I am, of course, very happy that Barack Obama will be the US President for the next four years. I am thrilled that the tide is beginning to turn to give my gay friends the same rights I have. I am deeply relieved that the Affordable Care Act will not be rolled back, so I can have far fewer fears about my own financial future and, for the next three years, my daughter’s. There is much else to be done, and I think this President will do it better. Enough, for now, on that topic.
I am sad, however, to know that the cultural divide in this country was not created by this election cycle (though it was certainly exacerbated), and it will not likely heal anytime soon.
I was recently shocked to realize that this gulf exists even between myself and some of my fellow Woodstock alumni. One woman a year or two older than myself posted one of those pictures on Facebook, a photo of a fetus in the womb, with an anti-abortion quote that I found irritatingly facile, reducing a complex issue to seeming simplicity (as so often happens on both sides of that debate). I responded, I thought, carefully and politely. Her response was also polite, but included something about how she and I have very different worldviews, because she believes in ineluctable laws that come from God, and I do not.
In spite of what she perceives as a fundamental and important difference between us, she and I have not lived very different lives, nor do we have very different attitudes about right and wrong. I didn’t know her well in school, but I’m pretty sure she was there because her parents were missionaries, probably in India or Nepal. Most of those missionaries were doing selfless, valuable work – building and staffing hospitals and schools, etc. – which I respected, even when their religious motivation for doing it did not appeal to me.
I ended up at Woodstock School because my dad was head of Save the Children in Bangladesh, doing much the same work as the missionaries. He did it in the name of justice and humanity, not specifically in the name of God. I don’t see that that made any difference. His organization worked alongside many others, religious and otherwise. He had previously been in Vietnam as a civilian with USAID, and later worked with other organizations in Thailand, Indonesia, the Maldives…
Just like those missionary kids’, my childhood was “sacrificed” for my father’s ideals. I don’t regret that, any more than my schoolmate likely regrets growing up as a mish kid. And, like her, I naturally grew up with a sense that serving others and making the world a better place is important and worthy work. She has gone on to become a nurse (obviously, a serving profession). I’ve ended up working in technology, but in my career I have focused on making tech a better place for people – helping communication flow from customers to creators and back, helping tech communities work together, and so on.
Although I will loudly defend anybody’s right to do just about anything in their personal lives, so long as no one else gets hurt, in my own personal life (I am amused to note), I have lived closer to Christian ideals than many people who call themselves Christian. My few relationships (which have been with men) have been monogamous – not because I think sex outside a relationship is necessarily evil (see Dan Savage on being “monogamish“), it just happens that way. I make absolutely no judgements on what works for others.
I was faithfully married to one man for 20 years, have had one pregnancy and one child. No abortions, because I was usually careful with birth control – and I was lucky. I’ve never smoked, rarely drink to excess, don’t do drugs (no interest in them). I am kind, loving and courteous (most of the time). I pay my taxes, obey the speed limit, give to charity, consume responsibly, and generally try to be a force for good in the world, in my small way. Why? I guess because I was both born and raised that way.
During the heated political debates of recent weeks, another schoolmate challenged me to say where my morals come from, if not from God. There’s a great deal of research being done on precisely this, showing, for example, that other primates have a sense of fairness. My current groping towards an understanding is that we humans evolved (from and alongside other primates) to have a sense of “good” and “evil” in our dealings with one another, and this moral sense exists because it has helped us survive as a species. As to why many people have and do believe that this moral sense comes from a supernatural source, I recommend Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.
I don’t actually care where you think your moral sense comes from, so long as it harmonizes with my own moral sense enough not to impinge on my life or anyone else’s. If your moral sense “requires” you to convert everyone forcibly to your religion, or cut off your daughter’s clitoris, or kill your daughter because she has “disohonored” the family, or to kill gay people, or control women, or enslave anybody – then, yes, I have a problem with your beliefs. Beyond these and other extreme examples, and some outward trappings, your religiously-driven behavior is not distinguishable from my own atheist ethics.
It makes me sad to think that half my country has somehow come to believe that the other half is morally incomprehensible and is dragging the country to its doom. (Yes, I get that this applies to both sides.) I think I have a pretty good picture of how those on the other side of this crevasse from me think in general (though I’m willing to be educated – politely), but I’m puzzled on this particular point: what makes you believe that I’m so terribly different from you?
I’ve been thinking about that a great deal. I have lifelong experience dealing with and living in cultures that are “foreign” to me. I, of all people, should be able to communicate, especially with those who share large parts of my background. So… is there maybe something I can do to help you understand me and people like me? Something that will make you feel better about where we want to take the country? Can we find some common ground? I would like to. Please talk to me.