This is In Deep; I’m Angie Coiro. In a moment, a conversation with Claire Bidwell Smith about her book, After This: When Life is Over, Where Do We Go? But first …
Why would we at In Deep delve into this topic – the afterlife, even if there is one? With all these hard-edged issues awaiting like homelessness and what’s in front of the Supreme Court? Why go so far afield? It is unusual for us, but in common with all our topics, this grew out of a societal shift that bears scrutiny. In this case, it’s the increasingly loud discord between believers and non-believers. From PR-driven atheist-vs-believer “battles” (with tickets for sale, of course) to the internet, where so much of American society pastes bits of its unglossed id – it’s been getting uglier for years.
Legendary WW2 correspondent Ernie Pyle declared “There are no atheists in foxholes”. The phrase lives on, but it’s changed. Now it sneers at the legitimacy of one’s very personal conclusions about gods and life. “Yeah, just wait until it matters” – this is handed down to the clueless from the lofty perch of the all-knowing. It’s insulting. It’s demeaning. And frankly it’s a pretty odd way to recruit believers. There WERE atheists in foxholes, and some of them died there. Some emerged to remain atheists.
And their number grew. So over the decades did the ranks of agnostics – even more, the ranks of the non-religious. A 2012 Pew study found nearly 20% of Americans are not associated with any church. A quarter of those identified as agnostic or atheist. Eventually atheists began to struggle against being “othered”. Why did an Indiana war memorial boast a Christian cross? What does that say of the Jews, the Buddhists, the non-believers who gave lives just as valid to their country? Across the US massive crosses spring out of public land that non-Christians pay taxes on too.
Christmas – pagan in its roots and now a secular orgy of consumerism – has nativity scenes and more crosses sprouting at courthouses and city halls.
Why is there a National Day of Prayer? Time and money siphoned off to religious devotion by politicians representing all of us? They don’t dare not show up.
More and more, atheists have demanded full respect – their legitimate place in America. Thus: the backlash began. Fox News in particular began pushing the “War On Christmas” – a phrase heard so often you’d swear the hosts were paid a bonus every time. A faction of Christians – Andrew Sullivan helpfully dubbed them “Christianists” to distinguish them from their saner counterparts – defy historic fact to declare America a “Christian country”, with all others subjugate. Bizarrely, they loudly proclaim that it’s Christians who are maligned and oppressed in the US – that every utterance of “Happy Holidays!” at a cash register is a grievous attack. They are victims!
So far, so predictable. People at the top of the power structure feel threatened and defensive when their position is questioned. Stop the presses.
But the next part I find embarrassing – not just others’ behavior, but my own. A backlash to the backlash began from the atheists and agnostics. Just as with the Christianists, I prefer to believe they’re the fringe. But along with them, I have jeered at religious people for worshiping an angry white guy in the sky. I retweeted slams at magical thinking, and laughed at them. I’ve watched the rise of the Angry Atheist – first right there with them, then over time feeling prickles of recognition and guilt at the swirling crowd mentality. We had become them.
Now the timeless questions humans naturally wonder at are fodder for mockery. Like every pendulum swing, it sweeps away value along with dreck. Is all sensing of something unseen or an impression of activity or knowledge beyond the humdrum all equally silly? Is everyone who stops to peek at this for a moment – to wonder – possessed of an inferior mind? Maybe. But I’m never in favor of any culture that quashes questions and demeans the person who asks them.
We all die. What happens? Shakespeare noted that “men have died, and worms have eaten them”, but is that it? Does any inquiry into other possibilities prove that your mind is so open your brain has fallen out?
Of that 20% of Americans Pew found were nonreligious, most had some spiritual beliefs – even prayed daily. Lack of religious affiliation is not an indication that they’ve stopped thinking or probing.
We’re going to move into this hour of conversation with a guest who I probably don’t agree much with, in terms of what’s real and what isn’t. But I admire her “what the hell” approach to her topic. Reading her book, I laughed with her at the moments she was pretty sure she was faking past life memories, to the point of suddenly “seeing” her death hospital room when she wanted the whole thing to be over. And I’m impressed that in a culture of increasingly bitter hard lines, she emerged content to say, “I don’t know; and I’ve benefited from trying to find out.”
For In Deep, I’m Angie Coiro.