Monday, April 16, 2007

An Open Letter to Christians, Wondering Why I'm So Scary

Shutting up isn't easy.

Or it's too easy, one or the other.

Either way, as you can tell from the length of this post, I'm having trouble with shutting up and it's starting to get me in trouble.

For the majority of my life I shut up about my beliefs on most things, at least on subjects that matter the most. Politics. Religion.

Love.

It took meeting Annie for me to finally come to my senses about that last item, to understand that shutting off part of your heart out of fear is like locking away a wild animal in a cage. Eventually you go a little crazy, I think, the hole where you're shutting away that part of yourself slowly sucking the life out of the rest of you.

Living in that prison is comfortable in some ways, just like that caged animal probably finds some ease in its confinement. You get used to the numbness, and you don't have to deal with the sharp edges and prickly points of disappointment. Routine is comforting. There are no surprises, just the safe monotony of sameness.

But once that cage door is opened and you get your first taste of wide open fields and the feel of the sun on your face, the wind in your hair (or stubble, in my case) -- well. There's no going back, and that's all there is to it.

Understanding what it is to love and be loved was the first crack in the walls, but it led, inevitably, to opening other vaults I'd thought safely sealed. I questioned my politics, my religion, my values. I put myself on trial, and I was a merciless judge. The trial continues, every day, and apparently the transcripts are scaring some people. Aunt Sharon pointed out in a very kind comment that the subject of atheism on this blog is causing a friend of hers some distress.

It's strange to think of myself as some kind of terrifying monster, I who have lived so much of my life in dread of causing anyone distress even by my mere presence; I even avoid calling people on the phone because I don't want them to feel like they have to talk to me when they'd really rather not.

Not exactly Wolfman or Frankenstein material there, is it?

In other places I've been told that by talking about the answers I find that bring me peace -- by talking openly about my agnostic atheism -- I am somehow endangering the minds of children I care a great deal for.

I see the same dread, the same fear, the same anger directed at atheists in many different venues. And I get it, on one level -- differences are frightening. Someone who refuses to sing along with the choir, who deliberately sets themselves apart, who grabs the mantle of "Not Normal!" and flaunts it, that's scary. It's unsettling.

Kids understand this. The worst thing that can happen to a kid is to be different. Tall, short, skinny, fat, black, white, an innie versus an outie, black hair in a class of blonds, it doesn't matter -- if a kid is different, odds are good that some pain is going to come from it. Other kids don't like different.

Average is safe, and most kids take their refuge there if they're lucky.

I think I've been fighting to be average for most of my life, and failing. I mean that not in an arrogant way, like I'm somehow better than everyone else. No, I mean it exactly the opposite, I feel in so many ways like I am less than everyone else, somehow deeply flawed by my inability to conform. I wanted to fit in. I wanted to be like everyone else.

I just didn't have any choice but to be who I was, as awful as I so often found that person to be.

There were times I would have given a limb to be just like everyone else. Not to have to answer questions about riding the short bus to school (literally -- we rode a short bus to the special program we were in). Not to have to make jokes to deflect questions about where I spent the first half of every day. Not to get more of a kick out of Monty Python than in the latest sports scores.

Not to feel as if every Sunday I was lying by mouthing words I did not believe.

But my curse has always been that I cannot help but to be honest with myself. There's a great line from the Edgar Rice Burroughs classic "Princess of Mars" when the hero, John Carter, denies that he is brave:

Their attention was so wholly riveted to this point of interest that they did not notice me, and I easily could have turned back into the dark recesses of the gorge and made my escape with perfect safety. The fact, however, that this thought did not occur to me until the following day removes any possible right to a claim to heroism to which the narration of this episode might possibly otherwise entitle me.

I do not believe that I am made of the stuff which constitutes heroes, because, in all of the hundreds of instances that my voluntary acts have placed me face to face with death, I cannot recall a single one where any alternative step to that I took occurred to me until many hours later. My mind is evidently so constituted that I am subconsciously forced into the path of duty without recourse to tiresome mental processes. However that may be, I have never regretted that cowardice is not optional with me.
I might have wanted to change my beliefs to conform to my classmates, but I simply couldn't. Like John Carter with regards to cowardice, I make no claim that this is somehow a laudable quality of mine, for it is something completely beyond my control.

I can't help but be who I am, even though (as I said before) there have been many (many) times in my life when I've absolutely hated that very self.

What good is it to play the chameleon so successfully that you forget what your skin really looks like?

I feel such honest joy when someone I know sheds that fake skin, that mask of conformity, to discover who they truly are and what they honestly believe that I can't understand why they don't feel the same for me when I do the same. No, I don't believe in your God. So what?

Our commandment, Christian and atheist alike, is to love each other. That doesn't seem very complicated, but a lot of people never seem to get it. I suppose that's only fair, because I honestly don't get why atheists scare theists so much, why we're thought of as worse than terrorists. We're people, just like you. We have thoughts and hopes and fears and dreams. We want our families to be happy, to live prosperous and joyful lives. We empathize with the plight of those less fortunate than we are.

Or we don't. Some of us are complete pricks, just like some of the people standing next to you in church every Sunday.

Is that what's so unsettling to you? That maybe we're just like you are, even though we don't believe in your God? Would it be better if we bore some kind of Mark of Cain, some obvious Sign of the Beast or crippling deformity that would make it easier for you to see how God has spurned us, even as you believe we have spurned Him?

Are you waiting for the smiting, and its absence is angering you?

I don't require you to change your beliefs, not one iota. I'm happy that you've found answers. Is it too much to ask that you return the favor, to understand that although you don't agree with me, that I'm not evil, or a fool, or an untutored wretch? That maybe -- just maybe -- we can both be good people who treat others with love and respect, even if we don't worship the same (or any) God?

Atheists aren't scary people, or at least no scarier than your average cross-section of a Sunday church crowd. We're just people. Like I said, maybe that's what's frightening you, but whatever it is, I'm telling you flat out, you're wrong to be afraid. Judge us not by our beliefs, but by our actions, just as you would any of your fellow churchgoers.

I know that's hard, especially since your holy book has some pretty strong words to say about decrying unbelievers. But it also has some even stronger words about loving us anyway, about treating us fairly, with respect and tolerance. Jesus allowed a prostitute to wash his feet with her tears. Do you think that was an endorsement of prostitution? Do you think Christ meant that as a lesson that you should be a prostitute? Do you think He feared that His disciples would somehow become contaminated by knowing these women existed?

Clearly not. The simplest answer is that Jesus loved them because they were people. He didn't share their beliefs -- indeed, if you think Christ was Lord then he knew they were wrong as no human can ever know anything. And yet, He treated them not with scorn and hatred, but with respect and tolerance, accepting their love (though not rooted in worship of His father) as true and honest.

There's this wonderful story about the Buddha that I think is very appropriate here, and which (like the washing of the feet in the Bible) brings me great peace and resonates with me at a fundamental level. Even if you're not a follower of Buddhism (as I am not) I hope you'll indulge me for a moment while I paraphrase it.
Two priests were walking in a forest when a beautiful doe burst through the undergrowth and collapsed at their feet. An arrow had pierced her heart, and her strength was almost gone. The two priests observed the animal closely, debating about what would happen at the moment of death, whether animal spirits could be seen, and how the manner of its passing would affect its karma in the next life.

As the animal slowly, painfully slid closer to death, the Buddha happened along the path. Seeing the injured animal, he rushed to its side and drew out the long arrow, staunching the flow of blood with his own robe, saving its life "You can argue about metaphysics later", the Buddha said. "For now we have plenty to do just trying to keep this doe alive."
Don't we all have enough to do here, right now, on this earth and with these people, without letting our fears about matters completely beyond our control get in the way of our loving and helping each other?

I'm not someone you should fear, no matter what I talk about on my blog, or what I believe (and don't) in my heart. Take joy that I have found a way to pull out the arrow, even if it's not the same way you would have done it. Every foot set along a path is one less lonely beast trapped in a cage when it could be running free. Take joy in its emancipation, even as the different path you walk brings you your own peace and contentment.

That's all we ask, to be given the same opportunity you have had, to find our answers and to seek our homes. There's nothing scary about that.

7 comments:

Geopoet said...

Jeff:

I want to thank you again for your courage to be open and honest, laying yourself out on the line. Admirable traits; in fact, us Christians see the source of these traits (God) in you and give thanks for it.

Overall, you are exactly right that we must love and accept everyone, wherever they may be in life and belief. We didn't do anything to deserve the cross; it was done for all as a free gift. Christians tend to forget Jesus' example, so your comments are appreciated.

If I may, I'd like to delve a little deeper into the crux of your post and offer a couple thoughts on what you are saying.

First, it may not be fear that you're getting from theists with respect to where you are personally. I can't speak for the commentor, but I would guess it's more like a great deal of discomfort (or even anger) that comes from rebuffing someone (God) that we believe is all too real and all too good to be dismissed. We give praise to our God, not because he needs it, but because He is everything to us.

For example, the wisdom books of the bible emphasize that "the beginning of wisdom is fear of the Lord" which could mean that awe and reverance of the divine open the mind to the greater things in life. Your lack of "fear of the Lord" can thus come across as dismissive and closed, even when you are telling people your are trying to be open. Casual dismissal is one thing, continuously promoting disbelief probably rubs many the wrong way as being offensive (to Him, thus us). Perception, certainly.

On a bigger sphere, it is probably true (at least to me) that there is general fear that atheism, more specifically anti-religious hard-core atheism, is a danger to society overall. This, you must admit, is a valid concern. With no moral or ethical objective truth, there is nothing to prevent justifying any evil in society. I spoke about these false modern philosophies in an earlier email. This is no over-reaction; history has all too many proofs of the atrocities of atheistic nations (and before you go there, the facts are irrefutably on the side of theistic nations).

Secondly, deep down everybody wants the best for their loved ones. We believe in eternal life for those who love and serve God and his people. Not that we can judge anybody including you, but frankly it is only natural that we would seek comfort to know your life will be with Him and us in heaven. This is not a cooked up comfort to make us feel good; we believe this guy Jesus was pretty reliable, based on his deeds and words. Simply put, people love you and want the best.

Third, you must also admit that this is only where you are right now, at this moment. Love has brought you to places you never guessed and it, by its nature, will lead you to the ultimate source (so we have come to experience). The book on Jeff is not closed yet. An open honest heart that never tires will meet the Lamb that was slain (see Revelation). Whether things would be if your relationship with Dad were different, if you had kids, etc. is a moot point because you are who you are right now. However, as one delves deeper into the selflessness of love, things become even clearer, new truths open, and other realities and possibilies become evident. Your experience to date shows that. I can say that being married and then being a Dad were mileposts for my spiritual growth, but I'm barely seeing the whole of it. It can be very comforting to stick a flag in the ground and say we've arrived (I've done that before), but admitting life (God) is not finished with you yet would alleviate a lot of tension and is probably closer to where you're at.

What is intersting about your comments on being different is that you've described the appeal of Christ. He was radical, an outcast, ridiculed and laughed at. The ultimate anti-hero and rebel, defying classification and labels. A part of us thus identifies with Him. In reading your post, you obviously also identify with him as well.

Again, thanks for the honesty. Please take the above in that same spirit.

Love,

Jeff Hebert said...

On a bigger sphere, it is probably true (at least to me) that there is general fear that atheism, more specifically anti-religious hard-core atheism, is a danger to society overall. This, you must admit, is a valid concern.

Actually (and I suspect this is no surprise to you) I do not at all accept that as a valid concern. In fact, I think it's one of the bedrock untruths theists have used to demonize atheists for a long time. The only way this is a valid concern is if, in fact, atheists were demonstrably more dangerous to society than theists. But the objective evidence clearly indicates this is not true:

(From the link just above)
In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion in the prosperous democracies

That's almost certainly correlation and not causation, but it's objectively unfounded to make the claim that secular societies (there are no "atheist societies") are more lawless or wicked than theistic ones.

This is no over-reaction; history has all too many proofs of the atrocities of atheistic nations (and before you go there, the facts are irrefutably on the side of theistic nations).

Another completely unsupported and factually untrue assertion. I assume you're using the standard theist's list of the Soviet Union, Cambodia and Nazi Germany as your touchstones for this. I don't know that you can make a persuasive case that any of those were actually "Atheist nations" in the sense that atheism was their organizing principle. They were totalitarian states, whose brutal leaders crushed religion along with any other possible belief system that might compete with the notion that they held absolute power. They were not motivated by or founded on atheism as a principle.

Even if you were to count those three as somehow "atheistic nations" (which is certainly ludicrous with regards to Nazi Germany), however, that's three out of the entire history of humanity on earth. It's only in the last two hundred years or so that being an atheist wouldn't get you immediately put to death in most countries. Prior to that, theistic nations were all you had. Theistic nations therefore are clearly among both the best and the very worst in history, because before then theistic nations were all that existed.

Unfortunately, the religious have bought into this "Atheism=evil" meme wholeheartedly. It's not true, of course, nor is the reverse (that religion is fundamentally evil).

The fact is that people are people, and the bad ones are going to use any tool at their disposal to get their way. Sometimes that means using religion to destroy thousands of suspected witches, or to wage wars spanning hundreds of years pitting Catholics against Protestants, or to put to death all people of the Jewish faith, or to substitute a philosophy like communism as the law of the land, or what have you. Religion (and I include atheism, the lack of religion) is a tool, neither good nor evil in itself but only made so by the use to which it is put.

Third, you must also admit that this is only where you are right now, at this moment.

Well, yes, that's true. Just as it is true that your faith is where you are right now, at this moment. And yet I suspect you would be outraged if I were to suggest that eventually you will slowly arrive at a point where you come to understand that Catholicism is wrong and embrace some other philosophy.

Again, thanks for the honesty. Please take the above in that same spirit.

I do, and yet I wonder if you can see what it is you are saying above. You essentially state that my philosophy of life is guaranteed to inevitably lead to a) the destruction of the world into an evil nation and b) will eventually be shown to me to be false.

Can you see how offensive that appears? Imagine how you feel when someone makes the case that religion is the root of all evil and that ultimately it will grind us all into the dust of repression and slavery, and that eventually we will all be led to the promised land of rationality, free from the oppressions of this mythical creation.

It pisses you off, I know it does because you've posted here before about your reactions to people like Sam Harris, who make exactly that argument.

And yet that's exactly what you're saying to me. Forgive the analogy to current events, but you sound like Don Imus, absolutely incredulous that someone would have the audacity to point out that he's a racist just because he calls people niggers and ho's. He's completely unaware of his own feelings of racism, just as you (I would argue) are completely unaware of your own bigotry towards atheists and atheism.

This is the very kind of thing this post is about. You know how you feel when a Baptist tsk-tsks when you tell them you're Catholic and they walk way with "Poor soul, doomed to burn in Hell forever". You know they're ignorant, that their pity and hatred are misplaced. I am telling you now, honestly, directly, that you are doing the same thing to me and to every other atheist in the world. Bigotry has a deep hold in your heart, just as surely as any Klansman beneath his hood has towards Blacks and Jews. The kinds of arguments you use are the same as I've read again and again, directed at Jews and fags and Blacks and Muslims and foreigners.

I know you're a good person and you mean well, but honestly, listen to what you're saying and put yourself in the other guy's shoes for a minute.

Geopoet said...

Jeff.

This is another case of being uncritical of a study, grabbed when it fits an agenda and it is hardly objective. Welcome to the world of pseudo science. As you stated, even the most neutral scientists state that this study's huge weakness is its lack of causality and its conclusions. I had an entire long list of contrary critiques and studies (hundreds) by neutral statisticians and social scientists that disprove what atheists are trying to infer from it, but I'm not going to post them because I know nothing would convince you.

Let me address your sense that I'm somehow being intolerant or bigoted. While I appreciate your feelings which are real, the idea that my concern about atheism is bigoted is waaay off the mark and I refuse to accept that false charge. Give me a break. My concerns with certain philosophies or ideas as being not good for society has absolutely nothing to do with prejudice or bias. We disagree on the overall societal good of certain belief systems... that's it. What you are implying is that equal belief in all views is an absolute value that must reign over objective truth or good, which is ludicrous. So, noone should disagree with a philosophy when they believe it might negatively affect others? For example, I also disagree with communism too, am I bigoted or a communaphobe? I disagree with Al Queda, so I'm an intolerant Alquidephobic? The fear of being called a racist or bigot should not stop dialogue when it's unfounded. Turn it around; many of your atheist sites literally hate Christianity but you don't seem to call them bigoted. Sorry, won't go there, don't deserve it, don't fit it and absolutely refute your reference to Imus. Reasonable people can disagree and it does not diminish respect or love. Stick to the topic.

Love,

Wonders for Oyarsa said...

Hi Jeff,

I responded to you here.

Speedwell said...

Wow, Jeff, you are certainly drawing the high-powered salesmen, aren't you? lol...

I had an interesting experience. As a naive college sophomore, I made friends with a group of people who claimed to have psychic abilities. I did not claim to have such gifts. They claimed I did, but I didn't feel or see what they claimed I should feel or see. After months of questions and examining the evidence, I realized none of them were really psychic at all. They were making it up, following a script, in an effort to impress each other with abilities they did not have. I didn't value conformity as much as I did reality, and so it didn't occur to me to "fake it" just to fit in. When I confronted one friend, then another, with the evidence of what I had found out... assuring them that I understood the group dynamic and didn't think less of them as friends for it... they had a peculiar reaction. They didn't show evidence to prove my conclusion wrong. They didn't act disappointed or hurt. They didn't even really get angry at me for pointing out their masquerade. They ganged up on me and threw me out of the group because I denied the facts that I had been shown, as though I was not a doubter, not even a heretic, but someone whose mission was to destroy their precious "gifts."

This experience came in handy many years later when I left Christianity. I realized that it was not my fault that I did not have a "relationship" with God. Neither did anyone else. Faith is what you have when you don't have evidence. If they had had a real relationship with God worthy of the name (as opposed to a desperate sort of stalking something you're not even supposed to understand), the need to have "faith" would have become obsolete.

What scares Christians is that you're on to the scam, Jeff. They are all suffering badly from the feeling that they aren't good enough to get God's attention. They think everyone else is doing it right but them. They don't want to be the failure in a group of successes. They simply don't realize that everyone else's success is as much a put-on as theirs is.

Carlie said...

I just got here from the carnival; great post, and I'll be going through the archives for awhile.

You already addressed this, but I'll throw in too:
With no moral or ethical objective truth, there is nothing to prevent justifying any evil in society.

The basic truth that most humans agree with is to treat others as they would like to be treated. That didn't originate with Christianity, and Christians certainly don't have a lock on it. What is more frightening to me is that for the religious, there is no evil that cannot be justified by "God commanded it". The murder of thousands of newborns, stoning of disobedient children, the list of evil in the Bible goes on and on, but it's all ok because it was for God's side. That, in the long run, is much more detrimental to society.

Tefnut said...

Geopoet,

I had an entire long list of contrary critiques and studies (hundreds) by neutral statisticians and social scientists that disprove what atheists are trying to infer from it, but I'm not going to post them because I know nothing would convince you.

Please do post. I have often heard the claim from theists that atheism somehow causes social ills, but I have yet to see anything supporting that.

So, noone should disagree with a philosophy when they believe it might negatively affect others?

Of course they should. But you have still not demonstrated why and how atheism negatively affects society.