Atheism in the house of God

One thing that still befuddles me, years after leaving the church, is when to go back and what to do while I’m there. That is, when friends or family are involved in serious events — basically weddings and funerals — ceremonies that tend to be religious in execution, but human in nature. (On a side note, if you’d like to invite me to your confirmation or bar mitzvah, I’ll gladly and personally congratulate you on your coming of age at the reception. I hope you have cake.)

But anyway, at the happy or somber occasions I find myself in church, there’s a lot of group participation that I’m not sure if I should participate in, or how much. Having attended many funerals as an altar boy, I remember how the priest, at communion time, would explain that communion itself (taking what they hold to be the body and blood of Jesus) was strictly for the Catholics, but everyone else was free to come up for a blessing. That’s about all the priest had to do to cover a mixed audience…of Christians…who could easily pray their own prayers, too, if their personal theologies differed from Catholic verse and creed. And to a certain extent this works if you’re Jewish, or Hindu, or believe in at least one deity.

What does this atheist do, though? Typically it seems acceptable to listen attentively and respectfully, and bow my head when directed; I’ll even try to make use of those moments to reflect on philosophy or religion. I felt better about some of my non-participation when I embraced the joke that the Catholics don’t sing, either; and they tend to murmur the prayers, if at all. Mrmm, hmmnnmrghm, amen. You can’t hear my silence in their quietude. I maintain my inconspicuity at Catholic churches by knowing when to sit, stand, and kneel (I usually sit for that, these days), and in other churches, I’m just another befuddled outsider doing my best to follow along. Ho hum, that boy must be Presbyterian.

There are situations this doesn’t really work, though. About a month ago I was a groomsman to one of my friends, who married his wife in a Catholic church. So I wasn’t the focus, but definitely was up in front of a couple hundred people, and wracking my brain to mesh my quiet nonbelief with flowing with the ceremony. Time to bow my head, I can work with that. Sign of peace, this hippie is definitely down with that. Um, the priest is asking us to say amen. Do I say amen? How loud?

I mostly mumbled. Imagine that, Catholic after all! Heheh.

Some amens, of course, are different from others. An amen can mean “Yes, heavenly father,” or it can be more of a, “Hear, hear,” in which case I’m pretty okay with echoing the enrobed MC.

If I have any readers yet, I have to wonder if someone already has a methodology figured out for times like these: How do you handle attending a service at a church of another faith, or, if you’re atheist, what do you do at a religious service, period? Where do you compromise (where do you draw the line?) and how much do you participate?


National Coming Out Day 2010

Today marks the 23rd annual National Coming Out Day! Quick history: NCOD is held on the anniversary of the 1987 March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, which included the first time the massive AIDS Memorial Quilt was displayed:



NCOD is not, really, the concrete deadline to tell the world about your orientation or identity. Coming out — to yourself, to some, to everyone — is gradual, and it happens when it’s important; if you don’t have your speech prepared today, you don’t need to spend the next 365 writing and revising. Today is an occasion for LGBTQ people and their allies to congratulate the people who have decided to come out, to support those who someday wish to, and to make safe that first step out of the closet and into the world at large.

In Omaha, tonight we’re having a picnic in the park to celebrate the occasion. Tomorrow morning, UNO’s Gender and Sexual Orientation Student Agency (GSO) is bringing in speakers and sponsoring a simple open-mic event for people to share and listen to coming out stories. Obviously, participation is optional, but if you’re passing the student center’s Fireplace Lounge between 11 and 12:30, stop by and have a listen. I’ll be there, ’cause I’m skipping class. 🙂

There are lots of people who question the need to come out, to declare your orientation or your gender identity to the world. And some, I agree, really don’t “need” to come out, being comfortable with who they are, not considering it a big deal, not feeling hindered or silenced. Think of all the conversations we have about crushes and dates and spouses, though; if you’re a man dating another man, these simple conversations can be off-limits. Joining in means coming out to your social group; sometimes, not joining in makes them suspect your orientation, or at least a lack of sexual prowess. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Everyone who comes out — even as an ally — contributes to the realization that LGBTQ people, though a minority, are a valid one; it brings normalcy and respect to their social interactions and legal rights. And if you’re an ally, coming out also normalizes the idea that people can be LGBTQ allies without being LGBTQ themselves. This is important (think of the schoolyard). And right now, it seems very important.

Stealing Harvey Milk quotes:

Gay brothers and sisters,… You must come out. Come out… to your parents… I know that it is hard and will hurt them but think about how they will hurt you in the voting booth! Come out to your relatives… come out to your friends… if indeed they are your friends. Come out to your neighbors… to your fellow workers… to the people who work where you eat and shop… come out only to the people you know, and who know you. Not to anyone else. But once and for all, break down the myths, destroy the lies and distortions. For your sake. For their sake. For the sake of the youngsters who are becoming scared by the votes from Dade to Eugene. (June 25th, 1978)

But if you’re queer, I don’t think you have a duty to your people to come out, and I don’t think you should unless you want to and you feel you’re ready. There are many people who have and are paving the road for you, so there’s no deadline and the consequences are fewer and more positive. NCOD is a time to cheer for the people who are out, for them and everyone to cheer for everyone who isn’t, and for a few people, it is their coming-out day. For everyone involved, good luck and enjoy it!

What pronoun do you look like?

Having somehow become the leader of a modest student organization, I like to have introductions or name games to start things off. It’s kind of important that people get to know each other in a social club, and without constant reinforcement, I really can’t remember names. You, meanwhile, don’t want to realize your club president can’t call you by name two months into fall semester.

To elaborate, my (awesome!) group is UNO‘s Queers & Allies, which welcomes the whole spectra of sexual orientations and sex and gender identities. To expand: lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, questioning, asexual, straight allies; transgender, genderqueer, gender-questioning, intersex, cissex allies, cisgender allies — and variations and combinations galore.

If you know anyone who’s come out as trans or genderqueer, you’ve probably rolled right along in a conversation about that person until you suddenly stopped to think — he, or she? This is such an unusual question when you’re used to just guessing pronouns based on names, looks, voices. When it comes down to it, though, it really is a guessing game, because one’s sex is out in the open, but gender is all in the mind — and not your mind, either.

Inquiring, “What pronouns do you prefer?” is the best way to get in his, or her, or zir, head. Sometimes you’ll even find out someone isn’t sure how to be called yet, or how to be called today, or tomorrow. Male pronouns? Female? Both? Neither? Strictly neutral? The common human will look at you funny for not knowing his or her nature, but for a not so small minority it’s polite and it’s appreciated.

This background aside, as the good little social matchmaker I am, I ask for and practice names, but I also ask for and practice pronouns. This is harder, because when I don’t know names, I’m just lost; but when I don’t know pronouns, my first instinct is to look and listen and judge from there. I have to override this instinct for my trans and genderqueer friends — which shows how silly it is to use your outside observation to conceptualize any other person’s gender.

The good news is that, just like the names, remembering the right pronouns comes over time. In the meantime (this is a tip), I talk about my friends, pronouns and all, in my head before a meeting or a meet-up. It takes work, but it’s less work than phrasing all my sentences so that I avoid any pronouns beyond “I,” “you,” and “they.” Sounds better, too.

For the record: My name is Jon, and male pronouns are fine, thanks for asking. Good to meet you.