In Russia they have a custom of diving into the river in the middle of winter, ice blocks floating, and then jumping out and rolling in the snow. In Sweden, the sauna experience involves sitting in a small hut shoulder to shoulder with naked sweaty men, pouring water on to red hot rocks, lashing yourself with pine branches, and then running outside to roll in the snow.
There are tribes who knock out teeth for initiation, others who carve delicate pieces from the body or tattoo other pieces. There are teenagers, not far from here, who pierce bits of metal through all kinds of body parts. There are men who will happily sit in a stuffy room smoking large cigars with other men.
None of it would do for me I'm afraid. Nor climbing mountains, diving in deep cave lakes, or jumping off cliffs with a rubber band tied to my ankles. Different strokes for different folks, right?
So I don't have any problem, either, with groups of people banding together in stuffy halls, singing dopy songs, being harangued by often apparently certifiably insane men about imaginary beings imaginary life after death and imaginary punishments, and paying big chunks of money for the privilege. Hell, if people pay money to go bungee jumping, who am I to say they shouldn't pay money to religious charlatans (a tautology of course)?
All fine by me then - atheists are inevitably easy going about the huge diversity of often whacky beliefs that go to make up human conversation on this dying planet of ours. But we do get pardonably a little testy about one thing, compulsion.
No one is trying to make me roll naked in the snow, or leap from a tall building, or shove sharp metal objects through my most delicate body parts. But the groups of people who gather in large buildings to be harangued by preachers are trying to make me do stuff. They are trying to change laws to affect the way everyone lives, reduce freedoms to see and hear things, damage science, determine foreign policy, make sure that elected officials will obey their wishes. Make sure, in fact that only true believers can be elected.
And, worst of all, they are trying to ensure that their children, everyone's children, will be brainwashed to become true believers in turn. The children of bungee jumpers may or may not decide to follow the lunatic example set by their parents. The children of evangelicals will have a hell of a time breaking away, and will almost inevitably find it psychologically impossible.
So there you have it. I'll happily walk to church with you, and wave goodbye cheerfully as you go inside the door. I'll wait for you to come out and we can resume our friendship. Hell, I will even go Christmas shopping (though secretly viewing it as a pagan midwinter festival with a very long history) and pretend to enjoy Christmas carols.
But please, don't start a political war in favor of your version of Christmas, or your version of the good life. That's when my famous tolerance of diversity comes to a grinding halt, and I man the secular barricades shoulder to shoulder with Richard and Sam and Daniel and even Christopher. The five musketeers, one for all and all for one.
Musketeers everywhere are warmly invited to sample David Horton's musings on The Watermelon Blog.