How Faitheist is Restoring my Faith in Atheist Writers

Atheism is one of those mindsets that I have had a hard time reading, despite my intention of opening myself up to multiple viewpoints on spirituality and religion. Even more surprising, it’s in spite of my lack of investment in the belief of a deity. I have come to think of myself as largely agnostic, believing in some things because I want to, not because I think they are definitely right, so atheism never struck me as a perspective that would bother me.

Atheists as people are fine for me. I have enjoyed getting to know many and have rarely encountered any whose atheism seemed problematic. They all have, mostly, been along the lines of Chris Stedman. And maybe I’ve just been lucky, but I choose to believe rather that there are more of him than not out there.

But atheist writers…damn if they don’t tend towards the same trends they claim to loathe. I’ve tried reading Richard Dawkins and stopped because I was just too revolted by his prejudice and too thrown off by the logical fallacies he commits in his quest to demonize all things religious.

I’ve made it through other books, like The Atheist’s Way, which were more tolerable and had some great moments, but I was still uncomfortable with how much the slippery slopes, broad generalizations, unbacked assumptions, and disdain for “other” resembled the fundamentalism which I left.

It’s actually kind of…funny, I guess, that the two camps would look at each other as the worst while being so damn similar, but I digress.

More recently, I decided to give it another go. I wanted to have at least one book by an atheist author that I didn’t want to burn along with my theology books from the IFB.

Enter Faitheist.

It’s more of a memoir than anything, and much of it covers the coming out journey of the author. (And full disclosure, I haven’t finished it yet. I have maybe a fourth left to read).

But it’s a beautiful book—perhaps not in spite of being a coming out memoir, but because of it.

Stedman values story-telling and didn’t set out to write a philosophy book, though there’s plenty of philosophy peppered throughout his story. He carefully details his own conversion and deconversion process and the struggles of realizing he’s gay while being part of a tradition that taught that gay is a hell-bent identity.

His loss of faith is poignant, something I can deeply relate to. His search for a reason to keep believing equally so. His subsequent disillusionment and anger towards Christianity is, well, pretty damn familiar.

But what makes this book stand out to me is that he doesn’t stay in that place. He realizes that his hatred of Christianity (and religion, in general) is reliant on stereotypes and caricatures of the worst sides of religion, missing the incredible complexity of belief and meaning-making that exists within any given path. He also recognizes the way that certain sections of the atheist community resemble the close-mindedness of religious zealots.

In other words, he is able to look at what he dislikes about the other and recognize its presence within himself.

His story of atheism is a personal one. He recognizes that it’s right for him right now but that it isn’t necessarily right for others. He recognizes that people who aren’t atheist are able to be good, even intelligent people and that they can have common goals towards which to work.

His goal isn’t to eradicate religion, as Dawkins and that ilk would want, but to work towards eradicating injustice and building bridges of commonality.

Some of the criticism of the book has expressed doubts about whether he’s a “true” atheist and suspicions that he will become religious or spiritual again. Ultimately, I don’t think it matters what he believes down the road. There’s always a chance that each of us will change our minds/beliefs for any number of reasons. But throughout the book, I can see his atheism grow into the atheism of someone who doesn’t need to believe in a God and, thus, doesn’t need to debunk other’s beliefs, which makes me suspect that his atheism has a better chance of being lifelong and genuine if he’s not holding to it in opposition, anger, and fear of religion.

I would love for others to read this book. His journey is one that we can all learn from, regardless of what path we ultimately choose to walk.

 

Advertisements

The Little Woman that Could

Representation matters.

We hear that phrase tossed around, but how often do we actually think about what it means?

I’ve been wrestling with this concept this week a lot. As a fresh graduate opening my own practice, I’m having to think about my skills and abilities and the risks that I can afford to take in a way that I haven’t ever had to do before.

From an objective standpoint, I’m ready and more than capable. I manage the finances in my personal life and work part time as an assistant to a bookkeeper for a small business. I have that exposure. I’m organized to a fault. I think ahead. I have sought out advice, some freely given, some paid for. I have built a solid financial and practical foundation for myself.

I’m going into a field that is in high demand in my area. Counselors literally can’t keep up with the number of people seeking services. I have a guaranteed flow of clients sooner or later.

I have the necessary skills for my field. I excelled both in my “book learning” as well as the practical application portion of my training. As a student, I was involved in conferences and presentations that most don’t begin to pursue until well into their post-graduate careers, and my supervisors have all predicted that I will do well in my field (and I have to fight with myself to acknowledge that because it feels “arrogant” to write).

BUT

Representation matters.

Growing up, I heard my mom downplay her intellectual skills. I watched her choose to work out of the home from financial necessity but never pursuing a career.

I took in the lessons about how women were supposed to be the homemakers and men the breadwinners. I learned that a college education for a woman was more about having an income option to fall back on, but should be something that wouldn’t outshine the husband (the finding of one was also a primary reason for college).

My brother, who struggled in the school things at which I excelled, defensively taunted me about being “book smart” but not “street smart.”

I learned to think of myself as a naïve dreamer who wouldn’t survive out in the world on my own because that’s how he saw me.

I learned to think of myself as incompetent and horribly dependent because that’s how he saw me.

In college, before I left the cult, I was pressured to learn violin pedagogy because, like my mom before me, teaching music to young children out of the home was the best marketable skill I was told I had. Meanwhile, my desire to pursue writing was deemed impractical. When I initially expressed that I didn’t want to get married, people tut-tutted about how I would provide for myself.

Graduate school wasn’t something I saw the women around me pursuing. Careers were things for men.

So now, as I dive into my future, learning to see myself as a professional woman with a career—a self-employed woman, no less—I realize that the strongest image I have of myself when I think about this next step is that of the naïve, incompetent, book-smart not street-smart child who has no hope of making it in the world on her own.

I feel guilty for putting money into setting up a practice (it’s extravagant and impractical!), nervous that I’ll fail miserably (maybe careers really aren’t for people like me!).

I can talk myself into seeing my competencies, preparation, and skill…most of the time. But it takes effort. My default is the image I was taught to see of myself—of women’s potential—as a child.

Which is why I’m determined to push through these doubts and take the chance of trusting the foundation I have laid between my education and my “worldly” experience. I drown out the doubts the way Thomas the Train climbed the hill: “I think I can. I think I can. I think I can.”

Eventually, maybe I’ll see myself in a different light without so much effort.

And I hope that one day another little girl will be able to look around and see a rainbow of examples of women doing the things that I was taught they don’t do. Maybe one day I might be one of the Jenga pieces that topples the limited tower in which girls are kept because I dared to remove myself from that tower.

Representation matters.

Finding the People Who Fuel my Passion

I’ve spent the past week at a couple of conferences. One of the conferences is still underway, so I’m going to keep my post short this week. Both conferences have been wonderfully stimulating, spurring me to rekindle my love for the work (not just professional) I try to do in the world. One of the recurrent themes has been around finding one’s “people” and building strong support networks.

It’s true that it’s important to surround yourself with people who help to keep you fueled and passionate, and at these conferences I certainly felt and feel surrounded by those kinds of people.

But the interesting thing to me is that the people who feel like “my people” aren’t just those who would agree with my values. Rather, the people who make me feel truly stimulated, excited to do my work, and engaged with myself and the world around me are the ones who prompt me to think more deeply about an issue than I had previously thought.

Sometimes that comes through agreement that prefaces a deeper exploration (I call this the “yes, and” response), but sometimes it comes through a disagreement that invites curiosity.

Those are the kinds of people I want to surround myself with.

Not the ones who will pat me on the back about how right I am or stomp their feet in the solidarity of groupthink but the ones who lean into controversy and doubt with the faith that it’s worthwhile to struggle and question and who don’t see disagreement as the end of the discussion but as the beginning of a mutual exploration.

“My people” don’t necessarily think like me; they help me think. It’s an important distinction for me.

Surviving 1984: Unpacking the Language

Okay, I’m returning to Lifton’s criteria for identifying totalism (previous posts can be found here and here) and want to talk about the role of language in totalistic situations. If you’re familiar with my blog or know me, you probably know how much I love language and words. I think language, in some ways, is one of the closest things we have to magic. By taking sounds and stringing them together, we have developed a way of communicating our private thoughts and experiences to others. Wow! Right?

Language is so so so so important to any society. Language, in a sense, grants existence to something. If you have a word for it, you can talk about it, understand yours and other’s experience around it (to an extent if not fully)…and you notice it in the broader world. That’s why language can be important for marginalized people.

Language can be very personal, but it’s also generally shared. Without the sharing of meaning, the sounds make no sense. It’s through the consensus of a group deciding that such-and-such means a certain thing that language is born.

Now, in loading the language, Lifton is talking about the way that a group of people, be it a government, organization, or family, will begin to use language in a specialized manner unique to them. They might have a slightly different connotation for a word from the broader society or they might have specialized words that only exist within their culture.

That alone, is not necessarily indicative of totalistic influence. Every group will have a tendency to have a sort of specialized private language. On a large level, dialects can be seen as a regional example of how a language (like English) can be vastly different in one area like Scotland from how it is in a different area like the midwest of the United States.

However, there are examples of less location-bound groups as well. If you pick up a journal on neurobiology, you’ll instantly see this specialization before your eyes. Unless you are well-versed in the language used, much of the writing may seem incomprehensible to you.

However, if you know the specialized language, that gibberish will turn into something meaningful.

Sometimes specialized language results from the natural evolution of culture, e.g. dialects. Other times, specialized language becomes a kind of shorthand which can convey ideas faster than spelling them out in simpler terms, e.g. scientific terms. The benefit is the swiftness of communication amongst the members of the group; the cost is that outsiders have a harder time understanding.

So, every group does this to an extent. When does it become a problem?

I’d say it relates to the use.

When you pick up a scientific journal, you might see something that seems like gibberish to someone inexperienced in the ideas, but generally the purpose is not to confuse or stunt critical thinking. Rather, it’s an attempt to create an efficient flow of ideas to further the exploration of the topic.

Sometimes though, specialized or loaded language can serve the opposite function—phrases or words can become a means of separating one from outsiders. It can become a way of shutting down conversation, stopping the exchange of information, or halting critical thinking.

That’s when it becomes dangerous.

Sound bites and slogans become the rallying cry of a group but fail to take the idea beyond the surface. The complexity of dialogue is reduced to a single phrase that, rather than encouraging a deeper exploration of an issue, instead serves as a sort of e-break to the discussion.

Once loading the language begins and is accepted as part of a group’s culture, there’s a distinct feeling that continuing the conversation beyond the acceptable phrases and stunted thoughts would be an unthinkable act, one followed quickly by shame (How could you think that?!) or accusations of betrayal (I thought you were one of us!). Questioning becomes anathema because the language suggests that the “truth” is obvious and only the dumbest or most horrible human being would think otherwise.

If this is sounding familiar to a group that you are involved in, what do you do?

Well, part of this is going to tie directly into the milieu control that I wrote about earlier. Loaded language is one way of controlling thoughts and information, so an important antidote is to begin exposing yourself to alternative sources of information.

But you can also begin digging deeper into the language itself. If the group has not entirely wedded itself to the idea of using language as a means of control, it may be possible to dig deeper with others, but you may also find that (like fighting the milieu control) you have to do it somewhat secretly. It’s at least worth testing the waters. Instead of accepting a standard cliché, ask questions. Pay attention to the way that phrases are used. If there’s a consistent pattern in which answers are trite and used to deaden the conversation, that tells you a lot about the role of words and phrases within the group.

Try questioning what an outsider’s perspective might be.

What alternative meanings might someone else have for a phrase or word? Why might they hold that alternative meaning?

If you encountered someone who didn’t share your group’s specialized terms, would you be able to talk them through what you meant…or even have a conversation about the concept without the specialized terms?

If someone doesn’t automatically accept the “truth” encapsulated in your sound bite, are you able to take the conversation deeper and talk about where you both differ in perspective in a reasonable way that doesn’t assume “I’m right; you’re wrong” or pressure the questioner to end up agreeing with you in the end?

If all you can do is return to the original idea, circling around it like a moth at a light, you might not have fully fleshed out the meaning of the concept or your own position within it. More than likely, it’s serving as a security blanket, curbing the doubts or stopping the conversation from proceeding into unstable territory.

If you find that to be the case, expanding your exposure to the concept and different perspectives on that concept might be in order. Very rarely will you encounter a single way of conceptualizing something outside of totalism.

The more blasphemous or unthinkable this seems to the group, the more likely loaded language is being used in a totalistic method. The more that the complexity of human existence is boiled down into absolutes captured within the span of a sentence or two, the more likely the language is being used to deny rather than enhance critical thinking.

However, one who is well-versed in the loaded language also has the opportunity of using it to subvert the control as well. In some ways, if you cannot get out of the totalistic environment, becoming adept at playing a game with the language to undermine the thought-stopping simplicity can be one way of asserting your own individuality and keeping your mind from becoming dulled. (My partner is the one who taught me this strategy. In the cult, he was remarkably adept at using the language in such a way that it questioned the assumptions around doctrine rather than supporting the thought-stopping.)

Of course, that comes with its own risks, for language, as the vehicle for ideas, is a dangerous tool. Totalistic environments cannot afford to lose control of the use of language.

Nevertheless, just as Lifton asserts that the milieu cannot be perfectly controlled to prevent doubts from arising within an individual, I do not think that loaded language can entirely prevent one’s own personal evolution. Language evolves because individuals make changes. We see the power of personal creation whenever someone coins a word.

Without the general acceptance of that word, it will not be adopted into the language of a group, with a shared meaning among the members, which means that a personal unpacking of language requires the courage to truly question the very foundations of one’s beliefs and a willingness to reject the comfort and belonging that comes with participating in loaded language. However, such an approach can transform the inner world of the individual and the relationship of the individual to the outer world.

Once again, if you are interested in reading more about totalistic control, check out Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism by Robert Lifton. George Orwell’s 1984, which inspires the title of this series, is a good example of much of what Lifton talks about.