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An Atheist, Christian, and Buddhist Walk Into a Bar: Navigating “None-ness” in Interfaith Settings

Emerson Wells

For me, introductions within interfaith spaces often go like this:

“Introduce yourself, your pronouns, your background, and what drew you to interfaith.”

Others in the space will discuss their history rooted in a religious tradition, whether that be in a current practice or navigating belief in a past practice. When it is my turn to share, I have noticed that I tend to be the only individual lacking this background.

I identify as non-religious. In most cases, I check the boxes for atheist and/or agnostic, and occasionally “spiritual, but not religious” depending on the day.

I attended church until around age four. I could argue that I decided religion wasn’t for me when the halo I was to wear for the annual Christmas play wouldn’t stay straight atop my head. I ultimately ran off of the stage in frustration, meeting my mother in the bathroom crying.

In elementary school, my former church would host monthly pancake breakfasts for the school in celebration of students recognized for certain character traits like responsibility, creativity, and independence. When I would attend, stepping back into the space, I felt both a sense of connection and otherness. I would excitedly tell my friends that I used to attend this church, without really knowing what that meant.

These are a few of the memories I have from my short stint with Bethany United Methodist Church. I do not consider myself to have grown up religious.

In interfaith settings, I find myself coming to the table with no common shared experience or belief to share, but rather just an interest in religion as a whole and the stories that accompany it.

I would not say this position is better or worse than the other, but that I often find myself in the minority. I have begun to consider why this may be.

This is a question I receive often: If I am not religious, why am I interested in interfaith work?

I do not know if I have an answer, or perhaps I am searching for a greater one.

I am interested in a global common experience I did not share and the beliefs to which individuals can dedicate themselves fully.

To use the phrasing of one group member at the Ripple Conference this past spring, I am interested in learning the language to ask the right questions.

I am curious if my beliefs or interests would be different had my parents continued to attend church or be a part of a religious community, or if my participation in interfaith work would be labeled as more “valid.”

Regardless, I find myself happy to be here, in a space that facilitates and encourages this type of discourse, embracing my “none-ness.”

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