Rarely am I hesitant to answer the question, “what is your denomination?” (or some variation of the question). I realize I am quite lucky in this regard. (Not to mention how lucky I am that this a revelation I choose to make or not make, unlike many religious minorities whose beliefs are revealed by, for example, the clothing they wear.) Many people in the US live in circumstances where revealing their beliefs is at the very least uncomfortable but can be physically dangerous. This is so rarely an issue for me that it is easy for me to forget how often it is an issue for others.
This year traveling with Pathfinders Project has provided a stark reminder of just how uncommon my experience is. Unlike my experience in the US, these days I am usually the only nonreligious person in a group. More importantly, I am positive that most assume that I am religious almost without exception. Blessings are bestowed upon me without thought. My Sunday activities have often been directed by the closures of certain businesses due to religious services.
Yet, even with Pathfinders Project, which is an expressly humanist endeavor, this year I have rarely felt even the slightest inkling that maybe I should hide or spin the nature of my true beliefs. This was the case in Cambodia where we were working at a Buddhist pagoda everyday. This was the case in Uganda where even the public schools are parochial and built on Christian or Muslim foundations. This was the case in Ghana where we talked to alleged witches who affirmed the validity of witchcraft, even as they faithfully covered their hair for their Islamic faith. This was the case in Haiti where we didn’t work on Saturdays because the mason for our project was Seventh-Day Adventist. This was the case in Ecuador where we were stopped on the street regularly by evangelical Christians looking to add another member to their flock. This was the case in Colombia where we had trouble finding restaurants that were open for dinner on Sundays. This has been the case in Guatemala where we are working currently.
Being in Antigua, Guatemala during Lent, we were regularly waylaid by street processions carrying figures of Jesus during different parts of the passion. We could not walk around town on the weekends without encountering hundreds of men and boys dressed in royal purple robes. In the mornings many streets were closed so that alfombras (rugs) depicting Lenten scenes could be made in the middle of the street from sawdust and flowers.
Maybe I’m naive. Maybe revealing our humanist foundations was dangerous on any number of occasions on this journey and I just didn’t feel it. And there certainly have been moments I have hesitated before answering. But it wasn’t until here in Guatemala that I truly worried that the answer might have troubling consequences.
We are doing a home-stay in Antigua. The home where we are staying has angels and crosses decorating the walls. Jesus figurines and Bibles lie about the house. Every meal begins with a prayer. Here, for the first time on this trip, I honestly thought our lack of religion might be an issue. When the issue came up, I did feel it was a definite possibility that we might be sent packing.
It came up, as it often does, in a discussion about my degree, a Masters of Art in Religion. When the inevitable question arose and I answered that I am not religious, a long discussion about religious beliefs commenced. Thankfully, we were not immediately asked to leave. Our hosts started by explaining where they were coming from. Unsurprisingly, in Guatemala, they were raised Catholic. But they are not religious. They wanted to be very clear, they believe in God, they are just not religious. Though they didn’t use the term, it sounded very “spiritual-but-not-religious” to me.
At this point I was no longer worried about being kicked out. We were having a discussion. And it turned out to be one of the best interbelief discussions I’ve ever had in my life.
In my experience, which I cannot claim to be representative, those who fall in the spiritual-but-not-religious category tend toward liberal theology. Not our hosts. They don’t believe in evolution. They generally find faith in the mystery more compelling than scientific explanations. We spent a long time discussing how one can understand how the world began. They described the mystery of creation. We described the growing scientific knowledge of the big bang. I want to emphasize that I am not trying to put down their beliefs or evangelize my own. I want to emphasize how incredibly unexpected a friendly conversation between people who hold these points-of-view is.
But this was friendly. It ended with affirmations of respect for each other’s beliefs on both sides. Our hosts told us that they care only about good hearts. It was clear from their emphatic repetitions of this sentiment that they were worried that we might no longer feel welcome following this conversation.
I started by saying that I am lucky in my circumstances. I generally don’t even feel a moment’s hesitation to hide my beliefs, which is certainly not the case for many nonreligious people and religious minorities in the US and around the world. And while I’ve experienced being a minority on this trip in ways I never have before, the sum total of my experiences have been positive. If I, a nonbeliever, can have an easy and nonjudgmental conversation with people whose beliefs are so diametrically opposed to mine, perhaps there is hope.
Photos courtesy of the author.