© Glendon Mellow, The Flying Trilobite

Embrace the awkward

“Why did you do that? Seriously Dad.”

We were driving back to Atlanta from the triennial North Carolina reunion of Becca’s mostly Southern Baptist extended family. Even though we differ about as much as can be imagined in politics and religion, it’s a family I’m terribly grateful for, and more so all the time. It’s a real pleasure to watch each other raise families and get older.

As we drove, Becca and I did our usual post-game show in the front seat, with the kids chiming in from the back. At one point we hit on something that happened at dinner on the final night.

That’s when I learned I had embarrassed Connor (15).

“It was so awkward,” he said.

Aha. I really should have figured that. “I guess so,” I said. “But I don’t mind a little awkwardness. Helps break the ice sometimes.”

“But this didn’t break ice!” he said, exasperated. “It MADE ice!”

Though it’s almost never mentioned, my worldview seems to be common knowledge in the family. I don’t push too many points, but neither do I leave the lowest-hanging fruit completely unplucked. Most of all, I follow the advice I give in workshops: Be out and normal. Act as if there’s nothing unusual about the religious and nonreligious sharing a world, a country, a family, a table, a marriage, a friendship. Because there isn’t, of course. What’s a tad unusual is for religious folks to know they are sharing all these things with nonbelievers, all the time. It’s a good opportunity to see that the world spins on.

Whenever I have to figure out whether and what to say or do this or that as an atheist among the religious, I tend to operate from that one principle: be out and normal. Things usually go just fine. Once in a while, though, as dads are wont to do, I’ll end up embarrassing the urchins.

After that last supper (stop it), the family patriarch, a good-humored Baptist minister in his 70s, gave away some prizes he’d brought with him — T-shirts, pins, that sort of thing. He asked everyone to write down a number between 1 and 100. We all did.

“Now,” he said, “what I didn’t tell you is that each of the numbers I’ll read off has something to do with me.” He smiled. “The first number is…73. That’s my age.” Woohoo, someone hollered, and won a T-shirt.

Next he called the first two digits in his address, phone number, and Social Security Number, giving away prizes to the closest number.

Then came the finale. With a bit of ceremony, he produced a small wooden box. He told a story of being approached by a man who was raising money for local church kids to go to camp, something like that. He’s a good storyteller and loves an audience, so when at length he opened the hinged box and revealed the contents, he got himself a nice Ooooooo from the congregation.

It was an unusual pendant, a chain of copper-colored beads, and hanging at the end, a large black cross with splayed ends, a kind of extended Coptic cross. It was made of black glass, maybe obsidian, with swirls of metallic blue and copper.

“Now,” he said. “I want you to write down another number between 1 and 100 to see who gets this cross.”

I could claim that I hesitated a moment, that I pondered what to do, whether to participate, but no. Instead, I did what the other 45 people in the room did — I wrote a number on the back of a piece of paper and folded it up. That was the normal thing to do, after all. But this is the moment that was shortly to embarrass my fine boy.

When at last Uncle Bill raised his fingers to indicate the number he had chosen, I could only hope that the family atheist was not the only person in the room who was pretty confident that a Baptist minister giving away a cross would choose the number 3.

But I was.

As I unfolded the paper and slowly raised it for all to see, a small gasp went up in the room, or in my head, I’m not sure which. Pastor Bill’s face went ashen, and he looked down, then up again, and sighed, then smiled resignedly. “Okay. It’s yours.”

And here’s where “be out and normal” breaks down a bit. It’s hard to quickly figure out the “normal” way for an atheist among Baptists to accept a cross that he has won (by way of religious insight) from a minister who is also his wife’s uncle. But it’s not hard to figure out why the same moment embarrasses the atheist’s teenage son, sitting at a table of his Baptist cousins.

That I get.

Still, I can’t quite picture myself doing it differently — not writing a number down, for example, or taking Connor’s later advice — “You could have just not shown it!”

But I did show it. And I accepted the cross respectfully, praised the craftsmanship — it really is a striking piece — and later restored color to the pastor’s face by telling him I would be giving it to his (quite devout) sister in recognition of her 20 years as my mother-in-law.

A nice ending, I think, and worth an awkward moment.

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This was written on Tuesday, 02. August 2011 at 13:15 and was filed under belief and believers, diversity, extended family, My kids, nonbelief and nonbelievers. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

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  1. I thoroughly enjoyed this piece. Thank you for sharing.

    Forgive my ignorance, but I could only divine (now you stop) that you chose 3 because of its connection to the Holy Trinity. Am I way off? Your reason doesn’t seem obvious to me, and I’d love to know how you chose 3 ‘with certainty’. Please, kindly share a magician’s (religious scholar’s?) secret?

    The sceptic in me would like to know whether you confirmed that the minister used the same reasoning that you did to pick the number 3? If not, it seems quite possible that you have attributed ‘religious insight’ where there may be none. Surely there will be others left wondering the same.

    Many thanks for your time. I’m a huge fan (of yours; not a giant metal ventilator).

    Comment: alienat – 03. August 2011 @ 5:25 am

  2. @alienat: Sorry, yes — the Trinity is the reason, and I’m surely overstating my certainty there. In fact, I’m going to change that to “confidence.” I semi-confirmed it later when I spoke to him, expressed my surprise that no one else figured out the number, and got a wry smile.

    Comment: Dale – 03. August 2011 @ 8:53 am

  3. I predicted the number three as well! Great story, and wonderfully written. Thanks!

    Comment: Annie – 03. August 2011 @ 5:17 pm

  4. Such a great post, this reminds me that my family reunion is in two weeks, not only will my boyfriend, son and I be facing some pretty religious relatives, but also subtle racists and anti-gay bigots. Should be interesting since Pride weekend for our area is the next week and my mother is taking myself, my son and my sister. We are not quite in our support for LGBT rights but I think the potential good from talking about the issue is worth the temporary tension with people I see about once a year.

    Comment: Erin – 04. August 2011 @ 8:00 am

  5. Haha. I love a wry smile! Thanks for responding to my questions, Dale.

    Comment: alienat – 05. August 2011 @ 2:18 am

  6. I’d’ve thought you’d guessed “3” because of the resurrection myth — rising three days after the cross and all that!

    Comment: Myrmidon – 05. August 2011 @ 3:24 pm

  7. That’s another one. Then there are three crosses on Calvary, Peter’s three denials, the three Marys…threes everywhere you look. One way or another, that’s the go-to number.

    Comment: Dale – 05. August 2011 @ 4:02 pm

  8. Lovely post, and the cross is lovely as well, despite it being a symbol of an execution device. You might regard it as the footnote symbol (officially known as a “dagger” in typography). Anyway, it sounds like you did do the perfectly normal thing, and I completely agree that we should be “out and normal.”

    Comment: Kevin Zimmerman – 07. August 2011 @ 9:57 am

  9. It was clever that you figured out it would be 3. The not-so-clever part was when you went from there to “therefore, I’ll guess 3” instead of “therefore, I’ll guess 98,”

    Comment: chanson – 07. August 2011 @ 10:12 am

  10. @chanson: Perfect. My son’s thinking exactly.

    Comment: Dale – 07. August 2011 @ 1:21 pm

  11. There are three’s all over the Jesus story. Three days, Father son and Holy Ghost. Three Crosses. If its the south we’re talking about, I just drove through Virginia, NC and WV, and the folks down that way had a lot of those 3 Calvary Crosses, a lot of them made of pipes (maybe even PVC). I can imagine future archaeologists discovering them and pondering why the people of this region crucified so many people! And why in threes?

    Comment: blotzphoto – 08. August 2011 @ 11:20 pm

  12. Big ones you can see from the highway…

    Comment: blotzphoto – 08. August 2011 @ 11:20 pm

  13. … And 3 little pigs, goldilocks and the 3 bears, 3 blind mice, the scarecrow cowardly lion and the tin man, the boy cried wolf 3 times, jack went up the beanstalk 3 times… etc… Fairy tales work well with themes of 3.

    To the awkwardness, I think not participating at all would have been subtle but obvious to the family (since they know your heathen ways), and I think just going along with the fun and participating helps fight against some of the pre-conceived notions of atheists as being “downers”. We are participating members of our families and our society, and if WE remove ourselves from that (for example, by simply not writing down a number) then we can’t get upset when believers remove us as well (for example, if the uncle had simply skipped over you). We model to the world how we want to be a part of it, so our desires and our actions should be consistent. Nice work there, Dale!

    Comment: TomZ, a miasma of incandescent plasma – 09. August 2011 @ 11:30 am

  14. Nice writeup, thanks for a good read.
    Sent by Friendly Atheist. Subscribed.

    Comment: jfinite – 12. August 2011 @ 11:34 am

  15. i think its a great way to show religious people that many are atheists _because_ of their knowledge of religion and the bible, not their ignorance of it.

    Comment: tomrcollins76 – 13. August 2011 @ 9:17 pm

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