Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Dictionaries, Textbooks, and Diaries.

This little state I love has been a hotbed of activity for religious and spiritual clashes for sometime. It’s a strange cognitive dissonance that keeps me here, happy, and angry amidst all the turmoil. I know it didn’t begin with me, and I strongly suspect it won’t end with me, but it will continue with me.

The story of my loss of faith has largely been told elsewhere, but the story since then has changed as much as the spiritual landscape I see around me. In the early days of my newfound skepticism, I found a number of prime examples of intolerance. I was told “all you atheists ought to be rounded up and put in the gas chamber,” I was not-so-politely asked to leave the room/state/this mortal coil, and I was told by people I liked that they were disappointed in me. The awful treatment by (few and select) friends and family, though less plentiful and severe than I anticipated, was probably the hardest part of the process. There are plenty of accounts of this available online by now, though, and any ill will generated has long since been buried.

Early in my activist days I was quite passionate. I read dozens of blogs, watched hours of videos of my skeptical heroes debating apologists, and was honestly quite confrontational. I’m pretty sure I made some small change in our Jungian undercurrent, and it still isn't uncommon for me to get calls from friends and strangers seeking advice in leaving churches or confronting family. I attended Skepticon and the Reason Rally, even running into people who were regular visitors to my blog or twitter feed. Many somethings happened between then and now, though, and while my spiritual orientation has not changed, the nature of my passion has changed. I was fueled for a long time by anger, not only at the awful things done by humans in the name of their god, but anger at the frustration I felt - angry that I was frustrated that there was no greater being to direct my anger towards. Of course, upon realizing that simply figuring it out and taking that step towards disbelief wouldn’t cure the emotional turmoil I felt inside, I became angry at myself too, for not being able to overcome these silly human emotions with the pure power of rationality.

In hindsight, as my anger faded, I became less involved with my local atheist group as I lost connection with the role I’d initially chosen for myself in the group. Honestly, I was romantically involved with the idea of being an angry activist, debating believers and winning minds as I’d once sought to win souls for the other team. At its root, the shift in passion was inevitable. Knowing myself as I do, I’ve never expressed my passions that aggressively. I’m just a pretty easygoing guy who will always be put off by rage and drama. I started to understand the motivation of folks I tried to rally to the cause before - I’d often found the religiously unaligned simply disinterested in joining a community with the shrug-off of “I’ve already been through that, I have other things to do now.” Those people who frustrated me with their inaction - I became one of them, and strangely, that didn’t frustrate me anymore. Life was pretty good and I’d left my anger behind, all with a little help from my friends.

I got a call one day from another AOKer during officer elections time. It was twofold - the good excuse to call was a reminder that I was a voting member & the elections were coming up, but it was also followed by the questions - Is everything okay? How have I been, where have I been, why did I stop coming? Of course, each of the questions was loaded, whether intentionally or no. Yes, I know this was someone who cared about me and probably missed me, but I realized that in their eyes, I’d pretty much left the fold simply due to inactivity. That was one of the things that always bugged me about church - if you skip it to go watch football or have brunch, you’d hear about it later. Truthfully, I didn’t leave, not consciously. I still considered myself a dedicated member, but I realized that’s kind of like the Cultural Christians I tended to poke fun at - dedicated just as soon as anyone asks you about it and not a moment longer.

I told my friend that with my new job I wouldn’t be out of town so much and that I planned to ease myself back into attendance. I have, though very slowly and largely through online rather than physical presence. Getting back into the groove is pretty tough, especially when attached to a group with our level of size and activity. I also find myself in the odd position of rediscovering myself in relation to this community. I’m the same name with the same skillset (beard, words, dancing), but I’m simply not as inclined to use my skillset in the same way. Maybe it’s because I got a lot of this out of my system, maybe it’s because in a scientific world, I merely see faith as a vestigial trait. The larger part is that the humanist in me that wishes for a global in-group dynamic has trouble seeing humans as enemies, so the Bad Guys I went after before are now simply Misled People.

Getting reacquainted with my group, I also discovered that quote-unquote-Rationalists are not immune to squabbling. Of course, in the end it’s mostly people with the same mostly-altruistic goals and different ideas on how best to do that. The tiffs range from people still arguing on how horny you’re allowed to be in an elevator, to how much money you ought to be able to pocket while doing good work, to how cranky is too cranky, to which side can be meaner about how we ought to be nice, back again to how horny you’re allowed to be but this time it’s Important People being horny so isn’t that a bit different. I’ll be honest with you - as much as I love my community, I just got sick of it and stopped paying attention to the scandalous bits, and if someone prods me about it I may just scream. I’ll be straight up with you, guys - if your local godless community is going to take root and grow strong, you’re going to have to find a way to address large-scale concerns for anyone that cares to know while also not burning out your constituency with nit-picky details. This honestly delayed my return by months. Thankfully my group is growing nicely into this role, and I really feel like their focus on the Community aspect will bring us to the next level.

That said, there are still plenty of stories about Evil Atheists infiltrating our schools, workplaces, and BBQ joints, but even here in the fundamentalist stronghold of Oklahoma, our position is rapidly normalizing to the point that it's harder to shock people with merely news of our existence anymore. The cultural undercurrent has changed a goodly amount such that the Nones have become a concern, and while in many ways it’s still a cultural and legal war, the need for us as swords is hopefully on the decline. What to do with an old warrior who no longer has the desire to fight? Silly me is reminded of a favorite bible verse.

“...and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. — Isaiah 2:3-4

I’ll be back with AOK more regularly as life stabilizes, but I’ll remind myself that more than a movement that needs momentum, it’s a community that needs building. Even with lots of fighting going on via AU, American Atheists, and a lot of other organizations, we’re going to need a strong base of friendly citizenry to welcome the people leaving church but still seeking community. Those of you involved in your godless communities - engage the people in charge of engaging people - you’re probably doing lots to bring in new blood, but what sort of support do you have in place for people having crises of nonfaith? For the record, The idea of Dictionary Atheists doesn't strike me as useful because it doesn't answer any questions. The concept of a Textbook Atheist will not work  in a group that encourages individualism. What we're left with is a big pile of peer-reviewed collaborative diaries. I don't see many folks stepping up to be editors, but I'll keep working on my own story.

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