Or, Why a Canadian atheist takes media advice from an American Christian

I am an atheist. I haven’t always been, but it has been my “belief” since I was 20-years-old. Since I’m now 52, I figure it’s a belief I’m not likely to change anytime soon.

Recently, I’ve made a wonderful friend, Candice, who is a Christian. But not the “lazy” kind of Christian my parents and grandparents were, who never overtly prayed and who went to Church once a month or so. No, my new friend reads the Bible every day, prays for people (including me), teaches a weekly Bible study class, and is a trained Christian Spiritual Director who took a 2 1/2 year program to train to listen/accompany others on their journey with God.

Oh! And to make the difference between Candice and I even more clear, I am a Canadian and she’s from Texas, recently moved to a tiny town in Canada with her Canuck husband.

By that brief description of her, you might imagine that Candice is not someone I would have ever sought a friendship with. And I’d have agreed with you, my assumptions being that a) we wouldn’t have very much in common and b) our values would be so different it would only lead to arguments.

What kind of person do you see in your mind’s eye when I say “Firefighter”?

Candice and I met through our local volunteer fire department. I’d been a volunteer firefighter for four years when her husband joined and then brought Candice to a dinner for volunteers and their spouses. I loved her energy, her confidence, and her accent!

Over the course of a year or so, we connected a few times through group social events and, at one recent event, Candice introduced me to podcasts, insisting that I listen to a specific Malcolm Gladwell episode of Revisionist History called, GENEROUS ORTHODOXY. I did listen, but mostly because I’ve read four of Gladwell’s books. He’s a really smart journalist. Also, he’s Canadian, and I have a “thing” about honouring Canadian voices that make it in mainstream American culture.

The episode was interesting. It made me think. A little.

Candice also told me the names of many of her go-to podcasts, the ones she says she’s addicted to, which include This American Life. I hesitated to even check it out since… American life? What do I care, or need to know, about American life? 90% of my news media and social media diets contain American content. I didn’t think I needed to listen to a podcast that was overtly pushing the American experience down my throat, into my struggling-to-remain distinct, Canadian brain.

But, at the strong suggestion of a stereotypically persuasive Texan, this stereotypically polite Canadian gave a listen to an episode of This American Life called IN DEFENSE OF IGNORANCE. (Which, as a Canadian, I desperately want to edit since ‘defence’ should be written with a ‘c’ not an ‘s’!)

And, this podcast made me think. It forced me to look at a few things I’d not considered before about assumptions I make. It was interesting and insightful.

What invisible forces control your idea, beliefs, assumptions and emotions?

Most recently, Candice was over for lunch and she asked if I’d heard of Invisibilia, another podcast she listens to religiously (my word, not hers!). I’d not heard of it and gave it a listen.

The first episode I downloaded was timely since it was a story about a community divided by their belief in the danger of black bears. (The episode is called REALITY PART ONE). Our own village of about 300 people had just, the day earlier, had an emotional and charged Facebook conversation about a bear that had been killed by conservation officers in one of our backyards. Whose fault it was that the bear had grown comfortable walking our streets? Whose fault that it had been shot? Was that outcome truly the only option for the bear?

The deeper theme of that podcast episode was actually about how neighbours can look out of their windows at the exact same thing and each see completely different things. It’s about how our experiences and our interpretations of the world may not be as true, as real, as factual as each of us, as individuals, believe it to be.

It struck a chord. I loaded up all of the past episodes of Invisibilia on my phone and listened to the most recent one as I drove home from my writer’s group meeting last weekend. The episode is called THE CULTURE INSIDE and at first it felt like a story that was outside of my experience since it focused on the unconscious biases white Americans have about black Americans.

But I listened, in large part since it was impossible to change the episode while I was driving (because in my province it’s illegal to hold a cell phone while you are sitting in the driver’s seat of your car, even if the car is stopped at a red light. Not that I’ve never broken a driving law, but I never break a law that carries a $200 fine!).

The episode ended just as I pulled into my driveway and I thought, “Well, that was interesting.” Then, I walked into my house and had my upper middle-class, white heterosexual family evening without thinking of it again.

A synonym for “unconscious” is “half-awake”

Until the next morning, when I was laying in bed in those minutes of being half-awake, half-asleep. That’s when I saw images in my mind’s eye of a quite distinct series of people — teenagers, middle-aged men and women, and elders — and I realized that I carry in me a deep unconscious bias towards the Indigenous people whom I see regularly in the communities that surround me.

The feeling I had made me realize that my bias was not one of fear of other (like the podcast had focused on), rather it was a feeling that I’d always thought of as sympathy for a people whose culture has been decimated and who have been trying to recover for generations. But with the knowledge I’d gained from that episode of Invisibilia, every cell in my body told me that my bias was not actually sympathy, it was superiority. And that my unconscious bias was destructive.

I rolled over and told my husband about this feeling I was having, through tears of a new and shame-filled knowing that my bias was probably obvious to the kids I’d bought a coffee mug from at a garage sale a few weekends back.

It made me feel sick to know that what I have tried to express as something I can only describe as, “I see you and I acknowledge you” is sitting atop a sense of privilege that is also, very likely communicating through my eyes and body language, my head tilt and forced smile, “Poor you. I hope you can overcome all the history that is probably going to keep you from being all that you could have been had you been born into a different culture.”

It makes me weep to even type those words, I believe since they feel so true. And so gross.

So, what can I do to start to overcome my now conscious bias? And what can you do to overcome your own unconscious biases, because we all have them. They may or may not be related to race and culture. Yours may be about differently-abled bodies. Or about people from a higher or lower socio-economic class. Or who have sex that you consider unusual or immoral. Or who don’t share your religion.

Pay attention to who is in your trusted community

Look at your Facebook friends. Look at the actual community of people you hang out with, people you’d call in a crisis. Is there diversity in that group? If not, could you have an unconscious bias that people who are outside of your normal circle are in some way less trustworthy? Explore that.

Make a list of the media you go to for news and information

This is tricky since all media outlets claim to be unbiased, but if you pay attention to how the media you consume presents stories about different kinds of people, you’ll quickly and easily find some patterns. For instance, if the crimes being reported on are dominantly of one race being the criminal and another the victim, there’s very likely a bias in that news feed that is feeding your own unconscious bias. Explore that.

Seek out stories and voices that differ from your own

I’ve been working with an author who is from Ethiopia. She’s written a travel memoir called Abyssinian Nomad, about her 9-month experience, travelling as a single, black woman from Cape Town to Cairo. Shockingly, hers is the very first book by an African woman writing about backpacking in Africa. Every other published, travel memoir about travelling in Africa has been written by white people, who, no surprise, have very different experiences travelling across the continent than my friend had.

Read books, watch movies, go to plays that feature protagonists that don’t look like you and have not shared your life experience. It will help you start to wake up and see some of your unconscious biases.

Ask questions with an open heart — and listen without judgement

Once you’ve recognized an unconscious bias, that’s when the work to overcome it starts. Knowing it’s there isn’t enough to overcome it, even if that knowledge makes us feel sick. If, or once, you have a trusting relationship with someone who falls into your biased-thinking stereotype group, be open with them about your desire to better understand where your biases lie and ask questions to help you figure that out. Then listen, both to the words your ears hear and to the voices in your head that will share hints with you about your bias.

And don’t judge your inner voice — yourself — for your bias. Judgment won’t help you overcome the bias, it will just make you feel bad which may make you want to avoid doing the work. Listen to your friend’s voice with compassion and to your own inner voices with self-compassion.

Moving forward

I suspect because I was raised in a Christian family, with an American-born-and-raised mother, it made it relatively easy for me, an atheist Canadian, to look past the not-very-flattering biases that I’ve developed over the last three decades toward the mass of people I’d throw into my “this is what Christian Americans are like” bucket and to see Candice for who she actually is, a woman with a generous and open-minded heart who beams goodness and light.

My hope is that I can find common ground and experience with each new person I meet so that emptying my other bias buckets comes as easily.