Sunday, August 2, 2015

"Ask me again," said the Rabbi

Enneagram Type 5 - The Investigator

Thinkers who tend to withdraw and observe
Enneagram type 5 - The InvestigatorPeople of this personality type essentially fear that they don't have enough inner strength to face life, so they tend to withdraw, to retreat into the safety and security of the mind where they can mentally prepare for their emergence into the world. Fives feel comfortable and at home in the realm of thought. They are generally intelligent, well read and thoughtful and they frequently become experts in the areas that capture their interest. While they are sometimes scientifically oriented, especially with the Six wing, just as many Fives are drawn to the humanities and it is not at all uncommon for Fives to have artistic inclinations. Fives are often a bit eccentric; they feel little need to alter their beliefs to accommodate majority opinion, and they refuse to compromise their freedom to think just as they please. The problem for Fives is that while they are comfortable in the realm of thought, they are frequently a good deal less comfortable when it comes to dealing with their emotions, the demands of a relationship, or the need to find a place for themselves in the world. Fives tend to be shy, nonintrusive, independent and reluctant to ask for the help that others might well be happy to extend to them.


A year ago, I delivered a message at West Hills Friends the Sunday following the 2014 Northwest Yearly Meeting sessions.  I was unusually optimistic, expressing hope that the expulsion that once seemed inevitable might be avoided, and unity restored among people who claim to be people of peace.  A year later, West Hills has been kicked out, and I am processing an indefinite departure from West Hills.  Here's a rough timeline:

In September of 2014, following the loss of Griffin Huber, I applied for membership at West Hills Friends Church.  I'd not intended to ever apply, but in the midst of tragedy, Sarah and I both felt that we were just as affected by sorrow as everyone else, and to refuse to called a member, for me at least, felt like petty stubbornness.  The process, as had always been explained from the pulpit, was that a person applies for membership by notifying the church elders of a desire to become a member.  The person meets with 2 of the elders for a clearness discussion, which centers around 2-3 queries.  The queries don't have right answers, but the discussion about them should make it clear to the applicant and the elders whether the person should be a member.  It's also been said that becoming a member is simply recognizing that a person already is operating as a member.  If the applicant and the elders are clear to move forward, the applicant is brought before the church to be recognized.  People are invited to comment about the person for awhile, and finally an elder asks if everyone is clear to approve the person as a member.  In the time we'd been there (2 years at this point), everyone who applied had become a member.

Sarah and I went through our process separately.  I thought this was important, as our journeys and worldviews are very different, and our interactions within West Hills had been very different as well. I met with 2 elders, went through the queries, and we were all clear that I was already a member of West Hills, and we agreed to move forward.  The elders met as a group, and all were clear that both Sarah and I should be members of the church.

We were scheduled to be brought before the church the Sunday before Christmas.  The Wednesday before, we received an email from one of the elders that opened like this:

Dear Ryan and Sarah,

I’ve got some difficult news-- a member of our meeting has come forward with serious reservations about Ryan’s membership, specifically as you might surmise, around his atheism.   We (the Elders & (pastor)) hear that these concerns are serious enough that they would present a block to reaching unity on approving Ryan’s membership at the rise of meeting this Sunday.  

It is our sense that the most constructive next step is for the Elders to arrange a meeting to hear these concerns in person, and to share our own discernment, and see if that is sufficient to open a way forward.  

One thing I've learned about myself in the last year is that I'm awful at predicting my feelings.  My initial response to the elder was essentially that this was no big deal.  I could be patient, and understood why it might be hard for someone to handle an atheist as a member.  I didn't feel much of anything about the matter until a month later when a listening meeting was scheduled for people to discuss the general topic of membership.  At this meeting, I heard such gems as:

"This is Jesus' clubhouse.  And if you're not cool with this being Jesus' clubhouse, perhaps this isn't the place for you."

"I recently sent (the pastor) an email asking, "Are we even a Christian church anymore?""

"If all it takes to be a member is to be a good person, someone could just join the rotary club."

Following this meeting, my emotions caught up with what my mind already knew.  This was not going to work out.  You can only clumsily try to fit a square peg in a round hole for so long.  Eventually it becomes obvious that one of these things is not like the other.

My anger about the situation wasn't so much that someone had an issue with atheists.  This is common.  Fundamentalism isn't reserved solely for actual fundamentalists.  I knew this already.  What got me the most was that someone was allowed to exert control over me anonymously.  I wasn't told who was objecting to my membership.  They didn't have to face me, or know anything about how it might affect me.  They got to complain without their name being known, then walk away.

(It's an unfortunate irony:  People had enough information to block my membership because I did what everyone is constantly asked to do.  I participated.  I spoke.  Had I never given a message, or been open about my ideas, I'd be a member right now, just like the other atheists who are members at West Hills.)

I stayed home for a few Sundays.  The elders and pastors bent over backwards to apologize for how things went, and did their best to make me feel wanted.  Eventually one of them told me enough information that I could figure out who was blocking my membership.  I don't know if that made it easier, but it was nice to know.  It wasn't anyone close to me.  Wasn't even anyone I'd ever had a conversation with.  Still, Quakers speak as a group.  If they decide something, they do it with consensus.  If they decide not to do something, like approve someone as a member, they also do that as a group, even if it's only a handful of people holding up the majority.  This allows individuals to exercise an extraordinary amount of power over others.

For the last six months, I've waffled a lot.  Some Sundays it seems like it would hurt more to show up somewhere unpleasant than stay home, so I stay home.  Other Sundays I go because I miss people, and that's the best place to see them simultaneously.  Either way, the trust is gone.  The feeling of "I'm affected as much as everyone else" has been replaced with "I'm the only person in the last 10 years to have their membership blocked."  That very few people knew about any of this didn't help.  I've chosen not to speak about it publicly.  I don't know how.  There are people who are quite content to share their pain out loud, and eat up the attention this brings.  I'm not one of those people.  It's uncomfortable, and requires vulnerability, and I suck at both of those things.

Last week, Northwest Yearly Meeting decided to "release" West Hills from the yearly meeting.  Some people felt like a freed hostage.  But most felt some level of pain and rejection.  As usual, at first, I felt nothing.  I've been emotionally detached from West Hills for so long that I don't identify as one of them.  This didn't feel like personal rejection.

As people began to express their feelings about being kicked out, my feelings started to surface also.  But they haven't been feelings about NWYM.  They've been feelings about membership rejection, and the loss of a trusted community.  These people get to grieve their loss together.  I had to deal with mine alone.  I understand their pain, but in a way, I resent it.  The group that rejected me has been rejected.  While this isn't really what happened (the first part, anyway), it's how it feels.  And it's hard to listen to.  The membership process is still the same.  It can still be used to bludgeon someone else.  The gatekeepers can still gatekeep, and nobody knows they're doing it

I showed up to Quakerism looking for a way to quit being so afraid of death, and for my kids to be given the chance to ask God questions in an LGBT affirming place.  That first part of that mission has been quite successful.  Sarah will continue the second part.  In the process, for awhile, I found a community of people that felt like they were my people.  Eventually it became clear that they aren't.  After all, Quakers think God is guiding the group decision making.  With that as a central tenant, I was naive to think that as someone who doesn't think anyone is guiding anything, it would be possible to have both worldviews in the same church indefinitely. I'm persuaded that we have little to no control over our thoughts.  Faith is a kind of thought over which I have no control.  But to the faithful, thoughts matter more than anything else.  To be faithless among people who need their faith more than they need people does not seem like a good match.

Shortly after the listening meetings at West Hills, my small group of elders talked about moving forward with my membership.  They seemed mildly surprised when I told them I was no longer interested.  With West Hills having been kicked out of NWYM, and with the elders and pastoral staff having no appetite to appeal that decision, I'm hopeful that people will understand why after all of this, continuing at West Hills seems like a poor decision.  I've waffled too much already, and am likely to tell people different things about how I'm doing depending on the day they ask me.  I don't think I can get clarity if I'm begging the question by continuing to show up.  I'm giving myself the rest of the year to do other things with my time.  I've got a lot more hiking to do and books to read.  I'm hopeful that the time away will confirm that I'm making the right decision in walking away, or give me the perspective I need to try again.

Some day, I want to feel like this:

Thursday, May 14, 2015

How to Invert Your Paradigm

1.  Try to fit somewhere you don't belong (like a carnivore at a PETA rally, or an atheist in church)
2.  Spend obscene amounts of time pretending that the internet is where life happens.
3.  Quit doing both of those things.

The more solitary life has a ton of upside.  Last week I read Sam Harris' short book Free Will, which argues that it doesn't exist.  In any form.  I'm still thinking about it, but so far I find it persuasive (but of course, I had no choice). Today I started Steven Pinker's 800 page behemoth, The Better Angels of Our Nature, which tries to make the case that we live in the last violent time in human history.  Books are great.  I wish I hadn't neglected them as much as I have.

I am finding that without the worries about in-group approval, the way I think about ideas is changing.  It's been ages since I discovered a new idea, and bounced it off someone in real life rather than throwing it into the cesspool of social media to be devoured or liked.  This is how people change, I think.  We have epiphanies of our own, on our own time, and the space to bat them around for awhile.  Some of my epiphanies are antagonistic towards my liberal tendencies.  Others are health or family related.  But with the scope of my universe lessened as much as it has, these ideas can be given more mind-space, and room to grow.  Suffice to say, I'm happier than I've been in a long time.

One aspect of the shrunken universe is almost nobody reads these entries, which I love, truly.  If you're one of the few, here's a band I fell in love with a few months ago.  They've been great company.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Absence is the Reward

It’s 2031, and the house is letting out a sigh.  We’ve been halved by time, with just the older half left here to think and remember.  Morgan and his dorm room seemed made for each other.  Taylor was so happy to drive him there.
“They’re gone,” I half-whisper to Sarah.
“Yes,” she replies, admitting it, but barely.
“I’ve waited for this day for 18 years.  Getting my freedom back, I called it.”
“I remember.”
“It really is freedom, in a way.  From this point on, their choices are completely their own.”
“They always were completely their own.”
“No different from us, I suppose.  I keep thinking about something I told you before we got married.  I used to say, ‘I’m not wired to parent a kid with a disability.  I don’t have that kind of patience.  I want you to understand that from the beginning.’”
“You did say that.  Irony’s a bitch, isn’t it?”
“Yes.  The universe could have at least been up front about it.  Bi-polar was a cruel way to sneak up on us.  Everything was flowers and laughs and hugs, until it wasn’t.”
“Nobody expects the inquisition. Or a mood disorder.”
“She was just so…cruel.  How can a person be expected to be emotionally attached to someone who says they hate them all the time?  It’s best dad on earth in the morning, worst dad at night.”
“I don’t have an answer for you.”
“For many years I tried to focus on two things.  One, she didn’t choose it.  To be born, to have the disease, any of it. And two, my response to it was nobody’s responsibility but my own. I didn’t choose the disease either, but I did choose to bring her into this world.  The fallout from that decision wasn’t my choice either, but how I dealt with it was only my choice. Do you think I dealt with it well?”
“Do you?”

“I don’t know.  But I worry about it all the time.  Every child deserves happy memories.  I hope I gave her enough.”
It’s 2015, and things are looking up.
As a kid, as much as the video games an TV shows were often the highlight of the day, it was the friendships and adventures that stick to my memory. Building a triangular fort out of tongue and groove boards in the back yard, hiding under the ivy behind the school, throwing my bike off a retaining wall just to see what would happen when it crashed. We didn’t have the internet then, of course.  In hindsight, would it have made life better?  These days I doubt it.
I’m trying to come out of the fog I’ve been in for the last six months.  Shutting down the online chatter has been an unexpected joy.  With the noise gone, my mind centers on simpler things.  The people I want to talk to, I talk to, and in person.  The causes of so much pain are gone with a simple button click.  Why was it so hard to realize it would work that way? 
I do a lot of walking these days.  The neighborhoods by the office are quiet, with enough turns and hills to make it interesting, and enough shade to be merciful when the sun is shining.  On my walks, the schools are full of kids too young to be bogged down by phones and apps.  They run around without a care, pushing each other on swings, choosing friends based on kindness and cooperation rather than opinions about social issues.  We could learn from these kids.

I’ve been running the facets of my life past a simple question: is this person, group, church, job, website – are they making me happy?  And if not, why are they part of my life?  Who decided it was acceptable to surround one’s self with things that make life worse?  It’s a simple litmus test, but the answers can be difficult.  Some of these burdens have been around a long time.  To live without them seems foreign.  But as I’m learning, sometimes the hardest part is the separating.  The absence is the reward.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

how bitterly you will miss it

and when his tiny head 
emerged from hair and folds of skin

i thought to myself 
if he only knew 

he would climb right back in

like i do

The train wrapped 'round the zoo, lights dancing off her eyes as we got lost in them together. Discovering God and each other, she beamed with life, and I beamed of her.  First kiss on the porch, she drove away, wrapping the memory in permanent time.  Nobody tells you when it happens - write this down.  On this day. On this night.  You will never again be so in love.  So..happy.

Hiding behind the theater door, so small as I bent to kiss her hand.  The statements made in nouns would be replied to with philosophy and telekinesis.  Call and answer, question and mark.  As if conspiring with my DNA, she knew everything, spoken and not.  Again I forgot to write it down - you will never again be so completely understood.

now that my blushing bride
 has done what she was born to do

it's time to bury dreams and

 raise a son to
 live vicariously through

Waiting again.  Always waiting.  Meet me outside the door, I'll be out in a second. The hours kept tied to that rope, dangling before the mouth of the lion, never finished off but hoping for it.  The poems and romance and hope and desire, pulled from me like a car in a lake.  Write this down, you fool.  You can't possible know what she is stealing from you.  And how bitterly you will miss it.

With a playful grin, she skipped around me, matching every line on the list.  All the musts, none of the can'ts, it all made sense.  She'll sit with me, happy to be there.  I'll sit with her, constant and unchanging.  If we never change, this will always work.  She hasn't read the things I forgot to write down, and I haven't hers.  It's for the best.  We say forever, and we mean it.  Time and again, we mean it.  She would have been happier with me at 17.  Perhaps I would too.  She will always be owed an apology for him never showing up.

the sperm swims for the egg

the finger for the ring

if i could take one back
i know what it would be
I do

The kids are out for awhile, the house is dark.  You look within for the gear that puts you in drive.  But more and more, your key is small and the lock is a galaxy. You cycle through the compartments of your life - surely one of them must have the joy joy joy down in your heart.  Keep digging, you say, you'll find it.  People have found motivation from much worse than this.  Shut that whine down, you ungrateful coward.  The job and the family and the shunning and the gates and the weight - this is not who you are. You used to care about things, and you will again.  You used to have an unshakable confidence, and you will again.  You used to matter, and you.will.again.

You still have the ground.  It will take you in, and blend you among the stars and the soil that came before.   You will be part of something bigger.  Something everywhere.  As Shakespeare's question arises more and more, for now you take on the form of lighthouse light, spinning in circles, clinging with debrided fingers to the hope that soon there will be something to shine on, and that it will stay for awhile. And it will.

italic lyrics by D. Bazan

Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Dark. I Am Not Afraid.

White light
Maybe time to go.
Surrounded by all my love, dozing off
Persuaded by my mother’s fear
Deathbed sinner’s prayer.
Fingers crossed.
I will not lay in bed
With a wheel turning in my head
Trying to figure out the spread
On someone else’s bet
 When she finally broke, everything stopped for awhile.  Her frozen raspberries melting on the plastic plate, neglected because it’s hard to eat during a storm.  “The queen,” she said, “she tells me to do things.  I hear her in my head, and she threatens to do bad things to me if I don’t listen.”  She’s handing me the key, hoping I can be trusted with it.  Years of instructions from the real, and counter-demands from the imaginary.  Threats of punishment from each.  “I feel like I’m the most sensitive kid in school.  People tell me that all the time.”  I am not prepared.  Her little heart resting in my hands, and tear-filled eyes begging me to make it all stop.  This is your fork in the road, dad.  Choose wisely.
 Dinner’s on the table
Your mother’s at the door
Kids are watching TV
You’re never needed anymore
You’re never needed anymore
You’re never needed anymore
Telephone is ringing
Bill collectors buy and sell
I may not be in heaven
But you’re in hell
Rising to speak, one by one, they measured the gate by chapter and verse.  Which color sends the message correctly? How tall should it be?  We travelers listened with guarded ears.  Are they speaking of us?  Do they know that we can hear them?  The lines are drawn more clearly.  A smaller door, they say, with a height requirement. If we make it small enough that nobody else can enter, then nobody else can ruin it.  We travelers move on, nomads by requirement, not by choice.  The trouble with fences, we say, is they ruin whatever they’re guarding.  By the time the fence is up, there’s nobody waiting to enter.  Besides, we’re just not small enough to fit.
 Ok, I’ll lay here a little while
If you’ll promise to run our history
Through my head
When my horizon flipped
Started making lists
And I’m never gonna rest in peace
In your debt
I will not lay in bed
With a wheel turning in my head
Trying to figure out the spread
On someone else’s bet
 At night, the thought of my last bed comforts me.  Cold. Dark. Quiet.  Consciousness gone, a brief flickering in an otherwise empty space. With no memory of before, and by then, no memory of the past, my natural state resides there, in the nothing.  We are out of character above ground, feigning importance, daring to think these trials and feelings have value.  As I fall asleep, my anchor is that place, in that bed.  Of all losses and pains, harms and gains, I have found comfort in the only thing that can’t be taken away.  

Italic lyrics by D. Bazan

Saturday, January 31, 2015

9 Kinds of People an Atheist Should Not Marry

NYC Pastor did Christians a huge favor this past week, gently laying out exactly who they should and should not marry. I think this is a great idea.  If anything is worth our time in this world, it's telling other people what is best for them.  In that spirit, I humbly present the 9 types of people that we atheists should never marry.

1.  Virgins

  Life is short, people.  And when you were younger, you had these grand ideas of meeting your unchewed bubble gum, or rose with all its pedals, or whatever weird metaphor your youth pastor read in that month’s Focus on the Family.  And it sounded nice.  You’d get to plant your flag on acres of unscathed farm land.  And like Edward Norton in Fight Club, you dream of destroying something beautiful.  But what Pastor JimmyJohn didn’t tell you is that after a brief, disappointing moment, your spouse is no longer that person, and you’ve got to spend the rest of your life with someone who might like totally different things than you.  Like, they might expect you to do THAT every single time.  Or refuse to do that other thing, EVER.  As atheists, we know this life is all we get.  And how tragic to risk incompatible sex forever cuz somebody thought their body was a metaphor for bubble gum.

2.  Younger People
  Sticking with the theme of life being too short, have you MET today’s young people?  Holy shit!  They use words like tumblr and micro-aggression, and if you’re like me, you aren’t sure if these are acronyms or graduate level college courses, but either way, you have no idea what they are, and are too curmudgeony to look them up. But more importantly, by marring a younger person, you’re increasing the odds that you’ll die before they do.  When we atheists go through our existential crises about death, we often find comfort in Buddhist notions of matter becoming different matter, where our bodies go back to the earth from which it came.  In this way, we gain immortality, sort of.  And if I’m reading today’s younger people correctly, they mostly want to cremate everyone, and that’s just not gonna work for us.

3.  People who believe in hell

     Now, this might seem intuitive, but let me suggest this could be a worse idea than you’d think.  There you are, out and about with your spouse, probably looking for that last Stephen-King-back-when-he-called-himself-Richard-Bachman book for your collection, when it crosses your mind that your spouse thinks your afterlife will consist of that too-much-wasabi feeling all over your body, forever and ever and ever.  And you think, “well that’s not very nice.”  But your spouse still married you, so how does that work?  How does spouse transition from passionate boot knocking to “Sure is a bummer ze’s flesh is gonna look like pea soup on a slow boil forever”?  You aren’t quite sure how spouse does it, but it must take a special kind of intestinal fortitude, and you’re probably not mentally strong enough to match wits with such a monster.  PASS.

4.  The Unemployed

Because life is short, and it’s all we’ve got, one of our imperatives as atheists is to maximize our life experiences. Some of life’s experience are really expensive!  I’d really like to para-sail off the top of an Egyptian Pyramid someday.  If you’ve never searched Priceline for Portland to Cairo airfare, gird your loins, cuz it’s a hefty number.  To truly maximize these experiences, you’re going to need free time for your travels, and if your spouse isn’t bringing in any money, that means YOU have to make all of it, significantly decreasing your ability to maximize those experiences.  My advice: if possible, marry someone independently wealthy.  Then BOTH of you can do all the things without the cumbersome anchor of a day job. 

5.  People who don’t get angry

Remember when you became an atheist, and dealt with all those nasty emotions around the idea that you’re totally gonna die and rot in the ground and that’s the end of it because you don’t have a soul?  At least for me, those emotions didn’t go away just cuz Thich Nhat Hanh made me feel better about dying.  Sometimes it’s totally appropriate to spend the day pouting in the dark cuz you totally used to think there was a celestial mansion with your name on it, and but now you know the only mansion you’re ever gonna be associated with is AS the mansion for a worm colony that calls itself the The Collective.  If your spouse can’t mourn that loss with you, I wouldn’t trust ‘em with a pet, let alone my hand in marriage.  I mean, have you SEEN the movie Bernie????

6.  Richard Dawkins

7.  Agnostics

You know how Neil Degrasse Tyson is totally an atheist, and gets mega street cred from atheists cuz he knows all the things, but won’t use the word atheist because he doesn’t want all the consequences of using that word in public?  Boooo!!!  Agnostics are like your friend who is one class away from a masters degree, but won’t write that last paper cuz he thinks having a graduate degree would put him too high on the privilege scale, so he spends his whole life telling people how he’s one class away from a Masters.  Just be who you are, dude!  Being married to an agnostic would be like living your whole life in the comments section on a YouTube video about vaccines.  Why would you do that to yourself?

8.  Feminists
Let me say it for you: WHAT????  Allow me to explain – We atheists get a lot of our activism cues from the internet and atheist organizations.  And these sources have made it clear that the most important uses of our time are activities like getting cities to take down crosses put up by grieving parents and widows.  With our sacred public streets being desecrated by religious symbols, if your spouse-to-be thinks causes like feminism are a higher priority, perhaps they should not be YOUR highest priority.

9.  Anyone who has ever stayed at a hotel
  Just like memorial crosses in public, hotels are another bastion for religious people trying to haunt us with their religious texts.  People who stay in hotels contribute to this cycle of indoctrination.  Personally, when I’m with a group on a trip, I sleep outside on an army cot.  I position large signs around the cot letting everyone know why I’m out there.  Most mornings I wake up with Sharpie on my face and my signs have been turned into tombstones with childish names written on them.  But it’s totally worth it!

I trust that this list will help you in your search for an atheist-friendly spouse.  As Vermin Supreme once said, you should trust me, because I do know what's best for you. 

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Light in Our Enemies

8 months is long enough, right?  Let's do this. 

Over the last few months, I've spent a lot of time attempting introspection.  This isn't something that comes naturally, but with help from sites like Slate Star Codex, I'm getting a little bit better.  Today I want to talk about two ideas that Quakers talk about a lot: loving our enemies, and the light within each person.  

Enemy love is a foundational component of Christianity, but it should also be a foundational component of humanism.   Insofar as love means an honest attempt to empathize with, respect, and treat well, we should do these things for people with whom we disagree, our who may think poorly of us.  I'm going to treat these as presuppositions, and hope you share them.  

Treating those we disagree with well is really hard.  Like, really really hard, you guys.  Have you tried NOT rolling your eyes when relative X says something about how the polar ice caps have never been bigger?  Super hard.  But of all the areas of self-improvement I've tried to implement, respecting the person I disagree with has been the most rewarding.  

Respecting the opposite-minded is crucial if we really believe our mantra of light being present within each person.  I'm using light as a vague metaphor - feel free to substitute whatever makes sense for you. Acknowledging the light in each person requires us to admit that on some basic level, we're all equally important, valuable, and worthy of respect.  When I mock your ideas, or assign motives to you unfairly, I'm lessening your standing in my eyes, so that my own standing can improve.  It seems so impossible to us that an equally intelligent/smart/wise/valuable person could disagree with us on such important issues as religion, politics, or music that to eliminate that cognitive dissonance, first we must correct the hierarchy.  You're down, I'm up.  I ensure that you're down via sarcasm, allegation of impure motives, or casual dismissal.  From there, I clobber you with whatever nugget of infallible wisdom I'm disseminating that day, then assume you'll roll over and play dead.  Rinse, repeat, viva the in-group! 

And this all makes a ton of sense!  It really does.  If there's anything that comes natural to us, it's finding new and creative ways to solidify the line around our in-groups, and cast apostates into the out-group. But the result of following this natural tendency is that nobody gets convinced to change their mind.

If the goal of important conversations is to reach the point that action can be taken towards our desired outcomes, shouldn't the efficacy of our persuasion methods be under constant scrutiny?  It's here that the Quaker ideals of enemy love and the light within each person come in so handy.  If I want to change your mind, I have to be the kind of person you're willing to allow to influence you.  And maybe I'm wrong, but I don't think a picket sign or a Facebook post is how that kind of trust is built. If I'm going to persuade you, I have to first respect you, and listen to you, and give you an equal chance to persuade me.

So let's talk about the light within each person.  A variation of this is that we should look to protect and love those who are commonly called "the least of these."  In the Bible the inference is usually that "the least of these" are children, or immigrants, or the poor, or the sick and dying.  More recently, this has grown to include the LGBT community and racial and gender minorities. We usually don't think these people are "less," rather that they have a more difficult ladder to climb to reach the playing field the rest of us are already using.  And this is true, of course.  These groups have a tougher road.

But this is where I want to challenge us to think differently.  For us - those of us who consider ourselves liberal, or humanists, or progressive Christians - in our worldview, these are not "the least of these."  For us, our natural sympathies extend to these people.  A lot of the time, it's EASY for us to love them.  We've probably already been involved in causes related to them, and we did it because it's obvious we should.  We recognize their humanity, see that their road is tougher, and do our best to improve their situations.  And these are things we should be doing!

My thesis is that if we want to improve our communities, countries, and planet, we have to go beyond what's natural or easy for us.  We have to recognize our natural biases, and fight against them.  We have to fight the urge to scream into our echo chambers.  We have to fight the urge to re-blog a bumper-sticker meme on Facebook and think we've contributed something meaningful.  I submit that what's meaningful is listening to someone we disagree with so long that we can finally understand why they think what they think, and then be able to say, "I acknowledge that you're a decent human being, and your opinion stems from a worldview that make sense given your experiences, even if I disagree with it with every fiber of my being."

For us, loving the least of these should mean more than believing in rights for immigrants or LGBT people.  For us, loving the least of these should mean seeking out and LOVING the Ted Cruz in our family.  It should mean finding a way to RESPECT the local equivalent of Ann Coulter or Fred Phelps.  This is how minds are changed.  If we can't love, or at least respect, the equality, humanity, and capacity to reason possessed by those we disagree with, I don't think we can claim to be after social change.  We're after social affirmation.  Social affirmation is easy.  Social change is hard.  And because it's impossibly, maddeningly hard, it deserves our most serious consideration.  

I want to change the world.  And I want the world to change me.  First goal - make friends with, respect, and love, my own personal Ted Cruz. 

Monday, May 5, 2014

In Conclusion: Dear Believer

This post represents an end to this blog, and most kinds of serious discussion online.  Just over 2 years ago, when I began writing, I was optimistic that something would change; That I would find evidence or have a religious experience that would pull me out of the despair of atheism.  To date, this has not happened.  I hope it's evident how hard I've tried. 

The despair has become a stubborn resolve.  An acceptance of who I am, and the evidence as I see it.  One can only spend so much time chasing fantasies. 

When one spends a lot of time hoping to be influenced, one is exposed to a wide variety of life experiences and language.  One of the great benefits of an Evangelical upbringing is that disagreement is generally approached without internalization.  The "other" is certainly wrong, and any disagreement is not a sincere insult to me.  This defense mechanism is no longer there for me.  The attempts at empathy that once seemed harmless now feel condescending and cruel.

"Sometimes atheism is a person's best path to God."

"I don't think God is offended by disbelief, arrived at with honest searching."

"God believes in you, even if you don't believe in Him."

"You're following the Light, even if you don't call it that."

The lesson, it seems, is that I am wrong.  Will always be wrong.  Until I change my mind.  I can't put myself in situations to hear these things anymore.

Thank you to those who have interacted with me on this issue.  I've both made and lost friends and family over it, but the net result has been a positive.  I leave you with this video, which summarizes where I am and how I view the world (fear not, it's gentle).  Take care.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

We Are Cowards of Conviction

The past few weeks have provided many opportunities to ponder the contrast between conviction and action.  Between the World Vision debacle, the death of Fred Phelps, an episode of How I Met Your Mother, and the memories of past events, maybe more than ever I’ve become aware of the times when people truly BELIEVE what they say, and when they don’t.  Please bare with a few stories:

When I was a kid, my best friend's dad repeatedly went to jail for blocking the doors to abortion clinics.  Motivated by the conviction that every day, innocent lives were being taken, he acted on that conviction, even to the detriment of his own family.  To him, a conviction that strong required action, otherwise what good was the conviction?  His conclusion may have been wrong, but he acted on it.

Also when I was a kid, my parents were not gun owners.  My dad used to say, "If someone threatened my life, and I had the chance to shoot them, I wouldn't.  I know where I'm going when I die, but I don't know where they're going, and it's not my place to end their chances at accepting Christ."  Twenty years later, things have changed quite a bit.  2 Christmases ago, following the Newtown massacre, dad opined, "It's the idiots running around yelling "stop the NRA" that should be taken out and shot."  I tell myself he had no idea he was advocating the killing of at least one of his kids.  In any event, despite changing his mind, at the time he made both statements, he still hadn't gone out and bought a gun.  The conviction did not necessitate action.

The Westboro Baptist Church is possibly the most shocking hate group in the country.  And yet, there's a logical consistency to what they're doing.  If one truly believes, as they do, that God's judgment is being brought down upon the Earth, and the only way to save one's self is to repent and join their church, it makes sense to be as loud and visible with that message as possible.  From my vantage point, a belief in hell at all almost necessitates this response.  One of my ongoing disappointments is that for almost 2 years now I've been practically begging people to evangelize to me, with almost zero response (seriously, how many atheists do you know who are actively trying to believe in God?).  The closest anyone has come was a 75 year old man I'd just met on a claim at work.

I recently posted an article discussing the quandary of how the inhabitants of heaven could possibly be happy knowing that most of the people they know are suffering in hell forever?  One of my friends responded with this:
  " if someone truly believes in heaven and hell...this logic doesn't start applying in heaven, it starts now. it's actually more sociopathic and messed up now to be ok with someone going to hell, because now you actually have a chance to talk to them about if you're not and are just "ok" with messed up are you?"

The great irony in his response is that for months, we had lunch together once a week, and not once was there an attempt at evangelism.  Allow me to share one of my very favorite quotes:

“I’ve always said that I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. I don’t respect that at all. If you believe that there’s a heaven and a hell, and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life, and you think that it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward—and atheists who think people shouldn’t proselytize and who say just leave me along and keep your religion to yourself—how much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize? How much do you have to hate somebody to believe everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?
“I mean, if I believed, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that a truck was coming at you, and you didn’t believe that truck was bearing down on you, there is a certain point where I tackle you. And this is more important than that.”  - Penn Jillette

Now, I don't mean to suggest that all convictions should be followed (in fact, for some of you, I hope you WON'T follow your convictions).  Strength of conviction is not an isolated virtue.  But I think it's worth considering, do we really believe the things we say we believe?  And if so, what are we DOING about them?  Some of our convictions are difficult to implement beyond the voting booth.  But some are easier.
The thing that probably gives me the biggest rush is unexpected giving.  I prefer it to be anonymous, but it doesn't have to be.  Quakers use the word "leading" to describe the overwhelming urge to say or do something.  I have this experience all the time in regards to wanting to help someone, but I usually chicken out, intimidated by the difficulty of what I want to do.
Today, in honor of Fred Phelps and the sociopaths who intimidated World Vision into cowardice, I'm going to start working on something I've wanted to do for a long time.  I won't bring it up again, because that's besides the point.  But I encourage you to think about what your convictions are, and whether you believe in them enough to overcome the hesitation to act on them.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Forgiving a Ghost

My friend Mark wrote about forgiveness this morning.  My initial response was , "My quandary is who is going to forgive God, who may need it most, and deserve it the least, whether he/she is real or not."  While forgiveness as related to the Bible doesn't feel especially relevant to me, I am interested in the idea of how best to let go of unhealthy anger.  Because forgiveness isn't about the perpetrator, it's about the victim.

The way I process it, forgiveness is an emotional realization rather than a conscious choice.  In Mark's story, writing a letter of forgiveness didn't accomplish anything, certainly not forgiveness.  Forgiveness seems to be a point that's arrived at over time, sometimes unknowingly.  Eventually the wrongdoings of another no longer evoke emotions of anger or distrust, and that person can be approached with the same charity that's given to everyone else. 

One way in which atheism has been helpful to me is that the horrors around us are much simpler to process.  There are causes and effects, rights and wrongs, but no cosmic scheme that has to fit within the problem.  In retrospect, the Christian concept of forgiveness seems quite unhealthy.  As Mark wisely points out, instant forgiveness of any offense can't be reasonably expected.  Where I think Christianity puts the brakes on too early is in regards to forgiving God herself.

Many folks have written at length about how they've forgiven God.  But the underlying assumption is that God hasn't actually done anything wrong.  It's the perception of being wronged that required forgiveness, not an actually wrong act.  When a young child dies for no reason at all, anger at God is okay, so long as one accepts that God hasn't (or can't) done anything wrong.  I think this is victim-blaming behavior, and can't be healthy for us.  Even if God exists, and there is a divine plan, there has still been pain inflicted.  And how much more offensive to be harmed by a being that can supposedly do anything, loves infinitely, and has made astounding promises. 

For the believer, there are multiple places in the Bible where believers are promised things in exchange for their faith.  Metaphors like being able to move mountains, or that if one asks sincerely, they will receive what they ask for.  We all know this isn't true.  There are theologies built around how to justify God's promises being broken, but they're still justifications.  Promise made, promise broken.  Broken promises require a response; Can God be forgiven, and if so, what does that mean?

My process with forgiving God has been mostly subconscious.  Realizing I didn't believe, it was incredibly easy to let go of the problem of evil.  Evil wasn't a problem because I didn't have to explain why God lets things happen to good people.  What I did have to let go of (and still do) is the disappointment of realizing my paradigm was wrong.  I have found forgiving a theoretical being to be as difficult as forgiving a real one. 

As a poor analogy, my daughter used to sprinkle oatmeal and glitter on the lawn for Santa's reindeer at Christmas time.  When she learned that Santa wasn't real, she asked who ate the oatmeal, and why we had let her put food on the grass.  She easily transitioned from one paradigm to another, and understood why we let her have her fairy tales.  How much more difficult would it have been if she believed Santa had conversations with her in head.  How would she have reacted if her whole life we had given her letters from Santa, full of stories and rules written just for her?  I suspect the transition would have been harder, and she would have resented us for leading her along.

So it has been for me with God.  While I can accept that the people who fed me the fables were sincere in their own beliefs, and believed they were doing what was best for me, it's easier to forgive them than to forgive the supposed receiver of my prayers, who turned out to be a ghost.  I imagine that eventually I'll realize my emotions have realized what my intellect already knows - being mad at an imaginary friend is ridiculous, and serves no purpose.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Cosmos and Conflicting Paradigms

My friend Daniel asked me to respond to his blog post this morning regarding Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Cosmos, and the mingling of faith and science.  As Dan has gone through seminary, I've seen a lot of familiar patterns, as the ideas he's tackling are similar to ideas I tackled going through philosophy and religion majors in undergrad.  We were both given fairly small truth boxes as kids, and the process of breaking out of them and finding a new paradigm to live under has been enlightening for both us, albeit at different times, and likely with very different conclusions.  While we grew up together in church since we were 2, faith itself wasn't really a focal point of our friendship.  Decades later, with him going into ministry, and me trying to figure out how to deal with atheism, we've found a way to talk about these things again, and it's been a lot of fun, at least for me.

As to Dan's blog post; He probably doesn't know it, but he's diving into some of the largest and most interesting areas of philosophy.  Epistemology is the study of knowledge.  What is knowledge?  How do we know that we know things?  Part of the study of knowledge is differentiating it with belief.  Knowledge and belief are not the same things.  A person cannot "know" something that isn't true.  A person can, however, believe something that isn't true.  All of us believe things right now that are complete nonsense; We just haven't figured it out yet. 

In Dan's post, he asks, "If scientific fact is true whether we believe or not, does that mean my faith - something I cannot prove or have tangible evidence for is automatically false?  Does the fact I cannot prove God created the earth mean it is not true?"

I would take the beginning of his question a bit further.  It's not just scientific facts that are true regardless of belief.  Everything that's true is true, even if you won't believe it.  This is just as true of God as it is of evolution, carbon dating, or the big bang.  God exists or doesn't.  The big bang happened or it didn't.  The difference between these two things is how able we are to test the questions, and come to conclusions that get anywhere close to knowledge. 

On NDT's show Cosmos, when he states something like, "4.5 billion years ago, X happened," the reason he can say that is because all of our scientific discovery, which has been accumulated by thousands of scientists over hundreds of years, all conclude the same thing.  Test after test confirms it.  Predictions made based on the original theories come true.  It's the beauty of the scientific method.  Scientists WANT to be proven wrong, because the whole point of science is to discover what's real and true.  Faith, or at least certain versions of it, operate in a quite a different manner.  The conclusion tends to be the starting point, and evidence is filtered or skewed to match the previously-reached conclusion.  The reason NDT mentions the flat-earthers, or people like Ken Ham, is because they're not doing science, they're doing faith.

I don't want to spend much time mocking the likes of Ken Ham.  There was a time when people like him where the dominant voices within Christianity, and thus deserved to be scorned for thwarting scientific progress in the name of silliness like humans riding dinosaurs and a 6000 year old earth.  Fortunately, the tides have turned, and large numbers are responding "YES!" to the question of whether or not faith and science can co-exist.

Tyson himself admits as much in this article:
"Rather than painting science and religion as diametrically opposed to each other, Tyson said that there are plenty of scientists who believe in God. “The issue there is not religion versus non-religion or religion versus science, the issue there is ideas that are different versus dogma," he observed.

He continued, “If you start using your scripture, your religious text as a source of your science, that’s where you run into problems, and there is no example of someone reading their scripture and saying ‘I have a prediction about the world that no one knows yet because this gave me insight.’”

“Enlightened religious people know this, and don’t try to use the Bible as a textbook,” he concluded.

Neil is exactly right.  One of the surprises people tend to find upon entering seminary, or grad school in religious studies, as that the most educated people of faith do not hold the same beliefs that the general religious population does.  You'll find very few young-earth creationists or Biblical infallibists in these places.  The reason is because those things don't hold up to scrutiny, and if one is committed to what is true, one has to be willing to let go of things that aren't.  But letting go of the idea that every word of the Bible is true doesn't necessitate abandoning one's faith, only re-shaping it, so as to be closer to the truth, and following the evidence where it leads. 

If truth has nothing to fear from investigation, the Christian should embrace science, and make the theological changes necessary to accept what is true.  My favorite bloggers are people who have done exactly that.  Benjamin Corey recently wrote an article on how Ken Ham damaged the cause of Jesus in his debate with Bill Nye.  Why?

"Ken lost because he didn’t produce scientific evidence to support his opinion. In fact, there were times in the debate where he seemed to spend more time talking about abortion, gay marriage and using the word “hijacked” than any focus on the issue of science. What’s worse, is he admitted that all of his science is based upon something I told you about before: adding up genealogies in Genesis as a method to dating the earth– which is not simply bad science but bad theology also."

Theologian John Haught's entire career is based around the idea that faith and science are absolutely compatible, and we should celebrate this reality.  You can read a sampling of Haught's work here.  You can also find many of his lectures on YouTube.

In conclusion, science and faith are certainly compatible.  The acknowledgement of this eliminates certain kinds of theology, as they are provably false, but this should only encourage the believer, as you're one step closer to truth, whatever the truth really is.  We should all be willing to let go of false ideas, believer and non-believer alike.  Science and philosophy help us do that.  We can cling to senseless faith if we want to, insisting that the interpretation of the Bible we were given as kids must always be true no matter what.  But if we do that, let's admit we're not really after the truth.  We're after certainty.  And if science has taught us anything, it's that certainty should be held with the most delicate grasp.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Catfish - an Intermission

My favorite part of Quaker meeting each week is hearing what people have to say about how they’re experiencing their faith.  And for multiple meetings in a row, I’ve really wanted to say something, but have felt like I’d be squashing someone’s joy if I said what I wanted to say.  I don’t know why, but I feel a strong pressure to be the prodigal son coming home, and when I can’t be that person, I tend to shut myself up, afraid of ruining the positive experience so many people have.  I hope I’ll eventually have the courage to speak off the cuff, but for now, this is the best I can do.

There’s a show on TV called Catfish.  It’s about people who are in online relationships with people they’ve never met in real life.  Most of them have never seen the face of the person they’ve been chatting or talking on the phone with.  In the show, the mysterious other person is tracked down, and introduced to their online significant other.  Most of the time, the mysterious online person turns out not to be who they claimed to be.  Sometimes they’re a different gender than they claimed to be.  Sometimes they’re overweight and afraid to be seen.  Sometimes they’re just mean people having fun at the expense of others.

In my life, God has been my catfish.  The relationship I thought I had turned out not to be real.  And like the people on the TV show, even if the relationship wasn’t real, the emotions I felt during that time were real, and have to be dealt with.  It’s an awkward situation.  I’m simultaneously mourning the loss of, and being disappointed in, someone who probably doesn’t exist.

The weight of the loss of God is with me all the time.  It’s like being a widow in a restaurant, quietly watching the couple next to you celebrate an anniversary.  All I want is closure.  To either discover that I’m wrong about God, or to accept the loss and let it go.  Of all the things I’m afraid of, what I’m afraid of most is that neither will happen, and I'll spend the rest of my life waiting for someone who never shows up.

In the week since I first wrote this, I've tried to distance myself from theology, and have found it rewarding.  The searching had its purpose, but I suspect that time is nearing an end.  At some point life has to be lived and not just analyzed.  The weight of the search has so overwhelmed me with unhappiness that it's made it difficult to tackle any other goals I have.  Food, for example.  I would love to be able to eat better and exercise.  But when there's such a heavy negative pull related to God issues, how do I turn away food, which is always a positive experience?  I need to take back some control of my mental health, and let go of the need for answers.  God, if she exists, ought to be plenty capable of making herself known.  I don't know why I've felt obligated to do the looking.  I no longer do.