Zinnia Jones, a very intelligent, very eloquent and very badass fellow internet atheist and advocate for LGBT rights, has a new video up, “Let’s Stop Appropriating Jesus”, in which she argues against the common tactic, when debating or addressing Christians, to point out that their behaviour (bigotry, cruelty, greed, whatever) is allegedly in contradiction with the actual example of Christ.
The video seems to be inspired by a fantastic post on The Distant Panic, a blog run by Washington D.C. trans-rights activist Sadie Vashti, in which she writes a Holiday letter to her biological mother, calling her out on the immense cruelty and negligence with which she treated her daughter. In the letter, Vashti mentions that her own lifestyle isn’t unlike that of Christ… she lives in a collective home, works hard for the poor and vulnerable, and most of her friends are homeless, exiled, involved in sex work, and so on: the proverbial meek. It’s a beautiful and moving work of writing.
But the problem Zinnia illustrates is that when we make these comparisons or analogies, the Christ we’re imagining (the charitable, compassionate, humble, forgiving Christ. The Christ who was a friend of the poor and the meek… and of sex workers) is not the same figure that is worshiped, admired and beloved by the people we’re addressing. They may effectively worship a different man entirely… one defined by purity, chastity, resistance to temptation, righteous anger towards sin and immorality and the devil, the divine vengeance He will bring in the second coming, moral perfection, standing high above the detestable sins of mankind.
When we reference our image of Christ, hoping that those we address will perhaps do a better job of emulating him, are we in danger of encouraging exactly the religious mentalities (or bigotry, hatred, moral judgment, etc.) we sough to mitigate? Is there perhaps an implicit danger in any sort of worship or idolization of a religious figure or leader, regardless of the degree to which that figure may sometimes be exemplary of an ethical standard we aspire towards? After all, no one, not even Christ, is truly perfect or consistent, and when we engage in worship we come to regard the imperfections as perfections. We turn off our capacity to question, or understand human complexities.
I’m sure most of us have all, at some point in our lives, had the experience of being so in love with someone, or so admired them, we failed to realize how horribly they were treating us.
There’s a lefty activist saying I’ve always loved: “You can’t tear down the master’s house with the master’s tools.” It implies that in order to create a better society, we can’t simply adopt the same practices, rhetoric, tactics or concepts of the old society in order to do so, and we need to be wary that the ends do not justify the means. The means themselves require a great deal of consideration. For instance, if you wish to end fascism and collective mob mentalities, forming a new collective party with a new mass identity is not going to work. You’ll simply swap out the thing you were fighting with a replacement that is only superficially distinct. How many dictatorships have been The People’s Republic Of X? Instead, the path may best lie with creating new forms, new language, new concepts, new ideas, new ways of doing and being and acting.
This was a very important concept to me for a very long time. I went to an extremely left-wing college where I mainly studied poetry and linguistics. Along with being neck-deep in bumper stickers, sloganeering posters, Che Guevara t-shirts and protest-of-the-week, I was also routinely subjected to some of the worst “damn the man” poetry you could possibly imagine. In response, I developed a personal philosophy of wanting to distance myself from the forms and style and rhetoric of propaganda as much as I possibly could, to forcefully reject all didactic art or media, anything that stopped you from thinking, told you what to think, or tried to appeal to your emotions or intuitions to convert you to the cause (rather than, say, presenting the actual substance of their ideas).
I gave up on political agit-prop poetry, I tore down the “Not My President” posters, and I threw out my Dead Kennedys albums (though I maintained an “it’s complicated” relationship with The Clash). I chose to abandon the “master’s tools” and assume a wholly different praxis and poetics. My aim was to be non-didactic, non-sloganeering… to go as far from bumper sticker as I possibly could. Instead of wanting to change people’s minds to my side through whatever means were available, I instead chose to focus on practicing the change in mind I envisioned, encouraging others to consider the questions and complications, and paying constant attention to the means I chose. To me, the means and the ends became one and the same. Distinctions between “content” and “form” seemed secondary, strange, missing-the-point.
The bumper stickers themselves I saw as a problem, no matter whether I agreed with their message or not. I found it disturbing to simplify like that, to reduce complex social issues to catchy little one-liners, to purchase and trade political ideologies as a badge of identity, and most of all I was disturbed by how people’s beliefs were being determined by the catchiness of the concepts, by how superficially appealing a statement was, often a simple matter of whether or not it fit into the image of self they were constructing and presenting. I saw that as far more emblematic of the problems with our culture and society than whatsoever the bumper stickers happened to be addressing (“coexist”, “my karma ran over your dogma”, “Kerry/Edwards 2004”, “free Tibet”).
Case in point: why free Tibet? Why do I want to support a deposed religious theocrat’s desire to reclaim his former country, which under his rule was little to no better off in terms of human rights than under the rule of China? Why should I trust that Tibet would be better off under a return to religious rule? Maybe it would, sure. I’m certainly open to considering the case. But the point is that no one is really asking. They just see the bumper sticker, and: “Tibet is cool. I read some of that Dalai Llama guy’s quotes before. He seems alright. Sure, sign me up, dude!”
My studies of linguistics of course played into all this, and through them I further began to believe in the importance of the form a message takes. That how you say something carries at least as much weight as what you happen to be saying. Between the various aspects of the interdisciplinary education I was pursuing, my whole being was poured, during those years, into never, ever taking the form for granted. To never believe that there’s only one way of saying something, or only one right way. To not accept the existence of “simple” or “basic” language, to never allow myself to ignore the implications. To never assume that there is a content or message that’s inextricable from it’s presentation and form, or that the means through which one conveys a message are ever secondary.
I observed over and over again the “left” and “right” engaging in precisely the same tactics of emotional manipulation. Go ahead and compare the average e-mail sent to potential supporters from moveon.org or Human Rights Watch to one sent by the GOP or Christian pro-life organizations. Compare the average posters or billboards or bumper stickers of any two points on a given political spectrum.
This became a huge touchstone in my budding skepticism. I knew that in every facet of our culture and media there were people engaging in the same strategies of manipulation and deliberately trying to keep people from actively thinking about a given issue, prioritizing instead only that that person agrees with them, one way or the other. I knew that in order to intellectually survive, and maintain any semblance of my own free thinking, I had to be constantly on guard and aware of those tactics. And for a long while I maintained my resolve to dedicate myself to removing myself from that system and not engaging in those didactic strategies.
Yet somehow, here I find myself an activist, an advocate, and writing in prose, of all things. Didactic, non-fiction prose. Life is a funny thing.
But Zinnia’s video has me thinking about all of this again, our tactics and rhetoric and what they mean, what they imply… though also thinking about in a new light. Whereas before this was something I considered in terms of political engagement and poetics, I hadn’t yet considered them in terms of the atheist movement, or individual and collective efforts to guide our cultural in a more secular (or at least religiously tolerant) direction. This is largely because back then my atheism and skepticism weren’t terribly high on my personal priorities. But this is something I now feel is very much worth discussing…. the degree to which we may be adopting some of the structures, linguistic or conceptual, that have allowed theism to exist, thrive and propagate. And that in so adopting these tactics we’re not only giving them a tacit approval, but also perhaps encouraging and perpetuating them.
We’ve all heard the “atheism is just another religion” trope, and I disregard it for the same reasons that most do (chiefly that it’s false… atheism is emphatically NOT just another religion), but perhaps there’s something there worth bearing in mind, a cautionary suggestion; perhaps certain particular atheist tactics or rhetoric do in fact replicate some of the mentalities that allow religion to exist or be entrenched. And perhaps we need to be very careful about that.
I recall a recent suggestion floating around that a statue or memorial should be built in honour of Christopher Hitchens. That set my hairs on end. When Hitchens passed away, I was well and truly happy to see how the atheist community, as a whole, were perfectly willing to offer genuine respect to his memory and honour his brilliance and achievements while also bearing in mind his flaws, vices and mistakes. We could do both. He was a hero to many of us, but we also knew he was very human, and as we should with any human being, we recognized both greatness and weakness in him. Those weren’t mutually incompatible memories. We atheists don’t regard our leaders as infallible supermen who are above critique and whose every word is law. We hold them to the same standards of criticism and doubt we hold anyone. We can revere and question. I was deeply impressed by that.
But only a couple short weeks later, and I began to notice the antithesis… the possibility that some people did indeed revere him as something of a God or Saint, and wished to erect some kind of permanent idol or monument to him. Something to grant him an immortality, in the dodgiest way I could imagine. A big hunk of rock defaced by an individual identity. Here were the same religious impulses, so much a part of us, showing themselves again, amongst atheists. I don’t mean to sound judgmental. I’m sure the person who suggested it was only doing so out of genuine respect for Hitchens. And those religious impulses are, as I said, a part of us, a part of being human. But in atheism, I feel we owe it to ourselves to embody a different manner of thinking, a different means of reverence. To offer, as always, alternatives to religiosity, such as a reverence aware of impermanence, aware of human fallibility, aware that no one ever gets it quite right… aware that we make mistakes, aware that no individual deserves a statue or needs one, aware that our human achievements are collective, and that individual human beings die.
Perhaps we need to take our focus primarily in the direction of offering alternative models of thought and socio-cultural praxis. Doing our best to demonstrate those alternatives to be as kickass as we know them to be. There are many sort of obvious, community-based ones… hosting social events, doing charity work, producing art, doing our best to make our community and movement diverse and welcoming, all the many things necessary to demonstrate that conversion to atheism does not require any kind of sacrifice, and that atheism is not just a bunch of angry, bitter, heartless white guys arguing on the internet. But beyond that we can demonstrate ourselves as an alternative through our actual modes of debate and engagement.
For instance, instead of trying to convince people to be more like the image of Christ we hold in esteem, or reprimand them for their failure to live up to that, we can point to the actual contradictions and inconsistencies in the figure of Christ. How no matter which version of Him you hold to be ideal, there will be moments where He fell short of that. Instead of citing mythology, or appealing to traditions and constitutions, instead of pithy slogans and quotables from Great People™, emotionally manipulative billboards and rhetoric, ad hominen and argument from authority, instead of all that we can do what we do best: think, discuss, question, and encourage others to do the same. We can abandon the forms of that have allowed theism to stay on top of the heap for so long, and instead adopt new ones. Create, through our actions, the world that we’d prefer. A world built on genuine, sincere, free, critical thought. Actual discussion and dialogue. Evidence and questions.
Perhaps we can adopt new structures of language entirely. Imagine an atheist or skeptic movement based not on didactic lectures or win/lose debates, but instead on a poetics of uncertainty, of fluid questions and possibilities, doubts and theories… a logopoesis suggesting the beauty and infinite possibility of human thought, science and curiosity, rather than the dusty, stubborn, rigid certainties of faith. Something as far from a sermon as we could make it.
I can think of no circumstance where the end goal of creating a more secular world justify the means of abandoning thought, inquiry, discourse, doubt and the rest of the values that led me here. Atheism achieved through the same modes of thought as religion is hardly better to me than the religion was. Unless we are creating a society where people aren’t devoting themselves to emulating their worshiped divinities (and other structures of religious belief), we aren’t effecting any meaningful change. Let’s stop trying to use the tools of theism to take apart theism. Even if does produce a more successful atheist movement, it will nonetheless be a movement I want nothing to do with.
Ours needs to be a revolution of process and revolution of thought. Not simply doing whatever it takes to change how many people tick our little box on the “religion” section of a census form. Ours needs to be a movement that is about more than superficial change. I honestly don’t care how many people identify as atheist. What I care about is how many people take the time to truly and sincerely consider the questions, and what they imply.