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Faith: a Non-Rant

Spurred in part by jaylake's thoughtful posts about his relationship (or not) with religion and faith, and the comments there, I've been thinking a lot about the topic lately. I'm hampered by the fact that the belief I have is pretty strictly homegrown, and my tools for discussing it are, well, sort of lame.

My mother was a Nebraska Episcopalian who had a sentimental fondness for the prayer book and practices of her church, but, at least by the time I encountered her, did not seem to believe any of it. My father was raised as a Jew--but in a family of first generation Americans where assimilation was key, I get the feeling that religion was not as important as education and accomplishment*. My brother and I were raised by people who were non-believers; we were taken to a variety of services in different Christian denominations, a couple of Jewish services, and then the subject wasn't really raised again.

The result? My brother is an evangelical Christian. I am a bewildered believer in something. I identify as Unitarian Universalist, largely because they seem to accept, or perhaps exult in, people as confused as I am.

I am fascinated by what I would call the theatre of religion, by the vestments and rituals and props. Mostly I'm fascinated by Christianity and Judaism--I'm of European extraction, these were the religious structures I was earliest exposed to, and they're part of my experience. In any case, I've never confused my interest in monastic habits or the lives of saints or the rules of Orthodox Judaism with actual religion. For me, the closest I get to personal religion is a belief that there's something, an organizing principle in the universe, that I choose to call God. This God isn't particularly interested in my daily comings and goings--or yours, either. Order and chaos is more God's thing. What does this mean for me? I guess, if I had to develop a theological structure around my belief, I'd say: the universe is full of chaos. God works to make pockets of order, or rational structures like natural laws and the amazing way that the human body is put together. (Okay, and sometimes there are odd jokes like the duckbill platypus. Any God I'm going to believe in has a very large sense of humor.) I have no church, no rituals, no prayers, just this idea that making order out of chaos is a good thing, the thing we're here for. Which works for me.

Your Mileage May Vary.

But that's not what I was thinking about this morning. I've been thinking about fundamentalist non-believers. Or maybe I mean militant atheists. The sort of people who are so incensed that anyone could believe in God that they commit many of the same sins of rigidity and condescension and wrath that they are quick to decry in fundamentalist Christians. I am married to someone who is a pretty vehement non-believer. He tries--I have seen him try really hard--to believe that very smart, savvy people can believe in God, but for the most part he has a hard time getting past his own sense that anyone who does believe in God is either a) stupid or b) being deliberately obtuse or c) being somehow manipulative. When he's trying to get past his own faith in non-belief, he puts me in mind of that old Dilbert comic: "Must...control...Fist of Death..."

And he's a guy of goodwill. So is jaylake, as I think his posts have shown. But some people are so aggressively, unforgivingly rational, that they give other non-believers a bad name in much the same way that crazed ranting fundamentalist Christians do. They make the world uncomfortable for agnostics: the people who are okay with not knowing for sure. They make the world uncomfortable for nonbelievers who aren't as fervid as they are. They make me, personally, uncomfortable when they assert that religion is a drug and a snare, that belief is a sign of feeblemindedness or wickedness, that unless you can prove it it's useless.

If someone says "I love you," how do you test that? It's intangible. You can say that the person's behavior demonstrates the love--but how do you prove that love is actually what motivates the behavior? Some people act lovingly toward a spouse or child or parent because that's what they're expected to do, but their inner landscape might reveal something very different. Yet I know fervent atheists who believe in love despite the fact that they can't prove that what they may experience themselves may not be what the next guy feels. I'm not saying that believing in love, or honor, is a bad thing. I'm saying that the existence of God isn't the only intangible human beings invest their hearts in, and it would do fundamentalist atheists no harm to treat the faith of other people with the same kindness they might treat the love of those people.

At the end of Dogma someone asks Linda Fiorentino's character if she believes. "No," she says. "But I have a good idea."

*my father's teachers learned early on that he was an artist, and he missed a lot of classes in elementary, junior high, and high school because he'd be sent around to draw holiday pictures--almost always Christian holiday pictures--on the classroom blackboards around the school. When he asked his parents if this was okay they shrugged and said, "The teacher asks you to do it? You do what the teacher says."


I believe my wife loves me not just because she tells me so, but because she hasn't kicked me out after a decade and a half of 5 am alarm clock blares. And by treating her as a person who loves me--as though her love is real--I get different input than I would if I treated her as though her love is some kind of elaborate con. The universe doesn't seem to treat me any differently no matter how I treat it.

But I'm not one of those fundamentalist atheists you mention. I run into them online, including one guy who was angry at the word "atheist", as though he should be defined by what he doesn't believe.

Then he declares himself a "rationalist" which would make everyone else... what? an "irrationalist?" It made me want to send him a copy of How to Win Friends and Influence People.

There was a study recently to measure people's attitudes to interracial marriage. A surprisingly large number of sad people would be troubled if a person of another race married into their family. But you know who was the least popular new in-law? Atheists. Another study found that voters were least likely to vote for atheists for President. Homosexuals receive more support.

I guess my point is that atheists get more than their share of disdain and contempt, so I understand where that anger comes from.


The Easy-Going Atheist.
Easy going is excellent. Most atheists, agnostics and none-of-the-aboves I know are, in fact, easy going.

And I understand that atheists come under fire a lot--particularly in these times. Is it just my imagination? It seems to me that when I was a kid it was considered rather bad manners to ask someone else about their religious beliefs--or to expound upon one's own. Granted, I was living in New York City--in Greenwich Village at that. These things come in waves, I know. When will the wave of "don't ask, don't tell about your religion" hit?
Actually, I think it's cultural. Way back in the misty dawn of time, a junior high school friend had to move from Philly to Georgia because of her father's work. When she returned, she told us how much she hated it. The first thing anyone asked her was "What religion are you?"

And if that was unexpected, she was really shocked when the other kids made a "bad smell" face and said "How can you believe that." Then they started telling her she wasn't a Christian because she was a Catholic.

As the national media gets more... well... national, I think this has leaked into other parts of the national culture as well, especially as political leaders put their faith on display under TV lights.

I'm lucky that I live in Seattle and it isn't an issue very often. I don't exactly hide my atheism, but I don't volunteer it, either, and it's only caused me grief at one job.
I agree, easy going is excellent.

You wrote:

"But that's not what I was thinking about this morning. I've been thinking about fundamentalist non-believers. Or maybe I mean militant atheists. The sort of people who are so incensed that anyone could believe in God that they commit many of the same sins of rigidity and condescension and wrath that they are quick to decry in fundamentalist Christians.

Righteousness scares me whenever and wherever I see it. "Too Right Makes One Wrong" is not only a button slogan, it's also true. Too my eye, an excess of righteousness drives most of the harm we do to our fellow humans, animals, and, indeed, our entire planet.

Humans need a sense of right and wrong to survive. Likewise societies of any and every size. But like Tylenol, the difference between a therapeutic dose and a toxic one is far too fine a line. Behavior driven by righteousness has killed millions, probably hundreds of millions, over the millennia. And it's damaged the survivors, some of us permanently.
I slept on your response, because an answer was trying to come out of the Everywhere into the Here (as my grandma said about where babies came from).

You know your wife loves you; you know you love her. You experience the warmth and benefit from that relationship, and the people who know you well likely do too. But someone outside of that loop who didn't know you and was predisposed to Not Believe in Love might not be able to feel that warmth and therefore not believe it. In terms of love, we all stand outside each other's "black boxes" (as jaylake puts it, as well as of faith. The Spouse and I have a friend whose wife is--there is no other word for it--awful. Just thinking about her makes me shudder a little (the whole package--she's shrewish and unattractive and...ick). And yet our friend thinks she's wonderful. And sexy. And wholly swell. I find that more difficult to swallow than the possibility of God.

I would never tell my friend I think his wife is awful. And while my brother knows that his views on religion and my views on religion are very different, I would never tell him his faith is false. That's what I'm getting at.
And, because I have slept on it as well, I will point out that there are instances where we would criticize what is in someone else's black box. If a person told you they loved a sheep, or a fleshlight, or a seven-year-old, you would be perfectly within your rights to say: "I don't know what you are feeling here, but it's not love. It may feel like love to you, but you are a broken person.

And that's part of what is going on here. There's an ongoing negotiation (culturally-speaking) between people who want to draw boundaries around what counts as a legitimate world view. Is there something wrong with me that I do not believe in a higher power? Is there something wrong with Pat Robertson because of his relationship with Jesus?

One of the tactics for limiting the effect a world-view has on the culture is to attack what's in the black box, to de-legitimize it. And for many people who are moderates those attacks are considered unseemly (unless you're attacking a pedophile).

The unspoken purpose of those sorts of conversations is to redefine the acceptability of "black box" critiques.
On my planet there is nothing wrong with you because you do not believe in a higher power. There is something wrong with Pat Robertson, not because of his relationship with Jesus but because he believes that relationship empowers him to require everyone else to have the exact same relationship with the exact same sheep Jesus. His relationships (including his with Jesus) are colored by the person he is--same as my relationships are colored by who I am. I just happen to find Pat Robertson a narrow-minded, smug, bigotted slimedog.

But that's just me.

(And I have to say that "fleshlight," if it was a typo, was an inspired one.)
Typo? Oops. Um, I mean, yes, exactly. That's a er... typo.

Please don't google that word.

Anyway, I agree with you: there's nothing wrong with me. (heh, sorry--couldn't resist) As for Pat Robertson, yeah, the guy is a walking disaster and he makes me a little sick just thinking about him, but there are people like him on every side. And I have to admit that I would hate Robertson much less if his intolerance had never made him filthy rich and influential.
Hardcore fundamentalists annoy me on either side of the belief spectrum. I think the atheists in genre annoy me more when there's this smug assumption that bigoted remarks about believers are perfectly cool.

That's the thing: bigotry is uncool regardless of who the bigot is.

I had dinner with some friends of my grandmother's when I was 14. They were perfectly lovely women, old friends of hers from Nebraska, as Republican as the day is long, and it was all fine until they started telling "jungle bunny jokes." No lie. I was stunned, not only by the bigotry itself, but by their cheery assurance that, as you say, the remarks were perfectly cool. My grandmother had heard these comments so often that they rolled off her; she wasn't going to say anything. And because I was 14 and they were my grandmother's friends, I was polite. But no politeness in the world could make me accept another invitation to dinner with "the girls."
Oh ugh.
Ugh ugh ugh UGH. I remember moments like that--it's just like snow goes through your veins, followed by battery acid in the guts.
OMG, my maternal grandmother told "jungle bunny jokes." I'd blocked that out, remembering only her default name for Brazil nuts that immediately left me never wanting to touch let alone eat the things. I'm still deeply discomfited even by the 40-50+ year old memory.

Much as I wish the need didn't exist, coming to terms with my father's bigotry toward Jews was a useful process for me. It's quite likely the clearest example of "love the sinner; hate the sin" of my life. I never confronted him directly about the bigotry of his comments, but I or someone else may have indirectly caused him to rethink the subject. I don't remember hearing any of the comments from him in the last couple of years, even when he's retelling stories that always included a bigoted comment in the past.
I do understand what you're saying (and I'm not a militant atheist). However, I think that some allowance should be made for the difference between being part of the majority and part of an embattled minority. (I do know that many Christians feel like an embattled minority in this country. The ones who seriously believe that that's true can bite me.)

Anyway, my point is that if one is an atheist, and that atheism is an important part of who one is, it's such a deeply unpopular and unwelcome position outside of our small circle that it's really easy to dig into it deeper and perhaps more cruelly than is comfortable. And I don't like that, but I feel that it's essentially different from digging into a majority position with contempt and cruelty.
Religious belief is one area of controversy where I can see both sides, and what I see is that the fervent believers on each side have absolutely no idea how or what the people on the other side think. None whatever. At least judging from their polemics, which even when written by smart people are full of the most appalling misconceptions and straw men, and juvenile "gotcha" questions that were disposed of centuries ago.

Probably this is true in other areas of controversy, and I can't see it because I'm firmly on one side. But here I can see the whole thing, and it's ugly.
This is very much along the lines of what I've tried to say several times. Thank you so much for putting it so perfectly. (I can see why so many of my friends say you're wonderful.)
Nicely said.
And then there's the militant angnostics -- "I don't know and neither do you." Fortunately, they are less common than militant atheists.

Always a joy to read of your inner you.

Regardless of my beliefs, the fact of moving to a country that is even more well mannered on the topic of religion than the East Village of yore has brought me an immeasurable increase in personal comfort. A national level constant stress around the very topic just desn't exist.

The absence of the topic as a topic just makes everything feel saner, safer and more respectful of everyone.
You know, there are whole moments when moving somewhere sane sounds like such a good idea. Thing is, I don't really want to leave my country. I love my country, and I want to make it better. Maybe dialogues like this is one way to do so (in a very wee small pond).
I, too, love the US - like a lover I had the deepest passion for, but who spurned me, hurt me and abused my friends, yet I still adore her- but from a respectful distance.

I love the US like I love my favourite Aunt, who as she aged has become bitter and mean spirited, still the same person - clearly - though her body ages and her spirit sours- but not the lovely person she once was.

As you know, I was deeply politically active for decades. When- that one day- I reached my belief that I couldn't change anything in any way meaningful to me, I was freed. Freed from the struggle, freed from the effort of trying- and it also meant that I pretty much had to leave my beloved US.

The same choice was certainly easier to act on for my grandfathers who were leaving various pogroms in beloved homelands that turned on them- I was under no death threat in the short term- but the meed to be gone was no less clear to me, just far less obvious to those I love and who love me.

But, based on me, my beliefs, understandings and values, it was the right choice.

Now I am working to make a different country better.

Thing is, here I actually am making a difference.