Several years back I found myself sitting alone in a Starbucks coffee shop in Manhattan killing time. I had no idea that I was being watched. The young barista working there came up to me and smiled. She said she thought I was cute, and then offered me her phone number. I was pleasantly surprised since these kinds of things didn't happen everyday. I accepted her offer and eventually left. I remember her smiling to me as I walked out.
Several days later I either called or texted her and we decided to meet in Union Square Park, right across the street from the Starbucks. Like many first dates, it was awkward, but this encounter was even more so because we didn't even know each other at all. So we spent the day walking around the city, talking, and getting to know one another. We ended up in a Barnes & Noble sitting on the floor, looking at pictures in magazines and making gross jokes about the people in them.
She was a southern girl, with a slight accent, from Georgia - right outside of Atlanta if I can remember properly, and came to New York to chase her dreams of becoming an actress. (Oh how cliche.) I wasn't familiar with the ways of the south all that much but she was very easy going and we got along. She told me she thought I was cute and decided to be brave and go for it. I remember her telling me her thoughts before doing so. The worst that could happen, she told me, would be either that I was gay or taken, and that in either case she'd be risking humiliation. I praised her courage.
The next time we saw one another, she had a little surprise for me. We met up with her cousin at the AOL/Time Warner center in Columbus Circle and after went to some nondescript building somewhere in Midtown South. When we got there, to my surprise, I found out that it was a church! I was one of those new kind of urban churches, about 18 floors up some commercial building. I remember her cousin asking me if I was terrified yet. I wasn't yet an antitheist, and so I pretty much went along with the whole show, possibly because I wanted to get laid.
We took our seats near the back and a guy came out with a microphone and went on a rant against all other non-Christian belief systems in an attempt to persuade some of us who weren't already to the truth of Christianity. I didn't listen that closely because at this time in my life I wasn't really interested in religion or atheism and the whole debate. I did however, instinctually see passed his rhetoric. Another guy came out with a guitar and we were all instructed to stand and sing a song for God. I just stood there and pretended to be interested, doing a very bad impersonation of a person who gave a shit. I remember the girl holding my arm, trying to encourage me and reassure me that it was OK, perhaps after sensing my discomfort with the whole situation.
I remember looking around at the people there who were in a trance while singing. I distinctly remember seeing this Indian girl with her arms in the air totally surrendering herself to the "holy spirit" and thinking to myself how weird this is. My parents never forced me to go to church, so just being in a church around religious people was completely foreign to me. It's almost like being in a cult, only the leader is dead.
I felt absolutely nothing spiritual happen and all the singing and praising was white noise to me. I just never understood the subjective experiences that people feel when praising the lord. Even when spending time in an eastern setting trying to meditate as Buddhists do I still never came close to that elusive and mysterious transcendence that is so highly coveted.
Despite being religious, this new girl I was dating was far from a conservative sexually. She basically operated her life in every other area no different from a typical young liberal. After surviving the church ordeal, on our third date she had no problem getting a bottle of wine, renting a movie and having sex back at her place. This was not the beginning of a love story however. We dated for about a month and then went our separate ways. It wasn't religion that drove the wedge between us, although it would have eventually. Instead, we drifted apart as we realized that we didn't have enough in common to make an actual relationship work. And at the time I wasn't really into having long term relationships anyway.
The exposure to religion was the most significant thing about that relationship because living and dating in New York, I very rarely ever meet a girl who is actually practicing a religion. Most girls I meet are either nonreligious/atheist/agnostic, deists, or "spiritual" in some sense, but I almost never meet a practicing Christian or Muslim. That's one of the best things about New York - I almost never have to deal with religious people and it makes dating as an atheist so much easier.