What he said (about Xmas)

Why do you want to leave people out? Why is it considered an attack to say “holidays,” to say “seasonal?” I mean, don’t you want other people to join you in joy? Why are you excluding other people? I don’t think there should be any sort of, you’re not allowed to say Christmas. I think you’re fine putting up your trees. I think you’re fine talking about Santa Claus and you’re fine talking about Jesus Christ, about equal to me. But why leave me out? Why do that? What’s your motive? And trying to turn around a “we want to leave you out,” into “why are you forcing us to not have our joy,” is insanity. It’s backwards.

 

An anniversary of sorts

5 years ago today was the day that Jerry and I announced to our families (and the larger world around us) that we were atheists.

Unbeknownst to us, September 30th would be later become International Blasphemy Rights Day. Kinda fitting, don’t you think?

This weekend has been a busy one, particularly in terms of the atheist-activist side of me. On Friday night, I helped host a reading group for the Saskatoon Secular Family Network. And tonight, I was a part of a Reasonable Women get-together.  Both groups are so important to me, not only because they help bring likeminded people together, but because (selfishly) I have made so many great friendships as a result of these groups’ existence.

I can’t say that the 5 years since I’ve been ‘out’ have all been good ones — I’ve used this blog to document many of the ups and downs of being the only nonbeliever in a family of believers, as well as some of the difficulties of being in a minority group.  But difficulties aside, I’m really proud that on September 30th, 2007, Jerry and I took that tough step of admitting out loud our nonbelief.

Here’s to the next  5 years!

It’s not easy being an apostate

Go. Go now. Go now and read ‘From Bible-Belt Pastor to Atheist Leader’ in this week’s NYTimes’ Magazine. The article is about Jerry DeWitt, a former minister who’s now working as the Executive Director of Recovering from Religion. (sidenote: hey look! Cafe Apostate is listed as one of the 3 groups in Canada!)

I loved reading this article, if only because I think it really illustrates how it’s a long and difficult process to reject your faith.  So many times people ask me ‘when did you lose your faith?’ and expect me to point to the one day when I found that I was no longer a Christian.  It’s a process, people!  Just like you can’t pinpoint an answer to  ‘when did you grow up?’ — it’s impossible to know the precise moments when you realized you were no longer a believer. (p.s. Thanks to Dan Barker and his book ‘Godless‘ for that analogy)

When it comes to my deconversion, I found it was a series of small steps, or a feeling of slowly letting go — until I finally realized (and accepted) that I wasn’t holding on to that faith system anymore. And, I was OKAY.  I was the same person, just with one less box to check on the census.

What I found to be the hardest part of being an apostate is the rejection you face from your religious family, friends, and connections.  I think the NYTimes article on DeWitt does a good job of illustrating just how much can be lost in admitting your nonbelief. From the article:

Almost at once [after his ‘outing’ as an atheist], DeWitt became a pariah in DeRidder [his hometown]. His wife found herself ostracized in turn, and the marriage suffered. She moved out in June. He received a constant stream of hate messages — some threatening — and still does, more than seven months later. He played me a recent one he had saved on his cellphone as we ate lunch at a diner in town. “It’s just sickening to hear you try to turn people atheist,” a guttural voice intoned. It went on and on, telling DeWitt to go to hell in various ways. “I’m not going to sit around while you turn people against God,” the voice said at one point.

Can you feel the Christian love?

Thankfully I haven’t had any kind of death threats or a broken marriage because of my atheism. I have had many friendships lost, family relationships broken, and I’ve been on the receiving end of countless patronizing ‘we will pray for you’ letters and emails that passive-aggressively condemn my nonbelief.  It’s not something that you want to have to go through, but when compared to having to live a lie (ie., pretending to be something you’re not), then it’s all part of the experience.

So that’s why I get so riled up when I find believers who either mock, deride, or dismiss the stories of apostates (and yes, I’m focusing mainly on Christianity here, since that’s where I’m coming from — unfortunately with other monotheistic religions, the response to apostates is to murder them).

In my experience, I find there are a couple different reactions that Christians have to apostates: First, there’s the ‘you were never a True Christian™ in the first place‘ response, where the validity of the apostate’s past experiences as a believer is questioned. Usually when someone accuses me of never being an authentic believer, it’s for one of three reasons: it’s either out of fear (I don’t want to lose my faith one day!), defensiveness (how dare you reject something I hold so dear!) or it’s a response bred from a sense of competition (Christianity is so much better than atheism, let me tell you why!). Let me tell you, it’s disheartening to be on the end of such immediate judgmental conclusions.

Which reminds me, a year ago today, I was on the UK Christian radio program Unbelievable?. One of the most interesting parts of that experience was to listen in to some of the (primarily Christian) audience’s reactions to my apostasy story. From what I remember, most of the listener feedback in the following weeks fell into those three categories above.

But what I’ve found to be the most frustrating Christian reaction to stories of apostates is the mockery and ridicule that some love to heap.  And while I understand the motivations behind it (again, it probably falls under the same three categories I listed earlier), it doesn’t make this religiously-fueled bullying any easier to take.  In fact, I recently left an online group that I helped start because of a couple people who loved to be nasty in their reactions to the authentic stories of what is lost when outing yourself as a nonbeliever.

I wonder how these same people would react to reading DeWitt’s apostate story of what he lost. (I’m not optimistic)

Anyway, while there is a lot of sad feelings and experiences to be found in these stories of rejected (read: not ‘lost’) faith, I think there’s also so much more freedom and authenticity to be found in finally accepting who you are as a nonbeliever.

And for those people who decide not to embrace the ‘real’ godless you? Well, from my experience, it’s not really that big of a loss to no longer have them as a part of your life. I find that I prefer to have a handful of people who love and know me for who I am, rather than be in a relationship where I’m only accepted for being who they think I should be.

Which is one reason why I loved this song from Wicked so much:

Something has changed within me

Something is not the same

I’m through with playing by the rules

Of someone else’s game

Too late for second-guessing

Too late to go back to sleep

It’s time to trust my instincts

Close my eyes: and leap!

[…]

I’m through accepting limits

’cause someone says they’re so

Some things I cannot change

But till I try, I’ll never know!

Too long I’ve been afraid of

Losing love I guess I’ve lost

Well, if that’s love

It comes at much too high a cost!

from ‘Defying Gravity’

grrrl meets conservative media

So I had an interesting day today.

Today I had a conversation with our local talk-radio star, John Gormley.  John and I are on pretty much different sides of the aisle on many (most?) political and social issues, but today we had a moment of commonality.  Beyond our shared affection for True Blood (!!),  we both aren’t in favor of a recent complaint filed with the province’s Human Rights Commission.

Some background: In April of this year, there was a prayer offered at a City of Saskatoon Volunteer Appreciation Dinner.  One of the volunteers being honored found the dinner grace to be inappropriate in the context, and complained. The complaint eventually escalated to now being a case before the Human Rights Commission. [Star-Phoenix article here]

Now when this story first came out, I was really glad the issue was being highlighted and discussed. I also don’t think public prayers are appropriate, because not only will it bother non-believers in the audience, but chances are the prayer will alienate another belief system.  And, thanks to Thomas Jefferson, I’m a big fan of separating church and state.

But that said, I can also understand why a prayer may have been given in the context of the volunteer appreciation dinner.  For many believers, it’s just second-nature to offer a grace before eating, and they may not have thought of the implications of their actions on audience members who don’t share their faith. (this doesn’t excuse what happened, but it may explain why it did)

I don’t think that this dinner prayer was meant to subvert nonbelievers or nonChristians in a way that violated their human rights, per se.  But I do think that we, as a society, need to talk about what’s appropriate in public contexts (and clearly this prayer wasn’t appropriate) — and then we can hold our leaders accountable for following through on what is best for ALL of us.  But, again, I think taking this complaint to the HRC is a few steps further than what I would have done.

SO — to hear more about where I’m coming from, check out today’s interview on John Gormley Live here.

When it’s all said and done, I’m happy with how it all turned out.  I feel like I was able to respectfully disagree with the complainant, while also highlighting how diverse the atheist/secular/humanist/nonbelieving community can be when it comes to various issues. I was also able to talk a bit about a case I think would be worthwhile taking to the HRC, plus there were 2 plugs for the different groups I help facilitate (including one plug made by the man, Gormley, himself!).

About 10 minutes after I did the interview, I got an email from a reporter from the national news station Sun News who was requesting me to do an on-camera interview!  Crazy.  So not only did I have a chance to speak my piece on local talk radio, but sometime tomorrow I’ll have a bit on a national news channel. (if anyone out there can PVR my interview, I’d be much appreciated — hopefully it’ll appear on the website)

All in all, it was a busy day — but a good day.  It was a chance for me to share my opinion and hopefully educate others on the diversity of the atheist movement.

The current signature line of my email account pretty much sums up why I decided to speak out on this issue when it could have been just as easy to walk away from it.  My signature quote is from Emile Zola, and it reads: “If you ask me what I came into this world to do, I will tell you: I came to live out loud.”

Today was one of those days I lived out loud. And I liked it.

grrrl meets Eve the deceived

Recently I got an email from a concerned believer, regarding the interview I gave last summer on the Unbelievable? UK Christian radio program.  Periodically I’ll get an email response from someone who’s heard the show — usually such emails consist of: “you were never a true Christian!” or “repent!” or “I feel sorry for you.”  This last email I received intrigued me enough to write a lengthy response — if you’re curious, I’ll include it below:

Thanks for your email. You certainly gave me a lot to think about, and I’m glad what I had to say on the podcast caused you to think/reflect so much.

I suppose more than anything, your email inspired a lot of questions – which probably isn’t all that surprising, is it?  I guess the best way to respond to your letter would be for me to quote parts of it that stood out, and then ask you some clarifying questions about what you’ve said or implied.   Let’s start:

In one of the first parts of your letter you wrote: I’ve been in through the same sort of intellectual and emotional affliction you described and I think the tears were a mix of empathy and tragedy.

My questions:

  • What is an ‘intellectual affliction?’  I understand when people talk about being emotionally afflicted, but I’ve never heard knowledge or intellect described in such a way. What does it mean to you?
  • I suppose I’m curious about what I revealed about myself that is tragic to you. If anything, I find myself much happier since rejecting the confines of faith – is the tragic element of my story more of a projection of how you think you would feel if you were no longer a Christian? I’m thinking back to the podcast, and the only regret or sadness I can remember talking about is the rejection I’ve felt from my family over my apostasy.

Later in the letter you spoke of the notion of being a prodigal – which is, admittedly, a powerful metaphor in the Gospels.  Here’s what stood out to me in that particular section: Sons aren’t the only ones tempted to prodigality, though. Daughters and all their sophisticated erudition can have such tendencies, too. And prodigality can also mean taking the spiritual and intellectual gifts and inheritance the Father has given you and squandering them for the “principles of this world”, it’s not just money we’re tempted to waste in foreign lands.

I’m curious about:

  • Your notion of “Daughters and all their sophisticated erudition”  — I’m wondering what you mean by this particular description. Part of me thinks there may be a bit of a pretentious edge to what you are meaning by education here. Am I misreading?
  • Not only that, but what is the correlation between education and ‘prodigality?’ Does one lead to the other? And if that’s the case, what is at fault – the education or the faith system that is unable to stand up to expanded knowledge?
  • I’m familiar with the parable of the prodigal son, and it seems like you’re drawing a parallel between that story and my own. What’s interesting is that I don’t see myself as a prodigal. I’m not suffering in a pigsty somewhere, longing to return “home.” If anything, I’m much more content since leaving the faith than I was when I was within its restraints.
  • When you talk about “squandering [your intellectual gifts] for the ‘principles of this world’”, what do you mean?  I’m always curious when these seemingly anti-intellectual statements creep up in discussions of faith (I’m not necessarily painting you as such, but that sentence looks to be leaning in that direction).

In your letter you shared the story of another woman in your church who looks to be facing many of the struggles I’ve had – you wrote:  I have some dear friends at my own church who have a daughter very much like you, although she’s not yet abandoned the Christian faith, I know she’s been tempted. Very thoughtful, very bright, a musical genius, but someone who has questions few Christians, aside from her mom, are willing to discuss.

My response:

  • This, to me, is a “tragedy.”  I have indeed ‘been there, done that,’ and I hold the silencing and dismissive believers accountable for any hurts this young woman may be receiving in her quest for truth and understanding.
  • There are many young women and men who are in similar situations in the church, which is one reason why organized religion is in such dire straits today.
  • There was a study released last year that predicted religion could potentially go extinct in the next 50 years in several Western countries – including Canada.  The fastest growing “religious group” in North America is the “nones” (no religious affiliation). The reason why? Religion is losing its relevance and its openness to encourage questioning – and that’s in addition to not being able to provide satisfactory answers to those asking the questions.
  • My response to this is again: who’s at fault here? The young woman with the questions, or the church’s inability to satisfactorily sate her inquiries?

My response to your letter wouldn’t be complete without me tackling some of what you wrote about Satan:  Permit me to get a bit medieval for a moment, but I do strongly discern the “voice” to whom you’ve ultimately been listening has not been your own, but that of the enemy of souls. He’s taken your faith, Rebekah, sifting you like wheat, positing the premise that Christianity as it stands is not intellectually satisfying.

Hmmm:

  • Do you think there is an actual being of Satan? Not as in ‘the Satan’ (as in the adversary), but a supernatural being who’s keen on tempting humans?
  • Are you saying that there’s a Satanic edge to my desire to have intellectually satisfying answers to my questions about Christianity?
  • Beyond the religious boogieman of a Satan character, part of me resents that you view my journey out of faith as me being a hapless victim who’s been deceived, like Eve.
  • Oh, but if we’re going to talk about Eve, what are the implications of having knowledge be forbidden? (on a fun side-note) Is God guilty of ‘contributory negligence’ for putting that tree in the garden in the first place?  If I put a dangerous item in the reach of my 5 year old, and strictly forbid her from touching it, but she does so any way, wouldn’t I be guilty of putting such a danger within her reach?

As you heard in the podcast, the problem of evil is a big factor in why I rejected Christianity. You made this analogy in your letter: And if you revisit [Satan’s] efforts to tempt Jesus in the wilderness, you’ll see a few other commonalities to what I thought I heard you allude in your story regarding evil. If God exists, then surely he would do X, wouldn’t he? But since he doesn’t do X, then it would seem that he does not exist.” Did the fact that Jesus did not turn stones into bread or throw himself down from the pinnacle of the temple prove He was not the Son of God?

My questions:

  • Are you implying that my desire to have a decent theodicy is akin to Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness? I’m not sure how this works – can you explain? I’m always up for theodices.
  • Do you mean that for God to do any more good than what he already does, is serving Satan?
  • And this is again assuming that the story in the bible is legit.  Are you using the bible to prove that Jesus is God?

Almost done here – hopefully you’re still with me.

You ended your letter by writing these statements: But I do think Jesus still loves you very much, considers you His child and longs for your return, but you are not presently willing.  And Rebekah, your heart is not too heavy, you’re not too far to come home.

Well,:

  • Do you think I’m not ‘presently willing’ to accept Christianity?  I would like to think that I’m open to evidence – and I think I said as much in the podcast.
  • And, once again, my heart isn’t heavy. I am home. As someone who’s rejected the oppressive dogmas of Christianity, I’m now free to:
    • Freely question, without dismissal or rejection
    • Not settle for answers that aren’t satisfying
    • No  longer excuse discriminatory dogmas that hurt people (ie., resistance to same-sex marriage)
    • I no longer have to defend a (at times, contradictory) faith that isn’t relevant or necessary in our world today
    • Embrace my world today, and not a world to come – which adds an immediacy and preciousness that I didn’t have when I had an eternity to look forward to.
    • To name just a few!

My final thoughts – while I appreciated most of your letter to me, by the end I was dismayed by your earnestness to dismiss my quest for knowledge in light of the supposed ineffable and “incomprehensible” love of a Savior – who, presumably, has no obligation or desire to sate my ‘god-given’ (irony intended) drive to better understand the world around me.

I suppose I’m no longer willing to canonize what I regard as willful ignorance. It’s not enough for me to swallow these concerns and inquiries in light of a faith and a God that I’m not sure is even there.

You quoted Milton and Dickinson to me in your letter – and while I’ve never been a Milton fan, Dickinson is someone who has always spoke to me (as you can tell in this letter, I’m a fan of the dash – !).  You knew that she was an agnostic, right?

I’ll end my long response by quoting her back to you:

“Faith” is a fine invention, when gentlemen can see / But microscopes are prudent, in an emergency.

That’s where I’m at. I don’t mind faith, for others – but squashing the pursuit of knowledge is something that I find unique to religion. I think religion is the one part of human existence that resists expanding the world beyond what we currently know – because it’s deemed dangerous.

And I’m not willing to be part of such a system anymore.

Sincerely,

Rebekah Bennetch

content atheist, at home.

 

What’s interesting for me is that these kinds of responses are getting easier and easier to write. I have thought through why I am who I am, and I’m happy to share, should I be given the chance.  (thing is, I’m finding less people who are willing to give me such chances these days)

What did you think of my response?

Holy week musings

Today’s Stuff Christian Culture Likes is #141 Teaching small children about the crucifixion.  It reminded me of a post I wrote back in 2009, about that very thing — Ye Olde Rugged Cross.  I feel the same way, three years later.  Now that Emma’s getting older, I suppose it’s time to share with her the various religious stories that go along with this time of the year. Needless to say, we won’t be coloring any pictures of crucifixions any time soon.

Here’s an interesting video I’ve been mulling over the last couple days: Why Does Atheism Need Myths?

The alternate title Dave has for his video is “Why Atheism Has More To Offer Than Logical Consistency.”  I think he really nails it in the video — so much of what he talks about is something I’ve experienced in the atheist community.

I was really involved in an atheist group here in Saskatoon, but I found something was missing in its focus so much on the rational and logic.  I needed some humanity, more feeling, more recognition of the messiness of being human.  While I know there are important places in life for logic and science and being rational, I think being a human being encompasses emotion, and celebration, and even ritual.

Which is probably the main reason why I’ve been going to the Unitarian Centre of Saskatoon for the last year or so — I think I was hoping to find the missing humanistic elements here. And while I really love the friendships I’ve made and the religious education program Emma’s a part of — it still feels LIKE CHURCH.  And I’m not a fan of church — whether it’s the politics and drama behind the scenes, or the inflexible liturgy, the result is that I’m starting to lose interest.  Oh, and then there’s the need to focus on guilting you to give money, too. Not a fan.  But, I’ll stick around, if only for Emma and what she’s experiencing in the RE community.

The other religious news this week is that I’ve been asked to participate in a “Talking about Jesus” conversation over on a Facebook page. I’ll be the atheist (of course), who’ll be in conversation with a believer. The topic will probably be about the notion of justice and Jesus — though I’m hoping to talk some about Jesus Christ Superstar, if given the chance. 🙂

EDIT: Ha! Just heard from the admin for the Jesusy page, and we will be talking JC Superstar. We’ll be discussing that, plus the different ways Jesus is portrayed in media. THIS WILL BE FUN, and a welcome distraction from the marking of papers that I’m currently buried under.

Here’s to Hitch

Socratic Mama reminded me of Hitchens’ closing words in his debate with William Dembski. In light of Hitch’s recent passing, these are words worth remembering:

I want to answer Bill’s (Dembski) implied question… Why don’t you accept this wonderful offer (of eternal life in heaven) ? Why wouldn’t you like to meet Shakespeare, for example? I don’t know if you really think that when you die you can be corporeally reassembled and have conversations with authors from previous epochs. It’s not necessary that you believe that in Christian theology and I have to say that it sounds like a complete fairytale to me. The only reason I want to meet Shakespeare, or might even want to, is because I can meet him anytime because he is immortal in the works he’s left behind. If you’ve read those then meeting the author would almost certainly be a disappointment.

But when Socrates was sentenced to death, for his philosophical investigations and for blasphemy for challenging the gods of the city, and he accepted his death he did say, “Well, if we are lucky perhaps I will be able to hold conversation with other great thinkers and philosophers and doubters, too.” In other words, that the discussion about what is good, what is beautiful, what is noble, what is pure, and what is true could always go on. Why is that important? Why would I like to do that? Because that’s the only conversation worth having. And whether it goes on or not after I die, I don’t know.

But, I do know that it is the conversation I want to have while I am still alive. Which means that to me the offer of certainty, the offer of complete security, the offer of an impermeable faith that can’t give way is an offer of something not worth having.

I want to live my life taking the risk all the time that I don’t know anything like enough yet… that I haven’t understood enough… that I can’t know enough… that I am always hungrily operating on the margins of a potentially great harvest of future knowledge and wisdom. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

And I’d urge you to look at those who tell you, those people who tell you at your age, that you are dead until you believe as they do. What a terrible thing to be telling to children. …and that you can only live by accepting an absolute authority. Don’t think of that as a gift. Think of it as a poisoned chalice. Push it aside however tempting it is. Take the risk of thinking for yourself. Much more happiness, truth, beauty and wisdom will come to you that way. Thank you.

Cheers, Christopher.