My last post was about the importance of religious tolerance. And I’ve written here before about the pain of disappointing family by coming out as an atheist. But there’s another big issue related to these topics that has been on my mind a lot lately: figuring out when it’s best to speak up about my opinions regarding religion and when it’s best to just keep the peace. Do you struggle with this too?
It’s a constant learning process for me, and I’m not sure there can be any overall rule that applies to every situation. It’s really a balancing act involving multiple values: I value truth and honesty, but I also value love, empathy, harmonious relationships, and mature restraint.
If I’m just talking with a casual acquaintance, there’s not so much of an issue; truth is unquestionably the more important value. But when it comes to people I have to live with and get along with—and especially family, with whom I am tied for life regardless of our religious differences—balancing truth and peace can be very tricky.
As I child, I took pains to hide my true feelings for the sake of preserving peace in my relationships. But that habit backfired when I grew up, of course, so I’ve spent the last several years working on claiming my own personhood. Now I absolutely do not want to squelch my own opinions anymore and brush them under the rug in order to keep things conflict-free, if fake.
But I’ve also now experienced the pain of letting myself get vexed and defensive and saying things I regret when a family member criticizes my religious beliefs, and this tells me that I need to find a middle ground between expressing my feelings and holding them in.
For example, once I listened silently to a relative for several minutes while she told me how sad it makes her that I’m not a Christian and that I’m going to hell. My temper started rising, and I began to think, Maybe by just staying silent, I’m betraying myself. By the time she concluded, saying, “I pray for you every day,” I was fully riled, and I spat back, “Well, you just do that.”
It wasn’t mature, and it didn’t accomplish anything except make me sound like a child—and feel like one, too. I wish I had been more gracious or at least stayed silent. In hindsight, staying silent was not, after all, an act of betraying myself, because I had already made my position known. If I had been restrained and gracious, it would have been rather an act of honoring myself and my position by a display of inner security and calm maturity. And it would have contributed to a more peaceful feeling between us going forward.
And while it was unpleasant to listen to her little sermon, the thing is, I have been in her shoes more times than I care to admit. When I was a Christian, I preached with fervent, evangelistic energy to strangers who ended up sitting beside me on planes, new kids who visited my youth group for the first time, and just about anyone else who came across my path—I even preached to my Christian friends about having better relationships with God. I was deeply misguided, but it was good that I meant to do to others, not harm. And that describes my relative’s intentions that day as well.
So when discussions about religion come up with family members and others who don’t share my views, the general approach I now aim to cultivate is one of self-control and wisdom. If they seem willing to actually listen to my words, by all means I will speak up and try to thoughtfully explain and discuss what I believe to be the truth. But when they just want to preach at me, I will try to listen graciously without lashing out.
And when it’s a matter of day-to-day, low-key interactions with family members and others who don’t share my beliefs but with whom I have to get along (for example, customers who leave my office saying “God bless you”), I think my best approach is to just not make a big deal out of our religious differences. Being “out” socially as an atheist is enough—I’m not going to hide what I believe, but I’m also not going to shove it in people’s faces like many Christians do to me. I will focus instead on relating to those around me with maturity and love.
And honestly, I think that if more atheists took this point of view, we’d have a better public image.
Can you relate to my struggles with this issue? Do you have any suggestions for me?
The shadows in the landscapes of our past
spawned explanation-stories; we survived.
But now that we are safe and fed, our eyes
can see that our old stories need not last.
Find new data, write a new story—or
try not having the answers at all. You
will be an Everest-scaler, one who
climbs beyond the average to find far more.
There is easy peace in knowing. To stay
on the old homestead is comfortable. But
to seek, explore, and question (you can come
back later, wiser) is the rich mind’s way.
I know I haven’t posted here for ages—I put this blog on hiatus while I focused on other projects. But lately this blog has been showing up again in my heart, nudging me to come back.
And now I want to share this amazing passage I found this morning while reading the journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson. He had such an incredible way with words and insights. I love this formulation of the contrast between wanting truth and wanting comfort (“respose”).
“There are two objects between which the mind vibrates like a pendulum; one, the desire of truth; the other, the desire of Repose. He in whom the love of Repose predominates, will accept the first creed he meets, Arianism, Calvinism, Socinianism; he gets rest & reputation; but he shuts the door of Truth. He in whom the love of Truth predominates will keep himself aloof from all moorings & afloat….He submits to the inconvenience of suspense & imperfect opinion but he is a candidate for truth & respects the highest law of his being.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson, journals, Dec. 26, 1835
Christianity and other religions have some serious advantages over atheism, including social acceptance (Emerson’s “reputation”). Another huge advantage is the comfort they are able to offer those who have lost a loved one. “He’s in a better place.” “She’s with her Savior.” “You’ll see them again one day.” Atheists can’t say any of those things. We have to simply bear our grief as best we can and support each other in entirely human ways.
Also, religion provides the very great comfort of certainty. The religious do not have to feel “the inconvenience of suspense,” the discomfort of not knowing the answers and feeling “afloat.” I couldn’t tolerate this very well when I first left religion. It was almost unbearable to have so many questions and things I didn’t know. But I got through it, and now I see that uncertainty is a necessary position when one’s goal is to live in truth.
Or, in the words of my all-time favorite quote (which is featured on the sidebar of this blog):
“One doesn’t discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.”
– Andre Gide, The Counterfeiters
This quote helped me gather the courage to leave the comfort and safety of my religious beliefs to ask “What if God doesn’t exist?”
It’s not as comfortable, but it’s always better to face an uncomfortable reality than to hide from it.
First, the essential story of the allegory (which appears in Book VII of Plato’s Republic) is told pretty quickly, so I’ll just type up the passage for you (translation by G.M.A. Grube, revision by C.D.C. Reeve). It’s actually kind of Matrix-y, come to think of it.
“Imagine human beings living in an underground, cavelike dwelling, with an entrance a long way up…They’ve been there since childhood, fixed in the same place, with their necks and legs fettered, able to see only in front of them, because their bonds prevent them from turning their heads around. Light is provided by a fire burning far above and behind them. Also behind them, but on higher ground, there is a path stretching between them and the fire. Imagine that along this path a low wall has been built, like the screen in front of puppeteers above which they show their puppets…
Then also imagine that there are people along the wall, carrying all kinds of artifacts that project above it—statues of people and other animals, made out of stone, wood, and every material…
The prisoners…in every way believe that the truth is nothing other than the shadows of those artifacts….
When one of them was freed and suddenly compelled to stand up, turn his head, walk, and look up toward the light, he’d be pained and dazzled and unable to see the things whose shadows he’d seen before…
And if someone compelled him to look at the light itself, wouldn’t his eyes hurt, and wouldn’t he turn around and flee [back to his chains]?…
And if someone dragged him away from there by force, up the rough, steep path, and didn’t let him go until he had dragged him into the sunlight… he would be unable to see…
He’d need time to get adjusted before he could see things in the world above….
He would infer and conclude that the sun…governs everything in the visible world, and is in some way the cause of all the things that he used to see.
When he reminds himself of his first dwelling place, his fellow prisoners, and what passed for wisdom there…he’d count himself happy for the change and pity the others…
And if there had been any honors, praises, or prizes among them for the one who was sharpest at identifying the shadows as they passed by…do you think that our man would desire these rewards or envy those among the prisoners who were honored and held power? Instead, wouldn’t he feel…that he’d much prefer to…go through any sufferings, rather than share their opinions and live as they do?
Consider this too. If this man went down into the cave again and sat down in his same seat…before his eyes had recovered—and the adjustment would not be quick—while his vision was still dim, if he had to compete again with the perpetual prisoners in recognizing the shadows, wouldn’t he invite ridicule? Wouldn’t it be said of him that he’d returned from his upward journey with his eyesight ruined and that it isn’t worthwhile even to try to travel upward?
And, [if he] tried to free them and lead them upward, if they could somehow get their hands on him, wouldn’t they kill him?”
Now, for a few reflections. The allegory provides an image anyone can use to illustrate the process of enlightenment—any kind of enlightenment. Plato is using it to describe the education-born enlightenment of a philosopher. I am using it to describe my experience of believing the religion I was taught all my life and then doubting it, learning about it, freeing myself from it, struggling through the adjustment process, and coming to see completely different explanations for what I observe and experience in my life.
Christians could use the allegory, too, to illustrate someone getting “saved” and learning to see everything from the Christian worldview. In fact, I once read a book that does just that: The Journey: A Spiritual Roadmap for Modern Pilgrims by Peter Kreeft. It portrays a seeker’s journey out of the cave of ignorance, step by step, meeting different philosophers along the way and having interesting, Socrates-style dialogues with them—until he reaches the last philosopher, in the light of the cave’s exit, who is Jesus.
The allegory, and indeed, the concept of enlightenment itself, carries an undertone of arrogance, but I think one can use the image and concept without arrogance by focusing on one’s own experience rather than on judging those who haven’t shared one’s exact same experience. Thus, I use the allegory in the spirit of personal enlightenment: my journey has been about chained thoughts; dark, winding mental passages; blinding light; and 360-degree perspective changes that companions from my past ridicule. So, I love Plato’s cave allegory because it puts a visual image on the story of my life.
Another transition I had to make after leaving Christianity was shifting from “eternity” thinking to here-and-now thinking. My old mental habit of thinking that this life was only a short passage to a heavenly one kept showing up in new places, and I’d realize, “Oh! I don’t have to worry about what some Judge in the Sky will think of me—this is my life, and I can have real reasons for what I do!…Oh! I don’t have to try to save everyone from some vague hellish fate, I can just focus on living my own life well!…” and so on.
I still sometimes find traces of that old indoctrination in unfrequented regions of my mind, and I have to remind myself that “Lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth…But lay up for yourselves treausres in heaven…For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6:19-20) is primitive thinking, hearkening back to ancient mythologies that gave people a sense of control over their difficult, unpredictable lives (“If we appease the God/dess So-and-so by doing such-and-such, we’ll get such-and-such”). We understand our world much more now (though there’s still much to learn!), and we don’t have to look to an imagined afterlife for hope and meaning, even though it is a comforting dream.
For people who base their beliefs on reason, a better comfort is available through the shift of focus from the vague, speculated unknown to the known here-and-now and the semi-controllable immediate future of our lives on earth. I’m a better neighbor, friend, and family member than I ever was as a Christian because my thoughts are freed from all that fogginess; I can finally see what’s right in front of me—whom I can help, what needs to be done, how I can be a better person, what my life’s purposes are, and so on. Everything is clearer!
I wrote this little verse (as a beginning of a song) to help myself when I was going through that transition intensely:
Do you remember that weird, quiet girl,
The one with her head in the clouds?
That girl was me, just a few years ago,
Till I started figuring out
That life’s not a test for a future unseen;
The life that means most is right now.
And I wrote this verse earlier this year, upon discovering traces of mythological thinking in corners of my mind:
This is my life, right now, right here—
not some far-off, shining sphere—
but this imperfect moment. So
I’ll let it be and hold it dear.
When I look back at my journal entries from my teenage years to my early twenties, I am saddened by the extreme self-denial I aspired to. I constantly berated myself for thinking about me instead of God in minor ways every day, confessing it remorsefully to God as sin (“pride,” “selfishness,” “anxiety,” etc.). This was because I took the Bible very seriously, and it said that I had to inwardly die so the Holy Spirit could live in me.
“For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live.” (Romans 8:13)
“Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. (Matthew 16:24)
That mindset of self-denial, sacrifice, and suppression has been a hard thing to shake off in my post-God life.
It hasn’t helped that my culture as a whole still absorbs a subtler version of this lie (though we’re definitely making strides out of it)—that it’s selfish and therefore wrong to think about what we need and want and to act accordingly. Women especially are sensitive to this lie by our nature.
The truth I’ve found out is that we MUST put ourselves first. I don’t mean to the exclusion of others or to excess, but women (as far as I can tell) are typically not prone to those errors. We are prone rather to try to be Superwoman and take care of everyone’s needs while running ourselves ragged and eventually burning out (and thus not being effective caregivers).
The Christian dogma of servanthood and selflessness harms us by encouraging this notion of sacrifice. It sure harmed me: that mindset led me into illness and misery, because, taken to the extreme, that mindset is essentially living suicide.
I’ve had to learn what is still far from intuitive for me (I’m going to quote from an earlier blog post here): Self-care is not selfishness. It’s the opposite. Selfishness is easy and lazy, and it demands care from other people. Self-care is difficult, like most responsibilities of adulthood, and it is kindness itself: when I take care of myself first, I’m then able to take care of others, rather than needing them to take care of me.
That’s what I’ve been trying to learn, post-God.
On a related note, I was recently talking with blogger Teal Tomato, who is in the process of “escaping the cave,” about the question of why being true to one’s self is important. I’ll repeat what I said there: Our happiness and mental health require a harmony between our inner feelings and our external circumstances. Any conflict there creates stress. But as far as it’s within our power to live in accordance with our inner selves, we need to do so, because it’s essential for living a healthy, happy life.
We’ve got to revamp our thinking!
Seniors at my Christian school were allowed to choose quotes and Bible verses to accompany their yearbook photos. I chose the following quote:
“Look around and be distressed.
Look within and be depressed.
Look at Jesus and be at rest.”
– Corrie ten Boom
You can see why I loved it, right? It neatly and cleverly encapsulated truths I believed as a Christian.
But now I can see through it.
Looking at what’s happening around us does not necessitate feeling distressed about it. This is one area in which Christians have the gloomier outlook, compared to secular humanists (of which I am one). Yes, news reports are often worrying, but there is plenty of good news to be heard as well, and I’m inclined to be encouraged and inspired by the efforts and breakthroughs of people working for good causes than to moan over all the bad things happening while longing for Heaven. We’re here, ya’ll, so let’s make our life on earth as good as we can while we can!
Besides, if you take the words literally, it’s hard to see that looking around leads to distress: when I look at the nature around me on my morning walk-jogs, I am filled with happiness and peace. But, Ms. ten Boom obviously didn’t mean it like that. …Still, the more I grow intellectually, the less I’m enchanted with overly simplistic quotes, whatever they’re about.
“Look within” / “Look at Jesus”
I know now that these are the same thing. Now, when I look within, I’m grounding myself in my priorities, my goals, my present needs, and my deeper desires and beliefs—and as a result I’m encouraged, not depressed, as my inner peace is restored. To cite that Emerson quote once again:
“Blessed is the day when the youth discovers that Within and Above are synonyms.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
Emerson himself wrote plenty of lines that were more rhetorical than rational, but these words, at least, seem to me to be right on target.
Human emotions are often complicated and, at least in my case, often physical in origin. It’s nice to think we can easily control and understand our moods by putting them into simple categories of causes like this quote does. But I’m wiser now, and I know that the fact that something is nice to believe doesn’t make it true.
I still sometimes feel sad that God doesn’t exist. But then I take a walk outside and remember all the good things (and people) in my life, all the growing I’ve done so far and the goals I have before me—all the things that I live for—and I’m happy again.
The title question encapsulates another big adjustment I had to go through after leaving my Christian faith. Ever since I’d been old enough to think that my life had a purpose, I believed, as I was taught to, that that purpose was to serve and glorify God. But suddenly there I was, mentally adrift in a sea of nothingness—and I couldn’t stand it. I didn’t know how to not live for a purpose.
So I created new purposes for my life, one after another, which I lived for with the almost same level of intensity I had put into glorifying God. The first purpose was to learn all I could, especially in regard to religions. Later I shifted to the life purpose of creating art that reflected on life and created beauty out of pain. Still later, I had a resurgence of my old missionary mindset, and I set my life’s purpose as nothing short of making a significant positive difference to the world.
Now, though, I’ve calmed down a good deal, and I’m able to think directly about having a life purpose, in the context of my new reason- and science-based worldview. As I see it, I exist because, not for: I exist because of the evolutionary and reproductive success of my ancestors (and parents); I do not exist for any certain cause (other than species survival, which is what underlies our motivation to reproduce). However, I also, like my ancestors before me, need motivation to keep living, working, and enduring pain. This is where my created and adopted purposes come in (I still hold those purposes I mentioned earlier, but now I view them more as “dreams” than as “purposes”), as well as the things and people I love in my life.
So what do I live for now, then? For my husband, my family, my friends, my cats, my writing, my learning, my leisures, and my dreams.
I have a poem for you again this week. I wrote it in a playful spirit, so there’s a lot going on with sound and pattern, but I also meant that to reflect the subject, which is the passionate rhetoric of a skillful preacher or evangelist.
To clue you in on the meaning of the last line: I was thinking about how I can learn some perspectives for fiction writing from evangelists’ skill of moving and manipulating their audience.
Ode to the Preacher
Oh Shaper of spirits, you lead our swings
from depths to heights. (But who shaped your feelings?)
We blaze and bend, until your sermon’s end.
The people—oh, the evil—ah, my sin!
Atonement, then, and joy! (What have you been?)
Souls surge, wits disappear, while we are here.
(Away, at work, I wonder—do you know
why you believe in this, but in that, no!—
and how you wield the power to make us yield?)
The pitch and toss made me ill;
I had to leave to breathe. Still,
Preacher, you instruct my quill.