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Atheists and the politics of passing


2xx1xy1JD

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Greta Christina has written about the ethics of concealing one's atheism:

http://freethoughtblogs.com/greta/2014/ ... r-atheism/ (unbroken because I'm pretty sure she doesn't mind)

This got me thinking about something that Greta doesn't explicitly address. The very fact that she asks this question shows that revealing that one is an atheist is a choice. An atheist knows that it is possible to pass. They also know that, aside from person comfort and integrity, there is no compelling reason to reveal their status.

Is this "privilege of passing" acknowledged in the atheist community?

How does it affect their politics and activism?

From my personal POV, I know that in Toronto, I have the ability to "pass" as non-Jewish, because neither my name nor my appearance are distinctive. Both my husband and I have had experiences where we saw different treatment than those were more identifiable.

When it comes to religious issues, though, we always outed ourselves. It wasn't a question of whether someone would react well or not (although in a case of life or death, we'd conceal identity). Schools and workplaces were always told about major Jewish holidays, for example. It might not be convenient to say, "no, I can't do the trial on these days" to my client and the other lawyer, or to refuse to eat tortiere (pork pies) on a school trip to Quebec, or for my parents to explain to teachers that no, reading the New Testament to students each morning is not appropriate, but we never saw it as a choice.

The flip side is that we were pretty quick to lobby for our rights and then insist on them. I don't think that there would be the same sort of activism if we didn't feel compelled to assert our rights.

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Maybe it is a Midwestern U.S. thing, but I never see this as much of an issue. People here don't sit around discussing religion in casual conversation or the workplace. I have no idea what my neighbors religious beliefs are--we talk to our neighbor on the other side of the wall frequently and know her well. But we have not the slightest clue about that. I sub teach and sit in staff lunchrooms and have got to know a few of the teachers, particularly at one school, pretty well. I know the ages and genders of their children, in some cases what their spouses do, where a few of them went to college or even high school, but I have not the slightest idea what their religious beliefs are.

Are there actually places where people spend time talking about such things?

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i only know that one of my current coworkers is religious because she's talked about doing stuff with her church before, and she needs certain days off for that sometimes. other than that, no one else has volunteered anything. now, granted, i never worked when i was living in georgia, but i've worked in wisconsin, pennsylvania, ohio, and now minnesota, and religion was never something that was really talked about. the vaguest religious thing was that one place i worked for in pa...around christmas time, when we had a tree up, someone also set up a menorah and lit it according to the days. i have no idea who in the company was jewish, though, so i'm not sure if it was for or done by someone specific or done to be inclusive, "just in case". *shrug*

honestly, i'm not always completely bold with proclaiming my pagan status. i do wear an amulet, but no one is really aware of loki's symbol anyway, so it just looks like a cool engraving. the religious bias in the states is heavily christian, for the most part, and while i wouldn't think the people i work with would treat me any different, i tread carefully anyway.

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i only know that one of my current coworkers is religious because she's talked about doing stuff with her church before, and she needs certain days off for that sometimes. other than that, no one else has volunteered anything. now, granted, i never worked when i was living in georgia, but i've worked in wisconsin, pennsylvania, ohio, and now minnesota, and religion was never something that was really talked about. the vaguest religious thing was that one place i worked for in pa...around christmas time, when we had a tree up, someone also set up a menorah and lit it according to the days. i have no idea who in the company was jewish, though, so i'm not sure if it was for or done by someone specific or done to be inclusive, "just in case". *shrug*

honestly, i'm not always completely bold with proclaiming my pagan status. i do wear an amulet, but no one is really aware of loki's symbol anyway, so it just looks like a cool engraving. the religious bias in the states is heavily christian, for the most part, and while i wouldn't think the people i work with would treat me any different, i tread carefully anyway.

But clearly, your co-workers are not bold with declaring their religious preferences, either. And that's what I'm saying. Maybe it is a regional/cultural thing, but I just don't see the big issue of anyone--pagan, any stripe of Christian, atheist, agnostic, etc...having to worry about "passing" as anything because it is not a matter of discussion. Now dealing with family situations is obviously different and potentially problematic (and atheism is not the only problem--I have fundamentalist relatives that are not particularly amused that I became Catholic). But general day to day life...in my rather small town pretty conservative part of the world, people still are not talking about their religious beliefs or lack thereof in casual settings. Someone might reference a church event but no one is jumping on which denomination and debating Catholic vs Protestant or the merits of Calvinism in the staff workroom. And someone might mention sleeping in on Sundays and no one cares either. There is still an ethic here that someone else's religion, or lack thereof, is, in general, not your business. The evangelicals I worked with at the Christian school struggled with it because it is just not polite to go bother your neighbors about church yet that was their teaching. (The solution, if anyone is curious, was to emphasize "friendship evangelism" which I find far more objectionable personally, but that is a different topic).

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But clearly, your co-workers are not bold with declaring their religious preferences, either. And that's what I'm saying. Maybe it is a regional/cultural thing, but I just don't see the big issue of anyone--pagan, any stripe of Christian, atheist, agnostic, etc...having to worry about "passing" as anything because it is not a matter of discussion.

perhaps. but, and maybe this is just my paranoid side coming through, i worry that perhaps their tune would change if they knew i followed a path that wasn't even remotely a "major religion" and far from christianity. like, the welcome rug is down until you specify something out of the norm and then it's rolled back up.

again, could just be me and my paranoia. wouldn't be the first time. :P but i spose it's better safe than sorry.

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Maybe it is a Midwestern U.S. thing, but I never see this as much of an issue. People here don't sit around discussing religion in casual conversation or the workplace.

...

Are there actually places where people spend time talking about such things?

Yes.

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I will just share my experience in recent years.

From 2011-2014, I worked at a small regional certified public accounting firm. Everyone definitely knew the religious identity of everyone else. Several people attended the same church, all active.

There were never religious discussions. Some ppl got teased a little about things like not eating pork, but an atheist would probably be uncomfortable there.

Now I work at a gubmint job. About a quarter ppl here I know that they go to a Christian church. It is not part of day-to-day life like it was at the firm.

I've never worked anywhere where things were discussed like theology. No political talk either. Some things are best never brought up at work.

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On a Freakonomics podcast, they interviewed a man who had to move around a lot for his job, mostly in the South. He and his wife were atheists, which led to a lot of uncomfortable conversations at work when he was truthful about it. He ended up having to develop a system. Whenever he moved to a new area, he would look up the name of the largest megachurch in the area--the kind that would have over 20 services on the weekends. Then if someone asked which church he went to, he would give the name of the megachurch. That way, if the person asking him went to the same church, that person wouldn't think it was unusual that he had never run into the man at church.

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But clearly, your co-workers are not bold with declaring their religious preferences, either. And that's what I'm saying. Maybe it is a regional/cultural thing, but I just don't see the big issue of anyone--pagan, any stripe of Christian, atheist, agnostic, etc...having to worry about "passing" as anything because it is not a matter of discussion. Now dealing with family situations is obviously different and potentially problematic (and atheism is not the only problem--I have fundamentalist relatives that are not particularly amused that I became Catholic). But general day to day life...in my rather small town pretty conservative part of the world, people still are not talking about their religious beliefs or lack thereof in casual settings. Someone might reference a church event but no one is jumping on which denomination and debating Catholic vs Protestant or the merits of Calvinism in the staff workroom. And someone might mention sleeping in on Sundays and no one cares either. There is still an ethic here that someone else's religion, or lack thereof, is, in general, not your business. The evangelicals I worked with at the Christian school struggled with it because it is just not polite to go bother your neighbors about church yet that was their teaching. (The solution, if anyone is curious, was to emphasize "friendship evangelism" which I find far more objectionable personally, but that is a different topic).

I get what you are saying, because I certainly live in an area which is not remotely fundie and in which privacy is valued.

At the same time - you are still talking about a setting in which people can choose to keep this area of their lives private. That's not a criticism, just a fact. If you are a Muslim woman wearing a head scarf, or a Sikh man wearing a turban, or an observant Jew explaining that you cannot work on Yom Kippur, you CAN'T be totally private about your religion. You may not go preaching to others or want in-depth discussion with strangers, but you will be identifying your beliefs.

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There are also areas where people ask which church you attend, and are horrified if you say you don't. Or who don't understand why a Christmas tree and party is not a secular thing, then later claim that "people who come here should celebrate our holidays." Or where prayer is a given at public events. And where not being Christian means you're evil and/or need to be saved.

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I get what you are saying, because I certainly live in an area which is not remotely fundie and in which privacy is valued.

At the same time - you are still talking about a setting in which people can choose to keep this area of their lives private. That's not a criticism, just a fact. If you are a Muslim woman wearing a head scarf, or a Sikh man wearing a turban, or an observant Jew explaining that you cannot work on Yom Kippur, you CAN'T be totally private about your religion. You may not go preaching to others or want in-depth discussion with strangers, but you will be identifying your beliefs.

Fun fact #1: I worked part time for the nearest regional ADL office for ten months. I am fully aware of such issues. Probably more than you are. But this article was about atheists trying to pass as (most likely) Christians which does not involve any specific observations that are a tell.

Fun fact #2: We have an ethnically Jewish last name which has at times meant people mistakenly think we are Jewish (the family knows of only Catholics for at least four generations, but there was likely a conversion at some point or someone married a Catholic girl and the babies were raised accordingly). Combined with my working, briefly, for ADL with offices in the Jewish Community Center, for that period of time, even more people thought we were Jewish. But it was not because they were asking us.

I do think this is a very regional thing. I know that religion and "where do you go to church" is a normal topic of conversation in many parts of the South especially. But it typically is not here in the Midwest. Yes, the assumption may be that everyone is some variety of Christian, and (remember fun fact #1) some people can react to other faiths with inappropriate curiosity and often are quite misinformed about other traditions (and misunderstanding and misinformation are the biggest issues for people of non-Christian faiths that seek the input of ADL in this area). But I also know that no one is actively hunting down atheists and very few people are inquiring about where their neighbors, co-workers, etc...go to religious services or if they do at all. We don't talk about politics and religion in polite company in these parts.

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I will just share my experience in recent years.

From 2011-2014, I worked at a small regional certified public accounting firm. Everyone definitely knew the religious identity of everyone else. Several people attended the same church, all active.

There were never religious discussions. Some ppl got teased a little about things like not eating pork, but an atheist would probably be uncomfortable there.

Now I work at a gubmint job. About a quarter ppl here I know that they go to a Christian church. It is not part of day-to-day life like it was at the firm.

I've never worked anywhere where things were discussed like theology. No political talk either. Some things are best never brought up at work.

I'm curious - if there were never religious discussions how did everyone know the religious identity of everyone else?

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I'm curious - if there were never religious discussions how did everyone know the religious identity of everyone else?

"What church do y'all go to? Do you know so-and-so? My kids used to go to there.'

To me, that is not the same as discussing theology, debating which flavor of Protestantism is really the one going to Heaven, or other more divisive topics apt to lead to quarrels and hard feelings.

Also, one way it comes out is that during tax season work on Sat is required. One person claimed religious exemption. Other people say they can't come on Sunday because they have church. So it gets out that way as well.

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Again, to clarify, I don't mean to use "privilege" as an insult. It's just an observation that atheists generally have a choice about whether to "out" themselves, and that some other religious minorities do not.

It's interesting to think about what affect this has on attitudes and activism. My personal experience is that it's religious minorities who tend to be most likely to stand up and say, "this goes against my beliefs, please respect separation of church and state and my rights to be free from discrimination". There have been atheist activists, of course, but the choice of blending in with the majority was there. I remember my mom teaching at a school with a lot of JW students. Just before the national anthem, a bunch of kids would go into the hallway (because JWs are pacifists and national anthems are against their beliefs). From a really young age, they knew that they would go against the flow, and they'd need to explain why they wouldn't do certain things. In some minority religious communities, it's basically hard-wired into everyone that you need to explain what you can't do, and insist that you have the right to freedom from discrimination. The atheist kid in the class may think "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance is stupid, but it's only the most opinionate and fearless that will actually bother to challenge it.

**my experience is based on growing up in Toronto in the 1970s and 1980s, a time when Toronto was shifting from being a fairly WASPy society with heavy Anglican influence to an extremely multicultural society. There was no ban on prayer in public school then. The Lord's Prayer was said daily when I was in elementary school, and there were some teachers who did occasional Bible readings in the morning as well. My mom taught in several schools in areas that were undergoing rapid transition - you'd have WASP teachers and a suddenly multicultural student body, and my mom was often the one explaining basic religious freedom and respect to the other staff.

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Maybe it is a Midwestern U.S. thing, but I never see this as much of an issue. People here don't sit around discussing religion in casual conversation or the workplace. I have no idea what my neighbors religious beliefs are--we talk to our neighbor on the other side of the wall frequently and know her well. But we have not the slightest clue about that. I sub teach and sit in staff lunchrooms and have got to know a few of the teachers, particularly at one school, pretty well. I know the ages and genders of their children, in some cases what their spouses do, where a few of them went to college or even high school, but I have not the slightest idea what their religious beliefs are.

Are there actually places where people spend time talking about such things?

Yes. The Midwestern U.S.

It's why I left and rarely go back.

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This hits close to home for me. I had to break it to my mom last Easter that I am an atheist but only because she was pressing me about Jesus/religious stuff. She likes to pretend I'm in a "doubting Thomas" phase.

Where I live (the south) religious people are vocal about their beliefs and I do dread coming across another situation where someone may have a problem with my lack of belief. Someone will probably get their feelings hurt. I do feel persecuted somewhat-basically the same way radical Christians do. I might as well be a monster! :cracking-up:

Oh, the eye rolls when I have to deal with religious clients!

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Maybe it is a Midwestern U.S. thing, but I never see this as much of an issue. People here don't sit around discussing religion in casual conversation or the workplace. I have no idea what my neighbors religious beliefs are--we talk to our neighbor on the other side of the wall frequently and know her well. But we have not the slightest clue about that. I sub teach and sit in staff lunchrooms and have got to know a few of the teachers, particularly at one school, pretty well. I know the ages and genders of their children, in some cases what their spouses do, where a few of them went to college or even high school, but I have not the slightest idea what their religious beliefs are.

Are there actually places where people spend time talking about such things?

Yes. The South. Help me.

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Gallup poles repeatedly show that atheists are the least trusted group, even less trusted than Muslims, who we all know are all terrorists, even the newborns, because Taliban. We've had exactly 1 politician in American history be elected to political office running as an open atheist, the same number as how many politicians have been elected while being openly transgender. More open-Muslims have been elected to office. At least Muslims believe in a god, is the thinking on this, and since atheists don't, we're the danger. I've lost friends when they found out I'm atheist. They can't be close to someone who doesn't love their god as much as they do. I've been estranged from some family. How often does someone get estranged for being Christian?

There is a privilege to being Christian in the US, and if you don't think it matters, think about the default religion you're presumed to be unless you're wearing clothing identifying you with a religion. That's Christian. If you're not a Christian, or even a Jewish or Muslim person, you're deviating from being normal since you don't believe in any gods, which means you must be a bad person and how can you have morals without a god?

I get really tired of being told to just pray and accept God if I'm not feeling well or am going through depression, and if you read the comments on any article about Brittany Maynard, the terminally ill cancer patient who will die November 1, a lot of comments, most of them, tell her to pray because the presumption is that she's either a Christian, or she's an atheist whose so sick because she doesn't believe in any god, and either way, she's wrong wrong wrong.

We atheists do have to know how to pass as Christian, and it's not comfortable.

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All I can say as an Aussie atheist is that I am gob smacked. I have never even vaguely felt that my lack of religious belief was an issue, let alone felt obliged to "pass" as something I am not.

We're pretty laid back about this stuff and I can't fathom having to keep religion up front in my day to day thought processes just to fit in.

Our office divides along all sorts of arbitrary lines of conversation such as coffee vs tea drinkers, Aussie rules vs soccer, Big Brother vs X Factor etc. religion almost never comes up. I know who watches what TV' show but have no idea about anyone's religion except for one girl who is a Buddhist and that only came up because she mentioned it in the context of something else.

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All I can say as an Aussie atheist is that I am gob smacked. I have never even vaguely felt that my lack of religious belief was an issue, let alone felt obliged to "pass" as something I am not.

We're pretty laid back about this stuff and I can't fathom having to keep religion up front in my day to day thought processes just to fit in.

Our office divides along all sorts of arbitrary lines of conversation such as coffee vs tea drinkers, Aussie rules vs soccer, Big Brother vs X Factor etc. religion almost never comes up. I know who watches what TV' show but have no idea about anyone's religion except for one girl who is a Buddhist and that only came up because she mentioned it in the context of something else.

When I was in school (four year state university) I worked a part-time job in a Dean's office. Each college has a Dean - business, education, science, etc. One day the Dean (a woman) was telling us that her daughter made high school cheerleader (a highly prestigious sought-after activity for girls where football is almost a religion itself in the American South) and now her family was going to have to start going to church somewhere because all the cheerleaders go to church somewhere.

My daughter is now a freshman in that high school. She was a cheerleader for two years in middle school and will try out for her sophomore year. I'd bet serious money that the vast majority, if not all, the cheerleaders have some kind of Christian church affiliation.

Also, not too long ago, some small town cheerleaders won (I think they won) the right to put John 3:16 on the huge banner the football runs through at the start of the game. Yeah I googled it. This was all over the news in this state.

http://www.beaumontenterprise.com/hardi ... 673111.php

But see, I used to never watch TV, for years and years. I got cable this past summer and not sure all this TLC-watching is an improvement in my life! I was often on the 'outside' at work as everyone seemed to watch all the same shows and there was often water-cooler type discussion, of which I could never take part.

And sports. ERMAGAD. Try not being a sports fan, like me. I swear some of the women faked this big interest in sports when a male would come around. Ugh.

Many years ago, I worked in an office where people drank together a lot after work. I had to find another job because I didn't drink, never went to the bar, and was so on the outside of that culture that I felt very unhappy. Nobody was rude or mean to me about it, but clearly a lot of bonding over drinks occurred and I was simply left out.

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And sports. ERMAGAD. Try not being a sports fan, like me. I swear some of the women faked this big interest in sports when a male would come around. Ugh.

I was raised around a lot of sports (we even had a room in the house dedicated to team paraphernalia), and am genuinely a major fan of baseball and football. I'm always sad after the Super Bowl because it'll be a few more months before I've got games to watch again. Sports is pretty much my religion. But even I don't get the way some people make it like a literal religion around which everything else in life must revolve.

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All I can say as an Aussie atheist is that I am gob smacked. I have never even vaguely felt that my lack of religious belief was an issue, let alone felt obliged to "pass" as something I am not.

We're pretty laid back about this stuff and I can't fathom having to keep religion up front in my day to day thought processes just to fit in.

The religious group it's commonly accepted as okay to not accept is atheists. Since we believe in nothing, we're a threat, while Muslims, Jews, and so one, are just "misguided, but at least they believe in god."

I don't live in a bible belt area, but am in an area where there's a lot of religion. We have to teach our kids to pass because admitting to openly being an atheist is NOT accepted. Better to be a Jehovah's Witness or Mormon, even in the eyes of the other, than to be an atheist.

In America, a lot of our politicians use religion as their platforms because religion is that big of a deal in the country the pilgrims fled to supposedly for religious freedom. A few years back, a rumor started that our president is a closet-Muslim instead of Christian, and that very rumor of not being Christian is enough to have tons of people calling for impeachment. If you're not a Christian and aren't in a pocket of others who share your beliefs, you better hide it if you don't want to risk being shunned in any way, and if you're atheist, keep your trap shut if you don't want people around you to look down on you.

Yet Christians claim to be oppressed here.

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I was raised around a lot of sports (we even had a room in the house dedicated to team paraphernalia), and am genuinely a major fan of baseball and football. I'm always sad after the Super Bowl because it'll be a few more months before I've got games to watch again. Sports is pretty much my religion. But even I don't get the way some people make it like a literal religion around which everything else in life must revolve.

I started watching NFL games solely because it helps to socialize in business. For me, it's the same reason that my high school had us all learn how to golf, play tennis, and dance. Not only are they good activities (I would have been on the tennis team anyway) for lifelong fitness, they are often a part of networking events.

Turns out, I actually like football, once I joined a fantasy league and had some sort of "stake" in the game. It might be dumb to try and force an interest in professional sports, but the fact is that a lot of people enjoy it. And it's something to talk about at work. There are so few non-work related conversations that HR lets us have these days.

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When I lived in the South after leaving the church for paganism, I continued to pass. My social network and acquaintances depended upon it. I would have been branded a devil worshiper/satanist and lost all credibility, and no Good ChristianTM would ever allow their precious blessings to associate with mine.

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The religious group it's commonly accepted as okay to not accept is atheists. Since we believe in nothing, we're a threat, while Muslims, Jews, and so one, are just "misguided, but at least they believe in god."

I don't live in a bible belt area, but am in an area where there's a lot of religion. We have to teach our kids to pass because admitting to openly being an atheist is NOT accepted. Better to be a Jehovah's Witness or Mormon, even in the eyes of the other, than to be an atheist.

In America, a lot of our politicians use religion as their platforms because religion is that big of a deal in the country the pilgrims fled to supposedly for religious freedom. A few years back, a rumor started that our president is a closet-Muslim instead of Christian, and that very rumor of not being Christian is enough to have tons of people calling for impeachment. If you're not a Christian and aren't in a pocket of others who share your beliefs, you better hide it if you don't want to risk being shunned in any way, and if you're atheist, keep your trap shut if you don't want people around you to look down on you.

Yet Christians claim to be oppressed here.

I think that varies hugely by area though. When I was working, in my small, close knit non- profit, I knew the religious or lack of religious beliefs of about half my staff. But only because of things like being invited to a baby's Christening, or a Wiccan Wedding, or co-workers coming in with ash marks on their forehead on Ash Wednesday. So basically, it just wouldn't generally come up that someone was athiest. Because there aren't any rituals that are involved with being an athiest, so how would casual friends or co-workers know? No one in my area, in my experience, would dream of asking an aquantince or co-worker what their religious beliefs are ( and " what church do you go to" falls in that category IMHO)

I think that's the whole point of the original post. If there aren't any visible symbols, is it hiding who you are if you don't speak up.

In my area, I can't imagine anyone remotely caring if co-workers or friends were atheists. Probably someone deeply religious would care if their close family or friends weren't, but that's about it. I can't think of anyone who has had family or friends cut them out because they are atheist. But atheists are pretty common in my area. Definitely more socially acceptable than Jehovah Witnesses -- who people tend to be uncomfortable around -- due to feeling like they have to screen out mentions of birthdays etc.

{L_MESSAGE_HIDDEN}:
In my own family and close friends there is a really big range of how religious people are. Everything from born-again evangelicals, to fanatical atheists ( because Athiests can be just as strident as anyone) , " regular" Athiests, " regular" Protestants, agnostic, to new-agey, to Buddhist , to extremely liberal Christian denomination, to Catholic to Catholic +, to who knows cause they don't talk about it
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