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What I find most perplexing about people who are atheist or agnostic is that I believe them.

Often, they are as curious about religion as I am. And often, I find their insights as revelatory as a religious person's.

Take Ira Glass. He's the host of the radio show "This American Life." In an episode about faith, Glass tells the story about how he became an atheist. He listened to his Christian friends and tried to read the Bible. In the end, his testimony about his unbelief has the honesty of a good prayer.

"I find that I don't seem to have a choice over whether or not I believe in God," Glass said. "I simply find that I do not. And trying to force myself to believe, it would be like trying to convince yourself that you're in love with somebody who you're not in love with.

"Either you have faith or you don't. Either you believe or you don't. Your belief finds you, and then you and it have each other. And once your faith is set, I think only the biggest kind of seismic event in your life can change that, even if you want to change it."

That last statement is the perplexing part. If you're religious, have you ever thought about becoming atheist? I'd guess that while you could try, it would be a challenge to divorce your notions of unity, meaning or God. These things are not only what you believe; they're who you are.

Making the leap between religion and atheism is like an American trying to become Japanese. It's possible, I suppose, but it takes a radical shift in identity, much work and probably a generation or two for it to stick.

I was once talking with a Chinese friend. She asked whether I believed in God. I told her I did. I returned the question. She said "no," and I asked her why not. Her father, she explained, had told her there was no God when she was a child. She hadn't really thought about it much since then.

I cherish such conversations with atheist friends. We try to figure out why we are how we are. We laugh. Their atheism teaches me about my religion.

In the end, the conversations end where they began. They don't believe. I do. The world we see grows out of these internal answers.

The Rev. Ronald Rolheiser, a Catholic priest, tells a Buddhist story that illustrates the point.

A young soldier approaches a fat and overweight Buddha and tells the Buddha he looks like a pig. The Buddha replies that the soldier looks like a god. The soldier asks why. The Buddha, as Rolheiser quotes him, says, "I sit here all day and think about God and when I look out, that's what I see. You, on the other hand, must be thinking about something else!"

I don't mean that the atheist is the soldier and the religious person the Buddha - far from it. What I mean is that what we see in the world is wrapped up with what we believe, and that change is hard.

Like my Chinese friend's atheism, in the end, the best way I can explain why I'm religious goes back to my parents.

And the best way I can explain God goes back to an experience of awe my brother and I used to talk about as children.

"Hey, Joey," my brother would squeak, "I'm getting that funny feeling of being alive again."

And then I'd get that feeling. Before dinner and bed, we'd say prayers. And that's just how things were.

Joe Orso can be reached at (608) 791-8429 or jorso@lacrossetribune.com.

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