Tuesday, October 18, 2011

PZ Myers Issues a Challenge!

PZ Myers has thrown down the challenge and I am going to take it up!

One of the first posts I copied into this blog was a long essay from a much older blog called, "Why I am a Humanist".  In fact,  the original title was "Why I am an Atheist Agnostic",  but 5-10 years ago (long before I discovered Pharyngula and Friendly Atheist and the whole amazing blogosphere of freethought), I was still very intimidated by the possible fallout I (and worse, my family) might experience if I expressed my position on religion in unambiguous terms.  So, I changed the title to "Why I am a Humanist".  Less offensive to theists,  you understand.

In the essay,  I alluded to the unhappy confrontations that I had experienced simply by expressing the mildest of agnostic views.  In a discussion that had been billed as a respectful (there were TOS!  ha) discussion of world religions and philosophy - including atheism and agnosticism -  the reality was that I found myself attacked, demonized and finally ostracized by a shocking number of people,  a few of whom I had previously considered friends.

I have lived thousands of miles from my birthplace and extended family for many years, and had recently moved to a community which is saturated with religiosity and it is not overstating the case to say that,  after that discussion (my "coming out" as atheist),  I suddenly became aware of my vulnerability and alienation. With no support network around me or my family,  I began to understand for the first time the very real concerns of unpopular minorities.  The real and constant cost of being "other".  It was bad enough that I might risk ostracism myself,  but - in a culture which demands conformity to a theistic worldview - it suddenly dawned upon me that expressing my opinions openly could bring unpleasant consequences upon my partner and children.

Moderates scoff at the notion that there is very real and very intimidating pressure to conform to a Christian worldview in this culture,  but the rash of visits from proselytizers who singled out our house from all others in the neighborhood following that miserable exchange convinces me otherwise.  That would be in addition to the egging of our house and the discovery of religious junk (plastic jesuses, prayer bracelets, etc)  pushed into the dirt in the front garden.  The evidence may be circumstantial, but coupled with the pervasive, overwhelming religiosity all over town ("Salvation" music in the grocery store;  Xian "rock" blasting from outdoor speakers at the gas station, religious colouring books at the family dentist's),  I am inclined to think it was not all coincidental.  If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, etc. 

Or, I could be paranoid.  Quite possible.  The reaction I got when I came out among "friends" in a safe forum was so shockingly negative,  the rejection so complete,  that I was quite disturbed about it for several months.  Could be that something became unhinged in me.  Around that same time, my (then) 12 year old was grilled by the father of a neighborhood friend about his beliefs (!) and then lectured on the "lie" of evolution and the "truth" of biblical creationism.  Perhaps the chill I felt over a 40 year old man coming outside to harrass a 12 year old child about religion was simply my own paranoia.  Perhaps that religious zealot was behaving perfectly normally and I was overreacting.

Nah.  Not bloody likely.  Worried about the impact on my family? Yes indeed.  And in that respect,  I believe that my concerns were (and still are) well-founded.  You see,  it really is true sometimes that just because you feel paranoid doesn't mean they are not out to get you!  ;-)

So,  after the stunning attack that I experienced (and in response to the astonishment expressed by those friends who did not attack me but were nevertheless surprised and disturbed to learn of my atheism),  I wrote a blog post (reposted here as "Why I am a Humanist") in which I attempted to honestly explain my thoughts on religion and philosophy of life,  but without "offending" any theist friends or acquaintances.  The result was predictably accommodationist and, even more miserably, almost apologetic.

I would like to think that it was not strictly dishonest,  because in that post I described many of the things I truthfully felt in the (oblivious!) younger decades of my life,  but the tone and the tortuous elaboration betrays my inner battle between the (suddenly crystal clear!) truth and the patchwork of intellectual accommodations I had used during my life in order to allow myself to continue to "belong" to the church tradition into which I was born.  In the editing process,  fearing that my use of "they" to denote theists might anger those who read it,  I went back and rewrote everything to include myself,  writing "we".  That was not honest,  because while I did participate in the religious culture for many years,  I was never a believer in the same sense that I now understand theists to mean by "believer".

I spoke about the dark side of religion,  but I was ever so careful to balance those remarks with glowing praise for the "wonderful creativity" of human tribes in developing this psychological tool for increasing their own security and comfort (while avoiding explicitly mentioning the obvious continuation of that thought:  "at the expense of the security and comfort of other tribes and outliers").  I waxed poetic over the "fascinating" "resourcefulness" of human beings.  I expressed delighted, apparently uncritical, interest in every religious text known to man and allowed that any new such texts that came to light would also enjoy my enthusiastic endorsement as testaments to human imaginative power.

Yes!  I was an atheist agnostic.  But I was an atheist agnostic who respected my religious friends and their religious traditions.  Nothing to fear here!  Nothing to hate or demonize.  I had "come out" as atheist,  but I was begging my theist friends to please not hate me.  It didn't work, of course.  I learned who my real friends were (depressingly few),  lost my reputation in a community in which I had been active for ten years, was sidelined as a moderator and soon pushed out (after 8 years of faithful service) and generally made to understand that who I am and what I offer this world is nothing to most people if I disbelieve in their gods.

Well, that's enough of that.  It was a good learning experience, though.  I learned very well how utterly ineffective accommodationism is.  I have lain low for a couple of years,  trying to weigh up the risk (to my self-respect and happiness) of continued silence and conformity against the risk of danger and discrimination to my children and partner if I am open about my anti-theism.

Oh right.  I forgot to mention that mere atheism has evolved into anti-theism over the past decade for what I consider obvious reasons.

Anyway,  I am ashamed of the earlier essay now.  It doesn't exactly lie,  but it shamefully avoids the whole truth of what I really believe.  Oh yes, I do think ancient tribes were damn resourceful inventing a sky fairy to use as an ultimate authority to back their own claims to land, mates and resources.  I should have continued to elaborate on how that sky monster and the convenient biblical canon built around it was (and still is) resourcefully used to justify genocide, infanticide and misogyny among other innumerable horrors,  but I stopped short of doing so.  In short, I was afraid to offend.

Not any more.  PZ Myers,  Christopher Hitchens,  Jen McCreight among many writers,  and especially the amazing commentariat on PZ's blog (those commenters literally thrilled me when I first discovered Pharyngula.  No guff!  No suffering fools gladly!) have inspired me.  Daily doses of their no-nonsense, unapologetic atheism (and especially the bracing feminism of the Pharyngula commentariat) has fortified me and stiffened my spine. 

I am a fifty-year old mother of five nearly grown children,  a homemaker and a thinker.  I am an atheist and a humanist.  I hope to write regularly on the topic of life as an ordinary atheist in an overwhelmingly theistic country,  general thoughts on religion in western society,  and on the danger of rising religiosity all over the world.  And I intend to write a new essay "Why I am an Atheist" to send to PZ Myers.