Today’s guest blogger is Jeff Pollet, a technical writer who lives in Oakland, Calif. He occasionally blogs about men and feminism at Feminist Allies. Jeff’s post is one of the winning entries from NonProphet Status’ Share Your Secular Story, a contest to promote stories of secular identity and interfaith cooperation.
On a strangely warm, sunny spring day in San Francisco, I found myself part of a crowd of hundreds of people walking down the middle of the street. It was a peaceful yet passionate crowd, and we walked in solidarity. Police officers on foot and on motorcycles blocked cross traffic as we wound our way from Justin Herman Plaza through downtown, through the Mission, and right into Dolores park. I walked with a close friend, but really I felt connected to all of the hundreds of people, and as I walked I couldn’t help but feel joy and pride at what we were doing, what we all were doing together. I smiled a reverent smile, and I felt something new: I felt a sense of passionate community unlike any I had felt before. Some folks started chanting, and to my own amazement, I chanted along with them.
I’ve never been very comfortable in crowds. I suspect it’s a deeply-rooted neurological sort of thing, and I can’t remember a time when I didn’t feel the particular sort of anxiousness that a crowd causes in me. One of my earliest memories is of feeling anxious in a room full of people who were all sitting quietly, listening to one man speak. My mother had thought that it would be a good idea to expose me to some religion, even though she wasn’t religious herself. The Methodist church we tried out didn’t really grab hold of either one of us, and it mainly just made me anxious. Youth group amounted to some little bit of bible reading followed by an awful lot of touch football. I didn’t have much interest in either, and my mom, perhaps thinking a little exposure was enough, didn’t press the issue–there was always guitar lessons and Boy Scouts to take up my time.
As I grew older, for various reasons, apathy toward organized religion turned to anger. Street preachers loudly condemning my friends to hell infuriated me, and for a long time I thought my only choices in response were to ignore them, or to yell back. I mostly chose to yell back, which amused the street preachers and filled me with even more anxiety. I was the portrait of a stereotypical angry young atheist. It was when I tried to make connections with other atheists that I began to question my motives and actions. I went to meetings of atheists and certainly found some like-minded folks, but I never found a sense of community, and what community I did find seemed to be fueled by the same sort of anger that I was now, finally, tiring of.
My anger softened. It didn’t become apathy, because I became fascinated in the ways in which most folks around me go through their days quietly oblivious to religious differences–kids go to school, adults go to work; folks go to dinner and to the movies and mostly our religious differences don’t crop up. I was on the outside looking in, given that most folks say they believe in God. And as my anger began to slip away, I realized that, though I would likely be an atheist for the rest of my life, I was going to live in a world where most folks were not like me in that way. I began to wonder how I would shape my life to live in that world. And, frankly, I was coming up with nothing. I just couldn’t get into their heads, couldn’t put myself in their shoes, couldn’t fathom exactly what was going to replace my anger.
Yet I eventually found myself walking with hundreds of people, walking down the street in protest of violence against women. I was walking with these people to raise money for (and awareness about!) San Francisco Women Against Rape. I was surrounded by people of all genders, sexualities, races, classes and, yes, religions. And we were all united, in solidarity, walking in order that the world tomorrow might be a better place for all of us, a place with less sexual violence than it has today–here was something we all agreed on. We chanted with a religious fervor, even though we were all from different religions, and non-religions. I have begun to recognize that I can have a sense of community that mirrors some religious communities, made up of the myriad people who want a better world for all people, regardless of what god they do (or do not!) worship. I can walk with them, regardless of religion, and help create some good changes in this world, rather than stand on the corner yelling back.
The content of this blog reflects the views of its author and does not necessarily reflect the views of either Eboo Patel or the Interfaith Youth Core.