As I look back at my experience living abroad, brief as it was, one thing that really springs out at me is how secular Japan was. It might have Shinto shrines in its shopping arcades and monasteries sprinkled around its urban residential neighborhoods, its television might have the occasional spiritual anime character, but essentially its character was non-religious.
Just imagine that for a second. No politicians promising (in complete ignorance of the Constitution’s demand that there be no such religious test) that he or she is very, very, very kookoo for Jesus-puffs. No street preachers haranguing people. No religious billboards promising worryingly-specific horrors if people don’t wake up and start going to church on the correct day of the week. No constant battles between sane people and religious wingnut extremists trying to take control of our schools and government. No grinding wars between science denialists and actual, well, scientists. Just imagine what that’d look like.
Well, you don’t have to imagine it. A goodly-sized chunk of the world is living it. And by and large they think we’re nuts for thinking that religion is what makes a society moral and safe.
Japan really has a much different atmosphere than the US does regarding crime and safety perceptions. I noticed that difference right off the bat when I went there. Let me share a few details about how safe it was:
* I think I’ve mentioned the lost wallet incident, but let’s back up and share a bit more. I was at a toy shop at the larger of the city’s two underground malls. I still remember the cute life-sized mechanical white cat I was admiring and wishing I could afford. Biff bought something stupid and we left, walking around until we got to one of those Paris-themed bakeries all the way across the whole mall. I asked for a strawberry bun, and when Biff went for his wallet to pay for it, he realized with a shock that he didn’t have it with him. Well, we never thought he’d had his pocket picked; obviously he’d left it at the toy shop. So he went off at a sprint back to the toy shop. I stepped out of the bakery just in time to see a young man running toward him with Biff’s wallet held high aloft above his head. It was the toy shop clerk. He’d seen the wallet, realized it had to be Biff’s, put a customer in charge of the shop for a minute, and run across the whole mall looking for the big American in the Indiana Jones hat. He gave it back to Biff amid much bowing and apologies–he was apologizing to us for not having seen it earlier. We were shaking with relief; that wallet had a thousand dollars cash in it. We didn’t need to count it. We knew it was all there.
* I regularly walked around Sapporo with a wallet full of money as well; I never once worried that I’d be mugged. I never worried that my apartment might be broken into, either.
* I began to notice that a lot of people didn’t even sign documents but instead used these neat little stamps; you could buy them in card shops. They were called chops or more properly hanko. You got one with your name on it and that was your “signature” stamp. I remember looking for one that had anything that looked like my name. There was barely even room on the documents for real signatures. It blew my mind that nobody simply used another person’s stamp on a document; nobody seemed concerned about forgery. Maybe they were and I just didn’t notice it, but even at the bank I saw these stamps being used–by clerks.
* Stores often put displays of goods outside to entice shoppers through their doors. This was what blew my mind the most for a while. Every type of good might be arrayed before a shopper’s dazzled eyes–everything from gigantic frozen crab legs to electric guitars, just set out completely unattended. Not long before I’d gone to Japan, a marching band from my city had visited Tokyo and hadn’t been able to resist the lure of shoplifting from these stores; the sheer brazenness of Ocean of Soul’s thefts completely stunned the Japanese. But I sure didn’t notice any precautions taken as a result. Most stores in the States treat shoppers like potential criminals, with TV cameras all over the place and store detectives lurking around the grounds. I never saw anything like that in Japan, not even anti-theft devices, in any place of business. It didn’t seem to occur to shopkeepers that someone might rob them. The one example of theft I heard about while living there involved a boy who had stolen a schoolmate’s bicycle; one of the teachers I worked with told me about it, and in the next breath talked about how the thief had gotten ratted out just before he could confess, and how the shame on his family had all but overwhelmed the boy.
* Organized crime was a bit of a problem, in my perception, but for the most part it only intersected with people who went looking for it. Karaoke bars were known to be run by organized-crime elements, and every pachinko parlor I saw where one could gamble for prizes had a back area where you could exchange your hard-won balls for illicit goods like cigarettes or booze or even cold hard cash. One reason I resisted getting a part-time job as a bar hostess, like most of my Caucasian female friends did, was because I feared getting mixed up with organized crime. But if you avoided those scenes, your chances of meeting up with a criminal in those organizations seemed to be nonexistent.
Seeing this atmosphere of perfect safety was a big problem for me. I’d grown up thinking that what made America special was that it was a specifically Christian country; it took a long time to even understand that actually, it wasn’t founded to be a specifically Christian country at all. I also believed, wholeheartedly, that without Christianity’s threats looming over people’s heads, that they’d go crazy and the whole country would fall apart. On the smaller scale, without Christianity’s threats looming over people’s heads, they’d fall apart individually and start murdering people.
People who grow up with threats of violence–or worse yet violence itself–seem like they become the sort of people who respond to those sorts of threats and start believing that everybody needs those threats to behave themselves. Violence begets violence, as even the Bible implies in Matthew 26:52. And I think that this saying is true especially regarding spanking. I’ve seen kids who were hit grow up to become adults who are completely convinced that spanking, threats, and other such violence are necessary components of childrearing; they can’t even imagine a world where children don’t face terrifying violence at the hands of those they should trust the most. Studies confirm time after time that using violence on children not only doesn’t make them behave better than kids who aren’t hit, but that it permanently alters their brains and makes them much more aggressive both as children and later as adults. Kids who get hit don’t grow up to magically morph into responsible, caring, mature, law-abiding, violence-eschewing adults on their 18th birthdays.
Little wonder that when I hear someone lauding the practice of hitting children, or at the least indignantly defending the practice, it turns out to be someone religious; the whole mindset seems like it’s an extension of the threats and violence promised by their faith system. If threats and violence are good enough for their god, then surely they are good enough for parents. And so the practice is becoming known as a chief feature of Christian parenting philosophies, with a horrifyingly toxic book about it, To Train Up a Child, advising parents to start beating their children in infancy and suggesting exactly how to abuse children without leaving marks; this book is so toxic in fact that the blogger doing a page-by-page review of it had to take a break from the review because it was messing with her head so much to constantly engage with something so sickening. I’m just surprised she could endure it as long as she did. I don’t think I could have gone half that distance.
But Americans are not nearly as Christian as they might seem, for all those threats of what will happen if they’re not. For many years, Americans have lied about how often and even whether they attend church, and I can tell you that in my direct experience, Christians don’t pray, fast, or study their Bibles nearly as often as they say they do. Biff, my preacher husband at the time, was praised as a “prayer warrior” by the old white dudes in charge of my denomination, but I don’t remember him praying much at all at home–maybe half a dozen times?–and I don’t remember him fasting once, or spending any time whatsoever reading or studying the Bible or commentaries about it. I myself didn’t fast much, but I did pray regularly and study the Bible; I never claimed to perform either task constantly, but I sure didn’t do these things as often as people clearly thought I did as the wife of a preacher. So I reckon there’s that comfort when a Christian sanctimoniously informs you he or she will pray for you; chances are very good that Christian won’t even remember the exchange when that time comes.
Certainly these threats of divine retribution don’t stop Christians from doing all manner of terrible things to the people around themselves. I don’t know a single person who could possibly say that he or she has escaped this life never having been hurt or victimized by a fervent Christian. They lie, steal, commit adultery, do illicit drugs, perpetrate violence, and all that other stuff at least as often as non-Christians do, and probably more so, if prison populations and crime statistics are anything to go by. Property crimes and homicides are strikingly higher in Christian-heavy states, just to start, while in more secular states, those rates are considerably lower. It’s just shocking to me that Christians think that ex-Christians deconvert “to sin,” when it is abundantly clear that Christians certainly don’t feel that such a step is necessary in order for them to feel free to sin.
So the threats aren’t working, if they ever really did. All they do in society seems to make people figure out ways to game the system and get away with wrongdoing, just like spanking does on the individual level for children. Why, then, this terror of what a secular America would look like?
During his most recent bid for the Republican nomination, right-wing politician, Christian nutbar, and serial adulterer Newt Gingrich suggested, without a hint of self-awareness or irony, that America was fast sliding into a state of atheism dominated by evil Muslims. No kidding. Because atheist countries always are dominated by Muslim extremists, I guess. Being dominated by Christian extremists is okay, but not Muslim ones, ohhhh no, can’t have that.
A few months ago, Mike Huckabee, another right-wing Christian who wanted to be President, whined to a bunch of frothing CPAC attendees that “if this nation forgets our God, then God will have every right to forget us.” Therefore, abortion should be outlawed. Also, regarding the world around us, he correctly perceived that “Across the world, no one trusts us, no one listens to us, no one respects us and no one fears us,” but incorrectly assumed that the reason for our bully status declining was because we weren’t crazily Christian enough. His solution to the problem was to force Christianity down everybody’s throats even more, because if we weren’t Christian enough, then not only would his god “forget us,” but that the world wouldn’t respect our authori-tie.
Getting away from Republican panderers, various Christian leaders have tried to claim that this or that natural disaster was their god’s divine retribution on America for becoming less Christian or doing stuff that these leaders think is naughty. Hurricane Katrina was one such disaster widely considered to be one such show of anger, but there certainly are lots of others we could name. It’s almost routine now to have some Christian leader say, on the heels of some disaster or other, that the devastation is the result of the Christian god’s ire at not being kowtowed to enough.
But if someone doesn’t believe that the Christian god exists, then how are these threats useful?
I mean, if someone who follows a Unicornist religion tells me that if I don’t hop on one foot from two to three o’clock every afternoon that an invisible unicorn might show up one day to gore me to death, then how likely is it that I’ll take this threat seriously and start hopping? Wouldn’t that threat just make me scornful of the Unicornist religion and steer even more clear of it? More importantly, how likely am I to trust anything else this Unicornist tells me about his or her religion if this threat gets trotted out? It’s not like the threat is vague or anything. It’s a specific threat about a specific penalty that will happen for not doing a specific activity. If I never ever see anybody getting gored to death, and every day goes by without me getting gored, then doesn’t that make me disbelieve just a little bit more in Unicornist claims?
Let’s take this train of thought a step further. Even if I saw something on the news about some guy dying after being gored by unknown assailants, I’m unlikely to think that it’s because he wasn’t hopping and an invisible unicorn showed up to do the deed; after all, nobody’s even proven that a unicorn even exists, much less cares about people hopping in its holy name. I’d think that all those hopping Unicornists were stark raving loons to go to such lengths over totally unproven threats.
So as I see America’s happy shift to secularism and the resulting freakout by Christians over how terrible that is, what I’m not seeing are actual facts to support that America is getting worse as a country. Christianists can wring their hands all they want, but the facts are that all the stuff that’s actually getting worse–like income disparity, eroding women’s rights, and the fast-vanishing middle class–are things that Christianist leaders are totally okay with. The stuff they say will happen if “God forgets us,” like crime, abortion rates, and sassy-mouthed teenagers, is actually getting a lot better as we move away from religious extremism. And natural disasters may be getting more severe around the world, but it’s not secularism causing it, but rather a natural consequence of global warming and other man-made factors.
I’ve heard that one reason why toxic Christians might be freaking out especially hard over America’s secular trend is that they see America as a sort of new and improved Israel, which makes American apostasy especially problematic. I think there’s something to that thinking. When I was a fundamentalist, there was a distinct hard-on for Israel and Jewish people floating around my denomination, and we saw ourselves as the spiritual children of Jews and therefore as spiritual Israelites. Fundamentalists are extremely interested in having good relations with Israel for various reasons, not only because Israel is kinda where Jesus hung out the most, but also because Israel is thought to be a key player in the entire end-of-the-world fetish fantasy they’ve got going on.
If America has the bad grace to bow out of that last dance, then what on earth will right-wing zealots masturbate to? So yes, by all means America must be kept as religious as possible, so that endtimes dream can still come true. You can all but taste their frustration that simple reality is getting in the way of the fantasy they’ve so laboriously constructed.
And, too, if America goes secular, then what hold will Christian leaders have over people–and even more importantly, how will they get their money? At the moment, millions of people watch televangelists like Pat Robertson, who regularly threatens America with doom if people keep ignoring the threats he’s so thoughtfully issuing on behalf of his abusive invisible daddy. I’ve heard any number of fundagelicals parrot the prophecies and threats these leaders regularly spew. But people keep deconverting. I wouldn’t have thought this next statement would be possible to accurately say just a few years ago, but America may well be a secular nation in another generation. It might even happen in my lifetime.
A secular America is not likely to give money to churches or their various pet projects around the world. A secular America is even more unlikely to allow Christianist interests to dominate its government at any level. A secular America won’t care if Christians choose to worship however they wish, but will make clear that this worship may not infringe upon the rights of any other Americans. A secular America won’t allow Christians to have excessive privileges or unwarranted dominance over anybody and will insist they be polite about their religious nonsense. A secular America won’t allow Christians to dictate our laws based on religious interests, to deny science because its implications make Christians feel a lot less like the center of the whole universe, or to masturbate to endtimes fantasies at the expense of realities like climate change.
Most of all, a secular America won’t care if Christians approve, disapprove, or stomp their widdle fetties and hold their breath till they turn blue over stuff that isn’t even halfway their business but which they can no longer control and dominate any other way but with domestic terrorism and force.
So it seems to me that what toxic Christians really don’t like and are really afraid of is an erosion of their privilege.
It took living somewhere that is almost entirely secular and yet almost entirely doing well for me to see all of these things. Japan didn’t have Christians frothing at the mouth at every corner, yet it was safe and didn’t seem to be facing a lot of natural disasters at the hands of temper-tantrum-throwing deities. Nobody seemed to be suffering for lack of religion. Nobody really cared what religion anybody was. Nobody really wanted to talk about it, either; here, it’s very common for zealots to engage outsiders and bother them, but there, every time I saw Biff try to do it, he got gently rebuffed. His vision of a Japanese revival at his hands withered almost immediately, and yes, he was very angry and resentful about that failure. His god had told him it’d happen, and it wasn’t happening at all!
It’s not that a lot of weird stuff wasn’t happening, but weird stuff isn’t necessarily bad stuff. Christian zealots often confuse themselves about just what “bad” means. People not attending church is seen as this massive problem when it isn’t. Neither is abortion access, women wearing whatever they want to wear, children not being beaten senseless for any reason, people saying unapproved words and reading unapproved books and watching unapproved TV shows or even having unapproved sex, folks getting healthcare, or people getting educated. Seen from a lens of human rights and freedoms, none of these things is bad at all. And maybe that’s the problem here, that Christians can’t recognize a genuine harm to society when they see it.
Infringing on someone’s rights is the real harm, but way too many religious zealots can’t see that; in their world, that’s perfectly acceptable sometimes. Sometimes a woman just has to be enslaved to a fetus and forced against her consent to endure medical risks on its behalf. Sometimes a child just has to be beaten senseless. Sometimes a person of color just has to have his or her voting rights curtailed. Sometimes poor people must be made even more poor and subjected to even greater indignities. Sometimes a school board must lie its collective ass off to its society and even to federal judges to get theology taught in public schools as science. These paternalistic, sanctimonious violations happen in the name of the greater good. They are not seen as damaging to society but rather as expressions of their abusive misconception of “tough love.” The Christians perpetrating these lies and cruelties on us even wear their biggest ole Jesus smiles while they do it. They think they’re doing the rest of us a favor. We might not understand now, just as a little boy might not understand why his father is beating him senseless. We might resent the intrusion, just as that little boy might resent the pain and terror his father makes him feel. But one day when we’re big and strong and all growed up (read: fully indoctrinated just like the Christians perpetrating these misdeeds), we’ll understand and thank them for being so wonderfully loving and patient as we struggled to reach their level of understanding and grace.
Ugh, it’s just so egocentric and paternalistic and yes, downright evil. And little wonder.
Like father, like son.
Like god, like zealot.
As sweet as it is for them to take on the heavy lifting of being the Designated Adult for the whole rest of the country, a secular nation won’t put up with that bullshit. And what must scare Christians the most is that as we reject their control, for some crazy weird reason we’re not falling apart. We’re actually doing just fine–and more and more of us are realizing this truth.
It can’t happen fast enough for my taste.
Join us next time for an example of Christian control: the ever-popular silencing tactic. Hope to see you there.