Yesterday I was at Charleston's Blue Jamboree, where too few Democrats turned out to hear some very exciting candidates. One young man was particularly stirring. He is smart and heartfelt, and it would do us proud to elect him in November. But he ended his remarks by asking us ALL to pray for him. Well, I plan on doing my part, but praying is not included. Many of you know that I am an atheist. Over the years, as I have felt more and more bombarded with Christian "goodwill" I have felt it incumbent to let others know how they can stop treating us as nonentities.
So when he was done, I went to the young candidate and waited to speak. He turned to me and went to hug me, a little, round white haired lady who surely wanted a hug. I said to him, "I think you're great, and I hope you get elected, but I want you to know this: I am a good person and a strong Democrat, but I am an atheist, so I won't be praying for you. I hope you'll remember that next time you speak." He recovered nicely and I patted his arm, and walked away.
I felt really good about speaking up for myself, and for those of us who are of the atheist "persuasion." But when I got home, I began to feel... guilty. I'm sure I put him on the spot, and I'm sure he misunderstood, and I could have just not said anything....
But here's the thing. Even well meaning Christians, and you know who you are, often forget that the rest of us (non-Christian and non-religious alike) are out there. Here in the south, I've gone to town meetings where they skipped the Pledge of Allegiance, but said The Lord's Prayer. I know those blowhards in the Supreme Court believe they have gotten where they are through God's grace (How else would idiots like Clarence Thomas and Sammy Alito have gotten on the bench without a miracle?), but I maintain that I can get through a day without being blessed by the person at the Dollar Store checkout counter.
What atheists have that religious folk should aspire to is an awareness of our boundaries, and a respect for the feelings of others. That tends to be our strength and our weakness. Because of all things, I would feel guilty about informing this young politician that I don't pray. And yet, had he not emphasized that he wanted ALL our prayers, I may well not have said anything.
But the fact that we atheists do not believe in god or gods does not mean we don't "believe" or "have faith." I was disgruntled when President Obama, in a rather lame attempt to reach out to his atheist supporters referred to us as "non-believers." We believed in democracy and in his goodness enough to get out and vote for him. We had faith that once elected he would mostly work to do the right thing.
I am frankly tired of being silent while Christians assume we should have school prayer, and offer prayers at public meetings. Praying doesn't indicate a good person any more than wearing a flag pin defines a good American. We tolerate all the references to Christianity throughout our lives, and at the same time all the whining about how Christians feel left out. But that minimizes us. Atheists should not accept being minimized by our teachers, our employers, our candidates, our government.
Women and minorities are minimized in much the same way; our beliefs and needs are not seen as being equal. When we confront those who neglect or control us, we are told we are overreacting. We are not.
So with all due respect, you politicians need to find a different way to ask for our support than "pray for me." I respect that prayer is an important part of your life, but it is not a part of mine. That does not make me irrelevant or wrong.
When I first moved to the South, I was really thrown by people who end an interaction by saying, "Have a blessed day." It made me angry that they would just assume I would want them to bless me. Later, I tried to toss it off by thinking that I should reply, "Wow. I didn't know you had that power." But now I just try to ignore it, because I don't want to waste that emotional energy being outraged at someone who doesn't know any better. But there are some who need to know, because in the end, they will make decisions that affect me.
So it comes down to the fact that I had to speak out and to this candidate I say: I hope you are the person I think you are, and that my comment will give you a little insight into others who think differently about life than you. And that you will recognize that we are all here, trying to do the best that we can.