Saturday, July 19, 2014

A Coming Out Story, And The Insidious Nature Of Religion

Recovering From Religion often tweets/posts good questions to provoke conversation.  Here's one from yesterday.
So, here's a short story of me coming out as a non-believer.

Having always been an atheist, I went into college as an atheist.  I was not yet an activist.  I don't think I even really identified as the word "atheist".  By that point, I had put very little thought into it all.  Even after spending 6 years in a church youth group while openly not believing and not participating in most of the few religious things they did.

When making friends, I put zero thought into their religion.  I didn't give a shit about their religion even when I befriended a girl who always wore the same cross necklace.  The only reason I even noticed the cross was because it was the only way I could tell her apart from her identical twin sister.  The only time I ever remarked on the necklace was to request that she keep wearing it until I could tell them apart without it.

I enjoyed my friendship with the pair of them, who were my lunch companions every day for the first several months I was at college.  We never argued over our religious differences.  Those differences never came up at all.  I honestly don't even know the exact point they found out (or figured out) that I was an atheist.  I never made a point of telling them.  At least not until it came up.

One day, they decided to invite me to a meeting of a group they belonged.  Fellowship of Christian Athletes.  Maybe they thought I was Christian and had made the same assumption most people do.  Maybe this was the moment they found out I was not a Christian.  Either way, their response to me telling them I'd be out of place in that group because I was neither of those things (Christian or Athlete) changed the nature of our relationship forever.

"We don't want you to go to Hell."

I'd been around religious people all my life, but that was the first time anyone had suggested that my fate possibly involved Hell.

My response was not fear.  Hell is often used to scare people into believing, but Hell was never something capable of inducing fear in me.  I'm not wired that way.

My response not offense either.  While I find the concept of Hell offensive, I took the invitation as them wanting to include their friend in a group they enjoyed.  And I took the bit about Hell as them being genuinely concerned for my fate, not wanting me to suffer.

Nevertheless, that incident meant the end of two friendships I valued.  I do not recall if it was me or them who pulled away.  I never held ill will toward them, and I never had any reason to believe either of them did so toward me.  There was no fighting.  No arguing.  There was only that one implication that I was going to Hell.  We simply drifted apart.  It was not even until years later that I realized this incident was the cause of us drifting apart, but I have no doubt that it was.  And I have no doubt that this was not the only time in my life this has happened to me.

I still regret that we didn't remain friends.  They were fun.  They were good people.  Two good people that I lost from my life all because of their religion and what it says about people who do not share that religion.

Religion does not just cause obvious harm.  It's not always family we lose because of it.  It's more insidious than that.  Sometimes it just quietly kills the relationships between people who found each other and would otherwise be quite close.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Family Bookshelf

My friend, Cara, is currently visiting family and dealing with the double standard of the atheist having to keep certain things to herself in order to keep the peace.  I suggested she write about the experience and the following is what she wrote.
Every family I know has one, as sure as they are to have family secrets, family gossip, and the real or perceived family black sheep.  Everyone I know has a family bookshelf.  Some consist of a handful of books shoved in the corner beside the couch, while others have “branches” that extend to fill rooms.  I’m sure there are those whose family bookshelf consists of a handful of out-of-date magazines piled on the back of the toilet, or rows upon rows of DVDs which fail horribly to provide any degree of literary fulfillment.  One’s family bookshelf can speak, often better than words themselves, about that particular family. It can speak of priorities, interests, and personal tastes; or it can speak of darker things: of obsessions and unhealthy fixations.

My given room while visiting my parents every year contains one such structure: the same shelves that were a fixture in our home my whole childhood, though the books it contained have changed and developed just as my siblings and I have.  Spending a month with my parents when I’m so conditioned to solitude results in my often retreating into that room to escape from the responsibilities of being company.  At least that’s what I try to tell myself.  When I look closer though, I can’t argue that what I’m really hiding from is the person I think my parents want to believe I am: that for one month every year, hiding alone in a room is the only way I have to be myself. And it’s during these respites that I lie on my bed and stare at those shelves.  I read the book spines and see how much those shelves mirror my parents, or perhaps, more accurately, mirror the parents I believe them to be.

The easiest aspect, by far, is the shelf of photo albums.  My whole life is there: captured moments that serve to shape memories, even years after those times have passed. There’s the album that contains my baby pictures, the one that chronicles our family’s time living abroad, there are birthdays, graduations, reunions, and even an album that celebrates the life of my maternal grandmother who passed away two years ago.  Like that album, which has been shelved, my mother’s sense of loss and grief must be tucked away, because she doesn't show it. Undoubtedly  the pain is still as tangible to her as the pink, flower-covered album is to me, as it sits within arm’s reach, though she can’t dismiss it as easily as I can, I’m sure.  Those albums, those family histories, as one of the only constants on those shelves, always remind me that I have a place in this family that’s unshakable.  They couldn't excise me from their lives any more than they could erase me from those albums while keeping anything intact when they’re done. It’s like a promise that some have but all should, but sadly don’t.  I am lucky.

Most of the rest of the bookshelf is divided in uneven thirds, though the themes overlap. There are religious books, religious anti-abortion books, and veganism books. It’s hard not to see this as the summary of who my parents are, and that being the exact opposite of who I am. There are the odd books here and there that I can feel connected to them through: Carl Sagan’s Cosmos; the complete works of Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; a stack of six Jane Austen books. Yet the fundamentals that make them them, as represented by the rest of the books, are so deeply ingrained in their worldview that my presence feels like a challenge to the very heart of who they are. The temptation is there to pull out the anti-choice Handbook on Abortion written in 1971, and start a discussion on women’s vs. fetal rights. I should be able to; after all, wasn't I subjected to endless indoctrination sessions when I was a kid, impressing on me of the evils of abortion, including misinformation about the dreaded “partial-birth, late-term abortions”?  I was sat down with my sisters and made to watch The Silent Scream, as if the horror of it could somehow inoculate us against ever committing such atrocities.  If my mother had the freedom to share all that with me, why can’t I work up the courage to say that I support Planned Parenthood and abortion should be available to all?  Am I afraid of being less loved and respected, or am I just afraid of the ensuing awkwardness?  Or am I convinced that being “pro-life” is so ingrained into my mother’s being that the chance of her changing her views are infinitesimal?  It feels easier to bite my tongue.

One and a half shelves contain twenty-three volumes of The Pulpit Commentary, there are at least nine bibles, and two whole shelves of books by Christian philosopher George MacDonald.  How do I pick up one of my parents’ three copies of What Jesus Meant by Garry Wills to discuss my views on it? My parents’ would defend the words of Jesus, where I would just be trying to say, “How do you know he even existed?”  Of course he existed.  Of course Jesus still loves you. Of course.

Though I normally remain silent, the other day when the conversation turned to the rapture and God eventually putting an end to human suffering, I read the following Tracie Harris quote to my mom: “You either have a god who sends child rapists to rape children or you have a god who simply watches it and says ‘When you’re done I’m going to punish you.’  If I could stop a person from raping a child, I would. That’s the difference between me and your god.”  My mom was silent for a bit, deep in thought, then agreed that that was one of the greatest challenges in understanding God.  Then she presented me with a book off of her shelves called God & Human Suffering: An Exercise in the Theology of the Cross by Christian theologian, Douglas Hall, saying it was the best explanation for why God allows suffering.  “The best Christian explanation,” I replied, feeling like we were speaking different languages.

Shortly afterward my mom pulled out another book, written by United Church minister Anne Hines, called Parting Gifts: Notes on Loss, Love and Life.  She read me an excerpt:
We all know that the purpose of family is to provide us with affection and a sense of belonging we all require. Our parents and siblings are those who love us entirely, not for anything we’ve done, but simply because we exist.  They are living, breathing covered wagons of emotional support and nurture, circling around to protect us when the forces of life threaten our well-being and our self-esteem. Family provides a soft, safe place to be in a hard and dangerous world.  This is the purpose of family.

Until a few years ago, I would have said this was true.  In fact, the main and most important role of those closest to you is to yank your metaphorical chain, poke you with a psychic stick, bring up your most deep-rooted, vexing personal issues and make you totally insane.  The definition of family is not “people who push one another’s buttons.” It’s “people who push one another’s buttons, hold them down and then slap a piece of duct tape over them.”
I tried to fathom why she’d read me this, and made the assumption that it had to do with the veganism she and my brother perpetually push on us: that she was trying to justify the force of her views with the excuse that it’s her responsibility to push my buttons.  But I wonder if she was trying to give me permission to speak my mind, despite the fact that my ideas clash so harshly with hers.

The fact that I eat meat, drink milk, even enjoy honey, is a source of pain to my mother.  That I've concluded there is no god pains her as well.  I am hurting her just by what she does know about me.  How could I reveal more?  How could I expose the parts of me that run so counter to her deeply-rooted sense of morality? So I remain silent.  I rob my parents, whom I love, of the opportunity of knowing me better.  I judge them by their books and they know only the shadow of me.  I resent them for not seeing me, ignoring the fact that by hiding, I’m neither allowing myself to be known nor pushing my parents’ buttons, thus failing them far worse than they've ever failed me.  I hope, ultimately, that knowing my shortcomings in this regard will force me toward being more open.  Last year, while hearing about abortion from my mom, I told her that only about 10% of Planned Parenthood’s work involved abortions, but the rest was essential medical services provided to low income women.  I was met with silence, but sometimes that just indicates thought.  Maybe next year I’ll be able to share more.  Maybe the process of contradicting my parents’ deepest held beliefs shouldn't be attempted all at once, but in stages.  I hope someday that I will wake up to discover that without noticing it, my parents and I have met in the middle and allowed common ground to be a greater focus than our differences. Maybe then I won’t have to hide upstairs, staring at a bookshelf that screams at me how wrong I am.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

They're Not Saying

They're not saying the immigrants from Asia who settled this land more than 10,000 years ago shouldn't have come here.

They're not saying the immigrants from Europe who began settling here more than 500 years ago, and have been coming over here steadily ever since, shouldn't have come here.

They're not even saying the unwilling immigrants from Africa shouldn't have come here.

They're only saying the immigrants coming right now from Mexico[1] should not being coming here.

Apparently, they are extremely picky about timing.

1.  They're not actually all Mexican, but that's a detail unimportant to them as they are yelling "Go back to Mexico!"

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Hey Gordon Klingenschmitt, Challenge Accepted

A school in Wisconsin was recently told that they could not have their graduations in the church they'd been having them at because it was obvious violation of the Separation of Church and State.

Republican candidate for the Colorado General Assembly, Gordon Klingenschmitt, had an interesting response to this.

If the atheist complainer is so uncomfortable when they walk into a church that there's something inside of them squirming and making them feel these feelings of hatred toward the cross of Jesus Christ, don't you think it's something inside of the atheist complainer that's wrong?
I have a solution.  Let's do an exorcism and cast the Devil out of them and then they'll feel comfortable when they walk into church.

I'll leave the correcting of his errors to Hemant Mehta, who's already covered it better than I could, because I have a different response.

Challenge accepted.

I welcome Mr Klingenschmitt to come to Nebraska and perform whatever exorcism he likes (within legal & medical limits, of course) on me.  We can record the process if he wants.  I will go to any venue within 50 miles of Omaha, Nebraska for the event.  If he's any good at it, he should be guaranteed to leave the event fully satisfied that any demons currently in me have left.

While, I'm obviously comfortable enough inside a church to attend services occasionally, I am regularly offended by things I see there, and I do have my own fights on Separation of Church and State.  I challenge Klingenschmitt to come to Omaha and perform an exorcism on me.

If he has any faith his ability to exorcise demons, or in his god, he should have nothing, including failure, to fear.  Or is he afraid that I'll still be an atheist/secular activist after he gets the demons out of me?

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

They Just Want To Be Sheep

Having grown up around a moderate type of Christianity no where near Fundamentalism, I regularly learn new things about Christianity that make me incredibly grateful to have had a father and mother who taught me critical thinking & how to think for myself and supported me when that resulted in me not sharing their religion.

I also regularly encounter disturbing things about Christianity that Christians think are good things.  Thanks to Dogma Debate, I recently found something that fits both categories.

This is a real children's song.  I understand the inclination to think this is fake, but it is quite real.  They are teaching this song to children.

And having them sing it at church while clearly not knowing the meaning of what they're saying.

Some of these kids look scared while singing this creepy ass song, and they don't even know yet why they're right to be scared.

I'm particularly amused by this one, where they used puppets to sing about being sheep.

The hilarity of that pairing has me feeling compelled to point out again that this shit is real.

And it seems to work well enough to have them still singing it years later.

I'm still very much against lumping all Christians together, but these Christians aren't helping themselves by embracing being sheep.  They seriously think it's a good thing to compare themselves to an animal whose reputation is for blindly following orders even when it gets them killed, and they're teaching this mindset to young children who then grow up having taken this message to heart and thinking it's fun.

Will I learn next that they're comparing themselves to lemmings?

I'm tempted to ask what other songs are out there like this one, but I'm afraid of finding something even worse.  The silver lining I get from this pile of creepy is a newfound appreciation for my favorite Cake song.

I'd rather be fuckin' goat.

At most, I'd be my own kind of sheep.