As an atheist I have to ask, why are we invariably "unabashed"? Seriously, ought I not to be? Surely the implication of calling anyone an "unabashed atheist" is to suggest that I, as someone who does not believe, either ought to or at the very least should have the good grace to be ashamed that I don't.
Need I say I am not?
A friend on social media posted a link today to an essay online (-- and for anyone interested, I put it here.) The title, "Is There a Better Way for the Left to Talk About American Christianity?" told me straight away I had some work to do. It seems "people are talkin', talkin' 'bout people," as Bonnie Raitt so wonderfully sang in another context altogether, and once again it seems, "we laugh just a little too loud," etc. Well, let's give 'em something to talk about.
I am less interested here in the author Marie Mutsuki Mockett's well-intentioned if imperfectly made argument in this essay for civility, than I am in who she thinks needs the talking to. I bet you can guess. If you can't, let me just point out some clues; like the opening quote being from the brilliant novelist and unabashed Calvinist Marilynne Robinson, and the inevitable resort to the unabashedly "loud" evolutionary scientist Richard Dawkins. See where this is going? Now, the "unabashed atheist," to whom she refers specifically in the essay turns out to be Ta-Nehsi Coates, but I feel pretty safe in assuming I'm also somewhere to her Left, maybe right there behind that other unabashed fellow, Colson Whitehead. She's talking to me. My question is, why?
It seems we -- the Left with the capital "L" and specifically we "unabashed atheists" thereof -- are not trying, or at least not nearly hard enough to not only talk respectfully about American Christianity, but more importantly as it develops in the piece, we aren't trying to talk with American Christians.
Problem, or rather the first problem, as clearly I'm going to have more. To assume an organized, let alone a uniform response, to anything from "the Left" in America is to already be walking a chimera onto the stage. As my Dad might have said had he ever heard of the beast, that fire-breathing female monster with a lion's head, a goat's body, and a serpent's tail won't hunt. Organization above the community level, and uniformity of any kind, ain't really our thing. Whatever one might think of the most recent innovations of a younger generation, and I wish them nothing but well, experience has taught me it will always be easier to open a discussion on the left -- little "l" -- than it is, for example to close a bridge or keep a protest moving in the same direction. (Goddess help you if you think you are going to keep to the agreed speakers-list or a time-table. Good luck with that. It's all about process, people.)
But that's not the assumption I resent. I'm just old enough that the idea of "the Left" is still thrilling, if unrealized. Again, why me? And just who do you think I am?
Marie Mutsuki Mockett's essay also put me immediately in mind of Toni Morrison's question regarding Ralph Ellison's classic novel; "Invisible to whom? Not to me." Can anyone assume that I don't know Christians? Have Christian friends? Talk to people not entirely of like-mind? Where is this place the author seems to think I live? This wholly secular Left? I mean, I live in Seattle, people. Seattle, and I've never been to the place her essay assumes. I lived in San Francisco for a dozen years and you know what? Nope. not there either. (And to assume that that is the Utopia to which all we "unabashed atheists" aspire is to again a WAY bigger assumption than any I may make about the generalized Christians to whom the essayist seems to think I need to learn to talk.) In my case at least, disbelief is something I came to, arrived at, stopped worrying about. I wasn't raised in it, and in contemporary culture it is still nonsense to say we live in a wholly, or even majority secular society. At least according to regular polling and pearl-clutching in the media, while church attendance in most of America continues to decline, the number of people who describe themselves as Christian still constitute a majority. And just as I am constantly being reminded, sometimes by my friends, that that majority is far from monolithic and that communion made up of very diverse beliefs and values, so I have grown more than a little tired of being told that I really need to learn not how to talk to my friends and neighbors, but rather to my actual enemies.
Nope. Not my job.
Because that's who I'm being asked to understand. I personally don't need to be told not to call someone stupid for not thinking the way I do, or not, in short, being me. I wasn't raised by monsters, thank you very much. But it isn't really my manners that are ultimately in question here, however the essayist has framed the discussion so that it might seem so. No one raised in a society where that old cudgel "hate the sin, but love the sinner" has left a mark can seriously be expected to not recognize that as a dodge when it comes directly after a blow. I know what it is to have and to be a friend. I understand respect, earned and offered and withheld. I have learned to recognize hate as well, however and from wherever it comes at me. Don't tell me it's because I don't try hard enough to understand the language with which my oppression is expressed.
It's very like being LGBTQ when someone other assumes we somehow sprang from the earth like so many gloriously variegated tulips. Not how that works. We come almost exclusively from straight people, even now. Nature. To be in any significant way other, to be of a minority by birth, is not to be unaware of who else there is in the world. Quite the opposite. To be in a minority is sadly first and foremost to learn the hard lesson that I am required more than most to accommodate if not accept the potentially violent rejection of the majority, in whatever ironic or seemingly well meant way it may be initially expressed. (It is with a heavy heart that I must admit that being of any minority does not automatically or necessarily extend our sympathies or commit any of us to understanding or supporting any other in their struggle. We all have work to do. Heavy lifting, even now. It didn't end when I came out. I still need to do more than I have and that will not end because I say so here.)
Faith may indeed be a perfectly natural, perfectly beautiful, perfectly human response to existence. I personally do not accept that its only function in human history has been to explain the natural world before science took up that task with better tools. That's a straw man you will meet again in the essay that has set me off, that as an unabashed atheist that is my only thought on the subject. I don't dismiss that explanation, and I don't think anyone ought to, as there's truth in it, but it isn't the only thought I've ever had on the subject of faith. Lord knows people keep telling me I have to think about faith more than I might if left entirely to myself. I will say that faith may even be enviable when seen from outside, without being required in my personal understanding of the world. But let me reassure the reader, even or especially any reader of faith, it is not something I seek to overcome or escape or out of which I now feel the need to argue anyone. (If I once did, I can only say my reaction was to my own isolation and estrangement from the people of faith I then knew. Yes, I remember the long and ugly rhetorically florid jive I once preached to some harmless high school classmates late one night, after play-practice, when we were sitting at Mr. Donut. My apologies. Far from their fault. I was trying to survive the place in which we were raised, and yes, maybe to hurt them if I'm being honest, but then I had been hurt first, if not by those kids. Doesn't entirely excuse the behavior, but it might go some considerable way to explain my motivation, don't you think?) Faith has indeed made art, great art. Christianity specifically has framed and taught me much of my own sense of morality -- how could it not have done growing up where and when I did?
The Christians I know now are not the Christians I knew then, most of them. More importantly, my friends are not the Christians I am now being asked to understand better or to whom I am told I need to learn how to talk. I don't have to try not to confuse the two as they are nothing alike. No. I am being told yet again (and again and again) that what I, as an unabashed atheist need to do is, first, to mind my Ps and Qs, -- and I think I've covered that -- and secondly, to study war no more and take up again with those who would, in my experience, all too happily tell me to my face that I am not simply in error, but damned.
And, again, why is this my responsibility?
Well, it seems we unabashed types have hurt their feelings, if not actively or aggressively, then simply you know, by ignoring them. It seems, according to one who went among them and studied their ways, my opinions and by extension my very existence has yet again left that population of believers feeling very much put upon. Mind now, it isn't that the religious reactionaries here described feel they have done anything wrong or purposefully injured or impaired my liberties. No, I am the one who has deliberately misunderstood their good intentions and abiding concern for the state of my soul, if not my body, well-being, or rights as a citizen. I owe them a more thoughtful and considerate hearing it seems, and scoffing at this is frankly part of my damned problem. I've got a chip on my shoulder, a beam in my eye, and I need to see to this before I am invited back to the welcome table.
Recently reading Edward Gibbon's massy work, I was reminded of the foundational problem of the majority, any majority, religious or secular; namely that every majority was inevitably made from something less than complete unanimity of purpose, as almost every majority invariably lacks just that, until they don't. Gotta start somewhere. Where that somewhere always is and from what majorities are made are disparate, quarrelsome, and often as not disgruntled groups. What happens when such find common ground and form coalitions is the bedrock of Republican democracy for instance, no? But I was also reminded that having achieved a majority, any majority, human beings can't help but remember what it was to have not been in power, and to resent the forces that resisted them. Christianity in the body of the historical church has preserved its minority in the record of the saints and martyrs who died defending a new and often unpopular faith. My own experience of Christianity, before and after I was saved at the age of eleven or twelve, has been that the suffering of the church's minority is kept fresh in a constant insistence that the enemies of the faith are ever busy, not just in the theological abstract of temptation from the path, etc., but in the secular, not to say demonic mission to undo the good word and destroy the church. It is never enough to join the elect, as we are reminded there will always be someone shaking the ladder behind us.
I am not in a position, or of an inclination to argue with the faithful as to any of this, and if my paraphrase is unjust, I admit it as no better than my own. Won't argue, in part because it isn't something to which I am willing to give much more energy. And that is my point, come to it.
I don't feel the need to engage with Christians, friends or foes, on the level of the truth or history of their faith because it is now, as far as I am concerned, none of my business unless they choose to make it so. Honest. I'll talk about this if you want me to, my friends, but we needn't if you don't. Don't see the good of it myself, this conversation, for either of us, but my offer stands. Don't be shy, but then I am of this, a little. Like I said, not really how I was raised.
But then some well intentioned soul will unavoidably rise up yet again to tell me that as a progressive and an unabashed atheist the fault is mine for seeing a foe in any person of faith, as such, that our disagreement is the result of me not listening to what they say or understanding they way they say it, and I have to tell you, I don't accept that anymore. I think that is just bullshit. Listen to them? How can one not? Where can one go to not hear them constantly and what they think of Black Lives Matter, and the LGTBQ community, of a woman's right to control her own reproductive destiny, of religious and ethnic diversity, of atheism, of the president, of global warming, of every and any damned thing they care to shout and moan and piss endlessly on about, even as they insist that the only legitimate hurt is theirs, as the rest of us will insist on being so very rude in suggesting that they might be wrong, and or not the majority, or ridiculous, or if not evil -- as that's their favorite word, not mine -- then at very least a HUGE part of the fucking problem?
I'm sorry, but I think it is not me who should be abashed in this moment. I have already claimed my shame, as we used to say back in the day. Stop telling me to listen harder. How about you tell your new friends to stop talking for a minute about things they choose not to understand? How 'bout that? Then maybe we'll talk.
Or maybe not.