I have had quite a bit of direct experience of Christian intolerance, from the old “We have to talk” routine (aka “I need to help you get right with God”) to the convoluted logic that I am doing Satan’s work for him by rejecting his existence. They get you coming and going and their oily logic resists attempts to refute it by appeal to cogent argument. When, as that second-century Pagan critic Celsus tells us in his book The True Doctrine, early Christianity’s believers set the standard with their odious “Do not ask questions; just believe” they had no idea how powerfully that cry would echo down through the Christian centuries. Or how it would eventually rebound on them.
You see, people like to ask questions. We always have. We want to understand our world, and our place within it. Celsus like other Pagans then and later, tried to ask questions, which is how they found out Christians felt questions were irrelevant. Ultimately, this refusal to debate knowledge devalues the point of view of the doubters and non-believers, particularly when coercion was added as an ingredient in the fourth century (the ever-popular “believe, or else”).
In my own case, I asked so many questions my pastors could not answer that I eventually ceased believing. If you want me to believe something, I eventually told my mother – who was on our church council – you’ll have to do better than the mad-jumble that is the Bible. Nowadays I would put it this way: that the story arc of a fantasy series should not be more internally consistent than the supposed inerrant word of God.
One persistent sore point for me as a Heathen and even more, as a father, is the self-martyrdom of my mother-in-law. Perhaps none of this should surprise me. After all, she refused to invite me to our first Christmas since I was not a Christian. But that’s water under the bridge. She is my son’s only living grandmother, and as such occupies (or should occupy) a rather special place in his life. Not surprisingly he loves his grandmother and wants to spend time with her. I don’t begrudge him that. And I know she loves him and wants to spend time with him. Indeed, we, as parents, want them to spend time together.
So it breaks our heart when her insistence on some imagined right to proselytize our son gets in the way of what should be a wonderful relationship. I have cherished memories of my maternal grandmother and the time I spent with her and with her sisters. I know what my son is missing, what he has missed, and what he will miss in the years to come. And it breaks my heart. Grandma’s visits, if visits there are, should not have to be supervised. And they should not carry with them the prerequisite of conversion.
She is a member of the Assemblies of God. This is a group that, even in my LCA Lutheran days, I would not have recognized as Christian, and knowing the Bible much better as a Heathen than I did as a Christian has not changed my opinion. To be fair, they would not have thought of me as a Christian either. And I have to admit that Paul of Tarsus would likely have been much more comfortable in the ecstatic atmosphere of an AOG church than in an LCA church. But Paul is hardly a recommendation, since Paul, when he invented a religion about Jesus, demonstrably got Jesus all wrong.
My problem, however, is not with my mother-in-law’s beliefs. She is entitled to those. I honestly do not care what she believes as long as she does not push those beliefs on me or on my son. Sadly, she has no such reluctance. And so my problem is her insistence that she has the right to spread these beliefs. She is hardly alone: Pope Benedict certainly thought that “the Truth” trumped tolerance (Truth and Tolerance, 2003). The locus of her own insistence that truth trumps tolerance has been, for the past nine years, my little boy.
Here is a little back-story: Grandma once went 18 months without seeing her grandson because she insisted on the right to turn him into the AOG’s version of a Christian. She insisted on the right to read to him from the Bible, to pray with him, to sing him Christian songs, tell him Christian stories, and even to change non-religious music by adding religious elements to it. What I am describing is indoctrination. All the not-so-subtle things conservative Christians do to prepare the young for greater truths down the road, she insisted on doing to my son.
Recently, however, an apparently aberrant spell of open-mindedness (or perhaps just grandmotherly yearning) gave my son the opportunity to spend a week with Grandma. She promised not to take him to church and to avoid preaching to him her religion. We didn’t care about little things like her praying over her meals or openly reading her Bible as he played or watched TV, as long as she did not object him to praying over his (“Thor hallow this meal”). This seemed fair to me as a parent: you pray your way, I won’t object; we pray our way, you won’t object. She has a right to her beliefs but at the same time, she has an obligation to respect the beliefs of her grandson and the wishes of his parents.
But then guilt that she had somehow abandoned her God replaced the yearning; she now she insists – and this is using her own words – that it is impossible to separate the “parts” of her life from “the whole”: that if you get her, you must take all of her, including, especially, her religion. She says her earlier tolerance was a mistake. In other words, she insists on the right to turn him into a Christian because that is who she is as a person. Take her or leave her. Of course, by this logic, she should be willing to admit that she must accept all of what we are as well, including our “Heathen-ness,” but of course, logic, since the days of Celsus and before, has not played much of a part in conservative Christian thinking.
Obviously, the only possible decision for us as parents, since it is the only one that takes account of rights other than her own, is – as it was during that earlier 18-month separation – to “leave” her. So much for my son’s hoped-for visit with her this summer.
She has employed numerous arguments for her position: from the dubious claim that “all the rules should go out the window at Grandma’s house” to “you’re not respecting my beliefs.” This is untrue, and of course, she is refusing to respect our beliefs. But because she is a Christian, our beliefs don’t matter: Truth trumps tolerance. I’ve said here many times before that religious freedom to a conservative Christians means only Christians have religious freedom, and over the years, I have seen this belief played out many times before; this is only the most egregious example out of my own experiences.
In the process, she has done what any conservative Christian worthy of the name would do, and has martyred herself. Martyrdom is the ultimate cop-out, as Roman governor once recognized: the proconsul of Asia, C. Arrius Antoninus, exasperated with would-be martyrs told them, “You wretches, if you want to die, you have cliffs to leap from and ropes to hang by.”
Testify, Brother Antoninus! Martyrdom is an admission that you don’t like the rules and won’t play by them. It’s the adult version of that old childhood ploy of packing up your toys and going home when you don’t like the outcome, and adding to it the complaint of persecution (because you won’t let me win, you’re persecuting me).
We have tried to compromise, simply asking that she not take him to church. But you can no more compromise with a martyr than Obama can with a Tea Partier. We’re not asking her to give up her beliefs, after all, but merely to respect ours. She insists she is trying to compromise with us but there is no evidence of that; her idea of compromise is that of the Tea Party, that compromise means not meeting half-way, but demanding the other party accede to your demands. We don’t ask that she give up her beliefs; merely that she not share them. And that’s only fair. I would never think to make the requirement that should she stay with us, we get to preach to her, after all.
I would have more respect for her position and of conservative Christianity in general if she would grant to others what she demands for herself. But much as she insists upon the right to talk about her beliefs, she will not allow others to do the same. If I so much as try to explain something to her from a Heathen perspective after she has made a pronouncement based on her religion, she says something like, “We’re not going to have that conversation.”
This situation must be understood in the broader context of Religious Right’s attempted imposition of theocracy. These things I have described might seem of small account to others but I am hardly the only person to experience them. And troubling as they are to me, I know they are minor compared to what others have had to endure in their personal relationships. The problem is not, and has never been, about the persecution of Christians; the problem is that the rest of us are not willing to privilege the point of view of one particular religion over all others, including our own.
But saying “No” is hardly the stuff of persecution. Demanding that you accept my existence as you demand I accept yours, is hardly the stuff of persecution. Yet that is often what we hear: that simply being forced to suffer exposure to what they see as “immorality” or “rejection of God” is a form of persecution. Frankly, you’d think they’d stop complaining about it and welcome the opportunity to be martyred, even metaphorically. Especially metaphorically, since they can go on prospering and enjoying life while enduring persecution (a neat trick, if you can pull it off).
You’d think other people insisting they have rights too wouldn’t be such a hardship. If you want those rights for yourself, you certainly should recognize that everybody feels that way as well – the often quoted but seldom lived-up-to “do unto others…” – but the conservative Christian mind doesn’t work that way. The Constitution may insist that all religions are equal, but no conservative Christian will ever admit to that, Pope, pastor, or otherwise.
Thus, inevitably (in Grandma’s mind), we must give way, we who unfairly say “No” to her, and allow the indoctrination of our son into her religion, because, ultimately, we have no right to object. “There is no crime for those who have Christ.” In other words, the ends justify the means. Certainly, if lying is justified because by lying a greater Truth is advanced – the oldie but goodie “I’ve got the truth, and you don’t” – nothing else should be a surprise. It’s just a shame that the innocent should suffer to be buried beneath this remorseless tidal wave of self-righteous bullshit.
 Tertullian, ad Scap. 5.
Hrafnkell Haraldsson, a social liberal with leanings toward centrist politics has degrees in history and philosophy. His interests include, besides history and philosophy, human rights issues, freedom of choice, religion, and the precarious dichotomy of freedom of speech and intolerance. He brings a slightly different perspective to his writing, being that he is neither a follower of an Abrahamic faith nor an atheist but a polytheist, a modern-day Heathen who follows the customs and traditions of his Norse ancestors. He maintains his own blog, A Heathen’s Day, which deals with Heathen and Pagan matters, and Mos Maiorum Foundation www.mosmaiorum.org, dedicated to ethnic religion. He has also contributed to NewsJunkiePost, GodsOwnParty and Pagan+Politics.