Saturday, December 31, 2011

The road from Damascus

Recently, my blogging friend Roger Green took on a question I asked about irreligiosity (yes, I know that, technically, that’s not a word, but I think it should be). It was a fascinating post.

What struck me about it, though, were the similarities in our journeys. While his carried him back to Christianity, mine took me in the opposite direction—the road from Damascus, so to speak. So this post is, in a sense, a response to Roger’s.

I should begin at the beginning: I was, quite literally, brought up in the church, as I’ve mentioned before. My first decade (just under) was spent living next door to the church where my dad was the pastor. I was baptised there by my grandfather, also a Lutheran minister, who screwed up my name; maybe that should have been an early sign of things to come.

Just after Christmas when I was nine (I turned ten the next month), my family moved to a new town so my dad could take up a new position as pastor at another church. I was confirmed in that church and eventually taught Sunday School and was in charge of the acolytes (the kids who assisted at services—lighting and extinguishing candles, collecting empty communion glasses, those sorts of things). As a side point, I was in charge when for the first time girls were allowed to be acolytes; I was proud of that.

My dad had been diagnosed with diabetes toward the end of those years, and that and other problems led him to take early retirement for health reasons. The truth is, he’d also had enough of the crap of some of the parishioners who were in some cases going out of their way to make his life hell. There were a large number of people in that church who were, by any reckoning, “Christian” in name only. I was probably naive, but I never really knew such a critter existed until I saw it for myself at that church.

It was probably that experience that first made me pull the brakes a bit. At university, I attended the local Lutheran church a couple times, but they were extremely cold—even hostile—and not merely reserved as Lutherans so often are. The problem was that I was a university student and they were townies. The two did not mix. So, I gave up.

During my last full year, I experienced anti-gay discrimination for the first time, and at the hands of the religious. By that time I was part of what was then called the Gay People’s Union at my university, and we moved our meetings off campus (just) to the Methodist Student Union. This was a more comfortable venue for some of our more deeply closeted folks.

After we’d been meeting there for some time, the board of the facility expressed discomfort with us being there. They appointed a committee to talk to us before they made a decision, and somehow I found myself agreeing to meet with a relatively young member of their organisation (late 20s/early 30s, I’d guess). I had been out as a gay man only at most a few weeks (months at most) at this point, and mostly in the context of my university, but I found myself defending homosexuality as normal and natural and defending it as not being “sinful” or “against god”.

I apparently wasn’t very persuasive because the Methodists kicked us out. That was perfectly legal, of course: At that time, only the Illinois cities of Urbana, Champaign and Evanston banned anti-gay discrimination. The state wouldn’t follow suit for a generation. Still, I didn’t hold any real rancour against the Methodists, probably because I expected that kind of treatment from mainstream churches like them.

After university, I moved to Chicago to be somewhere where I could feel free and safe. I found a couple Lutheran churches that were “Reconciled in Christ”, which meant they welcomed gay people. And yet, neither church made me feel particularly welcome. So, I tried the gay Lutheran group, “Lutherans Concerned” (and that is such a Lutheran name!), along with other gay religious groups. They all left me cold, too, and I realised that whatever warmth I’d once had from religion was gone.

And that was it. There was no dramatic or sudden “de-conversion”, no crisis of faith, no dabbling with other religions—no event of any kind. For me, religion just faded away from disinterest. Meanwhile, my intellectual curiosity led me to read widely on religion, and much of that led me to doubt the historical accuracy of much of what I’d been taught and held to be true.

At the same time, the rightwing began to seize the name “Christian” only for themselves, and some Christian churches became openly embroiled in politics, fighting science, reason and even rationality (not to mention freedom and liberty). What little use I had for organised religion was killed off by the blatantly partisan and theocratic hubris of those people.

So today, I’m a strong secularist and usually refer to myself as a “non-theist”, which for me means that, based on the preponderance of evidence, there’s probably no god. I don’t consider myself an atheist, in part because I probably have more in common with agnostics, and because I’m open to being proven wrong through evidence. I’m certainly not an anti-theist, with the anti-religion fervour that implies (some atheists and anti-theists are inarguably aggressively anti-religion, and they annoy me as much as fundamentalist religionists do).

As I often feel compelled to say, I have no problem with people having religious beliefs or expressing them. However, I have a huge problem with them trying to force their religious beliefs on me. Similarly, because I don’t share their religious beliefs, I resent it when they try and force me to take part in a prayer or other religious ceremony or service in a public and secular setting, like a government meeting. To me, that makes no more sense than if we were all required to sing the national anthem of Benin before a public meeting here in New Zealand: That would be not only inappropriate, it would also be irrelevant and more than a little absurd.

In recent years, I’ve become a bit stronger in my language when discussing religion, and that’s largely because I’m just not willing to let the rightwing get away with their bullshit anymore. But in the past year or so, I’ve also called out the people who, in my opinion, are true Christians. Sometimes an outsider sees things those within cannot, and because of my background, starting with a childhood spent in the church, I consider myself amply equipped to form and express such opinions. Your opinion on that may vary.

The bottom line is that I’m not anti-religion, even though I have no use for it and often find organised religion to be a troublemaker or even my adversary. Similarly, I’m certainly not anti-Christian, and I can’t resist adding: Some of my best friends are Christian. Actually, that’s really true—why would I attack my friends?

I’ve never talked about all this on my blog or my podcast before, though I’ve mentioned bits and pieces. Truth is, I’ve always avoided it due to the unpopularity of the irreligious. It’s taken me several days to put this post together. But two things made me persist: First, this blog has been growing over the past year, and I believe honesty must be its foundation. I also admired Roger’s story in reply to my question, and I wanted to share mine, and how someone could end up heading in the opposite direction on that Damascus Road.

For anyone not steeped in Christian gospels (or mythology, if you prefer…), my mention of the Damascus Road is alluding to the story of the conversion of Saul of Tarsus, who became Paul the Apostle.


Roger Owen Green said...

Extremely interesting, Arthur. Thank you.

When I was a Methodist in the 1990s, I was pushing for more overt inclusivity in our church. This very nice church lady, now deceased, said, "oh, we already did that." It was a statement, a progressive one to be sure, 15 years or more earlier, before I was a member, and I found it terribly unsatisfactory, since one couldn't see any vestiges of it.

I must say my current church is WAY ahead of my old one. They've been doing the gay pride parade now for years, and given some of the crackpots who line the streets, it's still a bold stand, even if the parade has devolved elsewhere.

Oh, my grandfather always spelled my name as Rodger. Always.

d said...

I grew up in the Episcopal church, and it was ok enough. I never had my heart into it, but I did like the community of it all.

I got away from religion for a bit, especially in college and remembering having fights with my college boyfriend (and presumed future husband) about whether our future children would be raised in the church. He didn't go to church, but he wanted to if there were children in the picture. *shrug*

Years later, I accidentally dated a "born-again" Christian. (Accidentally, as he didn't mention it until *after* we had slept together - less than a week after meeting.) He was so adamant about his beliefs, I decided to study the bible again. It just put me off more and more as I couldn't make sense of it until eventally I couldn't tolerate any discussion of religion.