Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Neighbors Worth Loving

Like any good anthropologist, I'll start this with some things you need to know about me. Female, liberal, reasonably well-educated, and yes, I "have faith."

For many people, this comes with all sorts of assumptions about me. First, if I don't specify my faith, it is assumed I'm Christian. I could certainly pass if I wanted to benefit from the various privileges involved with the affiliation. In many discussions online I voice the Christian perspective just so that someone rational does voice it, as opposed to someone irrational or no one at all.

It's a tricky proposition, though. For all that I reject and denounce claims by Christians that religious people are some kind of hunted minority in America, I must frequently take care when allowing myself to be associated with them. Even as a lowly dhimmi under magnanimous Christian dominion who sometimes craves their privileged status... I am wary of being perceived as Christian myself.

Why? The short version is that I talk to a lot of atheists. I often find myself being "the good theist" in any discussion. The one who helps atheists feel certain in their reasonableness, because lo! Even a theist agrees with us. How wise we atheists are, and what fools these theists be.

And y'know... they are wise. Much of the time, I crave an atheist perspective. It's why I'm still happy in a relationship with someone whom I privately describe as a "born again atheist." He doesn't have any use for the supernatural in his life, and damned if he isn't still excited about his conclusion. But even here the problem occurs. Not even a week ago we had a long talk that forced me to seriously evaluate my future with a man who loves me but finds my religion difficult to value.

Y'see, I value atheism as a "path," just as Wicca is my "path" for the moment. Many paths are religions, but not all. And they certainly don't have to involve the supernatural in order to be valuable as paths to personal growth. This is the viewpoint that governs my dealings with Christians, Muslims, atheists, whomever. It's why I can agree to disagree, because I know that what is good and right in my life may not work for them, and they'll decide better for themselves than I ever could.

The problem occurs when this same respect is not returned. The problem occurs when I feel I am bending over backward to make someone I respect and value feel respected and valued when it would be just as easy to harp on all the beautiful things I pity them for missing, only to find myself treated by atheists like a child sitting at the adults' table for the first time. Almost grown. Almost rational. Almost there. But not quite. Poor thing.

Truth be told? I don't think religion is harmful. I don't think that it damages my life to believe things that Carl Sagan (bless his soul all the same) attributed to "peasants." I think what's damaging is looking at another happy, healthy human being who is treating you with respect and demanding that they come around to your way of thinking. Just 'cuz. Never mind that if it were my time to be an atheist I would be one. Never mind that if I were not happy being Wiccan I would not be Wiccan in the first place. Never mind that most atheists these days have been disrespected and devalued by this very mindset. Some of them haven't learned a thing from it.

For many people, it's a phase that passes. The cultivated disdain for all those backward-thinking theists who haven't "gotten it" yet. Sometimes it passes, proving to be little more than the zeal of the newly-converted.

But sometimes it doesn't. And then it isn't enough that I'm the good theist. It isn't enough that I value and appreciate the atheist perspective; I must share it, or else be reduced to the status of dhimmi yet again. "You can stay. But don't talk to any of our people about your beliefs, and don't make trouble."

Well, here I am. Not making trouble.

But if there's one thing I want to leave people with, one impression I want atheists I speak with to fully internalize... it's that I'm glad you're here. You have something to offer me. But you don't know so much so perfectly that you can stop listening.

I was reading An Atheist With Gandhi earlier, and one thing struck me from a conversation between Gandhi and a dear friend of his who believed that eliminating religion would improve human life in India. I'm reproducing it because Christians aren't the only ones who can forget that cooperation can happen without total agreement.

"I see an ideal in your talk. I can neither say that my theism is right nor your atheism is wrong. We are seekers after truth. We change whenever we find ourselves in the wrong. I changed like that many times in my life. I see you are a worker. You are not a fanatic. You will change whenever you find yourself in the wrong. There is no harm as long as you are not fanatical. Whether you are in the right or I am in the right, results will prove. Then I may go your way or you may come my way; or both of us may go a third way. So go ahead with your work. I will help you, though your method is against mine."

Only days ago I worried that it wouldn't be enough to love the one I love and be loved by him, that it wouldn't be enough to respect human dignity and freedom, and that it wouldn't be enough to welcome an atheist perspective. None of these things would be enough if I carried that damning scent of theism, and no amount of respect and welcome into my life could earn me anything but disdain.

So here's my plea. I want more than tolerance, because I give you more than tolerance. Live. Love. Work. Be happy with your path, and if I ever have something to offer... I will help you, though your method is against mine. I think we've all had enough of proving ourselves to people who are certain we're "doing it wrong" just because we're doing it differently. You know as well as I do what that creates. When you choose to fuss over differences of dogma instead of working to improve the things we can agree upon, you cease to be a worker and you become a fanatic.

There's a theist here who loves you guys. Don't forget me when the fundies get you down.


Eric Helms said...

Interesting. I had a professor in college (at Wabash College) who felt the need to reference his atheism almost every class period. At the same time there was a student who blindly cited sunday school and his mom--not kidding--in arguing for faith.

These kinds of conversations seem to reveal insecurities on both ends of the spectrum. It seems to me that true atheists actually do have faith; even if it is faith in the lack of God. A true skeptic in all things must be agnostic.

Atheist can only claim superiority in a world where the assumption is that people of faith have that faith as a kind of fire insurance. If that were the case, atheist could boast in the security. But since faith is much more than that for many of us, it is faulty to assume that our faith is a crutch.

Congratulations on graduation!

Anonymous said...

As an Atheist married to a Christian, let me tell you that you will not be respected for every aspect of your personality by your partner but you can still be loved. Even after 20 years, I occasionally find my wife's faith incomprehensible and, eyes, misguided but that has little bearing on my feelings for her. Love is not a mental exercise, it is a instinctive commitment to your mate in spite of the fact that he hogs the remote, cuts his toenails in the bed and doesn't call you everyday from work.

That said, if you feel unrespected in a way that seems so vital to you, then you might consider if there are deeper issues in your relationship. Or, this may be the one areas of your life where "compromising" is not going to be acceptable. This stuff is messy and sometimes we just have to feel our way in the dark.

Best wishes.