Before, when people asked if I was a Christian, I would say “Yes” and this person would say that he was a Christian too, and we would talk happily away until I found out that he belonged to a particular sect that ours didn’t really consider as Christian. In fact, we considered his sect as a cult or group that had gone astray. I would slowly find myself trying to extricate myself from the conversation as my distaste for his group turned into a dislike for his person – for no other reason than his association with them.
When I started questioning my faith and made those questions public in my blog, some people would ask, “So are you an atheist? Are you agnostic? Are you a Buddhist?” It was complicated. So instead of saying yes or no, I would find myself explaining what I was going through at the moment.
I didn’t want to adopt any label because I knew once I did that, people would immediately see the label and judge me according to it.
But I am not just the label.
I ended up shunning labels and I refused to wear one. Are you an atheist? No. Are you a Christian? No. What are you then? I don’t know. I’m me. Listen to my story. How could I possibly put all my doubts and questions into one word? How could I compress all my experiences into three or four syllables?
I detested labels so much that I didn’t even bother finding out about what each meant. There were so many – deist, pantheist, hedonist, secularist, humanist, skeptic, nihilist, anarchist, and so on. For me, they were just useless ornaments that didn’t mean a thing. I wanted to come to the truth on my own terms and not hide behind the stock definitions of a label.
However as I got to talk to more and more people, it became quite tiresome for me to have to explain myself in such a lengthy manner. People often aren’t ready to listen to a 10-minute speech when they ask, so what do you believe?
So I began to rethink labels and to give them more careful study. I learned their basic definitions, their nuances and the philosophies behind them. And I slowly began to appreciate their value. They served as an efficient method to communicate your belief without boring everyone to death with your life story.
But my initial hesitation with labels also has value. Now, when someone tells me he’s an atheist, I don’t immediately assume certain things about him. Whereas before, the word “atheist” for me meant a creature akin to the antichrist, a character totally devoid of morals, now, the only thing I can assume is that this person holds no belief in a god, or gods. But there is really nothing more I can say beyond that.
Just as you don’t judge books by their covers, so you shouldn’t judge people by their labels. The label is just the starting point. You have to really talk to the person to understand what he or she is all about. The label simply provides a common ground – a way to get the conversation going. And this applies to any label, not just religious ones.
So before you judge someone for being Catholic, Baptist, Muslim or INC, or black, white or brown, or businessman, employee, doctor or OFW, remember that there is a very real person behind that label – a person who could very well be just like you.
This piece originally appeared in SunStar Davao (March 5, 2013) but was not published online.