Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Atheism vs Spirituality and the Democracy of Knee People
Last night, towards the end of a very long car trip, "Egbert" suddenly asked me, apropos of apparently nothing after a long period of silence, "do you consider yourself to be spiritual?"

I thought for a second and then answered that I did--did he? "No, I'm an atheist, remember?" I suggested that one could not believe in god yet still believe in the existence of spirit. He then asked if I considered myself an atheist--which I sort of do, in that I don't believe in a deity, or an entity that is "god" --but, I also believe that it's ultimately unknowable and so in that sense I'm agnostic. Then again, I have a complicated belief system that includes a sort of interconnectedness of spirit (on which concept he has not registered an opinion). Egbert's stated belief is that if there was a god, he would have shown himself to us by now. (I decided not to complicate things by discussing the many ways in which many people have believed that this "showing" has in fact occurred.) We have talked about god many times in different contexts, and his consistent position (except for a few weeks after his father managed to convinced him he was wrong) has always been that there is no god (however, he does believe in ghosts, so his empiricism or materialism or whatever it is has its limits).

Poor Egbert is his school's token atheist. It's a public school, in which everyone is religious--his homeroom teacher even prays during the "moment of silence." He's been told many times by other kids that he's going to hell for not believing in god. He's become a sort of freak exhibit--I think kids dare each other to ask him if he believes in god so they can be titillated by his answer. And (aside from the several other ways in which he appears to his classmates to be weird) he also doesn't recite the pledge of allegiance.

Because he attended Montessori school through second grade, Egbert had never heard of the pledge of allegiance till third grade. I had completely forgotten about this ritual, and didn't think to talk to him about it before the first day of school. It wasn't till I dropped him off at his classroom, and was walking out of the school and heard it over the loudspeaker that I remembered. That evening I asked him it about it. He said he had stood with everyone and listened but didn't know what was being said. I explained and he decided he didn't want to recite it. I didn't (honest!) suggest that he not recite--I left it completely up to him, telling him that it was his choice whether or not to recite and he was required by law only to respectfully sit or stand during the recitation.

I thought it interesting that Egbert would independently decide not to recite the pledge, since I stopped saying the pledge when I was a kid--at some point, I think perhaps second grade, and certainly by third (last grade I completed...) I check in with him about it sometimes, because I don't want him to feel he must maintain a position forever if it becomes burdensome; but, despite some ribbing he receives, he still stands firm. (I suppose we're both stubborn or perverse enough to be more unyielding when opposed.) We did actually compose an alternate pledge--one which we felt we could recite wholeheartedly: "I pledge allegiance to the people of the United States of America, and to the Democracy for which we stand, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

It's interesting to me also that he is willing to out himself as an atheist, when his atheism has cost him some friends over the years, even before his current religious environment. In first grade, he had a friend whose family were free-will Baptists, and Egbert told him there was no god, which did not go over well. I explained that he couldn't tell people that, for two reasons: first, for people who do believe in god, denying his existence is hurtful to them. And second, it was as epistemologically wrong to say that god doesn't exist as to say that he does--since god's existence can be neither proved nor disproved scientifically, either belief is a matter of faith, not fact. Although he understood this, and modified his position from "there is no god" to "I don't believe in god," it didn't help save his friendship with his very best friend in first and second grade, a Lutheran (although it's possible this loss may have had as much to do with him teaching his friend to sing Mme Thenardier's part in "master of the house," which I was rehearsing at the time for a concertized version of Les Mis).

During the car trip, prior to thinking deep thoughts about spirituality, Egbert entertained himself by filming a series of "knee people" videos. The knee people are characters created by filming one's knees wearing hats and/or glasses while providing voices for their commentary. The knee people live in a country called the Democracy of Knee People, and like to eat gingersnaps (just in case you ever entertain them, and want to know what to serve). The knee people don't seem to struggle with their cosmic views, apparently unaware of the fact that they're only a small part of a larger sentient organism....