April 05, 2007

something I have never before quenched about

I am usually quite open with my friends, and even with this blog about what I am thinking about, about what I believe, and about who I am. In thinking about what I’ve blogged about in the past, I realized that I have never (or almost never?) mentioned my religion. As we label ourselves with so many modifiers why do we not foreground our religions (or status as atheists or agnostics) in the same way?

Many of my close friends know that I have both Christian and Jewish family, but I think that most of my friends assume that I am an atheist or at least agnostic.

I am in fact a Christian. And yet I seem not to talk about it much. I wonder why. Here are the reasons I can think of that might be relevant:

  1. Because Christianity is a dominant religion in the United States, I am uncomfortable discussing my Christianity.
  2. I worry that discussing my Christian beliefs will make others feel that I don’t respect their beliefs or that I am just humoring them. I worry that it will interfere with my ability to communicate respect with my non-Christian friends (most of my friends?). I think this is strongly related to number 3.
  3. I am ashamed of the way that Christianity has been coopted by the conservative right in this country. I know that people associate Christianity with people trying to convert others without listening to them, respecting what they have to say, or taking them seriously. Conversions are used as sort of notches in someone’s belt – proof that they are true believers. And Christianity is used as a way to avoid logic and debate and to institute laws at national, state, and international levels that oppress people.
  4. I worry that people won’t take my logical arguments seriously (see number 3).

Here are some reasons that those reasons are silly:
  1. I speak about privilege in other contexts – about white privilege, heterosexual privilege, male privilege, and social and economic class privilege. I know that this isn’t the real reason I don’t talk about my beliefs.
  2. This may be true with acquaintances or people who I don’t know but I hope my friends know that I respect them so it doesn’t explain why I don’t really talk about it with them, or with Quench.
  3. Should this be a reason to avoid the topic? Perhaps it is a reason to actually bring it up occasionally and try to take away the hold that the Dark Side claims to have. (sweet, star wars references!)
  4. Maybe I should just be logical and that issue would be solved.

Well, step one of not hiding my religion is to explain how I got involved in activism in the first place.

Christianity was begun by a servant-leader who put the lives of oppressed people ahead of his own. He spent his time helping and glorifying people who were hated by others of his time period – he helped lepers (who many were afraid of or judged as immoral) and told stories of a Samaritan who was hated by society and yet was the epitome of what is good. A woman at his time had access to very few resources, and yet Jesus said what she was willing to give to the community was worth more than what a rich man gave.

The old testament/torah chronicles a people attempting to free themselves from slavery, a god who teaches people to love their neighbors, and families, and people who are wise enough to make peace at times when it seems impossible.

Jesus was recognized as a leader and as a messiah and yet he took the time to wash the feet of his followers and to thank others who were less fortunate than he was. At this time of year, as Easter comes closer, I think about what Christianity says about sacrifice. Jesus sacrificed everything that he had so that others could inherit everything that is important.

Unconditional love in the bible teaches Christians that we need to work to respect everyone in the world as if they are our family and closest friends. This means actively pursuing an end to racism, an end to incarceration and the prison industrial complex, it means an end to war, it means an end to sexism, it means a fair financial world, it means ending ableism, it means taking care of our future generations, valuing all love and all sex, stopping violence of all kinds, and it means no excuses.

I got involved in radical activism because the bible told me to. I have met the most amazing, great people on the way. And to be honest, most of them share my Christian roots – because by Christian, I mean radical justice activists who are willing to look beyond current power structures and look to others for support because they acknowledge their limits as an individual. These beliefs are not exclusive to any single religion, of course, but some so-called Christian leaders would have us think that they are incompatible with Christianity.

George Bush and Fred Phelps can’t take Christianity away from its radical roots. Shame on them and others for trying.

(I would be curious to know if there are aspects of their identities that other quench bloggers or readers have noticed themselves not talking about, and also interested in how your religion, religious background, or lack there of interacts with your activism and how you relate to religious activists [like me]. For example, how did you feel when reading this post? Would it be better if I just kept my religious views to myself?)


Richard M. Juang said...

I thought this was one of the most moving progressive Christian statements I've read. As well as intellectually sound.

It's progressive, not least of all because you affirmed the possibility that I, as someone who grew up quite outside of belief structures that were labelled Christian, could share in and communicate about Christian values (the commitment to social justice and equality) without:

implying that I therefore must BE a Christian or would be better off if I were a Christian...

or implying that I have to concede Christian theology and practices to be "the best" in the world or in my life.

It's an elegant statement of principles. Wow.

aurora said...

Thanks for posting this. I've had a Quench post floating around in my head for the past few months that touches on a similar subject; maybe I'll actually write it now :)

I feel very much in the same position (with Judaism, though.) It frustrates me that religion is so often associated with conservatism or with irrationality. On the one or two occasions over the past few years that I've talked about my religious beliefs, people seem surprised at what I have to say. So, I get embarrassed and just don't talk about it.

It's funny in that way. I feel completely open talking with most people about my experiences with sexuality, race/ethnicity, metal illness, and a number of other things, but I feel most defensive when it comes to religion.

...maybe it's because it's an identity (unlike the others) that people have control over?

entendante said...

(the title of this post feels very e.e. cummings to me, by the way: "something i have never quenched, gladly before ...")

I agree with Richard and Aurora that I'm glad you wrote this, and that you should most emphatically not keep your religious beliefs to yourself. At the same time - and this is absolutely my problem, not yours - seeing one's faith in Jesus invoked as a guiding principle in social action still does make me uncomfortable. I admit that I'm more used to seeing statements like that come from people whose social actions are likely to harm me, and that I have a learned negative reaction to Jesus-invoking that immediately makes me want to discount what the person is saying.

It's something that I think can only be helped by more Jesus-invoking in public discourse, though, rather than less. If only the crazies are willing to discuss the role of religion in their lives, then it's easier for the intellectually lazy or fearful among us (*raises hand*) to assume that only crazies act based on religion.

I do, though, believe religion in general to be pretty much irrational. I'm including my own religion in this - there is no good reason for me to believe that deities described in old bloodthirsty epics actually exist and participate in my life. However, I have this gut sense that they're there, and they do, and I have to shrug my shoulders at reason sometimes. And if I took my devotion to education and the written word and good-fight-fighting and explained them as forms of worship rather than good things to do in and of themselves, I'd probably expect to get weird looks. In fact, I have done so, and have gotten said weird looks, and have pretty much stopped talking about it.

Maybe that was the wrong response. Maybe, like you, I should be more open about my religious beliefs, in order to challenge the assumption that having them at all means I must be crazy or dumb. (Or, since I'm a Pagan, flaky and fluffy and out-of-it.)

emily2 said...

I am ashamed of the way that Christianity has been coopted by the conservative right in this country. I know that people associate Christianity with people trying to convert others without listening to them, respecting what they have to say, or taking them seriously. Conversions are used as sort of notches in someone’s belt – proof that they are true believers. And Christianity is used as a way to avoid logic and debate and to institute laws at national, state, and international levels that oppress people.

perhaps this could be a reason that sparks you to talk about your faith, to change people's perceptions of the christian faith. like those who have not been exposed to gays except when a television network shows the most thongy-thong guy gyrating on a pride float and who, based on the limited exposure, assume that all gays are oversexed exhibitionist libertines, maybe the reason why there is a perception that christians are like you described is that people like you are well... in the closet about christianity. perhaps simply by being yourself and speaking about christianity openly, you can help change the view of some who believe that christians are irrational, weak, or worse... closed-minded bigots.

you may experience hostility at first by some, but maybe you may change a few people's minds.

a second coming out, perhaps? :)

R said...

I've been trying to think of a way to explain why I still consider myself Christian (Catholic, even) and I think this sums it up nicely. Religion isn't inherently conservative, and I'm not convinced that it has to be inherently irrational, either - it can also function as a set of meanings and moral precepts that insist that social justice is important. The civil rights movement made a pretty powerful case for that approach.

wannatakethisoutside said...

oops, wrong thread.

tea cozy said...

for what it's worth, religion/belief are tough things to talk about for those of us without any, as well.

There are social circles (yes, even at Harvard), some of which I've kind of been in, in which it's absolutely assumed that you believe in God (yes, I meant to singularize and capitalize). Nobody has mentioned it in this thread, but I often feel as though there's this sense that believing in God makes you a bigger person, a more worthwhile and caring person, and probably a better person than your basic atheist.

As your basic atheist, I find that a little bit awkward.

Also, M.E., I don't think it's by any means only the "crazies" who invoke religion in general and Jesus in particular in public discourse (coughcoughBarakObamacoughcough). In fact, I think this whole thread is the product of an extreme microcosm: after all, according to the Harris Poll, 91% of americans believe in god(s)...and a few weeks ago, Rep. Pete Stark of California became the only member of congress and the highest ranking US official in history to admit to non-belief in God. (http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-na-atheist13mar13,0,7008061.story?track=ntothtml)

Anonymous said...

hey teacozy,

I didn't mean to imply that there are not social circles or indeed entire regions of the country where monotheism is basically assumed. (I've personally never lived somewhere where Christianity is assumed but I know there are a ton of places where that is the case.)

I guess it just seems to me that agnosticism is almost always assumed in activist groups I've been involved with. Of course, I could be wrong and it could just be that we speak where there is a common ground.

Anyhow, I am wondering if you could talk a little more about what this "better person" presumption thing is like. Both what it feels like and what specific sorts of situations create that. How can those of us who are at least somewhat religious best avoid being jerks? I'm just wondering if you have any ideas.

- WTTO (who is having trouble logging in)

tea cozy said...

hey wtto,

I've been thinking a lot about that last point, the "better person" presumption. Here's what I think I meant (and "better person" is definitely the WRONG word for it):

what I think I really meant to say was that some people who've "got religion" treat people who haven't got religion/God in the same way that some people who are in a relationship treat single people. That is, they don't act as though the atheist/agnostic/single person is a BAD person, just like they're not a WHOLE person. See what I mean? Like, if you don't have God/God's love/love/a significant other, your life is automatically presumed to be less fulfilling, less satisfying...? something like that?

Anonymous said...

The analogy actually makes a ton of sense.


Clara said...

By the same token, many non-believers treat religious people as if they are too gullible to be on par with them intellectually, and too absorbed by their god(s) to be genuinely open-minded. This perception of religious people used to bother me to no end, but now I realize that not being able to relate to an ideology is not a crime and is certainly different from discrimination based on identity.

I *do* believe that everyone will be better off if they believe that Christ is their savior, just as many of my friends believe that I should free my mind from the shackles of religion. These are awkward things to admit but they don't prevent us from respecting, loving, and learning from one another.

On a slightly different note: I've been asked before, "Do you think I'm going to hell because I'm not Christian?" And my response to that question elicits many different reactions. I tell them yes. I try to be as unsensational as possible, because I'm not judging one's worth or morality but simply explaining a consequence of what one chooses to believe. It's not that anyone deserves heaven less than Christians do; in the Christian logic, we all deserve hell, because it is the inevitable consequence of any life that is not 100% perfect. The central message of Christianity is that hell is avoidable by just believing in a perfect guy who died to save us, and that this loophole is available to absolutely anyone who is interested.
I usually follow up with this: "I love you and I want you not to go to hell so I want you to believe what I believe. But I'll love and respect you anyway, so don't convert on my account. Besides, if you don't believe the only real consequence is that you will go to hell, which you don't even think exists... so whatever."