Thursday, August 23, 2007

Personal history of disbelief

A view from Southeast Europe

published on the
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I was born in a now non-existent country called Yugoslavia (the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia), and at the time it was the only European communist country that didn't belong to the Eastern Bloc. It happened to be lodged in between the NATO and Warsaw Pact blocs, playing safe with both sides. The most plausible position on religion, according to the ruling socialist government, was to be an atheist (which gives atheism an ideological frame). The religious practice of one of the main three monotheistic religions (Catholicism, Islam, Orthodox Christianity) was allowed, but not very well looked upon if you wanted to prosper in the Party. The Party didn't burn churches or ban religious rituals, as far as I know.

There I grew up in Vojvodina (the northern autonomous province of the Republic of Serbia) in a very diverse and multi-ethnic community in the small town of Becej. Although the majority of Serbs (the nationality listed on my birth certificate) belong to the Orthodox Christian Church, the first church that I ever entered was actually a Catholic Christian one. We used to live in a mostly Hungarian neighborhood in Becej and all my nannies were Hungarians. One of them took me once with her to a local church. I was four and I remember the strong smell of incense, the crowd, sitting in the benches and putting some coins in a tray that was attached to a pole. I didn't quite understand what was I doing there.

My father, a former party member, is an atheist. My mother always declared herself as an Orthodox Christian. The only religious holiday that we observed in our house was Easter. The best part was of course coloring the eggs and arranging them in the basket coated with grass. And there was a traditional competition over who would break whose egg with his own. We called it banging eggs, with a giggle, picking the egg with the supposedly strongest shell and practicing the best technique. It was kind of fun.

When I turned eleven my mom decided that I should be baptized according to the Orthodox Christian tradition. But in secrecy, because dad probably wouldn't agree with the idea. I was baptized in the house of my mom's cousin, a weird and very religious lady who used to sweep the courtyards of the Orthodox church in Becej. The priest performed my baptism ritual in my aunt's living room with choreography that included everyone walking around the coffee table. After that I was officially a Christian, at least in the eyes of my mother. I was clueless what the whole thing was about, except that it was secret and therefore fun. The cousin gave me an illustrated Bible for kids. It was full of cool pictures and fairy-tale like stories. My mom gave me a regular unillustrated copy with an instruction to put it under my pillow while sleeping at night. I also got advice to say The Lord's Prayer before I went to bed. The general idea that I had in my mind at the time was that I am addressing some old guy with kind words and that everything will be just fine because of that. Hmmm, OK.

In my early teens I used to watch a lot of horror movies (I'm still a big fan). But the backlash was that I couldn't sleep at night without my lights on. So I addressed the Lord to protect me from the Alien, the Blake (The Fog), the Jason (Friday the 13th) and some gross demons from Lamberto Bava's film "Demons". Later on I added Freddy Krueger to the list. But the worst was about to come: The Exorcist. An absolutely horrible experience of watching the girl vomiting and listening to the demonic voice coming out of her. By that point I was not quite sure about the existence of God, but the devil seemed horrifyingly convincing. I prayed my ass off to be protected from that ultimate evil and it didn't help at all. (Years later I realized that both God and the Devil are two sides of the same coin. And that the grip of fear is the very matter that the coin is made of.) Soon I forgot about the prayers. The bible ended up on the bookshelf along with the Sci-Fi books.

In high school I became keen on science, math and art. Later on we got a very good literature teacher and I got hooked on Albert Camus and the entire existentialist French philosophy. Life without meaning and a total non-existence of the afterlife? Quite a frightening but attractive concept to a brooding and art-inclining adolescent. We have a certain time given to us and we should use it the best we can. We can also end it whenever we want. I remember also a previous literature teacher who reproached me for describing Anna Karenina as brave for committing suicide. But it was a kind of liberating thought that we really own our own lives. Overall I had a very uneventful and peaceful childhood in the idyllic eighties, full of free exploration and curiosity.

The nineties began with a bloody war that resulted in Yugoslavia breaking apart. Every nation of ex-Yugoslavia yearned for it's own national identity and it's own clean piece of land at whatever cost. I realized that the new born national pride included big doses of religious identity. It was, in addition to every other reason for war (land, power, money) a war between Orthodox Christians, Catholic Christians and Muslims. In Europe? At the end of the XX century??? At that point I was still pretty ambivalent towards religion. The sight of priests blessing tanks and soldiers was not a pretty one. And it turned me against religion.

I moved to Belgrade, the former capital of Yugoslavia and the new Capital of a new Yugoslavia (which was actually just Serbia and Montenegro), to study architecture. Belgrade is just 125 kilometers to the south of my hometown but everything was totally different. There were mainly Serbs and religion seemed to be quite a thing around there. I was shocked when a friend invited me to a party at his house to attend the traditional Serbian Orthodox celebration of his family's patron saint. What??? You guys really do practice religion here? The intellectual snob in me weakened a bit. It was just a party after all.

We had a great professor of geometry at university. He once said:
"Don't believe what I say. See for yourselves."
"But this is an exact science!"
"Especially because of that!".
So, science can be questioned too? 2+2=4, or maybe not? The world seemed to fall apart, but it was so exciting. Questioning everything actually gave me a totally new perspective of the world. I felt even more free. And, it may sound absurd, I felt much more stable than ever.

At university I also took a course in the history and theory of art and architecture. Every year students in the course go for a study trip to Mount Athos in Greece, the heart of Orthodox Christianity. The art that I was interested in was only XX century art. All these byzantine icons were just badly drawn to me, but I was curious to see what it was all about and it turned out to be a valuable experience. All four of the other students and the professor were religious believers, all except for me. One monk told me that faith consists of three aspects: rational, emotional and intuitive. OK, I understood the rational aspect, but I probably misssed the emotional and intuitive. And that's why I am a non-believer? Interesting. Another monk told me that love is innate to every human being. "I see you and therefore I love you, because you are the mirror of my existence." Not a very convincing logical statement, but very romantic. Soon I realized that he's not the only monk with romantic rhetoric aimed toward young students. And "badly drawn byzantine icons" turned out to be quite an interesting phenomena. According to the interpretation of my professor they are not just representations, they ARE what they represent. Nice catch. So when I am kissing the icon of Christ I am kissing the Christ himself. Really? Cool. A friend with a "Have you found God?" face told me upon my return that I look so radiant and spiritualized. "No, honey, that's just good food and the Greek sun."

After the fall of one of the last European dictators, Slobodan Milosevic, I realized that Serbia in the meantime had turned into quite a religious country. After 10 years of nationalistic brainwashing everybody went religious. Nouveau riche went to church with huge golden crosses around their fat necks, former intellectuals started to rant deliriously about Jung and Christianity, popular criminals staged spectacular weddings in temples, everybody observed a fast before religious holidays (you can hardly find food in bakeries that is not just water and flour).... The clergy finally got their 15 minutes to grab some power. Well, who would blame them? They had been quite unpopular for the previous 50 years. Priests were now taking a role in important political decisions and negotiations. Religious teachings were introduced in schools. Even one Minister of Education (!) a few years ago proposed to remove Darwin from the high school curriculum. Fortunately, she was ridiculed. I thought, "OK, let them have some space for whatevergodyoubelievein's sake." But a priest led a violent gang against the participants of Gay Pride in Belgrade that ended up in blood and broken bones while policemen watched the show from the sidelines. Father Gavrilovic, the ringleader, was passionately preaching about the misuse of "that divine organ". Very passionate about the penis? There were also several cases (finally revealed) of priests abusing kids, but they all mysteriously got away with that. And all these representatives of something that I thought of as an "idle metaphysical speculation", started to peek in my bed and to shape my life. The politicians now understand the value of displaying their new born faith and are misusing it big time. Religious words here and there will win you plenty of votes.

Hang on a minute! This ain't no party, this ain't no disco, this ain't no foolin' around... anymore.

Finally, I became fully aware of my profound atheism. I had always been an atheist even when I was asking the lord to save me from Freddy. There just was not any need to label myself an atheist. But suddenly now I have a lable. And in the present course of religious fundamentalism I can sometimes be very anti-theistic. Especially when you clearly see the difference between individuals who believe in some deity (I really don't mind) and the organized religion (in forms varying from an afternoon social sport or a greedy political option, to a mass-murdering squad and doomsday psychopaths). Stating that you are an atheist in the world that I am coming from is as natural as saying that you are human. And it is as valid as any religious belief (with the important difference that atheism is not a belief). Although atheism may be slightly losing popularity in my country, "atheist" is the proud label of a free thinker. It's an aspect of a free and skeptical way of thinking.

And then I encountered the US of A. For the first time I considered myself lucky to be born in a country where I could choose. And having no one to blame for my choice, but myself. In America, I realized that there was much less "religious freedom" than I had believed existed when I was growing up. Calling yourself an atheist is at best like saying that you are gay at the Republican convention. This, in a country so clearly concerned about separating religion from the state? OK, I understand that atheism still has a strong ideological "red menace" undertone. (I just remembered a funny line from Dawkins' book "The God Delusion" quoting Julia Sweeney: "I think that my parents had been mildly disappointed when I'd said I didn't believe in God any more, but being an atheist was another thing altogether."). But communism no longer seems like a threat. America has replaced it with a new one (you have to keep people busy with fear). And this new threat seems to be a religious one. So, if you are an atheist are you avoiding the holy war?

I also realized the meaning of the word "science" has a different meaning in the U.S. Everybody's talking about evil scientists, monstrous experiments and greedy pharmaceutical companies. For me science is a discipline of reason and proof. And of course it can be questioned like everything else, just like my geometry teacher once said.

The question of "nation" is very different, too. In America, "nation" is belonging to a construct called "country", no matter what ethnic, racial or religious group you belong to. In Europe "nation" is almost a synonym for ethnicity. It is tightly connected with the religious beliefs and traditions.

The strange thing for me is that on the one hand, America still has total freedom of religious confession. It has resulted in a diverse religious landscape that seems totally ridiculous to the too-old too-white-Christian Europe. On the other hand, religion seems like one of the basic threads of the American social tapestry regardless of the nominal secularity of the state. When people are given too much freedom, the only glue they can find is religion? How about reason too?

Land of the free (thinking) and home of the brave (to be whatever you want)?
But I believe (yes, I do believe in something) that it is still possible to find mutual appreciation between common sense and metaphysical speculations.

There is a campaign for encouraging atheists in highly religious environment to come out, The Out Campaign. Read about it at