A rabbi once told me that I'd learn the most from the people I thought were the least like me.
So I guess I shouldn't have been surprised when, two minutes into our conversation earlier this week, Nica Lalli and I were comparing our hate mail rather than arguing over the differences in our beliefs (or lack thereof.)
Lalli is the author of the new book Nothing: Something to Believe In. It's a spiritual memoir about, broadly, her struggle to accept herself (and be accepted by others) as an atheist.
I am in the midst of writing a spiritual memoir more or less about my journey to accept myself (and to be accepted by others or not care if they don't accept me) as an evangelical Christian.
Oddly enough, Lalli and I get the bulk of our (of late) staggering amount of hate mail from the same crowd: self-proclaimed Christians defending the faith.
(The crashing sound you just heard was Jesus banging his head against the wall of his office.)
In the last week or so, after writing a column about my reaction to the passing of the Rev. Jerry Falwell, I received scads of hate emails, most of which cannot be reproduced in the pages of a family newspaper. I was called a Satanist, a lesbian, a whore, disgusting, shameful and a "fake Christian," among other things.
Lalli opened the hate-filled floodgates by appearing earlier this week on TV to debate the director of Kentucky's new Creation Museum.
"I got one that said, 'I pity you, you poor wretched soul. When you meet your maker, you're going to be really sorry,'" Lalli told me. "And I was like, YOW! That's not really Christian."
No. It's not. People who send those kinds of notes are more interested in being right than being Christian or loving or gracious or civil.
"It's hard to get those hate mails, especially from those who profess to follow this person, Jesus, who, from my limited knowledge, is very much about love and unconditional forgiveness and turn-the-other-cheek," said Lalli, who prefers the label "nothing" to atheist. "What I would like to know is, what made these people that way? They had to have had some life experience that made them so insecure, so frightened, so caught up in having all the answers and in being so right that there's no wiggle room. There's no mystery. It's all right there. Why would you question it? Whereas, I live my life completely in the gray areas, living on the edge."
Most of us do, I said, adding that I believe the vitriol that's been heaped upon the two of us by professing Christians comes from a deep, deep place of fear.
Fear motivates people to lash out in anger, but it also makes them search for something that gives them all the answers and if anything or anybody threatens that security, they flip out.
Fear is the opposite of love.
Perfect love casts out fear. At least that's what St. John the Evangelist says in the Bible, and he actually knew Jesus personally.
In Nothing, Lalli spends a lot of time dissecting her relationship with her sister- and brother-in-law, who are evangelical Christians. It turns out that Lalli's in-laws are friends of friends of mine and were members of a church in New York where I've worshiped occasionally.
As she tells it, Lalli's sister- and brother-in-law have never accepted her precisely because of her lack of faith. She sent them a copy of Nothing in April and hasn't heard a response.
"Because that was a pinnacle thing in my religious experience, in my life, I've traced back to where the trouble began. Why did we never connect? Why could they never just be like, 'Oh, that's my brother's wacky girlfriend, but she's really cool,'? It was always like, no, nnnnooooooo NO!"
Lalli recently did a radio show with a Catholic priest who let her say her piece -- about why she doesn't connect with the notion of God, why she doesn't believe in religion, but still has beliefs, that she doesn't believe in nothing -- and then responded with something that brought her to tears.
"He said 'You are bringing a voice out that really needs to be heard.' And it was so ..." Lalli said, her voice trailing off. "I'm always kind of amazed that Christian people are nice. You get stabbed so many times and you get like beaten-dog syndrome where you're just ready for the next blow."
(There's that head-banging again.)
Lalli isn't angry about anyone else's faith or her lack thereof. She just wants not to be dismissed out of hand, or screamed at, condemned or shunned.
"That is really what I would ultimately like from my in-laws," she said. "And I don't know how to do that other than to say, 'Hey, let me tell you my story, because it's an OK story and I'm a pretty good storyteller and you can come along for the ride.'"
Which is, essentially, what Jesus did, by the way.
I think the author Anne Lamott (mixing a bit of Paul Tillich with a pinch of Jacques Ellul) put it best when she said the opposite of faith isn't doubt.