Reluctant Warriors

Hi.  My name’s JT.  I’m a naturally shy person who needs a fair amount of my own space.  Theater was a natural outlet for me, since it gave me the opportunity to sing, to pretend, and to indulge my hyperactive imagination – precisely what I did in the safe confines of my room without an audience.  I’m the type who puddles up every time Michaelyn or Christina tells me they love me.  Absent any other influence, I would live in a small town with a decent enough job and enjoy a life of isolated serenity.  I would take walks through the woods and indulge my still hyperactive imagination.  I would read and play video games.  A quiet life is simply what suits me.

I recall the first times I got into confrontations on the subject of religion/politics.  My throat went dry, making my voice audibly hoarse.  I shook.  I forgot facts that should’ve been on the tip of my brain.

Even today when somebody emails me to tell me they’re letting go of god and asking me for books/web sites with good info, I still feel sympathy for them (even though I know their life is likely about to improve).  My goal is to drive religion from people’s minds, but I know there are social penalties people pay for being reasonable with regards to religion.  A part of me doesn’t want to see them go through it.

The reticence to see others sad under any circumstance is still there, but the part of me that sees the danger of religion has grown stronger over time.  The person who seeks to offend for the sake of offense is the person who lusts after conflict.  However, the warrior archetype of social change is usually occupied by someone who was forced into it either by circumstance or by conscience.  They are seldom somebody who naturally relishes battle, they are somebody who has grown accustomed to it over time.

I realize that to live a quiet life apart from the world, at least in my eyes, is to condone the insanity in it.  So I leave my room and I engage religious people.  I eschew gaming with friends or one-on-one time with loved ones and I research and write.  I work against my nature because I think it would be immoral to be complacent and less effective to not fight tooth and claw.  And yes, I fight pretty much every day, even though I’d rather be fishing or napping.

Take Jessica Ahlquist.  Here is a young woman thrown into a maelstrom who has had to grow up long before her time (and far ahead of most of the adults in Cranston).  She is shy and always eager to try and please everybody around her.  She has worked against her nature to fight a good and necessary battle, and yet scores of people accuse her of being evil and selfish.

There are tons of people in this movement like us who fight because we think it’s the best way to change things.  For us a quiet life tainted by guilt is more miserable than a life of staring down the world’s ugliness on a daily basis.  We are the answer to the argument that the gnus are assholes out to offend for the sake of offense.  In fact, the most fiery activists I’ve encountered are often the kindest: Greta Christina, Hemant Mehta, Ed Brayton…hell, anybody who has met PZ Myers in person knows he’s a teddy bear.  We all find our own ways to make it fun and to enjoy the fight, we add snark, make jokes, dress as pirates, etc., but the truth is that most of us would live and let live were we able to stomach the status quo. The truth is that we care too much about the world, about humanity, to watch it from a distance.

We don’t get to live our quiet lives.  What we often get is to listen to others tell us how much we hate peace, and how we’re incapable of masking our anger.  The irony is that for most of us it was a huge and lengthy undertaking to escape our placid natures and to actually get to the point where we could be sincere about our anger.  Most of us saw the necessity of expressing displeasure with our neighbors long before we got past the politics of getting along and long before we were ready to let go of a life of serenity outside the culture war.

Most of the firebrands are not assholes.  We’re normal people (some of us even introverts *raises hand*) who realize that someone has to honestly tell people their beliefs are embarrassing in order for things to change, and we’re willing to tell people the damn truth and to take the rap of being agents of unhappiness that comes with it.

Most of us, including me, have no regrets about this.

These thoughts occurred to me because I realized how glad I was to have people in my life with whom I can share all that I’m doing: the strongly-worded emails to high school administrators, the debates with theists where I tell them they should be ashamed for not doing better, essentially all the people I’m pissing off, and they know that if the world were better I’d be the first to leave it be in lieu of the quiet life.

It means the world to have someone who knows I’m a nice person who makes others unhappy out of necessity, even when the rest of the world doesn’t get it.

If you’re the quiet type, if you’re one of the people who sees the need for the fight but don’t think your personality would ever allow it, you can do it.  There are an increasing number of people who will appreciate just how difficult it was for you.

I’ll understand.

PERSONAL: Happy birthday, Hitch.
PERSONAL: Sorry to disappoint you, Julian.
Update and pics from #AACon15. MST3K cast members were at my talk.
You guys are wonderful.
About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • Kathleen Tims

    You? A firebrand? Nah. You’re just the guy who offers pajamas to girls who don’t feel like strip poker. ;)

  • Mare Lacrimarum

    Hmmm…this article has hit me harder than I thought it would. Must go reflect on it…

    • Biodork

      Yeah, that’s kind of where I’m at. My first response was to try to make a joke because it’s uncomfortably close to home. This is a really touching blog post.

  • Ringo

    Argh. Stop being all inspiring and shit, I’ll have to get off my ass and change the world! ;)
    Srsly tho, thank you.

  • Michaelyn

    “I recall the first times I got into confrontations on the subject of religion/politics. My throat went dry, making my voice audibly hoarse. I shook. I forgot facts that should’ve been on the tip of my brain.”

    Let me introduce you to Michaelyn..

    Oh, and I love you.

  • dana

    Interestingly enough, JT, out of all your posts I have to say this one resonated with me most. Probably because I’ve only recently really come to understand the necessity of what you and so many other atheists are doing (I’m not a confrontational person by nature) and finding myself getting angry and mouthy about things like the Jessica Alquist situation et al. I like to live and let live… but that’s not always possible. Greta’s “Why atheists are angry” talk at Skepticon really hit me hard too because it made me realize that this is about making the world a better place. When I hear Christians get angry, it tends to be about how they’re being persecuted… not about the rest of the world.

    anyway… hugs to you, kiddo.

  • hopeevey

    Beautiful, and prodding me to be more vocal in my own atheism.

  • Mad Hominem

    It’s so true — the most vitriolic atheist bloggers I can think of are the most disarming, friendly folks when I get the chance to see them in person. It was REALLY weird the first time I heard PZ speak… I like the contrast, though. Keeps me on my toes about my perceptions. ^_^

  • judykomorita

    That was an awesome post, JT! Couple of comments:

    I’ve never met you, and probably never will, so I don’t know about your being shy. But you sound very much like an Introvert. Don’t confuse the two. Introverts need lots of quiet time to recharge their energy because being around other people drains us a lot. Extroverts, otoh, gain energy by being around others, and lose energy being alone.

    Also, from your comment about tearing up, it sounds like you may be an HSP – a Highly Sensitive Person. (See Elaine Aron’s books.)

    Celebrate these two traits. They make you even more special than you already are.

    And of course, thank you for making me feel guilty. :) I’m nudging 60, so I’ll probably never get over my fear of confronting others. But I applaud you and all of your compatriots for doing what I have not been able to do.

    May your voice never quiver again.

    • JT Eberhard

      Both of those sound like me.

      May your voice never quiver again.

      It won’t.

  • Marshall

    It means the world to have someone who knows I’m a nice person who makes others unhappy out of necessity, even when the rest of the world doesn’t get it.

    I’m the kind of person who goes to parties and sits in the corner quietly, sipping beer and laughing occasionally at the conversations of others, and I’m perfectly content with that. The adjective most commonly used to describe me is quiet, and with good reason. There are maybe three people in the world that I feel comfortable enough around to defy my usual quiet nature, and if not for them I’d hardly talk at all. It’s not that I don’t enjoy conversation, it’s just that I find it incredibly difficult to relax and speak freely around people I don’t know very, VERY well.

    On the other hand, and people have come to know this about me, if you make a blatantly false and derogatory statement about an individual or group, use bigoted slurs, repeat pseudo-scientific claims that have been repeatedly debunked, or hurt someone, I will jump up and, usually politely at first, say what I feel needs to be said. This isn’t something I’ve just done all my life, either. In fact, the first time this happened, I was surprised, and confused, and felt like shit about myself afterwards for being an obnoxious asshole. It has taken a long time for me to realize that it’s alright to stand up for truth and humanity. Apart from the people who consistently offer me encouragement and repeatedly assure me that it’s alright to call people out for saying things that hurt others, I often get told to shut up, or that I’m getting too worked up, or that I just shouldn’t care as much as I do. Which is weird, because ninety eight percent of the time I’m sitting quietly (and usually with a guitar in hand to give me an excuse not to talk) and just enjoying the exchanges other people are having.

    This post struck home, because I read it and see myself, and because I get to the line I quoted above and the three people who offer me so much support and guidance immediately pop into my head, and it suddenly becomes clear that I’m not the only one, that it’s not really that strange at all that someone as quiet and shy and socially awkward as I would STILL speak loudly and passionately when others are being harmed. Because we CAN’T BE QUIET at that point. No matter how much easier it would be for me if I never spoke up, if I never called people out on their bigotry, if I never pointed out how the things others are saying and doing are causing real harm to real people, I seem to be entirely incapable of doing that. I’ve lost a few friends, but I’ve gained a few as well, and I DO have people who understand WHY I speak when I speak, as well as why I don’t most of the rest of the time.

    This was exactly the post I needed to read today. Thanks JT, I’ve only recently discovered your blog (since you moved to FTB, as it happens) but more and more I feel like you’re speaking about, for, and to people like me.

  • SuperM

    PZ is a teddy bear and you are a chipmunk! Hilarious!
    I enjoyed the post.

  • cccbccc

    Thanks for the encouragement. I needed it!

  • imjustred

    Very well done.

  • neatospiderplant

    Possibly my favorite post of yours. Definitely in the top 10.

  • mtlskeptic

    This really resonates with me because I am an introvert. Being around people I don’t know well is difficult for me and I don’t make new friends easily because of that. I’m not a naturally social person and I’ve basically been a “live and let live” kind of person most of my life. I have no problem expressing my opinion with people I know well (and very directly so) but doing it with acquaintances or people I don’t know is really difficult for me. Part of it is also about self-preservation. We all know how distrusted atheists are. There can be real consequences to admitting atheism, especially online where a potential employer can easily google you. You might be able to fight someone firing you for your beliefs but it’s a bit harder to prove that someone never called you for an interview because they found your blog and don’t even want to meet with an atheist. I don’t hide my atheism; if anyone asks me about my religious beliefs, I tell them. And I’m just as angry as anyone about the injustice perpetuated by religion. I’m just not sure I have the guts to put my livelihood on the line just yet.

  • Carina De Almeida

    Thanks for this post JT. It has touched me deeply. I stil however cringe for my daugter’s discomfort in her Catholic school.

    Here in SA a good private education more often than not means Catholic schools and in light of this fact Xe’nedra (11) is being exposed to religion that she does not agree with. This week there was a particularly difficult incident when Sister Bernadette asked her class who believes that you need God in your life. Xe’nedra was the only child that did not raise her hand.

    She explained to me after that with the exception of her close friends the whole class turned and stared at her in utter disbelief. Her words were “Mom they looked at me like I was a freak!” It hurt her feelings terribly.

    What can a mother say to this. I simply said that at least she knows the truth.

    Although she has a blog and will probably blog about this experience eventually ( she is not at all a confrontational person.

    How do I help her stand up for herself in such a situation?

    Any advice will be greatly appreciated.

  • judykomorita

    Carina, I don’t know if you’ll come back and check this. I can only offer my opinions, and they may or may not work for you or Skeptickid. I have 3 kids in their 20′s; 2 are atheists, one is a skeptical deist.

    If she’s shy/retiring/introverted/non-confrontational/passive (pick one or two), she’s going to have some trouble standing up for herself no matter what.

    The first thing is what you’ve already done. Let her know it’s okay to tell the truth, and let her know it’s okay to be upset.

    Second let her know that whether she wants to come forward and be out, or wants to hang back and not push it, either is okay with you, and either should be okay with her. Some people have the fortitude to speak out in school and risk all of their friendships, others can’t.

    If she chooses to try to speak out, I suggest coming up with a set of questions or comments she might get from the believers (could be quite a list), and help her come up with answers that she can memorize and feels comfortable saying.

    Then act them out. You be the xian, she can be herself. Let her try various responses, varieties of tone of voice and body language. Coax her to try the whole gamut of response types – shy revealer to out-and-proud activist. She can then decide which feels most like herself – or how she would want to be.

    All that’s relatively easy, if you have the time. I hope you do. From there, she needs to have an idea whether and when she will actually voice these responses. As: only when it’s brought up in class? Only when it’s one-on-one? Only after school? (umm, might be dangerous?) When to answer and when to keep one’s peace is a big decision.

    Also discuss with her the possibility of bullying (verbal or worse), and how she might respond in various situations.

    I could go on, but you get the idea. Baby steps. See how she feels, what directions she wants to go in, and practice!

    Good luck.

    • Carina De Almeida

      Thanks for your response judykomorita!

      Xe’nedra actually posted on her blog this evening about this experience and reading it rends my heart but I must admit that I am happy that she felt she could relate it to others.

      I like the idea of role playing a few questions as this will get her confidence up. Generally she is not shy to discuss her opinions but I think she finds it daunting at school because there she is completely surrounded by the religious.

      She is reading The Magic of Reality at the moment by the great Richard Dawkins and believe this will also help with some responses.

      Thanks again for your well worded response and also a huge thanks to JT for this post.