(slightly edited 18th june 2009)
A strongly religious friend of mine recently wrote me, in kindness, that she understood I was not the first to decide to stop following God. This may have been the only way she knew how to express something she wanted to raise with me and maybe she had no awareness of how judgmental, pejorative, such a statement really is. Did I really knowingly, with arrogance or bitterness, turn my back on a great divine power, regardless of whether I thought such a phenomenon was worthy of worship or not? Yet that’s clearly what is implied.
Because I wanted to find a way to keep our friendship on an even keel over time, I replied that no, there was no question of my choosing not to follow God, but rather, that after much study and thought, I realized the only way I could be honest with myself, and true to the best lights I had sought out, was to no longer accept the existence of God. I concluded that each of us has to walk according to the lights we have, and we are all at different places in our life’s journey.
To recast that decision, that at the time was for me a matter of integrity, and even at the time involved considerable personal cost, into an assertion that “I chose to no longer follow God”, is judgmental.
I do not address my believing friends by telling them they are superstitious, or deceived, or too closed minded and fearful to investigate their faith rationally. To do so would of course be, well, rude and judgmental. I might think such things in a general sense of many believers, but there’s a difference between addressing these issues in a general or public way on the one hand, and in addressing friends in normal day-to-day getting along on the other.
If my religious friends wish to preach a jeremiad, let them do so on a street corner or from a soapbox in a park or at their keyboards. But to bring in the pejorative language when communicating with friends only runs the risk of losing those friends over time.
Maybe part of me is becoming more sensitive as a result of living in truly multi-cultural and multi-religious Singapore. The only people I have heard of here in the news (where Buddhists and Hindus and Moslems and Christians truly do rub shoulders daily, and where the State has even decreed national holidays for each of the religions’ holy days) who have gotten into trouble over their religious practices are a couple Christians who were penalized by the courts for distributing offensive literature to peoples of other faiths (especially Moslems).
By no means do I recommend Singapore as a model society for others to follow, yet nor can I deny the good things about Singapore. There is something very encouraging about living in a society where, for most part, the different religious and ethnic groups do generally express respect, even harmony, living and working together. At least publicly there is no sign of pejorative statements made against one another. The government even has a positive option for atheists or any nonreligious people who have to fill out official forms identifying their religious status: “Freethinker”.
Now that might be the better way to approach my friend next time the pejorative language emerges. “Nope, officially you are a Christian, she’s a Buddhist, he’s a Moslem or Hindu, while I’m a Freethinker”.
In a three-way discussion with my friend, I did ask our other colleague if she was also a Christian. She replied, No, I’m a Freethinker! It has a very nice positive ring to it.