Occasionally, I Think I’m an Alien

Nathan Salo Tumberg, a friend and fellow atheist blogger at Occasionally, I think, doesn’t understand me (he also deeply loves his wife, and his thoughtful account is charming to read). Specifically, he doesn’t understand my ecstatic reaction to my visit to B’nai Jeshurun Synagogue. While I found it uplifting and inspiring he, he thinks, would find unpleasant, “cultish and melodramatic”:

when I try to imagine the experience of being at the BJ community’s service, the word “suffocating” is what comes to mind, rather than any positive emotion just looking for expression. It reminds me of the images of smiling cults that one sees on TV, yes, and it sounds over-the-top, true, but it also sounds like a lot of people and noise pressing in on me, making it hard to breath.

This is not uncommon: the difference in reaction between Nathan and I exemplifies a disjunction I feel between myself and many other atheists I know. Occasionally, speaking with other atheists and skeptics at major conventions, I think I’m some sort of alien. My responses to religious spaces, rituals, and ceremonies are often very different to other atheists’. One example: while co-leading a workshop at Skepticon V I described my response to St Peter’s Basilica, which I visited as a teenager on a choir trip of Europe. Although already a staunch atheist at the time, the grandeur and magnificence of the space so overwhelmed me that I felt the need to kneel in the knave and gaze up, awestruck, at the spectacle. One participant, seated in the front row, thought this rather absurb, and suggested that as a child I must have been a big sucker for Santa Claus and other nonsense if this was my reaction to St. Peters’.

For the record, I was not easily fooled by Santa. Indeed, my brother and I once decided to test the proposition that Santa was, in fact, our parents by laying out, instead of the traditional minced pies and mulled wine, luncheon meat sandwiches, cheese and onion crisps (chips in American lingo), and glasses of Diet Coke – all things we were well aware our parents hated. If, we reasoned, that food had been eaten when we awoke on Christmas Day, then we could be reasonably confident that it was not our parents who had eaten it. I’m quite proud of our youthful skepticism!

However, in general, it does seem fair to state that I am significantly more enthusiastic about the communal, ritualistic, and aesthetic aspects of religion than most American atheists I know. By and large, religion actually doesn’t give me the creeps, and I’ve even found myself enjoying religious services even if I find the explicit theological message ridiculous and the moral message outrageous. Many atheists I speak with see choirs singing, swaying, and waving their hand in the air and say “Cultish!” I see the same and say “Awesome!”.

Why so? Perhaps it’s simply a matter of temperament or taste, and there’s not much to say on the matter. But, as Nathan suggests in his post, temperament and taste both are impacted by history, and here’s where some clues might reside.

  1. I’m a choirboy. I grew up going to a religious school (the diffident, non-imposing Church of England sort of religion) and I sung in the school choir for years. I have sung my way through countless masses and services and psalms.  I have become familiar, and therefore mostly comfortable with that sort of religious spaces. I love to sing, and so I have lots of positive memories associated with those spaces which have enabled me to do what I love. I haven’t had any significantly bad experiences with religion in my past
  2. I’m a drama geek. My parents raised me on theatre, taking me to see plays and musicals very frequently. I spent my teenage years appearing in countless theatrical productions (this is not an exaggeration: my performance CV for my high school and college years is ridiculously long. I wonder how I found time for anything else!). I like to perform, and I have an appreciation for the dramatic – even the melodramatic. I tend to view religious services as pieces of theatre, and I’m attuned to the production values in and of themselves, regardless of theological content. I therefore find religious services interesting as exercises in dramatic production.
  3. I am attuned to the emotional “vibe” of a space. I am not saying here that I am particularly sensitive in a one-on-one sense, but rather that I tend to get a “feeling” for the energy of the place when I walk in. I’m not talking about anything supernatural or woo-ish. I’m talking of that sense of comfort and ease you get when you enter a safe space, the sense of excitement you get arriving in a packed sports stadium or concert hall. Perhaps this is related to my many hours on the stage: I think you have to develop an acute sensitivity to space and to emotional tone if you are going to act effectively, and I remember spending hours on minute changes in set design and spatial organization when I was directing shows.
  4. I get swept up in things. I am emotionally very open and allow myself to be emotionally affected by those around me. I cry buckets through movies, can’t help but sing a tuneful song, always find myself tapping my feet to music. I’ve even found myself waving my hands in the air during religious services! To me, this is perfectly natural – I find it hard not to do it. But I do understand that other people react differently.

Now, I’m not sure what to make of these differences. I don’t think my positive response to these sorts of religious ceremonies and rituals is necessarily problematic, and it certainly doesn’t represent any softening of my atheism. But it may carry dangers: I may be less astute to the dangers of communal activity like ritual and ceremony than others simply because I enjoy it, for instance. There’s the opposite potential problem too, though: that one’s dislike for such experiences encourages rejection of them when they might in fact have value. It’s hard for me to see what’s “cultish” about BJ Synagogue, for instance, even if I agree it might be “melodramatic”.

But there’s no doubt – I think! – that my position is the minority position among atheist activists. Most don’t think like me – and perhaps they don’t feel like me either! If anyone’s the alien in this equation, I am!

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