R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Find out what it means (to me).

R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Find out what it means (to me). August 2, 2013

What’s it like leaving Christianity?

It’s like discovering you don’t need fixing–that you have value and worth as a person just because you breathe. It’s like finding out that you were scared all this time of a big cardboard cut-out that just looked like a monster in the semi-dark of your room late one night. It’s like discovering a world of beauty and freedom that you’d closed your eyes to all that time, but now your eyes are open and it’s bursting into your head like the first bits of color in The Wizard of Oz. It’s like re-learning your place in the great, vast, colorful tapestry that is humanity and the cosmos itself and looking at other people not as witnessing marks or with sorrow for their future doom, but with love because they are, like you, struggling to get through their days and enjoy what moments they can before that finite life is expended. It’s about letting go of the need to control other people’s lives or cast judgement upon them or try to fix them. It’s about being aware that this life is what matters, and it’s about living for this life instead of for a future life that may not ever happen.

It’s like learning for the first time what respect actually means and then, more importantly, how to show it.

I was always fairly polite, but after leaving Christianity, I realized how massively disrespectfully I’d behaved toward the people around me. I’d always thought I was being so very loving, but disrespect is not loving. I’d acted out of what I genuinely thought was the best of intentions, but good intentions aren’t enough.

English: Reza Aslan, author of No god But God,...
English: Reza Aslan, author of No god But God, How to Win a Cosmic War (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Right now the religious world is buzzing about an interview a Fox News host, Lauren Green, did with Dr. Reza Aslan, who just wrote a book about Jesus Christ. The Independent called the interview, with rather more restraint than I expected out of a UK site, a car crash. Green repeatedly asked Dr. Aslan why he, a Muslim, felt the need to write a book about Jesus–I guess because Jesus belongs to Christians exclusively, and nobody except Christians are allowed to talk about him in Fox-News-Land.

I think it’s downright amazing that he wrote this book at all, much less got it published in today’s polarized climate. It speaks well of our culture that a Muslim could get a book out about Jesus. But the implication from Fox is that nobody is allowed to talk about a topic without having a personal affection for it and without agreeing with Fox News’ opinion about that topic, and moreover that there’s something deeply, worryingly suspicious about someone who does not share those biases yet talks about that topic anyway. That implication is, in my opinion, very disrespectful to Dr. Aslan. Do I agree with whatever his thesis is? I don’t know enough about it to say; I rather suspect it’ll be one of those hagiographical things that tries to generalize about the era and what Jesus might have been like from what we do know about the time. But I do know that the truth of a matter does not depend upon the biases a scholar brings to that matter, and that Dr. Aslan has the right to talk about whatever topic he chooses to discuss. I refuse to cast aspersions upon his moral integrity or his accuracy simply because of his religion. His religion should be–and is–irrelevant with regard to his scholarship.

A big part of loving people is showing respect for their intelligence, integrity, and existing faith/philosophy system. That this Fox News host kept harping on Dr. Aslan’s religion tells me that she (or, to be fair, the people pulling her strings; she may not have been the one to decide what she’d ask during this interview) has absolutely no interest in whether or not the book is worthwhile–look at how little “screen time” Dr. Aslan’s actual book got compared to her constant insinuations about his motivations and biases. The interview was all about trying to invalidate Dr. Aslan as a person so the audience would not need to engage with anything he was saying in his actual book.

I know this maybe sounds kind of weird coming from someone who takes such a solidly displeased stance against the Judeo-Christian mythos in general, but I don’t think it’s that weird. I want a world where someone’s religion is irrelevant. I want a world where someone’s feelings about a topic have nothing to do with how that person addresses that topic or what they discover about it. I want a world where a sincere person’s attempt is treated with respect even if in the end that person’s scholarship turns out to be flawed.

And that is not how things are going. At this point, knowing an evangelical Christian (like David Barton and his ilk) has written a book about religion, science, or history makes me deeply suspicious of that book’s worthiness or accuracy. It’s almost pathetically funny that Fox News’ host accused Dr. Aslan of doing exactly what Christians so often do: let their biases taint their scholarship. I guess I can understand why she went there–maybe she knows her side does it, so she figures her opposition does it too. That doesn’t make it okay. I’m glad that we’re starting to address biases and who’s allowed to talk about subjects like Biblical history. In that sense, Dr. Aslan’s done more with his book than he ever could have imagined possible.

Either way, I’m about done with the silencing tactics. I’ve decided that my place in the world may well be as the person who opposes toxic Christianity yet isn’t an atheist. For some reason, even other non-Christians are quick to whip the accusation of atheism out the second they get challenged about something. First, I don’t consider being accused of atheism to be an insult, but I do object to way the accusation gets flung–like atheism would make me say or do intellectually dishonest things that I’d never, ever say or do if I were only of whatever religious persuasion the accuser is. Second, I find it disrespectful to attack someone as a person or try to dismiss them out of hand or shut them up rather than engage with their ideas.

I’ve got a better idea. Why don’t we all treat each other like rational, sane adults and pretend we’re all more interested in the truth than in winning a fight, tearing each other down, or dismissing each other out of hand?

It’s just crazy enough to work!

People don’t listen and become open to change while they think they’re being attacked. They’re too busy defending to even think about changing their minds. As the saying goes, it takes two people to make a fight. As another saying goes, when a married couple fight, both of them lose. But why stop at marriage? Why not see other arguments and fights as situations where both participants lose? Even most apologists know that nobody converts or deconverts because they encountered someone with a biting zinger or a condescending attitude–which is strange, considering how many “loving” Christians I’ve run into who regularly employ both.

Here’s what I’d suggest to Christians–and everybody, really: Instead of trying to silence someone because you think he or she’s female, or an atheist, or a Republican, or a Christian, or whatever it is that invalidates that person in your eyes so you don’t have to deal with what that person is saying, why don’t you try showing some respect instead?

This person very likely has some very good reason for believing whatever it is he or she is arguing. This person is very likely not a total idiot. This person may be very well-educated or experienced in the field about which s/he is speaking. And because of that deep belief or trust in his/her own experience and education, this person is not going to take kindly to being treated like a gullible mark who drank some Kool-Aid, even if that’s unfortunately exactly what that person is and did.

It’s not your job to fix other people or make them see the light. Instead of treating every discussion like a potential battle, a battle that needs to see a winner and a loser, treat discussions instead like a sharing session. Present your own reasoning, your own sources, and your own argument, and let the other person present his or hers. Don’t demand the other person concede immediately; most of us need a little time to digest, and nobody likes feeling strong-armed. Have a little decorum.

Needless to say, avoid insults, baby talk, pet names, and silencing tactics. Treat others as you would like to be treated. And in this way, there may not be consensus in the end, but at least there will be genuine communication. And even if the person you’re engaging is not sincere, you’ll be reaching hosts of others who are watching and silently judging from the sidelines. I don’t know about anybody reading this blog, but the second someone uses baby talk or pet names on me, I instantly add about 70% to the chance that their actual argument is invalid. A real argument doesn’t need condescension to sell it, and it certainly doesn’t need to shut dissenters up. It has nothing to fear.

I’ll close with this anecdote. Not too long ago, I caught a guy trolling a religion video over on YouTube–he was acting like a super-Christian to rile up non-believers and start arguments (by the way, this is really, really non-productive and if you’re one of those sorts, please consider stopping–it’s not like we don’t have plenty of super-Christians to poison that lake already without dishonestly helping grow their numbers, and it’s not like you can’t start arguments anyway as Devil’s Advocate–the group of ex-Christians I hang out with argue about religious stuff all the time just to refine our own understanding and learn new things). I generally assume that YouTube Christians aren’t actually Christians anyway, but this guy really took the cake. Finally I had to confront him because I was just feeling so much admiration for the act he’d set up. The troll was astonished; apparently he’d been doing this for some time and I’d been the first to catch that he wasn’t a Christian at all. He asked what had given him away.

I replied in complete honesty, “Well, we’ve gone about a dozen back-and-forth exchanges and you haven’t once used any infantilizing pet names on me like ‘sweetie’ or ‘honey’ or any silencing tactics on me. I’ve never, ever seen a man who really holds the views you pretend to hold who doesn’t find it fundamentally and constitutionally impossible to talk respectfully to a dissenting woman. You need to throw some of those in there if you really want to be convincing.”

The problem was, he wasn’t quite up for doing something that disrespectful just to complete the illusion.

Obviously, we all run into people who are not sincere, and who are, in all objectivity and without any hyperbole, batshit crazy. But even then, I try to direct my answers not toward the clearly-disturbed person, but rather toward those who are lurking and listening; I use that person’s words as a launching-point rather than direct an answer right toward that person. If nothing else, such a tactic helps distance myself from the disturbed person and not get so emotionally invested (remember, when you try to wrestle a pig, you just get dirty and the pig likes it), but also to keep the discussion to credible, objective facts. Even if the person I’m talking to is less than sincere and invested, others who are watching will be. It’s still worthwhile to keep my cool.

And it’s a lot more respectful.

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