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I have to second her question...

By prosey ~

I wrote this back in January, and on reading several different stories, decided to share it here. I have yet to write out my own story of loss of belief and I hope to get to that in the coming weeks - but for now, I'll offer a little something to contribute to this wonderful site in an effort to give back.

The original blog entry is called "I have to second her question...."

In Greta Christina's blog, the difficult yet appropriate question is asked plainly...

"Can Atheists Do Anything Right?"

She brilliantly points out the dichotomy framed by believers - that if we're angry, then according to believers, we're angry because "being negative and confrontational [...] that we're angry and bitter all the time because we have no hope of life after death." If we express joy and wonder about anything, or our hopes - we're hit with "failing to mention God when we do." Greta's pointed examples are Father Tim Moyle's asinine and ill-informed blog entry from last month as an example of the former...and Donald Douglas' supremely disgusting rant about Elizabeth Edwards' deathbed farewell statement - all because she didn't mention god.

Most people with whom I associate in the real world know where I stand. I am a joyful person, content with my life...possessing all sorts of wondering questions about the nature of the universe and the beauties of nature in all her splendor. I have a wonderful husband with whom I share life values, and with whom I walk this path of life...and we have three terrific kids who remind us that life is not all about ourselves and our own wishes and desires. We have friends who range the religious and political spectra - from devoutly religious (who tend to be hard-right conservative) to anti-religious (some moderate, some further to the left, and some downright anarchistic). Those people who we call friends don't judge us any more than we judge them...even the conservative religious ones who know us well. They may disagree with us, just as we with them - but mutual respect allows for friendship - since goodness knows there are oodles of things that are interesting conversation fodder outside of the "two big taboos" among "mixed company"...though anymore, the combination taboo has become the "gay debate"...*sigh*

I guess, for me, living in the South...having family from this part of the country (as well as having lived all over the country and having family scattered hither and yon)...I guess you could say I "understand" the mindset of certain folk. Further, having been brought up in an evangelical Christian church (yep - the ones who put da Fun in Mental), I actually do recognize and comprehend some of the modes of thinking with respect to nonbelievers. I suspect, though, that because I've lived in so many different regions of the U.S....and have traveled and lived abroad...and am now married to someone with a completely different background and point of view...that I'm no longer as easily able to simply say, "oh, that's just how they believe," and leave it at that.

In Greta's (as-always) fantastic blog entry, she points out perspectives from the "big world." Many of us can recognize the big world way of seeing things - many people are guilty of broad-brushing and stereotyping...and trying to force square pegs into round holes -- you know, pigeonholing people into a preconceived mental image held of the stereotypical archetype of one aspect of what that person might be. Christians aren't the only people guilty of that...and to be perfectly fair, I know plenty of atheists who do the same thing to believers. I guess that is one of the lesser traits of the human animal. Sigh. One of the images, though, in Greta's blog jumped out at me, and I had to laugh...even while I cringed inwardly at the belief held so strongly by certain members of specific denominational faiths...because it's no joke - they really do believe it.

For my fellow nonbelievers, how does that make you feel - knowing you "don't exist" -- or for their purposes you don't? They really, truly, and sincerely believe that atheism is impossible. That our lack of belief is just a super-spy cover for anti-god...or something very similar to that. They cannot fathom people not believing they way they do - or at least believing in some god...even if it's the "wrong" one. Better to believe in the "wrong" one than to not believe at all...

While this may seem silly, or a joke worth laughing at (and to some degree, it still is)...for many of us, it really does hit really close to home.

For me, the dichotomy of "damned of you do, damned if you don't" runs along quite personal lines.

Looking at my mom, for example...which isn't easy to articulate simply because she is mentally ill...religion was and is something of a lifeline for her. I understand that now, but I didn't always. For her, the notion of a personal savior brings her enormous comfort, and I would never try to dissuade her of her beliefs. Her brother, my uncle - lol - actually believes, really and truly, that my lack of belief is somehow tied with her illness. He's not alone in that assertion either. Like so many who misunderstand (or simply DON'T understand) the nature of her illness - or any bona fide mental illness, for that matter - he has to have someone to "point to" as a cause for my status. Sigh. In creating a scapegoat, he fully dismisses my mom's condition as part of who she is, as a person with a chronic disorder - which I have never really been able to understand how people can do that. People don't pass some sort of character judgment on people with diabetes or certain types of cancer...but they're content to label mentally ill people as lacking in some sort of moral fiber. In my mom's situation, her illness is not genetic - though almost all families have some strains of illness in their lineage - my family just happens to have the visible truth of that living in current real time - not somewhere up the family tree. Mom was not born mentally ill, any more than Type 2 diabetics are born diabetic. Some time during her 30s, she went to a therapist on my dad's suggestion - to work out some of the memories from her childhood and adolescence that were deeply troubling to her - things that she had never dealt with...and to also deal with the death of her firstborn, which she still hasn't fully closed (and I don't believe is possible to close). Couple those inner hurts with a strong bent toward religious belief - to the point of dogma - and you have a cocktail from hell. When she went to the therapist, she was misdiagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic, and medicated accordingly. Never mind that her therapist committed suicide a month after diagnosing her...*meh*. Of course, paranoid schizophrenia, as anyone who has any active knowledge in sweetheart diagnoses can tell you, was used as a diagnosis for many people incorrectly (much as ADHD is a sweetheart diagnosis today and for the past 15 years or so)...and the aftermath of that is thousands of people dispensed heavy-duty psychotropic medications that are more powerful than heroine in some cases. Mother was on those meds for almost 18 years before a psychiatrist recognized that she was not, in fact, paranoid schiz. Trouble was, she had been on those meds for so long, there was no way she could ever fully come off of them. Her diagnosis is actually far more common among our population - by degree - and some never require medication...just a structured, organized schedule for daily living. Orderly.

I offer these details about my mom, not to put her on the spot, but to highlight that her condition is often used as a way to dismiss her fervent -almost zealous- religiosity. Do I think her condition contributes to how she approaches her belief? Yes. Do I think it's the sole source? No. Because see, my mother is not unintelligent - she is, in her way, quite brilliant. No...her beliefs spring from her early childhood - unrelated to her diagnosis. To hear her tell her story, she gave her heart to Jesus when she was but 5 or 6 years old...and has been "born again" ever since. For her, religious belief is an intrinsic, inseparable part of who she is. I hesitated for a very long time in telling her that I'm not a believer. Not because I gave a rat's ass about agreement or disagreement...but because I know that her belief is so much a part of her that for her daughter -her only living child- to be an atheist is almost physically painful for her. That said, she still can't really wrap her head around the idea. She believes ...really and truly... that because I grew up in the church that I'm "really a Christian...somewhere deep down" - and that someday, I'll "return like the prodigal son"....yes, she genuinely and sincerely believes that. She makes comments from time to time that remind me how desperately she believes it, too...usually when her medications are being adjusted and she's not feeling fully well. She'll say things like, "Honey, I know you don't pray...but could you just pray for me, your Momma?" ~ and it is sometimes enough to make me want to jump out of my skin. I'm less bothered by those occasions when I'm the only person she homes in on for proselytizing (since I grew up with it, after all) than when she tries to work the guilt-maneuvering with my kids...particularly the older ones. Oh, and how she works it. One thing about my mom's illness -and anyone who has lived or worked with almost any mentally ill or even senile dementia patients can attest to this- boundaries are invisible to most of them. Some of the details of those boundary violations aren't worth going into ...but each and every time there has been a boundary violation, it has been religiously motivated, and is tied somehow to my enforcing my personal boundaries with respect to myself and my children. Her reaction? Not related to her mental illness in any way, shape, or form...and she despises when I call her on it and hold her accountable for trying to manipulate her very real illness with her trying to assert her beliefs in god and whatever onto me through insidious means. She forgets...or takes for granted...that I wasn't raised by her, but by my dad...who was and is very good -expert, even- at those types of mind games, and that I can smell them like a fart in a car.

Which brings me to my dad. My dad (step-dad, mind...adopted me when I was a little girl...but he is my DAD ~ my biological father is an entirely different person and his story and place in my life are completely distinct from my Dad)...grew up Catholic. Mexican Catholic, more specifically. When he met my mom and me (I was about 4 years old or so...maybe almost 4) he was no longer a practicing Catholic - as he came from a much older tradition, when excommunication was still actively practiced. Understand, my dad is 18 years my mom's senior. Dad had been married previously, for more than 20 years, and had two adult daughters from his first marriage. When he & his first wife divorced, he was excommunicated. That said, much as he wishes to deny it, greater than 40 years of his life as a practicing Catholic -no matter how he disavows the ritualism in Catholicism- stayed with him in ways that I do not think he even recognizes within himself. He changed denominations - initially deciding on the pentecostal denomination favored by my mom. In the intervening years since their divorce, he has transitioned from pentecostal to a non-denominational church that holds similar evangelical/fundamentalist beliefs, but lacks those oddities of the Assemblies. When they divorced, I stayed with him. Too long a story to explain, but being raised by a single dad in the 80s - with all of the hyper-sensationalization of daycare centers and paternal pedophilia - was not easy. I was questioned by well-meaning guidance counselors on a semi-regular basis. The dynamics in my home were tumultuous - and sometimes physically abusive - but never sexually abusive. As an adult, I have a much better understanding of my dad...his childhood upbringing in the 1930s, how he was his father's literal woodshed whipping post...his belief in "spare the rod, spoil the child"...his 21 years in the military - before political correctness seeped into the military - instilling in him an extremely rigid definition of "order" - and with that definition, he ran the home. I was not to question his authority...ever. Thing is...and I've always found this interesting...he taught me how to think. He taught me the importance of questioning everything...challenging assumptions and trying to learn about subjects from all possible angles before drawing any conclusions or developing any opinions. The only thing I was not allowed to challenge was HIM. Today, I'm approaching 40, and he doesn't understand my lack of belief in his god. He teases me that, yes, he taught me how to think...but dammit, now I think all the wrong things... but underneath the teasing is a very deep-seated worry. Like my mom, he pushes - but he's more subtle about it. I know that for him this push comes from a place of fatherly love and I don't push back. Come to it, I rarely push either of my parents back for their blatant disregard and disrespect of my beliefs...because they *are* my parents. Siiiiigh.

All of that being said, and returning to the topic of Greta's blog...what comes to mind with my dad, in the sense of the dichotomy Greta an incident that happened about 5 or so years ago. A friend of mine -a fellow atheist- was working to gain admission to Oxford University. He was a basket case of nerves, and though I had no doubt he would get in (and he did...earning his bachelor's and master's degrees there), he was a wreck during the extremely competitive admissions' process. He went so far as to ask me, which gives an idea of his stress level at the time, to ask my Christian friends and family to pray for him...figuring ANY bit of anything from any source couldn't hurt. My dad's response? Absolutely not. Atheists are, according to my dad, beyond the prayers of the believers unless they acknowledge that there IS a god - one god - and that each and every one of us are subject to "HIM"... *heavy sigh* ...that was probably the first time I ever openly challenged my dad directly on the hypocrisy of being as the Christ, who walked with lepers, prostitutes, tax collectors...he didn't mix and mingle with the holier-than-thous...he knew that a word to the wise is unnecessary - and the same words fall on deaf ears when trying to reason with fools. He cared for everyone around him, with his singular commandment to his followers that people love one another and treat others the way we want to be treated - not the way we already have been treated. I let my dad know of his "missed opportunity", according to the same doctrine I was taught as a child - of the charge to Christians to minister to the unbelievers...and when I paraphrased Gandhi back to him, he hung up on me. *chuckle* So much for being "like Christ"... and I still have similar moments with him, when I want to throw the phone out the nearest plate glass window for the hypocrisy that he and my mother both are so plainly oblivious to. Yet...I leave it be. Dad is in his 80s, Mom in her late 60s...neither of them is changing, and it's not on me to challenge them to the point of pushing their faith. I do not believe in doing that.

Why? Have you ever watched the process of losing faith? I never really had faith to begin with, so for me, the loss of belief was painless...but for a person who holds their faith as precious, watching them lose that is profoundly terrible and heart-wrenching - and I respect others' rights to their beliefs and their faith - no matter how ridiculous I might find it.

Trouble is, the faithful, by and large, are incapable of reciprocity. They are incapable of mutual respect. They are incapable of seeing their own hypocrisy. In this respect...they are blinded by 'the light' of their all-consuming belief - and on the extreme end of their spectrum, they are (quite literally) willing to kill and die for it.

My parents would likely deny it...but under the surface, they agree with the shrilling harpie below, who (at the very least) is more open and blunt about her beliefs than the average so-called Christian...

Yep...I have some distinctly intimate perspectives on this subject...and yet I continue to live my life in truth and joy.

For my love of my parents, I keep still...but very few people outside of those two people are beyond that level of love and respect, and when I see the asshattery and douchebaggery conducted in the name of the Christ...through blatant cruelties...and through not-so-subtle dichotomies, I find myself admittedly frustrated and seconding Greta's poignant question.

...then I walk away to do other things that are in greater need of my immediate attention.