I was raised Catholic, became agnostic around 13, stopped thinking an afterlife made sense at 15, and noticed I was no longer religious at 16.
But I still spent the next ~12 years in pretty close proximity to Christianity. I did religious studies at school, I studied philosophy and theology at university, and most importantly I sung in church choirs, which meant I was regularly attending services.
I also wasn't crazy about the label 'atheist', as I didn't think my beliefs had much in common with famous or 'new' atheists (Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, AC Grayling). I often found their objections uninteresting, as they dealt with claims concerning things like 'metaphysics' and 'theodicy' that most Christians I knew didn't really care about. For those Christians, religion was more of a spiritual commitment or a decision to live a certain way, and, for example, their conservative approach to romance seemed like it could be valid even if the Church couldn't explain why God lets evil exist.
But if what you're doing is following a set of practices that are at most loosely inferred from a set of community texts and a history of community tradition, why take the extra step of identifying as Christian? Why not just say 'hey there's some good stuff in here, and I'll join in with the good and leave the bad'? What makes you want to take that extra step?
During the last 12 years I've wondered if I wanted to take that extra step again, until this year, when I realized any desire I had to do so was based in meekness.
Meek: Quiet, gentle, and easily imposed on; submissive.
Meekness is praised in the Gospel:
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
- Matthew 5:5
Not to mention that in the most important story in the whole Bible, the Son of God gives himself up *for death* without putting up a fight. He knows he will be betrayed but he waits for his captors to come and arrest him.
Meekness is a big deal for Christianity. And it shouldn't be. Meekness is not a virtue.
In the dictionary definition of meekness above, 'quiet, gentle' sounds fine; 'easily imposed on' and 'submissive', not so much. Meekness is when you don't stand up and ask for what you need, or it is when you allow what you need to be taken from you. This is a disaster for your personal wellbeing, and perhaps even worse when it comes to looking out for your community.
One of my clearest memories of Catholic school is sitting at a breakfast table watching three kids bully a fourth. The fourth kid had recently returned from a suspension for writing something rude in a guest book; it was pretty clear he had been pressured if not coerced. As if the events happening in front of him weren't enough, the supervising adult at the table would have known all this. But he was very deliberately staring straight ahead and into the distance, focussing his energy on ignoring what was happening.
And if you think meekness is a virtue, why wouldn't you do what that adult did? If you actually value not standing up for yourself, what hope is there for the people around you who might be counting on you to stand up for them?
Unfortunately, Christian communities that break this pattern are in my experience the exception not the rule. We had Marthin Luther King Jr., but he also wrote the following in his Letter from Birmingham Jail:
When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.
Why did I wonder if I wanted to join the Church again? I realized I had been missing the sensation from childhood of being 'easily imposed upon, submissive', and letting a greater authority determine a larger part of what I believed.
The world is scary, and as a kid there's a lot of comfort in that kind of a relationship. I can't be the only one who was taken in by it.
But I'm not a kid any more, and as soon as I recognized the roots of what I was feeling, I also recognized it was neither healthy nor acceptable to me. Thanks, but no thanks, I'll be an impartial observer of religion from now on.
If you're reading this and you are a Christian, here are my challenges to you:
- Don't let meekness be a recruiting mechanism to your Church. Deferring responsibility in the face of difficulty is sometimes necessary, but doing it as part of a fundamental, lifelong commitment is no way to live.
- Respect yourself. Can you treat yourself with kindness and value your own wishes and desires? Or will you find some excuse for letting them go unfulfilled?
- Look out for others. Prove to the world that you are not meek. You're committed to loving your neighbour, so whose basic human dignity are you going to stand up and defend, even in the face of opposition?
- Decide what you believe on your own terms, not on your priest's. (If the conclusion that you reach is that you agree with him, then good for you.)
n.b. I've encountered the term 'protest atheism' which does a decent job of capturing where I am now. A new atheist like Dawkins would say 'God doesn't exist', whereas a protest atheist might say 'this isn't how we should live'.