Aliens, Mummies, and The Visit  

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Recently I came across this article by Matt Taibi about his time spent at a retreat sponsored by Cornerstone Church, the megachurch pastored by John Hagee in Texas. It's a good article, but a couple of paragraphs caught my attention.

Here I have a confession to make. It's not something that's easy to explain, but here goes. After two days of nearly constant religious instruction, songs, worship and praise — two days that for me meant an unending regimen of forced and fake responses — a funny thing started to happen to my head. There is a transformational quality in these external demonstrations of faith and belief. The more you shout out praising the Lord, singing along to those awful acoustic tunes, telling people how blessed you feel and so on, the more a sort of mechanical Christian skin starts to grow all over your real self. Even if you're a degenerate Rolling Stone reporter inwardly chuckling and busting on the whole scene — even if you're intellectually enraged by the ignorance and arrogant prejudice flowing from the mouth of a terminal-ambition case like Phil Fortenberry — outwardly you're swaying to the gospel and singing and praising and acting the part, and those outward ministrations assume a kind of sincerity in themselves. And at the same time, that "inner you" begins to get tired of the whole spectacle and sometimes forgets to protest — in my case checking out into baseball reveries and other daydreams while the outer me did the "work" of singing and praising. At any given moment, which one is the real you?

You may think you know the answer, but by my third day I began to notice how effortlessly my soft-spoken Matt-mannequin was going through his robotic motions of praise, and I was shocked. For a brief, fleeting moment I could see how under different circumstances it would be easy enough to bury your "sinful" self far under the skin of your outer Christian and to just travel through life this way. So long as you go through all the motions, no one will care who you really are underneath. And besides, so long as you are going through all the motions, never breaking the facade, who are you really? It was an incomplete thought, but it was a scary one; it was the very first time I worried that the experience of entering this world might prove to be anything more than an unusually tiring assignment. I feared for my normal.

And I had a thought. That soft-spoken Matt-mannequin was me.

Now I don't mean in the sense that I feared I was growing a skin about my that would take over alien-style. What I mean is that I spent so many years living a Christian life before I became skeptical of religion in general, that the skin was already there.

It's not just that religion was ingrained in me from birth. I think I have shed most religious indoctrination. But it's more in the way I interact with the world. I still have that skin of acceptability which I hide behind. You know, be respectful of religion and religious leaders, don't express disbelief or any kind of skepticism about religious beliefs, and especially don't encourage anyone else to pursue their skepticism.

On my blog it's easier. It's not face-to-face. I don't have to have a mask. Very few people know me as a person and those people who do I know don't care. But I've always been a little afraid that some day my family or religious friends would find this website and be totally appalled.

This weekend I'm going to visit my family for a few days and the ways in which I act differently are prominent on my mind. Unconsciously I've made a set of rules for myself when visiting.

1. No swearing
2. No drinking (except around my sister)
3. No talking about science or politics
4. No talking about religion
5. When my parents ask me questions or make judgmental comments about my lifestyle I must be evasive and quickly change the subject.
6. Do not get dragged into a conversation about: government conspiracies, the end of days, Christian persecution, or anything scientific.

These are the rules I devised myself to avoid controversy, to avoid having my Grandmother write me nasty letters (yes, she that sort of thing), and to avoid my parents' attempts to "save me". Some of the talking points above I'm glad to avoid (government conspiracies, anyone?). But in the process I have put a lot of distance between me and my family. I visit, but I'm uncomfortable the entire time I'm there because I'm like a mindless automaton.

And it's not their fault I'm like that. These are self-imposed rules and I imposed them for very good reasons. I don't want to be in a constant argument every time I talk to my family. I don't want to upset and worry them. I don't want to be the black sheep who isn't invited to weddings and other important family events.

I understand completely why people never come out to their families, especially older members of their families. It's not just the fear of not being accepted, but the fear of losing a relationship with someone. And I respect that.

In my case I suspect I've already lost any kind of meaningful relationship with my family by becoming so distant. I just don't know what else to do other than sit in mummified silence. So maybe a little experiment is due this weekend. I'll let you know how it goes.

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20 comments: to “ Aliens, Mummies, and The Visit

  • The Exterminator
    Wednesday, May 7, 2008 at 6:52:00 PM CDT  

    So does that mean you won't be asking your relatives to listen to your podcast?

    Seriously, OG, you should be proud of who you are. You're a damn good exemplar of reason. Don't engage in those conversations if you choose not to, but don't trouble yourself by feeling that you have to apologize internally to anyone. Maybe, if the subject of religion is impossible to avoid, you should just take a deep breath and drop the atheist bomb.

    You can tell Grandma to post her comments here on your blog; your friends will be happy to respond.

    Good luck. We look forward to your follow-up.

  • Venjanz
    Wednesday, May 7, 2008 at 8:14:00 PM CDT  

    Wow hehe when I visit my parents all we talk about is politics, religion, Christian persecution, the end times and conspiracy theories while using many 4-letter words. No drinking though, my mom has been sober since 1985.

  • infinity
    Wednesday, May 7, 2008 at 10:29:00 PM CDT  

    I have a similar set of rules when visiting my in-laws.

    One Christmas, my father-in-law started on a little bit of a rant while playing Spades. I said to him, "We can either enjoy this evening or we can have the conversation you're starting."

    Not a word has been said regarding politics or religion since. And, in return, I don't swear around them. But they drink like fish.

    My family encourages swearing, drinking, political and religious discussions, and anything else that my make most cringe.

  • Sean the Blogonaut F.C.D.
    Thursday, May 8, 2008 at 2:39:00 AM CDT  

    I ain't got nothing for you OG. My family are very accepting. Dad even watched a doco on Atheism with me.

    Be proud of who you are as Ex says.

    Maybe if there is a stink, you could ask them if they are prepared to lose you over their objections. It sounds like the relationship is fairly distant as it is.

    Oh and yeah none of this stuff is ever easy - but then you knew that. :)

    Good luck!

  • Spanish Inquisitor
    Thursday, May 8, 2008 at 9:51:00 AM CDT  

    My reaction to what you wrote was a figurative smack in the face. I always read about people like your family, and I blog about those people, and I get pissed off about those people, but in stark reality, I never had to really deal with those people. In a sense I have a little shell I live in that doesn't understand that type of thinking. In my cafeteria Catholic upbringing, I was always free, and still free, to discuss many religious issues with my family that you wouldn't touch. We even make fun of the fundys!

    I just can't come out and tell my father I'm an atheist, that there is no god. That basic, fundamental belief is a fact for him.

  • Lifeguard
    Thursday, May 8, 2008 at 10:24:00 AM CDT  

    First off, great post. I think you really conveyed how anxiety provoking it can be when you're surrounded by people who have so much invested in belief. Unless you've been through it, I think it's difficult for people to understand or accept what it feels like for those of us who have shuffled off that outward skin of Christianity and now look at religion as a bizarre relic of our past.

    I've been slowly coming out to more and more people, and I totally recognize how hard it is to be surrounded by people who, not only believe, but take for granted that you agree with them. It creates a LOT of pressure to either keep your mouth shut or just blurt out some heresy and you're not sure which is the better idea.

    Either way, you should, as everyone here has said, be very proud of yourself.

  • PhillyChief
    Thursday, May 8, 2008 at 12:40:00 PM CDT  

    These are the rules I devised myself to avoid controversy, to avoid having my Grandmother write me nasty letters (yes, she that sort of thing), and to avoid my parents' attempts to "save me"... I visit, but I'm uncomfortable the entire time I'm there because I'm like a mindless automaton. And it's not their fault I'm like that.

    How can you consider the restraints and censoring are self-imposed? If you will suffer punishment from them if you don't abide by these rules, then the rules are not self-imposed and it's very much their fault you restrain and censor yourself.

  • Ordinary Girl
    Thursday, May 8, 2008 at 2:43:00 PM CDT  

    Ex: Thanks. I'm happy with who I am and I don't want to change. I just have to learn to let other people see who I am too.

    V: You have a great mom, but then you know that. You better do something nice for her this Sunday.

    Infinity: Hehe.. that sounds like a great deal. I wonder if that will work for me. If I was used to being outspoken with my parents... hmmm.

    Sean: I'm envious! :)

    SI: It's encouraging to hear that you have a great relationship with your dad. Maybe I can get to that point, although I have a feeling we'll just have to agree to not talk about religion.

    Lifey: Sometimes I think it would be just a relief to blurt out my feelings. I've been hiding this from them since before I graduated from college and moved out, which is a long time. Geez, sometimes I still feel like a teenage and I haven't been in a long time.

    But it's not that I'm not proud of who I am. It's that I don't want to hurt the people I love my relationship with them. When religion is your life it's hard to accept someone who rejects religion. How do you accept someone's choice to be damned to hell (in their mind anyway)?

    Philly: Because I made the choice to restrain myself. I could just say, "Fuck it!" and be myself like Babs. Then it's their problem if they reject me.

  • The Ridger, FCD
    Thursday, May 8, 2008 at 5:59:00 PM CDT  

    Good luck with the visit.

  • The Exterminator
    Thursday, May 8, 2008 at 10:33:00 PM CDT  

    I don't want to hurt the people I love ...
    So why are you so accepting of their desire to hurt you if you reveal who you really are?

  • PhillyChief
    Thursday, May 8, 2008 at 10:37:00 PM CDT  

    Well whatever floats your boat.

  • yunshui
    Friday, May 9, 2008 at 5:03:00 AM CDT  

    Thank you for this post, OG. I have long avoided having the "atheist" conversation with my (highly religious) family. It's coming to a head now that my fiancee and I are getting married in a secular ceremony, and I secretly think they've known for years (subtle things, like refusing to attend church, or pray at funerals), but I've put it off for far too long. You have inspired me to think closely about why I've done so, and I realise now that it's about time we had a little chat... thanks for the inspiration.

  • the chaplain
    Friday, May 9, 2008 at 6:13:00 PM CDT  

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • the chaplain
    Friday, May 9, 2008 at 6:15:00 PM CDT  

    OG, this is a great post. I think I understand some of the tensions you feel regarding how open you can be with family members. I've felt similar tensions during my last couple of visits with parents and other extended family members and have been acutely aware of donning a "skin of acceptability" in their presence.

    The no swearing rule is pretty easy to keep. I don't really swear that much in person, since most of the people I know don't swear (even though Ex seems to think I cuss like a sailor in the atheosphere). No drinking is easy too. Most of our extended family members don't drink, so there are never any alcoholic choices in their abodes. The deacon and I are only light drinkers anyway. Moreover, we won't offend our family members by bringing beverages that are not welcomed. My rule of thumb is this: their homes, their rules; as a guest, I abide by the preferences of my hosts. That goes for both language and food/beverages. I regard this as courtesy on my part rather than constraints imposed by them.

    No science is really easy. It never comes up.

    No politics and religion are the kickers. I was raised in a thoroughly Republican family (no surprise: we were evangelicals, after all). A few of us have left the political fold and gone Democratic/Independent, much to my mother's chagrin. She thinks the politically liberal wing of the family has lost its collective mind. If she finds out that a subset of that wing has also lost its soul, it won't be pretty. During my last visit, there were several moments when I had to follow Muhammad Ali's example and "float like a butterfly." Fortunately, I avoided "sting[ing] like a bee."

  • John Evo
    Friday, May 9, 2008 at 8:47:00 PM CDT  

    OG - you might not read this until you are already back. I'll just point out what you already seem to have figured out. That if you have to closely follow those rules you set for yourself and feel uncomfortable the entire time, you really don't have a relationship that is so precious anyway.

    I also wanted to say that Taibbi's experience reinforces something I've always thought when Christians have pleaded with me to "just TRY prayer. See what happens when you ask god to help you". If my state of mind was such that I would "just try", then I'm not really an atheist to begin with and probably WOULD miraculously "find jesus" waiting to help me. I think this is what happens every time a "sinner" decides that it can't hurt to just try.

  • Spanish Inquisitor
    Saturday, May 10, 2008 at 8:32:00 AM CDT  

    If my state of mind was such that I would "just try", then I'm not really an atheist to begin with and probably WOULD miraculously "find jesus" waiting to help me. I think this is what happens every time a "sinner" decides that it can't hurt to just try.

    Never underestimate the mind's power of self persuasion. It can be so insidious because most times you don't even know you're doing it.

  • Tonyia
    Monday, May 12, 2008 at 8:21:00 PM CDT  

    Spent a similar day with my in-laws yesterday.

    We keep hoping it never comes to a direct confrontation, but the time is coming closer, I think.

    Hang in there.

  • Keely
    Tuesday, May 13, 2008 at 2:05:00 AM CDT  

    Skin of acceptableness.

    That would be my life. Or at least a much more substantial portion of it than I would like.

    My parents are fairly liberal, especially for Catholics, and hold some downright heretical beliefs (we're "cafeteria" catholics), but there are some things that are just unquestionable. The biggie is God's existence, of course, but there are also certain aspects of church teachings that are a Very Big Deal. Like sex. And living with *gasp* someone of the other sex before marriage.

    It's rather disappointing... I thought of my family as very accepting for most of my life, but I've found that as I've actually grown up and wanted to do some of the "that's not how we live but it is other people's choice in their own lives and we won't judge them for it" things that I've realized how far their tolerance actually goes, which is to say not very.

    They're also not very science-minded people, and the level of bullshit consumption in my house ("alternative medicine," particularly nutty self-help like The Secret... the list goes on.) is profoundly disturbing. Being a Biology major and just a generally practical person with a funny obsession with grounding my beliefs in reality is incredibly difficult in my house.

    I love my parents but I get incredibly uncomfortable being home because I very quickly morph into a person I don't recognize. Almost every night I have to get online or on the phone and hunt for someone I can vent to about the five million things I held my tongue on during the day. Every once in awhile I get absolutely disgusted with myself for hiding, and I convince myself that standing up for what I think couldn't go that badly, after all my parents are reasonable, educated people, right? But while my parents may be able to handle the occasional conflicting viewpoint at a dinner party, accepting it from their daughter is another matter altogether. When I do make the crazy decision to speak out, it generally ends very, very quickly in some serious back tracking. The battle just doesn't seem worth the hassle.

    Even the family member I'm closest to, my Mom's youngest sister, is constantly saying things like "Everything happens for a reason," and "You know, sometimes we don't understand it, but God always works everything out for the best." This coming from a woman who inherited our lovely family tendency towards absolutely debilitating depression, and who has seen the positive-thinking-to-the-point-of-insanity mindset lead to incredibly destructive behaviors in the vein of "if we ignore the problem, maybe it will go away." Oh, and her parents died six months apart, both of cancer. When she was twelve. Everything happens for a reason? God? What. The. Fuck.

    I want to slap her sometimes. But I smile and accept the platitudes, because what good would it do to fight her? They get her through the day, and I'm not likely to change her... she'll probably just feel sorry for me. And maybe remind me to take my own happy pills.

  • Ordinary Girl
    Wednesday, May 14, 2008 at 3:31:00 AM CDT  

    Keely, thanks for sharing your story. I understand completely. It's difficult when you know there's going to be intolerance. My problem was I assumed the intolerance without testing it. It sounds like you put your feet in the water and got burned.

  • jesus.cake6
    Sunday, May 18, 2008 at 3:54:00 AM CDT  

    Yup I know the exact feeling. But I get along really well with my parents and siblings, we just avoid the subject of religion and politics for the most part. I think we both find it sad and frustrating that we have such opposite perspectives on most issues, and we both sense when our topic of conversation begins to veer in that direction and we consciously change the subject.

    For most people their family is the foundry where ones views of the world are forged and therefore a safe harbor against the many contrasting views of the outside world. But in our case we don't have that comfort. But I'd rather be honest with myself and uncomfortable, that's makes me feel a little better :)


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