As many readers are undoubtedly aware, this past week the people of Scotland held a long-awaited referendum on whether to become an independent country. What, exactly, this means has been more confusing than it should have been, because Scotland exists at a nexus of confusion within the mess of terms used to describe that general region of Europe. With my trusty Imaginary Correspondent, let’s sort that out.
Imaginary Correspondent: I find Britishness quaint and also confusing. Where do we start?
One thing that will never stop surprising me is the degree to which anti-vaccination campaigns have spread their message. Dozens of different versions, each ignoring a different combination of inconvenient facts about how vaccines work and what illnesses they don’t cause, all circulate around the Internet, ensnaring people of every political persuasion. I can understand the mistrust of the medical establishment, whose record is far from clean. I can understand the societal memory loss that has made vaccines seem unnecessary now that smallpox, polio, diphtheria, measles, and mumps epidemics are no longer the stuff of every Westerner’s childhood. I can understand the Hobbesian choices imposed by the lack of universal healthcare access in the United States.
I have a lot more trouble understanding the confusion about the societal role of vaccines in protecting the unvaccinated, because religions use that principle all the time to police their own.
The central-eastern chunk of North America has a very distinctive background noise for a substantial chunk of the year. While this sound is not totally distinctive to the United States and Canada east of the Mississippi River, the one here has special properties. I speak, of course, of the buzz of the cicadas. Erroneously called “locusts” because of their size and song, these insects have far more going on than meets the eye.
I remember my first encounter with one very well. I added the placid, unknown behemoth to one of several plastic insect habitats that were my favorite toys during the warmer New Jersey months, alongside some houseflies and beetles I’d caught earlier that day. I had to go inside, probably for food, and we soon heard a noise that we thought was some sort of chainsaw or motorcycle, but coming from the backyard. Alarmed and confused, my parents and I went outside and quickly localized the sound to the insect dome, and to the huge bug inside. The heat had given it a bit more energy and an amplifier, which it naturally devoted to its mating call. I let the beast go shortly thereafter. Cicadas would have a special place in my heart after that, combining teeming masses with an alien countenance.
One aspect of my deconversion story that stands out to many readers is that it didn’t feature certain accusations that atheists, especially freshly minted atheists, often receive. Partly, that’s because I was secretive about it for so many years, so the people who would have accused me of things simply didn’t know it was an option. More importantly, my culture, like some others, is entwined enough with its standard religion that it tends to forget that members of other religions, let alone of no religion, can be found in its ranks at all. The space filled by atheists in others’ imaginations is filled by communists here, or by sullen nihilistic teenagers whose non-religion is only ever implied, not stated.
So I’ve only rarely had to deal with that stereotyped idea that an atheist is an atheist because xe is “angry at God,” and that if I only quelled, grew out of, or found a “more productive” outlet for my anger, I’d return to the Christian fold. But I have nonetheless had that insulting supposition thrown at me more than once, and I want to silence it once and for all.