Thursday, July 31, 2014

Not Up For Debate

I have had a number of people contact me in the last several months asking, "Dude, what happened to you? Why are you attacking Christians? You used to be such a good kid." And then, when I try to answer them, they withdraw, muttering about not having time or needing to preserve our friendship.

It's hard to know for certain what someone is thinking when they don't engage, but the impression that I get is that they want to have a debate with me - just on their terms. I'm happy to do that, of course, as long as they understand what it is that they are asking to debate. The existence of God? Sure! The validity of various claims and assertions by believers and non-believers? Let's do it!

How I should behave on social media and what my personal experiences should mean to me?  Not up for debate.  Sorry.

You see, I've written a lot about what "happened" to me; this is something I do routinely, and I do it specifically for people who might care enough to ask. If our friendship actually meant anything to them, I would expect them to want to know what I have to say and what I really think badly enough to actually read my blog. But since few of them ever actually stay engaged long enough for me to articulate a response, here are some answers (with links to previous posts and amplifying articles sprinkled in as I felt appropriate):

The remark I hear most often is the recurring question, "Why are you attacking Christians?"

That’s frustrating because on the one hand, I've tried to go out of my way NOT to attack anyone. It's true that I share comics that poke fun at Christian privilege, and occasionally mock some of the more outrageous examples of that very broad category of "people of faith", but many of these targets are things I would have called out back when I was a Christian. These are things that I think, if you are a believer, you should probably be calling out, too.

On the other hand, it seems like one must be provocative in order to get any response or catch anyone's attention, especially on social media. I often feel like if I'm not saying something at least slightly controversial, then I'm going to be ignored; but I want to strike a balance that is more "interesting" than "aggressive". This is why I frequently share ideas that I value from Christian sources, and express ideals that, historically, Christians and non-believers have held in common - most notably, the separation of church and state, which used to be one of the founding principles of the Baptist church. I want to strike up a conversation, but balance out that perceived provocation with an earnest look at the common ground between us.

I also strive to "be myself" when I'm online. Anyone who knows me should already know that I mock and tease and indulge in what I consider to be witty wordplay. Obviously, senses of humor will vary, and sometimes feelings will be hurt. As a rule, when it comes to teasing others, I try to "punch up", and avoid picking on those weaker than me. I would never call out people in real pain or try to yank away something they find comforting in the middle of a crisis. But if I see someone else posting stuff that is out of line, needlessly cruel, or otherwise completely full of shit, I will remark on that.

I try to keep my jabs playful; and yet, I've noticed that the people who seem to take such playful mockery personally are often those who complain the most bitterly about "political correctness" and the "tyranny" of having to watch what they say for the sake of mere feelings. I don't claim to be innocent of being a jerk at times - quite the opposite, as I have mentioned before - but dealing with that and learning how to recognize the worst in myself is also one of my primary motivations when I post things that are not exactly "nice." No matter what angle you're coming from, the balancing act is all about maintaining perspective, and assuming noble intent.  (The noblest possible intent, at any rate.)

For example, posting my essay "My Existence Is Not an Attack on You" on Christmas morning (to me, a rare day off when I get to goof off online) provoked an inarticulate reaction of rage from a Facebook friend who repeatedly asserted that it was "in poor taste" to compare religion to sci-fi fandom on Jesus's birthday. Perhaps it is - but if you're going to take offense at such a mild form of criticism, do you really have any right to call that an "attack"? Especially when the premise and title of the offending piece is that simply articulating that I am different from you is NOT an attack on you?

(And why, if that day is so holy, are you reading your Facebook feed on Christmas morning in the first place?)

Then there is the "You used to be such a good kid" approach.

This is doubly frustrating, because they are saying that I'm no longer good without actually saying so. To confront that implicit accusation, I try to use my posts to demonstrate that while I personally reject the various claims of the existence of a God, there is still a lot of overlap between my views and the views of people who would prefer to think that my lack of belief comes with a lack or morality or ethical grounding. Anyone watching my feed should see a healthy number of posts on the subject of being #goodwithoutGod. In many ways, the only thing about me that has changed since I was a kid is that I've stopped accepting the human assertion that there is a supernatural anything out there - at least until there is some reliable evidence. I've found other reasons to behave in a way that I judge to be moral, and I would think if people were really interested in morality, they would want to talk about that - not simply impose their own assumptions on me for their own comfort.

(Oh, and I have been told that I've "grown up" a bit, which I consider to be a vicious slander!)

Frankly, I don't think I was all that great as a kid - mainly because of my personality flaws, but also because religion is designed to exploit our flaws and use them to perpetuate itself. As a kid, perpetuating all of the bad religious ideas associated with the American Christian right is something I did to a degree that frightened even other Christians, at times.  In most cases, when you do see me go on the attack, it's not you or your behavior, or even necessarily the group you identify with that I am angry about. It's that younger version of me whom I now recognize to have been a complete dickhead.

People lamenting the loss of what I "used to be" should probably go read "You Wouldn't Believe It", which explains how I went from there to here - and why I'm not likely to accept many of the arguments that you would like to offer to convince me to change back. I left There behind for a reason, and now that I am Here, I see my personal mission as consisting of two things.

First: even though #notallChristians are intentionally driving these trends, we Americans still live in a near-theocracy. I have been trying to gently but firmly point that out since 2001, and depending on the brazen stupidity of the examples I may choose to share or the public figures I may choose to engage (looking at you, @SpeakerBoehner), I may choose to be less gentle about my criticism.

Despite the painfully obvious fact that we have been engaged violently with theocratic groups in other parts of the world for decades while pretending that it's not about religion, there is far too much intrusion of God into our government. I endeavor to illustrate the damage that this does to our country - particularly to our ability to relate to the rest of the world, our ability to improve education (especially science education), and our ability to preserve personal/individual liberty.

For better or worse, because we live in a nation that is mostly Christian, the majority of the stories available for me to point to are going to be focused on Christians, and calling out the ways in which they harm the very things they claim to love the most. That is the most frustrating blind spot to deal with, because the same people who object to me pointing out Christian privilege in America and Christian insertion of religion into schools or law are the frequently the very same people who insist that this is a Christian nation in the first place. They try to claim majority status AND claim to be an oppressed minority. Sadly, they lack the same self-awareness that the "anti-PC" crowd lacks, and while I would prefer to take a Live and Let Live approach, that lack of self-awareness has a dire impact on the rest of us.

So while I neither desire nor intend to convince anyone to embrace my point of view as their own, I do demand that you recognize it as a valid point of view. I'm not here to deconvert anyone, but because I used to share the American Christian point of view, I know for a fact that you don't understand me while I very certainly understand you. If I don't engage you in some kind of dialogue, your lack of understanding will continue to damage the world around you - and that includes me.

I need to engage so that you can't pretend that I don't exist.

I need to engage so that you can't erase my narrative from history.

Second: because it was such a long, lonely, and painful journey to get from "there" to "here", I sincerely hope to help others by sharing my experience. Many of my Christian friends and family are going to see that as a threat.  I get that. You're going to see me doing that and equate it with your evangelical mandate; you're going to identify me sharing my story, as a "testimony" designed to convert you to my cause.

I get it, but unlike you, there really isn't any evangelical mandate driving me. No atheist leader compels me to spread the word and win "souls" - instead, I see this more as a way to make you understand what our differences really are (as opposed to the mythology I know Christians share about atheists) and how we can along even if you don't accept my views on the supernatural. (Again, that's the point of "My Existence Is Not an Attack on You".) My personal narrative is that, yes, I used to believe what you believe; and yes, I outgrew it (that's how I see it, anyway) through reason, logic, and self examination. Now I encourage everyone to question me about my conclusions and assumptions - with the understanding that you might not be comfortable with my answers.

There is always the chance, of course, that you could change my mind - and if you don't understand what it would take to do so, then you really don't understand me.

I also understand that regardless of what I may do or say, many of my readers and followers are probably already undergoing their own journey - which may look like the experience shared by me and some of the people I repost regularly.

I need to engage so that I can help those of you who need me.

I need to engage so that others can see that they aren't alone, and that the backlash they fear isn't the end of their world.

So that's why I am here, and why I do what I do on Twitter & Facebook. If you feel like you want more explanation, it's probably on the other end of one of these links in this post.

Just remember, before you write me off as a fanatic loudmouth: sometimes simply speaking up is your duty. You need to ask questions. You may need to remind the dominant majority that they are stepping on other people, and that their privilege does not come without a cost to everyone (including themselves). You need to do this whether you belong to that dominant majority or not.

If you are one of those who feels hurt, one of those who feels picked on, who feels attacked by the relatively mild news articles, cartoons & blogs that I post - don't be afraid to challenge me. I will probably respond with my reasoning. I don't consider that to be fighting - I feel that you deserve an explanation or some kind of justification of why I posted what I posted, if not an agreement or the apology you're looking for.

You might be surprised to learn that I dislike many of the same prominent atheists that you dislike, for many of the same reasons. You may be put off by those I do like, or grow uncomfortable with being asked to deal with things you haven't had to think about before. We all deal with that - unless we live in a remote cabin with no outside contact.

But don't just hide.  Hiding is a sign that perhaps your ideas aren't as strong or defensible as you think they are...and leaving those ideas un-examined can be dangerous. That fact is also not up for debate.

Learning that lesson is "What happened to me."