Penny is an atheist.
Penny is a yearling in the Snake dorm (i.e., not mine). She's maybe in her thirties, on the cleaning crew, and she's studying something with Charlie, although I do not know what. I'd never really talked to her until this morning, when we happened to sit together at breakfast. I was actually sitting next to her, but she was talking to Kit, who was sitting on the other side of the table. I was just busy eating my breakfast when I suddenly kind of tuned in to what Penny was saying. You know, when something just jumps out at you from a conversation you've been ignoring?
"But I don't believe in God," she was insisting, an odd enough thing for someone around here to assert, and an odd thing to declare at breakfast, anyway. Not that we don't discuss all sorts of things at breakfast, but I just had a hard time imagining the conversation that lead up to this one.
"What god don't you believe in?" asked Kit, smiling. I think Penny rolled her eyes, though I'm not sure. It's hard to see such things without staring.
"Just--God. You know, the bearded man in the sky."
"Yahweh? I might agree with you there, though I try to keep an open mind."
Penny fidgeted. She seemed frustrated. Kit was being deliberately obtuse, obviously, as the masters usually are with sloppy thinkers, but it can backfire, especially with yearlings. Eventually the professor took pity on the woman.
"What does your not believing in the Judeo-Christian God have to do with finishing this assignment?" Kit asked, gently.
Penny looked at me sideways, evidently nervous. She could tell I'd begun listening. I told her I could plug up my ears if she liked and Kit told me not to be ridiculous. After a few seconds, Penny made her decision and straight-out explained the situation to me.
"I heard from--somewhere--that Charlie knows about the 12 steps," she began, and stopped again, awkwardly.
Kit leaned forward to explain that everybody knows Charlie is in AA, but nobody admits it to each other. Which was news to me. Penny looked at me sharply and I told her I knew, I just hadn't known everyone else did. I still actually don't know--I don't know how precise Kit would be about that sort of thing. Penny continued:
"So, I've always been curious about the Steps, but I'm not addicted to anything, so I can't really do any of the programs. So I asked Charlie if he could take me through an adapted version of the Steps."
"That shouldn't be too hard," I told her. "AA is based on the teachings of the Oxford Groups, which weren't specific to addiction. But they were seriously Christian."
"Yeah, that's what he said--about the Oxford groups not being addiction-specific, I mean. But now he has me writing these essays on my conception of a Higher Power. I'd always heard that the 12 steps were agnostic, that you didn't have to believe in any religion. That's what Andy--" and she stopped again, awkwardly.
"It's ok, I know about Andy, too," I told her. She looked relieved. "Why don't you ask Charlie about this?" I asked. "He's not exactly an orthodox Christian, either."
"Charlie never answers questions," Kit asserted, dismissively. And wrongly. He's answered every single question I've ever asked, though not necessarily at length. Sometimes I wonder if Kit and I are talking about the same person. But I let it slide.
"I'm kind of scared to," Penny admitted. "If God is central to the course of study I picked, I'm kind of screwed. I'm only here two years. But I'm going to ask, eventually. I just got talking to Kit first."
"I don't know much about 12-step," Kit admitted, "but my understanding is it is pretty agnostic, although it comes from Judeo-Christianity. That's why I asked which god you don't believe in. Because there's a lot of different ways to get there. I don't want to see you stuck on the one path that has a road-block for you."
"But I'm not sure I believe in the destination," Penny said. "I mean, I don't believe there are entities out there controlling everything. With all due respect, Kit, that just sounds like playing 'imaginary friends,' to me."
"Some of my best friends are imaginary, actually," explained Kit, with a smile. I'd have felt like socking her one, if I were Penny. I tried not to laugh.
"That may be," said Penny, "but mine aren't. And if I have to do religion in order to complete my degree requirements, I'll be shit out of luck."
"You're assuming religion requires gods," put in Karen, who was sitting on Kit's other side, the side away from me. I hadn't noticed her before. "Mine doesn't."
Karen is Buddhist, but she's an adult convert to Buddhism. I understand from Greg that the issue gets more complicated in Buddhist cultures.
"Maybe you're just spiritual?" suggested Penny, though I'm not sure whether she really meant to imply that one of the masters is wrong about having a religion. Karen raised her chin slightly.
"No, I'm pretty sure I'm religious," said Karen. "'Religion,' from either religare, to bind back, as in to be bound by a promise or in a community, or relegere, to go over with care, as in a text or a spoken statement. Either way, the word entered English in reference to specifically monastic communities. So obedience to a principle or a set of rules, care in word and deed, careful study of sacred texts, there is no explicit mention of God in there."
Penny looked somewhat chastened. Karen went back to her miso soup. But I had an idea.
"If religion is fidelity and careful study--you can do that through science, can't you? And then whatever you find through religious study, maybe that's God," I said. Penny looked very impressed.
"You're getting more and more like him, you know," said Kit. I don't think she meant it as a compliment.