Monday, January 2, 2017

Ideological Bedfellows (Part 1): I Am A Palimpsest

You probably already know that I'm an atheist. Have been basically forever. I'm going to tell you why I'm an atheist because I like talking about myself, but also because I think it is a useful tangential point to the one I'd like to make.

At least, I hope it is. After writing this, I realized how much it rambles. I would not call it my best writing. But, I feel like sharing, so enjoy.

The reason I want to tell you now is that it's a riff on this very good article by a woman who left her job at the evangelical Morrison Academy in Kaohsiung over differences of belief in marriage equality and her right to post about same on social media. So, this does concern Taiwan, I promise you, if you stick with me.

When I was around six years old, I figured out that there was no Santa Claus. I'm not sure exactly when I told my parents this, because at around the same time, my logical deduction about the impossibility of everything about the Santa myth led me to the logical deduction that some old sky-livin' dude who miraculously knew and controlled everything (and yet we had free will? Though I didn't call it that at that age), whose only reward or punishment for the good or the bad was to go somewhere after we died, with no proof of that offered whatsoever, and the only salve for the truly unfortunate was a combination medication of a.) it's a part of some "plan" so it's "okay" (or something?) or b.) God loves you and controls everything but it's not his fault, and you get to go to Heaven after you die in whatever awful way, and the people who built a world in which you suffer will themselves suffer no earthly punishment, with no sign that post-mortem justice is even a real thing was, you know, possibly also deeply illogical and at odds with the world as I observed it.

I told my parents this very offhandedly: as a child, I didn't comprehend that perhaps they knew one impossibility was impossible, but actually believed in another. I was surprised when they reacted badly.

In short, I was born without whatever gene may lead to faith. I do not feel it is a great loss.

I never did change my mind, though my parents' reaction was so adverse that I pretended to for awhile. I went to church (I had to), I even taught Sunday School and sang in the choir, among other things. I was confirmed. I said nothing more about it, because discussion of it was, while not forbidden (my parents were always fairly liberal, in fact), not especially welcome either.

This does not mean that I made a decision as a child and have stubbornly refused to rethink or challenge it in the years since. Several times I've gone back and questioned that lack of faith, wondered if my early rejection of it was mere childishness. So far, none of my challenges has been successful. I remain an atheist. The world as I observe it is still logically inconsistent with pretty much every monotheistic religion and I'm not interested in pretzeling my thoughts into accepting both when it is vain to do with more what can be done with fewer. 

Why on earth am I telling you all this? Oddly enough, so that perhaps you can understand that, in fact, I am not anti-Christian or even anti-religion.

Right. I know. Back that truck up. What?

My parents' church is a liberal one. They were pro-marriage-equality before it was the law, and around the time of my mother's funeral, rainbow flags were planted outside the building. This was a solid six months before Obergefell v. Hodges. Although there are perhaps a few Frozen Chosen among the congregation, the bent of their scripture curves toward acceptance and love. You know, the teachings of Jesus.

From years of growing up in it, and as a closeted apostate teenager, teaching it, I can say that there is nothing about the teachings of Jesus that contradicts my own personal belief system. I may not believe in God, but I think of Jesus as a great philosopher. Just because he didn't have a sky dad doesn't mean his words aren't worth heeding. The pastor of that church married us; I respected him quite a bit as a person (he has since retired; I also have a great deal of respect for the new reverend). I actually love this part of Christianity - the part that matters: love thy neighbor, let he who is without sin cast the first stone, judge not, do unto others and more. Notably, he said not a word about being LGBT in any way. There was a benefit to growing up Christian: this aspect of the faith wormed its way into my humanist ethical code.

Furthermore, most of my family and many of my friends are Christian (or Jewish, or Muslim). To take a dim view of faith of any kind would mean taking a dim view of them, or judging them. I simply don't take that dim view - I've seen how faith has helped them through crises, eased their final months and days, informed their laudable belief systems and actions and been something generally valuable to them. It may not make sense to me, but it makes sense to them. I cringe a bit, in fact, when militant atheists pan all believers. That's my family, dude. They're not idiots or lemmings. Shut it. 

In short, my break with faith had nothing to do with social conservatism or other beliefs. I still believe, on a human level, what the church I grew up in taught. I have no problem attending their services, I even contribute to the donation plate with a clear conscience. The break was spiritual - or, if you like, supernatural - only. In earthly respects my ethical code does not differ much from them, and we along well.

If you are curious, I did later 'come out' (if you can call it that) as an atheist to my family. They seemed to have forgotten about the first time and weren't pleased, but they more or less accepted it. Their social beliefs and mine are still similar - I am somewhat more liberal, but none of them are particularly socially conservative and on those issues I'd put them mostly at left-of-center. Not only is there nothing in liberalism or progressivism at odds with Christianity as per my upbringing, but in fact the two are a natural fit.

And why did I tell you that?

Because I do not believe, given my upbringing, that Christianity is fundamentally at odds with social progressivism in general, and marriage equality in particular. This should be obvious, but there are many - as in, far more than you would think - Christians who believe the brand of Christianity I grew up with, the one I feel is in fact most like the teachings of the person for whom the religion is named, is "not real Christianity" and people like my parents are "not real Christians". For whatever reason, they have decided that when it comes to scripture, their interpretive authority is irrefutable and lesser Christians - like, say, my family and many of my friends - are just as damned as those terrifying horror-movie atheists. Why? No idea. Certainly that's not anything Jesus ever actually said.

An atheist

(from here)

There are also many atheists who don't see this: they lump together all Christians into a reviled group they see as reactionary haters. Either you're a brainwashed sheep or an enlightened freethinker. I'm not okay with that - it's Bible-thumper judgmentalism dressed up as scientific rationality, veiled with condescension.

However, I'm going to do what I just criticized more fundamentalist Christians for doing, but hopefully call out their No True Scotsman fallacy.

They may think that the liberal, kumbaya Christians I grew up with are "not real Christians", but you know what? I don't think they are real Christians. In fact, the existence of such vile judgmentalism and closemindedness, to me, is further proof that God does not exist. Those who would seek to take away others' rights, in some cases deeply affecting their lives, go unpunished while those whose rights are taken away suffer. No succor or recourse is offered except for some nebulous concept of judgment after death, or the idea that there is a "plan" that accounts for this. Neither is a satisfactory explanation. I've already been over why I don't accept this model of the universe, therefore, such people are proof, to me, that there is no God.

People like them have been able to successfully delay, and in some cases block, marriage equality. That is, acting in the name of a philosopher who preached love, tolerance and equality, they have denied an entire group of people basic human rights. In some countries, they have successfully criminalized homosexuality.

What God worth believing in would allow this? Who, exactly, is going to be punished after they die if there is an afterlife?

If they are going to open the door to some people who claim to be Christians not "really" being Christian, there is nothing to stop more liberal Christians from throwing it right back on them.

If you - generic you directed at this particular type of "Christian" - do not believe in marriage equality, honestly speaking, I do not think of you as a real Christian. You are merely a bigoted person looking for a preacher to affirm your own shitty dogma. I know real Christians, and unlike you, they are good people. You probably do not believe me, being a scary atheist and all, but believe this: the folks who actually follow Jesus' teachings about love and tolerance are laughing at you, and if there is a Hell it is full of people like you.

Basically, I see no reason why Christianity and marriage equality cannot be bedfellows. The argument I have heard many times in Taiwan is that opponents of equality feel that way "because of their religion". They're Christian - to be Christian (in their view) is to take what they call a "traditional" view of marriage. What that is supposed to mean exactly - or rather why it means what they say it means - I'm not sure.

I am curious which "traditional marriage" they are referring to, or rather, why they've decided only the first one counts, based on a book that allows all of the above.

From here

It does not, however, have to be that way. Churches that truly follow the teachings of Jesus could be some of the greatest allies in bringing equality to all. I'm aware of the historical reasons why Taiwanese churches tend to be more conservative on the whole than the American churches I know, but it simply does not have to be such an ideological divide.

In fact, if I have to pick a reason or point for why I'm writing all of this, it's to remind people that in the USA the equality/anti-equality divide is not one entirely based on religion. Most objections to human rights for all seem to be religious in nature, true, but like the church I grew up in, often in the US some of the strongest support, and often some of the most important groups spreading the word in a way persuasive to more conservative elements, are progressive churches. Taiwan doesn't need to get rid of Christianity (though frankly I don't think there was anything wrong with the local religions and see no reason to import a new one - it's not superior), though it could stand to dial back how much influence churches have in politics, which far outweighs their actual representation in society. What they need is more progressive Christianity to be on offer.

In fact, I've heard several Christian friends in Taiwan complain of just this: they want to worship, but they can't find a church that squares with their beliefs, and can't bring themselves to attend a church they view as antithetical to their values of love, equality and charity.

I have no idea how to do this: as an atheist I'm certainly not the one to be doing it, and progressive Christians tend not to become missionaries (though some are). The missionaries here, and the connections the established churches have to the US, are all deeply conservative and entrenched. It does feel like wishful thinking.

So, Christianity in Taiwan seems wedded to intolerance - they are currently ideological bedfellows. I feel like this relationship is not the most compatible one, though, and Christianity needs a new partner. I want to say that for those of us on the side of equality, then, perhaps rather than dismissing all anti-equality opponents it would be prudent to offer up that new ideological combination as a way to support equality while maintaining faith. I really do. However, as an unrepentant cynic, I'm not so sure it would work within an acceptable timeframe. Fighting post-truth belief is difficult, and the road is not yet well-trodden. We don't have years. This matters to people's lives.

This is, then, why I was heartened to read Brandt's message. When faced with dogma or love, she chose love. The ideological divide does not have to run along the religious divide in Taiwan.

That said, after the first few supportive comments (I know - never read the comments! But I did) I was then saddened to see the rationalizations that people who thought of themselves as good Christians gave for wanting to deny rights to others. I'm not going to get into an advanced ecumenical debate, so let's just say I find the "love the sinner, hate the sin" argument lacking for all the reasons you can imagine. If you hate something that is an intrinsic part of someone else, you cannot then wholeheartedly claim to love them, as much as you might like to. It's as stupid as saying "I love my black friends, but hate their blackness". "I love my Vietnamese friends but hate the sin of being born Vietnamese". "I love my daughter, I just hate that that she's female." It's no better. What you are doing is dressing up bigotry with fake 'love' in order to make yourself feel better, because it sounds a little more like what Jesus might have said (which is what makes people like Katy Faust so dangerous - it sounds plausible to someone trying to reconcile religion with caring for a human being who does not epitomize that religion's moral code, but is in fact not plausible) - without considering that sin is a choice but homosexuality is not. That people are going to be gay whether you want them to or not, whether you think your sky friend likes it or not, whether you give them rights or not. It is not a sin any more than my having a vagina is a sin (though the Internet sure seems to think it is), because it is not a choice. 

This is what we need to fight, but I am not sure at all that it is possible.


Anonymous said...

A Christian is someone in whom the Spirit of God dwells. Many Christians are saved after extreme periods of despair and hopelessness; saved when somehow, someway, He reveals His love for them when no one on earth does. Such people generally lack a judgemental streak, instead relying on the words of their savior who said He did not come to judge, but to seek out His lost sheep. The image you posted labeled "An Athiest" is horrifying but its very interesting: its an accurate image of how I saw myself before I knew His love!

Jenna Lynn Cody said...

I'm going to allow this even though it's a bit of a weird comment. Whatever, I have licorice (which is hard to get in Taiwan) and the Laphroaig is freely flowing; I'm feeling generous.

Anyway, I have not found that such people tend not to be judgmental. First, in many cases I was a bit creeped out by how people from various churches would almost target those suffering from various problems - be they situational or mental - and it really was "targeting" - as if they knew it would be easier to convince the vulnerable. In my most trying times I have not found succor in religion, but I do appreciate that my mother did, so I can't bash it entirely.

However, such people, well...I lost a friend once because after finding religion (after a period of intense depression, and it did seem like she was targeted to me by the church as a person vulnerable to conversion, though I never said that to her because it's her life and not really my business) because, after becoming Christian, her views became much less fact-based and far less charitable. Against pretty much everything any reputable scientist would say including the APA she claimed not to be homophobic, but still opposed LGBT adoption. I do not think she was homophobic deep down, but that is a homophobic viewpoint.

I did not end the friendship, she did, because I could not say I respected that opinion (although I did respect her right to it) and would not take back the simple truth that I find that opinion homophobic in the light of scientific research on the issue. I was sad about that, but do not regret standing up for what I believe in.

However, it quite goes against the idea that people who find God after a troubled time tend not to be judgmental.

The picture was meant to be sarcastic. I am, and likely always will be, an atheist. I am not sorry about this and do not think I am a bad person (I don't think you are either, though you are likely wrong about how the universe works).

Ian said...

I was raised in a Christian home, but found my way to agnosticism (my preferred label, but it amounts to about the same as your description). I also retain respect for my religious friends and family. That said, I agree with *an* interpretation of "love the sinner, hate the sin." I think it's not dissimilar from what you said in your comment, that "I could not say I respected that opinion (although I did respect her right to it)." Furthermore, the Christians who I've talked to about these issues seem to have a different interpretation than you do of that phrase. The Christian worldview, as I understand it, and my own philosophy would sound similar, is that all humans have both divine and flawed elements in them. We should love everyone because we are all god's children. But even Jesus flew into a violent rage when he chased the money changers out of the temple. That seems like a pretty clear example of hating the sin, but I don't doubt that he still loved all mankind.

As for applying that maxim to the present issue, I have talked to friends about this, and while I disagree with them, they didn't say they hated the homosexuality within people, like hating someone for being black, but they thought it was wrong to act externally on those internal desires, something that doesn't have a natural analog in the case of being born black, or Vietnamese. As an analogy, some people are born susceptible to alcoholism or anger management problems. But it is not that which one might hate, but rather drinking an immoderate amount, or going into a fit of road rage. The bible doesn't talk about things in terms of internal mental processes or identity, but in terms of behavior (in the King James translation, the now-archaic term "sodomy.") (On the other hand, I have no idea how Jesus's "if you lust in your heart after a married woman, you have already sinned", a passive act, plays into this, unless we restrict it to feelings that you actively endorse internally.) Again, I don't agree with the premise that *either* the feelings or the actions are bad, but I think it's important to know what we're disagreeing with. And not everyone has this position. But if I want to convince Christians, it's important to have the right understanding of their reasons.

Jenna Lynn Cody said...

That's the thing - I just reject the notion that being homosexual or acting on those desires is in any way a sin. The external parallels may be acting in a way that is culturally relevant to being black or Vietnamese (though that is not a perfect analogy by any stretch because people generally absorb the culture they grow up in which may be quite different from the one most people of their race are familiar with, obviously), or simply existing in a place as a person of another race.

I do not think being angry or alcoholic (vs. being predisposed to anger management issues or alcoholism) is a good analogy either - one is born with the predisposition but can control how they live with it. Being gay is like being straight: it is ludicrous to ask straight people to control how they act on being straight, and so it is with being gay. Also anger issues and alcoholism hurt oneself or others (in many cases both - an alcoholic is a danger on the road or as the caretaker of a child). Homosexuality does not. They are not comparable. I really do not think you can love someone who is gay but hate that they act on it, or hate the gayness, or whatever it is they claim to hate.

Also I'd like to point out that this isn't so much my interpretation as one I gleaned from reading the comments on the piece linked.

I realize you agree and it's people you know who think this way, I just so deeply and utterly reject this line of "reasoning" that I don't see the parallels, and do not think there is any excuse for it that can cover for their moral failing in feeling this way.

Jenna Lynn Cody said...

Basically, I find it hard to debate their reasoning, because I find it so deeply NOT based on reason. It's almost disingenuous, I do not believe they actually love those they claim to love - it's bigotry dressed up as fake "but I LOVE you" love.

It's what makes it quite difficult for me to be one of the people doing the convincing, because I am not convinced that they are being genuine in their claims to 'love' since the two beliefs are irreconcilable to me. It's something I could work on, but I find it very hard to be tolerant of this particular intolerance.