my struggle with tolerance
January 12, 2011 § 1 Comment
I’ve been thinking about bullying lately. My father recently discussed his experience with bullies as a child in his blog, which just happened to coincide with bully-themed conversations on NPR and SmarthMouths (a sadly now-discontinued podcast). I kept thinking about my own experience in school, struggling to recall a time when I had been bullied. Coming up with nothing, I tried to remember any stories my friends might have mentioned when they were bullied, but still I couldn’t come up with anything. I had many friends in elementary and middle school, and I was extremely privileged to go to an arts high school, where being gay was cool and wearing a cape to school was normal. Not that bullying didn’t go on in our school–it most certainly did–but it was on an intellectual platform, not a physical or purely social platform. The few kids who were bullied were conservative and religious, and although I don’t recall anyone confronting them outside the classroom, in class they endured intellectual bullying simply for being “close-minded” or “ignorant,” as seen from the rest of the class’s point of view. Although I feel some remorse for how those children were attacked, I still feel that we were right and they were wrong and that they should have benefited from us trying to open their minds to our “liberal” ideas.
While brooding on this on my walk to work, it hit me. That moral and intellectual high ground I feel when thinking about those kids who I helped bully in high school actually repressed my own memories of being bullied by conservative, religious children. To be honest, I was quite shocked that I never labeled it as bullying. In high school I referred to it as “social ostracism,” which is of course an applicable term but is also revealing of why I was bullied in the first place. My only personal experience with being bullied is with Christian youth groups (if not Christian churches as a whole–I feel confident the adults bullied me or socially ostracized me as well) which may have some influence on my personal feelings towards Christianity. In contrast to the bullying of my high school, the bullying I endured was not intellectual at all, but instead was simply a knee-jerk reaction to me being different. More than that, I’m sure, I think their reaction was so strongly negative towards me not just because I was different but because I thought I was better than them FOR being different. I think that’s precisely the reason why it took me so long to acknowledge my own experience being bullied, because I disregarded those years as I grew older because I still think I’m better than them.
I bring up these tales of bullying because I want transparency in this entry. I have personal negative experience with Christianity which may have an influence on how I feel about Christians and being Christian, so I want it out on the table. That said, I do not think I would feel differently had I not been “socially ostracized” by Christian groups.
I didn’t always have the strong aversion to Christianity and people who identify themselves as Christians that I do today. I quite enjoyed church as a child (not that I always went, cause I certainly didn’t). Mostly I just liked singing hymns and listening to my dad preach. He’s always had a knack for making bible stories seem simple and relatable, and he never read his sermons, something I appreciated so much more when I realized how many other pastors do read their sermons. He was a refreshing change from the pastors who spend 45 minutes yelling at the congregation, spitting out images of fire and brimstone. Thankfully, my experience with Southern Baptist preachers were limited, since I only went to those churches the few times of year that my time with my grandmother would fall on a Sunday. As a child, I loved the idea of heaven and strongly hoped that God was that charming fatherly figure who would love me no matter what and who always had his eye on me. I don’t think I ever believed in hell, mainly on the basis that I couldn’t reconcile the “God loves everyone” sermons with the “if you do X, Y, or Z you’re going to H-E-L-L” threats. I think that was the first “red flag,” so to speak, of my happily church-less future. I think I confused wishing with praying, too, as a child. I talked to my fatherly God all the time, when I was at home in my room, on a walk in the woods, or riding in the car with my parents. When I “prayed” I was always wishing for something, for a pony, for a boy to ask me to the dance, for me to get an A on the next test, always with the faith that someone was listening. I did eventually get a pony, many boys asked me to many dances, and I got A’s on many tests, but at some point my little child brain realized there was a disconnect.
I really resent the phrase “she lost her faith” because it seems to suggest that there’s something to be mourned, that faith is the most important thing and that now I am less of a person because I don’t have it, some pitiable wretch destined to wander lost in the woods until God touches me to be saved. Again, I resent that. I’m not even sure it’s relevant in my case because I’m not totally convinced I had “true” faith to begin with, if there is such a thing. When I look back on it, on how I felt as a child when I thought about God, it seems to be on par with “faith” in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. I think I stopped believing in God when I stopped believing in Santa. That doesn’t deny the fact that at some point in my early life I did genuinely believe they existed, certainly that’s true, but I think that that is a very specific kind of faith that can only apply to a child. Why is it acceptable for adults to stop believing in Santa but not stop believing in God?
Let’s keep with the Santa-God belief comparison, since I think that will help me express how I feel about Christians and Christianity. I never “lost my faith” and I am not some pitiable wretch wandering lost in the woods. I am a critical thinker who has searched my feelings and my thoughts and have come to the conclusion that God cannot and does not exist. I consider it a natural progression for a young intellectual and I would not be surprised if every one of my peers and the children of the future generations come to the same conclusion. I consider myself a realist. None of my friends are particularly religious. Most are agnostic or atheist, and the few who go to church only go when their parents invite/force them. I like that they are not religious, I like knowing I can talk rationally with them about anything, that we won’t run into the wall of “this is what I believe” when we should be talking about “this is what I think.” I feel relieved when I talk to people who are atheists. There are no walls, no discrepancies, no “the Bible says this so I can’t accept X, Y, or Z.” It’s like sanity is restored.
Let’s talk about that sanity. As I said before, I’ve always been a critical thinker. In college, I majored in Religion (along with Art History, which people always seem to be baffled by but anyone who has been to a museum or taken a class in the subject(s) can CLEARLY see why they relate). Although studying Religion academically had very little effect on my own lack of religious beliefs, I did become increasingly baffled by how my classmates could study their own religions yet still remain committed (no pun intended) and faithful to that religion. The more I studied, the more fictional and political religions as a whole became, but especially Christianity, which I studied in greater depth than the others. Let’s connect the fiction of Christianity with the fiction of Santa Claus. Both to me are complex, with long, bloody histories that incorporate multiple cultures, figures, and beliefs, to form what they are today. If we as a collective society saw an adult who still believed in Santa Claus we would have that uncomfortable moment of considering the mental stability of that person, wondering if perhaps they are mentally handicapped, restricted to the psyche of a child. Similarly, when someone says “I’m Christian” I have this automatic cringe of “what’s wrong with your brain?” I don’t understand how it is unnatural for an adult to believe in Santa but not to believe in God and I can’t help but automatically think that there’s something wrong with them in the head. To take it one step further, when I meet people who have studied religions academically who still believe in God, I can’t help but think they have emotional issues as well, which is the only way I can account for the obvious mental disconnect between knowing the history of your religion and choosing to still be a constituent. I respect atheists more than the casual religious person because I honestly think that atheists are smarter.
This in itself is not a problem for me. My problem is my increasing inability to tolerate religious folk. As I become increasingly interested in what’s going on in my local and national political arenas, I see how often Christianity is brandished as a weapon or how its belief system throws up a brick wall within those arenas. It’s absolutely infuriating. But I can’t rally against those people because my very own family is utterly entrenched in Christianity. I need to develop a tolerance for Christians because it will make me so much happier (or at least make me far less angry) and will allow me to interact more comfortably and honestly with my family (or so I hope).
Besides the fact that I think they must be mentally crippled or emotionally compromised in some way, I find it hard to define exactly what bothers me so much about them participating in the greater institution of Christianity. I don’t mind personal spirituality so much, I think it can bring peace to many people and help improve the lives and minds of those in unfortunate circumstances. I envy spiritual people and their seeming inner peace and connection with the universe. I probably have a naive view of it anyway. Back to the greater institution of Christianity…
I remember the last time I was in church vividly. I went to hear my father preach at some tiny church in some tiny town in the middle of nowhere in Alabama. I knew what to expect, that predictable Southern greeting of “Well how are YOU?” and the “your daughter is so pretty!” which I’m pretty sure is just another way of saying I’m young. They always follow up with “We’re SO glad you could be here with us today.” Mom and I sat together on the predictable wooden, straight-backed pew, that creaked when we sat down. Mom sat on the aisle, I sat on the window side. They were simple windows, tall and then, unstained and unglazed. They are probably opened in the summer time, since it’s cheaper than a/c. I remember sitting there wondering what Dad would be preaching about, but as the service wore on, I remember feeling strained, anxious, and almost claustrophobic despite the congregation barely filling up 1/5 of the pews. I remember feeling desperate and panicky, and I envisioned jumping out of the window multiple times, simply to get out of there. Believe me, I don’t feel this way often. The last time I felt that way was almost ten years ago, on a camping trip. I remember feeling the same blind panic when confronted with two rocks, pressed closely together, that the trail we were following went through. Everyone else passed through without a second thought, squeezing through the pass without hesitation. I stood, a few yards away, nearly in tears and frozen in the face of a path I absolutely did not want to follow. If my memory serves correctly, I could have simply walked all the way around the rock outcrop to avoid the narrow squeeze, but instead I tried to force myself to confront my claustrophobia. The parallel seems strange and I can’t fully understand why I felt the same in church as I felt on the trial, but the feeling was unmistakable. Church services, at least in white churches, are suffocating in their dry traditions. Honestly, when viewed from the outside, their rituals are downright creepy and should be outdated, as far as theology is concerned when looked at historically. I can’t understand why people want to subject themselves to such dry, uninspiring, eery experiences week after week. That also sends up a red flag for me, about their emotional and mental stability.
When looked at from a very specific perspective (which has been repeated to me from my father in defense of Religion), churches and other religious institutions offer a certain stability to society. It helps bring people together, form communities, and lead to social work. These are all good things. But. And there’s always a but. But hasn’t our society moved beyond the need for these social structures to be based on Santa Claus-like fictions? I am worried that churches help keep archaic belief systems alive, when we as human beings should be able to move past this. When people say “I am a Christian” I feel such a discomfort, quite similar to how one feels when a friend justifies her abusive boyfriend’s behavior. They constantly lie to themselves to make them feel better or to justify the injustice in the world, and that I cannot ever be comfortable with. Why not join a Zumba class to better yourself and be a part of a community? Or join non-profit or volunteer groups? I feel like we should be beyond using religion as an excise to further community.
Let’s talk about furthering community, which is part of the reason I wish to be more tolerant of religious people. My family is a huge part of it, one that I don’t think I’ve emphasized enough in this entry. I love my family more than anything and I hate thinking that I’ve lost respect for them because of what they choose to believe. I hate cringing every time they pray over dinner or put out requests for prayers for something or someone (I see prayer as an entirely selfish endeavor, selfish in that you’re too lazy to do things for yourself but also selfish in that you think God will interfere in the world to satisfy what you think you need). I hate losing respect for the ones I love. My need for tolerance goes beyond that, though. I listen to NPR on a daily basis at work, a solid 8-hr stream of how the world is all wrong and how humans are tearing each other apart. NPR has made me want to be better, to make the world a better, safer, happier place. An impossible task, and one I will be dwelling on in a number of entries in the future, but one that requires a tolerance of religious people. I feel like I have a healthy and happy acceptance of most cultural differences and generally of most religions, but I feel like Christianity most negatively impacts world issues, and it will require a lot of tolerance and understanding in order to make a difference. My biggest hurdle is tolerance of Christianity and I hope I learn it, for my sake, my family’s sake, and for the world’s sake. After all, the world can never have too much tolerance.