By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down.
We also wept when we remembered Zion.
Upon the poplar trees in the midst of her, we hung up our harps.
For there those holding us captive asked us for the words of a song,
And those mocking us—for rejoicing.
“Sing for us one of the songs of Zion.”
How can we sing the song of Jehovah upon foreign ground?
– Psalm 137
Many Evangelicals I’ve met tend to embrace Psalm 137 as an anthem for alienation. They see themselves as captives of Babylon: i.e., the “liberal media,” or pop culture, or the Federal Government, or all these elements and more, inflated into a demonic oppressor. In fact, I once heard Psalm 137 quoted as I waited to enroll my daughter in a summer art class at a public recreation center. In line with me were several “stay-at-home moms,” Christian home-schoolers.
“I’m not going to let those liberals get a-hold of my kids,” one woman said. “I’m giving them a Christian education!” Hearing her, I felt rather dizzy, as the sense of alienation she conveyed was so profound. I suffer from vertigo, and her words made me feel as though I were staring into a chasm with no protective barrier before me. Hers was a very dangerous landscape where I had no wish to tread. Yet for this woman a public classroom was a dangerous and alien landscape, where she lost her sense of self and the world that she desired for her children, mapped by strict religious views.
I, too, feel a sense of alienation. I was raised as a Catholic and attended Catholic schools. In my own estimation, I was a fairly devout kid, but by sixth grade I experienced real qualms about the Catholic faith, the religion of my large, extended family. A kid can see hypocrisy a mile away, and I began to notice hypocrisy in the behavior of church members and the leadership, including the priests. I was keenly aware of social issues, thanks to TV and magazines. Among my Catholic brethren, I didn’t like what I heard discussed about racial issues and feminism. And of course at age eleven, my views were “black or white”; I had little sense of the ambiguity that shapes adult opinion.
By college, angry and frustrated, weary of trying to reconcile my contradictory feelings about Catholicism, I quit the Church. Mom and Dad argued with me, but I was not persuaded by their arguments, nor were they persuaded by mine. We arrived at a standoff. When I moved far away from home, we established safe psychological territories, fenced off especially from discussions of religion.
By my thirties, I was married, had a daughter, and a big concern was allowing my parents to connect with their grandchild. I opened gates, and so did my parents. At least twice every year, I took my daughter to visit them (we lived 1500 miles apart) and there was never any overt pressure to renew my Catholicism. But beneath the placid surface were old emotional gulfs to which I had turned a blind eye.
One summer, I traveled to a family party celebrating my parents’ fortieth anniversary, which included a Mass at a cathedral, in their honor. Though I hadn’t set foot in a Catholic church in twenty years, I remembered the ritual responses and gestures, and was rather enjoying the experience and the cathedral’s beauty: the stained glass, marble altar, the murals and mosaics.
The Mass reached the point where those in attendance offer each other “the kiss of peace”—usually a hug or handshake. I was seated next to my folks, and so I reached over to shake their hands, but both of them refused to extend their hands to me.
Shocked, I shrugged and turned away, while relatives exchanged nods and glances, not unkind but certainly knowing. I realized that I was on my parents’ ground, and not fully welcomed. This was their turf—heck, they had property there—but I didn’t. The experience recalled much of the old pain from when I first realized that I could not be a Catholic. Leaving my parents’ beliefs behind, I had to find my own way.
We Americans spend a lot of time romanticizing “rugged individualism,” but there’s anguish that accompanies such a pursuit of self. The pain is more intense when, despite religious differences, there is true love and concern, and the desire to connect.
In pondering my contradictory impulses—to keep in place the barrier between myself and Catholicism, while still finding ways to reach out to family—I realized that in my journey away from the Church, I had constructed a persona that managed to protect the weak child and teenager who felt wronged and angry, but who loathed herself for being different. This persona was, and is, somewhat stoic, somewhat ironic, a mature representation of my “self” that helps me to navigate fault lines in personal relationships.
It’s not cliché to remember that great strengths can develop from deep wounds. All of us who go through the process of alienation from a family religion can help each other find a new landscape. And perhaps once on safe ground we can learn to bridge the chasms with family members, knowing that they, too, may have been hurt by our rejection of their beliefs.
Matters of family reconciliation aside, we nontheists must express our philosophies and ethics without undo worry or guilt. These days, when I have reservations about declaring my Humanist leanings, I often think back on the women who were standing in line with me, as we enrolled our children in a summer art class. They had quoted from the Bible to express their sense of alienation, and I doubt they felt any qualms of guilt in doing so. Nor should we nontheists, any time we express our views.
However, let’s also work at bridging any gulfs affecting our own communities—humanists, atheists, freethinkers, nontheists, naturalists, religious naturalists—so we can sooner realize our vision for a better world, where we are not on “foreign ground.”