The Agnostic & the Atheist*

I am not a Democrat. No surprise there for those who know me. I am also not a Republican. Maybe a little surprise there. I have long defined myself as a conservative Independent when it comes to political ideology.  My thinking tends to be relatively closely aligned with my Republican friends, but I have a few liberal leanings and don’t dispute some points made by the Libertarians and Constitution parties.  Although I detest labels, when I recognize a new acquaintance as a “conservative right-wing Christian,” I secretly think to myself, “comfort zone.”

Even having these beliefs, two of my very best friends on Earth, John and Nick, are agnostic and atheist, respectively, and very much left-wing thinkers.  Ironically, I have learned as much about my Christianity from each of them as I have from any other person in my life.

John, the agnostic, has his own set of written beliefs that he lives by. He shared them with me once, and after reading them, I realized what an honor his sharing them was for me.  He had opened up a very important part of his life, knowing that I would likely disagree with him, or even worse, mock him for having a belief system different than mine.

I found the goals he had established for himself to be admirable: Striving to do good, treat people kindly, make friends with people, hold people accountable, be responsible for yourself, etc.  One of his most emphatic principles is the simple reminder that no matter how bad the world is or how adverse the situation or circumstance that befalls us, we are each responsible for our reactions to it.  His credo was lengthy, and he had obviously labored many, many hours developing it and seeking what he believes is the right path.

John once told me that I do a better job living out his ethics than he does. I laughed and told him I was just continually trying, and frequently failing, to be a good Christian.  I jokingly called it trying to live up to “WWJD,” the prevailing Christian phrase at the time being “What Would Jesus Do?”

I believe both John and Nick live their lives in a way that could easily be mistaken for Christian but for the absence of belief in God. Certainly I have received more grace from them than from anyone. As I have walked through life, stumbled and fallen, stepped on toes and done others harm, they have never shunned me or cast a stone.  They have done a better job living up to “WWJD” than I ever have.

I am grateful to know these two men. Avoiding people with different beliefs can easily become my default setting, and I am sure I have done so in the past and probably will subconsciously do so again.  I am profoundly thankful that these two made it through my filtering system.

I was reminded a few years ago of these dear friendships when I was living in a small apartment complex and realized that I had Mexican neighbors.  I had no idea if they were legal or not, but I had my suspicions.  The family was composed of two beautiful little girls, a toddler boy, and mom and dad.

It didn’t take long to notice that the vast majority of people in the complex did not socialize with the Mexican family.  It also did not take long to learn that when I left in the mornings at 7:00 AM, my Hispanic counterpart was already gone, and when I arrived home at 6:00 PM, he had yet to return.  I spoke to him one day, and he explained that he was a bricklayer working in Johnson City but resided here because his girls like their schools.  I related to that, having gone way out of my way many times to ensure my kids stayed in the same schools.  I decided then and there to follow John’s philosophy and be his friend.  I greeted him and his children at every opportunity and encouraged my kids to play with his girls, who were often ignored when the neighborhood kids were playing together.

One evening, I was walking the dog behind the apartments and, as luck would have it, my canine friend received “the call” directly behind this family’s dining room window.  With the light inside and the near-darkness outside, it was impossible for me to not see as they seated themselves at the table for dinner, a feat I rarely achieved with my kids at that point.  I tried to give both the dog and the family their privacy, but as I turned to leave, I glimpsed the five of them holding hands with heads bowed in prayer. It warmed my heart to be an inadvertent witness to this special, though apparently routine moment.  From some deep part of me leapt the thought, “If this is how the illegal alien invasion takes place, I hope they come in droves.”

A few weeks ago, John and I had lunch and the location was my pick.  I chose a favorite family-owned Italian place.  When I walked in, John was conversing with the waitress who had served me each of the dozens of times I had been there.  He did not know her but, referring to her by name, it was as if he had for years.  Ever vigilant, he was simply following his creed and recognizing the person behind the service.  I am ashamed to admit that I never knew her name before that day.  Way to WWJD, John.

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© Michael L. Collins




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