An Atheist’s Faith

I wrote a while back on how social activism could, really, be a spiritual path of its own.  Admittedly, I’ve been consumed with these thoughts in tandem with being consumed with social activism.  Learning about various upheavals and movements in school did not adequately prepare me for the reality of times like these, where I can see all the horrible decisions being made and I am filled with the drive to do something to resist and fight back, and yet so many people around me seem to be unconcerned.  But the deep knowledge that this fight is important, that it is vital, is all-consuming.

Anyway, as I’ve been thinking about how this new reality feels a lot like religion did as a kid growing up in the church, I decided to look up the generally accepted list of characteristics of a religion to see how closely this fits.  I may not believe in a deity, but I do strongly believe that what is going on in the world is destructive and hateful and wrong.  In fact, my belief in that fact is much stronger than my faith in a god ever was.  My participation in this feels exceedingly more fulfilling and powerful than participation in religion ever did.  If I am to have a religion, I feel comfortable in stating that my religion is the resistance.

So, the first of the 8 elements of religion is that a religion has a belief system or worldview.  Many place the whole of creation under a deity or group of deities, or at least place humanity there.  Some have a hierarchy for humanity itself.  There is usually some goal or intent placed upon humans or living beings, some reason we exist at all.

Frankly, as an atheist, none of these make any sense to me.  But the ideal which has pushed to the forefront of my life over the last few months – that of equality and basic human rights for all people – is clear and logical.

This may just be me, but I’ve always thought of the kind of activism we’re seeing now as reactionary more than anything.  People protest things or demand specific rights and concessions in response to specific events and changes in the world around them.  What has, I think, generally kept me from considering activism as a form of spiritual practice or path is the difference between fighting for or against a specific thing and working towards a larger worldview.  Now, as I think about it, I realize that activism would be better served by focusing more on the latter than the former.  Certainly the work towards justice and equality won’t end if one group of protesters get their specific demands satisfied.  There will still be more work to do, more hurdles to clear.  There will ALWAYS be more.

In fact, we will not see the absolute attainment of our goals in our lifetimes.  We know this.  The work must be ongoing, and therefore this movement almost naturally becomes something akin to a religion.  It can invade every aspect of life, this drive to fight wrongs and make the world better, in a manner otherwise only duplicated by religion.  And there is no shortage of ways to integrate the struggle into one’s life.

For atheists, the idea that humanity is responsible for its own survival and evolution can, I think, quite comfortably take the place of religious dogmas in a meaningful practice.  It requires no faith other than that which keeps you fighting and working.  And, perhaps, that’s the hardest part of this.  If our worldview is that all humans are meant to be treated justly and as equals, it suggests that we have to believe the goal is, at some level, attainable.  That our work actually gets us somewhere.  And that’s where things get difficult.  When it seems the world is hurtling towards hate and injustice and tyranny despite all we can manage to do, it’s easy to lose hope.

It is, perhaps, the one type of faith we atheists can comfortably hold onto.

From the Book: “I have power of my own”

I selected the phrases for my coloring book to say what I thought might be most important to others within the activist community.  But because the coloring book simply has the coloring pages without commentary, I thought I might use this venue to elaborate a bit on why I chose to include what I did.

“I have power of my own.”

Nobody is powerless.  We all have our own power, but we have to choose to use it.

We have the power of our words:  what we say, when we choose to speak, and when we choose to be silent.

We have the power of our actions:  what we give priority to in our lives, what gets our attention, where we spend our money and time.

We have the power of our relationships:  who we know, who we choose to associate with, who we learn from, and who we teach.

Even if we don’t feel like we have the power to change the world, we all have the power to change things in our own world.  We all have power of our own.

From the Book: “Strength is built, not found”

I selected the phrases for my coloring book to say what I thought might be most important to others within the activist community.  But because the coloring book simply has the coloring pages without commentary, I thought I might use this venue to elaborate a bit on why I chose to include what I did.

“Strength is built, not found.”

Anyone who has been at all serious about lifting weights can tell you that, while you can absolutely dig deep and find the strength for that last push to get through a set, actual gains require work.  Becoming stronger requires work.  Increasing your capacity to lift requires work.

It’s the same with the strength to do difficult things when it comes to activism.  Or the strength to keep going when you’re tired.  Or the strength to fight the same fight over and over and over when you’re discouraged.  That strength isn’t something you simply dig in and find.  You have to build it.

 

A Grand Outing

I’ve come out of a lot of closets.  I spent a lot of my younger years hiding things about myself from many people.  Sexuality.  Spirituality.  Parts of my history.  Having grown up with and around people who exhibited a great deal of prejudice and judgment of others, I ended up fearing the reactions and judgments of others more than a lot of other things.

I spent all that time thinking that being shunned, being judged, would be so bad that it wasn’t worth the risk.

The thing is, I wanted to think that the people around me might react better than I feared, that they might be truly good people with open minds deep down inside.  I wanted to believe that they had just learned to say the things they said, and that if they were forced to think about those words and the beliefs behind them that they would realize how wrong they were.  As long as I stayed in the closet(s), I could avoid the bad things I feared and pretend the good reactions were possible.

Of course, it’s very hard to hide forever, and over the years I came out, little by little, over and over again.  And the vast majority of the time I was pleasantly surprised at how the news was received.  Even when those around me didn’t exactly throw parties to celebrate my revelation, I found that it was far easier to deal with stigma than it was to harbor the secret.

In recent years we’ve seen a drastic decrease in opposition to formerly contentious ideas like gay marriage, and general consensus is that the change comes from the fact that so many people realize now that their friends and family members are gay.  When it hits closer to home, it’s harder to be judgmental.  But there’s not actually been an increase in gay people, just an increase in visibility, and increase in the number of “out” gay people.  The more we made it known that we were right there, in your family, in your friend circle, in your schools and workplaces, in your churches, the more obvious it became that the preconceived notions underpinning opposition to gay marriage were simply not true.

But while those notions remain in place, the threat of being judged and hated and penalized is what keeps the closet doors firmly shut.  It’s a threat leveled against anyone who doesn’t fit within accepted boundaries, who doesn’t fit the mold.  It’s fear.

Fear breeds hate.  We know that.  But invisibility breeds fear.  Silence affirms negative assumptions.  The hypothetical, theoretical person is far easier to vilify than the one standing right in front of you.

And we want to believe that the people around us are good.  That they, like those who have changed their minds over time and come to embrace gay marriage, are simply misled and misinformed.  We want to believe that things will change for the better.  But as long as we stay hidden away, that illusion is real and the threatening reactions we fear are avoided.

If there’s one thing I’m certain of, though, it’s that the stigma is easier to cope with than the secrecy.  The rejection of others is manageable, but the repression of self is a monster which devours us from inside.  And I’m certain that, whatever our secrets and hidden identities, expending the energy to blend in and appease those we fear is not a viable solution.  It harms us more than it protects us.  And if we want things to change, if we want to ever be able to live in a world which doesn’t persecute and hate, we have to come out into the sunlight.

From the Book: “I will tear down walls”

I selected the phrases for my coloring book to say what I thought might be most important to others within the activist community.  But because the coloring book simply has the coloring pages without commentary, I thought I might use this venue to elaborate a bit on why I chose to include what I did.

“I will tear down walls.”

So much of what prompts activism results from conflict and division.  Activism doesn’t cause division, it points it out and shines a bright light on it.  It calls attention to the walls which have been built between us and the damage those walls do to the fabric of society.

So instead of vilifying those on the other side of the wall, instead of trying to force them to climb over and stand with us on our side, focus most on tearing down the walls themselves.  Go after the forces which put the bricks in place, chip away at the ideas which hold the pieces of the wall together, break through where you can and help people cross through.

Weird and Wild

When I was a kid, what I wanted more than anything was to fit in with the other kids.  I wanted to do what they did, wear the things they wore, be into the things they were into.  It was a common desire, it seems.  So common, in fact, that as an adult it’s tempting to look back and wonder if there has ever been a kid who really, truly, never felt like an outsider.

Does everyone feel different?

I’ve come to the conclusion that we pretty much all do, even as adults.  And for many of us it’s still a source of worry.  Are we too different?  Do the others think we’re odd?  Do they only pretend to accept us?

On the plus side, modern life with its extensive connections and instant access to each other from all over the globe has made it so that it’s easier than ever to find a place where we fit in.  Where there used to be a handful of acceptable archetypal roles to play in society, there are now more than most of us can keep up with.  If you like something, a million others like it, too.  So even if the people around you find you odd, it’s easier than ever before to find that group where you fit right in.

But I think there’s a great deal of value in being that oddity.  Unless you live among a cohesive and homogeneous group of people with which you have much in common, being the weirdo, the outsider, the stand-out actually gives you the opportunity to be an ambassador for those beyond the boundaries of the local community.  Going against the grain gets attention, and that attention can either be negative or positive.  Cultivating the connections and opportunities to educate others about the vast variety of life experiences and cultural differences, even just in terms of different interests, pastimes, and group dynamics, makes humanity better on a large scale.

My personal beliefs center heavily on the idea that we are to elevate or evolve, just as humanity as a whole continues to develop.  And it’s impossible to truly become more than we are if we do not embrace the complexity which enriches human kind.

In these strange times it’s more important than ever to strive to better ourselves and better our species.  We need more ambassadors for the weird and wild, the outcasts and outsiders, to push humanity upward.

From the Book: “I will get my hands dirty”

I selected the phrases for my coloring book to say what I thought might be most important to others within the activist community.  But because the coloring book simply has the coloring pages without commentary, I thought I might use this venue to elaborate a bit on why I chose to include what I did.

“I will get my hands dirty.”

Social media, especially, has made it very easy to feel like you’re contributing to something, supporting something, taking a stand for something.  And I’m the very last person who would tell you that the kind of activity which happens on social media is worthless.  I think it’s invaluable.

But it doesn’t get the work done.

Nothing changes until somebody – actually, a lot of somebodies – get their hands dirty and do the work.  We should all be one of those somebodies.