There was a post by Nancy Fulda that went up a few days ago that echoed some things I’ve been thinking about lately. I was going to respond to it sooner, but some of the responses I saw on Twitter and elsewhere made it clear that the fact that some of us know some of the specifics of her beliefs has created two different conversations. Keffy Kehrli has addressed one of them, and done it well. I’d like to address the other.
At a workshop I attended last year, one of the students was very clearly Catholic. They broadcast this in a way that I personally found impossible to miss: the Saint’s medallion and crucifixes that they wore, even the content of their novel. Maybe not everyone is keyed into that sort of thing the way that I am, but I was aware of it from the moment I met them. In this group, atheism was assumed to be the defacto world view. This was constantly reinforced through offhand, derisive comments about Christianity, references to anti-Christian or anti-Catholic comedy and media; I can’t remember all of the specifics, but I do remember cringing every time it happened. It went on all weekend, people tossing out bumpersticker jokes and references that demonstrated a real contempt for faith in general.
Mostly the student didn’t seem to notice, but they also didn’t really interact with us much. And then on the very last night of the workshop this very obviously shy, deeply religious student finally found the courage to come hang out with all of the drinking, swearing atheists. They hadn’t been in the room two minutes before someone told a joke that began, “A priest and a nun walk into the bar…” and ended with the nun referring to her price for a blow-job. The student left the room visibly upset, and didn’t return.
This is the sort of thing that I want to acknowledge about the content of Nancy’s post. In the vast USian social, political, and cultural arena, we as atheists, agnostics, Jews, pagans, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Baha’ist, Wiccans, B’Nai Noach, Sikhs, etc. often feel excluded and as if the majority were living in a completely different world than we are. For an atheist, everything from stores closing on Sundays to “In God We Trust” on our money and in our civic buildings, to the assumption when we are bereaved that “our loved ones are in a better place” is a comforting thought, to our children being informed by their classmates that they’re going to Hell, we are surrounded constantly by an undercurrent of Christian influence on our lives. It’s the old fishbowl allegory: One fish says to the other, “Isn’t the water lovely today?” and the second fish says, “What’s water?” The Christian fish doesn’t even notice it. Meanwhile, we air-breathing atheists and others are drowning.
And then we find SFF, and the majority is like us. Or at least, not Christian. It is a tremendous relief–we can breathe. Suddenly we are surrounded by people with a shared empirical world view.* We start to let our hair down. We gleefully talk about our favorite moments of the Tim Minchin concert we attended, or what we read on Pharyngula. We forget that while we know three of the people at the table pretty well, and they all just laughed at our joke, we just met that fourth one and huh, she wasn’t really laughing. We forget that there are people among us with deeply held religious views, who believe in a higher authority and in mysteries that don’t require proof. We start to talk about religious people as if they are stupid (they are not). We don’t understand why or how anyone could think the way that they do. We openly mock their beliefs in our conversation, our shared popular culture. The undercurrent at SFF conventions, in our Twitter feeds, our Tumblrs, our forums and blogs–the water in our fishbowl–is not religious neutrality, it is open contempt for Christianity.
Jasmine, I thought, put it best on Twitter the other day:
Jasmine @snazel 5 Jun
Does anyone else in my twitter feed feel that the mention of their religion will a) offend people b) cause their perceived IQ to drop?
That’s the part that I want to be aware of. People are afraid to mention that they went to church, or that they pray, because they are afraid that they will be derided and treated with contempt. They have good reason to feel that way. I know exactly how that feels, and I should know better than to do it someone else.
I saw some comments on Twitter saying that the specifics of a believer’s faith were required before it could be properly tolerated. I consider that derailing. When I identify as an atheist, that is not an invitation for anyone else to grill me on the specifics of my politics, my morals, or where my money goes. A person could make plenty of assumptions about me because I don’t believe in the existence of any gods–and they do, such as the notion that atheism automatically implies Satanic hedonism, that I “just don’t want to follow any rules,” that without a God as an authority I cannot possibly know right from wrong, that I’m “just mad at God,” that there is no meaning in my life and must live a state of constant fear and despair.
And I, perhaps, could assume that someone who goes to church on a regular basis is sex-negative, thinks that I deserve to be tortured forever for my lack of faith, believes that the universe was created in seven days, and that the Earth is only six thousand years old. That would be a bad set of assumptions as applied to most of the Christians I know.
But the fact that I don’t know exactly what they believe doesn’t warrant an interrogation of the specifics of their faith. Even with faiths that I think I know a lot about, I don’t assume that an individual necessarily agrees with every aspect of their church’s doctrine (and am often shocked when I learn that they do agree). There are Catholics who use birth control and Mormons who support marriage equality and Jews who oppose circumcision. If a person wants to mention their position on such things, then by all means, now they’ve put it out there to engage with, and I will go right ahead and argue and oppose and thwart as my conscience dictates, and expect them to do the same. But I do not think that I am entitled to reserve my tolerance until they satisfy my curiosity about their position on the things that are personally important to me.
Back to that workshop I attended: To the greater credit of the Catholic student, the following morning they told the group at large how they had felt. Most everyone took the problem very seriously and took responsibility for their part in the hurt they had caused. I like to believe that everyone came out of that situation wiser and more compassionate.
My last thought on this, for now anyway, is that I am coming from a place of having once been an extremely devout member of an unpopular Christian sect (hint: there was a lot of walking around neighborhoods and references to what may have been a Jimi Hendrix song; and yes, they are Christian, despite what you’ve heard). Changing one’s world view is an incredibly painful process, and it doesn’t happen over night. For me it took decades of trying to find some seed of truth in what I had been told was The Truth, because I just could not accept that nothing about the world was as I thought it was. I didn’t suddenly get smarter the day I became an atheist. I’m not even sure there was a day that I became one. I had to interrogate my own beliefs, every single one of them, every nuance, on my own, in order to get here. And it hurt. I think it can sometimes be hard for some people who have never believed in an Ultimate Authority (such as a God, or a spokesman thereof) to understand how much it dictates everything else. People of faith do not lack human empathy–on the contrary, they have loads of it, and spend a lot of time worrying about people like me because of it–and sometimes they do have to somehow find a way to reconcile that empathy with what they honestly believe is the one, single, ultimate source of Truth (hence phrases that can strike the atheist ear as peculiar and dissonant, like “love the sinner but hate the sin”).
The reason that I personally wanted to address this aspect of Nancy’s post–of us, as atheists and other religious or philosophical minorities, being aware of the ways in which we let our privileged position of Majority in SFF make others feel afraid, unwanted, and disrespected–is because I know that I have played a part in that. I am probably not the person you want to engage with regarding specific tenets, because those conversations generally devolve into “This is Right/Good and that is Wrong/Bad and you’re Wrong/Bad because of it,” and everyone involved ends up feeling judged and abused. I think we’re all mostly smart enough to know when it gets into political/personal territory, and when it does, believe you me, I have Opinions, and you will hear about them. But I don’t want anyone to ever feel like they can’t mention the interesting thing they heard in church last week, or that they dislike the visiting deacon/prayer leader/monk, or that their new prayer and meditation ritual has really helped them with their creativity and stress. I don’t want them to worry that I’m going to judge them when they tell me they have six kids. I don’t want them afraid that I’m going to roll my eyes when they tell me about an experience they had that they think of as spiritual. I don’t want anyone to feel like they have to choke on that part of who they are around me, or in our community.
So I apologize to those I have made to feel that way, and there are probably a lot of you. I’ve become aware of it, and I will try very hard to do better in the future. Thank you for your courage, patience, and tolerance as I go through my growing pains.
*This line has been edited because it was brought to my attention that the language I used definitely demonstrated my own bias. Thanks, Laurel.