Every once in a while it feels like my life is a word-a-day calendar writ large and realized. All the definitions of one particular word are eating at me today.
For my purposes, blogging has lost much of its
gloss relevance. Despite the community of wonderful people that colemining has brought into my life, in this current-world-reality I feel like I’m simultaneously shouting in the wilderness and preaching to the choir, while the credulous, disingenuous and banally evil (and you know I use that word with caution) types run amok, spreading lies and hatred and ignorance as far as the reach of their followers permits.
I can’t rightly remember (without going back and checking) the last time I wrote something to share. There was, for a time, some continuity here. In the few lines I’ve written already, I hear echoes of past posts – reinforcing the idea that I’m ad nauseam-ing myself – and anyone who stops in for a visit – with the same old-same old.
An ever-deepening societal lack of attention span and the rise of vlogging and podcasting have made my
long-winded comprehensive discussions even more obsolete than they were when I started using the blog-as-platform, way back in the dark ages of the internet. Since the ‘long read’ remains my go-to for hashing out thoughts and commentary, it’s been hard to justify the time and energy spent writing in an environment that seems geared to those who favour sound-bites and unsupported (unsupportable?) generalities as a means of communication.
From that perspective, it is fair to say that my years in higher education were spent dealing in hypotheticals – a fact that engages and irritates me all at the same time. I enjoy puzzles – and finding and assembling information in a manner that follows the rules of logic and rationality has always been one of the great joys of my life. Still, it was always at the back of my mind that we, as historians of ancient and biblical religions, were making up a lot of stuff and perpetuating foci on stories and histories that should, perhaps, be set aside in favour of study of those things that directly impact the world-as-it-is, rather than the world-as-it-was millennia ago.
That trend of thought has caused some existential angst. I love that stuff – and appreciate that I was privileged enough to study and teach it for as long as I did. I will continue to insist on its value for those who have the interest and wherewithal to investigate the ultimate origins of stuff that people still use as guideposts to living in the world – and the search for human meaning that lies at the heart of those guideposts.
But, if we’re really honest, and if living our lives in the glare of constant media – social and otherwise – has taught us anything, it’s that there aren’t many people who are interested in examining history and literature as means of understanding the world around them. Don’t get me wrong – lots of people love citing literature that dates back to Bronze Age nomadic desert peoples, but there is a complete lack of awareness that such pre/proscriptions for living are anachronistic in the 21st century.
The failure of education and critical examination that has brought us to this place in history is a symptom of the fact that we aren’t interested in learning about our recent history and taking warning from its messages. We, in the West, tend to insist in the rightness of ‘our way’ without having first-clue about the path that got us to this supposed-cohesion of social practices and policies.
I am an historian, but I have discovered lacunae in my own awareness of modern history as I witness the events and movements unfolding around us. I am attempting to rectify this, currently, by reading about the rise of Nazism and other totalitarian regimes, experiential Holocaust literature, Jim Crow laws and their application, and the history of the destruction of indigenous cultures around the world – including those that happened (and persist) in my own backyard.
But even with my self-assigned syllabus of compulsory readings, figuring out where I fit in the discussions we need to be having about the social and cultural anomie that is the epidemic causality of the rise of the alt-right and a generalized shift to rampant ‘othering’ has been difficult for me. I don’t like the shouting. The abuse, and the trolls, and the cognitive dissonance that make up the majority of the ‘discourse’ that’s happening right now leave me feeling disconnected and voiceless.
Chris Stedman, an American atheist whose work I’ve come to know through his Twitter feed, has written an important reflection on his place in the noisome and fraught discussions, and issued a call to arms, of sorts, to those seeking more moderate and humanistic approaches to addressing the myriad issues that come at us all, from all angles, on any given day.
His article echoes the concerns I’ve been feeling as an ‘out’ atheist who uses, however occasionally, various internet forums to express thoughts and passing insights. I have been attacked by supporters of a particular UofT psychology professor, been told that my Twitter feed is ‘unbearably smug’ (or was it ‘insufferable’? either way…) by white males whose ad hominem ‘arguments’ I choose to ignore, had followers of any number of religions and/or ideologies predict my ultimate fate – both in this world and the one they see as coming…
I don’t feed trolls. If people are willing to engage in informed dialectic, I’m all for discussing the truth or falsehood of opinions. Abuse will not be dignified with any sort of response. That’s why the ‘block’ function was created – and why irrational, raging comments should be deleted. Sorting the chaff from the potential wheat is usually time-consuming and soul-crushing, and is viewed, by some, as ignoring ‘both sides’ of a given subject. I defend my refusal to strike back at – or acknowledge – the rantings of the confirmation-biased as being an exercise in futility. I’m done trying to fix
stupid unexamined bigotry.
But Stedman’s summary point, ‘the difficult truth spotlighted by both Spencer’s atheism and the silence of other atheists is that, despite the late Christopher Hitchens’s infamous proclamation that “religion poisons everything,” religion was never the problem. It was always something more complicated. Something uglier, more primal, more deeply human. Something the internet, with all the good it can foster, often facilitates. Until atheists and humanists confront this Something head on, we will continue to struggle with people like Spencer who embody an atheism that got rid of the gods but put white men in their place’, speaks to our current social and political reality, and is strongly resonant with the direction of my own thoughts, lately.
I have spent my adult life studying religions – and the people who create those religions and use them to further social and political ideologies. That they are caught up – inextricably – in anachronistic, misogynistic, racist, separatist (I could continue listing ‘ists’ indefinitely) narratives is tautology. Which doesn’t mean that dismissive, offensive name-calling, by ‘young white men in particular—who feel disconnected, marginalized, and misunderstood (and are seeking) a sense of identity, belonging, and purpose’, should be getting all the ‘atheist airtime’.
It is trying, to say the least, to find a place – as a woman, an atheist, an academic – in an environment that is increasingly hostile to all of those things.
But middle grounds – that examine history and apply its lessons to the progressive and evolved ideals that people are standing for (in movements like #MeToo, #TimesUp, #NeverAgain… the list grows, daily) are finding voices and filling in the spaces between the extremes that divide and conquer us.
Stedman’s renewed commitment to activism – from a starting point that, in many ways, mirrors my own – has suggested an opening – and, perhaps, a new direction. As frustrating as demoralizing as it is to scream into the (seeming) abyss of ignorance and self-serving rhetoric, the answer to our systemic issues cannot lie in the hiatus of history. We have permitted constructed lacunae – repeated by our elected leaders (and those who weren’t, actually, elected), the media, and by anyone/everyone with access to the internet – to drive our collective narratives for too long.
It is not enough to push unthinkingly for change. As Stedman notes, we need to be asking difficult questions about the cultures of our movements, eradicating dogmatism and anger-driven reactionary messaging that adds fuel to the fires of intentionally-conceived divisions. In doing so, we all – atheist and otherwise – ‘have the chance to offer a robust, humanistic alternative… that affirms the worth and dignity of all people to an increasingly secular generation.’
Those are gaps worth bridging.