Saturday, June 4, 2011

Fear & Coming Out

Note: this post, even more than the others, is really just me figuring some stuff out.  More of a public journal entry than anything else.  You've been warned.

Fear.  I’m scared.  I’m scared of a lot of things.  Most of all, I’m scared of disappointing people, and hurting them because of that disappointment.  I really don’t like it when people disapprove of me.  But, my life has been pretty awesome so far.  I have the ability to step forward and really say something.  Even if I lose some people, even if my parents completely disown me (which I don’t think they would, oddly enough), I have enough people that know who I really am, and who support me in that, that it seems a little silly at this point to hide at all.

I think I will keep this blog written under a pseudonym, mainly because it allows me to write about vulnerable things without fear.  Because really, even the most open person ever isn’t going to be like “hey mom! I had great sex this weekend. Orgasms are great, don’t you think?”  Well, maybe, but I’m realistic enough to know that if my real name were attached to such sentiments I would not be a happy person.  Because even though I know it’s important, constantly defending yourself seems more exhausting than I can deal with at the moment.  But I’d like to be able to bring some basic openness into my everyday life.  Small things, like putting “atheist” on my facebook profile.  The kind of stuff where I’m not going out of my way to tell people, but I know I’m not hiding either. 

It’s weird, because I’m not completely secretive.  Over the years, various parts of my emotional/mental life have inevitably come to light.  My entire immediate family knows I’m going to be living with my boyfriend next year.  My parents know I had sex this one time (although I think they accidentally got the impression that I wasn’t going to again…I swear I didn’t say that!).  My mom, at least, knows that a few years ago I was unsure about what I believed - she even supported the questioning and told me about how she didn’t get confirmed until she was older for similar reasons (well…then I started talking about my reasons for questioning, and she got quiet pretty quickly.  But still).  My family knows I’m a feminist, queer-friendly, commie-liberal.  They reacted not as badly as they could have.  Sure, we’ve gotten into fights.  Sure, there are still heavy, meaningful silences when I say something like “oh, let [my sibling] do that.  I did, and I turned out ok!”.  Sure, there are subjects that we very pointedly don’t talk about.  Sure, they told me that I was a huge disappointment, and that they thought what I was doing (i.e. going on a trip alone with my boyfriend) was evil.  But they still talk to me, most of the time.  We still laugh, and chat, and get annoyed at stupid stuff.  They still say they love me.  We’re still family.  That’s more than a lot of people can say. 

What I’m saying is, it’s certainly not because of my good upstanding moral values that my parents still talk to me.  So why would it be different if I told them that I’m a confirmed atheist?  I think I’m scared of crushing their hopes that this is just a phase.  They never outright say so, but there are gentle hints that despite all the other stuff, they still think/hope that I put some stock in religion.  I’m not sure, but I feel like that would hurt them more than anything else.  Part of me thinks it’s not really necessary for them to know.  But, on the other hand, I think it’s necessary for me to be out.  It could help other people struggling with believing to know that there are others who don’t.  And, in order to be out, my parents have to know.  

And then there’s my siblings.  I can talk to them about most things (they are also, for the most part, feminist, queer-friendly, commie-liberals), but I don’t think I’ve told them that I’m an atheist.  I don’t think they know that I have sex.  Mostly just because it’s awkward.  We’ve been pretty thoroughly trained to just not talk about anything actually pertinent to our emotional or mental lives.  For a long time, I don’t even think they knew I had depression/anxiety!  My parents never told them, and I wasn’t about to confide in them about all my terrible feelings.  I felt I needed to protect them (I’m the oldest).  I never intentionally hid it from them, we just never talked about it.  It sort of surprised me, when recently it came up in conversation with my sister and became clear she had no idea.  I had always just assumed my mom told them what was going on with me.  So maybe now it’s my turn to take responsibility, and tell them what’s going on with me.  Thinking about how alone I felt when I first decided to have sex…I don’t want them to feel like that.  Maybe it’s not too late.  I’m the big sister here.  I can’t stay self-pitying forever.  There are so many worse things happening.  Maybe by using my relatively good position to give me the strength to come out, I can help alleviate some pain.  

So. I think I have something of a resolution. I will talk with my siblings within the next two weeks.  I will tell them that I’m an atheist, and that I have sex, and if they have questions about any of those things they are more then welcome to talk to me at any time.  Also, that I completely support them if they are religious and/or don’t have sex!

I also might tell my parents that I’m an atheist by the end of the summer.  That one I need to think a little more on, but I think I will. Because, like I said, I have proof that I can survive their disappointment, and that they are made almost as uncomfortable by it as I am  - so will quickly try to ignore it.  Which sounds kind of horrible, but actually just means that then I can get on with living my life in freedom.  

I’ve been meeting more and more people who have left.  People of all ages - even some that are related to me!  And you know what? They’re still alive, they’re happy, and they even have their own communities and support networks!  Many of them are very open, and nothing terrible has happened.  There’s this big Bryn Athyn boogeyman, that says if you leave, or you disagree, or whatever, everything will be awful and everyone will hate you.  I’m beginning to think that maybe it’s not true (although I guess that depends on who you are and who’s relationships you value keeping).  What is it, exactly, that I’m so afraid of?  I’m still not sure.  Any ideas out there?

Another thing that has been niggling at my brain more than usual lately is a dilemma that has plagued me since I first gave up on the Writings.  In the words of the Clash: should I stay or should I go? Is there any point in trying to change Bryn Athyn? For the first few years of my non-religious phase I decided I should just leave.  I couldn’t care about what was going on in Bryn Athyn, because I had too much to work out in myself.  I got sucked into the BA mindset far too easily.  I was too easily confused, too easily persuaded, and fell far too easily into wondering if I was evil, or wrong, or “maybe religion isn’t so bad…”.  There were too many hazards for it to be worth it.  So, I dealt with being in Bryn Athyn when I was there, but when I wasn’t I tried to just put it out of my mind.  I think this was the right decision for that period of my life, absolutely.  But, now that I have mostly accepted who I am, and confirmed what I do/don’t believe, I’m wondering if maybe it’s time to reenter the discussion.  I look at people like Amy Childs, and think about how much strength just knowing she exists gives me.  I realize how important it is to have open apostates working for change.  Part of me wants to come back and be a superhero, or something.  Create a haven for everyone who feels lonely and harmed.  Cruise the streets righting wrongs, that sort of thing.  I think I just might be healed enough that it would be ok.  But, at the same time, I am still just so over it.  I have a life to go live, thanks.  More on this later, as I have a whole cultural-relativism mind-tangle I’ve been meaning to write out.  For now, though, I think coming out to the family in various ways, supporting those who are still in the Bryn Athyn circle working to make it better, and continuing with this blog is a good step.  

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Many Paths to Bigotry

One day, I realized that different religions actually are different.  Kind of a funny thing to realize, but it hit me extraordinarily hard.  On the one hand, I do sort of like the “many paths to god” idea.  It’s certainly better than the “you are wrong, so you’re evil, so I’ll kill you” viewpoint.  On the other hand, once we get past the let’s-kill-each-other phase, there are some assumptions couched in this viewpoint that sincerely trouble me.  

I do think that, when it comes right down to it, people are just people.  We’re not really as different as some would like to believe.  In some ways religion does play more-or-less the same role across the board.  In a nut shell, it helps people make sense of death, life, society, and themselves.  Our similarities are certainly cool and important things to realize. 

Yet, cultures can be drastically different from each other. Religion is often part of that difference.  Religious differences aren’t just about what names you assign your deities, what pictures you draw, or what songs you sing.  Religion is a way of structuring society, and understanding one’s place within that society.  Even beyond that, cosmology! Cosmology - the understanding of the cosmos.  We base our understanding of the universe and our place within it on our cosmology.  It affects our brains and how we function.  If cosmologies are different, it creates very real differences between the societies and the individuals under question.  In Judeo-Christian cultures we tend to base our understanding of the world around a divide of what old school anthropologists term the “sacred” and the “profane”.  In other words, we have natural stuff and sacred stuff - the world is divided into two distinct spheres. When in church, it’s expected that one acts differently than when not in church.  Certain objects are seen as special, and because of that are treated differently than other objects.  To not respect the sacred/profane divide is seen as rude at best, sacrilegious at worst.  This divide is generally seen as a ‘natural’ part of life.  You have the sacred stuff and the normal stuff, the religious places and the secular places, the clergy and the laity.  I’m not sure just how much it’s related, but such dichotomous thinking also happens to characterize a lot of the Judeo-Christian mindset - heaven/hell, good/evil, spiritual world/natural world, man/woman, adult/child, man/beast.  Growing up exposed to only Judeo-Christian customs, the sacred/profane division just seems like the “way things are” - it seems like a crucial part of what makes a religion.  But, this is not a universal way of experiencing the universe.  Anthropologists and religious scholars have argued that this divide just does not exist in many non-western religions.  

In my experience, trying to forge similarities between religions leads to projecting completely foreign concepts onto another person’s framework.  This can happen on a large, cultural scale, or on a small, individual one.  For illustration’s sake, an example!  At the beginning of my romantic relationship, when I identified as Christian and Bassie identified as a secular Buddhist, I tried to make his Buddhist beliefs into the same as my Christian ones (and tended to just straight up ignore his atheist stance).  We’re saying the same thing! You just say “enlightenment”, where I say “regeneration”! You just say “meditation”, where I say “prayer”! We’re doing the same things, looking to the same God, trying to reach the same destination…right?  I look back onto this time of our relationship with a little bit of shame and a lot of amusement - because we were very much not doing or saying the same things.  I remember one time, in the hopes of bringing us closer to God as a couple (oh jeez), I suggested we try meditating together.  He meditated, I pray-meditated (read: thought about god, the beauty the universe, let my mind wander, tried to get ‘out of myself’, and entered into that spiritual high I talked about a while back).  When we were done I said “So! What did you think about?”.  Much to my confusion, his response was “Nothing? I was meditating.  I thought about breathing.”  Me: “Well…what about breathing?” Bassie: “Nothing, just breathing.  That I was doing it.  Meyrin, I don’t think you quite understand what I’m saying when I talk about meditation.”.  Alas.  Zen meditation is not the same thing as prayer.  They do distinctly different things, and reinforce different understandings of how the human mind works.  I refused to believe it for a long time.  I thought he must just be doing it wrong, or didn’t want to talk about it.  Now, looking back, I realize that I was coming from a place of intense arrogance.  I was just refusing to listen.  I refused to understand what my loved one practiced - it was more important for me to have the illusion that he believed in fundamentally the same things that I did.  As it turns out, we do believe many of the same things, it’s just that they don’t have anything to do with a god.  And, we still have our very real, significant differences. We’re still happy together precisely because we don’t try to trick ourselves into thinking we’re the same, and in fact actively work on not just glossing over the differences.  Our relationship is stronger and more loving when recognize and accept those differences, and weaker when we try to project our own mental weirdness onto the other person. 

The differences between cultures are real, and beautiful.  They are not just different ways of saying the same thing - they are different ways of saying very different things.  By trying to make them the same, we are silencing many distinct viewpoints.  We are also saying that other beliefs or thought-systems are only valuable if they have similarities to ours.  It is the height of ethnocentrism, a holdover of colonialism, and extremely disturbing.  The many-paths-to-god approach hinges on the assumption that we can only like each other if we secretly think the exact same thing.  Why is being basically the same a prerequisite for tolerance?  While it might be a good way to introduce someone to being tolerant, it’s a pretty scary notion to stop at.  It’s a way of saying “look, Ma, I’m tolerant!” without actually giving up ideas of superiority.  If you approach other religions on their own terms, not only will you actually understand them better, you might also end up challenging some of your own beliefs about how the world works.  Most importantly, you will exercise the ability to accept that other people aren’t you, and learn to see that as a valid and awesome thing.  You will, in fact, become a more genuinely nice person.

(Quick Atheist Plug:  of course, once you realize that religions are saying inherently different things, and that they are all still equally valid, it becomes a lot harder to give any sort of authority to one particular culturally-steeped religious system.  Thus my Evil Atheist Agenda is realized.)