By Katherine Burgess
“And she was an atheist!” my friend said with a burst of laughter, finishing the story.
Most of the people at the table laughed. It was a funny story, after all. However, one of the students at the table stiffened, looking uncomfortably towards me.
I stiffened, too, realizing what had happened: One of my friends had told an atheist joke, assuming he was surrounded by conservative Christians. He did not know that one of the students at the table, the one who had grown uncomfortable, is an atheist.
Far too often I have sat at lunch tables or in classrooms and heard disparaging comments made about liberals when there is a Democrat in the room.
I have heard disparaging comments about Pentecostals when there is a Pentecostal present, disparaging comments about agnostics when agnostics are present, disparaging comments about evolutionists when theistic evolutionists are present and disparaging comments about reformed theology when reformed students are present.
Because not all of my beliefs line up with Southern Baptist theology or conservative ideologies, I have, on occasion, been the person cringing as my core beliefs are belittled by someone who simply has no idea that anyone nearby adheres to such beliefs.
And sometimes I have been the person to make a thoughtless remark about a belief that is out of the “Union norm,” forgetting that not everyone in the room believes as I do.
I do not in any way think the people – I among them – who make these thoughtless remarks do so out of malice or intent to hurt others. We merely forget diversity of thought and belief is present at Union, much more so than appears on the surface.
And forgetting that when we speak does result in hurt to those who fall outside of that “Union norm.”
Many, many people assume Union students fit into neat, clear categories: conservative in politics and theology, evangelical protestant, usually young-earth creationist and, more often than not, Southern Baptist.
While many – perhaps most – Unionites do indeed fit into some or all of these categories, it is hurtful to assume that all students do.
There are Democrats and Independents at Union. There are also agnostics, atheists and almost every stripe of Christian you can think of, from Catholic to Presbyterian to Methodist to Assemblies of God.
Students hold vastly different beliefs on the creation of the world, on the nature of God, on whether there even is a God.
They disagree on how government ought to be run, on how we ought to live our lives, on what is appropriate behavior for a Christian, on who should be able to preach and on so, so much more.
But on the surface Union looks much less diverse. Almost every time I tell people I attend Union, they immediately assume I am Southern Baptist. When I first visited Union my own first impression was that there was very little diversity of thought and belief at the university.
For those of us who hold beliefs that line up with the “Union norm” it is incredibly easy to make demeaning remarks about beliefs that conflict with our own, especially when most people around us do agree with our particular belief.
However, the fact that diversity of belief does exist at Union means we cannot assume everyone in the room believes as we do.
Thus when we choose our words – especially when those words deal with beliefs that differ from ours – we must choose them carefully, careful to be respectful of those differing beliefs.
We certainly do not need to change or hide our own beliefs, but we do need to speak with wisdom and consideration.
Had my friend known there was an atheist at the lunch table, he probably would not have told his joke. I know I, too, change my words depending on the people around me.
However, we need to be consistent in how we speak about beliefs that differ from our own – consistently considerate and respectful.