I’ll be honest with you. Filling out the “personal information” section of any given application never seemed particularly interesting or intriguing. Identifying my religious affiliation is no exception. I never gave much more thought to the fact that I checked Catholic whenever that appeared. I never really was inclined to either.
I grew up in a Mexican culture with a strong-rooted Catholic tradition. I spent four years in a private, Jesuit high school. Most people I knew were Catholic or Christian, especially those my age.
Ever since my first days in college last year, however, I have found the idea of religious affiliation among youth not only noteworthy, but also incredibly intriguing. As I began to meet new people on a daily basis, the question of religion was one that never arose in immediate small talk; I myself often felt that bringing up religion without knowing the person could ruin the mood or conversation or possible relationship.
This was my first time in an environment with a heterogeneous mix of religious affiliations, one which I didn’t know quite how to approach. Indeed, we, as with anything unknown, have stereotypes or misconceptions of how we expect Muslims, Buddhists, Protestants and even atheists to look and act. Part of me was expecting to see those become validated.
Those identified as atheist or agnostic, in particular, provoked the most questions for me. How did they feel about religion? Was it anger, disbelief or rational uncertainty? Should I expect to defend myself against condescending attacks against my beliefs from them? Did their lack of affiliation make them any different as people? More importantly, would that become an obstacle to forming a meaningful relationship with that person?
It didn’t take long for my doubts and worries to be answered; Today, I still stand by the conclusion I arrived at back then. They are no different, no less good-natured, virtuous or caring than any others. In fact, they perhaps have been most influential to my own spiritual understanding and development in recent months.
The majority of my friends in college identify themselves as Catholic, Baptist or otherwise, yet they seldom practice. Some don’t at all. My best friend is atheist. She grew up culturally Jewish, but she doesn’t believe in the faith. And yet, there are very few people who, in my eyes, are as caring and compassionate as she. In fact, she’s the first person with whom I share my “myfaith” articles and the first who expresses her admiration for my faith.
As I have gotten to know my atheist friends better, I have felt more comfortable asking them why they identify themselves as atheist. Naturally, their answers vary considerably, but, remarkably, have led me to two distinct conclusions.
The fact that they do not believe in a God or subscribe to a religion does not mean that they lack value systems entirely. Not only do I find conversations regarding my spirituality and faith with them inviting and substantive, but those longs hours have allowed me to realize that they, like me, believe in the same core values – honesty, integrity, respect, responsibility, humor, fairness, openness of mind, to name a few.
That led to my second conclusion. The common denominator among the many discussions I’ve had with my friends is that their decision to not identify with a religion really is an indictment not against the values but against the institution of religion itself. Most fundamentally, they know what they believe, value and hold most important in their lives; however, they don’t see it necessary to align with a religion to do so.
For some, they view hypocrisy in the manner many religions have historically gone about evangelizing and maintaining political/spiritual power. For others, they just don’t feel that a flawed human institution can claim the moral authority to dictate what each individual should believe or how to go about demonstrating such beliefs.
And yet, they have been incredibly respectful to me and others who call themselves Catholic or Jewish or Baptist or the like. They often find it fascinating to understand how my beliefs shape my thoughts and actions. While often skeptical about some ideas and concepts, they never seek to convince me otherwise, which I find honorable.
Could my friends be exception to the common atheist? Perhaps. That doesn’t bother me though. It has helped me realize that the label “atheist” holds an unfair negative connotation. Being an atheist does not make anyone a lesser person. It does not define them, nor should it.
Today, we are beyond the point when religious affiliation is a divisive societal standard. My best friend and I may not both call ourselves Catholic and believe in God, but we don’t let that be a reason to not have such a close relationship. We hold our friendship dear and look beyond that “personal information” identifier to acknowledge the many values and beliefs we do share.
(Espino, a 2011 graduate of Marquette University High School, Milwaukee, is studying economics at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. His home parish is St. Vincent de Paul, Milwaukee. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org)