Recently, on Hemant Mehta's FriendlyAthiest blog, I came across a video done by a guy who runs a Facebook page called Religion Hurts Humanity. The video, titled What Religions Have Contributed to the World This Month, is nine minutes full of news clips and headlines detailing all the terrible things done in the name of religion during the last 30 days. The amount of material alone makes the video pretty compelling. Here are some of the featured headlines:
Islamic militants kill 30 in Nigeria School attack
Islamic states reject UN's attempt to protect women: It violates Sharia Law
Boy killed for an off-hand remark about Muhammad
Female genital mutilation victim was 'aged just seven'
Children report sexual abuse cases by Bhutan's Buddhist monks
Scandal at the Vatican: Official Arrested in $26 million Corruption Plot
Serial sex offender priest told 7-year-old victim he could get dead grandfather into heaven
Exorcism Gone Wrong? Woman Goes Into Cardiac Arrest During Ritual
'Spiritual healer' George Goak guilty of groping patients
India villagers kill two for 'witchcraft'
Now, truthfully, if I didn't blog about religion, I probably wouldn't have watched the whole video. It was a real downer seeing that many horrific headlines all strung together like that. Not that the video doesn't have value. I think it's important to point out the role religious beliefs are playing in the world, especially when religious organizations are given 501(c)(3) status and protected from prosecution in some cases.
However — you knew that was coming, didn't you? — in seeking to influence our feelings about religion by presenting only one set of facts, this particular video amounts to little more than propaganda — pretty effective propaganda at that. As a viewer, I found myself getting angry — angry at the people who have done these terrible things, angry at their religions for being a part of it, angry at religious people for having something in common with the those who had committed these terrible acts.
But then I thought critically about what I was watching. (Let's hear it for critical thinking!) Yes, religion provides a lot of headline fodder, but the stories in this one video don't share any of the good things that religious people do — and, perhaps even more importantly, they represent a fraction of the awful, terrible, tragic things that go in general every month.
Consider this: Moments after watching the video, I saw this headline from Reuters: Indian school lunch poisoning: doctors race to save children. It came with a picture of a grandmother, in anguish, over the loss of her grandson to a rice and potato curry tainted by insecticide. (That's her on the left; tears your heart out, right?) The story was just as horrible as anything you'll see on the video — and it has nothing to do with religion.
It's much harder to be sad and scared than to be angry — which is why so many of us are quick to turn to the latter. And it's much harder to be angry when there's nowhere to direct the anger. Would genital mutilation be easier to stomach if it were simply cultural, rather than religious? Is molestation and child rape less vile when committed by people born with mental illnesses? Which breaks your heart more: to hear about children who died senselessly because of an Islamic attack, or to hear about children who died senselessly because a vat of food was accidentally poisoned? How can we qualify that?
My hope is that someday religious belief won't need to be put under the microscope like this because more people will be willing to see religion as a human creation rather than a divine creation. No version of "God" gives people cart blanche to be morally reprehensible human beings — which, I do think, is the video's core message.
But let's at least shoot for honesty. For the sake of the next generation, let's try to view religion for what it is: something (like so many other things!) that compels and enables people to do really wonderful and truly terrible things.
No denials, no excuses, no special treatment. No exaggeration.
And — please, brothers — no more propaganda.
I have no firm opinion, really, on whether people ought to "come out" as nonreligious. To me, religion doesn't matter very much — aside from, you know, it being a constant focus of my life right now — so whether people choose to talk about it openly or not isn't a concern of mine. Sure, there are reasons to do it. There are reasons not to, as well. Everyone has a million different factors — not the least of which is their geographic location — to consider before making that call for themselves.
Not believing in God is not like being a gay, lesbian or transgender. Sharing your "status" with others is not required to live a normal, healthy life. Unless you choose to be an activist, you probably don't adopt behaviors that make you stand out as a None. You don't necessarily know or want to know where your friends fall on the religious spectrum. And even if you do, you may just prefer to remain silent — keeping your ambivalence, uncertainty or lack of belief to yourselves.
Fine, I say. Who cares?
Having said that, for me personally, being “out” has been wonderful. Here's why.
1. I enjoy shattering people’s assumptions. I don’t fit the media’s stereotype of non-believer — who does, right? — so it’s nice to be able to spread the “good word” that atheists, agnostics and other Nones are just as likely as the next guy to be engaging people, good parents and involved community members. I particularly enjoy slipping my atheism into conversation with religious people who already know and like me; it forces them to confront their own stereotypes. Always a good thing.
2. I like religious people more now. When you’re closeted, it’s way too easy to sit back and become preemptively resentful. We might feel pissed that others are “free” to share their views while we must keep ours to ourselves. We might assume that people’s reactions would be negative if ever we were to out ourselves. But when you’re out — and when you’re truly nice about it — the reactions from religious people are far more positive than negative. People may be curious. They may be confused. They may quietly disapprove. But, in my experience, religious people have been, outwardly, quite lovely about my lack of belief. (As lovely, incidentally, as I am about their belief.) They don’t insult me or shy away from me. They don’t avoid the subject (well, some do, and that’s okay!) or make snide comments. They don’t try to change me. And with every positive experience I have, I am more open and less judgmental of "religious people" as a whole. I find that the more “out” I am, the better I feel about the people around me.
3. I'm setting an example for my child. Not believing in God is nothing to be ashamed of, but being open about our disbelief does — I believe — require a bit of finesse. We ought not just blurt it out it anger. We ought not invoke it as a weapon. We ought not talk about it excessively, just because we "can." I don't want my child to ever feel ashamed to share her beliefs with others — whatever those beliefs — but I also want to be a good role model for how to go about it without being a dick.
4. I’m opening the door for others. You wouldn’t believe how many people in our day-to-day consider themselves nonreligious; and the look of relief on their faces when they learn you aren’t religious can be priceless. It’s like the floodgates open. There’s this whole, rather fascinating aspect of your life — and theirs — that can be tapped for great conversation. By being open myself first, I’m showing others that it’s okay to make the first move. In fact, it can make friendships — and maybe life — even better.
My friend David likes to give me a hard time for my blog. Last I saw him — at a party a couple of weeks ago, with drinks in our hands — he leaned over and said: "You're not still writing all that atheist stuff, are you?" (He might not have said "stuff." Who can remember?) David's a Christian. And although he rarely talks about his religion — that is, he's not a proselytizer — he attends church frequently, and he sings (really well, actually) in his choir, and he unabashedly loves his Jesus.
But none of that seems to matter, or even come up between us, with the exception of some good-natured haranguing once in a while. (And believe me, I give it back in spades.) There are so many things I adore about David that I tend to forget "all that churchy stuff." Our roads may fork at belief, but they come together at so many other junctures — we're never too far away from each other.
Take yesterday: Supreme Court. Defense of Marriage Act. Prop. 8. You remember.
It was kind of a big deal.
A big deal for all of us, I'd argue, but especially for David, since he's both gay and married. (That's him in the picture, on the left, with his partner, JP. It was taken on their wedding day.) His Facebook statuses yesterday were the best. Here are some of them, in order of appearance:
Today the government made an honest man out of me. No longer will I lie and check "single" on my federal income tax form.
My husband just woke up and my first words to him were, "Our marriage is federally recognized."
Time for a federally recognized wedding ceremony. And reception. And GIFTS.
I'm mostly excited because I can now re-gift more of our wedding gifts.
Last night I made dinner for my husband for the first time ever. This morning, we awoke to some good news from SCOTUS. Must. Make. Dinner. More. Often. (Ok--"made dinner" is a bit of stretch--but I did heat up frozen turkey burgers).
In the morning my first words to my husband were, "Our marriage is federally recognized." Before going to bed my last words were, "How are your social security benefits looking?"
It's this type of thing that makes GOP-fundamentalist claims that the Supreme Court violated "God's law" so utterly nut-job. By all means, Michelle Bacchmann, be religious. Believe in whatever God or prophet you like. But know that invoking your religious beliefs in an attempt to discredit gay marriage doesn't turn people against gay marriage. It just turns people against you.
The last month has produced an incredible little selection of articles relating to secular parenting, and I wanted to make sure you didn't miss them. The pieces are, in turn, educational, insightful, funny and heartwarming. And all of them are written by women — which seems significant because the secular community is, we are told, still dominated by menfolk. [To read the articles, just click on the titles below.]
1. Why My 7-Year-old is an Atheist (And Why I'm Okay With That) by Carolyn Castiglia
Castiglia, a comedian, writes about her daughter's "conversion" to atheism, despite her own rather open-minded approach to religion. The piece is very funny but also has some nice advice to impart. A friend found this on Jezebel but it was originally posted to Babble. Here's a particularly good bit:
The way I imagine God has changed over the years – He's gone from being a person, a man, to being more of a Thing, a notion. Goodness. The Oneness of the Universe. With something female in there. The energy that keeps the whole thing afloat. God as I know it now when I know it is kind of a cocktail made from a shot of Buddhism, a shot of feminist activism and a splash of ginger ale (because that, my friends, is something you can always count on). My daughter, on the other hand, at the ripe old age of 7, is convinced that there is no God. Not even a god. Yup, my kid's an atheist. And she pretty much has been since she was 5. It's not for lack of exposure to God or god or even gods and spirituality, because she has attended Church and church and a UU "church" and it has made no impact. We've prayed together. I talk about God sometimes, in a good way. When I asked her recently why she doesn't believe in God she told me, succinctly, "Because I know too much about science!"
2. Losing Our Religion by Katherine Ozment.
Ozment is a writer who turned her attention to nonreligious parenting in this fun and honest Boston Magazine piece. Many parents are sure to find her situation all too familiar. Here's the nut-graph:
Like most upper-middle-class parents, my husband and I have worked out a strategy for every aspect of our children’s lives, from cord-blood banking and on-demand breastfeeding to extracurricular math classes and strict limits on screen time. Religion is the big exception. It’s something he (raised Jewish) and I (raised Protestant) keep meaning to address, yet year after year we manage to avoid it. Most days I can shrug this off. Who has the time? I think. And does it even matter? But as ambivalent as I am about organized religion, I recognize there is something to it. Participation in a religious community has been correlated with everything from self-esteem and overall hopefulness to the avoidance of substance abuse and teen pregnancy. So I worry: Am I depriving my children of an experience that will help shape their identities in a positive way and anchor them throughout their lives?
3. The Curse of the Herd by Gwen DeWar
This is not a story about religion, per se, but it may as well be. DeWar is a writer and anthropologist fascinated by the strong pull humans feel toward conformity. The focus of this piece, published by Psychology Today, is how this sort of conformity can and does affect our child-rearing — and not in a good way. She writes:
It’s disturbing, and it should concern everyone. Yes, social conformity serves some helpful functions, and many people believe in the rights of various groups to enforce their own cultural norms. If a community wants to reject science in favor of folk remedies, or to punish people for teaching evolution, isn’t that their prerogative? But unless this group is composed solely of adult volunteers, there is a problem. Children don’t volunteer. They don’t choose their birthplace. They don’t choose their parents or the cultural setting in which they grow up....Is freedom of thought a human right? Do kids have a right to learn about the tools of critical thinking? Our need to question and tinker may be as primitive as our need for food and love.
And while I'm on it, two other worthy reads are:
• Molly Worthen's One Nation Under God, an opinion published by the New York Times, in which which she argues that "the temple of 'my personal opinion' may be the real 'established church' in modern America." (So true!)
• Picture Books for Strong Girls, a list of book recommendations published by No Time for Flash Cards. The list has some great suggestions, to which I would add Big Momma Makes the World, a book that tells the Biblical creation story, more or less — only "God" is a Southern Momma with loads of laundry to do and a baby to take care of. (Don't worry. She can handle it.)\
Well, they got it mostly right. And, dammit, maybe that's enough.
The current issue of Psychology Today contains a really great piece about atheism and agnosticism and what it terms "a new breed of nonbelievers." Apparently I belong to this new breed because I'm featured in the article, along with a handful of others — including my all-time favorite advice-giving atheist, Richard Wade.
I spoke with Psychology Today writer Bruce Grierson months ago about Relax, It's Just God and what drew me to the project. And I have to say, overall, Grierson did a bang-up job. In a lengthy, well-written piece, he points out that nonbelievers are everywhere — yes, even in church pews.
"That a in atheism simply means without, not against, belief in God," Grierson writes. "Not an adversarial position, just a position. There, in that vast middle of the religious spectrum, a space not occupied by fundamentalists of any sort, live tens of millions of atheists and agnostics, more or less quietly, mostly with their families. And their numbers are growing."
Grierson explains that many atheists embrace their religious roots and customs, especially when they have religious family members, and he devotes quite a lot of space to how secular parents deal with this tricky business of religious faith when it comes to their children. (That's where I came in.)
In addition to relating the story about how my book was born, Grierson does a skillful job summarizing what it is I'm all about. "The question," he quotes me as saying, "is how do we approach religion with our kids so that we're being honest but not indoctrinating them or scaring them, or putting them in a position to be made fun of or teased or hurt? These are fine lines. And because so many of us are first-generation secular, we can't fall back on what we ourselves learned before."
Wait. Did I just quote myself being quoted? That was weird.
Anyway, Grierson also references my Ten Commandments for Talking to Kids About Religion, focusing specifically on Commandments #3: Don't saddle kids with anxiety over the word 'God' and #8: Don't steal your child's ability to choose (although I happen to know that Grierson's personal favorite is #7: Don't be a dick. Mine, too, incidentally.)
Unfortunately, though, in the world of journalism, there are just so many opportunities to get things a little screwy. And Grierson (God love him) turned out to be fallible. In a paragraph about my own upbringing, for example, Grierson states that I was "raised Presbyterian and Methodist." Although I did attend Presbyterian and Methodist churches at certain points during my childhood, I was baptized Unitarian and wasn't raised in any particular faith. In the same paragraph, he describes my parents' approach to religion as don't-ask-don't-tell, which isn't true, either. What I said — and have written about previously — is that I personally instituted a "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy on religion while I was in college, and later abandoned it. But that was never my parent's approach to religion; it was my own.
That being said, the story — which is on newsstands through June — is just great, and I'm incredibly grateful for the opportunity.
Oh, and there's a picture, too, which is super-stagey. But at least it features our super-cool Bigfoot painting in the background. (Relax, out there, it's just Bigfoot.)