Tuesday, April 23, 2013

How To Step Outside of Your (God)Box

or “What Is It Like Being An Atheist?”
When I was in college at Penn State I attended a sociology class on race and ethnicity that involved a social experiment which I will adapt and propose for a potential experiment later in this essay. In hindsight, this was truly one of the most important classes I have even taken as it ended up shaping me in many ways. First of all, it has and continues to be taught by one of the most prominent sociologists on that subject in the US, Dr. Sam Richards. Prof. Richards, who had long hair and looked very much the hippie “way back then” in 1999, convinced me to attend and read at a poetry slam where I was the only white guy in attendance. If you know me, the entire thought of me doing this is either comical or surreal (as Adam can attest to, as he was there). Not because I was uncomfortable being a “minority” for a few hours (indeed I was ignorant of that feeling), but because I loathe public speaking. Anyway, I was never a great poet—OK at best—but I received a warm welcome (if not a few tilted heads) and had some surprisingly good feedback. Of course many of my pieces were atheistic, but at the time I didn’t actually consciously think about it that way. It just was what came out. Not only did my experience that allow me to “put myself out there” with the things I think and write about (much like Left Hemispheres), but it allowed the realization of the concept of minority and majority, of “normal” and “other.” I had not realized this at the time, but that experience was my first taste of what I know now of as “privilege” and how much I benefited from it. I also realized that I only had the opportunity to feel uncomfortable and “outnumbered” for a few hours. I have also experienced this while traveling in Central America,* but I was again acutely aware of its impermanence.  
Another integral experience related to this sociology course was an experiment the entire class of 400-500 (or more? I don’t know. Classes at PSU are huge). Each person was to team up with someone who was “completely different than you” and get a picture taken together.  We were to go home to our family and friends, showing off the picture and stating that this person was your new boyfriend/girlfriend. Generally people split along racial lines. Some brave people (for 1999 in Pennsylvania) choose to pretend to have a same-sex significant other. I teamed up with a girl who was really black. I can say that without feeling like an asshole because to her I was “really white.” We joked about it and that was exactly why we thought it would work. Each of us was just about the last person our families and friends “back home” would expect. So the experiment was underway. We all went home on weekends over the course of the next month and showed off our new “boyfriends and girlfriends.” For some people it was a total disaster, as you can probably unfortunately imagine. For the record: all written accounts were read to the class anonymously by a TA and we were not to divulge the reactions to your class partner. This was done in order to prevent hurt feelings so I never got to find out how her family and friends reacted to this white boy having his arms around her in a loving embrace. Thankfully, I didn’t have to divulge the muted racism from some of my family and friends. Some was expected, and some of it was a surprise. I also did have “positive” reactions. I considered “positive” reactions as total apathy to the color of her skin. Some positive reactions were even from people I expected negative reactions. The best reaction I had, from a sociological point of view, was a friend who was totally cool with it when I showed her the picture. It was only after I divulged the experiment that she flipped out in concern of her reaction. “Was I OK?” “Did I react badly?” “I didn’t do or say anything racist did I?” That reaction and my analysis of it got me an “A.”
What this experience taught me was the lessons of perception, expectation, explicit vs. implicit judgments; and the inability of some people to realize what they are doing or that they are doing it.
Fast forward over a decade which included my growing disdain for religion and a discomfort (cognitive dissonance!) with my previous stance of agnosticism (though by definition I was an atheist and didn’t understand what that meant). When we started Left Hemispheres in 2010 it was supposed to be a general “science and skepticism” blog with religion as just one of many topics.  It was only a few weeks before we realized, no…we are an atheist site and with that off we went. As I dove into the subject matter really getting exposed to the apologetics for religion and what I consider the adverse effects of religion, I developed my “aggressive atheist” stance. For the record, and for the 1000th time, I consider this to be correctly termed as “antitheism.” It is not “new” atheism. While I usually agree with the “new” atheists, I think this is a stupid and non-descriptive moniker.
With the growing voice I was developing here on the blog I felt it was only fair and intellectually honest for me to “come out” regarding my disbelief in any deity (and supernaturalism in general) and my active opposition to religion and faith. Since that time, I have—from time to time—experienced or rather recognized what it is like to be a “minority” and “other” again. Granted, I have it “easy” and I am fully cognizant of this. I am in no way saying I have been discriminated against like others have been; at least not in any measurable sense or in a way that I care to recognize it as such.
So what am I getting at here? Well, I would like the religious to feel and recognize the immense privilege they enjoy in America. This isn’t even limited to Christians, but for them it would be doubly so (if not more than “doubly”). I would ask anyone who wonders why atheists speak up against the encroachment of religion to try for themselves a sociological experiment similar to the one I conducted for my sociology course. This isn’t meant to challenge one’s faith at all. I am leaving that off the table here. I think it is immensely useful for everyone to experience what it is like to be the “other” every now and again to remind ourselves that we do not exist in a vacuum.
So to the brave of our religious friends and family, next time you are with your friends or family why not “come out” as an atheist? Try saying "I no longer have faith that god exists,” or "I no longer believe in god." If you want to get really specific about it state that you “No longer accept Jesus Christ as your savior,” or that “Muhammad is not the prophet of Allah.” Of course, I do not advise this experiment for those that may have serious repercussions for stating such things openly. While I think this speaks to the insular and often times violently discriminatory nature of faith; I would much rather no one get ostracized, harmed or worse just to make a point.
For those of you who are willing and able, please note the reactions of your loved ones. There will be potentially explicit reactions while others may be implicit. If you are really brave, keep the experiment going for a while. Some people may not have the initial bad reaction, but then there will be subtle comments. People will start to proselytize to you. They won’t leave you alone about it even IF you never mention it again. This is the lack of respect that atheists receive in these situations; even by people you wouldn’t expect to have such reactions. I was asked to attend church for over 15 years even though I clearly did not believe and at a time when I kept it all to myself. After all, I have never once explicitly or implicitly requested or demanded that anyone to stop going to church, stop praying or to stop believing. I have been asked (and demanded when I was younger) to do these things ad nauseum as if a) it is that simple, b) my beliefs, or lack therefore, are not worthy of respect even when in deference, and c) it isn’t insanely annoying.
That’s another point I would hope that this illustrates: many atheists were quiet for years because they either didn’t care to speak up or because they could not. Many “antitheistic” expressions are the direct result of having religion shoved in our faces every day for decades. This is not the two-way street you imagine it to be. Even with the increase in atheist voices, complaints by religious people of atheist stridency are nothing but availability bias. In short: we are still very much a minority in your midst and the religious are just not used to hearing from us at all. There is the expectation of respect no matter the belief because of “faith.” Even the simple statement “I do not believe,” is seen by many as a challenge or worse. Try standing in our shoes and see how easy it is to “keep it to yourself.”
*True story: once while in a little restaurant/bar in Belize off the typical tourist path, there was rude American family and for the first time I realized what was meant by “Ugly Americans.” In a moment of panic I told the barkeep I was Canadian.