Of Blacks, Southerners, Yankees, atheists, and Christians

If you had grown up white in Mississippi during the 1950s and ‘60s, you  would have called them niggers too, and you wouldn’t have considered the word particularly offensive. By particularly, I mean that it wasn’t a term for politest conversation (although politicians used it in speeches), yet it was used far more than the word negro, which was more for pulpits and newspapers. 

Then came the Civil Rights Movement, and I saw black people with new eyes because thousands of them were risking death to end the very kinds of discrimination that I had grown up thinking of as natural and desirable. Water fountains, for example. Everyone knew that you could get germs from drinking after niggers, so it  just made good sense for white people to have their own water fountains. When the police dogs, fire hoses, bloody faces, and burning churches started appearing regularly on TV, racism no longer seemed good or natural, yet I knew that the one thing the Klan hated more than an uppity nigger was a nigger lover, so I tried to walk the line, although I sometimes worried that I pushed the limit. For example, my best friend, Jerry Kelly, was black (he’s digging a field line for a septic system in the photo from 1966), but he didn’t come into my house; I didn’t go into his house; and we didn’t spend time together with his friends or with my friends except in certain circumstances. However, the fact that we hunted and camped together could have attracted adverse attention.

During the mid-sixties, my father and I ran a seven day a week, 115 mile per day newspaper route, and we hired Jerry to roll and throw the papers for whichever of us was driving on a particular day. Every month, we would put out envelopes for our customers to use to mail us money. Some people wouldn’t do this, so we would have to knock on their doors. One of these customers ran a country cafĂ© on the east side of U.S. Hwy 51 near the little community of Norfield. One day, I pulled into its gravel parking lot, and told Jerry to go in and get our money. He looked at me in alarm, and said he would get into trouble if he went in there. I knew he would get into trouble if he tried to order, but I really didn’t know that it was unsafe for him to go in at all, so I sent him anyway. As soon as he went through that door, he was cursed and threatened, and came running back out with a woman right behind him. She told me in very colorful language to get off her property and never come back. 

Three years later, Jerry joined the army. When he got leave, he visited me. He had left sweet and gentle, and come home arrogant and contemptuous. Even his voice sounded stilted, like he was choking on something. I assumed that big-city Northern blacks had taught him to hate white people, and that he had come to look down on me because, while he was off seeing the world, I had stayed right where he had left me in rural Mississippi. I never saw him again after that because it was obvious that our friendship was over.

When I entered my twenties, I wanted to have black friends because black people seemed exotic and because I wanted to know what it was like to be a black person in Mississippi, but I didn’t like any of the four black men I taught school with (I was the only white male teacher) because, like Jerry, they acted distant and superior. Right after I got the job, one of them asked me to go fishing with him, which I did. None of them ever asked me to spend time with them again, nor did they give the least indication that they wanted me to ask them to spend time with me. I assumed that the fishing invitation had been a test to determine if my presence was even tolerable.

When I was in my upper twenties, I had some pulpwood hauled off my land by a black man named Horace McDaniel (on right in 1985 photo). Horace would often stop his chainsaw and drink a little whiskey. This worried me, but I didn’t consider it my place to say anything, and no harm ever came of it. Horace and I liked one another, so one day we went to a bootlegger (the county was dry), and Horace bought a bottle of the cheapest whiskey the man had. It gave me gas so bad that I thought I would explode, so I didnt drink much of it. Horace did, and the more the drank, the more anger he expressed toward white people, so I never wanted to see him after that. When every effort I made to be friends with a black man ended with him dumping his anger onto me, I gave up on being friends with black people. Here in Oregon, I can go for days and not even see a black person, and most of the ones I do see are on the local news or sports, a surprisingly large number of them for committing violent crimes. Does pointing this out make me a bigot?

I’ve seen prejudice from both sides. I’ve been, if not always the oppressor, a member of the oppressor race, and I’ve been a member of two oppressed groups. I’ve been a white Southerner living among Yankees; and I’ve been an atheist in a world where 95% of the population believes in God, and most of that 95% hate atheists. Now I’m starting to learn how it feels to be growing old in a society that has no respect for old people.

I never feel affection toward anyone but what I wonder if they’re going to turn on me me once they learn I’m an atheist. This is how being an atheist is like being a homosexual. A black person can’t usually hide his race, or an old person his age, but most homosexuals can hide their homosexuality, and all atheists can hide their atheism. Some of us simply refuse to do so because if we’re going to be hated, we want to find out right away. Some atheists even walk around in t-shirts or caps with ATHEIST on them. I don’t do that because I don’t want to take the heat, and because I dislike clothes that promote causes. 

When those black men tried to talk to me, I didn’t realize that they were giving me what I asked for, which was a knowledge of what it meant to be black in white-run Mississippi. They were simply doing so in a way that was raw and bleeding rather than polite and intellectual. I had encouraged their trust only to throw salt in their wounds when I got it. When, in my post before last, I gave various reasons for going to a church Bible class, and some of you still asked why I was going, I wondered if you sensed more to my motivations than I was aware of, so I gave the matter some thought, and I came up with a couple of things. One of them is that, just maybe, Im like those black men in that I seek healing, but in my case from the harm that religion has done in my life. I can’t accomplish this on my own, and I can’t do it in the company of other atheists. I also know that I can’t do it in 99% of churches because they have nothing to offer me beyond what they immodestly call Gods plan for salvation, and trying to sell a mansion in heaven to an atheist like trying to sell a mansion on earth to a wildcat

What I didn’t realize with those black men, and what very few Christians will realize with me, is that no one is in a better position to help the oppressed than those who represent the oppressor because only they can contradict his hurt simply by caring and listening. Those among my Bible study classmates who are mature will understand this, and if none do, it won’t be any less than I expected. Besides, I really don’t think there’s anything that can be done. I just know that I, like a lot of atheists, live with a pervasive hatred for religion, and that this hatred hurts. Even if something is evil, as I think religion usually is, hating it doesn’t help a person to fight it any better.

On to the weather

Oregon weather is diverse and interesting, especially in winter when there are mudslides in the Coast Range (that close major highways and sometimes kill people), storms in the ocean (that sometimes kill people), and sneaker waves coming onto the shore (that sometimes kill people). I forgot to mention high winds (that sometimes kill people).

Meanwhile, the Willamette Valley (where I live) will be under total cloud cover with almost daily rain or drizzle, and this will continue practically all day everyday for months, so we too see a lot of flooding. I don’t know why people even bother to build houses in many Valley or Coastal areas because those houses are so clearly going to either be flooded, tumble off a cliff, fall into a river, or be buried by a mudslide.

The inland mountains get high winds, low temperatures, and heavy snows, but they can also get a lot of rain. Rainy winters reduce fatalities because no one wants to go to the mountains, but they also bum skiers, snowboarders, and lodge owners. Peggy loves to ski, and is a major fan of snow as scenery. I wouldn’t ski if you paid me (unless you paid me a lot), and snow gives me the willies. Any day that I can’t look out and see bare ground seems like a sick and twisted sort of day to me, and I think it’s a cruel and perverse climate that does such things.

Moving on to the two-thirds of Oregon that’s desert, snow depth depends upon elevation. I would guess that most of the desert lies above 4,000-feet (1.2 km), but some of the mountains are over 10,000-feet (3.0 km). The desert often gets really cold.

What I’m trying to say about winter in Oregon is that it comes in a lot of different forms, all of them damnable. Now compare that to my home state, Mississippi. You could hear the forecast for your area, and go to bed bored in the knowledge that your weather was going to be almost identical to the weather of everyone within 200 miles (322 km). When my father moved from Mississippi to Oregon, he was old and didn’t hear well. This made it difficult for him to know which of the many TV weather forecasts was the right one for our area, so he would sometimes amaze us with forecasts of several feet of snow or 120 mph (193 km/hour) winds, things that we knew were unlikely for the Willamette Valley. This greatly reduced our reliance upon my father for accurate weather information.

After all of this, I still haven't told you about all of Oregon's different climate zones, there being at least two more that I know about.

The picture is of two of the Pacific Northwest's infamous and amorous banana slugs. They grow up to 9.8 in. (25 cm) long, and so provide an excellent reason for not going barefoot at night, and for watching where you step in the daytime.

The most dreaded letter

I became so enamored of Episcopal bishop John Spong’s “non-theistic” Christianity that I started attending a midweek Bible class at a liberal Episcopal church. I knew my atheism represented a major difference between myself and most, if not all, of my classmates, so not wanting to misrepresent myself, I gave my blog address to everyone (I had just posted twice about atheism), and asked them to let me know if they had any questions. They didn’t. I was surprised, but I realized that, from their perspective, I might have shared too much too soon, or that my blog wasn’t their cup of tea, or that they hadn’t even looked at it. But, after decades of having Christians react to the A word as if I had dumped a bucket of cold water over their heads, my best guess was that their warm welcome to me had just been irrevocably withdrawn. I attended the next class, but I had no idea what anyone was thinking.

Last week was the week from hell that I wrote about in my last post, so I emailed the priest who leads the class to let her know I was too sick to attend. She expressed her concern, but I had thought that, perhaps, others would too given how sick I was, and when they didn’t, my doubts about whether I was welcome became that much greater. Now, I don’t know if I’ll go back. If I do, I’ll worry that I’m imposing myself on people who don’t want me around, but if I don’t, I’ll wonder if my expectation that they would reach out to me regarding my health and/or my beliefs were unrealistic. If thats the case, when and how should I have shared my atheism? Should I have waited a year and told only those whom I thought could handle it, as if it were some humiliating secret that only close friends should know? And why would I, an atheist who has no interest in conversion, have gone to a Bible study in the first place? I’ll tell you.

*Whatever else it is, the Bible is an interesting book, and I enjoy studying and discussing it.

*I value community with those who ask serious questions.

*Living with pain is hard, and I need support.

*Instead of isolating myself from people who think differently than I, I want to seek them out and find the good in them.

*I want to hear what religion means to people. The fact that I don’t believe in it doesn’t mean I’m uninterested.

*I want to learn whatever Christians of depth and maturity might have to teach me about matters of importance such as patience, forgiveness, fortitude, and compassion.

*I want to serve as a bridge between believers and non-believers, and with this in mind, I saw my attendance as a gift. I even fantasied myself hosting a meeting in which I answered questions about atheism--and why I became an atheist--that is if anyone cared, and it was hard for me to imagine that they wouldn’t, not that what I imagine necessarily has any bearing on anyone elses reality.

* I’m in accord with Progressive Christianity. I couldn’t be a Progressive Christian because I dont worship Jesus, but I could commune with them on the basis of their desire to interact fully and equally with people who see the world in different ways. 

*I enjoy elaborate rituals and beautiful sanctuaries, and no church ever pleased me more in these regards than the Episcopal (not that I imagined I would attend services much).

*I admire the Episcopal Church for its willingness to take unpopular stands regarding women’s rights and homosexuality. So far as I’m aware, no other church in the Anglican communion has half the guts, compassion, or devotion to justice of the American Episcopal. As it is treated by its fellow Anglicans, so are people like myself treated by nearly everyone, and this gives me a feeling of kinship through oppression.
If I’m right, and I’m no longer welcome at St. _____ because of my atheism, does this not suggest that the church serves as a fort behind which timid believers huddle in fear and loathing of the Great Beast of Secularism that threatens their tenuous faith? I am but one atheist, and I went to them on their turf and on their terms (meaning that I would show respect for their beliefs). Where is their love for people such as I? I really don’t know. Maybe it was there, and I didn’t see it (not after sharing the fact of my atheism anyway); or maybe they didn’t show it because they didn’t understand how awkward it was for me to reach out to them; or maybe my sensitivity caused me to imagine rejection where it didn’t exist; or, just maybe, they really would prefer that I not come back. Having never known a Christian (except on this blog) who wanted to be my friend once I said I was an atheist, I think I have my answer. Yet, having felt kicked around by Christians since I was a teenager, I’ve come to expect more of the same, and this makes it almost impossible for me to know how to approach them or how to interpret their behavior when I do. All I know is that when I have nothing to go by but my feelings, I can but go by my feelings, and my feelings are that something isn’t right.

Obviously, the people whom this is about might read it. I would never write about someone in order to influence them, but by the same token, I realize that I can never assume that any given person who ever had the address of this blog isnt reading it regularly even if I haven’t seen him or her in years. It is simply my resolve that this not influence me in the least. Otherwise, my reason for writing would be defeated.

It is now the next day, and I’ve been thinking about your comments. I realized as I went through them that I was, subconsciously, putting these people through a test. That made sense on one level because it offered the possibility of clarifying my situation in a hurry. But on another level, it was appallingly cynical, like saying, “I'm so convinced that you’re not worthwhile, that I'm willing to risk blowing you out of the water by giving you an exam five minutes after we meet."