I received an email from a person who read my Falwell obit. Basically, she pitied me, and told me so. “I feel sorry for you,” she wrote. “Obviously, you don’t even believe in human decency. You should be ashamed of yourself for speaking ill of the dead.”
Well, sorry, lady, but I’m not ashamed at all. I can’t think of a time when I’ve felt even the least pang after strongly expressing my views. It’s only when I keep my mouth shut that I occasionally feel like kicking myself.
Last week, for instance, I was a guest at a university awards dinner, at which my wife was one of the hundred or so honorees. In recognition of the occasion, I wore a serious suit, not my favorite attire by a long shot, and promised her that I would behave, which meant no political or religious talk, and absolutely no unsolicited puns — even though I pointed out that I was a groan man.
We mingled sedately during the thirty-minute “cocktail hour” and eventually found our way to seats at a table full of strangers. Before the ceremony began, we joined our neighbors in small talk — minuscule talk, really — about local restaurants, the crappy weather, and the delights of free alcoholic beverages even when the selection is poor.
A ding on a bell summoned us to hearken to the emcee. As we all continued to pick at our salad, he greeted us attendees and made a few unfunny in-jokes, so far “in” that I would have needed an X-ray to see their point. Then, he introduced the chaplain to lead us in prayer.
Now, anyone who has been reading my blog knows that I respect everyone’s right to practice any fool religion he or she chooses, as long as it doesn’t threaten my freedom or my life. I do not, however, respect his or her religion, and I don’t pretend to. While I’m occasionally friendly, I’m never, ever a friendly atheist; I’m a curmudgeonly one. I see no reason whatsoever why I should feel obliged to bow my head, close my eyes, and stop what I’m doing just because somebody else has an itch to pray.
But I didn’t stand up and complain, or start screaming obscenities, or swing from the chandeliers. I even restrained myself from humming “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” All I did was roll my eyes at my wife, who — an unfriendly atheist herself — rolled her own right back at me. When we got our eyeballs sorted out again, I continued to dig around my mixed greens. There wasn’t any point, I felt, in letting my romaine go soggy in the vinaigrette just because the rest of the room wanted to say hi to Dad. My wife, only a smidgen more respectful than I, did stop eating. But she stared down at her salad in disgust, holding her fork poised like a dive-bomber over the bowl.
I don’t know how the people whose eyelids were closed in communion with their imaginary pal managed to notice that we didn’t participate in their nonsense, but they did. While no one at our table actually came out and called us commie god-killers, I could tell, when the prayer was over, that a pious pall had settled over us. My neighbors were no longer as enthusiastic about the new Italian place as they had been, nor anywhere near as engaged by the rainstorm that was heading our way. Our second round of free rotgut passed without comment. We were being subtly shunned.
Had I not promised to watch my behavior, I might have begun a thought-provoking dialogue by asking one of the believers nearby: “If I had sat you down and subjected you to a short anti-god speech, would you have remained quiet, eating your salad like a polite idiot? Or would you have stormed out of the room in revulsion?”
But I didn’t say that. Instead, in deference to my wife’s sense of propriety, I acted like a semi-friendly atheist — and was totally ashamed of my silence.