Trauma, and How Humanism Must Bridge the Religious Divide

Trauma, and How Humanism Must Bridge the Religious Divide February 18, 2019

Let’s begin with a story. My parents and I are on better terms, so we can laugh a little at the trauma experienced when I was younger. They both know, for instance, that in some ways the trauma I experienced in my family home was a stronger path to atheism than all my reading into different religions, science, history, and literature.

I was the rare child who every Christmas watched It’s A Wonderful Life and wept… not because of the loveliness of the film, but because of the solid conviction that the same thought experiment would not work with me. If I hadn’t existed, my parents–who according to different stories realized their incompatibility while pregnant with me–would have been able to make different choices. Dissolve their marriage. Find better partners. Heal. My siblings would not have been born, true–and I loved my siblings dearly–but neither would they have suffered as we all did, from the pain of compounded human errors in my family home. I grew up convinced that I did not make the world a better place, and that if anything my inability, as the eldest child, to be a parent in full for the others–to protect them, to advocate clearly for them, to surmount my own fear to make better choices in multiple crises for us all–seemed only to add to the suffering.

So you can see why Christianity would seem the most absurd body of beliefs to me. What, I was supposed to be thankful that a supposed god has forgiven me for being born? Sing praises to the glory of this invisible deity for its mercy in creating something flawed and then forgiving its creation its flaws? Oh no no no no: as a child, I “knew” that my existence was a net negative upon the world, but good grief, I also knew that I had no choice in the matter. I shouldn’t have been born, but I was, and so even though the sheer fact of my birth was a problem, I didn’t owe anyone an apology for that fact. So of course the Original Sin narrative, which argues that all births are a spiritual problem solved by Christ’s blood-sacrifice to secure his/the Father’s forgiveness of humankind for its intrinsically flawed nature, wasn’t going to jive with me.

Nothing short of a brain aneurysm, my atheist side knows, will ever lead me to buy into that crock.

And yet… and yet…

Humanism demands paying attention to the fact that many very intelligent people do buy into that crock. Many others from childhoods just like mine, even–and worse!

Atheistic discourse tends to fixate on the rational, on the idea that people who choose this story of forgiveness for being born, and the whole culture of gratitude for this fact that one finds in Christianity, are simply irrational fools.

But even though I could never imagine myself accepting that story (again, aneurysm aside)… I can also see oh so clearly what lies at the heart of its acceptance by many.

Because that feeling is just awful, friends. I wouldn’t wish that conviction that you are worthless and a burden on everyone around you, that sense that the world would have been better off without you ever in it, on anyone. And it never fully goes away, either, once the routine has been a part of your life. I still have times, as I noted in January, when the fatigue and the despondency kicks into higher gear, years after the core cause.

How cruel would I be not to recognize that we all have to find the stories that help us live?

Colombian Trauma: A Story of Silences and Faith

Here in Colombia, it is the rare person I meet who has not been touched in some way by the violence of preceding decades. Everyone has a story of varying levels of peril or restricted mobility. There are the families that were fragmented from each other for years, in part from blocked buslines between cities, and in part because even the farms surrounding, say, Medellín were at one point exceedingly difficult for city folk to reach. There are the workers who still had to travel between cities, and missed guerrilla attack by mere minutes on the roadways. There are the families that saw their children displaced, and their children murdered. There are the everyday heroes who had to hunker down with their charges–children, patients, the elderly–in buildings catching stray bullets and tear gas canisters, as well as the occasional bomb. There are the parents who had to comfort their children when suitcase explosives went off in the streets.

But even with all these histories of trauma, the day-to-day business of living still takes centre-stage, and Colombians (especially here in Medellín) meet their daily loads with bright smiles and optimism and a ready “Dios le pague” (God will repay [the formal] You) on their lips in thanks for any favour, and “Bien, gracias a Dios” in answer to any question of their wellbeing. How?

Well, much of the best of paisa culture, I’ve learned this past year, was in fact formed from the worst of that history. Paisas here, more than rolos in Bogotá, cleave strongly to the belief that the weekend is for family–time at your mother’s house, or with your extended family, gathered for a meal. Endearing custom, right? But also necessary during the hard years, when Medellín was all but cut off from many of the surrounding pueblos and major transit routes for average citizens, and power outages and shortages from various violent episodes made gathering with one’s family an intrinsic part of maintaining stability and effectively allocating resources in difficult times.

So, yes, some tremendous routines of familial strength and communal support absolutely arose from the ashes of ever so much violence in Colombia’s late-20th and early 21st centuries.

A less pleasant emergent custom, though, is that of silence. Men here in particular are often the first to tell me that Colombian marriages are often filled with lies by omission, and consequently yield many a double family, or single mother with children from affairs. (Remember: it’s a Catholic country, so birth control is… not as widely used as it should be.) Why silence, though? What is it about this culture that makes it so hard for couples to work through their problems together?

A Two-Part Conundrum

The church is, of course, one part of the problem–or specifically, how the concept of sin is employed by Catholics here. “Sin” just makes everything so sharply divided, Right and Wrong, Heaven-bound and Hell-bound, that when problems do come out, they come out explosively, as if all of eternity is in fact on the line.

For instance, the first couple I lived with in Medellín (I realized after the fact) had adopted a Canadian the way one might adopt a pet or have a baby: in part out of a kindness I’m grateful for, but also in part to try to fix something in their relationship. Instead, my presence only exacerbated problems–because when their marital problems came out, now there was this witness to them, and that witness made it difficult for them to carry on after dramatic episodes as if nothing had happened. ¿Cómo?  What was that now? You were staying away from the home every evening because the wife had called her mother-in-law to condemn the husband and declare that she was leaving the marriage, leading to a week of rows between the whole family? Oh, silly foreigner–no, no, that was nothing, everything’s fine, that’s just how problems are resolved here.

How exhausting, no? But also… what sort of marital problems were these to begin with?

I would meet… many women in the mode of this paisa wife in subsequent months in Colombia. She told me once that she had prayed to her god to send her a good man or no man at all (she was ready to go to the convent if need be). Instead, it wore on her, heavily, that the person she ultimately married was a charismatic fellow who had dated other women before her, and was around so many women in his work that she worried and doubted his loyalty all the time. Most of all, though, as she cried out to me that night, she wanted to know why, why her god had sent her this man instead of no man at all.

…Not exactly something an atheist can give easy answer to, right? Because for us it’s simple: people are people. We’re all flawed vessels bumping around until the vessel misshapened in just the right way locks into step with our own misshapened vessel (if at all). And such a vessel isn’t delivered to us by any greater force–excepting for those flukish times, mayhaps, when a friend actually sets you up with someone who’s weird in just the right ways for you. Generally speaking, you find someone who looks like they might be a good fit and you work on fine-tuning the shape of your flaws together over time.

(I simply poured her another sangria, if you’re wondering how I answered that wife’s spiritual lament at the time.)

Now, not being Catholic myself, I had to dig a little deeper to understand why the “godly” women here were so quick to decry their men as mujeriegos (womanizers)–and in consequence, why the men tended to be recalcitrant and silent about much of their lives with their partners for life, lest they risk such an explosive and exhausting, full-family episode. But I quickly realized that the women here have embodied purity mythology so intensely due to their Catholicism that they tend to believe:

a) that their devotion to purity will be rewarded by their god by the arrival of an equally pure man;

b) any deviance from purity in their own lives, which tends to happen as a matter of course, makes them irreparably bad;

c) if they’re irreparably bad because of deviation from purity, then so is anyone else who deviates, ergo any man who fails them by deviating even once is stained for life; and

d) in the process of the man in their life having stained himself he has also brought to ruin her own purity by association, casting her own salvation–and that of her whole family–into immediate peril.

This could all seem… super weird, considering the source material–but then again, it is extremely icky that Christ being with Mary Magdalene is treated as a shocking and significant act in Christian narrative. What’s this now, a god-among-men even treating sex workers as human beings? Well clearly he must divine because who else would do that?

Simply put, it’s a story that requires generation upon generation to continue to regard sex workers as somehow the lowest of the low (and not their pimps, or others who drove them to this work in the first place?) in order that Christ’s basic decency, in speaking to them as people of value, becomes established in Christian cultures as both revelation and miracle. And so we wonder why purity rhetoric still has such a tediously large role in Christianity as it’s practised today?

But the Other Part…

So yes, Catholicism and the rigidity and fear it can create around the notion of sin is one reason why families here tend to lie by omission, to avoid these dramatic extremes (which have happened to two other couples I’ve known since moving here, and led to the sharing of similar from half a dozen more!). But also at play is the fact that being trapped with one’s family for long spells means that you have to make being present your top priority, and that means suppressing as many small frustrations as one can.

If one can, though–and therein lies the other slice of this difficult history of trauma and silence. Because when folks learn of Medellín’s traumatic past, it’s easy to think of it as a trauma inflicted by a set number of external forces–the guerrillas, the cartels, the government, the police–upon all the locals. Reality is more porous, though, and in cultures with big families all it really takes is one person to be mixed with the wrong crowd for your own family to be ruinously imperiled, too.

Yesterday, for instance, I had the privilege of having over for lunch a woman whose family was touched by murder. This trauma story came out as a tangent, because we were talking more about how displacement from her home for many years has left her forever dislodged from her life’s original path–even though she’s made a solid enough life for herself in its wake; even though she has a wonderful child and a good job and the ability to walk away from the job if she needs to, because she owes nothing to anyone.

She told me in particular, though, about how her family moved back after the death of Medellín’s most notorious son, only to discover that the violence hadn’t ended yet. Her uncle was caught up in one of those criminal spheres, and he put pressure on her family to loan him money to pay off (as he spun this tale) someone who wanted him dead. The parents readily agreed, but my friend disagreed, suspecting that he was just using this threat to get money from family. Nevertheless, a good daughter, she of course added her money to the family pot when asked. Six months later, he hadn’t repaid one peso of his debt, and now he needed more money–this time, offering to sell them his car in exchange. She again put down her foot, wondering why he couldn’t just sell his car directly, but the parents agreed… only to find out that the car carried debts of its own, which they’d have to pay off before they could put it to use. And this time they listened to their daughter, and didn’t pay the uncle for the car while they were taking care of the secondary costs involved in the sale. The uncle, angry with them for not giving him the money right away, deferred with a tall tale about them stealing from him to the family matriarch, who took his side and tried to shame my friend’s family into paying right away. But the daughter was firm: the uncle wasn’t even trying to help untangle the mess with the car, and he hadn’t paid back what he already owed.

And in consequence? The uncle told one of the people in his bad crowd that her family was stealing, and owed him. And one in that bad crowd caused my friend’s younger brother to die brutally in the street.

There are many forms of traumatic silence, and for families like my friend’s–her story by no means unique among the ones I have been privileged to hear here–the real ache comes after, when the family on whole tries to sweep trauma to one side. The only debt he owes is to God was the underlying philosophy that allowed them to deflect from their shame. They protected the uncle right to the end, so my friend and her parents–my grieving friend and her devastated parents–had to live with silence among family until they couldn’t bear it, and chose the silence of life without that part of their family instead.

And how did she manage it, my friend, another older sister like myself–who loved dearly her little brother and had to see him dead upon the street? It was hard, she told me… for many years, all she could do was be with her mother. But then, she said, “God gave me a gift”–and as she said this she turned to her son, her dear sweet sensitive child, snoozing on my carpet after a good lunch and walk in the neighbourhood.

So, no, I can never, ever, ever buy into the stories that are used to advocate for humanity’s need to be grateful for the forgiveness of a deity I don’t believe exists.

But, oh, as a humanist… as a person with their own, small share of trauma…

How on Earth can I deny others whatever fills that ache, that silence, that in the absence of sufficiently humanistic stories still makes up so much of our hurting world?

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  • Fmr ATrealDonaldTrump

    See, I don’t think many Xns even think it through to the point of needing to ask god to forgive them for being born because he screwed up. Those few who do, if they want to hold on to their traditional belief, just call that blaspheming god, or add it to the catalogue of human sins caused by original sin while not looking at “why original sin.”

    Certainly not in public, and generally not online, and even not wholly in my heart and mind, do I do a Gnu Atheist laugh at them.

    But, do I think about the idea of converting them from that mindset? No. Do I feel THAT MUCH ache for them being stuck in it? No. Some, yes. That much? No.

  • wannabe

    Another great story, Ms. Clark, though all the needless pain also makes me sad.