Thursday, 16 June 2016

An Atheist Reflection on a Catholic Upbringing - Vanessa Gomez Brake

This is the eleventh post in the Interfaith Ramadan 2016 series. Articles written by contributors from diverse faiths and none will published every day throughout the month of Ramadan. 

In an Interfaith101 course, I once learned the basic “DOS & DON’TS” of engaging in interfaith dialogue. It went something like this:

DO approach dialogue in the pursuit of learning and growth.

DON’T approach interfaith dialogue with the intent to change the other, or convert.

DO be honest and sincere in your interactions.

DON’T assume where points of agreement will exist. Avoid presumptions.

DO be self-reflective and prepared to critique your own tradition. Speak to your current faith traditions and beliefs.

DON’T speak of past faith traditions you practiced, if you have since converted to another.

For the purpose of this blog, I’m going to break one of these rules, by talking about my formerly held religious beliefs. As an atheist, I wish to share with you my experience as a former Catholic, and how it impacts my views and behaviors to this day.

The formative years of my life were spent on the island of Guam. Nearly 95% of the population on this small Pacific island are Christians, the majority of which identify as Roman Catholic. Like most Filipinos, I became well versed in Catholic ritual, traditions, and beliefs at a young age. More than 85% of Filipinos are Roman Catholic. My family attended Mass every Sunday. I was baptized Catholic in the Philippines, and as a teenager, I began receiving communion. On Guam, there are no less than 30 village fiestas each year. Each celebration is based on a Catholic patron saint and includes a village wide feast on Chamorro foods. It was common for schools to have adjusted schedules to accommodate these feast days. As such, my orientation to the world was very much informed by my Catholic upbringing.

Although I am an atheist, I did not hesitate to answer the call to be a godparent to 5 children.  To this day, I observe certain Catholic rituals with my Filipino friends and family. I do not excuse myself from prayers, or even a periodic church service, as I recognize its worth in drawing me in closer connection with those friends and family members. At the same time, I do not pretend to believe in supernaturalism. I no longer say the ‘Hail Mary’ or ‘Our Father.’ While I opt out of weekly mass, Christmas services, rosaries and other such rituals, I will not let my atheism prevent me from experiencing certain milestones within my community.

My formation as a Catholic at a young age has aided me in my interfaith work. Despite my having the experience of being a minority as an Asian woman, I also have a sense of the privileges that come with being part of a majority group, such as Christians do in the U.S. At the same time, my atheism also helps me to empathize with those whose beliefs are in the minority. For example, Christian holidays are widely celebrated and observed by the government and workplaces in the U.S. For Muslims, Baha’i, Hindu and other minority groups in the U.S., holy day observations are not necessarily built into their workplace calendar. Employees may need to rely on using their limited paid vacation days, just so they can observe special occasions. Furthermore, vacation days are not guaranteed for all. The same respect shown to Christian holidays may not be allotted for those observing Ramadan, Lunar New Year, Naw Ruz, etc.  Employees may even be negatively judged for requesting such days off, which may alienate them from some of their co-workers. As a Catholic, I often took the holiday season for granted. Now, as an atheist, I am more keenly aware of how Christian seasons dictate the schedule of Americans.

When it comes to interfaith engagement, I think it is OK to speak of your prior traditions and how they inform your life to this day. It is possible to talk about previously held beliefs in a respectful manner that does not denigrate the religion. Some of the “DOS & DON’T’S” of interfaith that I learned revolved around the creation of a safe space, in which engaging discussions across faith may occur. For some interfaith groups, there is a real fear of conflict and of alienating others. However, at some point interfaith dialogue must go beyond certain niceties, in order to be truly impactful on its participants. Those in dialogue should not shy away from sharing their full and authentic selves, and even actively explore difficult dialogue topics. Interfaith dialogue needs to enter this substantive place for its impact to also go beyond the walls of that meeting place. . It is by speaking truthfully with others, that we may come to know ourselves better. It is through interfaith work that I came to know it is alright to be both an atheist and culturally Catholic. Some atheists and some Catholics make issue with that statement But in the interfaith world, my whole self is welcomed.

In her role at the Office for Religious Life at Stanford University, Vanessa Gomez Brake coordinates programs and events which nurture spiritual, religious and ethical life within the campus community. Vanessa is also co-President of the San Francisco Bay Area Humanists, where she assists in the coordination of lectures, discussions, book club and service projects for the secular community. 

Previous Post: 
Forget about the Fasting. What about the Food?! - Vicki Garlock

Related Posts: 
In An Age Of Sectarianism Divided We Fall - J.P. Sargeant
Is Prayer A Waste Of Time? - Jeremy Rodell
I Have No Earthly Reason To Be Fasting. So Why Do It? - SJ Jacobs

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for sharing! I'm so glad you broke that last rule to speak about your past religious beliefs. :-) Also, I love your hair!


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