Existing as an agnostic within a religious majority

By Frances Marion Givhan

Executive Staff

Am I turning into that agnostic friend?

I ask this in all seriousness because lately the question has made camp in my mind and feels perfectly content to keep stirring up the fire. It never bothered me before this semester, as I usually keep quiet about my religious label. I come from a heavily Episcopalian family and go to a university with an Episcopalian background, so I learned to follow the motions without much contest. However, it seems as if most of Sewanee does not feel the need to hide their religious affiliation, so I do not think I should, either. Yet I still feel unsettled about my silence, and then I wonder, at what point do I become that agnostic friend?

As a person without a defined religious affiliation, I have usually never felt uncomfortable at Sewanee before or after I came here. The Episcopalian side of the university never seemed to dominate the campus as a whole, unlike colleges where my high school friends went. One of them attends Wheaton College, where their motto reads, “For God and His Kingdom.” That defined a religious school for me. Sewanee’s motto has nothing to do with religion but acknowledges the beauty of united people communing together. I write this article with that view in mind, that Sewanee’s religious nature never overwhelmed the other facets that I love about the community.

This semester tipped me over the edge in terms of religion. In the past, I had a guy I dated tell me to go see a priest if I was struggling emotionally, even though he knew my views did not align with Christianity. I took Intro to the Old Testament with Professor Thurman, where one student said she did not want people outside of her religion reading The Bible, because they could misconstrue it. Neither of those instances or the many other small ones that occurred added up to the difficulty I have experienced so far this semester.

In my head, I view the matter as an issue of respect. An example that keeps the aforementioned fire burning regards Evensong. I do attend church when my parents visit, because they love All Saints’ services and knew Tom Macfie in college, and I adore Lessons and Carols. Beyond that, I choose to spent my Sunday mornings taking care of myself, doing work, or pursuing a passion. Someone invited me to Evensong, and when I replied that I am agnostic, he said that I could ignore the religious side of it and just listen to the beautiful music.

Initially, this might seem an appropriate response, but to me, it felt like an exertion of superiority. It told me that I should ignore how I feel religiously and attend this religiously specific event anyway, under the guise of it being about the music. It disregarded my personal views and put the person’s over my own, which disrespected me.

Then the instances built up, until finally the flames consumed me. In my playwriting class, we read Lucas Hnath’s The Christians. It shows the detrimental effects that strict religious views can have on relationships within a congregation, friendship, and marriage. The main character, the pastor, challenges his church’s views on Hell, and slowly his life falls apart because of the sermon he delivers. One quotation struck me in particular: “I feel the powerful urge to communicate, but the distance between us is insurmountable.” I cried in class as we discussed the play. The heart of the conflict lay in communication, understanding, and acceptance between people who cared for each other, and differences of theological views caused their relationships to crumble.

What if that happens to me?

To begin, I would not feel surprised. Even during theological discussions with friends and family, I have discovered the difficulty in unraveling ideas that have nothing to do with the concrete, but everything to do with personal beliefs. I cannot fight their ideas, no more than they can fight mine. Religion does not work that way. The fear, though, that I could reach a point with someone I loved where we battle each other, potentially hurt each other, consumes me.

I also have an issue of fighting harder because I do not feel valid in my religious views. I am firmly agnostic, yes, but I grow physically tense when I hear people speak so openly about their own beliefs. When I have classmates and past boyfriends who believe I will go to Hell for not believing Jesus saved humanity, tension and fear results. For me, everything that I have thus explained terrifies me on a level deeper than I ever imagined. A potential solution lies in communications and respect, things woefully missing in Hnath’s The Christians.

Respecting other people’s beliefs and recognizing that not everyone shares one’s own views is important. Respect, communicate, understand, empathize, accept – any combination of these things could create a healthier environment for people firm in their religious ideas or struggling to identify them. I do not want to assume that people share my opinions, nor do I want others to assume that I share theirs. Think about this before unknowingly undermining or disrespecting someone’s theological beliefs.

One comment

  1. Thank you for this thoughtful piece. We need mindful and generous acceptance more than ever.

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