Monday, August 2, 2010

Cumberland Cavern Claustrophobia

I had a very interesting experience recently.  With my father and brother, I visited the famous Cumberland Caverns in Tennessee - one of the largest in the nation!  Although the Cumberland Mountain State Park is nearby, the caves themselves are privately owned.  That was not my impression on arrival.  The traditional color scheme for state and national parks is yellow lettering on  a brown background.  The entrance sign in the parking lot, painted in like fashion, was misleading to say the least.

The caves themselves were quite beautiful.  Our tour guide, a young man with short curly hair and sensible sandals, was knowledgeable and able to provide a good deal of insight into the cave's geology.  As we climbed deeper, the features became more magnificent, culminating in the "mountain room".  An amazing cascade of flowstone featured prominently, and a small seating area had been built so that our group of twenty might rest and take in the mineral splendor.

The young guide the informed us that he would be turning the lights off and entertaining us with a brief light show.  I don't recall his exact words, but he mentioned something about a "pageantry", and "God's glory".  All went black.  A deep and authoritative voice came out of the blackness.  "In the beginning..."

The light show was nothing more than a few colored lamps placed in a few different sections of the wall feature before us.  First a red glow to the right, then a green glow to the left, then blue and red on the right again.  Objectively, it was kind of pathetic.  By light show standards.

My knowledge of the bible is limited, but I could make out that, if not word for word, the narrative generally followed the Genesis account of Earth's creation.

At this point I was considerably uncomfortable.  I began to fear that I would have to say something.  The impropriety of a state park delivering what amounted to a sermon, the assumption that the audience would have the same world view, the arrogance in assuming that there would not be those who might have wished to experience the profundity of an extraordinary environment in a non-Christian, or even just non-religious manner, the audacity to think it appropriate to attempt any kind of conversion 3/4 of a mile beneath the Earth's surface, in pitch-black darkness.

At some point the rhetoric of the deeply intoned voice began to ask how any one might not see the obvious connection between the cavern's splendor and accept the Christian God.  I could resist not longer.  "Because I'm an Atheist!," I blurted out, obviously loud enough to be heard above the righteous din.  How could one not see this place as a preview of things to come in heaven?  "Because I'm going to Hell!", I loudly protested.

When the lights came back on the guide said a few words - none of which I recall.  My body had been long since flooded with adrenaline and other stress hormones.  My heart was racing.  My limbs were quivering.  Look what I had been reduced to!

At this point it I must pause and admit that my reaction to preceding events was likely inflated by my own sense of moral justice, and ideas of social propriety.  There is nothing about atheism that would necessarily lead one to feel the way I did, or to take the actions I chose to take.  In fact, the tour guide admitted to me later that he had long since stopped forewarning groups of the religious nature of the "light show".  Apparently, when he failed to do so he noticed no protest from the audience.  This was likely due to the cultural homogeneity of the visitors.

But nonetheless, it is certainly not easy to step forward and stand up for what you believe, especially when doing so disrupts any assumed social cohesion.  Your protest simultaneously accuses the offender of moral infraction, and claims for yourself the moral high-ground.  The onus then falls immediately on you to establish the correctness of your convictions.  Failing to do so risks at best embarrassment, at worst, great offense.  Often times the decision of whether or not to speak up must be made within literally seconds' time.

Further complicating things, during events in which the offense was prolonged for a period of time, the decision must be undertaken and then carried out in a brain environment of rapidly deteriorating cognitive function.  As the brain stem recognizes increased stress, mental activity is re-routed from brain structures responsible for higher-order reasoning, and autonomic stress responses come to the fore.  Thus, anger, fear and anxiety get in the way of productive communication.

So I spoke up.  I told the tour guide that, as an atheist, the light show made me uncomfortable.  I thought it was offensive.  And I thought it inappropriate for a state park.  To my embarrassment, at this point he informed me that the cave was actually privately owned.  I pointed out that the design of the entrance sign gave the opposite impression.  And there was nothing either on the website, brochure or around the park that indicated any sort of Christian theme at all.  He said that surprised him.  I asked whether he would have thought it appropriate to feature an ode to the glory of Allah, or maybe a Hindu god, or maybe Zeus.  At this point a fellow member of our group turned to me and said, "OK, thanks.  I think we get your point."

One wonders after such events what the point of it all was.  My speaking up felt cathartic.  Fuck those weasels!  But what did they learn from me?  Was there a net positive gain?  Maybe I came on too strong?  Maybe I made them angry and acrimonious.  Maybe it was OK for them to have there little ceremony.  It was a private park after all.  It was rural Tennessee.  This is a majority Christian country.

But I was uncomfortable.  As would I assume any other atheist, or Jew or Muslim.  The show had an explicitly Christian narrative.  If they wanted to have that kind of show, they should have posted some form of notification.  As it was it felt deceptive and arrogant.  Maybe my protest caused them to rethink their operation.  Maybe other members of the group were empowered in some way by my courage - even if they didn't entirely agree with my position.

In no small way what I did that day was what America represents.  A nation is heterogeneous and must take great care to respect and affirm the right of each citizen's liberty of mind.  Structures which serve to support only one group's way of thinking over another, to bully via their majority or any other inequitable influence, only serve to weaken a nation.  The founders understood this - at least in principle, and we've been struggling ever since to live up to such lofty ambitions.  While it may be unfair, it is the burden of every minority group to assert its civil rights.  It may not always go so smoothly.  It may sometimes be poorly planned or carried out.  But we must never be afraid to stand up for ourselves.  Not only are we better for it, but so too are all our fellow citizens and future generations.

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