It was early November in 2001, two months after 9/11, when I went down to the end of the cul-de-sac to meet the new neighbors. We had just moved into San Ramon a few months earlier ourselves, a semi-upscale San Francisco suburb in the east bay. It promised good public schools, and gave the impression of a safe, friendly environment in which to raise our children. That afternoon several of the local residents were hanging out at the end of the block with the new neighbors, sharing beers and casual conversation, watching their children play together in the street. I joined them, introduced myself, and my [then] one year old daughter and three-year-old son, who both ran off to play with the other kids.
The new neighbors asked me about my children, their ages, where we had moved from, and the like. Then the woman asked me to repeat my last name.
When I told her again she said, "Oh, you're the Jewish couple then? I heard that there was a Jewish family that had moved in recently."
It was clear that she was tickled by the idea of living near Jews. Unlike L.A., or New York, the Bay area has little Jewish population to speak of. Suddenly, the three other couples standing there plugged into our conversation. Though our last name was often mistaken for Jewish, it's derivation was German, and isn't always a Jewish moniker. The woman's assumption was ignorant, but typical, especially in an area where Jews were such a novelty.
"Actually, we're Atheist. We don't practice any religion." I tried to sound casual.
Blank stares. Total silence. It was like I had just said that we were registered child molesters. My words hung like lead in the dead air until one of the neighbors we'd previously met broke the silence.
"You know," she tried to sound casual too. "I heard this broadcast on NPR the other day about Atheists. They're actually very non-violent, friendly people. The Atheist on the air pointed out that you never hear of Atheists blowing up buildings."
The vacuum that followed her comment made it clear that the new neighbors would have preferred we were practicing Jews, or Mormons, or even Muslims at that point. "You mean you don't participate in the holidays?" the new neighbor asked, mystified. "Not even Christmas?"
"No. Not even Christmas."
"Well, Christmas isn't a religious holiday." As absurd as her comment was, I hear it all the time. I refrained from reminding her that Christmas celebrated the birth of Christ, the very foundation of Christianity.
"We have five nights of winter presents which compensates quite nicely," I explained. "And we celebrate birthday's, special occasions, Fourth of July, Thanksgiving and so forth."
She bobbed her head up and down, but I could tell I'd already lost her. I was the anti-Christ, the infidel, the soulless she was so afraid of. And though her fear was unwarranted, there isn't a religious person I can recall that I didn't get the same bounce from when I revealed I was an atheist. No God? No values. It's common wisdom, right?
I didn't set out to set myself apart. My brief stint in Sunday school was forced upon me until I was 13, when my parents had to acquiesce to my unshakeable conviction that there was no God. My mother spent the next 30 years convinced that I would come back to religion when I grew up, got married, had kids. But the certainty of a godless universe, one ruled by entropy, not empathy, still resonates with me. The values I question are those that focus on an afterlife instead of on the life at hand, and the contributions we each can make to insure the survival of our race.
At the start of every December several of the families in the cul-de-sac adorned their front lawns with small cement statues of The Mother Mary and Baby Jesus. They are subtly placed, though clearly visible in clumps of bushes and at the base of towering Redwoods. Christmas lights go up early, and stayed up well into the new year.
Since that first encounter, the new couple has gone out of their way to avoid our family. To date, she and her children ignore us, even my kids casual waves in passing. They do not acknowledge us at the store, in restaurants. The other neighbors do not include our family in their neighborhood parties, nor have they asked my husband to join their Sunday golf group.
When we moved here, I didn't stop to consider the religious leanings of the community. As an atheist, in a monotheistic society, wherever I live I'm on the fringe. I am deeply saddened that my children are being ostracized because of our beliefs. In allowing them to define their own spirituality, I fear I have inadvertently set them up for rejection, condemned them to the fringes, which is a very lonely place to live. But I do not foresee bringing religion into my home. I cannot teach them what I do not believe.
This last holiday season, in a brief lapse of reason, I thought of throwing a Hanukkah party and inviting the neighborhood. If they needed us to be something, we could pretend to be Jewish. But, the thing is, I am proud of who we are and our spiritual choices. And I am proud to be an American, where we are free to practice any religion, or none at all.