A big part of the motive behind reading, thinking, and talking is the wish to be a good neighbor. Who is a good neighbor? A good neighbor is someone who doesn’t antagonize you, someone who doesn’t scare you (at least not intentionally), someone who doesn’t stigmatize or pigeon-hole you. I imagine a good neighbor wouldn’t irritate you with their loud (untimely) music, and in general he or she doesn’t force their taste into your awareness. At the same time, the good neighbor isn’t excessively secretive. They probably won’t go out of their way to hide their form of life, their preferences, or their values. There must be a balance between showing oneself and keeping things to oneself. A good neighbor knows that he or she is part of your ecology and will likely not insist on being invisible at all time. Instead, they try to be a part of your ecology in a way that is responsible, conscientious, and self-aware.
I recorded my previous video “On Atheism” about two weeks ago, but didn’t upload it until last night. The reason was because I wasn’t sure whether it would go against the balance of visibility/invisibility. I thought about a few religious friends (neighbors) who watch my videos occasionally. I thought of Jonny, Sam, Greg, Mary Margaret, and I thought of others wondering what they would think, whether they would feel hurt by my insistence that atheism must be understood on its own terms. I received very encouraging comments in response to the video, comments that demonstrated understanding. I’ll have to respond to some of them in future videos. Here, I’d like to go a few steps further toward neighborly visibility, to show where my concerns are coming from.
Is my history important in my discussion of atheism? Shouldn’t I just offer impersonal arguments? Who cares about my personal history? Slavoj Žižek, the Slovenian philosopher, has popularized the scene from Ernst Lubitsch’s film, Ninotchka, where the protagonist orders coffee-without-cream but is instead offered coffee-without-milk (He is told by the waitress, Sorry, we are out of cream, can I bring you coffee without milk, instead?). The point he is making is about negativity and history. It’s not enough for a coffee to be black coffee. It’s important to know what element was intentionally not added to it. If this example doesn’t bring out the point, think of two single men. One of them has always been single, while the other one was once engaged, but then broke off his engagement due to a personal crisis. These two ways of being “single” aren’t the same.
Now, my atheism is a response to Islam. It’s a coffee without Islam, not coffee without Christianity or any other religion. It’s an atheism that I regard as a necessary component of my culture of origin, Iran. My country has suffered a lot from not permitting atheism, not giving voice to it, downplaying it, repressing it with the excuse of good manners. By repressing it, it repressed the necessity to seek common ground (the secular common ground) with the religious minorities. Let me use an example to visualize how I think about the misuse of religion in Iranian culture/politics. Imagine being at a funeral and having to behave extra politely because the people at the funeral expect you to behave according to their norms. Then a person starts going around and stabbing people with a knife and everyone continues to be silent and “well-behaved”. This nasty person keeps going around and stabbing people, but everyone keeps quiet because we are still at the funeral and convention dictates that we shouldn’t fight (back) or shout or react in a way that is appropriate to someone who has just been stabbed. The evil person is taking advantage of convention, because the convention hasn’t yet accommodated to counter-convention. People don’t recognize–they don’t have a place–for the type of person who doesn’t take the convention seriously, who is willing to act inappropriately at a funeral, sing, draw cartoons of the deceased, etc. etc. The culture hasn’t accommodated atheism. Some of my own family members will perceive my atheistic expressions as impoliteness. That isn’t their personal stupidity, it’s a cultural blindness. The same kind of blindness that led to the hijacking of the 1979 revolution in Iran (They hijacked it in the same way that imaginary person stabbed people at the funeral, taking advantage of good manners and cultural blindspots).
I can imagine someone objecting: What you’re complaining about is politics, the political misuse of religion, not religion itself. Working with the imagined funeral scenario, the (obvious) weapon used by the evil individual was the knife, but the more powerful (hidden) weapon was the willful silence of the group, their collective submission to a convention. That is how religion can be weaponized. To neutralize it, we need counter-convention. We need to have at least the possibility of being impolite. This isn’t the impoliteness of a stranger, a passer-by, with whom you exchange insults and then you never see each other again. It’s the impoliteness of a “neighbor”. It needs a little more charity and patience.
So please keep these notes about personal history in mind, if you decide to listen to my future discussions about atheism and religion. I am grateful to everyone who commented on the previous video! Let me end with another note about being a neighbor. The word for neighbor in Persian is ham-sayeh. It consists of the prefix “ham-” (meaning common) and “-sayeh” (meaning shadow). A neighbor is someone who has a common shadow with you, someone who shares a shadow with you. If we turn our attention to the ground, to what is underneath, we see how we are the same.