I like talking with people who have changed religions. Here is one of them. Previously: Lindsay Eagar.
Amy Mihyang Ginther is a professor at UC Santa Cruz. She is founder and owner of Vocal Context, where she runs workshops that empower women and people of color in their communication skills. She has contributed to Transracial Eyes and Modern Loss. Amy does not live with her two cats and wants to know if you’re gonna eat that.
Hi, Amy! Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and your religious background?
I am a transracial Korean adoptee who grew up in a Catholic/Methodist home and went to church my whole life until I graduated high school. Even though I was not a believer at this point, the Methodist church I went to had a positive impact on me and I think it led me to be more appreciative of other people’s faith than my partner or many of my friends.
Also, as an adoptee, I find that people’s Christian faith can play a toxic role in adopted identity, whether it de-politicizes the social forces that led to adoption (Jesus placed you in my heart) or perpetuates the idea that adoption is an act of charity (we saved you).
In his now-famous commencement speech at Kenyon College, the late David Foster Wallace said something that continues to resonate with me deeply: “…pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you … Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.” So what do we, as atheists, worship instead? Or do we forgo worship altogether? Wallace was advocating for a deep and critical consciousness around our existence as an alternative. I think he was onto something.
My atheism is grounded in the awe and wonder I have for our bodies and the conscious relationship we have with ourselves and others as humans. I train actors and I primarily focus on the voice, working intensely with the body and the breath. Through my teaching and research, I examine the incredible and intangible relationship between people on stage and off through the acts of listening and responding. As a performing artist, I investigate my own relationship to my body, my voice, and how I can connect with others in open and generous ways. Actors should be present, vulnerable, open, grounded, and full of breath to connect with audiences and to share truths through storytelling. I see this as a dynamic and empowering type of spirituality. Theatre, as an art form, has always had strong religious elements: ritual, storytelling, and community.
Ultimately, my atheism emphasizes practice over belief. Intentions are not enough; now, more than ever, with the state of the world as it is, we must focus on impact. I am constantly seeking ways to love my family, friends, colleagues, and students in radical and abundant ways. I continue to look for ways to be loving and generous towards myself as well, so I can be fully in my body and wholly present to hold space for others. And I aim to deepen my love for entire communities through activism and working towards social justice. I don’t authentically connect with the idea of doing these acts for a higher power. What is more profound than the expression on a person’s face when they know you’ve truly heard and seen them, when you’ve just demonstrated a deep sense of care? That’s God to me; it is ecstasy and it is all I need in this life. There is an incredible potential in being loving and generous with ourselves and others and I could spend many lifetimes over exploring the complexity of that and expanding my role within it.
Do you remember when you first encountered the idea of atheism? What did you think of it? When did you first start to think, “Oh, this might describe me“?
From second grade until the end of high school, I was raised in a wonderful Methodist church. I would tell people that this church wasn’t particularly Jesus-y, that the focus of it was on community, family, ethics, and singing – a lot of singing. The sermons were often about social justice issues and a general sense of kindness. I was in the choir and enjoyed the ritual aspects of that, especially around the holidays. At the midnight service on Christmas Eve, we’d sing Silent Night and all hold these tiny candles and then sing Joy to the World. I still attend and look forward to these holiday services when I go home to see my family.
I had rich and thoughtful conversations in my dorm about religion during my time as an undergraduate, particularly because one of our floor-mates was Muslim and because the Bible was being taught in my Honors College as a cultural object to be unpacked and contextualized. It wasn’t until after I graduated and moved to London where I began to really distill my philosophy around this in a more personal way.
Initially, I stayed at a hostel in King’s Cross while searching for a more permanent place. One of my bunk-mates was a thin and energetic older Englishman who just got back from living for Korea for many years. I introduced myself as a Korean adoptee and we started to have a chat which resulted in an invitation to have dinner with him the following day. Having just moved abroad, I was interesting in meeting and getting to know as many people from as many backgrounds as possible so I eagerly accepted. When I woke up the next day, he had already checked out but he had left me something: a pamphlet about how Jesus could save me from the depths of Hell. I realized he had lived in Korea because he was a missionary there. I remember inhaling sharply and thinking, Oh boy, this will be interesting. When do I have the opportunity to engage with someone face to face with such different views about religion? I had the advantage to formulate any points or arguments I wanted to make to him all day before we had dinner.
The topic didn’t come up until dessert. Over coffees, he said, You mentioned that you were grateful for a lot of things in your life. Was any of that gratitude towards God? I felt ready. I said no. I wanted to spend my time and energy being grateful for the people and things in my life. Why thank God for the food on our table when we can thank the people who worked to make that happen? That type of gratitude stimulates and provokes me much more, especially on a socio-political level. I probably spent the rest of that evening asking more questions than making declarative statements. Why should people in the world who have never heard of the concept of Christianity and as a result don’t believe in Jesus, be damned to hell? Why can’t I believe in the things Jesus stands for instead of believing in Jesus himself? Why should we need the fear of Hell and the promise of Heaven to motivate us in our actions? Heaven sounds absolutely terrible anyway. The whole conversation was civil and engaging. He shared a number of Bible passages with me to support his points, none of which I found particularly affecting. We talked about homosexuality for quite some time and I remember his eyes widening at the idea that this person passing for straight (I am not) would defend gay people. Ultimately, I believe I convinced him I was happy and fulfilled without a presence of a god in my life. It seemed new to him and it was invigorating for me to assert that.
I was around twenty-two at the time and had lived a comfortable, middle class life without major crises that could potentially make me question or turn towards a particular faith. Even though I was moving into a more solid sense of my own beliefs, I probably worried that this hadn’t been really tested yet.
This seems like a perfect time to ask when you did feel like some of your beliefs were tested and solidified.
In 2008, I was living in Buenos Aires, Argentina. My mom, living in Upstate NY, started having strange symptoms. After a series of tests, we learned she had lung cancer and it had probably spread to her liver. For a few weeks, we thought she had options and that she had a good deal of time left with us. We soon realized that this was not going to be the case and I flew back to NY to be with her and our family. My mother was 57 and I was 25 at the time.
My mom died the night we brought her home from the hospital, six weeks after her initial diagnosis. The hospice workers informed she would go into a state called Active Dying and they gave me an explanatory powder-blue pamphlet with a ship on the front. Death is rarely like its portrayal in the movies: graceful, quiet, or serene. Active Dying involves erratic and noisy breathing, open eyes, and cooling extremeties. My dad and I held my mom in our living room as her breaths became fewer. I remember wondering how I’d know which breath would be her last: another inhale, another exhale, and then silence. And we’d wait. Time passed and time stopped simultaneously. The silences between the breaths become longer and longer. Then my mom took a breath and as she exhaled, I felt an energy leave her body that was so palpable, so inarguably present, that I could almost see it. I knew, without question, it this was her last breath and it was. She was gone.
I think that was the most beautiful moment of my life and I am humbled to have been a part of it. It is a moment I cannot fully explain or describe and I have no desire to do either. It was full of many things, but for me, God was not one of them. There was no God for me when I was by her bedside in those final weeks, cajoling her to eat something so she could do another round of chemo. And there has been no God for me as I try to navigate a world without my mother in it. I take no comfort in imagining her in heaven because there are so many ways I can evoke her memory, her energy, her impact, here, in the moment, on earth.
I understand why some people look towards the perfection, the grace, and the unwavering strength of a god during the time of death and grief but these concepts stifle and bewilder me. For many years, I have been crippled, shamed, and exhausted by perfectionism brought on by the trauma of my adoption and fears of abandonment. My way to heal from this has come from an acceptance of human and cosmic messiness and the authenticity of the pain and joy they create. My mom’s illness and death were beyond my control; they were a type of inarticulable chaos. But I am here. I have a body and a capacity to feel things deeply. I can take action. There is an abundance of things I can do in the wake of the things I have little control over.
Are there any stray thoughts you’d like to add before I wrap up our conversation?
Through my work in adoptee rights activism and my time living in Seoul, I have met many adoptees who were raised in evangelical Christian homes, particularly in the Midwest. Many of them were raised with the idea that bringing babies from abroad was an act of charity and they were often reminded to feel grateful or lucky to be adopted. The relationship between Christianity and international adoption is often fraught with neocolonialism, the White Savior Complex, corruption, and the oppression of single mothers. This article provides some basic context and timeline for this relationship but it lacks adoptee voices on the topic, so please also see this and this, particularly to learn more about the intersection between Christianity, missionaries, and Korean adoption. Babies just don’t magically materialize for white, privileged, Christians to adopt; they mostly come from families who are socio-economically oppressed by governments and societies.
But many of the Christian narratives around adoption submerge the concept into well-intentioned sentimentality. When I see platitudes coming from adoptive parents on social media like Jesus placed you in my heart, I think to myself, well that’s kind of a dick move, Jesus, to take that baby away from its natural family (who often would raise them if they could) and give it to richer, whiter people in more developed countries. Because these sentiments have comprehensively de-contextualized and de-politicized the frameworks of power, colonialism, capitalism that drive the international adoption industrial complex, some adoptees have complicated and toxic relationships with their Christian families and with themselves.
Mallory is an Editor of The Toast.