I’ve gotten used to extreme reactions from strangers.

Introductory small-talk is typically a formulaic, risk-averse practice. For me, though, it has been a bit like navigating a minefield. I remember a period in my life where I dreaded these seemingly innocuous interactions, and one dreaded phrase in particular: “So, what do you do for a living?”

For just over five years, I worked for an atheist organization, wheose mission was to support the work of campus atheist groups. For most of that time, I worked in the field, traveling as a sort of godless desperado through the American south, bouncing from one college campus to the next. What I “did for a living” was, particularly for the region, politically-charged, divisive, and taboo.

When that question came up, I always had a choice: I could opt to go vague, and say that I “do nonprofit work” or “do leadership consulting.” Or, if I was feeling a gambler’s itch, I could go fully transparent, and divulge the truth: “I do leadership training and advising for non-religious student organizations. It is kind of like Campus Crusade for Christ, but for atheists and agnostics, and without the proselytizing (if you can imagine it).”
If I went with the latter option, there was always some hang time: usually just a fraction of a second between my statement and the stranger’s processing of it. That second would dilate into eons. Then, there would be a distinct moment when their face would transform – their mouths would sort of flatten, the skin on their face would tighten. I had breached the great social taboo: delving into one or more of the forbidden subjects of sex, politics, or religion. More often than not, their tone and body language would go tense and terse, and the conversation would end there. I never had someone get exothermically angry at me, beyond a passive fuming and a reddening face, but in those cases, the toxic atmosphere was palpable, and thoroughly uncomfortable.

There was a good reason that I didn’t always err on the side of ambiguity in those social situations, despite the potential negative reactions. I remember one particular instance that has stuck with me: I was at an I-65 exit in Cullman, AL, making a late drive to Tuscaloosa from Huntsville. It was close to midnight , and I was coming off of an immensely long day. My brain was just frazzled enough that I had forgotten that I was wearing a t-shirt that read “ALABAMA ATHEISTS AND AGNOSTICS” in bold lettering (not so much a political statement as a decision to throw on the nearest, cleanest t-shirt a few hours prior). As I was pumping gas, I noticed that a man was approaching me from across the lot. I remember his gait being distinctly purposeful, like he had direct marching orders to my precise location. When he got within a couple of feet of me, he stopped. We made eye contact.

“I’m going to be right back, and I’m going to ask you about that shirt.”

The man darted into the gas station. There were a few ways that I could see this scenario unfolding that were…less than ideal. As I rushed to put my gas cap back on, plotting my escape, the man reappeared.

“So…are you an atheist?”

If Ghostbusters taught me anything, it is that you have to be careful with loaded, dichotomous questions. Given my t-shirt, though, I figured I already had my chips on the table.

“I’m kind of an atheist and an agnostic? It depends on your definitions.”

Here’s the “hang time.” This second, between my statement and his reaction, was maybe the longest second of my life thus far. In that second, rocks weathered to sand. Stars formed, burned brightly, and flared out. Coals became diamonds.

“That’s awesome, man! I’m a Wiccan. I never see anyone that isn’t a Christian around here. It’s tough.”

These moments are why I would take the gamble to be transparent: in a fraction of those small-talk interactions, being open about my religious identity would spark a light in a stranger’s eyes, an unexpected jolt of joy and bonding. It was an instant connection to an unexpected kindred spirit. This is one of the oddities of having an invisible identity: you can’t recognize your fellows.

Violating the social taboo of discussing religion or belief can be a source of empathy-building and cultural learning across traditions, but it can also be a source of immense relief within them. In my years of interfaith and secular work, I’ve never seen more overjoyed people than those from a worldview minority who have finally found a group of like-minded folks. For people without the privilege of a house of worship for their worldview, those interactions are invaluable. I think about that Cullman Wiccan sometimes; I put on that t-shirt, he chose to ask about it, and both of our days were improved. Taboos are made for breaking.

I don’t work for an atheist organization anymore, so it has been a while since that question, “So, what do you do?” has been the conversation flashpoint that it once was for me. However, I still strive to be open about my non-religious identity through my current interfaith work at Vanderbilt University. I know just how valuable interfaith spaces are, because they lift the social taboo of speaking about religion. In interfaith spaces, I’ve never had to worry about people’s negative reactions to my worldview identity (like I did with most of those casual conversations in the wild). At the same time, interfaith spaces offer a conduit for positive interactions between those of minority worldviews, just like that brief, late-night gas station conversation I had with a Wiccan in Cullman, AL. Campuses, as exploratory and social spaces, should be hubs for these kinds of identity conversations among students and professionals, and that culture should thrive and be supported institutionally.

That purpose, to bring people together across disparate worldview lines for the common good, is what has historically drawn me to interfaith work, what draws me to the field of higher education, and what particularly inspires my involvement with Convergence – there’s no organization better suited to ingraining interfaith and inter-worldview understanding into the fiber of higher education institutions.

Gordon Maples is a Master’s student in Higher Education Administration at Vanderbilt University, where he works as a Graduate Assistant for the Office of the University Chaplain and Religious Life.

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