Monday, June 18, 2012

Sadness Ensues

So, there I was, standing on the front lawn under my stinky pear tree, shooting the breeze with the nosy but nice enough neighbor, when it happened.

We were discussing universal health care-type schemes, and I related the story of Harvey, a college acquaintance and staunch Republican who had once told me, in the heat of debate, that poor people who cannot afford health care "deserve to die." Of course, Harvey's employer provided his health care. Harvey's parents scraped to pay his tuition. Unlike little ol' me, who was working two jobs and never had so much as a dime of parental tuition assistance. I also didn't have insurance. A year or so later, I saw Harvey again. His circumstances had changed just a bit--you see, he'd lost his job, lost his insurance, and was thinking of heading down to the local low-income clinic to treat his nasty case of bronchitis. At this point in the story, my neighbor nodded vigorously and said, "Yep, it's just like those damned dirty atheists! They're such cowards, think they can live life like it's a party, denying GAWD'S law, and then cry for forgiveness on their death beds! NO FORGIVENESS! NO! It's too damned late! Shoulda thought of that BEFORE, now shouldn't you have?"

That was my moment, you know? That was the moment when I could have said--I SHOULD have said--"Sonya, I'm an atheist. So is my husband, so is my son." But I didn't. I saw the hardness in her eyes, the angry, hateful curl of her lip, and I kept my mouth shut.

I'm not proud. Good thing I'm not Christian or Muslim, 'cause I'd have failed at that whole "martyrdom" thing. In that split second, I decided that keeping the peace with an otherwise friendly neighbor was more important than standing up for myself and those like me. It's not the first time I've backed down, or, more accurately, I've failed to rise up. Sadly, it likely won't be the last. You see, only fat folks and atheists are still fair game--it's perfectly okay to hate us. Fat I can't hide, but atheism I can. Often I don't. But sometimes I do. I feel helpless to do anything else.

Religious folks don't think atheists understand persecution. They don't think we "get" what it's like to be punished for an ideology. Which is hilarious, really, because they're the ones doing it, all the while crying that any attempt to keep them from legislating their faith or forcing it into the schools willy-nilly is "discrimination." Gimme a break, you don't know the meaning of the word. You haven't had a President of the United States of America say that he doesn't think YOU can really be an American (thank you George Herbert Walker Bush). You haven't been held in contempt of court for refusing to swear on a holy book you don't embrace (and before you snot off about "stop whining and just do it," ask yourself if you'd put your Christian hand on a Q'uran or your Muslim hand on a Torah to swear an oath). No, our courts aren't SUPPOSED to smack atheists for refusing to swear on Bibles, but it doesn't keep some judges from doing exactly that.

Back when I was in college, I took a Child and Family course from a woman named Brenda. She's dead now, so I could use her entire name, but why? One day, Brenda brought up her very favorite developmental theory: Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Development. For those not familiar, the gist is that there is a hierarchy of moral levels, progressing from self-driven, urge-satisfying processes through morality as a result of fear of punishment/promise of reward, and finally on to moral behaviors borne of a true desire to better the world and serve mankind. That's just a rough summation. Brenda announced to the class that atheists cannot reach the higher "post-conventional/developed conscience/ethical universality" stages because a belief in an all-powerful deity is required.

I was 26 years old, and it was the first time I ever "outed" myself. The funny part? At the time, I didn't "self-identify" as an atheist. I still thought of myself as something of a believer. But her assertion was crap, and I knew it for what it was the moment she spat it out there. My hand shot up and I said, "But Doctor S., if we assume that Kohlberg is correct, then what is religion, if not a lower level of morality, one driven by fear of punishment and promise of reward? I mean, doesn't religion represent the very pinnacle of looking to an ultimate authority for guidance and obeying laws based upon fear of punishment and hope for reward?"

Oh, gosh. See, sometimes college isn't really college when you live in Utah. Sometimes it's more church.

I was immediately called to the carpet, dressed down in front of my classmates, and told just how "disappointing" my PROFESSOR found me. Imagine, if you will, a CHRISTIAN being treated the same way in a class. How many minutes do you think would pass before the first attorney called the school? Not me, though. When Brenda suggested that perhaps the class and I were a "poor fit," I took the cue and dropped the course. I managed to fulfill my minor without any more courses from her, but understand that, until that sad day, she'd been one of my favorite professors, and I had been one of her "pet" students. I'd had half a dozen courses from her before, and always aced them.

I was going to say that my atheism ruined all that, but that's neither fair nor true. My atheism didn't ruin anything. Instead, her nasty, prejudicial ideas about my atheism ruined everything. I wonder, did she grade other non-Christian/non-Mormons unfairly, too? Or was she okay with any deity, so long as there was one?

Anyway, back to my neighbor. I let the moment pass--moments, actually, since she went on and on about those dirty, cowardly atheists. I kept thinking that surely she must see the look on my face, see the shock and the sadness, but I don't think she did. I think she was so caught up in her righteous little whirlwind of hate that she completely missed how hurt I was. The funny thing? I had outed us just the night before to one of my son's friends. The boy (who had seemed a nice kid--more on that later) was trying to describe someone in very negative terms, and one of those was, "and he's an atheist." Without even thinking, I said, "So are we." Of course, now I'm worried about that. What if I've screwed my boy up with his friends? Sure, he needs to learn that people who won't tolerate difference or diversity don't make good friends, but at 14 years old, that's a really painful lesson, and it's one I don't want him to learn the hardest of ways.

Believers often say that atheists are lazy. We're "taking the easy way out." That, without the Bible (or Q'uran, or Torah, or what have you), we can't possibly know right from wrong. But this isn't the easy way out. No, not by a long shot. This is, in fact, the hard way, because we don't have some promised afterlife to make up for the crap that happens here. We don't have some invisible authority to grant us forgiveness when we screw up or do wrong. We don't have that comforting fairy-tale of a life ever-after. No, this is it. This is what we have, and we have only this time to make good or bad of it. We treat people kindly because it's what's good for all the world, not because we're afraid we'll be punished. We do charity work and donate to worthy causes because we want to help humanity, not because we think someone up above might be keeping score.

And Sonya? She will probably never know that I'm an atheist. Maybe I should step up and use myself as a educational tool, but you didn't see her eyes. You didn't hear the disgust in her voice. Maybe I should lay myself out there on the altar of teaching, but I probably won't. I'll likely just keep to myself, and Sonya will, perhaps, wonder why the friendly woman next door suddenly became a bit distant--nice, polite, but no longer looking like a potential close friend. And maybe that means I am, in fact, a coward, though of a different variety. I don't know.

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