Monday, March 9, 2015

Forgiveness and redemption from the perspective of an atheist

Forgiveness and redemption are core elements of many religious teachings, the idea that God can clear the slate and we can start anew, at least in the eyes of the divine. But without a god figure, this sort of blank slate isn't really possible.

And yet, forgiveness and even redemption are. No, not supernatural redemption, or forgiveness granted by a divine being. But, stripped of the supernatural elements, the concepts are not only valid but sometimes necessary.

If you were one of those atheists raised outside of religion, this might not make sense. But if you're a former fundamentalist, you probably already know what I'm talking about. Because me? I was raised a religious bigot. My faith taught me to hate pretty much everyone who wasn't like my family and church communities: straight, far right, and hardcore Christian. It wasn't called hate, of course; but that's what it was. Transgender people were abominations. Gay people were pedophiles. Muslims were terrorists -- or were not true Muslims. Women who had premarital sex were sluts. Abortion doctors were murderers. Women who had abortions were too, and deserved to be tried for murder. (In case you are curious, the penalty for murder -- and everything else -- should, in a truly Christian nation, come from the the case of murder, the penalty would be death). Depending on the church, racism often lingered just below the surface...and every once in awhile, in plain sight. With the exception of some Buddhists, my dad hated pretty much every one who wasn't Christian; and not just Christian, but conservative Christian. Liberal Christians pissed him off worse than anything. We attended various churches (some very, very culty) as I was growing up, but, in the end, they were all too soft. Because no one knew the mind of God quite as well as my father. So we spent our Sunday's watching a televised dominionist preacher in the morning, and then reading the Bible.

I wish I could say that I saw through the nonsense, but I didn't. I was homeschooled, and taught that the father was the head of the household, appointed by God. To question him was to question God (and, like the God we read about every Sunday, my father was not above emphasizing his authority through brutality). There were things that, even as a child in that situation, didn't make sense; but I questioned within the established parameters only, ever. Doubt was not an option; better understanding was the only object of questions, and sometimes "God has his reasons" was the answer you'd have to content yourself with.

So, after my father's death, when we started attending a local Southern Baptist church for continued spiritual guidance, I didn't bat an eyelash when I heard church leaders say that Islam was a religion created by the Devil. Well, of course! my bigoted brain kicked in. I didn't think twice when I read Christian apologists explain how Christianity was a great religion, and the bad things it did were perversions of True Christianity; but when Islam taught the same sorts of things, that was evidence that it was inherently evil. I accepted and regurgitated such nonsense, because I believed it was true. (As an interesting aside...reading the Quran in full actually was pretty significant to my journey to atheism, because, having been so inundated in the Bible as I had been, it was hard to maintain the nonsensical position that Islam was demonstrably or significantly worse than Christianity...this is also part of the reason why, today, I can't stand to hear atheists saying pretty much the same things that I was taught as a Christian -- "Oh, well, Christianity's bad, of course, but Islam is sooooo much worse...". Aside from the fact that it's not true, it's a cultural bias that allows us excuse the crazy/malicious/evil things our ancestors did, while getting on a high horse about the crazy/malicious/evil things other people do...and all it does is marginalize people and promote bigotry. But I digress).

And no matter how much I wish I had never believed the crazy things I did, I was raised to be a fearful, bigoted zealot...and I was. Then I grew up, and -- with my mom's support -- got an education, at a public university.

Having grown up hearing all the conservative talking points that I had, I fully expected an all-out assault on my values and beliefs. It took me awhile to get used to the fact that it wasn't happening. 

Meanwhile, for the first time, I had real, unfettered access to information. Again, it wasn't an immediate probably took longer than it should have...but, like dominoes, once I started really examining my beliefs on one point, the others followed. The process was nowhere near done when I left school (and, for that matter, I don't plan to ever call it quits). But the dominoes had started to fall.

So do I believe in redemption? Of course. Not from sin, or evil spirits, but from ignorance and the callous bigotry that can arise from it; from the trap of closed-minded absolutism; from any scenario that shapes or ensnares us in a fashion contrary to our better natures and humanity.

Forgiveness is more difficult to define, in a sense, because there are aspects that are both external and internal. Then there's the intersection of memory, and how memory ensures that the lessons learned stay learned. It's not enough to "forgive yourself"; and not enough to seek forgiveness from those you've wronged. When I recall things I believed, and the  things I said and did -- not out of malice or a desire to do evil, but in genuine accordance with those beliefs -- I am still ashamed. Where possible, I have sought external forgiveness; and I know that I was not responsible for believing what I was taught from the earliest days of my life as absolute truth. I know that I made the choice to reexamine things I believed when I saw that they conflicted with reality -- a choice I could have ignored, when doing so would have been so much more comforting. I know that I subjected myself to a great deal of internal conflict and discomfort, because I truly wanted to find the truth, and do the right thing; when I could have chosen instead to be comfortable in ignorance. I realize that the process of reforming your worldview is complex and can be lengthy; I recognize that I stumbled on that journey more than once (and will probably do so again as it continues). I have made peace with the past, but I do not forget -- nor do I want to forget -- it. That includes the realization (and attendant feelings) that I was a part of something that I now recognize promotes a great deal of harm (conservative religion), and that the views I once held were, bluntly put, ignorant and harmful. Self-forgiveness, I think, is moving on, lessons learned.

So I don't think the concepts of redemption and forgiveness are limited to religion. I don't think everyone needs them, because I don't think humans are born broken. That's a religious concept, for which I've found no evidence. But where we err, certainly, they are applicable. When we are raised to be broken, to judge and hate and further harmful ideologies, redemption and forgiveness can be found. Not as a boon from the divine being who broke you in the first place, but as something to be found within ourselves and our fellow beings.

And our capacity to recognize our failings, to correct them -- and to want to correct them -- is, I think, more real and beautiful than anything supernatural ever could be.

1 comment:

  1. This is a great article i truly feel for people that were raised the way you describe.