Hooray, I’m Not a Nazi!
by Noah Lugeons
I should start by explaining that I grew up in a small town in rural south bumfuck and thus I wasn’t exposed to religious diversity during my formative years. We had us a few Jews down there and you were vaguely aware that they existed; there was a synagogue and everything. You were taught that they didn’t believe in Jesus, but other than that they were okay.
In fact, I really didn’t start encountering much religious diversity until I moved to the big apple a few years ago and since then I’ve been making up for lost time. I now encounter not only people of all faiths each day, but also people all along the wide spectrum of devotion within each belief. In other words, I meet the moderates and the extremes. The most important thing I’ve learned from these interactions is that in my estimation, regardless of one’s faith or one’s level of faith, people are generally friendly, kindhearted and caring. It seems to me that when evaluating someone’s character, religion doesn’t offer any meaningful variables.
Now, the proper liberal thing to say here is that I don’t treat anyone any differently based on their faith. The little donkey on my shoulder wants me to say that I just see people for people whether they’re wearing a baseball cap, a kippah or a turban. But I’m sick and tired of treading this liberal tightrope at the razor’s edge between multiculturalism and skepticism. I’d like to say that I feel no differently when I interact with an orthodox Jewish family than I do when I interact with a family whose outward appearance doesn’t betray their religion. But that would be dishonest.
When I see an orthodox Jewish boy with his little payos and his shaved head, I can’t help but feel sorry for that child. I think of all the doors that were open to me that have been closed to him. I think of all the choices he cannot make without driving an irrevocable wedge between himself and his family. I think of all the education the happenstance of his birth might deny him. I look to his sister and think of the even more narrow range of socially acceptable choices that await her as she grows up among such arcane sexism.
And if I feel pity for the children, I cannot help but feel pity for their parents who were already denied so much and have simply chosen the path of least resistance and remained tethered to their families and the communities they grew up in. I feel sorry for them for having done what I might well have done and simply swallowed the bitter pill of self-enforced ignorance that is fundamentalism in order to remain my father’s son.
And then I have this little pang of liberal guilt where I say to myself, “whoops… did I just go all Nazi back there?”
It’s hard, with the very visible and unthinkable suffering of the Jewish people so omnipresent in recent history, not to feel that echo of bigotry when you can’t bring yourself to tow the liberal line. When “it’s simply the way these people choose to live” isn’t enough for me; when I look at the sheltered little echo chamber of ignorance they subject their children to, I simply can’t brush aside that offense in the name of multiculturalism.
I usually comfort myself with the fact that I feel the same way about all fundamentalist sects regardless of their chosen brand of nonsense. Whether it’s some compound in middle America subjecting their children to biblical literalism or an ultra-orthodox Jewish sect or a radical Islamic school or some wacky spiritualist cult hybrid I still pity the children who are brought up in a world where the authority figures around them are drawing a shade over reality. It is religion that I despise rather than one particular religion.
Well, if I needed another justification (and I didn’t), I got it on Saturday at the Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism here in beautiful NYC. Among the all-star lineup of speakers over the weekend was one Debra Feldman. She was raised in the Hasidic neighborhood in Williamsburg by her extremely orthodox grandparents (her mother was kicked out of the community for being gay) and in her early adulthood she mustered the courage to break her ties with that community, go to a secular college and establish herself here in the real world. She gave a riveting and quite self-deprecating talk where she outlined many of the revelations and injustices that would ultimately lead her to this life changing action… and of course she promoted her book a little bit along the way.
Of all the great speakers I heard over the weekend, I think it was her talk that moved me the most. Here was this courageous individual appealing to our sense of humanity when it comes to the children of religious extremists. She said that the real game-changer for her was her pregnancy and the knowledge that she would now be subjecting her child to the same warped, misguided world she felt trapped in. She was looking at her own child (or the swollen belly that preceded him) and she was feeling that same pity for him that I feel when I see a five year old whose religion has already been decided for him in broad and semi-permanent strokes. And it was this pity that called her to action because it wasn’t tempered by that multicultural donkey on the shoulder that far too many of us liberal atheists have.
Now, there are plenty of folks in the Hasidic community that have accused Ms. Feldman of being a Nazi, but in my judgment, she is a courageous freethinker who deserves our respect and support. And from what I’ve seen so far, she seems to be a talented writer as well. She’s also going to help me shut that damn donkey up so that I can hate religious extremism guilt free for a little longer.