Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Coming Out of the Other Closet

(Translated from the Spanish original: Saliendo del Otro Closet; may seem like the wording is awkward at times but this was dont to faithfully preserve the meaning of the original)

My god, My god, Why have you forsaken me?
- Jesus, in Matthew 27:47

My admiration for the holy man of Nazareth mixes with dry cynicism with regards to the god of the Bible. I am today certain that Jesus, if he did live, must have flirted with atheism at some point.  I say this based on the shocking comments that he made in John 8:44 where he called the god of the Jews 'the devil', 'father of lies' and 'a murderer'.

Coming out atheist must have been unthinkable in a society where women were stoned to death on the streets by religious fanatics.  These thoughts must have produced a huge inner battle which the Nazarene settled by reinventing his idea of God. I'm afraid I don't have whatever it takes to pull that one off.

Let me first start by admitting that many good things have come from religion: that cannot be denied. However, the burden of homophobia is so heavy, even more than 1,600 years after Constantine enshrined anti-gay hatred in the Bible, the Muslim terrorist zeal is so hostile, and the anti-science creationist movement is so ludicrous, that one has to laugh at the clowns that religion so readily produces for our amusement and horror.

The reality of it is not so funny: our democratic and secular traditions, our educational system, our rights, our liberties and our safety are all being challenged by the ultra-religious, who have special protections, a special tax status, and who alone call it their privilege to reject gays and to be bigots without there being, so they say, any moral reprehension to their bigotry.

There are literally thousands of reasons for my rant: I'll merely share a fraction of them. Moses inaugurates the tradition of terrorism in Exodus 32:26-29 by having 3,000 killed for not sharing his beliefs. Then, in those verses he praises the Levites for acting on his orders and killing their own brothers and neighbors.

Among the other violent incidents associated with this most despicable prophet, I can mention Numbers 15:32-36, where a man is found picking logs for a fire during a shabat and is brought before the totalitarian theocratic warlord Moses, who finds him guilty of the terrible crime of working during the shabat and has him stoned to death accordingly, acting of course not of his own accord but as the self-appointed personal ventriloquist of Jehovah. This is how people lived under Moses and his Law: people must have been utterly fear-ridden after witnessing this.

We may even excuse these savages from the Bronze Age, in view of the rudimentary levels of civilization that surrounded them, but today there are people whose lifestyles are not too different from that of Moses and his people. Moslems, with their obstinate, baseless theistic speculation, their marrying of little girls to old men, their frequent loyalty to absolutist regimes, and the violent vulgarity of their superstitions, are far more difficult to forgive today as we enter the Space Age. They are Moses' legacy in our day.

What's more, the incentives that Muhammad offered to his correligionaries in exchange for killing people of other religions were quite ignoble: he was well aware of what hid in the dark crevices of his soldiers' minds. The 72 virgins are not mentioned in the Qur'an but are in the hadith, and are generally considered a reliable tradition which is accepted by most Moslems. Perhaps tits and champaign are not too much to ask if you've been brain-washed, taunted and intimidated into giving your life in order to advance the cause of theocracy.

Then there's homophobia. I conjure up visions of mad priests chanting formulas in Latin while they cook gay men alive during the inquisition; the hate crimes commited by minors raised in hostile anti-gay homes; the peculiarly high rates of homelessness and suicide attempts among gay youth; and so many other voices that history (and modernity) silenced.

No one should be surprised that the homelessness and suicide attempt rates among gay youth are high: parents and churches convince children that if they're gay, they are not worthy of love, even of God's love, that God has destroyed entire mythical cities in his fury against gays, and that if they turn out to be gay they will never be accepted by their family and society. Anyone's spirit would be broken if left without even the ideological resources to survive homophobia.

I thought that as a Hare Krishna, I would be saved from turning into an atheist because here is a religion with strong theistic tendencies which is entirely divorced from the Abrahamic tradition and their vulgar pretensions. But the Guru, Prabhupad, was also homophobic, mysogynistic and he held many anti-science opinions.

In Vaishnava forums online, messages posted by dissidents often magically disappear, and one is told that one must never question one's Guru. I hate and profoundly distrust absolutist worldviews. I am a Westerner and I expect any religious tradition that I engage in to respect my intelligence: there is an unsurmountable wall for me to climb in this Guru-chela structure and relationship.

I love the Vaishnava faith, but I will not accept the inability to respectfully question a figure in authority and to openly disagree. Above all, I know that for many gay youth in India, their experience of Vaishnava homophobia is probably not too diferent from Christian homophobia in the West. Gays are expected to either lie about who they are or remain celibate: that is the official, cruel doctrine at ISKCON. I can not, in good conscience, legitimize a tradition that holds such an anti-gay policy.

Upon closer observation, I noticed that behind my attachment to Hindu theism, lied an elephant in the living room that I could no longer ignore: there is in our society a stigma against atheists, one of the most hated groups in our country, which is not only unfair but also rooted in the same ideologies that are challenging our precious, cherished traditions of secularism and democracy. Atheists, like gays, must come out of the closet.

It seems like the stigma is diminishing, thanks in part to 9/11 and a series of cultural changes, including the best sellers that followed it. Prominent among them is The God Delusion and other literary works, and there is what has been labeled 'the New Atheism' movement, which is mostly a reaction to recent events and developments in the Western World.

In view of all this I've had to ask myself: Why should I be held hostage by the same religious prejudices that I constantly criticize?

Many are atheists and won't admit it even to themselves. They're in the closet and in denial. In my case, for instance, for many years I entertained New Age ideas and sort of painted God in new colors. I redefined him to oblivion.

Many people say "I am spiritual, but not religious". They find this agreeable and easier for people to digest than to say they're not religious, or that they're atheists. But a theist who does not believe in a personal deity is not a theist: an energy field is not a personal God. We should not need to commit acts of self-sabotage and mental or rhetorical tricks of this kind. That, I believe, is infantile, dishonest and ridiculous.

I pulled together data on frequency of prayer from over 50 countries, and found that countries where people prayed more frequently had lower life expectancy and scored lower on the Peace Index. They also had higher infant mortality, homicide rates, and levels of corruption, and had more AIDS and more abortion. That's pretty conclusive.
- From the article Why some countries are more religious than others, by Tom Rees
The above cited article by blogger Tom Rees is quite interesting and worth reading. It's based, in part, on a previous study by Gregory S. Paul entitled Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies.

In learning about statistical data and the correlation between religiosity and societal health, levels of education and other hard data, one thing that stands out is that Scandinavian countries are the closest to what might be labeled a utopia here on Earth, and yet in Sweden, for instance, about 85 % of the population is atheistic. Time and again, when we quantify the violent crime statistics, the rates of abortion and other data, we find that, compared to other countries that are more religious, the Scandinavians are better off.

One interesting recent detail that is worth mentioning here, in line with my criticism of New Agey attemps at respectability through theism, was the conversation between Oprah and a group of Danish women during Oprah's visit to Denmark to figure out why they were the happiest people on Earth. She had a hard time believing that they were happy atheists, and even suggested that maybe they did believe in God, but they called it something else. It was all so foreign and unimaginable to her.

But yes, in countries like Finland they have unthinkable things like universal free education, even up to the university level, and universal medical coverage. Overall, Scandinavian countries not only have the lowest violent crime rates and the smallest prison populations but they also enjoy the highest levels of literacy on Earth: 100 %.

They do not exhibit the serious symptoms of dysfunction that the more religious countries exhibit, like the levels of violent crime, the levels of dysfunction and the prison populations that we have in the US, which is the most religious of all the developed countries.

Worse yet, rates of crime are higher in the more religious southern US, and the most religious ethnic group (African Americans) is also the one that exhibits the most symptoms of dysfunction and makes up an exageratedly disproportionate percentage of the prison population. The abundance of churches in the black communities may not be a sign of salvation but a symptom of dysfunction, a sign that people are trying to sedate themselves, that they're trying to evade their reality somehow. Perhaps it's culturally sanctioned psychotherapy. Whatever it is, surely there must be a healthier way because it has not really transformed the population that it serves according to its claims.

I also observe, time and again, that across the board the most religious countries often tend to be more hostile to democracy and human rights, and they tend to have the lowest educational performance. In the most extreme of religious societies, places ruled by superstition such as Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, the women are routinely denied access to an education, sometimes they can't even drive a car, gays are executed in public and so is anyone who cannot believe in Islam and is willing to admit it.

In Nigeria, which is one of the sorriest god-fearing societies in the world, members of two foreign religions that were brought there by colonial powers, islam and christianity, are constantly killing and attempting to destroy each other and there are recent news of a genocide of more than 1,000 children among the 15,000 who had been accused by Christian churces of witchcraft. Maybe they were autistic or epileptic?

In view of all the data and empirical evidence that is available to me, I have concluded that there is absolutely nothing wrong with being an atheist. I looked in the mirror recently and I had to admit that I had slowly and unexpectedly become an atheist. I could no longer honestly say that I believed in God and, although in honestly at the time it was not what I would have wanted, I was at peace with this and in fact I realized that I had been an atheist for quite some time.

It was probably the result of the 2008 election in California where gay marriage was voted out, because that's when I could no longer deny that as long as Christians (and Mormons) have political power, they will continue to attempt to destroy the reputations and even families of gays and that I was forever unable to trust Christians again even if they seemed friendly. They will always try to turn back time and take away our progress, if and when they have the chance. I have to admit that something died within me as I pondered this.

But I have to go still further back to September 11 of 2001. I started morphing into an atheist back then. I lost the ability to think of theism as inherently morally superior, as innocent and as wholesome as society had led me to believe it was. And in the end I lost the ability to believe that God was a real force outside of our imagination.

Innocence shares its cradle with ignorance. Ignorance is bliss, yes, but like fellow atheists have pointed out: should we envy the happiness of a drunk person? By coming out atheist what I am saying is that I do not want that old innocence anymore, and the ignorance that it arises with, that I am glad that I lost it and can be sober and honest about the nature of religion.

I want to continue to awaken, to see things as they are. I want to use Buddhist teachings and methods within a secularized, naturalist (meaning, non-supernatural) context in order to neutralize a bit of the cynicism that comes with being a grown up, er, an atheist :) because I've seen many ugly truths and I'm aware that that can be detrimental to one's character.

I prefer the freedom and freshness of naked reality without using religious illusions to escape. I prefer to not pay the high price we pay for the false hopes of religious beliefs. I boycott religions as a conscious consumer :) and I know that I have the strength it takes to move beyond false hopes because I have seen them for what they are.

Even the innocent and heartbroken Jesus, hanging from the cross, hesitated. Some people think theists have a softer heart than atheists, but atheism, for someone who has believed all this life, is also a moment of human vulnerability.

Not only that, but after he hesitated he said 'It is done', maybe resigning himself to the price that he had paid for wanting to defend the good name and the good reputation of a God that moments before didn't seem to be there. Few Christians are willing to try to contemplate those last few moments of realization in the life of their divinized cultural hero. Like Richard Dawkins, I too am an atheist for Jesus and I too think that Jesus would be for atheists if he lived today.

I am surprised by the fact that it has not been depressing but liberating to come out atheist. I am at peace and happy. If any one of my readers has considered seeing the world with the glasses of atheism, my advise is to not fear the cultural stigma. It isn't harder or easier to be an atheist. It's simply a more lucid, more honest, more sober way to live.

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