Growing Up Humanist in Christian Culture

One day at the gym while waiting for her turn on the trampoline, a 4 year old said to me, “God gave me my blue eyes.” Having heard both children and adults utter similar God-crediting phrases my entire life, I passively responded “Ah, did he.” The 5 year old standing behind her, who just happened to be the daughter of a Spanish teacher I had in high school, turned to me and asked, “Who’s God?” I froze. “Uhhhh…” I glanced down the trampoline and noticed it was nearly her turn.

Somehow I had to come up with a response in about two seconds for one of the most difficult questions a Humanist could answer in an overwhelmingly Christian society. I replied, “God is a person or a thing that some people believe in.” And without even a pause, just before hopping down the trampoline she said: “I don’t believe in God. I believe in gods.” I smiled at her and answered, “That’s cool.”

As it goes with children, I don’t know if she really meant what she said she believes or if she was just saying it to be different. I have no idea what sort of religious education she’s been exposed to, and I couldn’t remember any particular indication of faith from her mother when she was my teacher. But I know I gave that child something in that moment. I gave her validation of her beliefs. I did not judge, I did not question.

Thinking back on that exchange makes me think of my own childhood experiences surrounding my beliefs. My parents were both raised Catholic and both decided Catholicism, and Christianity in general, were really not something they could buy into. For awhile they were without religion. It wasn’t until I was about 5 years old when they had an educator assess my intelligence that they realized I needed some sort of education on religion. The educator showed me a page full of symbols. I was able to identify every symbol easily… all except for the cross.

Eventually they found the Ethical Society of St. Louis. The tagline is “A welcoming home for Humanists.” My younger brother and I began attending Sunday School there, and that’s when I started to form my own beliefs. The centerpiece for the curriculum at this Ethical Humanist Sunday School is the 12 Core Values. The core value I recall striking me the most was “I am free to question.” And question I did.

Like my parents, I found it hard to buy in to the Christian culture that surrounded me. I did try but I just could not believe in God, it didn’t feel right. To me, not believing in God felt very normal– but as I got older I realized that many people around me would consider myself the oddball.

The first friend I ever had came from a devout Christian family. I can remember going to her house for dinner and having to pray every time before eating. I felt uncomfortable but sat with my head down out of respect. The more peers I met, the more I realized how pervasive this God thing really was. At first it was surprising and uncomfortable how casually people referenced God, in passing, speaking like he was just some guy everyone knew and had a relationship with.

People assumed I was a God fan just like them, assumed I was another Christian. I can’t remember a single instance in my childhood when I was asked about my beliefs outside the Ethical Society. And if I had been asked, I don’t know that I would have felt comfortable being honest about my beliefs. God was just so commonplace to the people around me that the possibility didn’t even occur to them that I might not be a subscriber to God. I didn’t want to be the person who rocked the boat, I had no idea how people would react. So I kept quiet about my beliefs.

The truth is nothing has changed since then. My experience as a child is exactly the same that it is now in terms of God culture. People still blindly assume I’m a Christian just like them. Except now, I take offense. Quietly, but offense all the same. Culture will be culture, and it will always pervade any government we have in place, but the very First Amendment on the list says that we can have freedom of religion. This means anyone should be able to hold whatever belief they want and feel protected.

That’s a beautiful and open state of mind which looks really good on paper, but it simply isn’t translated into a culture where 83% identifies as Christian.

With those statistics, I suppose any Christian could argue that their presumptions of my faith are justified. And that is, in fact, how many Christians operate. But how the hell is that American? It’s not an act of inclusion to go around assuming everyone is Christian because that’s the majority– it’s lazy. Here we (ideally) accept all faiths (or lack there of). So even though the majority is Christian, because of the First Amendment, everyone should be approaching everyone else with zero assumptions about their faith. But alas, culture imbues.

It does not surprise me that, now, 57% of Republicans want to make Christianity the national religion. This country has never been able to separate religion from politics, despite taking pride in that very separation. (Even the phrase “separation of Church and State” implies Christianity as the only religion to be mindful of separating!) With the way I’ve been treated as a “non-believer,” it’s really no surprise at all that the closed-minded Christians are finally being real with themselves; they don’t want a plurality of religions, they just want their religion only.

As if it wasn’t enough that over four fifths of this country is Christian. As if it wasn’t enough that “In God We Trust” is on every dollar bill. As if it wasn’t enough that “Under God” is in our pledge to the country. As if it wasn’t enough that women are denied birth control and abortions because of Christian ideology, that homosexuals and genderqueers are treated as lesser because of Christian ideology, that you really hold no significant political influence unless you openly endorse Christianity.

I’ve arrived at a place in life where I no longer judge people for what they believe, but I feel for all those people that Christianity excludes because that exclusion is felt exponentially with the mass indoctrination of our society.

I often think of Muslims and how horrible it must be to live here in a place with so much hostility and so little understanding of their faith. At least as a Humanist, when I am antagonized, it’s as an individual. But with Muslims, their entire culture is generalized and belittled. It’s insane to me that now, the same people who want a national religion of Christianity can turn around and alienate Middle Eastern countries for having Islam as a national religion. Not only do they alienate, but desire to point guns and drop bombs on them. That’s not American. That’s not even Christian. It’s maliciously hypocritical.

To this day, I still don’t feel I have much of a voice in this country as a Humanist. Yet bizarrely enough, many Christians feel threatened by Humanists like me. They think we’re out to get them, out to squelch their faith. Nope. Humanism is about inclusion of all people– all identities, including faith! If anything, Humanists are trying to find other ways to connect and engage with Christians that hate on Humanism. Still we are seen as dangerous, rebellious, faith-killers. It is quite ironic to see Christians express this, when all my life I’ve experienced the very same thing from them that they accuse Humanists of doing.

And the truth is, the Christians themselves who react so negatively to Humanists are the ones stepping into the realm of questioning their own faith. Humanists only open the door. It’s uncomfortable, to have your strong and sheltered faith shaken, so they seek to blame those who dare to open up such unnerving questioning– those damn Godless people.

This Fox News-fueled rage supported by unbridled paranoia of those who don’t believe in God makes it damn near impossible for me to be heard saying: “This is what I’ve experienced from you all along. You never even asked what I believed in. You just assumed I am what you are. So after years of keeping my head down and my beliefs quiet, I’m finally speaking up. And now you feel attacked. How am I to ever live my life honestly when you’re automatically offended whenever someone doesn’t buy into what you’re selling? It’s a personal choice. Let us choose.”

All I want is to live in a culture that respects my beliefs. I’m not asking everyone to believe what I believe, nor am I asking anyone else to change. I just want my personal choice respected, as I respected the choice of the 5 year old girl who told me she believed in multiple gods. I want my ability to believe validated. Is that really so much to ask for?

Charlie Hebdo: Freedom of Speech vs. Freedom to Preach

Since the attack on the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo, there has been more controversy than anyone can fully absorb. This was no insignificant attack. It had an enormous emotional effect on France. A French friend of mine likened the attack to a smaller scale 9/11. To have well-known voices of satire taken away forever by bullets when you least expected it– that’s traumatizing, and Americans can certainly relate to that sentiment.

After the shootings in the offices of Charlie Hebdo on January 7, the phrase “Je Suis Charlie” caught like wildfire and echoed around the world. The intent of the phrase is to stand in unity with Charlie Hebdo and freedom of speech. However, it gets complicated, particularly for those who find their religion at the butt of the joke, and for those who feel like their freedom to speak is nullified by oppression of their culture.

Charlie’s response to the attack was another cartoon of Muhammad weeping and holding a “Je Suis Charlie” sign with “Tout est Pardonne” or “All is Forgiven” written above. This edition ran out of copies in mere hours after its release due to its popularity.

Freedom of speech vs freedom of religion… Conflict of interest?

In response to these attacks, Pope Francis says there’s a limit to religious expression when it insults someone’s faith. Nasser Lajili, a Muslim City Councilor in Gennevilliers, agrees with the Pope, saying “freedom of speech needs to stop when it harms the dignity of someone else. The prophet for us is sacred.” (Washington Post, French Muslims feel deeply torn by viral ‘I am Charlie’ slogan). But let’s be clear here: that still doesn’t justify the attacks. Just because someone talks shit on your religion does not ever give you the right to kill them. And you don’t need to crack open any religious text to know that– it’s a human thing. It’s morality. It’s ethics.

However you simply cannot ignore the sentiments of the Muslim community here. There are around 5 million Muslims in France and they don’t necessarily feel that they are Charlie at all. Mohamed Binakdan, a transit worker in Paris, describes the everyday humiliation of Muslims in France:

“‘You go to a nightclub, and they don’t let you in, you go to a party, they look at your beard, and say, ‘Oh when are you going to Syria to join the jihad?’ Charlie Hebdo is a part of that, too. Those who are stronger than us are mocking us. We have high unemployment, high poverty. Religion is all we have left. This is sacred to us. And yes, we have a hard time laughing about it” (Washington Post, French Muslims feel deeply torn by viral ‘I am Charlie’ slogan).

I can’t say that I know the struggle of feeling like religion is all I have, but I do know what it feels like not being heard or that my voice just isn’t valued as much as others. As a woman, I similarly have a hard time laughing about rape jokes. Sometimes it feels like all I have is my bodily autonomy and when people joke about the forceful loss of that autonomy so casually and as if they’re entitled to say those things– yeah, it’s pretty impossible to find it funny. So it’s not difficult for me to empathize with that sentiment– when the only thing you feel empowered by is ridiculed by people who have no idea what it’s like for you.

But as a Humanist forced to live in a Christian dominant society, I still sympathize with the right to free expression. So much of these religions are hypocritical. A lot of religious expression, particularly prosthelization, insults my right to freedom FROM religion. Not only my freedom from religion, but a lot of these religions do not afford respect to me as a female, particularly Islam. So why should freedom of speech stop at insulting a faith when there are so many other insults that are acceptable in religious context AND under freedom of speech– racism, sexism, homophobia, the list goes on. If we in the West find it acceptable to sexually harass women on the streets or refer to a random black man walking down the street as a thug, then we certainly hold a double standard when it comes to talking about someone’s faith. You can insult a person’s race, a person’s gender, a person’s sexuality, but when it comes to faith– oh no, you can’t, because faith is too sacred!

Is “Je Suis Charlie” an equivalent to white privileged expression?

If a similar satirical press published a similar cartoon of Christ on the cross, how would people respond? It can’t be ignored that we as Westerners clearly value some religious sacredness above others. There’s a strong correlation behind what the race and ethnicity of the practicers of these religions are and the weight we give to their sacred space. It seems the darker your skin color, the lesser the value of your religious practice. There’s white privilege even within faith. However, if freedom of speech needs to stop when it harms the dignity of someone else, then many Muslims can’t say much without being largely hypocritical– their religious culture is one of the most oppressive to women in the world.

On the other hand, maybe Muslim culture is far more oppressive than the West would prefer, but Christian culture is also oppressive, particularly in the US. We’ve managed for decades to enforce that “In God We Trust” be printed on all our dollar bills, that “Under God” be recited in our pledge of allegiance to the country, and that politicians are more likely to be elected if they’re Christian. I went to a City Council meeting in Ballwin, Missouri last Fall because there was an effort to pass an ordinance requiring “In God We Trust” be printed on all their city signs. I was simply shocked listening to the highly religious citizens make the argument that 1. the phrase is deeply traditional and 2. it is NOT a religious phrase. (That second argument is just delusion of reference). Fortunately, the ordinance didn’t pass, but listening to so many grown adults reveal how indoctrinated and possessed their political opinions were by religious propaganda was deeply bothersome. These are examples of institutional occurrences of oppression by religion, but it should also be mentioned that there are plenty of Christian extremist groups that terrorize folks just as much as Islamic extremist groups, maybe even more. You just don’t hear about them in mainstream media due to the plague of white-washed journalism. But I digress…

Still maybe Muslim culture is far more oppressive than the West would prefer, but they still deserve to be valued as humans and as voices. There’s been all these extremist Muslim attacks in just the past couple of years alone– the Boston Marathon bombing, the siege in Sydney, the Peshawar school attack, Charlie Hebdo and subsequent attacks around France, multiple attacks by Boko Haram, and many, many more… but why? Why does this keep happening? I’m sure a Fox News correspondent would tell you it’s because all Muslims are jihadist, West-hating murderers, but have you ever considered that perhaps these attacks are a huge cry out to be heard? That perhaps these attacks are a last-ditch reaction to the severe undervaluing of voices of an entire religious culture of people? That perhaps these attacks are a result of a boiling frustration felt by those who aren’t stable enough to put those feelings into healthy perspective?

If we in the West are going to insist on upholding the freedom of speech, then there needs to be a prerequisite to elevate ALL voices– or else the freedom to speak is moot. What’s the point of being able to freely express yourself if nobody is going to listen to or value what you have to say? Or that some people’s expression will be valued while others’ won’t?

What about the French black Comedian, Dieudonné, that was arrested for his comments on Facebook about the Charlie Hebdo attack? What about that guy that worked for Charlie Hebdo that was fired on the grounds that his cartoons were anti-Semitic? And what about Boko Haram? Why is Charlie getting a way more comprehensive response and news coverage when Boko Haram has killed more than 5,000 citizens between July 2009 and June 2014 in Nigeria and some neighboring countries? Where do we draw the line? Because there sure seems to be a lot of discriminatory line drawing when it comes to free speech.

Having the freedom of speech is important, but it’s moot unless we value ALL voices. There’s an attached responsibility that comes with the freedom of speech to listen. You don’t have to believe or agree with what anyone says ever, but living in democratic societies means living in a marketplace of ideas, where ALL ideas should be given a chance, no matter how ridiculously unrealistic or oppressive some of them can be. Opening up to a larger, more diverse marketplace of ideas will also help us learn to better communicate and express our own ideas with mindfulness and sensitivity. Empathy goes a long way.

My dear friend in England insists the world would be a better place without religion and I think he and John Lennon are right. What good is religion when it perpetuates such poor ethics and continual prejudice? And I thought y’all left the judging to God anyway…

But in a dystopian and oppressive world where society can be so damn unaccepting, still many depend on religion to give them the hope they need, and the acceptance, to keep going. And we need to remember that, be sensitive to it. We need to be aware of how we personally value certain voices over others. Because voices are lives, and every life matters.

Resources about Charlie Hebdo: