This week I received an email from a former colleague who moved out of the country because of her husband’s job. She is missed in our office for her friendliness and her generosity in sharing her chocolate desserts. I can resist the run-of-the-mill donuts and left-over Halloween candy, but this woman’s hazelnut torte was a taste of heaven.
I worked with her for more than a year, and we took a yoga class together—my first venture into yoga. She encouraged me to take the class when I told her that my oncologist had been saying for years that yoga would be good for both my physical health and my ability to deal with stress. Because my colleague always seemed so centered, I took the class and learned from watching her and talking with her about how yoga helped her face life.
She cheered me on when I was accepted into a workshop with the editor ofNarrative Magazine, and she read the first chapters of my memoir and told me to be sure to stay in touch and let her know how my writing was going. So when I emailed her the link to my web site, I was surprised when she responded that she had passed on the link to some of her friends. Why? Because she revealed to me for the first time that she is an atheist—something I know only because she told me.
Her response really made me think. Would I have shared her web site had our positions been reversed? How many Christians do you know who would pass on a link to a site that explores the questions of atheists? And why didn’t I know that she was an atheist? She knew about my faith from my writing, but I had never asked and perhaps she had never felt comfortable sharing her own views.
I also have a family member who is an atheist. He’s a single father—a good father—of two young children. And one of my closest friends has struggled her whole life to decide whether she agrees with her parents, who taught her that no thinking person would ever believe there is a God. She is a teacher who has spent her entire career making a difference in the lives of troubled children other teachers have given up on.
These people have taught me that it takes a great deal of courage to admit to the world that one doesn’t believe in God. No matter how sterling the character of an atheist, most people fear them, disparage them, or try to convert them.
Faith, by its very nature, is a belief not based on concrete proof. And for most of us, faith is a response to what our parents taught us. We accept the beliefs of our parents because we see it in the content of their character and the example they set. We reject the faith of our fathers when we can’t reconcile what they say with the way they live. We live without much thought to faith because our parents didn’t consider it important.
So why should we feel threatened or indignant, why should we think less of a person of character because that person has rejected our belief system? We shouldn’t. I believe in God because there are too many things that have happened in my life that I just can’t chalk up to coincidence, because I have felt a Presence with me in both the joy and the muck, because I’ve seen the face of God in the people who’ve loved me and cared for me. This isn’t concrete proof, but it works for me. I chose Christianity as the lens through which I can best see God first because my parents believed in God—though one of the vengeful sort—but mostly because some of the most significant people in my life have shown me the face of God through their lives.
And while I believe in God in spite of being a victim of child abuse and facing a battle with cancer, I admit that I sometimes look at worse things that others have endured and hope I never have my faith tested in such a way. All of us have doubts about our faith, and I’m guessing that atheists do, too.
One thing is certain, though. In every way that counts, except for our views about the Eternal, my friends who are atheists are no different than I. They are people of character. And in a world where a lack of belief in God isn’t socially acceptable, they are, perhaps most of all, people of courage.
So come now, tell me stories of how your life has been enriched by someone whose faith is only in this life.