Given how much easier than the truth lies can be, it's amazing that the kids I work with ever tell the truth.
A boy came into my office today to apologize. I'd gotten an e-mail earlier in the day from one of our tech guys, telling me that the young man in question had come in with a shattered screen and the story that he'd left it on his desk Saturday night, and someone came into his room while he was sleeping and vandalized it. He came into my office, however, to follow up on an e-mail he'd sent earlier in the day, apologizing for making up a story to relieve himself of culpability: the real story, he said, was that he'd fallen asleep watching a movie and apparently knocked it off his top-bunk bed while he was asleep.
While he was there, we got to talking about his classes, and settled on his humanities class, since it's a class that I think he could be doing better in. He started telling me about the project he was working on, a persuasive essay that is, vaguely, about "atheism vs. monotheism." He told me then that he had been an atheist for four years, but that he's recently become an agnostic.
I asked him if he could tell me what the difference was and, although he thought he could, he turned out to be wrong. That's fine with me, as it gave me a chance to discuss the difference between metaphysics and epistemology. He seemed to get it.
"What did you major in?" he asked me. When I told him English and music, he seemed surprised, and wondered how I knew so much about religion.
Oh, where to begin? The value of a broad, liberal arts education? Instead, after clarifying that, after all, I was actually talking about philosophy rather than religion, I told him that I'd also grown up going to church (religiously, so to speak), that I'd paid attention in Sunday School, and that I'd thought seriously about the issues involved. And then, sometime in college, I realized I didn't believe in God any more.
That really shocked him. If I'm not mistaken, it seems that his switch from atheist to agnostic, although he seemed to understand agnosticism as something like "spiritual but not religious," was motivated less by actual belief and more by a desire to fit in. Well, make that not stand out so much. As an atheist, he was a target, in some of his peers' minds just one step above--or perhaps sideways from--a satanist. Other Christians, you can write them off as basically the same as you (albeit with some disagreements). Other religions, you can rationalize as different paths to the same goal. An atheist, though, even if he doesn't say anything more than "I don't believe in God," is a direct challange to the believer's beliefs. An agnostic, on the other hand, isn't nearly so threatening. They may still want to convert him, but he's not "asking for" a fight in the same way.
Like I said: given how much easier than the truth lies can be, it's a wonder kids ever tell the truth.
It seemed to really mean something to this young man to find out that someone else is "on his side." We are not only in the heart of Indiana, but we're at a school that requires attendance at some kind of religious service each week. Most of his peers are active and outspoken believers, and any who aren't probably don't talk much about it. I've been comfortable in my own skin long enough that it's easy to forget how hard it can be to stand up for what you believe when doing so makes you different--and for many people, that will be different in a bad way, not just an interesting one.
At some point, he made a comment to the effect that atheists tend to have the smart people on their side--the scientists, the reasonable, what have you, but I had to caution him against generalization. There are, I reminded him, lots of very smart Christians. And Muslims and Jews, and on and on. Likewise, as an atheist, you will find people "on your side" who you wish weren't: people who haven't thought through their views or don't have a good reason for believing what you have spent a lot of intellectual energy to arrive at. No matter whether you're talking about religion or politics or anything else, you will usually find that, whatever your position, there are idiots who agree with you and very intelligent people who don't.
I felt I had to make this point. When you're not quite comfortable owning your beliefs and your identity, it can be easy to put things into black and white, us and them, terms, to write off those who disagree with you. Not only is that often inaccurate, but who likes sanctimonious people anyway?