Sigh.

So last night one of the new Genome Sciences grad students held a little get together so everyone in our incoming class could meet each other. Overall it was fun – everyone seemed very nice, and I think we’ll have a good group. Not to mention our host totally impressed everyone with his fancy cooking skills.

But it ended on a sour note for me. My ears perked up when I heard someone mention Richard Dawkins. Thinking I just found a new friend, I happily said I was a fan of his. A couple of the people there quickly started making comments about how much they used to like him when he stuck to biology, but not now that he talks about atheism. I commented that I like all of his stuff, and someone claimed that Dawkins was a militant atheist (said with that particular sort of disdain you probably recognize) and wasn’t any different from religious extremists who go around blowing stuff up.

Wow.

It’s not exactly a new argument. Actually, the reason I was so surprised to hear it was precisely because it’s such an old trope that has been debunked repeatedly. I retorted that “militant” atheists simply disagree with people, not go around murdering or converting people. But it went on and on. It was the standard “You’re an asshole if you say someone’s religious beliefs are wrong” argument.

I asked if they had even read stuff like the God Delusion, since Dawkins really isn’t as aggressive as people make him out to be. They claimed to have done so. I gave up defending Dawkins and instead commented that it can be seen as a “Good cop, Bad cop” approach. Aggression works at reaching some people, and that’s what Dawkins does. Sympathy and diplomacy works better with some people, and other authors do that. But then the discussion just devolved into attacks, with one guy claiming outspoken atheists like Dawkins are only in it for the money, and he’s just some pompous old British guy who can’t even defend his arguments on TV.

Yeah, it was frustrating, to say the least. I just wish I had this comic with me:After last night, I recognize how spoiled I’ve been the last three years. Pretty much all of my social interaction at Purdue has been through the Society of Non-Theists. Sure, I’m civil and friendly with my classmates and coworkers. But all of my close friends were made through SNT, and I didn’t really hang out with anyone else.

Why? Because I automatically felt comfortable around those people.

I’m not saying I can’t be friends with religious people. Heck, some of the nicest people there last night were the most religious, and the ones debating with me weren’t very religious. But when I walk into a crowd where I know everyone is an atheist, or at least sympathetic toward atheists (like at skeptical events), I can let my guard down.

I don’t have to be prepared to debate and defend myself at any given moment.

I don’t have to awkwardly deal with people assuming I’m religious.

I don’t have to listen to people equating my outspokenness with suicide bombers.

And I don’t have to purposefully hide parts of my life because I’m afraid it’ll alienate people from me. Last night I was sure as hell not going to mention how most of my blogging is about atheism and as aggressive as Dawkins, or that I founded a club for atheist students, or that I was on the board for the Secular Student Alliance. And when someone asked how I had met Richard Dawkins, I didn’t mention how we’re being published together in the same book about atheism. I lied by omission about something I’m incredibly proud about.

Immediately afterward I felt bad for not being true to myself, but these are going to be my coworkers for the next five years. I don’t bring up religion or my atheism in class or at work because I don’t want it to be an issue, just as I try not to bring up politics. But when it is brought up, I’m not the type to stand there and take it. And thus I feel like the odd woman out.

But when I had dinner with the Seattle Atheists on Sunday night? I immediately felt like I was part of the group. I was so comfortable around them – it felt like I had already been their friend for years. The same thing happens whenever I have a blog meetup, or attend a skeptical conference. We may have different political opinions or hobbies, but everyone can sigh in relief at having one awkward wall already broken down.

This post is partially to get how I feel off my chest, since it’s been kind of festering. It’s partially to illustrate why atheist social networks are so important to people. And it’s partially to sympathize with those of you who haven’t been as lucky as me to have all these atheist social networks. I forgot what it was like being the token “militant” atheist in a group. I’ll survive, but it’s just not fun going into social situations on the defensive. Heck, even writing this post makes me a little nervous, since I’m sure some GS people will read it and I don’t want them to take it the wrong way.

Thankfully the Seattle Atheists are having their game night tonight, so I’m looking forward to that more than ever. It’s still a bit ironic, though. People built up me moving to Seattle as my escape to some secular paradise. At least in Indiana I can always assume I’m going to be in the minority. Here, it’s just a little more disappointing when I am.