“It’s fine that you are an atheist. I don’t care. It doesn’t bother me at all. But people we work with will always think less of you for it. These are good, strong, Christian families, and while I [as a Christian] don’t care about your choice to be an atheist, it doesn’t mean that they will feel the same way. You can be an atheist if you want. But remember that your decision will always be a roadblock to your success.”
“But that’s not fair. My atheism doesn’t define me.”
“Sure it is. And of course it does. You publicize your beliefs all the time.”
“No I don’t.”
“You talk about them in your writing, and you distribute that writing in places you know our clients can see it. You have to deal with the consequences of your actions.”
This conversation, one that took place between my business partner and me several months ago, may not be exactly as it was spoken. It’s close, though, and the parts that have been ringing in my memory since it was spoken are entirely accurate, even if they fall out of place in their timing.
I have a thick skin these days, one that has been developed through the expatriate life of a Third Culture Kid constantly uprooting his life, and one that has been strengthened by my continued development of content that is distributed through multiple channels all over the world. As a writer, I cannot let the criticism of others affect the truth behind my words. As a TCK, I cannot let the criticism of others affect the validity of my experiences.
This conversation, however, cut through both the TCK skin and the writer skin, and since I took part in the aforementioned conversation, I have been incapable of putting it out of my mind. I have wanted to write this piece since I had the talk. I have wanted to explain why it shook me so badly, why it hurt my heart, and why I felt ashamed to be myself for the first time in many, many years. I have wanted to try and explain the depth of who I am and what I believe for so long, to show the world that like everyone else, no single word can describe me. That I am more than just a TCK, more than an introvert, more than a writer, more than a hopeless romantic, and yes, more than an atheist. But unfortunately, I hold the words of this particular friend in higher regard than those of anyone else in my life. And so instead of reacting, I have tried to understand. And in my understanding, I have realized that this topic, this conversation, my atheism in the context of this moment in time, may be one of the single greatest parallels to the breakdown between TCKs and FCKs I have ever tried to conquer.
What my friend and business partner said was true in many ways, and wrong in many others. Where it was right, it was correct in the sense that he understands the limitation of human understanding. Where he was wrong is in exactly the same place. Where to start here is difficult, so I’ll pick the piece that began running circles in my mind from the second I heard it, the seed of words that bloomed into the deep thought of everything else: The fact that it was my “choice to be an atheist.”
I do not believe that I chose to be an atheist anymore than I chose to think, to write, to fall in love, or to absorb elements of every culture I come across. In fact, I think it was my natural need, my impulsive and uncontrollable desire to do all of these things that made me realize I was an atheist. I certainly didn’t start there. I didn’t spring forth into this world screaming “I don’t believe in God!” In fact, it was quite the opposite.
When I was young, my parents raised me and my brother to think for ourselves, to make our own choices on what we believed. My mother is a Protestant, my father is an atheist. Neither my brother nor myself knew this about our father for years. In fact, I don’t think I even knew my father was an atheist at the time I realized that I was one.
My mother taught me about God, told me the stories of the Bible, and shared with me any answer to any question I had regarding her religion that I had adopted as my own in my youth. Whenever I asked a question about something that made little sense to me, like the parting of the Red Sea or how all the animals in the world fit onto Noah’s Ark, she would answer as best she could, combining her beliefs with varying interpretations that bent to scientific theory. She conditioned me to think, to ask questions, and to ask “why” to everything. She may not have meant to do that, but I like to think she did. I’m proud of her for that. It was probably one of the greatest gifts she could have given me, to always seek out an answer to everything.
So as I grew up, I grew up Protestant. I was afraid of God, too, when I was young. I once accidentally took a toy from a friend in Bradbury Jr. School in Hong Kong that I thought was mine. After lots of fighting and me claiming that the boy had stolen my toy, I found that I had actually left mine in my bag and the one I had acquired was indeed his. I apologized and gave it back, but I remember spending weeks terrified that God would be mad at me for stealing something in my ignorance.
I continued to believe, without the guidance of Church, for years. I still had hints of my faith all the way up until I arrived in Hong Kong International School in eighth grade, sat down at my desk in a new class in a new country at the only English-speaking school option under the American and International Baccalaureate education systems, and found that I had a Bible as part of my mandatory reading list. Something inside of me got angry, and while I had never in all my life been frustrated by owning a bible (in fact, I had one my grandmother had bought for me when I was very little at home), something about the book of one faith without accompaniment of any other faiths being part of my required reading turned my stomach.
It was in that moment, that exact second that I opened up the familiar, thin, toilet-paper-like pages that I realized that I believed in Christianity as much as I believed in Hinduism or Taoism. I knew the faith, I knew the practices, and I knew the philosophy of all of them. But I was not a believer in the story or the validity of its word. I did not choose to be that way. I simply was. I had spent so much time asking questions, so much time operating in a way that my family had conditioned me to operate, in a way that my natural state of being demanded I operate, that I had learned because it fascinated me, not because I believed it.
As my time in Hong Kong went on, I continued to ask questions as I had always done my entire life. My Religious Education teacher, we will call him Mr. King, who taught me Christianity one day and Science the next on an alternating block schedule, quickly came to hate me. I never meant to insult him or to cut him down, but I think being the teenager I was with a head full of questions and a fundamental need to know the truth behind everything put a little too much pressure on the poor man to perform. He simply didn’t know what to do with me.
He tried, sort of, but I finally broke his reserve about three-quarters of the way through the year. The previous day he had taught us about evolution, about how Darwin had started a series of developing theories that had resulted in the scientific community proving entirely that evolution happens every single day all around us and always has since the dawn of life on this planet. Then the very next day, he taught us about Creationism, citing biblical text as solid evidence that was meant to be as valid as the scientific theory he had presented the previous day. Naturally, I asked him which one he believed, not because I wanted to pick him apart or belittle his faith, but because I truly wanted to understand how someone could believe both creationism as it stood word-for-word in the Bible and evolution simultaneously.
He couldn’t answer.
I asked him which one he felt had more validity to his life.
Again, he stumbled for a response.
I asked him how I, a man seeking answers, was meant to understand the significance of either religion’s response or science’s response to the question of the development of earth’s species when my educator couldn’t direct me (here, I admit, I may have overstepped my bounds, but while my teacher was frustrated at my questioning, my incessant need for answers was frustrating me equally as much with his inability to answer any of them).
Mr. King pointed to the door and yelled for me to get out of his classroom. I did as I was instructed and sat on the bench outside the door. A few minutes later, out came Mr. King, quietly closing the door behind him. I stood up and opened my mouth to apologize, to explain I was only trying to understand, but before a sound left my lips, Mr. King had spun around and grabbed me by the collar of my shirt, pinning me to a wall and jamming his finger into my chest. He yelled at me, his face inches from mine, about how I was never to undermine his authority again. He pressed his finger harder into my chest, and threatened that if I ever did it again, he would have me expelled.
Rage overcame me, something that has happened only three or four times in my life, and I slapped his hand out from chest and shoved him backwards so that he stumbled over his own feet. I pounced forward and punched him hard in the chest, right in the center of his sternum. “If you ever lay a finger on me again,” I spat, my voice no more than a screaming whisper as the anger in Mr. King’s face went from fury to fear. But then I paused. I stopped myself from continuing, my body shaking with rage caused by someone I trusted as a teacher and leader who had assaulted me with such burning hatred in his eyes for asking questions to which he simply didn’t have the answers. Mr. King went back into the classroom, and I never asked him another question about God again.
Often times, Mr. King would just send me out into the hall with my Bible to read alone, which I did without question or hindrance. I had learned a valuable lesson from him that day. Both of us, a man of God and a man of questioning, were both equally capable of breaking to the point of causing the other pain. The only difference was, he had to answer to his God, while I had to accept that it was me and me alone that had allowed myself to snap.
I swore then and there never to break like that again with anyone, and I have carried the memory of that moment with me since its occurrence.
But from then on, there was no going back. The realization was etched into the stone of my being; I was an atheist to my core. I never stopped learning about God or gods. I loved religion classes, and once I was done with Mr. King, I was given the opportunity to take many different courses with many different specialists regarding many different faiths. I bought books on Taoism and learned it myself, I read the Ramayana, I expanded my knowledge of Buddhism, Judaism, and Islam. I even dove into many different origin faiths of Africa and how those faiths adapted and changed, or were exterminated, at the arrival of Christian influence. But most of all, I dove deeper into Christianity, isolating many different denominations and learning all I could about the scripture, the history, the science, and the development of the faith. I learned where pieces branched off and why, I learned what areas believed what as a majority and why, I learned about the minorities that struggled to survive and why, and I took extra care to learn the details of the scripture itself in all of them. And I did this because all those gods, all those faiths, fascinated me.
But the more I learned about the gods of the world, the more I dove deeper into the countless number of faiths and the sub-faiths that stemmed from similar roots in some cases, vastly different roots in others, I began to see a trend that my mind of endless questions simply couldn’t adhere too. Every single one of them, and from what I have learned this is a rule that spans the entirety of faith, were born in times that needed one of two questions answered: Either a) How do we, as people, deal with the oppression that’s upon us, or b) How do we, as leaders, control a group of people that we do not have the resources or means to control?
But my mind of questioning was not stripped of faith from these questions. In the darkest of times, some of the greatest truths are always born. Regardless of the religion, they all held pearls of wisdom that rang true in the lives of everyone, regardless of whether that person believed in that particular god or not. Where my faith began to strip to nothing was in the inability, and just plain resistance, of every faith I studied to evolve with the knowledge and understanding of the scientific community.
Christianity had become one of my largest studies for this very reason. It seemed to me that as the years had rolled by and the faith had developed, the faith of Christian denominations was driven by the oppression of knowledge. There’s a term that comes across in many pieces of literature, one that’s called the “Christian Dark Ages,” that refers to the gap in science, technology, and development that coincided with the rapid growth of Christianity. The Greeks and the Romans developed scientific principles that were akin to developments made just three-hundred years ago. But then, for almost 1600 years, Christianity carved a hole in development, forcing our technological and scientific advancement to actually fall backwards on itself. This decline pushed humanity back by almost two millennia, with Christians refusing to accept the world was round and killing people who exclaimed otherwise, refusing to accept the Sun was the center of the universe and not the Earth, refusing to accept that women had rights or that people with red hair had souls. The faith, for almost two millennia, was one riddled with oppression that spilled oceans of blood from those who simply asked the question “what if?”
But just because Christianity is the most common religion in the world to date, that in no way means it was the only one operating under these principals of knowledgeable oppression. It was simply the most powerful, the most reaching, and the most influential at the time, making it the most damaging. From the Crusades (both child and adult) to the Spanish Inquisition, Christianity left a river of blood in its wake. And it was with that red-stained earth from the people who, like myself, simply asked the question “Yes, but why is this the way things are?” that my faith was stripped to nothing.
So when I am told that I chose to be an atheist, I get uncharacteristically annoyed. I did not chose this path anymore than I chose to be born or I chose to breathe air in order to survive. This path was simply the one that was laid before me with the sea of questions that I have always been unable to answer, questions that no religion in this world makes an effort to answer, but instead challenges me to accept things for the way they are for reasons that are not backed by factual proof. I did not choose a life driven by questions, and I did not choose to turn to science for my answers instead of God. I simply turned to the only place in the world that, even though it admits it’s often wrong, is constantly trying to prove itself wrong to find out what is actually right. I turned to ever-evolving answers.
But the beauty of my choice, the beauty of my love of faith and the studies I have done throughout my life in trying to find the answers to questions we will not answer for generations after my certain demise, is that my love for all gods has never faded from my heart. I am a realist, one that has high levels of empathy and finds comfort in the happiness of my fellow people. I live my life by a set of strong morals that were taught to me by my parents and evolved due to my understanding of the value of human life. While I may not believe in the god that you believe in, I know him well. And where I know him, I know that if he makes your life better, if he holds answers to the question of what makes your life worth living, then who would I be to ever to take that away from you?
Faith to me, regardless of which one it is or in what corner of the Earth it resides, is an absolutely crucial part of humanity. This is the TCK inside of me, the source of adaptation and understanding, the cultural absorber that adds crucial elements of everywhere he goes into who he is as a person. And while I do not believe in your faith of choice personally, I do not take any comfort in the words of arrogant atheists who scream louder than myself and claim that this world would be better without god. This world would be better without radical extremists of any faith, or without faith, because a militant anything will not stop until they are the only ones left in the pool of opinion. Regardless of whether that person is Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or Atheist, if their blood is burning to see something eradicated from this world, they will not stop until they have either removed their “problem” from the face of the planet, or they themselves are removed from the equation. And that hatred, that passion to cause another man harm, that inability to control the rage that flows through you, has nothing to do with god.
And if you doubt the validity in those words, ask that young atheist boy with a head full of questions or that Science and Religion teacher in a school in Hong Kong. Regardless of their beliefs, they will both answer the question of human aggression in exactly the same way; And neither will blame it on God.
Post by: James R. Mitchener