I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without any expectation of rewards or punishments after I’m dead.
Kurt Vonnegut, God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian
Born November 11, 1922, Kurt Vonnegut has been dead a few months more than a decade now. For all his dark humor and fantastic stories, it seems impossible to believe he could have imagined the U.S. in 2017.
President George W. Bush left Vonnegut in a near-constant state of exasperation so a country now led by Trump with Republicans and conservative Christians scrambling to excuse every indecency known to humanity, including crimes against women and children, would make even Vonnegut shrug, “Nobody would buy it.”
On this day of Vonnegut’s birth, I am witnessing a world I could have never imagined—especially considering my lifelong mostly closeted existence as an atheist/agnostic.
I came to recognize that atheism/agnosticism in the first years of college, and I also realized this was no choice, but who I am to the bone.
During intense years of reading Sartre, Camus, Kierkegaard, and other existentialists mostly, I was an aggressive atheist, mostly outing myself and obnoxiously confronting peers who were themselves equally obnoxious as witnessing Christians.
Being born, growing up, and living in the deep South, the Bible Belt, I was confronting this aspect of my Self with a great deal of angst, fear, and self-loathing. Once I graduated and entered my profession as a public school English teacher—at the same high school I had attended in my home town—this important aspect of who I was as a young adult was quickly packed back into the closet.
The four schools of the district I taught in literally surrounded the dominant church in the small town, the steeple towering above the horizon when looking from any of the school buildings.
Many students attended that church, but everyone in the school confronted everyone about what church they attended.
The great paradox about my early years teaching was that I was adamant about not sharing my atheism with my students, about not in any way imposing my nontraditional beliefs on my students who were in most ways as I was growing up in that town.
Yet, gradually and increasingly, students were more and more aggressive about asking and even explicitly pushing me to confirm or deny a rumor I was an atheist.
This was incredibly stressful for my early years. I literally feared for my job each time these situations popped up, some of them reaching administration and causing me to be quizzed by the principal as well.
Later in my time at that school for almost two decades, this became something of a joke, that I refused to answer what I did or did not believe. But it lingered as a threat none the less.
I tried to play along; it was a defense mechanism about the closeted life.
Once, when one of the office staff asked me just to tell her the truth, I looked around to make sure we were alone, and then whispered, “I am an agrarian,” before walking away with a smile.
The next day when I saw her, she apparently had shared my confession with someone, unaware of the joke, so I followed up with, “That’s right. I work the land!”
Being atheist/agnostic, however, has never been anything other than stress for me, as an outlier, someone who simply sees the world unlike the vast majority of people. Even moving to higher education, I am moment by moment confronted by traditionally religious students and the norm of being Christian and attending church.
Once while in a diversity training session for faculty, the facilitator had people stand by their religious identities. The list worked through virtually every faith and many Christian denominations, but non-believers were excluded by omission.
In my row were two colleagues who are atheists as well. We made eye contact, one shaking her head, and I simply stood, leaving the session.
From those early days of college, my embarrassing certainty and in-your-face atheism, to my much more reserved and comfortable understanding that I am a born again agnostic, I have continued to suffer under the weight of how angry traditional Christians make me with their conservative politics and egregious hypocrisy.
I want to bite my tongue, but it is challenging, especially in political discussions.
The Moral Majority, the Religious Right, and the Reagan era—these were the sort of perverse marriages of politics and religion that confirmed by humanistic commitments, ones espoused by Vonnegut, and my inability to commit to the petty God and spurious dogma of organized religion, often brilliantly skewered by George Carlin.
So I sit here on Vonnegut’s birthday genuinely stunned at the U.S., this bastardized Christian nation in which white evangelicals overwhelmingly voted for a sexual predator and continue to support him.
This bastardized Christian nation in which so-called Christians contort themselves in whatever way necessary to justify child abusers and sexual abusers, abdicating any semblance of moral or ethical beliefs for crass political affiliation.
This, then, is what I could have never imagined: The religious right is so morally bankrupt that I am for the first time in my nearly six decades entirely comfortable to be out of the closet as a born again agnostic committed, as Vonnegut wrote, “to behave decently without any expectation of rewards or punishments after I’m dead.”
With the current unmasking of very awful men living their lives mostly without any consequences for being very awful, I must admit Vonnegut himself was a flawed man, embodying the tension in the spotlight now between artist and his art.
In Vonnegut’s case, I do not justify or excuse his flaws as a man—just as I admit my own—but I do hold tight to the many wonderful and enduring codes he at least promoted with his writing, and best expressed in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, where the titular character of the novel, Eliot Rosewater, implores:
“Go over to her shack, I guess. Sprinkles some water on the babies, say, ‘Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—:
“‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’” (p. 129)
Everything else, including religion in the service of politics, is, as Carlin charged, bullshit.