Due to a bizarre sequence of events, I live in Utah. I originally came from the "Bible belt", but even so, Utah was a whole new world to me. The vast majority of the state's population is Mormon. I was dimly aware of this before moving here over a decade ago, but the true meaning did not sink in until I'd been on the job for a few months. My first full-time job was at a then-major software company (Novell, not that it matters.) I started noticing "holy books" on shelves in peoples' offices. This was a bizarre concept to me; I would have expected that this would be disallowed or at least frowned upon because it was not work related. I made a few friends with coworkers (of the faith, as probabilities would dictate) and eventually gently inquired. Turns out, current practice was quite minor. In past incarnations of the company (WordPerfect), company meetings were routinely started with prayer. At this time, ten years ago, I was not a self-declared atheist, but even so this all made me incredulous and uncomfortable.
Among my set of friends at the time were a man and woman, both a few years younger than myself. The man, Eric let's call him, was freshly back from his religious mission. I was friendly, and yet clearly not one of the fold, so he eagerly set about trying to show me the light. The woman (Becky) was also of the persuasion. I don't remember the details of the conversation, but I do remember holding my moral ground and yet rejecting their religious advances.
What stands out above all was Becky's incredulous comment: "You're not Mormon? But you're nice."
At the time, the comment zinged past and made no great impression on me. But it was like a barb, embedded in the flesh, working its way deeper and festering more and more over time. From my present vantage point, I almost boil over the self-rightousness of that comment. What a narrow view of the world.
Fast-forward eight or so years, and I am working at another company, with another set of friends. Once again, talking with a guy back from a mission by a few years, and the conversation turned slightly religious. This time, I expressed my skepticism quite clearly. The response: "Tsk, Tsk, Tsk, Chuck. You'll learn someday. You'll learn."
I'm not kidding -- I was tsk-tsk-tsk'd by a younger coworker for dismissing a religious claim. This was clearly a guy headed for an elder position in his church, with that sort of condescending "I know better than you do" attitude. He was armed with a holy book, so he had life figured out. (If only it really were so simple.)
What really started my thoughts this evening was reflecting on what I value, and how I might work to improve the world in those areas. (Volunteer efforts, perhaps. Or where I might be able to strike up intellectual conversations.) I was looking forward, not back. But to improve the world as a humanist, as an atheist, I believe you have to educate people. It all starts with education, opening minds. There is joy, and necessity, in rocking the boat.
And yet the condescending attitudes I encounter in Utah are depressing at times. These people have been told since birth that they belong to "the one true church." But for all I know, maybe by being the one nice non-Mormon, or the one who actually questioned the dogma, I caused a slight crack in the belief system, and a seed will someday grow in that crack.
I flirt with depression at times. The condescending attitudes of the ignorant are infuriating. But this is when I must remind myself to think like the environmentalists: Think global, act local.
Dream big. Start small.