Thursday, November 29, 2012

Of aliens and humans

James Croft occasionally thinks he's an alien among atheists. To some small extent, I can relate. I don't like chocolate, never have, yet I live in a world where so many people love chocolate that the reactions I get when people first learn this about me range from shocked disbelief to disbelieving pity. Sometimes, there's a sense that I've committed some sort of sin by not liking chocolate. I've dealt with this by deciding that loving chocolate is a sign of being an alien, and I am one of the last remaining True Humans alive. Someday, I shall find others of my kind, and we'll rise up to kick the aliens off this planet! It'll make a great movie. In the meantime, I married an alien. Go figure.

Seriously though, I'm not all that surprised that James sometimes feels alienated. While I haven't been to any conventions for atheists or Humanists, my impression of the online community suggests that sometimes individual members will fall into "hyper-skepticism," and try to out-Vulcan each other. More than that though, there's a definite widespread distrust of religious space, religious community, and religious ritual. A lot of that comes from a position that faith -- believing with insufficient evidence, or even against evidence-- is a bad thing. Some of it also comes from the negative experiences that many of us have had with religion, and the negative experiences we see continuing to happen to others. Many of us are angry. I count myself among this angry-at- and distrustful-of-religion group. I'm aware of, and acknowledge, that there are literally millions of religious people who are not using religion to directly make life worse for other people. But I still think religion is broadly harmful to humanity.

James holds with some of that, but not all of it. He told me once that he agrees that "faith has to go," and he absolutely holds Reason to be a primary value. I know he is capable of getting angry at religious groups, and individual religious people. I suspect there's some anger behind his recent post on Scott Lively. But anger isn't his foremost reaction. And as he said in his post:
I’m a choirboy. I grew up going to a religious school (the diffident, non-imposing Church of England sort of religion) and I sung in the school choir for years. I have sung my way through countless masses and services and psalms. I have become familiar, and therefore mostly comfortable with that sort of religious spaces. I love to sing, and so I have lots of positive memories associated with those spaces which have enabled me to do what I love. I haven’t had any significantly bad experiences with religion in my past
Unlike James, I've had bad experiences with religion. Taken individually, most of them are pretty minor. But in aggregate, I'd say my experience with religion ranges from bad to boring. As an example of the bad, the church I grew up with taught (and perhaps still teaches, but I haven't asked) that blasphemy is the one unforgivable sin, and blasphemy is denial of Jesus and God, including atheism. An atheist can never get to heaven, no matter how much they later change their mind and "repent." Now, this didn't actually scare me when I first became an atheist at 12 or 13. It's hard to be scared when you don't believe it. But when I was 14, I tried talking my mother into letting me go to school dances. According to that same church, dancing is a sin. In a moment of desperation, I blurted out that I was an atheist. My mother wailed. She wailed as if I had just died. She pulled the car up to the house, told me to get out, and left to see my grandfather, who was also the church pastor. We never talked about it after she came home, or after. And I avoided talking about my religious views in front of her after that, until just last year.

A little thing, perhaps. There are far, far, far worse stories out there, and in comparison I'd say I got off lucky. But the little things add up.

Moving on to "boring," James said
I’m a drama geek. My parents raised me on theatre, taking me to see plays and musicals very frequently. I spent my teenage years appearing in countless theatrical productions (this is not an exaggeration: my performance CV for my high school and college years is ridiculously long. I wonder how I found time for anything else!). I like to perform, and I have an appreciation for the dramatic – even the melodramatic. I tend to view religious services as pieces of theatre, and I’m attuned to the production values in and of themselves, regardless of theological content. I therefore find religious services interesting as exercises in dramatic production.
Clearly, we have some different experiences of religious services! A typical service at the church I grew up in went as follows: People would sit in the pews. There were three numbers listed on a board, which were the numbers of the songs to sing that day. The organ player would be playing random songs as people sat down, and when she (it was usually my godmother, Louise) started playing the first song on the list, that was the cue for the congregation to open the songbooks and sing. Some sang enthusiastically, but tunelessly. Others sang ok. Some barely sang at all. And some really didn't sing. After the first song, there would be a prayer. Then the congregation would sing the second song. After that, Grandpa or the guest pastor would give a sermon, typically lasting an hour. The congregation would just sit and listen. No call and response, just sitting. The end of the sermon was signaled by the pastor reciting the Benediction, and giving another prayer. Then the congregation sang the third and final song. And that was it. On the first Sunday of the month, there was communion. As the the congregation sang song after song (there was a longer song list that day), people would go up and kneel at the altar, and receive the bread wafer and shot of wine (red, of course) along with a couple of Bible verses ("This is my body . . ."). Once you had your turn at the altar, you could head to the cafeteria. There was usually pot luck.

See? Boring. Mom would poke me if I started snoring during the sermon. As an exercise in dramatic production, um, . . . it wasn't. That's what always comes to mind when I initially think of religious service. That's what I subconsciously consider "normal" church.

I like theater. I love musicals. And I really enjoy melodrama musicals at Mantorville Theater. If you're not familiar, a melodrama is a play that is deliberately melodramatic, has corny jokes, and requires audience participation. The audience is encouraged to cheer for the hero, boo and hiss for the villain, sigh winsomely for the heroine, and laugh long and loud. Maybe someday I can actually have a schedule that would let me be in one of the plays.  But I think I'll always have a hard time with the concept of religious services as dramatic productions. Still, I think I can see how James might see it that way. I'm given to understand that other religious services are not like the ones I grew up with.

And now to the part where I'll admit to some small envy of James. He said
I get swept up in things. I am emotionally very open and allow myself to be emotionally affected by those around me. I cry buckets through movies, can’t help but sing a tuneful song, always find myself tapping my feet to music. I've even found myself waving my hands in the air during religious services! To me, this is perfectly natural – I find it hard not to do it. But I do understand that other people react differently.
 Yes, I do react differently. As I mentioned in my previous post,
Much of my childhood and teen years was spent deliberately suppressing my reactions to negative emotions. I had no true friends, and was the target of much teasing, even bullying. I was angry, depressed, suspicious, suicidal, etc. I tried hiding all of that behind a blank facade and misdirection. It's possible this learned response has carried over into positive emotional experiences as well, despite my efforts to unlearn much of it and be more open about my emotions.
In addition, my first introduction to Reason as a value was via Star Trek, and the character of Mr. Spock. I was a young kid (maybe seven?) when I first saw Star Trek: The Original Series, and I loved his preference for logic and using intellect to solve problems.  I'm a lifelong geek, and in Star Trek: The Next Generation, my favorite character was Data. Do we see a pattern? The painful experiences of my childhood gave a young me plenty of reason to try emulating Mr. Spock's suppression of emotion.

But. But but but. I am not a Vulcan or an android. Somewhere in my teen years (I think--could've been my early twenties) I realized that emotions are part of us, and that they're a good part of us. Suppressing them is (wait for it) illogical. Spock eventually accepts emotions in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and Data gets emotions in Star Trek: Generations. But though I've worked at opening up more, I rarely find myself swept up in things. Sometimes I'd like to be swept up more, but it doesn't happen often.

Things that have swept me up: local performances of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" and "Rocky Horror Picture Show," (wish I had video of the local shows-ah, well); hot candle wax poured on my body (yay! Endorphins!); and visiting Lost River Gorge & Boulder Caves on my honeymoon, because holy shit! CAVES! Do you know how cool those things are??

Things that have made me tear up: "Schindler's List," and songs like "Where've You Been?" by Kathy Mattea

Where am I going with this? I'm reserved. Generally speaking, I'm happy to be reserved. Sometimes, I envy those who, like James, can readily be swept up in their emotions. I typically enjoy it when I'm able to "cut loose," and fully experience the range of human emotion, with tears and laughter and wide, bright eyes and childlike giggles as I crawl through a boulder cave. Yet, when it comes down to it, I would not choose to be like James. I like myself. And I completely agree with him when he says
I don’t think my positive response to these sorts of religious ceremonies and rituals is necessarily problematic, and it certainly doesn't represent any softening of my atheism. But it may carry dangers: I may be less astute to the dangers of communal activity like ritual and ceremony than others simply because I enjoy it, for instance. There’s the opposite potential problem too, though: that one’s dislike for such experiences encourages rejection of them when they might in fact have value.
I do believe there are potential dangers to communal ritual and ceremony, but I also think that my instinctive distrust makes it harder to see the possible value in them, value they probably do have--if done with an eye toward the risks. And while James might be an alien (I bet he likes chocolate, too), if Star Trek taught us anything, it's that the alien perspective can very often be a valuable one!

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