This is one thing that's been on my mind recently, as I make arrangements to go to Donggang for this year's King Boat Festival, which centers very much around gods (or god-like beings) and how they are worshipped in Taiwan.
I'm an open atheist (used to be agnostic, but some life events changed my mind and hardened my views) - and very much a secular humanist in my moral code. This has led to problems in the USA - I do still have family members who aren't happy about, or don't accept, my lack of faith and who have said so openly. I've had people just assume I'm Christian - I was asked "where's the reception" a few times when planning our wedding (the assumption being that the wedding was in a church) and shocked people by revealing that I had no intention of getting married in a church, even if we were married by my parents' pastor.
I've had my beliefs questioned, been told I'm "wrong", and had people say - as well as seen many a comment online - about how I'll eventually "find the way" or some such. I know that I can never run for public office (not that I ever would!), because I won't hide my beliefs as many secular politicians do and an atheist is more or less unelectable. I've sat through a work event in which an award recipient spent 20 minutes talking about God. I was happy he found fulfillment in his faith, and some mention would not have bothered me, but 20 minutes? At a work event? I'd rather that work be a place where faith may be mentioned briefly but is otherwise not an issue up for discussion. It still would have been fine if he'd kept it to personal anecdotes of faith, but all the talk about how it's the "one true way" and the implication that this is what "good people" believe really got to me. Would he stop thinking I was "good" if he knew what I really thought? And why was it OK for him to talk about God for 20 minutes at a work event, whereas if I'd won the award it would have been extremely gauche for me to talk about my lack of faith for even a second? Not that Id've wanted to - just sayin'. It wouldn't have been acceptable in the same way.
I get the very strong sense when I'm back home that my lack of faith is an issue and something people would worry about if they knew me. I've had friendships fail to grow because being a part of a community of faith was extremely important to the other person, and not something I could share in. I had one relationship - a bad relationship, but it happened nonetheless - in which faith was an issue: I didn't mind that he was Christian, but he sure seemed to mind that I wasn't (and seemed surprised to learn that I wasn't: I honestly believe he had this idea in his head that good people are religious in a way he understands, and atheists are sketchy people, and since I was a good person, it shook his worldview that I did not share his belief). In another, faith was not an issue, but had the relationship lasted - good relationship, not right for me - hed've been OK with me not converting, but would have wanted any children raised Jewish. Leaving aside my desire to remain child-free, that was not going to work for me.
And, of course, the constant reminders that, despite a separation of church and state, that there's quite a bit of church in the state. I'm not leading the charge to take God off of our money, out of our pledge of allegiance (I always mouthed the words anyway and have very little allegiance to the USA) or take Bibles out of the halls of politics or the justice system: I've got better things to do than that. All it does for me is serve to remind me that I don't fit in, that I'm not one of "them", that there are a lot of people who'd view me as a weirdo or outsider for being an atheist.
And, you know, as someone who has no faith but is interested in how faith is practiced around the world, I do like to visit temples and churches, and I do like to observe religious customs when appropriate. It feels kind of weird, however, to have a look inside a church in the USA - even though I'd probably be welcome if there were no service going on, or be welcome to sit quietly and listen to the service if one were, it would label me as someone who shared the beliefs of those in the church. It would be interpreted in a way I am not comfortable with - so I don't.
I will say that this is not a problem among my friends. They are either atheist, secular, "spiritual" (as in they believe in a supreme being but aren't interested in organized religion), culturally religious (as in "I'm Jewish, I guess, but whatever" or "I celebrate Christmas because it's fun but that's about it") or are religious but respectful of differing views (which is cool - unlike women's rights, racism, certain views on poverty and gay rights, this is not an area where a difference of beliefs causes me to question someone's character). It's more of a family (not every member of my family, but some) + everyday life issue.
Then, I moved to Taiwan.
And...it's great. Religion is just not an issue. Nobody cares that I'm atheist - even my Taiwanese Christian friends. Well, I am sure some of them care, but we respect each other and don't talk about it. I don't feel like they worry about my eternal soul the way people back home might, or judge me for it. I can go to temples - fine, nobody cares. I can even light incense or draw a fortune stick. Nobody cares. Even if I say openly that I don't believe in something...OK. That's fine. So what? I can go to festivals and watch temple parades, and it's all cool. Nobody will come up to me and ask me if I want to chant a sutra or join their fellowship group. There's no cultural equivalent I can find (anyone?) to Bible study so I can't even make a comparison there.
"I don't really believe it either," some will say, "...but Grandma wants me to do this so I'll just do it."
"Does Grandma know you don't believe it?"
"Yes, but she doesn't care. As long as I do it she's happy." or "I don't know, she's never asked. It's probably not that important to her whether I believe it or not."
Imagine that - while some of that's true with my family: they know I don't believe but would prefer I go to church with them anyway, but there's still this lingering hope that I'll find my way back to the path they want for me. Grandma Huang doesn't worry about it in the same way.
If I tell people I'm an atheist - which I only do if asked, or if the person is a very good friend - the reply is generally "cool". It's just not a big deal. So much of life in Taiwan centers around religion: Tu Di Gong shrines, temple parades blocking the street, the lunar calendar cycle of holidays, the fortune telling required before marriage or baby-naming, the "yellow" almanac telling people when they may do things, and yet if you don't participate, or just observe, or go through the motions without believing, it's not a problem.
Best of all, you don't have to worry that someone's faith will come with a pre-set belief system. I realize that not everybody who is Christian shares the same beliefs - Stephen Colbert has been quite the shining example for the liberal, irreverently faithful, to the point where I refer to my liberal Christian friends as "Colbert Christians" - but there's really no fear in Taiwan that someone who genuinely believes in praying to Guangong or Matsu will let that belief influence their opinion in other areas. In the USA, I always have a moment of worry when talking to a new person who has professed a faith - so, do they think gays are evil because someone told them it's in the Bible? Not necessarily, but it happens. Do they believe that a woman's place is subservient to a man's, because that's what they've been taught is God's way? Again, not necessarily but it happens (am thinking of a blog I was reading once in which the blogger said something along the lines of "well, it makes sense that a household should only have one head, and the Bible says that's the man so I accept it to be so"). Are they going to be super conservative and go all ape-shit about Obama being a Secret Muslim or have retro views on sex in society? Not necessarily, but again, it happens. I've had such a debate - and at the bottom of it, the other person believed that pre-marital sex was wrong for religious reasons. Fine if she's just applying it to herself, but she was judging others for their choices - and how do you even have that debate when you don't agree on the fundamentals? What do you say when what you want to say is "I can't agree with you, because your views is based on a belief in a God that I do not share"?
In Taiwan, I love that someone can believe, or not, and have their views without worry or the need to reconcile them with their beliefs: nobody's going to go all "Tu Di Gong says gay sex is wrong!" (hey, that rhymes). Nobody's going to say "well because I pray to Hua Tuo, I believe that women should be silent in temples". You can believe in Tu Di Gong, or not, and it has no bearing whatsoever on how you feel about women or homosexuality. I realize there are Christians out there with similar worldviews, but it seems to me like those views would require at least some thought and reconciliation with the teachings of the Bible.
Are they going to assume that because their way is the right way, that I necessarily agree? Like that one Western couple I was chatting with awhile back - I said something about the fat, laughing Buddha - and the guy said "well you know he isn't real, right? You know there's only one true God and it's not him?" and I was all..."uh...there is no non-awkward way to respond to that". Which, again, it's socially sanctioned in the USA for him to say that, but not for me to talk openly about my beliefs. Why? And Taiwan is so much better in this regard because I can speak openly if I choose without it getting awkward.
Nobody will make you feel like a weirdo. Nobody will make you feel like an outsider. Nobody will make assumptions about you, or be shocked that such a good person doesn't believe in the Baosheng Emperor or Matsu. Nobody will judge your character. You don't have to worry about people's reactions to your atheism. Religious displays - especially festivals - are as much cultural as they are religious, like the bling-blingiest bits of Christmas parading down the street every few weeks. Observing a festival or going to a temple is not linked to an assumption about belief - it's linked to a cultural practice.
People in Taiwan tend to joke about the local folk religion all the time - and nobody's offended. You can make a joke about Wenchang Dijun, Guangong or Confucius's birthday ceremony and people will laugh sincerely. It's just not a big deal. You don't have to worry that you've offended someone - "you can't say that about the City God!" is not something you'll hear crossing anyone's lips.
You can just...be.
And it's great.