when I knew, despite our vast religious differences, that she is my people.

Not all surprises, though, were of the pleasant variety.

• Michael Barton shared a sad story about a friend of his who ended their relationship over a Facebook remark.

"A long-time friend and I would always have interesting conversations about religion, I knowing he was a very devout Christian and he knowing I was an atheist. I thought it was great that he was interested in learning more about evolution. And understanding the viewpoints of non-believers. He moved on to Texas for school and I to Montana, and we stayed connected through Facebook, chatting all the time and commenting on each other’s posts. In 2010 (I think), when the National Day of Prayer was big in the news, I had made a comment about it on his page (responding to something he posted about it), and he basically said 'That’s it, Michael. We’re done.' And I haven’t heard from him since. It hurt. We had known each other for over a decade."

• John Holmes made a really intersting observation, too. He agreed that people may be incredible diverse in how they feel about and act on faith, but when they choose to belong to an organized religion, they must take “some responsibility for what religion does in their name. The fact that they don’t take everything in their religion literally doesn’t absolve them of this responsibility.”

John speaks from experience.

“My Catholic wife is always telling me that I should stop focusing so much on the negative things the priests say, but I am concerned that my children hear all the bad things, too.”

Thanks everyone so much for your excellent comments!

And now for the winner.

As it's important to me to do things as traditionally as possible, I pulled down my bowler from the hat rack and put all your names on slips of paper to be jostled about playfully. But, as I soon found out, my assistant was totally not into that. Which she let me know by flying off the table and damn-near ramming her face into the wall. So instead, we decided to put all the names out on the table and let her choose from the pile. She did a great job, too, especially if you're Lisa — because that's whose name she picked out and then shredded to pieces.

Congrats, Lisa! Send me an e-mail, letting me know if you’d like a hardcover or Kindle copy, and all the pertinent info. I’ll get it out to you today!

Has a Religious Person Ever Surprised You?

If there’s anything I've learned from this blog so far, it’s that no two nonbelievers are exactly the same. Each of us brings to the table so many different experiences, philosophies and opinions. Trying to generalize us is simply not possible. Yet we nonreligious types have a tendency to generalize, too. I would love to do one of those free-association tests on atheists. I'd say "religious people," and they'd say the first words that came to mind. What do you think the words would be? It seems more likely, doesn't it, that atheist brains would produce words like "illogical" and "indoctrination" before words like "faith" and "dedicated?"

Unfortunately, tapping a well of negative connotations every time we hear the word "religious" isn't just close-minded; it harms our ability to teach our kids tolerance.

The truth is, there are so many different kinds of beliefs and believers out there. They vary not just in the kind of God or prophet or world view they follow, but also in how they express, use, mold and justify their beliefs. What's more, people may subscribe to certain religions for a host of different reasons, and prefer a pick-and-choose system of belief over a dogmatic one.

I know a Catholic who doesn't believe in the virgin birth, and another Catholic who believes all good people — Christians and non-Christians alike — go to heaven. These are not exactly traditional Catholic ideas. In fact, they run directly counter to traditional Catholic ideas. Yet both these individuals are dedicated to their faith. They attend mass regularly; they have relationships with their priests. Both of these believers are true Catholics. It's just that they also happen to be able to think for themselves.

My grandmother always said there are three things you shouldn't discuss in polite company: sex, politics and religion. These days, it seems, people feel more comfortable discussing sex and politics at dinner parties. But religion? Not so much. When was the last time you questioned someone about their beliefs? Not out of anger or a desire to argue, but out of friendly curiosity and a desire to learn? I don't think many people could answer affirmatively; as a result, we're all left with far more assumptions than knowledge.

Through the last year, I've arrived at the theory that no two people on the planet believe exactly the same things in exactly the same way. That each person's religion, like each fingerprint, is a one-of-a-kind.

I wonder if you've observed this, too. Has a religious person has surprised you? Why? What did he or she do or say to break the image you had formed in your head? Was the new information positive in nature or negative? Did it improve or damage the image?

And to encourage you [lazy bastards!] to answer: On Thursday, I'll randomly pick a name from among the commenters and send the lucky winner a copy of The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies — How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths by Michael Shermer (either hardcover or Kindle edition — whichever you prefer.)

Now go!


Update: Seen your answers here!