Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Fellowship & caring communities

I live across from a Methodist Church. The parsonage is right across the street from my house. My husband and I have hosted the minister and his family for a cookout and we've run back and forth between the houses when one of us has run out of sugar, or when we've made a particularly impressive batch of cookies, or there's just too many tomatoes from the garden.

They know we're Atheists. I'm sure that bothers them on some level - both the husband and wife are ordained, and as such, they must consider it their business to be bothered by such a thing. But they never make it an issue, and I appreciate that. And they drink beer, in contrast to the Baptist ministers I grew up with, and don't think Harry Potter books are Satantic, and aren't trying to get science out of schools, so how can I not dig them?

There are two people in our neighborhood with mental disabilities that go to the Methodist church together. I speak with them a few times a week. One lives in a group home, and I'm pretty sure it's a very good one and that he is well taken care of. The other lives in a house that has been converted into apartments, and it's a slum - the porch is about to fall in, the porch is covered in discarded toys and furniture, and I don't even want to think about conditions inside. She should probably be in that group home as well, but that would mean giving up her two dogs, and she would never do that.

I worry about them, but realized the other day that I don't worry too much, because I just assume that the community at the church will take care of them if anything bad happened. I know that church will bring them food if either were homebound, they would collect money if either of them needed help paying a doctor's bill, and if they didn't show up at church for a Sunday or two - maybe even just one - someone is going to call on them and make sure they're okay.

I don't miss religion. I don't miss trying to be religious. I don't miss the misinformation or denial of science. But there is one thing I miss: the intentional caring community.

I know not all communities of faith are loving: I know that there are churches that have turned their back on people in need: someone divorcing, someone with HIV/AIDS, someone who has married a person of a different ethnicity, and on and on. I know there are churches that are more about raising money for the preacher and his family than caring for each other in the congregation.

That said, I do admire communities of faith where congregation members really do take care of each other. And I also worry about people that don't have caring neighbors or caring co-workers, or aren't a part of social networks that have a lot of caring people in such that will pass the hat for a member, colleague or neighbor in need. I know a lot of people that no longer believe in God but still go to church because they love the social and caring aspects of their church... and the potlucks... and they don't want to give that up.

I walk my dog every day, twice a day. If I see a garage sale in my neighborhood, I go - not because I need anything, but just to have an excuse to interact with a neighbor. When someone new moves in to our neighborhood, I bring that person a bottle of high-end olive oil, my business card and welcome note. I say hello to absolutely everyone I pass while I'm walking in the neighborhood. I don't like all of my neighbors - a couple I find particularly annoying, per late night noise and bumper sticker messages that frighten me. But I know almost every neighbor in a two block area by sight, and many by name. That's why I do all of those things - I want to know them, and I want them to know me.

Why? Because I want to know if that guy walking out of a house nearby and putting things in a car belongs to that house. Because if I haven't seen a neighbor in a long while, I'm going to ask if others have seen him or her, and I might even knock on the door. Because if someone is bedridden, I'm going to take them a meal.

And because I hope they will do the same for me. I admit it - I want to know I have a community that has my back. I also do it because it contributes to making my neighborhood an even nicer place to live -  I tend to introduce neighbors who have lived just two doors down from each other but don't know each other's names. If I'm having a problem with a neighbor - say, loud music - it makes them much less defensive than when I walk over and ask for it to be turned down.

I also volunteer for a couple of area nonprofits. I do it because of how it makes me feel. And, I admit it: I do it because I want more members of my community. And because I'm hoping for more potlucks in my life.

Sociologist Eric Klinenberg of New York University says vibrant, tight-knit neighborhoods could fare better in a disaster, according to studies:

We always talk about the physical engineering that we need to protect cities, and systems and people during crises. We have failed to recognize the significance of our social infrastructure, the way in which communications matters, the way in which our relationships with neighbors, and family and friends matters; the way in which our neighborhood can protect or imperil us, depending on where we are.

I think this is a practice Atheists should embrace. What if Atheists became known for, in addition to not believing in God, as: those people that know everyone in our apartment building or the block, the ones that will bring you soup when you're sick, the ones that will call the police if we hear you screaming, the ones that become volunteer firefighters and join police auxiliaries - the ones who care, not because we share the same beliefs, but because we are humane.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Satanic Suffering

I hate to see people suffer. I hate to see animals suffer. When I hear that someone has died - family, friend or stranger - my earliest thoughts always include, "I hope the death was quick. I hope they didn't suffer." I think the same things about animals dead on the road or on my plate.

Why? Because I have empathy - too much, according to my husband. I sometimes cry at the idea of people suffering. I cry over what's dead on the side of the road. I don't like anyone or anything to be in pain. I just don't.

Being an Atheist, I don't ask questions like "Why did that young person get struck down with that horrible disease before he'd even made it to high school" or "Why did that tsunami wipe out thousands and thousands of people in slow, painful deaths all at once?" We, as humankind, do our best to prevent and cure diseases, and we've done an AMAZING job wiping out many of the causes of early death and ongoing misery for so many, many people - but our biology's mysteries are endless, and maybe, while we will always discover new preventions and cures, there will always be things out there that kill the young, and even cause their suffering before death. It's not evil - it just is. For me, the whys went away when I embraced my Atheism, leaving me in much more peace than when I was trying to believe, though still distressed at the idea of suffering.

Do I believe in evil? Yes - I believe people can do good things, like helping other people, or they can do evil things, like rape and kill people. What is the source of evil? Same as the source for good: us. Humans. We're capable of both. There is evil in the world, and it's made up of various combinations of superstitions, arrogance and ignorance - with the occasional psychological illness thrown in there, like sociopathy.

When I was a kid, I believed in Satan. I believed there was this being ready to do me and my family untold harm. I believed in hell. I believed if I died and still didn't believe in God the way I was supposed to, despite trying oh-so-hard to do so, I was going to be tortured forever. I was taught this by various adults and children around me. Two books by the same author, The Late Great Planet Earth, and Satan is Alive and Well on Planet Earth were frequently talked about by other kids at the Methodist church my family sometimes attended. The world was going to end soon, I thought, and I was still unsaved, because I still didn't really believe in God, so I was going to SUFFER FOREVER! I cried myself to sleep at night out of terror and anticipation of the pain. Through many tears, I prayed and begged for God to please enter my heart and take away this fear.

Until one day, the fear stopped. Almost at once. I was sitting on my bed, trying to sort out all the contradictions in the Bible and among different Christian sects and on and on and it just hit me, BOOM - there cannot be a devil. There just can't. It's completely, utterly illogical. If God was all the things everyone was assuring me he was - all-merciful, all-loving, all-caring - then there just could NOT be a hell. I just sat there on my bed, stunned at my conclusion. I kept it to myself. But wow, did I ever start getting better nights of sleep. And the more I questioned and let go of the religious ideas being pushed at me, the better I felt.

Parents who teach their kids that Satan exists are terrifying their children, not helping them. It's emotional abuse - there is just no other way to describe it. It makes me sick to my stomach to think of children, right now, terrified, as I was once upon a time, that a magical, invisible, extremely powerful being is out to get them. There is nothing - NOTHING - to be gained by telling any person, child or adult, that his or her suffering comes from Satan. What a despicable thing to tell anyone! It's crippling manipulation that is nothing short of reprehensible. It's nothing short of evil.