Saturday, October 16, 2010

We Can Make It Better

I’ve lost count of the stories of GLBTQ youth who, subject to so much bullying and abuse, chose to end their pain by ending their very lives. I’ve seen folks posting and cross-posting videos and blogs telling other victims of bullying to keep living, to hang on, because eventually it will get better. I’ve heard others rightly complain about holding the bullies to account for their actions, or the adults who failed to act.

Here is my story…

I was a skinny and awkward kid – the perfect target for bullies. And, sure enough, they came after me. When I would come home from school angry and in pain, my parents did not just comfort me and tell me to hang in there. My mother marched into the principal’s office and told him she would not put up with it. And when he replied that he could only do so much, she then said: “I’ll help you.” She signed up to be a recess monitor, showing up for school each day, intervening whenever she saw any kid being hit or harassed.

My father joined in. A leader with our town’s Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts, he made it clear that bullying would not be tolerated. He reminded the boys in his charge that the principles of the Scout Oath and Scout Law called on them not only to refrain from bullying themselves, but to speak out and step in whenever they saw it. And when a man who is six feet five and two hundred fifty pounds tells you something like that, you listen!

My parents didn’t just tell us, in word and deed, that violence and harassment were unacceptable. They reminded us that we each have the power to do something about it – maybe not the whole world all at once, but one kid at a time, one school at a time, one community at a time. It is what my parents did for me, and for other kids like me, which would empower me to speak up and step in for GLBTQ rights as a hetero ally. It is the example of my parents which led me to Unitarian Universalism, a faith tradition which at its core summons the power in each of us not just to believe that things will get better, but to do what we can to make the world a better place.

Now it’s time to pay it forward…

If you’re a young person reading this, and you know someone in your school or town who is being bullied, speak up and step in. That could be you, or your sister or brother. It can be scary, even painful, but think of the fear and pain that kid is going through. Tell your parents, your teachers, your principal, your Scouting leaders, someone at your religious community – anyone who will listen. Tell other kids about what’s going on, and do what you can to support those who are being bullied, and stand up against those who bully.

If you’re a parent, and you hear about a kid being bullied, speak up and step in. Even if it’s not your kid, it could be. Talk to that kid’s parents. Talk to the parents of the bullies. Talk to any parents who will listen. Tell the school board what’s going on, and remind them just how serious the consequences could be. Step in through the PTA, your community of faith, your local Scouting or youth group. Set an example, and encourage your kids to do the same.

If you’re a teacher, counselor, school administrator, youth advisor, speak up and step in. These kids – all of them – are under your care. If you allow one to bully another, then you give approval for it to get worse. Stop it before it gets worse. Let every kid who bullies another kid know that you will not put up with it. Let every kid who tells you about bullying that you’re proud of them. And let every kid who is bullied know that you’re there for them.

It can get better. It will get better. It must get better. And it can happen a lot quicker if each of us, working together, resolve to do what we can to make it better.

Are you with me?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Why I am Not a "New Atheist"

In my younger days, I was quite the infidel. I led a campus groups of freethinkers and secular humanists, and continued for many years after graduation.

And then, I left. I'd had enough of the overwhelming negativity -- the emphasis on how wrong the other side was, and how "we" were not like "them."

From what I've seen, both inside and out, there is nothing all that "new" about the so-called New Atheism. Read the freethought literature of the nineteenth century, and you'll hear the same strident tone of scientific certainty. Problem is, when you embrace such an uncompromising approach, what happens when you disagree with one another? Sadly, I witnessed the answer to that question within hard-core atheist ranks, and it broke my heart.

New Atheism too often comes across as merely the mirror image of the religious absolutists which they tend to target. Worse, they fail to see how their own views and approach are as much a matter of faith as their counterparts. Yes, they pay attention to empirical facts, but sometimes their understanding of those facts seems rather simplistic.

Too many supposedly liberal folks, for example, seem to regurgitate the belief that "homosexuality is genetic," when the facts are much more complex than that. For example, many tendencies may have biological antecedents which are not necessarily genetic in origin. Then there is the interplay of social and psychological factors, the interaction of gender identity with sexual orientation, how people's perception and understanding of themselves can change over time, and so on. And just as a pure genetics argument is simplistically deterministic, believing that homosexuality is a choice still begs the question of why it must be considered as inherently unethical.

Given how vehemently New Atheists put down religion, it's incredible that they would even lower themselves to work with progressive religious folks on common issues like GLBT rights and reproductive choice. They remind me of Ayn Rand denouncing both conservatism and libertarianism because neither was pure enough for her tastes. And it reminds me of the smug BDSM dominant who pejoratively labeled open discussion groups at a Unitarian Universalist congregation as "come to Jesus meetings".

I'm sure that some would argue that this portrayal of New Atheism is itself overly simplistic. Then again, even portrayals of evangelicals can be overly simplistic. Just look at Jim Wallis, who considers arguments over homosexuality and evolution as distractions from more important questions of social justice and equity. Bottom line, the New Atheists appear to be spending so much energy critiquing religion -- whether just the extremists or altogether -- that they beg the question of how they hope to usher in a better world. Just what is their vision, and how does it guide their actions?

That, ultimately, is the real poverty behind the New Atheism. While religious and political movements are at least guided by a positive vision, militant unbelief is trapped in a never-ending cycle of combative philosophical debate. So, if we are to make a better world for all of us, we need to go beyond mere intellectual sparring -- as deep as the human heart, and as broad as the human family.