On a recent post Donna (aka writerdd) made this comment:
As I said on skepchick recently, it’s important to remember that most fundies “are not the evil, bigoted fools portrayed by the media. Although these people do exist, primarily as hypocritical leaders who care more about power or money than they care about spirituality or charity, the layperson sitting in the pew is much more likely to be sincere and compassionate, with a burning desire to please God and to help humanity.”
In the interest of encouraging more of these sorts of friendly reflections on the fact that most people we disagree with (whether that is theists or atheists) are usually not actually bad people, I thought I’d highlight a recent essay in Newsweek that caught my attention. Entitled “A Simple Twist of Faith”, it’s by an atheist or agnostic woman (she doesn’t specify), Theresa Gonzalez, who describes her process of trying to understand her younger sister’s (Kristen) commitment to evangelical Christianity. The essay doesn’t focus on all her points of disagreement with her sister, but rather on her concerns for her sister, and also on how many of her stereotypes of conservative Christians have turned out to be mistaken in her sister’s case.
I was completely opposed to my mother’s decision [to homeschool Kristen], expressing this whenever I could. My arguments: This will isolate her from her peers. She‘ll grow up to be awkward and antisocial. She will lack the education needed to go on to college. I was even more adamantly opposed when my mother placed her in a Christian private school four years later. Shelly and I were considered Roman Catholic growing up, but I can’t remember going to church more than five or six times in my life. I was afraid Kristen wouldn’t learn about other cultures and religious faiths and would become intolerant; the fundamentalism of evangelicals seemed so extreme, so exclusive, to me…
I was slow to accept Kristen’s strong faith in God, believing it was just a phase. When she told me she wanted to go to a Christian college, I realized I had been kidding myself. And again I was filled with concern. I was certain prospective employers would label her a religious fanatic and not see the intelligent and talented person I proudly call my sister.
However, Theresa eventually came to realize that many of her fears were unfounded:
By the time she decided to go to Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, I had learned to keep my opinions to myself. It became more apparent that I needed to trust her decisions and let her make mistakes, if that was what this indeed was; after all, she had proved me wrong in the past. My concerns about her being home-schooled turned out to be totally ill founded. She’s the most well adjusted and self-assured person I know, and she has been able to build many great friendships. At her Sweet 16 party, I was surprised at how Kristen, shaking her hips and waving her arms over her tiara like a teenage queen, jumped on the DJ stage with such confidence that Shelly and I looked at each other in amazement. Who was this kid? The generation gap was clear. Even the boys hit the dance floor with enthusiasm. I’d gone to a school where boys were too cool to get excited about anything and I acted more as observer than active participant at school dances.
I had always thought of Kristen as an angel who brought our family closer. Growing up in the ’80s, when being different wasn’t cool, I did little to draw attention to my ethnicity. But Kristen has embraced our father’s Puerto Rican heritage with pride. Her friends seem open to other types of people and hardly seem to notice their differences.
Kristen is now a junior at Liberty. While we don’t see eye to eye on religion, it’s nice to know that she still calls me for advice about the practical things. When it comes to faith, she’s private and doesn’t preach, and really, she’s the expert, not me. For her, religion is a personal thing, and I don’t judge (anymore). In fact, I greatly respect her for having such a strong faith in something. I wish I could believe so fervently in anything so abstract. All I can say now is that I believe in her.
A well-adjusted, open-minded, non-judgmental evangelical Christian (that dances!)? Doesn’t fit most of the stereotypes, or the impressions you’d get by reading the frequent “worst of the worst” posts here at this site, and yet in my own experience growing up within conservative Christianity (I considered attending Liberty too, though it was a bit too conservative for me, even back then) people like Kristen really are the norm, not the exception.
Anyhow, I know that Gonzalez’s concluding statement of respect for her sister’s ability to have faith will likely not satisfy the hardliners here who see any kind of faith at all as an inherently bad thing. And yet I have a suspicion (just a theory really) that atheists/agnostics like Gonzalez are also more the norm than the exception (though I have another theory that they are less likely to hang out at atheist blogs than the hardliners). Personally I’m impressed that Gonzalez is more concerned about the kind of person her sister is becoming, than with whether or not she has faith in something.