Religion is stupid.
…or was it atheism that’s stupid?
Wait… I can feel it coming back to me…
OH YAAH. Generalizations are stupid!
And reducing the “other” to a strawman is equally stupid. But we’ve all done it, whether or not we’ve meant to. Because in the sketchy shadows of our human nature, something lurks that subtly whispers, “I am more human than they are.”
It’s like we see our own complex, nuanced humanity through incredibly sharp, 20/20, HD-enhanced vision, but when it comes to accepting the full, complex humanity of others (especially *certain* others), we’re suddenly wearing someone else’s prescription glasses, and all we can see of our brothers and sisters is basic and blurry enough for us to deem them “stupid.”
Although inherent in our communal DNA, endless social influences exacerbate or diminish our natural inclination to dehumanize. Provocateurs, for one, project pixelated renditions of their favorite “others.”
Joe is a provocateur, and I think I’m his favorite kind of “other.” The religious kind. He tried to provoke a bunch of closed-minded crap from my core, which he assumes lies at the center of people devoted to religion. Or at least that’s my interpretation of the bizarre encounter I’m going to tell you about.
But before I get into the raw material, I want to tell you a little bit about my provokteur. He’s a legend. He’s got a Ph.D. from Cal and something like 30 years of teaching experience. That’s just credentials, though. The real impressive thing about Joe is his sharp wit, sagacious spirit, impenetrable confidence and the cool demeanor with which he pulls it all together.
He also pulls together the year’s hottest gossip and scandals in his much anticipated stand-up routine at the end-of-year staff party. He headlines it, every year. So it goes without saying (but I’m saying) that he always receives uproarious laughter from staff and occasional funny-not-funny nods of disapproval from whoever happens to be principal. It’s safe to say that if teachers had a homecoming court, he would be the senior class king, and I a timid freshman busy getting regular beat-downs from class-clowns who do things like fast-pitch massive spit wads whenever I turn my back. (That first year sucked.)
Sooo without further adieu or a decent transition, I offer you the story of a peculiar staff lounge stand-off…
The day is Friday, and it’s lunchtime at Alhambro High School. There’s an anxious frog in my throat, partly because in t-minus sixteen minutes, thirty-seven amped-up 17 year olds will involuntarily burst into my sardine-can classroom. They will pummel my senses, mind and heart for 55 minutes (and then some), but I’m not really anxious about that. I’m anxious because I just finished typing the worksheet that will (hopefully) keep them thinking about things more profound and challenging than Snapchat for (at least some of) those mandated minutes.
Snatching my hard-earned assignment from the printer like a baton, I race across campus to the photocopier every teacher wants to kill, madly punch some buttons, and then frantically fly through the staff lounge to the bathroom and *hope* the machine is willing to spit out 74 double-sided copies for me. Flinging open the bathroom door, I mumble “what’s up” to the hideous potato bug under the paper towel machine, and bee-line it to the handicap stall–the penthouse suite of the only place a teacher is guaranteed a few seconds of privacy. I wipe with my toilet seat covers for the third day in a row, because education funding rocks. Then I emerge from my dingy yellow-lit oasis, pausing in the doorway and squinting into the sun-lit staff lounge and the 10 or so worldly colleagues who regularly occupy it.
Everyday from 12:22-12:57, they discuss politics, current events, and Sportsball. I generally steer clear of that space because everyone knows teachers are supposed to be highly informed and strongly opinionated on anything NPR talks about. And then as a Bay Arean (?), I’m expected to worship the Warriors, Giants, Raiders, or maybe the 49ers (apologies to the A’s❤️). But to my shame, I didn’t even know what station NPR lives on, and my hubby and I don’t follow SportsBall. So for lack of knowledge or the courage to admit it, I generally steer clear of staff lounge discourse.
But. Among that handful of worldly colleagues is Sarah, my energetic, Spanish-teaching, margarita-drinking girrrl, and she’s waving me over to her table, so I derail my stress-induced power-walk and I swerve her direction, landing in the empty plastic blue chair next to hers. Across from us sits Joe and a couple other kind-hearted teachers.
Sarah and I had been laughing for some time about our students’ daily exploits when a momentary silence fell like a blanket over all conversations. Joe seized the opportunity to make an intellectual announcement. Leaning back with his legs extended, feet crossed, and fingers laced loosely across his lap, he nonchalantly announced to the room that
“Religion is stupid.”
Uhhhhh–nobody had been talking about religion or philosophy. His claim sounded like a piece of trivia he taught in history class–unquestionably factual. With those six syllables, he dismissed the meaning of life and love and why for people of all cultures of all times in all places.
I wasn’t offended–just shocked. We are educated educators. Surely there is a place for religious studies at the University of California campuses we’d attended. Surely religion is full of nuance, and symbolism, and value, and culture, and the meaning of life–it is arguably the lens through which we view the world, whether we consider ourselves “religious” or not. (For more on that, check out this book.)
In short, the words burst into the lunchroom with all the drama of Kool Aid Man.
Religion is stupid! OOOOH YAAAAAAAH!
And as debris settled into our hair and tupperwared leftovers, we all exchanged uneasy glances while Joe basked in his center of attention. Silence decided to join our table, took my hand, and teleported me into some forced metaphor I can’t bring myself to delete:
A vast, arid desert landscape from some classic Western movie stretched before me. In the unending sky, molten oranges and ethereal pinks dripped into the cactus-dotted horizon, forever sealing the events of the day. Beneath the closing heavens rests a rugged workshop, and reclining on its porch with his boots kicked up on a rustic barrel is Joe, savoring the sweet sunset and the deep satisfaction that can only be earned by a hard day’s work. He rises slowly and pensively, claps together his dirty leather gloves, and watches as the day’s work transform into glowing puffs of dust in the romantic twilight.
Done and done. Joe had settled the value (er, lack thereof) of religion, and now that we’re all aware of it its stupidity, he could rest in his satisfaction of important work done well.
“Hey Tiffany, you’re religious, aren’t you?”
Sarah jolted me from my Western daydream and I landed back in the staff lounge. She is blunt and honest, and I’m sort of relieved to be outed: the burden of concocting a respectable yet honest response was no longer mine.
So I start staggering through semantics:
…..I don’t know if I’d say I’m reliiiigous…
…..buuuuuuut I try to follow Jesus…….
…..soooo yaaaaah….you could say I’m Christian.”
There it was. Joe had just handed me my name-tag and I slapped it to my chest:
“Hello, my name is ‘Stupid’!”
Satisfied, his blue eyes narrowed as he coolly sized me up. Behind them, he was brewing a potion of words to publicly affirm that religious people (coughcoughme) are ignorant, irrational, and simple-minded. He poured his next words into the air in the same cool, confident way he did his first announcement. As smooth as jazz, he told me that
“God is a black lesbian who rides a unicycle while listening to reggae.”
Then he waited like a fisherman who just cast out his baited hook. A smirk he couldn’t quite hide sneered at the history of ugly reactions he must have reeled in from people “like me.”
He must have wondered how my face might contort: would my eyes and lips tighten into an angry glare? Or would my eyes widen and tear-up with condescending pity for this poor misled man? Or would my mouth gape in shocked personal offense? And then what words might tumble from my tongue: “Blasphemy!”? “Don’t you know the Bible says…”? Or his best case scenario: Fumbled words unveiling a distaste for lesbians or female divinity or black people or unicycle riders or reggae.
I met his aged blue eyes and scooted my chair closer to his.
After the shock settled in (who could anticipate that claim!), an intrigued, impressed “Huh!” escaped my lips.
I wasn’t offended–why would I be? His views are just that–his.
And last I checked, God has no ethnicity or sexuality. God is outside of and Beyond all of that.
Plus if Jesus were born in the age of the unicycle to carnival-working parents rather than in that manger to Mary and Joseph, he probably would have trained as a unicycler rather than a carpenter. He and his carnie-disciples would have had a heck of an easier time getting around. A herd of 12 unicycling disciples, plus One.
And everybody likes reggae! Why wouldn’t God? I’ll tell you why. Because it’s the devil’s music because weed and stuff. Puh-leeeease.
What else was left for me to say to Joe? Nothing. All that was left was wonder. In the “fat chance” corner of my brain, I wondered if his claim was a one-in-a-million metaphor for his set of beliefs. Really though, I knew the sad truth that he was just trying to get my goat. Just in case though, I asked him to
But alas, moments passed, and no elaboration came. There wasn’t even a word. He was as speechless as I was to his “religion is stupid.” I did, however, catch a nearly imperceptible nod of approval from him. Then a corner of his mouth grew into the faintest hint of a smile. I like to think that in his mind’s eye, I metamorphosed from a caricature to a beautiful mess of a human being like him.
The bell rang just seconds later. Joe and I, along with our small audience of colleagues, marched out toward sixth period. But first I had to pick up those photocopies. We’d been studying Frederick Douglass’s Autobiography and on the worksheets, this passage awaited my students:
the religion of the south is a mere covering for the most horrid crimes,–a justifier of the most appalling barbarity,–a sanctifier of the most hateful frauds,–and a dark shelter under, which the darkest, foulest, grossest, and most infernal deeds of slaveholders find the strongest protection. Were I to be again reduced to the chains of slavery, next to that enslavement, I should regard being the slave of a religious master the greatest calamity that could befall me. For of all slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst. I have ever found them the meanest and basest, the most cruel and cowardly, of all others. (10.19)
Then in a few days, we’d discover this in Douglass’s Appendix:
“between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference–so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.” [emphasis mine]
Frederick Douglass knew it. You can’t reduce religion to simple stupidity. It’s not black-and-white. We’re supposed to use the brains God gave us; we’re meant to think critically, to be scholars, to be honest with ourselves, to call out the grossest hypocrisy just like Jesus and Douglass did, and above all, to be open to being found by God.
Much love to you!