An unexpected discomfort


The young woman's voice behind me startled me as I sat down in front of the computer in my laboratory.

I turned around. There, behind me, was my Masters student, kneeling on a blue pad (one of the kind that we use in the hospital for patient care) placed on the floor between a lab bench and one of the desks, her head covered by a scarf. I presume she was facing Mecca, but, to be honest, I didn't really know which direction was east, without having to think about it.

"I was praying." She explained simply, although she seemed embarrassed and moved quickly.

"I figured as much, " I replied, somewhat uncomfortable, and turned back to my computer. Behind me, I heard her getting up, picking up the blue pad and going to her desk, moving rather quickly. I think she was uncomfortable, too, her supervisor walking in on her unexpectedly like that.

Why was I uncomfortable? I had come into the laboratory to use the piece-of-crap Windows box I keep in the lab only because the software that runs our real time PCR machine is Windows-based. Unfortunately, the software we use to edit patient dictations is also Windows-only, meaning that I often had to use that same piece-of-crap machine to edit my patient dictations.

It's not that I hadn't known my student was Muslim. Her family was from Pakistan, and she had made no secret of it, although usually she didn't wear the head scarf often worn by Muslim women and never seemed to act particularly devout. This was actually in contrast to my technician, who over time has revealed himself to be a devout evangelical Christian, someone who has put up "Got purpose?" stickers in the lab, listens to Christian rock, and leaves Christian literature lying around his desk. So, why did her praying make me uncomfortable?

It isn't prejudice. At least I don't think so. One thing you learn working in labs (and, to a lesser extent, in residencies) for so many years is how to deal with people of many nations, religions, and cultures. In fact, the majority of my friends are not your typical white Americans, and even fewer of them share my religious background. I've dealt with Muslims, Hindus, Jews, and just about every Christian religion you can think of, all without any problems referable to religion. That's not to say that there aren't bigots and racists in science laboratories and surgical residencies, but I think I've managed to avoid such faults, for the most part. So what was it?

Then it hit me. It was the devoutness.

You see, as I've mentioned before, I'm what most would characterize as a "lapsed Catholic." A couple of decades ago, I was fairly religious and attended services every day. Over time, I drifted away. I think it began during my residency, when my 100+ hour a week work schedule made church very difficult to attend, and then later the highly secular environment of the basic science department where I did my Ph.D. thesis work probably had an influence. Finally, a couple of years ago, something really bad happened to me, and that just about did my remaining devotion in. As I've said before, I'm not an atheist. I'm not even sure I've reached the level of agnosticism yet. But I'm definitely no longer particularly religious.

Does that explain my discomfort?

I'm not sure it does. You see, I've always been a little uncomfortable in the presence of the devoutly religious, even when I was religious. When I was in school, I still remember the old Polish ladies at the Church, with their Rosaries. My grandmother was one of them. I could never quite understand them and the intensity of their faith. Fundamentalists, whether Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or whatever, have always made me very uncomfortable. (One of the main reasons I no longer consider myself a Republican is because the evangelical fundamentalists have essentially taken over the Party.)

So there it is. There is something about strongly held religious beliefs that I find difficult to deal with, and always have, even when I was religious. I think it has something to do with the utter certainty that they have some sort of inside track on The Truth. (In fact, it's not just strong religious beliefs that can provoke this reaction with me.) Oddly enough, that is not to say that I don't have some strongly-held beliefs myself. In fact, my very strong belief in the guarantee of freedom of speech enshrined in the First Amendment has occasionally gotten me into arguments with some of my fellow travelers in the battle against Holocaust denial, leading to sometimes heated debates about hate speech laws.

Perhaps it is the knowledge that religious belief untempered by tolerance or reason has contributed to some horrific events in history, such as the Inquisition, the Crusades, sectarian violence in India between Hindus and Muslims, and the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Perhaps it is the knowledge that religious belief tempered by tolerance has contributed to great good, such as fruits of Martin Luther King's movement, the outpouring of aid for tsunami victims, and Mother Theresa's work for the poor. Truly, it is a double-edged sword.

Or, perhaps it is, for whatever reason, my realization that I seem to be no longer capable of such strong, unquestioning belief that makes me uncomfortable when I encounter it.


  1. as the son of a muslim, i've seen how he can almost seem... embarrassed by his religion. i've heard him say he doesn't much pray at work because he doesn't want to be walked in on or seen. maybe it's not quite embarrassment, but self-preservation in texas, where not everyone is so tolerant of all religions (especially these days). maybe it's the natural desire not to seem different. either way, i get the sense there's a need to hide something.

    i assume it's a sense of empathy that makes me actually feel embarrassed when i see someone who feels embarrassed or is embarrassing himself (one of the many reasons i don't watch american idol - i lack the necessary schadenfreude). and i assume you might have a certain amount of empathy as well, that you would feel a certain amount of discomfort at her apparent embarrassment, as well as the reasons you mentioned.


  2. An interesting post. To add my .02, I come from India, where devotion to faith is a given in the culture. I have noticed that here in the US, I find expressions of faith by evangelicals (the ones that come to my door trying to convert me) far more difficult to deal with than the faith of Hindus/Muslims or even Christians here who are not as overt about conversion as the evangelicals.

    I find that there is much less expression of "inner faith" in this country, maybe because people are uncomfortable about it, and much more chest-thumping by media crazies like Dobson and his ilk. I doubt that the country is less religious as a whole, but sometimes I wonder if the church-state separation has created somewhat of an artificial schism in people's own self, where they feel the need to "hide" their beliefs, and some therefore feel resentment for doing so (explaining the growth of the social conservatives).

    Just to clarify, I am not at all religious myself.

  3. I would feel rather uncomfortable (although being British, I feel uncomfortable in most social situations) walking in on prayer. It's to be a private thing, purely between the worshiper and the worshiped, and it would seem like an invasion of privacy and personnal space.

  4. you have become an athiest, but you haven't admitted it to yourself yet.

  5. I was wondering how long it would take for an atheist to post just such a comment. Because I was expecting it, I already have an answer, which is: No, I don't think so. Atheists believe there definitely is no God or higher power. I doubt I will ever come to that conclusion, at least not with sufficient certainty to join the ranks of self-declared atheists. The farthest in that direction I could ever see myself drifting is maybe agnosticism.

  6. Anonymous, I find your comment presumptuous and slightly offensive. As an atheist, I know how I feel when an evangelical Christian starts saying to me, I don't believe atheists really exist. So I don't go around dictating to others what they 'really' believe.

  7. UB here.

    Orac, I think you are using the wrong definition of atheist.

    Atheist's don't necessarily deny God exists so much as simply saying no evidence compels me to believe.

    No difference in that and not believing in Santa.

    I doubt the other anon poster emant any harm, he was likely seeing himself in you.

  8. I've usually gone by the dictionary definition:

    n. One who disbelieves or denies the existence of God or gods.

    Source: The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition
    Copyright © 2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company.

    And, from the same dictionary:

    1. One who believes that it is impossible to know whether there is a God.
    2. One who is skeptical about the existence of God but does not profess true atheism.

    By the definitions above, I'm definitely not an atheist. I'm probably not yet an agnostic either, but could be drifting in that direction.


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