Monologue or Dialogue?

Discussions are two-way, usually. Debates are between two people that state their point of view and there is little attempt to understand the other side. The goal is to best them, verbally. Dialogues, on the other hand, are different. There is still the exchange of viewpoints, that there may be intense disagreement on, but there is more emotional intelligence involved.

There was an ongoing discussion between a Christian family member and I about my changed religious views. My goal was not to convince them to change their minds, but I thought it might be helpful for them to hear about my experience in order to better understand why I left Christianity. Hearing or reading about the experience of atheists you do not know is one thing. But hearing about that experience from someone close to you, is another.

However, the discussion isn’t going anywhere.

We both accept that the other person isn’t going agree with some of the statements we make. That’s good. But I can’t seem to break through the assumptions on their part that I am in “rebellion against God”. They also seem to be mostly interested in a monologue-type conversation (which isn’t a conversation at all): they say what they want, with little to no response from me. Unless my response is “You’re totally right” and I re-dedicate my life to Christ. There is also little understanding that their point of view about God and Christianity, was exactly my own point of view when I was a Christian. Hence, I am quite intimate from where they are coming from, but they seem to think I do not understand at all (even after I expressed that I did).

So on that note, I will more than likely drop the conversation. To be fair, I think they want to have a discussion…or think they should want to have one (you know, defending the faith and all), but it’s too much work. Responding to theological questions, many of which don’t have a clear answer, is time consuming. Frustration on their part sets in, there is lots of talk about their faith being strong and they wonder what the point of the discussion is. Perhaps I have a need or an agenda and not quite sure about this atheism thing, hmm?

I think discussions are always worthy. But not when empathy and compassion for people is not present. And when talking with some religious people, that is how it goes. There is more concern for the feelings of a invisible entity you cannot see, hear or feel, than for the person standing right in front of you.

Thoughts on ritual and mythology

I’ve been having a  discussion with a Christian family member about my atheism and trying to give them a clearer picture of what led me away from Christianity in particular, and then away from religion in general.

A lot of topics came up from this discussion and I plan to blog about a few of them that I have extended thoughts on. The first is the role of ritual in religion.

Relationship vs. religion

One common explanation from Christians about why their faith stands out is that Christianity is not about religion. It’s about a “relationship” with Christ. I used to think that made sense. But now, looking back, I think it’s a way to make your brand of Christianity stand out from other religions or denominations. It’s also a tacit acknowledgement that something is “off” with the rituals, rules and rigidness of traditional Christianity. This blog post from 3-D Christianity talks a little about that. In it, the writer points out that this viewpoint creates a false dichotomy that is made to point a judgmental finger at other denominations (particularly Catholics).

But what is most interesting, is an essay the 3-D Christianity blogger cites that talks about what that writer, John Suk, believes are the secular roots of the “relationship with Christ” viewpoint (read that essay here). He is very understanding on why people talk this way, but asserts that there is no Biblical basis for the idea of a “personal relationship” with Christ and that the phrasing actually causes confusion with both believers (who may feel they are not having as authentic an experience as their peers and suffer anguish over it) and non-believers (who won’t find any difference between this “relationship” with Jesus and spirit channeling) alike. Ironically, he blames “the pervasive influence of the language of secularity” on the metaphors comparing Jesus/God to a friend, parent or lover.

However, he says what causes the creation of these metaphors are the reality of feeling the absence of God and realizing, if just briefly, that the experience is not at all like when you spend time with a person you can see, touch, hear and feel. He suggests not ignoring that reality, but confronting it by seeing oneself as part of a larger whole and not focusing on the “personal” aspect. I am paraphrasing here, but be sure to read his essay to get the full picture of his points.

Myths and ritual

I think it’s a true observation that Catholicism is very heavy on ritual and rules, but that is hardly something that is  indicative of Catholics. All religions have had and still have certain ways in which they choose to worship and express themselves, largely based on tradition. However, it is a tradition that is very, very old, and often from a culture that is no longer with us or that has changed drastically. So is ritual and myth empty? I think the answer is both yes and no. Rituals, stories, myths and traditions start to feel inauthentic after a while when (after the emotional high has ceased) those things are not relevant to your life or culture. So trying to adhere to rules and norms created by people that lived many thousands of years ago is, to say the least, awkward.

James Campbell talks a lot about the role of myths, rituals and traditions. In this interview, he says “mythology is a validation of experience.” He offers the Jesus story as an example: he was crucified, buried for three days, rose from the dead and then rose back to heaven. Campbell points out:

“[We] know that going at the speed of light they would not be out of the galaxy yet. And you know what it means for a physical body to go up into the stratosphere.”

Of this, he says that image does not fit the contemporary mind, because of what we now know about the universe, saying:

You’ve got to translate these things into contemporary life and experience. Mythology is a validation of experience, giving it its spiritual or psychological dimension. And if you have a lot of things that you can’t correlate with contemporary nature, you can’t handle it.”

Campbell suggests “mythologizing” what we know today scientifically, so we can “validate our experience”. Part of the problem, as he saw it, are that humans need new myths. They need to be able to relate to a tradition or story. The superheroes of comic books and cult phenomenons like Star Trek might seem trite, but they are no different than the stories about Zeus or Poseidon. What is different, is that we can relate much better to the adventures of Captain Kirk or the X-Men, than we can to some ancient Greek (or Hebrew) god. These contemporary stories reflect our knowledge of the universe and what we can imagine being possible with space travel and natural explanations for extraordinary abilities (e.g., a genetic mutation).

So, I think stories, myths and rituals are good for us. The challenge, is taking what is useful and educational, without a belief in the stories being literally true, especially where there is every indication that it is not. Also, we need to resist the urge to go overboard in systemizing beliefs.


Introducing the subject of religion to kids

I grew up going to a mostly African-American Baptist church, was baptized at a young age and all I knew was that Sunday was for Sunday School and then church service. It of course never occurred to me that by the time I became a parent, our Sunday mornings would be a whole lot different.

My journey towards atheism started when my oldest son was a baby, after round of Bible studying, during long stretches of sitting while breastfeeding. At that point, we were living in a new state, were still trying to find the “right” church and I felt at some point, I need to be sending my kid to Sunday School. Or something. Right? Well, as most atheists can attest to, reading the Bible, with no filters (aka, Bible study books), real objectivity and an open mind, is the straightest path to atheism. By the time I accepted that I was an atheist and embraced secular humanism, I had kid #2. Fortunately, my DH and I were on the same page.

Now with a 5 year old and a 2 year old, I’ve recently begun thinking about how we will introduce the subject of religion to them. They have seen people pray over food and has heard my mother say, “Oh, Lawd!” at one of their funny antics. That pretty much sums up their religious exposure. But they will get older. They might hear one or both of their grandmas talk about God or Jesus. They could hear about the concept of hell. I don’t want them confused or frightened when these topics come up.

So, I’ve decided to get a Children’s Bible. Kids love stories and mine are no different, so why not just read them Bible stories? Except I am not burdened with the task of convincing them that any of the stories are true. We can freely critique them; laughing at the absurdities, rightly judging good or bad behavior of the characters (including God), or acknowledging a moral action. And if they don’t like the stories, we can stop reading.

I’ll be very interested in hearing my children’s honest impressions of these stories. In your secular family, if you read some Bible stories to your children, what did they think of them?



Letting children go to church with strangers

Ask an Atheist is a local (Pacific Northwest) radio show out of Lakewood, Wa. I listened to one of their most recent episodes in which the topic was parenting and atheism. They brought up the issue of allowing, as an atheist parent, your child to attend religious services.

My take is the same as one of the hosts (who is currently raising a child): I do not mind my child attending a church service with a trusted family member or friend, provided my child wanted to go. But sending my child off to church with people I do not know is unacceptable. Yet, I was reminded by the conversation during the show, that this is pretty common place.

The same host described this situation that happened to her: her son plays with a neighbor girl in their apartment complex regularly. One Saturday, the girl’s mother, whom she had never formally met, asks to take her son to an event “tomorrow morning”. She had to drag it out of her that this event was church.

The host said she had two issues: 1) not being up front about where she was asking to take her son, and 2) considering that they were barely acquainted, leaving her out of the invitation and only inviting her son.

A caller recounted a similar situation with her daughter, but it was much worse. Every Sunday, a van would come to the caller’s complex to pick kids up and take them to a local church. When asked by a neighbor why she didn’t allow her daughter to go, she said, “I don’t know anyone at this church or where they are going.”  The neighbor is shocked and says, “But it’s a church!” As if bad things don’t happen to children at church.

The church where I grew up used to bus kids (in a van) from a nearby housing project to attend Vacation Bible School during the summers. While some parents might have had friends or relatives that were familiar with our church (or perhaps even attended a service themselves), I know there were some that knew nothing much about us. And they, I believe now in retrospect, carelessly let their kids go to a strange place with adults they never met.

It is striking, the assumptions we make culturally, when any event is associated with a religious organization. This can be very dangerous, especially when it comes to children’s safety.