Who Is Our Family? Secular Community & Colombian Nativity

Who Is Our Family? Secular Community & Colombian Nativity December 14, 2018

Let’s begin with a story. This one is a story in process: my own, as I try to adapt to yet another form of online “community”. There’s a huge push, as an online writer, to try to turn all one’s output towards revenue. Self-promote! Network! Make that bank! Often, though, seemingly easy paths to “making bank” involve new investments of time, energy, and the learning of distinct platforms. Many then become second jobs unto themselves.

Currently, for instance, I’m wrangling with two new accounts, a “Buy Me A Coffee” platform and a “Patreon” page, both of which have significant learning curves. Buy Me A Coffee should be easy, but I had to acquire a new internationally friendly money-transfer account, Payoneer, with which to integrate the site and my Colombian bank… and for reasons that escape me, that integration process has stalled. So, every day I take another quick stab at trying to find a solution, so I can access contributions to date. After that, I hope to start working on the other part of the website: creating better ways of thanking donors directly for their contributions.

Conversely, I knew Patreon would be tricky, because the “tiers” you’re meant to use are supposed to offer patrons rewards–special, private-access content!–for their investment in you. Great in theory, but I’m still struggling with producing consistently meaningful content there while also posting twice-weekly here, and trying to pitch freelance articles, and editing the novel prior to Jan 2 agent-pitching, and of course going to my day-job. I work best in targeted-project spurts, and both sites require me to dedicate my time differently, so–it’s easy to feel scattered, and a failure at self-promotion.

One benefit of this process, though, is its reminder of how easy it is to get caught up in the wrong sort of “community”. Here I am, dedicating myself to learning new online platforms that promise an easy path to networking with other people. To building a base. To joining up with something larger than myself. And… of course… to make those service-providers “bank” in turn.

All year in Colombia, though, I’ve been receiving lessons in the community that can be neglected in the process.

On Sunday, I discussed some of these cultural differences in light of how secular policy better centres family in Colombian life.

Today I want to raise another example, drawn from the striking nature of many Colombian nativity scenes, about the community we leave behind.

What We Include, and What We Leave Out

In the framing photo for this post, from one of the fanciest malls in Medellín, you’ll find a rather traditional–if elaborate–animatronic recreation of the Wise Men’s arrival to greet the infant Christ. You have your three wise men, of course, and some animals being tended to by onlookers also at the event; and Joseph, and Mary, and the manger where you usually won’t find Christ added until Christmas. Some versions of this iconic scene angels and cherubs watching over. Some add local flavour in the form of barn fixtures, gifts, and plantlife.

This is the nativity scene I know best, from my life in Canada: a scene focussing on visitors in the humble first home of the god-made-flesh of Christianity.

Colour me surprised, then, when I learned what nativity looks like elsewhere in the city–and especially, in the humbler, more traditional barrios. Here’s a nativity scene lovingly assembled in an Estrato 2 barrio (the second-lowest socioeconomic measure):

And here’s the nativity scene in my building complex, in an Estrato 3 barrio (media trabajadora, or “middle-class worker”):

Can you spot the major structural difference between these two nativity scenes (and many more like them, all about the middle- to lower-class barrios of Medellín) and the one from a higher-class mall: the ones we in North America more often see?

Extending the Limits of Home, Family, and Community

 Yes, in mid- to lower-class barrios in Medellín, you’ll find nativity scenes that include the whole community, situating where everyone else in Bethlehem might have been, and what they might have been doing, while the story of Christ’s birth and visitation by the Wise Men occurred. Because the animals in town would still need tending to, wouldn’t they? And the wine-seller would still need to go about his trade. And goods would still need to be produced for sale, and driven about from property to property, while others offered services from their stalls.

And why not include these more mundane facets of the ancient tale? The whole point of the story, after all, involves the humble nature of a god’s origins among mankind. So why should the manger and accompanying barn scene be treated as a coherently closed off space, like any more traditional North American family home?

The answer, of course, lies plainly in this question–and is born out in the barrios here where these more intricate scenes emerge. It’s because in lower-class neighbourhoods the fluidity of communal space is perfectly obvious to all who live there. And because a culture where the construction of shelter from life-imperilling cold and snow does not reinforce clear limits between mine and yours. So when even more affluent religious people talk warmly of the poor in places like South America or Africa having tremendous Christian piety, it’s hardly a surprising outcome. The circumstances of the poor in many neighbourhoods of many countries in these continents, after all, often better resonate with the original scenes being celebrated at Christmas.

Conversely, is it any wonder that we find more closed-off nativity scenes in North America? In countries where public vagrancy is heavily regulated and street-peddling illegal? Where the nuclear unit and its coherently bordered notions of the home govern much of our cultural practice of family and community?

Towards the Bigger Lesson Here…

As I noted on Sunday, the great benefit of watching Christmas play out in Colombia is getting to see exactly how cultural variations (and more specifically, secular pressures) change religious practices. Why? Because those secular pressures are the real battlegrounds for 21st-century humanism, and the reason that we secular folk need to be more globally minded in our understanding and practice of atheism.

At the same time, for instance, that I’m trying to learn what does and doesn’t work with regard to online community-building, I am also trying to overcome the massive hurdle that this blog’s very name and context creates for its dissemination among my existing communities. Simply put, quite a few people in my “real-life” communities–people of gentle faith-based practices, and more overt faith-based practices–routinely press for more access to my writing… but when I suggest that they can read biweekly essays from me here, the word “atheist” in the title of this column gives them pause.

And why shouldn’t it, when the first major waves of atheism in the 21st century involved rousing rhetorical indictments of both the moral and factual paucity of religious belief? Even if they were swayed by elements of that discourse, what could they conceive as the point of such a blog? What else was left for atheism to say, beyond beating the dead horses of both biblical literalism and the idea that religious belief belongs anywhere near the establishment of secular policy?

…Except that the first major waves of atheistic discourse in the 21st century absolutely left plenty to be said and done by the publicly secular folk emerging after them. Because, yes, of course, there remain strong pockets of theocratic nationalists whose beliefs still imperil secular policy efforts. But also, that question of secular policy unto itself calls out for comment–from all of us. From humanists across the spiritual/secular divide.

And right now we humanists have a publicity problem. For years, our most prominent speakers primarily (though not exclusively*) addressed the failings of particular texts in conjunction with the routine hypocrisy of their adherents. How now do we stop being known simply as beaters of that drum? How do we reach our fellow human beings with a different, more proactive sort of humanist discourse?

Colombian Nativity & Globally Minded Humanism

On this blog, I have been adding my voice to a chorus that is already doing such work; already seeking to change the conversation. I am joined here, on the Nonreligious Channel, by the likes of the Secular Cinephile (who reviews movies with a secular perspective), Shem the Penman (who tackles secular and religious storytelling as it pertains to science and nature), Foxy Folklorist (who tackles current events and broader folklore traditions), and Luciano Gonzales, whose work at Sin God has been put on pause only because of his focus right now on other forms of globally minded humanism in his life.

And I know, my contributions make for a comparatively sluggish and less incendiary bundle of humanist commentary. In trying to produce more “evergreen” content in lieu of immediate hot takes on major cultural issues, I don’t produce the sort of individual and movement-wide takedowns that make for the most satisfying reading. I don’t want to, either. I want, instead, to urge my humanist readers–and the secular humanists among them, in particular–to spend more time looking inward. To see how they may well exist outside of religious paradigms, yet still approach the world in destructive ways–ways that the presence of religion merely exacerbates, but does not intrinsically create.

The Christian Bible has a great deal of useless counsel, but, well, there’s something to be said for Mateo 7:3: “¿Y por qué miras la paja que está en el ojo de tu hermano, y no echas de ver la viga que está en tu proprio ojo?”

And so if I can embed in my readers’ thoughts even a moment’s reflection on something as simple but profoundly culturally resonant as the scope of a nativity scene… If I can leave you who have risked reading an atheist’s blog with a reminder that our sense of community never arrives from the simple use of given cultural story (spiritual or otherwise)… That it instead arises from the secular pressures–geographical, socioeconomic, political–that daily shape our sense of self, family, and community…

If you can be swayed by such an argument, then maybe we’re closer than we think to enacting the sort of globally minded and inclusive 21st-century humanism that we need to tackle the greatest nightmares of our contemporary moment.

And if so, well, that’s an imminent arrival worth celebrating–both on the approaching eve of Christianity’s version of the same, and long after the manger in your community is packed away, empty, again.



*I would be sorely remiss, of course, in not pointing out that, even at the height of New Atheism’s dominance in secular discourse, writers and thinkers such as A.C. Grayling, Susan Jacoby, Dan Dennett, and Penn Jillette were well known for advancing other discourses, too–in philosophy, history, and the theory and praxis of critical and sceptical thinking. Likewise, Umberto Eco, Margaret Atwood and a host of other humanist writers have contributed mightily to that conversation through storytelling in other forms. It’s a matter of cultural focus that’s to blame for this perspective of atheism, and not a question of the underlying range of atheistic thought in any given historical era. Which writers and speakers would you add to this list?

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