December 22, 2018

the thing about imaginary friends

... is that they're imaginary.  And boy, do I know about imaginary friends.  You should hear my illustrated litany of preoccupations with people I want to or do have as friends, role models, anyone who cares.  They unknowingly enjoy rich and busy lives in my imagination, extending fervent friendship and knowing me altogether.

I didn't tell you about that, though, when I replied to your e-mail.  I was kind enough not to say it.

I really was pleased that you suggested we exchange e-mail addresses during the Messiah dress rehearsal.  I like you.  You're easy to talk to and a fellow math nerd, and fully in spite of the Bible verses I noticed tucked into your music folder and your teenage daughters' religion-based home-schooled demeanor in the chairs beside you, I like you, and I'm glad you like me back, even knowing that I'm gay.  That means something.

And knowing that, I was cautiously optimistic in telling you in an e-mail of my tolerant atheism, my reasons for singing each year alongside Christians, how much common ground can be found between us.  It was a risk, intimating that, but those who truly know me would expect nothing less than honest over-disclosure.  It is something that I always, always do.

Your response was both gracious and comprehensive.  Thank you for iterating several times that no subject is off the table, and that you are not afraid of me and hope that I am not afraid of you.

You wondered why I was a little afraid of telling you I am not a believer like you.  You couldn't imagine why I would hesitate.

Then you went on to explain that hearing it made you cry, because I do not believe in your best friend.

You quoted great walls of scripture to me, capitalizing, on average, every third word.  You told me the story of your faith from girlhood, and about how it helped you then, and helps you now as you rear your six children.  You have even lost a child, like me. 

I smiled sadly as I read.  I do not believe in your Best Friend Jesus because he is imaginary.  I do not judge you for having an imaginary friend, nor for contributing mental and emotional energy to the friendship for several decades.  I am more than capable of doing the same.  The construct seems to have given you strength and a worldview by which to live.

I would never in a million years wish that you did not have it.

So why did you say you are now praying for me, that the beautiful words we sing together each Christmas in Messiah will reach my heart and I will see The Light?

I saw your daughter in her uniform at the grocery store this evening.  We smile at each other and say hello every week now, and exchange some chit-chat, having sung together twice.  She's become a lovely young woman and moves with pep and intent.  She's a hard worker and seems to be doing well in her job there. 

Tonight, I saw her and smiled and waved, and she managed a weak smile in return and then looked away.

Did you tell her I am an atheist?  Are you praying together as a family that I will come to love your imaginary friend?

Did you hear the hesitation in her voice last week, when she was my cashier and I asked her where you teach, and she explained that you used to teach math in high school, but now home-school them?  She was a touch embarrassed.  She probably gets a negative reaction when someone finds out.  There's prejudice out there.  People think she's not socialized.  People think she's sheltered.  People figure she's being formed into a cookie-cutter religious freak by zealot parents.  They're pretty unfair, those assumptions and misconceptions, aren't they?  Her voice caught, just a little.  She was afraid to tell me.

You wondered why I was a little afraid of telling you I am not a believer like you.  You couldn't imagine why I would hesitate.

There are prejudices against atheists, too.  Your daughter turned away.  I think perhaps she believes them.  The weekly smiles have now been poisoned.

I don't feel kind about this any more.

I could tell you that I, in turn, am praying for you, that you might see the light and realize that your friend is imaginary, that you would lose your faith.  I could try to persuade you, through sharing my own journey, that you are mistaken to be a Christian.  But I would not do that, because aside from the attendant problems in an atheist praying for you, it would be incredibly rude.

How dare you?  How dare you engage your family in asking your imaginary friend to make me be just like you?  You said you would not reject me because that "would not please the Savior."  Please, tell me the difference between rejecting me on my face and appealing to what you believe is a higher power to change me in the way you think best.

For the first time, I understand other atheists' intolerance of religious evangelicals.  And because I understand it, I will not become a reciprocal evangelical myself. 

I will rise above that.

I will continue to smile sadly and write you back with softened words, and encourage you to keep your imaginary friend.  I will choose to enjoy talking with you, but I will also be watchful and guard my heart, because behind some of your words, there will be something ugly, something your imaginary friend would not condone.  And you will never perceive it's there.


  1. Exceedingly well said. I've found it beggars belief when people try to convince me that I must have 'faith' to believe in something. I do have faith - I believe in me, I believe in my friends, my ability to mother and nurture, to take care of my mother - I believe that I need air, water and food to survive and family and good friends to thrive. I believe in the joy of singing, of creating. I believe in many things - I don't need to believe in a mystical something and I really don't need anyone else shoving their beliefs down my throat.

    Although I will fight for their right to believe. I think that's where we differ from 'them'. They only believe in themselves and are arrogant in that belief. They believe they are right and everyone else is wrong.

    It's sad, that they have an inability to actually think for themselves.

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