Full disclosure: I’m a Christian. I’m also personally pro-life. Meaning that, speaking for myself, I’m willing to put the life of my unborn child above my own convenience, peace of mind, or almost anything else that doesn’t end in my death. I know this beyond a shadow of a doubt.
Because I’ve done it.
I carried a pregnancy, as a university student just out of my teens, that was definitely unplanned and most inconvenient. My father told me to get out of my hometown before the neighbours noticed. The baby’s father – who had a multi-decade rap sheet that included arson and several flavours of assault – called my residence with threats (e.g., “I’m in my car watching you”) so often that my housemates all skipped exams for fear of leaving the house. I missed my own statistics exam on the day that I gave birth.
After he was born, I cuddled the baby, and named him, and took a lot of photos. And, two days later, when it was time for the foster family to take him home (a requirement in the public adoption process), I changed and dressed him, and kissed him good-bye. It was painful as hell. So, yes, I’m definitely, personally, pro-life.
I’m also pro-choice. This doesn’t sit well with many people. How can I, a practicing Christian, stand by as others destroy lives so similar to the one that (some say) I so ‘nobly’ chose to protect? How can I reconcile supporting abortion with my life as an adopted person, who, but for a matter of timing – according to my birthmother & close friend – could easily have been aborted herself?
Alternately, what kind of a monster was I not to raise the baby? My favourite shitty comment on that topic came from a pregnant teenager who advised me, to my face, not to have any more children, since a woman who ‘can throw a baby away’ is obviously not mother material. Ouch.
The reality is that my, and my birthmother’s, choices to carry our pregnancies were neither admirable nor despicable. We each made the choice with which we were best able to live, from the options available. Ultimately, it was easier for me to live with the consequences of pregnancy than with those of abortion.
I cannot imagine what it would have been like to undergo a forced abortion, as so many women do, any more than I can imagine being forced to carry the pregnancy, like the traumatized women of the infamous Magdalene laundries. Fortunately, my parents bit their lips and left the choice to me. In the end, I made the choice that best fit with my values. I’ve never regretted it. But I’m well aware that my values aren’t necessarily ‘ideal,’ nor even all that common, any more.
I’ll strongly recommend certain choices – like vaccination (you’re welcome, Gene Tierney) – but only when there’s a material impact on the greater community. I don’t even recommend Christianity; I say that the stories of Jesus illuminate my path, but I’m equally happy for friends who find their paths in Judaism, or Islam, or Atheism.
It’s the latter position that, I think, led this site’s founder to invite me to be not only a moderator, but also an editor and author. I’m as pro-choice about religion as I am about abortion.
Which is why my first thought was of Twitter, when I heard that my province’s Attorney General is proposing a bill that would create no-protest zones around some abortion clinics. I’m all in favour: as much as I value free speech, I can’t stomach attempts to intimidate people who may be in crisis. That includes shouting and carrying signs; it also includes tweets that cross the line from opinion to injury.
Fortunately, I’m pretty much impervious to injury by tweet. After coping with unplanned pregnancy, stalking and extortion by a seasoned criminal, really horribly-timed job loss, recurrent disabling pain, and a rich tapestry of abuse? Bitch, I’ve seen worse.
Unfortunately, insults and cruelty are endemic on Twitter; particularly so on the subject of religion, from theists and atheists alike. This site’s founder has already written an article on the perils of online bullying, and I won’t try to improve on excellence. I do want to make a few points about this phenomenon, though, as it relates to my story above.
The first is that, much like the pro-life vs. pro-choice debate, the tweetstorms over religion seem to rest on both sides’ convictions of moral superiority. Christians on Twitter are (mostly) out to save souls by promoting religious conversion. Atheists on Twitter are (again, mostly) just as eager to save humanity from the scourge of religion.
People who have the interest and the patience to maintain ongoing, respectful dialogue with both sides are rare. Oh, and also the fortitude. Because it’s damned exhausting.
If calling oneself pro-life AND pro-choice is like wearing targets on both sides of a sandwich board, then identifying as an Atheism-positive Christian (or a Muslim-positive Atheist, I’m sure) is like spelling out b-o-m-b h-e-r-e with an arrow pointing to one’s location. Make that two arrows.
The sensation of braving a throng of protesters to get to the abortion clinic is further strengthened by the anti-religion memes that are traded back and forth on Twitter by the bushel. Does anyone measure with bushels, any more? Did you know that I’m easily distracted? Squirrel!
Seriously, though, some of the memes are every bit as skewed and as intended-to-shock as the signs marched about by pro-lifers. Some are thought-provoking; some make me laugh out loud; some are just plain awesome (talking about atheists’ memes, still; pro-lifers don’t seem to be nearly as creative). But I find that at least half are simply maddening, as they’re apparently intended to achieve the same goal as their anti-abortion cousins: deterrence through shock and/or shame.
Space and Kind
If I did decide to have an abortion, I’d have no problem plowing through however many protesters stood in my way. I’m a lot stronger than I look. Just as I have no problem calling bullshit on bad memes – or, more often, offering polite feedback, because I’m hopelessly Canadian. Don’t mistake our courtesy for weakness.
However, not everyone is in a position to knock aside foes like so many ninepins (guess my age now, kids). And so, although it will never happen, I dream about establishing mandatory breathing room online between atheists and theists, like the no-protest zones that Canada, hopefully, will soon create around abortion clinics from sea to sea to sea. A little space to discourage getting overly up-close and personal.
As I said, it will never happen. But that doesn’t stop any of us from behaving as though that space were there, though what that means in practice will vary.
For my part, I scrupulously stick to criticising concepts about religion, and not the character or choices of any person. I also bring down the logic hammer in cases of unfair generalizations, e.g., ‘Christians are’ or ‘Atheists think’. There’s a certain (guilty) satisfaction in out-reasoning people who over-estimate their own rationality.
There’s another parallel between the abortion and religion debates, though, and I think it’s even more important. It’s the idea behind the common criticism that pro-life advocates are often really pro-birth. That is, that many pro-lifers simply aim to maximize the number of women who decide against abortion. They’re not necessarily concerned about whether or not those women have the skills and the supports that they need to parent their non-aborted children.
The fact that increasing the supports available to parents might help to bring down the abortion rate doesn’t seem to occur to these folks. After all, if it were easier to deal with unplanned pregnancies, then impressionable teens and the irresponsible poor might have even more children, and qualify for more welfare, and there goes society! It’s the same faulty logic that has led to protests against making contraception easily available, despite the fact that THAT position has long been disproven.
Steel vs. Safe
All of this makes me wonder why on earth there aren’t more atheists pouring their energy into establishing better support systems for people who otherwise have little choice but to depend on religious communities (churches, mosques, temples, etc.) for their emotional and social needs.
For, while I can take a joke about religious belief being a symptom of mental illness, the reality is that religious groups take in a lot of broken people (cue crack about being ‘taken in’).
An old classmate of mine joined a church that’s particularly odious, in my opinion. He’s got a chronic and severe mental illness, and as much as I’d be happy to see him leave that church, I know that they’re providing companionship and stability that he would be lost without. He’s certainly not going to renounce Christianity in response to memes ridiculing the idea of a virgin birth. And it’s nothing short of cruel to pressure him to do so.
Which brings me full-circle to the paradoxical existence of a pro-choice, pro-life, atheism-friendly Christian.
If sorting people into discrete little boxes makes you happy, then I will challenge that, politely. I’m certainly not going into a box without a formal protest. And if I see you trying to drag others out of boxes that they choose to be in – irrespective of their needs, or the perils that they may face on the ‘outside’ – then I will definitely challenge you, and will not apologize for it. (Sorry.)
Because, in the end, we can all do better than slogans and memes; better than shock and humiliation. Even better than cold, hard logic. As one of my very favourite people, ‘Mister’ Fred Rogers, once noted,
“There’s a world of difference between insisting on someone’s doing something and establishing an atmosphere in which that person can grow into wanting to do it.”
Here, on the Humanist Codex, we are striving to create an atmosphere where growth can happen, for atheists and theists alike. Whether you’re here to satisfy your curiosity, or to educate others, or for the paper that is due first thing tomorrow, or for some nefarious plan that you’re hatching, I hope that you’ll find what you’re looking for.
And in the process, I hope that you’ll approach everyone here with the same (okay, more than a little cheesy, but also genuine and un-self-conscious) attitude that Fred brought to life, both on- and off-screen:
“Won’t you be my neighbor?”