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For the first time in my life, I think I know what it must feel like to be religious in our society

May 27, 2014

I’m a staunch atheist and have been for some time, but I made a certain life choice about a year and a half ago which has made me see differently, not faith, but our reaction to it.

If you know any kind, religious people you’ll know they’re fairly unassuming. If you’re not religious yourself, you might think they’re cutely eccentric. This makes it all the more heart-wrenching when you see someone opinionated, clever, logical and arrogant, visibly sneer at their beliefs right in front of their face, with no trace of apology. You can usually tell when it’s unapologetic, because they’ll apologise, or say “no offence” in that way that instantly signposts that they don’t give a damn who they offend. Or they’ll make a joke along the lines of “And I thought you were OK!” or “Oh, now we can’t be friends…”

This shouldn’t matter. These are silly, knee-jerk, infantile responses that don’t warrant thinking about. Yet, they are hard to not think about because they represent a common view and go unchecked by the common crowd. These people are taking their discomfort and putting it in your lap, rather than dealing with it on their own.

I consider it common courtesy not to allow other people to feel guilty for their beliefs. People do not believe things for no reason; in my experience, a standpoint that is far, far away from your own will still have glimmers of truth or inspiration to it. Everyone’s point of view is worth accepting for what it is, all the more so if they are not the one who has chosen to share it. Some things you have to wear like a big yellow badge on a navy lapel, not because you want to be identified, but because the choice you made shows up in obvious contrast to the status quo and is too much of an elephant to hide.

Over a year ago, I became a vegan. I have not been speaking about it to many people, because I am afraid of their response. I know the reasoning behind my decision and no one makes me doubt it, even for a moment. I know my approach is measured, proportionate and logical. But the word “vegan” itself creates in people a response that ranges from incredulous to borderline manic. I can only assume that some people feel that, just by existing, I am passing judgement on their existence, so they pass judgement on me first.

I shouldn’t have to explain to people that I have little interest in what they’re doing and am mainly focussed on myself. I know I’m not going to change the world over night and it’s not in my nature to preach. I wonder if they think I’ve joined a cult, and I’m wear sandals made out of dried asparagus and smoke long pipes packed with dandelions. Inaccurate, but still not worthy of scorn if it were true, not by today’s standards of fashion and superstition.

If people ask why I’m a vegan, I will happily explain, pleasantly, and as briefly as possible because I know people don’t want the gory details, the reasons for my choice. If they do not ask, or do not seem interested, I don’t bother. You can’t begin to start to talk to people who have no interest in listening. I notice my silence tends to intrigue people sooner or later, no matter how closed to the concept they were when we met. No one can resist questioning a clearly rational person on what one perceives as an irrational choice.

I don’t mind disinterest and silence, but about a third of the people I meet decide to give me their opinion right off the bat, preferring to keep their assumptions rather than ask me my reasons. This, bear in mind, is not a response to anything I’ve said, but rather an introduction to the conversation they hope to start and finish with their own one sentence, as if it is conclusive in its own right. This is form of pressure, a transparent sort that says, loud and clear: “I won’t tolerate any of your abnormalities in my presence.”

Here, I see the link to the devoutly religious. I see them being systematically silenced before they are allowed to speak and told they should accept it, indicating that the reason for this is that they are wrong. The only other types of people who we treat this way are people with “extreme views” – radicals and overtly prejudiced people.

It takes the potency out of objecting to such people when we object just as strongly to views we merely disagree with or find dislikeable. Perhaps this is why we have such a confused relationship between freedom of expression and freedom from discrimination. Far from objecting to things because of the notable effect they have, we judge things based on the way we feel. Political correctness becomes a necessity, a blanket protection for every recognised group we can conceive could be subject to prejudice, even though it is a blunt tool which takes into account the personal circumstances of exactly no one.

This country is a secular one, full of agnostics of varying degrees. I can see that religious people are cowed by the response they get for being religious and even though some religious beliefs make me uncomfortable, I wouldn’t wish this for them. It isn’t pleasant, when you are minding your own business, to have other people gatecrash into your space with their views. Your mind is private property and if you don’t share it, it should be inaccessible. But we can read behaviours, and we know that if someone doesn’t eat cheese (and won’t say they’re lactose intolerant) they might well be vegan, or if someone wears a dog collar or niqab, they will be deeply religious.

Beliefs, political and faith-based, cannot be put on hold for social situations and they shouldn’t have to be. Maybe when we see symbols of religious expression, we think “Well, if you’re going to do that, you have to expect some comeback.” This suggests we’ve already decided that person is wrong, which is arrogant but not uncommon. But it also suggests we think that anything that comes as a result of what you choose is deserved. Proof of that can be seen in anti-gay circles, who won’t believe that being gay is biological because we have a culture that encourages the negative judgement of choice. If being gay is a choice, you can negatively judge it.

This way of thinking is wrong. What people choose is as much a part of them as what isn’t chosen, perhaps more so. I doubt there’s a person alive who wants to be judged by a disability or colour, as opposed to culture or lifestyle. These things are, to some extent, chosen. A culture isn’t assigned at birth, it requires purposeful engagement. A lifestyle, based around a disability, is dependent on attitude developed from experience. Whereas Spina bifida is Spina bifida, people’s response to it varies, shaping their personality.

Choices create their own cultures because they have to. People need safe spaces in which to think, say, eat and do what they want. When people seem closed off, or don’t want to talk about who they are or why they do the things they do, it’s not because they like it that way. Increasingly, we find that we have no choice, that by just being as we are we make other people uncomfortable which makes us feel guilty even though we have done nothing wrong. That sense of guilt is only eased when with people of the same type.

This is a problem because it shows that culture and sub-culture are not as positive as they seem. If they’re the end result of unpleasantness and the wish to avoid ridicule and ostracism, they’re a sign that we are not tolerant and not integrated.

And we don’t have to be so separatist. What I learn, in making new friends and becoming the friend of many different types of people, is that tolerance and intolerance are not rigid states. Ideas and thoughts that you have about a group of people can be turned off at will when you are faced with someone who you especially like, or dislike. How often have we heard someone say: “I’ve met a lot of Xs I didn’t like, but you’re different,” or “You don’t seem Y enough to be one of those.”

At its worst, this can either make us overlook intolerable character traits in the face of someone’s other charms, or can make us judgemental about something stupid which we would usually not care about. I couldn’t count the number of times someone I knew would call someone they disliked fat or ugly, giving the impression that they have something against the fat or ugly.

They don’t, generally. It’s a prejudice that gets switched on purely for the purpose of being rude about someone they dislike. They are playing a set of prejudices that do exist, for maximum effect, knowing that working from our harshest and most common value judgements is the best way to verbally wound.

As I type, there’s an Irish man standing in front of me on the train shouting: “Fuck the English, the bastards.” I’ll bet he’s lived here for a decade and has had many English friends, but has just gone through a bad break up with somebody English and gone out to drown his sorrows. Whatever the exact reason, he’s more piteous than prejudiced.

If we can manipulate tolerance itself to achieve what we want – to keep undesirable people away and to bring preferable people closer – then at my most optimistic guess, I’d say true prejudice doesn’t exist. It’s always relative and changeable. As is constantly pointed out, education solves intolerance, because exposure coupled with a modicum of self-awareness destroys stereotypes.

To this day I find it difficult to follow the thinking of religious people when they are in full-God-mode, where I feel that they depart uncharacteristically from the good sense that comes with their other beliefs. But understanding and accepting are two different things and only the latter is important when it comes to social difference.

Experience has changed the way I see everybody, from the religious to the racist. I can see, more and more, that intolerance is rarely just intolerance. It comes and goes, measured by other feelings, and caused by experiences I may never learn of. I have enjoyed listening to the rationale of many a dubious character, just hearing the remarkable lucidity of arguments which remain stubbornly irrational in their conclusion.

We harbour within us the drive us to believe certain things strongly enough to be called faith, yet this drive takes us all in different directions. And we must stand together awkwardly at parties, drinking and pretending not to feel uncomfortable, cursing our cowardice because we know we should speak.

This is the pitfall of integration compared to segregation. You’re exposed to points of view that, if you argued every one, would make you weary from the effort of repeating yourself. But to shield yourself from it and refuse to live around other people never helps. I find that the best way to show people you’re not going anywhere is to not go anywhere. Steadily trudge on with your own thoughts. Popular opinion favours the articulate and consistent.

I don’t imagine that in the next ten years everyone will be vegan, but I do hope that within the next 50, we’ll see what intolerance really is: a plasticine model in the palm, that reflexively clenches and loosens. When we see that, it might be that much easier to drop the sweaty misshapen lump entirely, and see that our prejudice is not a “position”. It’s just a feeling.

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