An anniversary of sorts.
On September 13th, 2001 The White House issued a proclamation –National Day of Prayer and Remembrance for the Victims Of the Terrorist Attacks on September 11, 2001.
On that day, things changed for me.
I was born an atheist, and although my family tried to change that, it didn’t work. I have spent a great many hours in church, and even enjoyed a considerable amount of the time spent there, but there was never belief. When the Christian monotheistic concept of their god, and all that entailed was clearly never going to click for me, I looked at all the other possibilities and eventually came to the conclusion that I was [filled in completely with indelible ink] choice Z) none of the above. However, this was not something I spoke about. When pushed into a situation where it really made sense to answer, I would try to answer something as neutral as possible. It was not that I was embarrassed about being an atheist, I just didn’t see it as a decent topic of public discourse.
By neutral, I mean that I would typically state that I do not practice a religion (definitely true) and also that I am agnostic (also true). Many people seem to think of agnostic as the middle ground between theist and atheist. I did not, and do not, view it that way. I consider it a position on knowledge, not a position on deities. However I let them see it through their eyes and be more comfortable about it. Not because I wanted them to feel more comfortable, but because I wanted them to be comfortable enough to shut up so we could move on to a more interesting topic.
I consider religion to be a private and personal matter. I don’t want to hear about the beliefs of other people, much less have them pushed upon me, and I want to keep my own private thoughts and business my own private thoughts and business.
For instance, I am about to write something that I do not believe I have ever said or written before.
I am not a lesbian.
Now, I think a great many people already assumed I was likely not a lesbian. I am married to a man. We have a daughter together. These are little aspects of my life that do put out into the public realm that there is a plausible likelihood that I am not a lesbian. However, I basically consider this to be a private matter and none of the business or concern of the majority of the population. This is something that should matter to an extremely small number of individuals. I am not embarrassed that I am not a lesbian. I am not proud that I am not a lesbian. I just simply am not a lesbian. I find it to be on the tacky side to be bringing up this fact in public. However, it is relevant to my feelings about being an atheist. It wasn’t a secret, it just wasn’t something I saw as being a subject up for general discussion.
There are so many things on this planet that I find more interesting to discuss with people than religion or sexual orientation. While my sexual orientation, life style, political beliefs, thoughts on religion, and many other things do play a part in what I do, and how I do them, I find the actual things that I do to be the more worthwhile topic.
It was a quick change. In less than a week I went from always trying to avoid the discussion, and giving a very neutral response, to just flat out stating that I was, am, and always will be, an atheist. My personal feelings about such discussions haven’t changed. I still would prefer it to be a private matter, and I don’t go out of my way to bring it up. I am going against my own gut instinct every time I say it, but I say it. I decided that my own personal comfort level was less important than the need to just say “Hi. We are here.” I still hope people find pretty much anything else about me more interesting.
There were other things, within my family that also changed in that short stretch of time, but I do not feel those are my stories to tell.
I am including a letter that I sent to essentially all my government officials on September 14th, 2001. (Of course, I desperately want to rewrite it now, ugh I HATE rereading what I have written, it can always be improved! It was written quickly and I was upset.)
Why couldn’t we have a National Day of Mourning? As heart breaking as the events of Tuesday were, I find myself even further emotionally devastated by the President of the United States telling me once again, that I do not count, that I am not a real American. He had to declare it a National Day of Prayer, despite the fact that, more than ever, the United States of America needs to be UNITED. There is not a single Webster’s definition of prayer that does not include mention of some god or religion. Not every citizen of the United States has a god, gods, goddesses or religion. Labeled, by ourselves, and others, in a variety of ways, including atheists, infidels, freethinkers, humanists, and skeptics. We aren’t united under a single name, for reasons just as varied, but including a belief in individual rights and responsibilities, and the fact many of us consider it to be one of the least interesting aspects of our life.
On a National Day of Mourning, those who do believe in such things, could attend services, it wouldn’t have changed that. The President and former presidents could still have attended such a service, he wouldn’t have to hide that he personally finds comfort in prayer. The only difference is the rest of us would be included and acknowledged, and I don’t know how much that inclusion would have hurt him personally, but it would have made me feel immeasurably better. Asking people to “attend religious services of their choosing on their lunch hour” just tells us that even at this time of tragedy, even as a representative of our own country, President George W. Bush, gives the politically correct lip service to religious tolerance, but for those without religious belief he cannot open his heart and arms to include us just a little bit. Directing everyone to pray is thoughtless, inappropriate, hurtful and divisive. Yet few people will challenge this unconstitutional act, because we are a group that so many find it absolutely acceptable discriminate against. Because of this, our government should be working all the harder to protect us from discrimination, rather than participating and even promoting it. Yet this is the second Day of Prayer that he has forced upon us.
Does he think that only those with religion can feel sadness? That only those with religion think life is precious? Does anyone not grasp just how precious we think lives are? We do not believe in heaven, or any kind of afterlife or eternal reward. We do not believe in reincarnation, nor that we continue on in another dimension, on another planet, or become one with the cosmos. We believe this life is what we have. We value life fervently because of this. We can take no comfort from thoughts that the victims are in a better place; we believe they were robbed of the thing that matters, life. We do not have the solace of believing that one day we will be with our lost friends and loved ones again. Of course we are grieving. We are grieving deeply.
He shuts us out and turns his back on us even as he remembers a tragedy that would have been far less likely to happen if not for the religious beliefs of the terrorists. I do not blame the religion, I blame the individuals, but let’s be realistic, their belief that they would be rewarded for this act in the next life, did not make it more difficult for them to commit the act. With his constant “God is on our side” wording, is he hoping to whip this country up into a holy war? Have we learned nothing from a history full of deaths on such crusades?
I weep at the recorded images of those planes crashing into those buildings, and believe me, I am not weeping for the loss of a bunch of metal, concrete, glass and wiring. I am not weeping for the financial damage. It the loss of the lives inside that I mourn so deeply. I shudder when thinking of the people who had extended periods of terror to live through before being brought to a hideous end by events beyond their control. I am heartened by the evidence that some of the individuals on flight 93 were able to at least take some control of their lives back and save countless other lives even though still tragically unable to save their own. I weep again at the images of young children in another country waving flags and celebrating this blow to our country.
I seek comfort in the prospect of tomorrow, in the laughter of children, in seeing the red white and blue being displayed around my city. I am glad to drive past a local mosque and not see protesters lined up outside. I am proud to see people of varying political backgrounds uniting because they are all proud citizens of the United States of America, proud that they are fully allowed to have varying political backgrounds.
My friends and I argue over whether our military should just start bombing people without finalized proof, what proof is enough proof, whether those behind it should be publicly executed, whether those who say “it wasn’t me but you deserved it” should be bombed too, whether there should be a trial and imprisonment not execution, whether we should be doing our best to avoid any further loss of life, even the lives of those responsible. We worry about the implications for the future of individual freedom, and argue over the cost of real safety, or whether such a thing is even possible. We worry about how to keep the wrong people from getting training at facilities in our own country, without making judgments based on the way someone looks, their names, accents and religions. We are horrified by the idea of more terrorist incidents, and also terrified that such concerns could lead to things like Manzanar. We frantically called friends and relatives. We hold our loved ones close. We try to reassure our children. We just don’t pray, or turn to any kind of religious leader for support or comfort. Does that really discount every other contribution we make to our community and country?
Statistics being what they are, some of the victims of this tragedy also had no gods or religion, and no want for prayer on their behalf. Can the President of the United States and all the other countless politicians making statements and singing songs not find enough room in their hearts to just give those victims a little acknowledgment and respect even now. I don’t begrudge anyone his or her comfort in prayer. I am not asking them to consider the idea that we might be right, just consider that we are citizens of this country and are part of humanity. As a Christian, President Bush already firmly believes we will suffer in the next life. Is it really so important that he make us suffer in this one? Are we to tell our children that they can grow up to be anything they want to be, but only those with proper views on religious matters can be full-fledged citizens of the United States of America?
Today I am in mourning, for the victims and their family and friends. I am in mourning for all the people in the world who feel a little less safe today. I am also in mourning because this country, which I love so dearly, thinks so poorly of me.
So that’s it. Because of a proclamation by George W. Bush, I now state loudly and clearly: