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Suspending Belief: Understanding Atheism, Agnosticism and the Complexity of Religion

BY MOLLIE SIMON

We live in a world full of organized rows of false checkbox dichotomies. Fill in the blank tests tell us that we are black or white, male or female, and Hispanic or non-Hispanic.

But, life tells us that we are a hell of a lot more complex.

Society’s categorizations when it comes to religion strike me acutely as a self-designated atheist Jew (a believer in tradition but a nonbeliever on the issue of god). There is simply no conceivable box I can mark which accurately captures my beliefs – and I am far from alone.

While I feel fully comfortable on UGA’s campus and have been grateful for the general level of cultural acceptance I have witnessed here, there are subtle moments which make one recognize that this is a school located in the Bible Belt – a school with 22 Christian affiliated student groups and frequent visits by Bible-bearing Gideons and combative “Tate preachers.”

“People don’t realize how impactful it can be to be religious on campus,” Rachel Smith, a senior psychology and comparative literature double-major from Johns Creek, said. “Even just saying ‘God bless you’ or having a prayer at graduation is not necessarily offensive, but it just reminds us that we are different, and that can be overwhelming.”

Smith, who identifies as an atheist, is the president of the Secular Student Alliance on campus, which aims to provide a safe place for students who lack a religious affiliation.

The group also works to maintain visibility for these students, as there is no shortage of misconceptions about those who may subscribe to atheism or agnosticism.

To begin with, many people confuse these two terms which although similar are not synonymous.

According to the Pew Research Religion and Public Life Project, approximately 1.6 percent of Americans are atheist, and another 2.4 percent are agnostic.[1]

As defined by the American Atheists Center, atheism is “not a disbelief in gods or a denial of gods; it is a lack of belief in gods,”[2] whereas Merriam Webster defines agnostic as “a person who does not have a definite belief about whether God exists or not.”

Freshman advertising major Raina Zafar from Villa Rica did not grow up religious, although her extended family is Muslim, but she began exploring her beliefs in middle school.

To Zafar, being agnostic means staying open-minded.

“I am not saying there is a god or is not a god, you just don’t know and don’t have a definitive answer. As Socrates once put it, ‘all I know is that I know nothing,’” she said.

Zafar believes it is important not to fear admitting uncertainty.

“If you always have a definitive answer, it puts a blanket of ignorance over everything. I am going to be agnostic my whole life, but that is the beauty for me,” Zafar said. “Even if it is an agonizing search for the origin of life, I can always keep looking.”

Shanice Bond, a junior women’s studies and middle grades education student from Marietta, is also agnostic, but grew up with a religion selected for her.

While she was raised in an African American Southern Baptist home, she felt she never truly believed in Christianity the way her friends did.

“Religion is a really touchy subject for a lot of people, and they don’t like to talk about it unless they are part of the majority religion. I don’t get too much snap about being agnostic though. If people say they are praying for me, I just say ‘thank you.’ I don’t denounce people’s religion,” she said.

Bond considers herself a realist and said that for her, seeing is believing.

“You don’t have to have religion in your life to have a happy life. That is one of the biggest misconceptions. I believe in myself and have a happy life. I am not like a lost puppy without the spirit of god helping me. I want to live for right now and live for what I see and know to be true.”

Freshman forestry major Sarah Welch from Duluth is atheist and said a common misperception about atheists is that they are angry, trying to force disbelief on others, or do not have strong values.

“Atheism is not a lack of morals. My values come from learned experience and knowing that if you are nice to people, your day gets better just like theirs,” Welch said.

Being atheist or agnostic is not without its challenges though. For example, Zafar said her biggest fear is dying whereas friends of hers may be appeased by the idea of heaven and an afterlife.

Nonetheless, she said this is not enough of a reason for her to commit to a religion she does not truly believe in.

Although Welch has felt that her atheism has been accepted at UGA, it has put her in uncomfortable classroom situations when others have used religion as a defense for their ideas on issues such as gay marriage.

Smith has also seen some negativity attached to religion, and said that the Secular Student Alliance changed its name from UGAtheists in 2012 because of some of the stigma attached to atheism, in addition to wanting to increase inclusivity.

“We try not to attack or mock religious groups. We want to be tolerated, so we should be tolerant. I look at what religious people do that may make me uncomfortable and take note not to do those things as a secular student,” Smith said.

Beyond the more emotional issues of religion, Welch has also found practical differences.

“I like doing volunteer work, and I have noticed that a lot of my friends find volunteer work through churches, so I have never been able to find opportunities quite as easily as they have,” Welch said.

Recently, Bond has also discovered that being agnostic does not preclude her from sharing relationships with people who are religious. While she has dated people who do not have a religious preference in the past, she has found that it is possible to date someone who gets up on Sundays and goes to Church, even if she does not.

“I was always taught the concrete, stereotypical Christian values that marriage was a contract between god, man, and a woman. Now though, I am coming to my own realities,” Bond said.

Even among Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Taoists and others, religion does not always mean the same thing.

Like mixed skin colors or ancestries that weave a web of cultures into an individual, religion cannot be watered down to simple terms and false assumptions.

For the sake of believers, non-believers, and atheist Jewish wanderers alike, we have to look at religion more inclusively and find our own realities, as Bond said, while accepting whatever those realities may be for our peers.


Featured Image is “Coexist” by Patrick Denker is licensed under CC BY 2.0

[1] http://religions.pewforum.org/reports

[2] http://atheists.org/activism/resources/what-is-atheism

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