Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Caress, Fondle, Nuzzle the Hair of Your Feelings

The American Civil Liberties Union is supporting four atheist students in Smith County, Tennessee who are resisting the imposition of Christian belief and practice by teachers in their high school: "school officials promoting Christianity through official prayers, Bible distributions, religious posters, and even a giant cross painted in one of the school’s athletic facilities." Three of the students were interviewed for the ACLU blog, and right off the bat they made it clear that their own understanding of the issue at stake was deficient.
What has your school environment been like for you?
Harleigh: Overall, it’s really uncomfortable. You feel like you don’t fit in at all.
Leyna: To be honest, it’s kind of awkward having to deal with everybody making it seem like you have to believe in one thing, just like them.
Pyper: Mostly it’s just uncomfortable and feeling like you don’t fit in.
I hope that their ACLU team has explained to them that their feelings are not the issue, and won't be helped if they win their lawsuit.  (It's likely, in fact, that their school environment will become even more uncomfortable in retaliation for making trouble and hating on Jesus.  Conservative Christians are very loving toward people who interfere with their theocratic aspirations.)  But maybe the ACLU doesn't know either, since they previously defended a student's suit to block official prayer at their high school commencement because "'They just wanted to be able to attend their commencement without feeling like an outcast,' ACLU NC legal advisor Chris Brook said."  Most of the comments under the ACLU's Facebook post were dispiriting in their historical and political ignorance, subliteracy, and mindless sloganeering.

I've complained about this kind of misunderstanding before, but as Christian Slater said in Heathers, I'll repeat myself.  The First Amendment doesn't guarantee that your sensibilities won't be offended, either by stray dissidents or by the majority of society.  It doesn't guarantee your god-given right to feel like you fit in.  Very much the opposite.  Nor is there any reason why it should, and I think that's most important.  If you adopt and express an unusual, let alone unpopular opinion, you're likely to find yourself on the outs with numerous groups in your vicinity: your school, your church, your family.  This probably won't be pleasant, but it goes with the territory.  It's not a secret: there are many role models, historical and fictional, religious and secular, for individuals who defied the crowd.

And with the best will in the world, the crowd isn't necessarily going to be able to reassure you much.  If everybody else in town is going to church and you refuse to, you're going to be left out, an outsider, a weirdo.  Even if the majority are nice about it, which may happen, you're going to be marginalized, because you marginalized yourself.  (They're certainly not obligated to stay home from church so you won't feel like an outcast.)  All the First Amendment does is protect you against official, government penalties for being a weirdo.  That may not seem like much, but it took many centuries for civilization to get to reach that point.

Worse yet, one of the kids complained "I respect other people’s religion, and I would like it if everyone else would respect my beliefs."  Does she, now?  She "respects" beliefs that, by definition, she regards as false and unfounded?  I think that, like many people, she doesn't know what "respect" means.  We are obligated to respect other people's right to hold their beliefs, but not to respect the beliefs themselves, nor are we entitled to demand that others respect our beliefs.  And if, in a small-town Christian-dominated high school full of adolescents, the worst she has to complain about is a lack of respect, she's pretty lucky. 

"Belonging" seems a rather iffy notion anyhow.  Isn't it subjective?  People often feel that they don't belong even when there's no evident exclusion going on.  Think, for example, of all the gay people who claim that they always knew they were "different," even before anyone else around them knew.  Perhaps they were right that if others knew their secret, they'd be ostracized, but not always.  In my adolescence I myself felt more alienated than was warranted.  When I graduated and started hanging out at a regional campus in a nearby city, I found a group of people among whom I felt as if I belonged for the first time in my life: the university club that ran a small coffeehouse near campus.  I was still a weirdo, but it didn't seem to matter.

When I moved to the flagship campus two years later and came out, I found that I didn't feel I belonged in the gay community there.  Partly this was encouraged by some of the gay people I met, but I also found I didn't care, because I wasn't going to let other people define and regulate gayness for me.  But all of this took place apart from First Amendment issues, because belonging is not a function of the state.

Something similar occurred to me as a writer.  I took a couple of writing classes, first at the regional campus and then at the main one.  I "belonged" there because I'd signed up for the classes.  At the main campus, I tried to get my poems published but without success, though I don't think that's why my writing dried up.  Several years later, I began writing poetry again, and made some inroads in whatever poetic community could be said to exist around the campus and town.  But I didn't fit in, and the exclusion was mutual: other poets didn't seem to know what to do with me, nor did I.  I realized that I wasn't interested in being one of the gang, at least not theirs. This again wasn't anything that the ACLU could have helped me with.  But it wasn't traumatic for me.  I had friends and community of my own anyhow, including a couple of doctoral students in English who praised and encouraged my work.

Later, as I learned and thought more about these matters, I found that atheists were as varied a bunch as gay people, and that I'm not sure I belong among atheists -- except that we aren't, for the most part, organized and there's no one to force an atheist orthodoxy on me. Which doesn't mean I haven't encountered atheists who would like to excommunicate me, but at worst I find it puzzling.  I also wonder if I ever really expected that there was a warm, welcoming atheist community where everyone agreed about everything; I may have, on some unconscious level, but not seriously.  Some atheists are dogmatic, but they have no power over me as atheists, and I don't need their respect.

If these high school atheists in Tennessee expect to find an environment where their beliefs are respected, they are going to be sorely disappointed.  Being a dissident in any domain is not likely to be comfortable, and the First Amendment will only take you so far.  The rest you have to negotiate for yourself.

Amusingly, the religious-right pundit Rod Dreher has been complaining again about the lack of respect "traditional Christians" get in America, and I'll try to write about that next.  The general situation is not unlike what these kids in Tennessee are facing, except that I have even less sympathy for the likes of Dreher.