Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Your man about town

Yesterday evening at 8, as my last class was ending, a few students invited me to accompany them to a free movie playing at the Student Cultural Center. I had planned to head home, but I was feeling social, so I went along. After the movie (Raise the Red Lantern; beautiful, thought-provoking, tragic), my students A. and I. invited me to their friend J.'s house for something to eat. Again, I went along and ... well ... there was coffee, dinner (fried potatoes and beans), charades, music, a parade of languages (J.'s roommate doesn't speak English, so I spoke in my bad Serbian, which A. translated into better Serbian), and lots of (како се каже глупости?) interesting conversation. Those of you who know me well, know that nothing grabs my attention better than abstract discussion of big issues I can do nothing about. There was one memorable evening where Meaghan, her father, and I all went out for dinner together, and Bob and I tortured Meaghan for the entire evening with our endless political discussions. As an American in Serbia - often the only American that my students and friends have talked to at length - I regularly get drawn into conversation about politics. Well, last night's subject was worse than politics; it was religion. My students know what an American is, and they definitely have some idea what it means to be Jewish, but I'm not sure if they'd ever met an atheist before. I tried to describe for them my existential, materialist beliefs and to answer their questions to the best of my ability. We touched on the authority of the Bible, the nature of the soul, the structure of scientific thought (all the while with A. trying to convert me to the Serbian Church through the unusually superliminal technique of chanting "Orthodox, Orthodox, Orthodox" in my right ear) ... and before I knew it, it was 4:30 AM. I felt irresponsible to be out so late, as if I were reverting to student status myself. Isn't the professor supposed to be sober and temperate? (Although they did mention that while professors are untouchable, assistant professors are a little more human, and lecturers like myself are practically colleagues, if not friends.) At the same time, though, I consider this to be part of my work: fostering intercultural relations. Plus, they were speaking lots of English, much more than they usually do in class. (You can't really compare a five-hour gabfest to a 45-minute conversation lesson.) I had to go home in time to sleep for an hour, get up, and be in the classroom at 8:30 this morning, leaving certain threads in the conversation unfinished. So, I'm providing some links to follow up: And a special bonus link:


Babsi said...

As a teacher, if you did your best to make them understand what atheism is about, you did the best thing you could do. Not because I believe or don't believe. Because it has to be a choice, and atheism should be included :)

PS. How weird - we had many different experiences in Serbia. During my staying in Nis, I wanted to work on my diplomski rad, and I had in mind to write something based on Sveti Sava, both from a religious and historical point of view. I asked friends, of course, to have suggestions. Well, all of the people I got to know were *complete* atheists and had no chance to help me, they hardly wanted me to mention Sveti Sava :P (It may depend from their age, I used to hang around with people born in the 50's and 60's...)

Anonymous Expat said...

but I'm not sure if they'd ever met an atheist before.

Are you serious? I've met more athiests than you can shake a stick at here in Serbia; I mean it was kind of part and parcel with communism, wasn't it? Of course plenty of people kept their beliefs but I have met so many athiests here, sweet grandmas and grandpas as well as young folks too. Maybe it's different in Belgrade than in smaller places?

ianmstrange said...

Hi Daniel,
what a great, honest blog!

Keep blogging honestly, as you find it, I've only just found it,
i'll read you past posts shortly.



Um, just in case you haven't noticed: The author in your "In praise of sin" colum, Dan Savage, a man I greatly admired for his advice in the Onion, at least up to this point, groups Serbia together with Syria and Sudan as prime examples of countries "so irredeemably awful, squalid and beyond hope". F%^&er.


PS I'd write to him, but what does my biased and brainwashed opinion count. I am a Serb. I eat little babies for dinner.

PPS Most atheists in Serbia are closeted. Openly being atheist would involve being excluded from observing church traditions.

rachel said...

I agree with the anoymous one above - atheists are everywhere - but maybe that's just in Belgrade.

I have had to *come out* as a religious person many times, sometimes to fairly harsh judgement.

and thanks for the link to Dan Savage. He and Nirvana make me proud to claim Seattle as my homeland.

Anonymous said...

hey there. I wanted to direct you to a review in this past Sunday's NY Times Book Review of a book which discusses European history of 18th-20th century in relation to religion. (Sorry I discarded the paper so I can't remember the title, but I hope you can find it online.) There is a very interesting point that the belief-or not- in God came to be different from a belief in the dominant "religion" of the country. So therefore you could technically be an atheist, but still desire to follow the rituals and practices of the religion of your country; Catholisicsm. Eastern Orthhodox, etc. and be attached to cultural symbols such as monastaries and churches. Also, this separation allowed "religions of the state" to arise, such as in Fascist Germany, complete with their new communal rituals. So although there may be a lot of self-professed "atheists" around, this would not necessarily make them "non-religious."

2 very interesting blogs! PoppaG

Daniel said...

Thanks for the suggestion. It's a really interesting review; Here it is, if anyone's interested.