Blog Post #2 Tanner Smith- Finding Secular Significance in Religious Sites

The trip to San Xavier today made me revisit a common line of thought for me, which is how I process religion around me. I am personally agnostic, as I grew up in a non-religious household, but in Roanoke, Virginia so Christianity was assumed. I have had many awkward conversations around my religious beliefs, as instead of taking the path of least resistance in faking non-practicing Christianity I have always been honest when asked. Whether I want it to or not this has always impacted the way I process religion, as it is hard for me to have a full appreciation for religious sites without the belief. When I walked into the San Xavier church today, I felt awkward as I always do when I walk into a church, as I want to show deference to those who are having a spiritual experience, but this makes me feel very phony. The church itself was beautiful and I could feel some sort of aura from those devoutly practicing around me. At the same time, however, I felt like I was walking on eggshells, as I was merely a tourist in a building that did not feel like it should be open to outsiders. I wonder how the people who are there for the religious experience feel as tourists routinely go in and out, with what I am assuming are different levels of respect. I myself committed what I felt was a faux pas, as after sitting for a while and absorbing the scenery, I got up to look at the front area of the church. I looked around the corner to the right and there were people bent over in prayer. When I looked back at the seats, I saw people waving me to sit down, with disapproval in their eyes. At that moment, I felt the same as I always do in religious contexts; awkward, with a clear self-consciousness of sticking out like a sore thumb.

2 Replies to “Blog Post #2 Tanner Smith- Finding Secular Significance in Religious Sites”

  1. Tanner, your post was very interesting both from the standpoints of your personal attitude toward religion and how your interactions with others concerning your religious beliefs (or lack thereof) have shaped your attitude toward religion in general. Like many historically significant religious sites San Xavier functions as both a Catholic church with a practicing congregation and a tourist attraction. Personally, I don’t believe the awkwardness you experienced by trying to maintain an authentic expression of your agnosticism yet simultaneously according deference to those parishioners worshiping at San Xavier should have made you feel “phony.” After all, this is their home church and the rest of us are visitors. I have a strong feeling that they have made cultural accommodations over the many years for all us tourists. Also, one can appreciate St. Xavier from many perspectives — cultural , historical, social, etc. — and still bracket out the religious beliefs that might be foundational to the appreciation of others. This is the typical path for religious art historians. The question of whether or not it is “complete” can make for a healthy discussion.

  2. Tanner, Sorry its taken me a while to comment on this post. I started one while we were still on the trip but hesitated to hit “post”. The truth is that I have experienced almost exactly what you described. I am not a religious person really at all. When I try to describe my beliefs to others I usually say that while I can’t say with certainty that there are no gods as imagined by most religions, I put the probability very low – below 1%. Nevertheless I grew up with extended families and communities where churches were important places and so I’ve spent significant time there. I’ve even been “confirmed”.

    I know exactly the feeling of phoniness you’re talking about. You want to be respectful of others’ belief and their religious traditions but you can’t connect with it emotionally.

    This is a qualitatively different feeling than christians have in a synagogue or jews have in a christian church. If they are faithful believers, they can interpret the experience as simply a different interpretation of their god. When I’m in a church and people are talking about their god as though he is a real being with all this imagined power or when I watch people pray, I don’t see it as a different way of interpreting god. I see it as futile. I understand that people doing it don’t see it that way, but I can’t help it.

    Here’s my advice.
    1. Keep being honest with others when they ask you about your beliefs; most religious people understand that their beliefs require faith and will be sympathetic that you simply don’t have that.
    2. When you enter their space or participate in their ceremonies. (weddings, baptisms, funerals, sweat baths, etc), go along with it. Sing the songs, chant the chants. Its an opportunity to try to understand what they’re feeling. It does feel awkward and you will never entirely shake the feeling of being an imposteur, but it doesn’t have to be phony, if you’re honest with those around you. Its a little bit like me going to a Cubs game. I really couldn’t care less who wins the game, but if I’m sitting with other fans, I’ll cheer for the Cubs. Its just polite and I might gain a little empathy for why people care about that kind of thing.
    3. Study religion. Atheists and agnostics know more about religion than religious folks. ( ) It seems ironic at first, but it actually makes perfect sense for several reasons. One is that we need to understand those teachings in order to get along in their world.
    4. Understand that religion is an almost universal basic need. Evolutionary psychologists talk about how the human brain’s tendency to seek explanations, attach meaning to random events, assign agency to natural phenomena, and talk to dead relatives makes the development of religion in human cultures practically inevitable. I used to think that as science progressed and explained more and more natural phenomena, religion would eventually die out. I’m not so sure anymore. Its a good idea to get along and make friends.

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