Sunday, December 16, 2012

Losing Faith

Losing faith was a long process.  For 20 years I built a structure with many moving parts.  When combined, the structure could defend itself from any attack - the attack of other religions, of liberals, of abortion lovers, of doubt itself.  This faith that I had, that we as a group of Christians had, was impenetrable.  Within those walls dwelled certainty.  Certainty that we were loved by the creator of everything, that our faith granted us the keys to heaven, and the certainty that everyone else was wrong.

In recent weeks, I’ve gotten clarity on why this loss of faith has been so painful for me.  From the beginning of my upbringing in the Baptist church, it was never enough to leave faith alone.  Faith always came with justification.  Everything we believed came with a reason why it was true.  Whether it be believing in creation (we can prove this through science!), the flood (science again), the life of Jesus (there are x number of manuscripts from the Bible, which is waaaaay more than any other book), etc.. it wasn’t ever just about believing these things were true.  It was about KNOWING they were true.  People like Josh McDowell and Randy Alcorn wrote books giving kids the “answers” to all the questions they might face from their heathen friends.  I memorized all these answers, forged them with my faith, and proceeded to try to convince the unbelievers that they were wrong.

Faith, by definition, does not involve the known.  It involves the believed, things past the point of evidence and proof.  The parts of my religious experience that I mourn to this day are the parts that truly were faith.  I miss the emotion that comes with believing Jesus was speaking to me directly.  I miss the feeling of purpose that came with an undeniable place in this world.  I miss the connection my relationship with Christ gave me with my mom.  In many ways, I miss Jesus.

By tying rationalization to faith so strongly, the church unknowingly made it quite easy to start tearing down the faith structure.  Once I was smarter than the people leading youth group, and their answers turned to some form of “you just have to have faith,” it wasn’t good enough.  I’d never had to just “have faith” before - there was always a reason to believe.  I didn’t think my faith was built on fairy tales and wishful thinking, I thought it was built on solid evidence, or at least, was more likely to be true than not.  When the evidence I thought was there turned out to be either made-up, driven by bad logic, or intentionally misleading, I took my structure apart, piece by piece, until there was nothing left.

What lingers, what keeps me from being content with the dreary conclusions of atheism are the remnant feelings of true faith that I want to so badly to hang on to.  To feel connected to the creator of everything, to feel like I have a purpose, to feel a guiding hand.  As a father, I feel like I owe it to my daughter to never be content with what I think at any given moment.  Thanks to some indoctrination by her daycare lady, Taylor really wants me to believe in God, and in Jesus.  We’ve been attending a Quaker meeting for a few months, and she enjoys the Sunday school there.  Last week she asked me right after church, “dad, do you believe in Jesus now?”  I told her I don’t, but she can if she wants to.  After all, I know exactly what it feels like.

I discovered an album by one of my favorite musicians, David Bazan.  His path is very similar to mine.  He wrote an album about losing faith, and this song has been with me this week:

In Stitches, by David Bazan

my body bangs and twitches
some brown liquor wets my tongue
my fingers find the stitches
firmly back and forth they run

i need no other memory
of the bits of me i left
when all this lethal drinking
is to hopefully forget
about you

i might as well admit it
like i even have a choice
the crew have killed the captain
but they still can hear his voice

a shadow on the water
a whisper in the wind
on long walks with my daughter
who is lately full of questions
about you

when job asked you question
you responded "who are you
to challenge your creator?"
well if that one part is true

it makes you sound defensive
like you had not thought it through
enough to have an answer
like you might have bit off
more than you could chew

Monday, December 3, 2012

On Guns

On Guns

With another murder/suicide in the news, the usual gun control debate is all over the media.  It’s a story we’ve heard before.  Angry person with possession of a death toy, people wind up dead.  The argument is one we’ve heard before, too.  While not exactly a liberal vs. conservative issue, there seem to be two sides: outlaw guns (or at least the automatic ones) vs. don’t outlaws guns.

The arguments for outlawing guns are certainly compelling.  I’m not too interested in the stats, but we can all agree that most violent and accidental deaths in this country, if they don’t involve a vehicle, involved a gun.  We can probably also agree that this is not what we want to be happening.  But is that where our agreement has to stop?

The pro-gun side will cite the founding fathers, the 2nd amendment, and the natural human need to defend one’s self.  The prohibition side will argue that automatic weapons go far beyond anything needed for simple defense, will probably bring up the nefarious intentions of the NRA, and can provide endless stats showing that far too many accidental deaths occur because children have access to guns, as do angry people in an argument.

In general, I try to base my opinions on laws on pragmatics.  Just like with abortion and the use of  most drugs, just because I don’t like something doesn’t mean someone should go to jail for it.  It’s also pragmatic to recognize that politicians aren’t interested in using their political muscle on issues related to guns.  The outrage towards guns flares after an incident, then dies when people forget it.  A few months later, something else happens, we all throw bumper stickers at each other, and then we move on.  Let’s admit that after Columbine, Batman-gate, and hundreds of accidental child deaths, if guns are still legal, it’s not likely to change.

So what now?  There’s an awful lot of apathy on both sides.  The prohibitionists spend a lot of time arguing for the banning of certain guns (much like pro-life protesters spend a lot of time waving signs in the rain), but very little time trying to end the systemic problems that bring the issue up in the first place (also like said protesters).  The pro-gun people simply make their usual points, and go on their way, apparently with little concern with how many people are dying from death toys.

If we really care about people like we say we do, we need to do better than rehashing our arguments every time someone kills with a gun.  We can’t control many of the systemic causes of our problem.  We can’t force the TV networks to tone down the rhetoric and name-calling anytime someone disagrees.  We can’t take away the speech rights of musicians, rappers, and artists that glorify violence.  And we probably can’t end the nation’s absurd bloodlust, which results in the worship of soldiers and war.

But we can control what we say as individuals.  One at a time, we can make our best effort to calm down, listen before speaking, and treat other people with decency and respect.  We don’t have to follow the example being given by our favorite political pundit.  We don’t have to call people idiots on Facebook.  If there’s one systemic problem we can fix all by ourselves, it’s the elevated tone of our routine conversations.  And I’d suggest that if we can all calm down, we’ll all be less likely to believe that our problems have to be resolved instantly and violently.

P.S.  Slave-owning Brits founding a country doesn’t make them experts on 21st century domestic policy.  Just sayin’.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Military Philosophy and Pacifism, Part 2

While my solder friend finishes his contribution to this series, here's an entry from Mike McGeehon - Quaker, Pacifist, and school teacher.  If you would like an entry all to yourself, please send it to me!

What is your religious affiliation, if any?
I am a member of the Society of Friends (Quaker).
Politically, what are the issues that are most important to you?
I think my politics are pretty much wrapped in my personal religious beliefs: that violence is the weapon of the weak; that all people are equal; that integrity is important; and that we are all in this together, so what does the greatest good for all of humanity.
Do you have a political party affiliation?
I would be a member of the Liberal Democrats in Great Britain, but unfortunately they do not exist here. I am a registered democrat, leaning towards Pacific Green.
Please describe your involvement in the military, if any
My family has a rich military history (as many poor families do). I personally have never been a member of a military branch.

What do you think the function of the military should be (ideally, not based on any current situations)?
In an ideal world, we would have no need for any standing armies, because we would be able to resolve our differences in a civilized manner through negotiation and mutual best interest. Talk about idealism!
In what situations, if any, is it acceptable for our military to set foot on foreign soil?
Honestly? I don’t really think there is a reason for us to set foot on Foreign soil militarily. I do not believe in just war; I do not believe that you can bring peace through force.
In what situations is it acceptable to kill foreign soldiers?
Do you mean for me personally? It’s never acceptable. Even in self defense, which I would participate in reluctantly but honestly, I don’t think there’s a morally acceptable reason to kill anyone.
In any current military conflicts, do you think the people that are dying as a result of war have anything to do with the decisions that led to the war?
In some ways, yes they do. They are complicit with whatever cause has led them to military action. But are they wholly complicit? Not necessarily. A lot of kids end up dead because of an idealistic belief that they are serving their country when they enter an army, when often they are serving their country’s interests (that’s a very different thing).
Morally, what does it say about a country if a conflict has to be resolved through violence?
It says that they have not looked for the long, slow, difficult and ultimately stronger resolution of conflict through diplomacy, dialogue, and resolution. This takes YEARS, and absolutely goes against human nature (we are designed to kill. Look at our forward facing eyes, our tool making abilities, our strategic based minds). But I’m an idealist, and think that diplomacy is always the best way.
What do you think about pacifist ideology?
I think it is naive, utopian, and ultimately probably foolish. But it’s the tent that I have raised for myself.
Do you make a distinction between violence by a group (like the military), and violence conducted by an individual on a personal level?
A group affects far more people.
Anything else you want to say?
Please note that I know how idealistic and foolish my point of view seems. I know in the real world war is going to happen. As I said above, we are built for violence, all the way to the DNA level. But I truly do believe that violence is wrong, even when I revel in it.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Military Philosophy and Pacifism, Part 1

I’ve been wanting to write about the military for a long time.  It’s a difficult subject.  Like with most things, there’s a lot of nuance in my opinions, and because I care about people on nearly every side of the issue, it’s not something I get emotionally worked up about, but sometimes I feel like I should.  Rather than giving only  my opinion, I’ve written a list of questions that I will answer for myself, and I’ve asked some friends to answer them also (their entries will be up once I receive them back).  My hope is that the group of answers will give food for thought, regardless of one’s current opinion.  There are no easy answers to problems of violence, but I’m optimistic that there’s still room for progress to be made.

What is your religious affiliation, if any?
    The most succinct way I can answer this question is that I’m a recovering atheist.

Politically, what are the issues that are most important to you?
    I’m a huge proponent of people being more important than money.  So, issues like marriage equality, equal pay for women, lowering the income gap between workers are bosses, and universal health care are very important to me.  Support for marriage equality and opposition to the death penalty are probably the only two issues that I’m 100% unwilling to budge on.

Do you have a political party affiliation?
    I’m registered as a Democrat, but am considering switching to the Green party, mostly because of the issues discussed below.
Please describe your involvement in the military, if any

 Questions about the military and violence

What do you think the function of the military should be (ideally, not based on any current situations)?
    It saddens me that we need a military in the first place.   In a perfect world, conflict would be resolved peacefully through negotiation, compromise, and a common respect for the humanity of everyone involved.  Obviously that’s not the world we live in.  I’m realistic enough to admit that a military has to exist, but I’m not sure that it has to exist for any purpose besides defense (and when I say defense, I mean the opposite of offense).  I think the libertarians have it right when it comes to the military.  If it must exist, it should exist to defend the citizens of our country, within our own country, and whenever possible, without the use of violence.

In what situations, if any, is it acceptable for our military to set foot on foreign soil?
    I have trouble justifying this in any circumstance.  In my view, our military traveling abroad to impose the will of the USA via violence, or the threat of violence, is not justifiable on moral grounds.  It attempts to resolve disagreement through physical force, rather than with respect and care towards other people.  The obvious problem with this is that our “enemies” are no more inclined towards peace, and can’t be counted on to act peacefully.  There’s not an easy answer to this dilemma, and I don’t pretend to have one.  But I’m confident that trading dead bodies is not going to resolve whatever conflict we might be sending our military to resolve.

In what situations is it acceptable to kill foreign soldiers?
    If it’s on their turf, I don’t think it is acceptable.  It’s hard to argue that our military is defending me thousands of miles outside my country.  Since we’re discussing philosophy more than current events, I’ll avoid Bush’s wars, but in general, there don’t seem to be many, if any, instances of others directly threatening Americans in a manner that can be resolved by traveling to their country and killing them, without making the situation worse.

In any current military conflicts, do you think the people that are dying as a result of war have anything to do with the decisions that led to the war?  Morally, what does it say about a country if a conflict has to be resolved through violence?
   One of the easy criticisms of war is that it’s started by those who have little risk of being harmed, and fought mostly by those whose best life path was to join the military (how different would things be if the draft were still in place - I suggest we‘d think more carefully about going to war if our children were unwilling participants).  While there is certainly bravery involved in signing up to fight, I don’t agree with our national sense of pride over being a soldier.  This would be different if our soldiers were kept here in a defensive role, but today’s soldier signs up to be sent around the world either threatening violence to strangers, or enacting it, and I don’t see the nobility in that.  We’re so often told that our soldiers are “defending our freedom,” or “fighting for their country,” but my freedom is not something that anyone can take away from the other side of the world.  The ideas of equality and liberty are not threatened  - not by Muslim extremists, not by anybody.  They are ideas born of evolved thinking and moral goodness.  To kill others out of a false fear that someone wants to take our rights away (as if they could) makes a mockery of the ideas on the first place.  It’s to say, “we recognize we are equal, and we will kill you to prove it.”  Defense of values by violence says that American humanity is greater than the humanity of those we deem our enemies.  Do our enemies not also want happiness?  Do they not also believe in their own humanity, and the right to live the way they want to?  There has to be a better way to allow everyone freedom than to kill those with the least physical power.

  What do you think about pacifist ideology?
  I know a lot of pacifists.  I respect the purity of their philosophy, and I wish I could call myself one.  But for mostly intuitive reasons, I can’t quite there, for the reasons below.

Do you make a distinction between violence by a group (like the military), and violence conducted by an individual on a personal level?
     I think it’s a big distinction, and it’s the reason why pacifism ultimately doesn’t quite attract me.  Military violence is cold, calculated, intentional, and attempts to settle disputes with might rather than intellect.  Personal violence is often the same, but not always.  It’s not usually a good idea to develop philosophy based on unlikely scenarios, but I do in this case.  To put it simply, were a member of my family in direct, immediate danger of death or serious injury by another person, and it was only in my power to prevent it by causing death or serious injury, I would do it.  I think nature shows this to be a natural response worldwide.  In that moment, an idealist philosophy isn’t going to make me feel better about a dead wife or child, and I don’t think it’s a moral failure to commit violence in that situation.  I don’t have a better explanation than that.

Anything else you want to say?
  There are a decent number of things that cause an instant recoil when I see them.  One of the big ones over the last 12 years is the hero worship being given to the American soldier.  After 9/11, the American flag wasn’t just a country symbol, it became the symbol of might over right, of unapologetic bluster, of ignorant rhetoric instead of careful consideration.  Eventually, the country realized its mistake, and we have largely become hesitant about war once again.  But the solder worship continues.  We can talk poorly of our teachers, scientists, politicians, and police, but god help us if we criticize our instruments of war.  We are asked to believe that the young men and women of our armed forces are out there somehow preventing our freedoms from being taken away, and dying for the American utopia of freedom and justice, but I don’t see the cause and effect.  I don’t believe that if our military were smaller, and kept at home, that our liberties would disappear.  And I don’t believe that a soldier dying because of a roadside bomb has any correlation to whether America will continue to be a great nation.  These are preventable deaths, they’re tragic deaths, but if we‘re going to call them heroic deaths, I propose we need to assess what it means to be a hero, and apply the word equally to civil servants, ranging from teachers and police to scientists and authors.

Following an order to kill is not valiant, nor is being killed while doing it.  I grieve our lost soldiers, and I have known a few of them.  But if the pageantry involved in a military funeral is bestowed even on those who have done little more than volunteer and show up, let us equally honor the lives of those who served their country through non-violence, peace, and the education of society.  Let’s not treat our soldiers poorly, as we did after Vietnam, and some on the left did in the early 2000s.  But let’s also not elevate them to being better than the rest of us simply because of their bravery in the face of potential death.  We’re all people, we all live and die, and as much as possible, we all serve our country the best we can.

That said, for those who do follows their orders, and suffer physical and mental harm because of it, we must improve our medical and psychological treatment for them.  I’ll let my friend Nick speak to this in greater detail in his entry, but our VA system is struggling mightily to keep its promises.  The patriotic zeal with which we send our friends into battle seems to disappear once they need something in return.  If our tax dollars can send them to death’s door, surely those same dollars can help repair the damage once they come home.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments, either on the blog or on Facebook.  Thanks.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Skepticism, and Purging Wrong Doctrine

While atheism is a tenable position (the lack of belief in gods, NOT the faith statement that there are no gods), its conclusions leave a lot to be desired emotionally, and effectively end the spiritual journey.  This statement has been the beginning idea for my current spiritual wandering.  But in searching for a way out of this cycle of despair, I’m realizing that often times skepticism pulls me back in.  Skepticism is easy.  Anytime something looks bright, shiny, and new, skepticism is there to remind you of its faults, so that it is no longer attractive.  And with skepticism as my dark passenger, when will anything seem worth the effort that I’m trying so hard to put into it?

I’ve been attending a Quaker meeting for about a month now, and it’s been a mercurial ride.  Some days it seems absolutely meant to be, others I feel embarrassed to be there, like I’m fooling myself on purpose.  Since I generally don’t believe in counseling (skepticism again), I try to self-reflect on what makes things pleasant or unpleasant for me.  In the pleasant times, I feel like there really is a way out of atheist despair, something that is concrete enough to not be ridiculous, but open enough to allow me to wiggle around within it.  In the unpleasant times, it’s like I’m back at Baptist church, or college, where there was a lot of showmanship, but very little acknowledgement of the difficulties with the consistency of what was being preached.  There are a lot of issues I’ve been thinking about, and would like to write about when I can formulate things a little better (the issue of primary authority is a big one), but for the time being, I’m realizing that I have a lot of baggage from the faith of my youth.  Ideas that need to be purged so I can move on from them and listen to/for whatever might be out there trying to talk to me.

Hell is first.  The issue that started my departure from Christianity is still real to a lot of people I care about, including my mom.  She said to me recently that she sometimes thinks about being in heaven without some of her kids being there, and it makes her sad.  Well of COURSE it makes her sad.  It’s a terrible thought!  The God of love allowing His own creation to suffer forever over a faith decision sound like a petulant child that gets his toy taken away.  Except for the universalists (among the few that seem to be taking the Bible’s original language seriously), hell is such an essential doctrine of most Christian groups that it would be hard to define them without it.  And yet it’s such a simple issue to dispose of, in my opinion.  If we make a few assumptions (there is a God, God loves humanity, God wants to be reconciled with his creation, and God is all-powerful), eternal hell is gone.  But people don’t seem to want it that way.  They cling to a silly notion that the free will of humanity (because going to hell is MAN’S decision, not God’s) is so strong, that even God can’t override it.  God really really wants us all in heaven, but NOPE, human free will wins, so people stay in hell by choice.  While this idea makes me angry, I need to purge it.  It’s already done its damage to me, and it continues to do damage to the people that believe in it, and I need to let it go.

Second is the sin nature.  The dreary religions tend to focus a lot of time and energy on what they perceive to be the negative aspects of humanity.  Because Adam and Eve screwed up, every person for the rest of time is a despicable, vile creature, only allowed to take a breath because God is so loving, unless you don’t accept a very narrow faith structure, then it’s back to hellfire once this life is over.  I don’t think the idea of sin nature is helpful to anyone.  While protestants have largely avoided Catholic guilt by emphasizing faith salvation over works salvation, the damage is still done.  People are still being trained that they are inherently despicable.  I reject this is manipulative baloney.  I much prefer the Quaker notion of there being the light of God in everyone (even there is no God - at least this belief gives us a positive starting point).  I need to purge my anger over sin nature, and have sympathy for those that embrace it, not anger that it’s still around.

Lastly, for now, is exclusivism.  Many of the world’s religions are not exclusive.  They don’t claim that their way is the only way to heaven, or nirvana, or whatever the end result is.  But in our society, exclusivism is everywhere.  Dozens of denominations within Christianity, all claiming to be the using the Bible as their authority (yet somehow all arriving at different conclusions), believe their way is the only way.  That God is so concerned with the details that unless every line of the creed is fully embraced, it’s not quite enough to earn Christ’s forgiveness.  I can’t count the number of times I heard a youth pastor tell me that if someone really believes in X, they aren’t really a Christian because they haven’t fully accept teaching Y or Z that is clearly spelled out in the Bible.  The idea that God, if she exists, is such a stickler for theology seems absurd on its face.  Exclusivism divides people who would otherwise be a community.  It creates “us” and “them” over something as silly as an idea conflict.  I’d like to imagine that God is not so immature.  Even this week, I’ve seen adults who should know better make reference to “the world,” as if the world is something separate from themselves, and they are above it.  I need to purge exclusivism.  I need to give away its power to make me angry so that I can search for the light without old wounds being allowed to distract me.

I write these things out knowing that a lot of my friends and family believe in them.  I don’t intend to insult anyone.  I wrote in my first entry that this blog is for my benefit, and it’s still true.  I’ve spent enough time being angry about religion, and I’m doing my best to let these things go.  Sometimes that means spewing the angry out so it can’t come back in.

My goal going forward is to find ideas I can accept, not just focus on things I reject.  To this end, here’s a rare piece of positivity that I wrote to a friend on Facebook, who put out a general question about what beliefs mean to us:

“I think beliefs should be few and simple. Most things can be known, and don't require belief. But if something must be believed, it shouldn't hurt other people. If it does, a person should find a way to abandon the belief for something more loving.

For me personally, abandoning beliefs in exclusivism, hell, Bible worship, being-special-because-i-was-born-in-a-certain-place-or-with-certain-preferences..rejecting these things have allowed me to start over, which is one of the best things I ever did.”

To you, the reader, what ideas might you be needing to purge?

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Learning to Speak Another Language

Beer church (Wednesday night at 8pm, Horse Brass Pub, come on down!) has been a great learning experience for me over the last few months.  It’s a lot of fun to not only talk through my religious journey with an ever-changing variety of people, but also to listen to theirs.  In this setting, evangelism is not the goal, so a lot of the usual pressures of multi-faith discussions are taken away.  Souls aren’t for sale, and so people aren’t treated like prospective customers (try openly confessing to not wanting to be an atheist anymore - the sales pitches are plentiful!).

Something that has been striking to me recently is how language plays such an important part in our personal religious journeys.  The phrases and concepts people use are so different, but so often the same.  In my Baptist culture growing up, there was a lot of focus on the pessimistic interpretation of the Bible and of the world.  Ideas like original sin, depravity, hell, the need for salvation - lots of “I’m bad but God is good.”  Buddhist culture is quite the opposite.  When I attended a Buddhist meeting earlier this year, one of the few things spoken from the pulpit was “you are already perfect.”  Quakers, the liberal branch of which I’m beginning to align myself with, almost never speak of things like sin, hell, and depravity.  They speak of light, community, and peace.  Because they believe in ongoing revelation (a trait they share with the Mormons), they aren’t stuck worshipping a dead book, and this frees them to spend their time listening for truth instead of obsessing over every hermeneutical detail.

What I appreciate about liberal Quakers is their acceptance of different forms of language.  If words like God, Christ, Jesus, etc.. make you uncomfortable, don’t use them!  Many of my Quaker friends frequently refer to holding someone in the light, as opposed to “I’ll pray for you.”  For people like me who have a lot of baggage tied up in the “old language,” it’s freeing to be able to express positive will towards someone without having to fraudulently refer to prayer.

Another thing that has stood out to me at beer church is that no matter what name is given to our religious identity (yesterday we had 2 Thelemites, a conservative Vineyard member and his family, an agnostic, a Quaker pastor, and whatever I am), we all seem to want the same thing.  We want to make sense of ourselves, our lives, whatever “other than me” might be out there, and we want our understanding of these things to make our lives better.  I think it’s important that we recognize this commonality in each other.  My struggle is to remember that this is also true of those who still believe the things I have rejected.  No matter how narrow or mean I may find their beliefs to be, they hold their beliefs for the same reasons I’m looking for mine, and it does me no good to write them off.

To close for today, the Quaker pastor that attended beer church last night gave me some great advice for recognizing if a church community is right for you.  “Just stand up and yell FUCK! If they still accept you afterwards, you’re in the right place.”

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

On Being Willing to Believe

There are times when the desire for connection with the divine is so strong, it almost becomes a physical object.  This divine is not the same for everyone.  What I want it to be is so different from what I recognized as divine so long ago.

I’ve realized that if I can’t be certain of the spiritual things, at the very least I can discern what I want to be true, and see where that takes me.  I want there to be an eternal consciousness that involves me, both during this life and after.  I want there to be meaning to this life - to the words that are said, the actions that are done, the bonds that are created between like-minded people.  No matter when my life ends in this body, let that not be the end of me.  I want peace, but not just peace, an inner delight in the people and world around me.  I want to know, and to be known.

In my silence at West Hills Friends this past week, the sentence that kept coming back to me was, “If I want to believe, I have to be willing to believe.”  It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but being willing to believe is harder than it sounds.  It takes an active rejection of the need for logic and evidence, and an acceptance that maybe, just maybe, an experience of something divine can occur in spite of its nonsensicality. Maybe the connection I want won’t be found in words or holy books, and it certainly isn’t likely to be found in a burning bush or the physical presence of a god, which would take away the need for faith at all.

I’m embracing the idea that my search and discovery of anything divine can be my own.  It doesn’t have to fit within a denomination, it doesn’t need a label, and it doesn’t need a guide.  It doesn’t have to include the word God, or extend to the Bible or Jesus or anyone else with claims to be holy.   I’ve begun to FEEL the things I’ve been looking for, even if I don’t always know what those things are.  This struggle against faith is no longer a matter of which system has the best answers to the questions, or which proof for the existence of a god is most likely to be correct.  My most recent intuitions are that these things are valuable tools that ultimately help one to realize that they don’t matter.  The adventure is in the journey, not in the conclusion, which is likely to never come.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Spirit of the Quakers

I came to the realization recently that if there’s one group of people whose faith system I could see myself embracing someday (and perhaps have already begun to), it’s the liberal end of the Quaker tradition.  I’ve gotten closer to a number of these folks recently, and there are a few common themes among them that are attractive, and more than that, they don’t have any of the “deal-breaker doctrines.”  Most of them don’t believe in a literal, eternal hell.  None of them think gay people, or gay relationships are an abomination, and most importantly, they’re all accepting of a recovering atheist asking a lot of questions during a meeting.

I’ve agreed with the social focuses of the Quakers for a long time.  As a 95% pacifist, their belief in peace works for me.  Their wide array of beliefs about almost every doctrinal topic also works for me.  They don’t have creeds, so there’s no list of things a person must adhere to, or else be kicked out.  A few of them are barely even theists, and yet the Quaker tradition holds incredible meaning to them, and fills whatever semblance of spiritual need they can identify.  The stirrings in me recently have been a lot like the last sentence.  A friend loaned me a book called The Spirit of the Quakers last weekend, and it includes a brief history of the church, along with a lot of quotes and journal entries from dozens of people.  A few of these quotes stopped me cold - I’d not read anyone say the things that are in my head so clearly.  A recovering atheist doesn’t meet many people in the same situation, and the sense I get from many in the current and past Quaker church is that the Quaker tradition, with its silence and sometimes vague notions about God, can be the last hope for those that yearn for belief, but simply can’t find it via their intellect.  I’d like to share 3 of the quotes that I’m in love with this week.  I’ll be attending a Quaker home meeting on Sunday nights for awhile, and it’s quotes like these that let me know I’m in the right place at the right time:

“You say, ‘But with the best will in the world, I can’t get to the point of believing in God.’  Well then, if you want to believe in him, if you feel something great behind it all and not just words, well, work for God, and you will see not only that it comes to the same thing as believing in him, but something infinitely more alive, more real, more powerful which fills you and satisfies you more than anything you might vaguely imagine under the name of ‘real and living faith’- a reality, a life and not words.

Pierre Ceresole, published 1954

“I begin to recognize that ultimately it is not for any intellectual reason that I believe in God, nor even possibly as a result of my emotional state, but simply from the growing sense that when I call he answers.
I don’t find it easy to write this, but I also need to overcome the sense that you will find what I say fairly ridiculous.  However, it seems worth the risk, because the alternative is rather bleak - that there is, after all, no converse with God, because we do not begin the conversations.  All I want to say is that once the conversation begins, once does not want it ever to stop.”

Tony Brown, 1984

“It began to dawn on me that I had at last found what I had been looking for all these years.  But not in the way I had expected to. I had expected, or at least hoped, to find an idea, an interpretation of Quaker faith that I could then put into practice. But it came the other way around. I found a practice, and out of this arose the faith. Not that I produced the faith myself, for the practice was and is a matter of opening myself to what is already there, receiving what is offered, responding to what is revealed to me. The faith was produced in me by something much deeper in me than my conscious ego, but something that made itself by twinges of conscience that told me that all was not well with me.  As I responded to these and allowed myself to be shown what was really going on in my life, I became aware of the self-deceptions that made me think that “I”, this conscious ego, was the centre of my being and my world - and aware of the truth, that my life was rooted in a reality way beyond my ken, but a reality that I could nevertheless trust. I had to use the word “God” to signal this other-than-me which gave me my being, though I was aware intellectually of the impossibility of using the word in a logically consistent way. Paradoxical though it may be, I had to say that God was the source of my new-found freedom and joy.”

Rex Ambler, 2002

The Spirit of the Quakers by Geoffrey Durham can be read for free on Google books.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

When she screams

You are my reflection , and
Today, I’m embarrassed by my appearance
Your rage is so easily projected
While I can’t seem to let mine come out
Neither way is healthy, but health is for the lucky.

You are my success scale
And so often I’m failing
Losing a game with no score
Made worse because I know the rules
While you just want more of my attention

To reason with a child is
To sweep the floor with a pressure washer
I’m answering questions you’re not asking
And missing the easy answers you need

On these days, it’s easy to feel like
I love you more when you’re sleeping.
But these are feelings, and feelings are illusions.

May these days be fewer, and our language become the same
May we both be happy with what we see in the mirror
And may you never know your parents’ guilt
Until the day you feel it yourself, and I can finally apologize.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Does Truth Matter?

Last night I attend a presentation/book selling event featuring a Multnomah Seminary Professor and a local Buddhist monk.  They have presented together on many occasions, attempting to bring people together in peace to discuss issues that matter to both of them.  There wasn’t much deep substance spoken (it was only 45 minutes, after all), but one of the questions from an audience member really hit home for me, and I think it’s an important question to ponder.  She asked, paraphrasing:

“I can understand mathematical truth, and I can understand scientific truth, but when you use the word “truth” to describe Jesus and faith and spiritual things, what does “truth” mean in this context?”

Talk about a million dollar question.  The presenters vaguely stumbled around the question, but didn’t really answer it.  It’s not their fault.  It’s a huge question.  But as I think about faith issues, I find myself torn between two different desires.  I desire to follow evidence where it leads, and be ok with whatever conclusion the evidence leads to.  But I also desire to find comfort in life, and in the spiritual conclusions that I reach.  Most of the time, I don’t think both of these things are possible.  As the Buddhist monk pointed out in the presentation, for fundamentalist Christians, there is a huge, unmovable piece of the discussion that simply is beyond question (the book of John, essentially).   In my opinion, this unmovable object prevents the fundamentalist from following the evidence where it leads, because if it leads away from this object, either the evidence must be wrong, or some kind of faith-speak must be used to whisk it away like evidence doesn’t matter.  (well…if we could really know all the answers, we wouldn’t need faith, and we obviously need faith, therefore it must not matter much if we can prove things).

But on the comfort side, faith, even if it’s unbelievable, provides really pleasing answers.  Faith tells me what I want to hear, and asks me to quit worrying about whether or not it all makes sense, because I can live my day-to-day life without worrying that my brain might turn off one day and never come back.  Heaven, eternity, these sorts of things.

So what is a person to do?  Some have chosen to pursue the evidence, in all its gritty little details, exposing exegetical truths that don’t matter to most people.  For these people, every single truth matters, and either supports the person’s faith, or supports their reasons for rejecting it.  Others decide the truth of the matter isn’t as important as the ability to let go of the need to solve the puzzle.  For them, the embrace of forgiveness and eternity is reward enough, and it includes the promise of even more after death.

So does it matter what’s true?  And if it matters, should unmovable objects be allowed to exist?  And if the truth doesn’t matter, would it be so hard just to say so?

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Falling Down/Starting Over

I lost my job last week.  It was unexpected, but there were two weeks between when I knew it was likely to happen, and when it finally happened.  During those 2 weeks, I barely slept, barely ate, and lost 14 pounds.  Terror is my new least favorite emotion.

It’s amazing where the mind goes when things are falling apart.  As I laid in bed, wishing I could sleep but knowing I couldn’t, something interesting happened: I prayed.

In my younger years, when something outside my control was weighing me down, I would pray for help.  It was all I could do.  This felt much the same way.  I may not have believed anyone was listening, but I NEEDED someone to be listening, and it felt good to ask.

When I was going through pre-marriage counseling, Mark McLeod, who officiated our wedding, helped me get over one of my worst childhood memories by painting a mental picture.  He asked me to close my eyes and imagine the situation as it happened when I was 12.  He then asked me to imagine Jesus lifting a curtain and shining a giant light into the room, taking it all out of the darkness.  This imagine helped me take the sting and misery out of the situation, and move on from it.

In these last few weeks, I’ve tried to imagine my life as a trail in the woods, with the hand of God pushing back branches so I could see the light at the end.  This image brought me peace.

I don’t know what this all means.  I don’t have the energy to re-assess my stance on God and faith right now.  But I think it’s important to acknowledge that when the shit really hit the fan, I turned to the comfort I used to know, and it made a difference.

In the short term, we’re moving back to Portland.  We’re down a car, and soon to be without health insurance.  Once in Portland, Sarah, Taylor and the baby we’re expecting in January should be able to get on the Oregon Health Plan.  Sarah has a good job, but she’s self-employed, so there aren’t any benefits.  I’m not sure what I’m going to do.  I’ve interviewed with another company in the same industry, but I’ve never really had a dream job that I wanted to chase, so I’m hoping to find inspiration.  Somehow this experience has greatly strengthened my marriage.  We’ve talked about the idea of me staying at home with the baby and taking Taylor to and from kindergarten, which starts in 2 weeks.  Part of me likes the idea, part of me is afraid I’ll hate it, and feel like a failure all the time.  I never expected to have to make these decisions.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Why I Am Not an Agnostic

Why I Am Not an Agnostic

Since I started using the term atheist for myself, there have been a few incorrect responses that have come back to me (and to be honest, most people aren't brave enough to discuss the issue with me, so kudos to those that are!).  Here are a few of them:

"Atheism is the same as religion, it's just faith that there is no God instead of faith that there is."
"Atheists are all so pissed off all the time"
"You're not really an atheist  - I think you're an agnostic"

The last one has been said to me twice, despite my repeatedly assurance that I'm pretty sure I know what I am more than someone else does.  In any event, the first and third statements both relate to definitions, and the misunderstandings people have about them.  (I'm saving #2 for another time)

To start with, let's define agnosticism.  Agnosticism is the philosophical position that the question of the existence of God(s) cannot be known.  This is NOT the same thing as saying "I don't know," or "I doubt it but I can't say for sure," or " I'm on the fence."  To be a true agnostic requires a whole lot more philosophical insight than most people have, and those that have it tend to not be agnostics.  Why?  My theory is that it's silly to give up on a question just because the answer hasn't been found yet, and philosophers aren't quitters.  How many philosophical or scientific answers have been found long after religion and society decided to attribute the answer to the supernatural?  It wasn't too long ago that famine was considered God's punishment, but then science came along and not only gave an explanation for it, but in a lot of cases, taught us how to solve it entirely.

So why quit on the existence of God?  If you've got a reason, I'd like to hear it.

An atheist, on the other hand, is not someone who "believes" there is no God.  An atheist simply lacks the beliefs in any gods.  There are prominent atheists, Penn Gillette being one, who will proudly state that they DO believe there is no God, but even he makes the distinction between actual atheism, and something that goes further than atheism.  But if the word atheist is being used, it should not be assumed that the people has made a faith statement that is equally unprovable as saying God exists.  I view it like this:

Belief in God | Lack of Belief in God | Belief in no God

The first is theism (or deism if you prefer your faith a little bit less attached), the second is atheism, the third is something else that probably has a name, but I don't know what it is.  For me, the visual is even simpler:

Belief in God   |          

I'm to the right of the line.  Nothing more, nothing less.  I don't believe there is NOT a God because I can't prove that point any more than I can prove that there is.  Being to the right of the line also does not necessarily make me anti-God or anti-Christian (I should point out that with one exception, most of you are just as atheistic as I am.  You just happen to believe in one more god than I do).  The search for meaning and value in life leads a lot of people to faith, but that doesn't mean that everyone who chooses not to take that step thinks faith is stupid and meaningless.

Quite the contrary.  As I hope I've made clear on this blog in the past, I think religion has tremendous meaning, and is undeniably understandable.  Truth value aside, faith provides answers to the most important questions, and to hold onto those answers, even in the absence of valid reasons to do so (or proof if you like that word better - there's not much difference in my opinion), makes a lot of sense.  Why would someone WANT to live their life in uncertainty?  I sure don't.  But I've discovered that faith is not something a person can choose to have, and it's usually not something a person can choose to let go of.  It's there or it isn't, and while knowledge and personal relationships influence a person's faith status a great deal, in the end I think it's largely outside a person's control.

In closing, if there's one thing I'd love to see in the theism vs. atheism discussion, it's the correct use of words, in their correct context.  If someone says they're agnostic (and this is a broad generalization), they're probably not educated enough in philosophy to know what they're saying, and are more than likely an atheist who doesn't have the courage to admit they're not a believer.  I'd go so far as to say that by definition, an agnostic IS an atheist.  After all, if you don't think the question has an answer, you're certainly not a believer, which by default makes you an atheist.

So let's say what me we mean and mean what we say.  If you're an atheist, don't be afraid to say so.  As I've learned, there are a whole lot of religious people that will still want to be friends with you, can have faith conversations with you without taking your atheism personally, and will support your journey even if your conclusion isn't the same as theirs.  And if you're a believer, find out what your atheist friend means when they say they're an atheist.  It probably isn't as mean and nasty as you imagine.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Friends in Lonely Places

I’m coming to realize that one of the most untrue things I was taught as a child is that people are fundamentally bad.

My work sometimes takes me away for weeks at a time, and during those times, I have a lot of choices.  Choices about what I eat, what I do with my evenings, etc..  For each of the last 2 summers I’ve been sent to one of the plains states to handle hail claims for 21 days in a row, usually about 12 hours per day.  At night, if I choose to let it be, life can be awfully lonely.  Last year I spent the evenings of my first week in Rapid City by myself in the hotel, mindlessly watching crap on cable and trying to cling to my normal life via Facebook.  In the second week, I happened to meet a roofer who was in town chasing storms.  We got along pretty well, and started to hang out in the evenings, mostly on the weekends.  We talked about UFC, our families, sports, politics, a little of everything.  He called me Obama’s boy, and I accused him of exploiting cheap Mexican labor.  It was fun.  But above all, it was a connection - another person to share that brief section of life with, and keep life from being lonely.  Through not much effort, I had made a friend, and we keep in touch still today.

This year was no different.  Right off the bat here in Colorado, I met a roofer who lives in town with his wife and 3 kids, one of whom is adopted from China.  As 2 of my siblings are also adopted, we had something in common right away.  Glen has a PhD in audiology, and after selling his private practice, decided to become a roofer.  It got him outside, he got to meet lots of people, and he didn’t have to hassle with health insurance cuts and Medicare issues.  Over the course of the 3 weeks I’ve been here, I’ve probably had dinner with Glen and his family 5 times, and got together on jobs many more.  I introduced his teenagers to the UFC, and told him about my wife, who studied audiology in college.  I’m sincerely sad to be leaving him tomorrow.  Were we living in the same town, I’m sure our families would be great friends.

These experiences have made me view life a little bit differently.  It seems that no matter where I am, I can always find someone to share the human experience with, and it makes my life better.  People are the same in so, so many ways, and if we’re willing, they can enrich our days simply be being there to share the time, and the occasional beer.

I’m not very good at self-awareness, but I’m learning that as much as I’ve always believed myself to be an introvert, I’m really not.  I’ve gotten good at making friends, and I’m proud of myself for it.  This past year I’ve made at least a half-dozen solid friendships through OneGeorgeFox, a few more through work, not to mention my annual catastrophe companions.

Over the last few weeks, it’s become clear that in a few years, my best friend since I was in diapers is going to move away.  I’m not very happy about it.  I can’t blame him - after all, I moved away in 2006, not necessarily intending to move back.  But it still sucks.  He’s always been there, and you can‘t replace 30 years of history.  My hope is that my new awareness for great people lurking around most corners will help fill that void, and that transition won’t be as awful as it sounds.  But it certainly makes me appreciate people - not on an individual level, but as a collective.  People, on the whole, are amazing.  And given a little bit of effort, and a little bit of patience, we can all find a few people to make this life better, simply by showing up and letting them be a part of our experience.

When I talk to Taylor on the phone, she tells me that I’m the best daddy in the world, and she “misses my lips.”  I miss hers too, and hopefully after I get home tomorrow, I’ll get to see most of yours as well.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Cassie from Columbine

I spent  part of today at the Columbine memorial in Littleton, Colorado.  Littleton is great little town with above average incomes, beautiful parks, and roads with shoulders big enough to park 2 cars wide.  You’d never expect something so tragic to come have from here.

The school itself seemed harmless enough.  Giant parking lots all around it, a massive park next to it, where today a national softball tournament was being held.  The screams of teenage girls and metal bats were a strange contrast to the memorial.  But it’s good to know that life goes on for almost everyone.

The memorial has plaques with quotes from parents, students, and a president, most of which just make you think to yourself, “Dammit.  Just.. Dammit.”  There aren’t words for these kinds of events.  There’s no good place to aim our blame.  Certainly no parent could have performed so poorly as to prompt this behavior.  Music, movies, bullying..plenty of people are involved in all these things, and almost none of them turn violent.  Perhaps that’s why sitting there at that memorial hurts so much.  There’s nothing I can DO to change anything.

My daughter Taylor is in love with a band called Flyleaf.  One of their songs is called “Cassie,” which is about one of two students who was killed at Columbine after being asked if they believe in God.  Those 2 plaques especially made me hurt.  I don’t know quite why.  I thought about what it means to be a martyr, in a sense.  Would those girls have been spared if they had lied?  Is the world a better place because their amazing stories are around to tell?  Nobody really knows.  I kind of doubt anyone has changed their religion because of what they did.  But somehow it feels like it matters - the act of dying after professing faith in God.  Their parents probably don’t feel that way, but if given the chance, I doubt they would have answered any differently.

I don’t have any good conclusions about life or faith.  I just felt a lot of things today, and I’m glad I felt them.  I find that most of life is spent with a non-descript feeling, partly sorrow, partly doubt, sometimes a little bit of hope.  Faith might be in there somewhere.  It’s hard to tell.  But for today, I’m pondering those students, that teacher, those killers, and the words my daughter loves so much:

All heads are bowed in silence
To remember her last sentence
She answered him knowing what would happen
Her last words still hanging in the air
In the air

Do you believe in God
Written on the bullet
Say yes to pull the trigger
Do you believe in God
Written on the bullet
And Cassie/Rachel pulled the trigger
Or, if you prefer your sorrow a little bit louder:

Thursday, June 21, 2012

An Honorable Death

When I’m bored, I watch documentaries.  I’ve watched documentaries I shouldn’t admit to watching (doc about the world air guitar championships, anyone?).  Last week I watched a doc in which a filmmaker set up a camera pointing at the pedestrian walkway on the golden state bridge (It‘s called The Bridge, and it‘s streaming on Netflix if you want to watch it).  He had it set up for 2 years for the purpose of filming, and then investigating suicide jumpers.  All in all, I believe he captured 8 people jumping from the bridge, 7 of which died.  He was too far away to be able to stop them, but once they jumped, he’d find out who they were, then interview their families, trying to dissect suicide to see what we can learn about it.  Suicide is a fascinating issue.  I deal with it at work on occasion, and have experienced it within my family.

Tonight I had dinner in Boulder with my Uncle Kirk, who is awesome.  He has a PhD in geology, and his house powers itself.  Cool, right?  At dinner, were got to talking about death, geriatrics, health care, that kind of thing, and it brought up something I think is worth discussing.  To put it bluntly, the question goes something like this:

Wouldn’t it be preferable for the very elderly or the very sick to give the people in their lives a break, and take their own life?  Or conversely, is all the money and effort we put into extending the human life really worth it?

If you spend much time reading history books, or watching nature shows, you’ll notice a pattern.  The tribe does not allow an individual to allow the group to perish.  If wolves are chasing a herd of buffalo, and they don’t catch one quickly, one of the strong buffalo will gore the weakest one right in the ass, causing it to fall on its face, and allowing the wolves to kill it while the herd escapes.  In nomadic tribes, the elderly knew when they were doing more harm than good, and would wander off into the woods to die so that the tribe could keep moving.

In today’s society, we’re obviously not nomads, and technology has come a long way.  But are we so different?  Sure, when grandpa breaks his hip, it doesn’t mean it’s time to get him a blanket until he dies like it used to.  But have we gone too far?  Have we become a culture that worships human life, even if that life drags down the lives of everyone else?

My uncle told me that almost every friend he has is either dealing with the recent death of a parent, or is suffering because of the extension of a parents’ life.  Whether it be the parent has dementia, and requires costly hospitalization, or the parent has alzheimers and the child selflessly offered to let the parent live with the child - in either case, the child’s quality of life is being dramatically lessened, and for what gain?  Is this what we want for our children?  Do I want Taylor to spend her retirement money paying for someone to change my bed pan, or to pay for a half dozen rounds of chemo so she can watch me be in pain for a few extra months?  Do I want her to live the rest of her own life remembering how terrible the end of my life was?  I’d like to think I’d put her interests ahead of mine, but I don’t know what that means.

I’m not sure if I think the sick and elderly should commit suicide to ease the pain of their families, but I don’t think it’s all that crazy an idea.  Historically, people knew when it was their time, and took it upon themselves to do the right thing.  But with modern technology, combined with the ridiculous cost of health care, at what point is suicide the morally right thing to do, if only to stop dragging down the rest of one’s family?

Sunday, June 10, 2012


Tonight I attended the evening service at Metropolitan Community Church of Portland in support of my new friend AJ Mendoza.  AJ is entering his senior year at George Fox, and is the president of a student group on campus called Common Ground.  Common Ground is an LGBTQ and straight ally club, formed to support LGBTQ students on campus, and raise of the awareness of LGBTQ issues.  He gave his testimony about realizing he was gay as a teen, and how he dealt with those feelings as a member of a Pentecostal church.  After coming out in high school, he went back into the closet when he started at George Fox, and found the closet much smaller and more painful the second time around.  When OneGeorgeFox started to form, AJ developed Common Ground parallel to, but separate from, 1GFU, and come out of the closet once again, this time in a much more condemning environment.  You can check out Common Ground here:

But AJ’s testimony wasn’t what had me getting emotional.  MCC is what most people would call a “gay church.”  The large majority of its members are gay and lesbian people, most of whom appeared to be attending with their partners.  I know a few of them, but most of them were strangers.  Unlike bigger churches where it’s easy to blend in and hide, when you show up by yourself to a gay church, people notice.  And people hug.  A lot.  It was awesome.

When they took communion towards the end of the service,  the couple in front of  me spent most of it in each other’s arms, faces buried in shoulders.  It wasn’t hard to see what church meant to them.  I tried to put myself in their shoes - a Christian, inter-racial gay couple.  Separately, each of those identifiers mean something different.  The identifiers of being Christian and gay usually mean the two are not the same person.  I thought of how in everyday life, a Christian person may have a hard time gaining acceptance from gay culture.  And a gay person will likely have a hard time finding acceptance among Christians.  How hard it must be then, for someone who is both.  Not being fully accepted by the gay culture because they cling to the faith that has caused so much damage to the gay community.  And not being accepted by the Christian community because they were born a certain way.

But here they were, in a place where all of the things that make them different are accepted and embraced.  It was as if when they’re at church, they don’t have to look over their shoulder to see who might be judging.  When they’re at church, they can enjoy songs and sermons about the God they love, and they can do it next to the same-sex person they love, and nobody thinks it’s strange.  Church seemed to be their refuge, and I found that powerful.

It’s moment like these that fuel my fire to figure this faith thing out.  I might not be able to enter into faith intellectually, and if we got deep into theology, I’d probably disagree with them on most everything, but the fact that there ARE gay Christians inspires me.  Who else has a better reason to reject the Christian faith than gay American Christians?  Who has been treated worse?  But they’re around, and they’ve found a way to hold onto their faith despite the beating they’ve taken from their spiritual brethren.  More than any theology, to me, that speaks to the power of their faith, and the impact it can have on someone.  And isn’t that what we want?  Not to arrive at a perfectly logical set of faith statements, but to find the place where we can finally let go.  Let go of our fear of dying, our anger towards those who have wronged us, our desire to be fully known and fully loved.  Isn’t that really the point?  Those amazing people have found their place, and they give me reason to think someday I might too.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Beer Church

Tonight I attended the greatest church on Earth:  Beer Church

Legend has it that beer church started 5 years ago when a guy named Wally invited some friends to the Horse Brass Pub to talk about stuff.  The next week they went again, and each invited friends, and so on and so forth.  For the last five years, a mixture of people have shown up to the Horse Brass each Wednesday night at 8 to talk about religion.  There’s no creed, no denomination requirement, no judgment, and except for my diet coke chaser, no non-alcoholic beverages.

As is my way, I was the first to arrive.  I found Wally, introduced myself, and for about 20 minutes, I had him all to myself.  Not knowing anything about each other, he asked me what my current status is.  Now, when most people ask this question, they’re asking if you’re single or not.  Wally wanted to know my religious status.  Fair enough.  I explained that currently, I’m a discontent atheist.  I went through my story of working backwards from fervent Christianity, ditching hell, then finding no need for a savior if there’s nothing to be saved from, then no good reason to continue believing in God at all, to accepting the term atheist.

After my testimony, I asked Wally what his situation is.  He’s a “recovering fundamentalist.”  He is still very much Christian, and claims to hold a “conservative” interpretation of the Bible.  He talked about his wife of 30 years, and how he misses her right now because she’s on a 5000 mile bike trip, riding 100 miles per day.  We talked for awhile about hell, and his view of it.  Wally believes in hell, but not necessarily in the way most people do.  Wally said there’s no scripture that says the decision to accept Christ or not has to come during this life, so it’s entirely possible that people can make that decision after we’re dead and in the presence of God.  Even then, he says, people will reject God, and will have chosen hell, which is nothing more than separation from God.  He believes those souls will be annihilated, and he thinks he can back it up with scripture.   Interesting!

Others arrived, and we talked about such broad topics as capitalism, utilitarianism, public schools, the role of faith in voting.  It was great.  I don’t have a lot of wisdom to impart on anyone following beer church, but I definitely that feel that this kind of gathering can do nothing but good for people.  To be able to put down our sensitivities, our need to be right, and just listen to other people, and accept them as human beings, no matter what their opinions - that is great.  I told a Christian that I’m an atheist while having no idea he was a Christian, and he didn’t argue with me at all.  We left as friends, and I’m certain I’ll be back again soon.  This was the perfect church for me.  A diverse group of people who aren’t interested in anything more than a good conversation, and some beer.  Amen!

Sunday, May 13, 2012

In Defense of Moms

As with most holidays as specific as Mother’s Day, the interwebs are full of praises for moms - our own, other peoples’, surrogate moms, it’s a nice thing.  My mom doesn’t have Facebook, so I can say what I want.  What I want to say is - let’s stop making life more difficult for moms.  They don’t need anyone’s help wondering if they’re doing a good enough job.

Since I starting blogging, I’ve made it a point to read other peoples’ blogs (after all, it feels pretty shitty to pour your heart out and not have anybody read it).  What I’ve found is that a LOT of women are writing about motherhood.  And more than that, they seem to crave the support of other moms.  Maybe I’m not very observant, but there’s not a lot of ink on paper regarding fatherhood, or the need of dads to be supported by other dads.  One reason could be that men aren’t as inclined to express their emotions, but I don’t think that’s the reason.  I think it’s because for dads, the bar is set very, very low.  If we pay our kids any attention at all, we’re doing just fine.

A lot of this I blame on traditional religion.  Even the modern, liberal Christian still holds to the structure of the man as the spiritual leader, who is to “be Christ” to his wife.  I haven’t quite wrapped my head around that one.  In this relationship, the man is supposed to represent the savior of the entire universe, while the woman represents the person that needs to be saved.  How can a woman possibly be an equal in that situation?  Some might not see it this way.  They’ll say that yes, the Bible says the man is to lead his wife, but it’s not one-sided!  The man is supposed to cherish his wife!  Isn’t that great!  Doesn’t seem that great to me.  No re-arranging of the hierarchy makes them equals.

Fortunately, not at all women are willing to be reduced in this matter.  I’ve enjoyed reading what the women at  have to say.  These are Christian women fighting to maintain their equality in the face of traditions seeking to deny it to them.  I applaud their efforts, and hope they will inspire other women to take their power back.

This week we were confronted with Time magazine’s ridiculous cover regarding attachment parenting.  Even the local sports station was talking about.  We were essentially forced to take a stand on something that is absolutely none of anyone’s business.  Is parenting so easy that we’re allowed to hold up and knock down one parenting style over another?  Are parents so invested in their kids these days that most parents even have a considered parenting style?

My own mom was certainly not a feminist.  She, like many Christian moms, accepted her role as the spiritually subservient half.  It wasn’t until she finally divorced my dad that she seemed to take her power back.  It was a good change for her.  But it shouldn’t take divorce for a mom to find her power, take back her equality, and stand up for herself.  I’m optimistic that an evolving society will take down the obstacles to moms feeling good about themselves, and their success as parents.  There are certainly some great leaders out there.  Specifically, I’ve been made aware of the “mommy wars” by Beth at , and learned that I should probably be more angry than I am about these issues by Sophia at .

Moms are under a lot of pressure.  Even without the religious or societal expectations put upon them, taking pride in their parenting is hard work.  I, for one, will be working on taking those pressures away.  The pressures that come through subtle comments that differentiate the roles of mom and dad, the jokes I tell, the way I raise my daughter.  It’s my hope that someday, if she becomes a mom, the efforts we make today will make her job easier.  I think the reason we’re so anxious to thank our moms on Mother’s Day is that deep down, we know exactly how hard we’ve made it to be a good mom, and take pride in the journey of motherhood.

Friday, May 11, 2012


These are the nights that faith would be nice.  The nights when something seems wrong, even if nothing is.  When reminders abound of friendships lost.  When the beautiful weather is drowned out by a screaming child or a barking dog.  I’m not prone to loneliness.  But tonight I am.

In writing these things about faith and religion, I’ve allowed myself to think and feel whatever seemed right.  On the thinking side, I’m not sure that I’ve gained any wisdom or appreciation for religion.  The process seems to be the same, no matter which one a person chooses.  There are uncomfortable questions, and there are answers to those questions.  People pick the one that suits them, and for the most part, they feel better.  The mind calms the emotions.  On the feeling side, I feel like I understand religion’s appeal, and have lost any idea that religion is irrational.  It most certainly is not.  Religion allows people to let go of the worse kinds of doubts.  Why am I here?  Where does my mind go when I die?  Am I relevant to a Creator?  For the person that feels the answers to those questions, faith is immeasurably valuable.

I can’t find them.  The answers.  The feelings.  I can’t trick myself into believing or feeling something that my mind doesn’t think is true.  I’ll probably write on this another time, but I’m starting to think that faith is outside a person’s control.  Think about it - what would have to happen for you to stop believing in God, or Jesus, or love, or whatever you hold hear?  And even if those things happened, do you think your faith would just disappear?  Or would you find a way to make sense of what happened within the context of your faith?  Disbelief is the same way.  I have no idea what it would take for me to believe in God.  Even greater, believing in a personal God.  And multitudes greater than that, believing in the Judaic vision of God (the Christian God, Jesus, Allah, etc..).  These are the religions of the world that claim there is one, personal God, and that God loves me more than I can imagine.  Wouldn’t that be amazing!

But that’s not what I feel, and it’s not what I know.  And I can’t decide if I should be jealous of the faithful, or suck it up and accept what I think is the truth.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

It's great not to be alone: a guest post

I'm in a rut.  I'm running on fumes for blog ideas, and burned through most of the books I wanted to read.  I asked a few people for book suggestions.  One of the responses I received was so damn encouraging, I think it's worth its own post.  It comes from Stan, who was a friend of my brother growing up at Hinson Church in Portland, and somehow managed to know more about philosophy than I do (and that was my major!  Jerk!).    My response to this is a resounding "ditto"!

From Stan:
I'm reading "Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics" right now, and it's pretty good. It talks about the last century of American Christianity and how far things have fallen.

I don't think I have any book recommendations for you based on where you're at.

For the record, I think it's perfectly valid to question the utilitarian merit of a principle. Basically, atheism is one of the many kinds of "skepticism to degree X in category Y." If likelihood multiplied by utility overcomes X, then subscription is justified. Otherwise, it's not.

Pascal's Wager tries to "cheat" by making utility "infinity," but we're probably agreed that the Wager blows.

In fact, nearly all so-called "God proofs" are terrible, and I'm of the opinion that Plantinga is a ninny. I also think, after 15 years taking this stuff relatively seriously, that I have pretty powerful Biblical reasons to say that homosexuality can be fine, evolution is perfectly cool, and God's not going to endlessly torture anyone. The conservative Christians on Reddit hate me.

And throughout that time, I've also been an off-and-on atheist. I've spent months on end being an atheist. My buddy calls me a "faitheist," because I'm functionally atheist in most ways, except that I find myself "backsliding" into belief and even conviction.

I said before that the "God proofs" are rolleyes. I believe that the only reasonable (in the Kantian sense; obsrevation + logical self-criticism) way by which a man can come to religious faith is by religious experience. And I don't mean euphoria; I mean setting expectations, implicit or explicit, and having things occur in your life that cannot have any reasonable explanation but God's intrusion.

I have gone through droughts. I've spent extended periods of time pretty convinced that God wasn't there. But he always seems to have a way of pulling me right back, if I take the liberty to speak of him as if I'm not delusional.

Even after I've nearly come in for a landing on permanent atheism. Even after due considerations made toward placebo, confirmation bias, Littlewood's Law, etc. A thing will happen (this one was last month) that will make me say, "Oh no way. I can't believe it. It's clearly happening again." And then I'll get punched several times in succession by amazing convergences of events exactly how I needed to experience them, I'll be blown away by the apparent teleology of it all and the pin-point accuracy of its supposed intent, and I'll be right back to where I started.

I'll never be full Christian. I'll always be a schizophrenic faitheist. If that sounds like a fun route for you, just be open to yourself with your own struggles and failings and heart-desires, and maybe you'll find yourself, despite due and prudent self-criticism, undergoing religious experience as well, and it will be either a rekindling of a relationship or a convincing delusion, for better or for worse.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Interview with 2 Buddhists

My friend Bret put me in touch with his classmate Yoriko, who is a practicing Nichiren Buddhist.  Last night I spent a few hours with Yoriko and her friend Shara, discussing their Buddhist faith.

The little that I know about Buddhism is from reading the book No Death, No Fear, by Thich Nhat Hanh.  My summary of that book experience is here:

Yoriko grew up in Japan, where Buddhism is very common.  Shara grew up in a Baptist church in Yakima, and moved to the Portland area in her teens.  Both practice Nichren Buddhism at the Oregon Buddhist Center.  Nichiren Buddhism focus on the lotus sutra, and the chanting of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo.  The lotus sutra is the idea that all people have the ability to obtain Buddhahood.  This is the ultimate enlightenment.  They chant daily, for a period of 5-20 minutes.  They find that the verbal chant is more fulfilling than silent meditation, as the mind tends to wander.

While the Buddhism expressed by Thich Nhat Hanh focuses more on a pantheistic view of the world, these 2 women focus more on the re-birth of a person in another life.  They are still themselves, though they may not have memory of their prior life.  It is believed that people that are close are reincarnated together.  The belief in reincarnation stems from many stories, both current and ancient, of children claiming to recognize each other from a prior life, and are able to explain these past lives in great detail. One child remember her mother from a past life, except the child was the mother, and the mother the child. Additionally, there have been hypnotists who have extracted amazing stories from the hypnotized related to experiences in past lives, sometimes thousands of year ago.  They can’t articulate how a person could die, and yet be re-born in a different body, but they believe it to be the case.  Since Buddhism is a non-theistic religion, they are comfortable not having the answer to this issue.  Unlike western religions, it isn’t necessary to try to prove one’s faith.

Most of the issues that divide people in our culture are not relevant to the Buddhist.  The goal is to improve one’s OWN happiness, not to focus on a future life, or attempt to persuade others.  There is no carrot on a stick.  They practice to improve their quality of life, and that of their family.  They believe that the commitment to chanting brings a focus to their lives, and their life is better for it.  I was struck by how little they seemed to know of other religions, or even other sects of Buddhism.  It wasn’t an ignorance of the mind, it was that they simply had no need for anything else.  Their practice fulfills their needs, so comparisons aren’t necessary.

The idea of nirvana seemed to be of minor importance to these two.  While much of the reading I’ve done has placed lots of important on the shedding of desires so that nirvana can be reached, Yoriko said she thought nirvana was one of the minor sutras, and not terribly worthy of focus.  Shara said that desires give her a goal, and she wouldn’t want to “not want” anything.  To use her words “Just today I was at Costco drooling over their Tvs.  I like my toys.”

One thing I’d not heard before is the idea that the quality of one’s Buddhahood can be seen after someone dies.  Those who don’t practice, for example, tend to have very pale, anguished faces after death.  Practicing Buddhists on the other hand tend to be rosy-cheeked and serene, as if they could just sit up and get out of the coffin.  The human experience has that much greater an effect on the body that even in death, Buddhism is an improvement.

As to the primary questions that religions seem to be trying to answer, Nichiren Buddhism seems to answer the questions a little more clearly than other sects.  The afterlife question is answered via reincarnation (I am still me, even if I’m not in the same body).  Our lives are to be lived according to the wise teachings of the Buddha, though he is not a god, and not to be worshipped.  Following these teachings will lead to enlightenment, the greatest of which is Buddhahood.  Everyone is capable of achieving Buddhahood.  Issues of the Earth’s origin, why the world was created at all, more scientific or epistemological questions, don’t seem to come up at all.  I’m not sure if this is because there aren’t any good answers, or because with this practice, one doesn’t find themselves asking those kinds of questions.  One thing I can tell for sure is that the physical practice of Buddhism seems to be required for one to fully “get it.”  Both these women had conviction in their beliefs, but didn’t seem to care to convince anyone else to try it.  They’re too busy getting happier, day by day.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Is Atheism Worthless?

Modern philosophy taught us that there are ultimate truths, which are knowable, and can be used to understand the world, including religious and political ideas.  Post-modernism taught us that this is nonsense, that there are only ideas and words, which are separate and detached from the physical world, and can’t be used to make truth claims.

Religion tends to be more modern.  There is a lot of focus on what is “true,” and when the word true is used, it’s in a factual sense.  The creation of the Earth by God is true, the resurrection of Jesus is true, etc…  One can’t be faulted for being confused by truth claims in the context of a faith-based religion.  After all, if something can be known as true, of what use is faith?  But regardless, religions work very hard to show that their beliefs are true.

For now, I’m focused on pragmatics.  Hypothetically, let’s posit that the arguments for the existence of God are equally as good as the arguments against the existence of God.  Antony Flew and Alvin Plantinga argued with each other at great length over who has the burden of proof, the theist or the atheist.  I tend to side with Flew (the atheist, at the time), but nevertheless, let’s say the arguments are equally good, and so by default, a person refuses to take a step of faith because there isn’t sufficient reason to do so (this has been my position for many years now).

So, we’ve arrived at atheism.  Now what?  Intellectually, there is a certain satisfaction in clinging to the evidence, and refusing to go where it hasn’t led.  For a long time now, I’ve been proud of my lack of belief, largely because by insisting on knowing things instead of believing them, I don’t have to wade into the waters of division and condemnation that accompany so many faith systems.  It’s clear that most of the methods used to clobber people in today’s society stem from faith-based ideas.  Aside from the obvious issues of gay marriage, racial discrimination, and male superiority (2 of which are still commonly held beliefs among most Christian denominations), is there anything worse that can be said of a person than “you’re going to hell”?  Even when said from a perspective of concern or love (if that sentence can be said with love at all), how much arrogance it takes to say that you hold the truth of that issue!

I’ve assumed, incorrectly, that Christianity was fairly unanimous on these condemnations.  Since I started writing this blog, and being involved with some alumni from George Fox, I’ve learned a great deal about belief systems that do not contain most, or any, of these awful beliefs.  I’ve met people who have made the leap of faith, but haven’t tacked on silly ideas of gays being an abomination, or the man being the head of the household “because that’s how God designed it.”  There are biblical arguments that can be made for darn near anything, and these people have chosen the ones that don’t hurt people.  I’m not anywhere near the point where I think the Bible matters on issues of modern morality, but I’m happy that at least among these folks, where they can find a way to interpret the Bible in a way that doesn’t make God look like an asshole, they’re doing it.

So, I’ve ruled out atheism as the only place where angry condemnations can be avoided.  Besides the truth-value of atheism, which is debatable, is there any benefit to it?  Emotionally it certainly doesn’t bring any happiness, at least to me.  There are a lot of people whom I respect immensely (Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, Penn Jillette, etc.) who claim to be just fine with the idea that once they die, that’s it.  They’ll tell you it helps them to live each day with vigor, since time is limited.  But they’re not the only ones.  Religious people can live this way also, AND they don’t have to fear their last days.  So if the arguments are balanced, but one side can meet an emotional need, wouldn’t it be practical to go with theism?

I don’t know, but that’s where my mind is right now.  Atheism gives me finality.  But faith offers me answers, even if the answers aren’t very good.  Christianity, to pick one faith, answers:

Why am I here?
Where did I come from?
What happens when I die?
Whether the answers provided to these questions are good ones or not, I see a lot of value in having them answered.  I know I’m not alone.  After all, the bulk of humanity hasn’t chosen to be religious because they’re indifferent to life and death questions.

For now, I’m wrestling with the question of what good atheism  is doing me when there are people out there that aren’t doing anybody any harm while also having optimism about the continuity of their consciousness.  If only a person could trick themselves into believing something they don’t “know” to be true.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

On the Death of a Child

I’ve been ambivalent about having kids since it became an option.  I value my alone time.  I’m not good with loud noises, and I’ve never had that innate yearning to be a parent that a lot of people feel.  I knew that I didn’t want more than 2, the replacement rate.  I would have been satisfied with one.  My wife and I agreed we’d start with one, and see what happened after that.  After buying a house and moving to Phoenix in the summer of 2006, 2 weeks later we discovered we were pregnant.  It was a terrible pregnancy.  Sarah couldn’t keep food or liquids down, and often times didn’t have any warning that the nausea was coming.  She couldn’t keep the nausea pills down (why do they prescribe a pill for nausea?), so she had to take Zofran, a dissolvable tablet made for chemo patients, with a price tag of $40 per pill.  We spent the night of September 11, 2006 in the ER of a nasty Phoenix hospital, waiting for an IV so Sarah could stay hydrated enough to keep the baby.  We finally got out of there at 4am, and for the rest of the pregnancy, it was a routine of working, sleeping and trying to keep fluids down for Sarah, and working, sleeping, and a half dozen bottles of carpet cleaner for me.

We moved back to Portland a month before Taylor was born.  To compensate for the misery of the pregnancy, the delivery was a fantastic event.  The doctor induced labor at 8am, and Sarah gave birth at 3:15pm.  No drugs, no spinal, not a peep.  Sarah had a 7 hour, silent, drugless delivery.  I have to admit I hadn’t given parenthood a whole lot of thought during the pregnancy.  Our days were consumed with fighting against vomiting and figuring out what to do with this house we just bought.  Parenthood hit me all at once when they cleaned Taylor up and Sarah got to hold her for the first time.  My flesh had become someone else’s flesh.  My identity on this planet had changed in a hurry.  There was now a human being whose literal life and death was half-contingent on me and my actions.

I didn’t like the infant stage.  I’ll admit being terrified during those times when I had Taylor by myself at home.  Often times I simply didn’t have what she wanted, and no bottle, diaper or nap was going to change that.  It’s a feeling of helplessness that can’t be duplicated.  I don’t think the emotional connection really began until about age one when Taylor started walking.  She now had choices, and preferences, and to a limited extent, free will.  She was becoming her own, unique person.  My enjoyment of parenting has grown with her age.  In two days she turns five, and I never feel as happy as I do when I talk with her.  She tells me about her day at preschool, about which princesses are her favorite, and how much she loves the band Flyleaf (“daddy, play the one where Lacey screams I’m So Sick!  I love it when she screams so loud!).  She is a sensitive girl - scared of everything, but not too scared to talk about it.  She has learned how to put herself in other people’s shoes, something I’m still not very good at.

Towards the end of 2010, we decided to go off birth control.  In my mind, we’d give it a year, and it if happened, fine, if it didn’t happen, that’s fine too.  The age gap had started to widen, and I don’t like the idea of having kids that are spread out in age (I want them out of the house before I’m 50!  A man needs his freedom!).  In February 2011, Sarah’s hoarding of pregnancy tests finally bore fruit, and the stick had 2 lines on it.  So say Taylor was excited was an understatement.  For weeks, all she talked about was what she was going to do when the baby came.  She would play with her (she was convinced it would be a girl), comb her hair, show her all her dolls.  She told everyone she saw that mommy had a baby in her tummy, and she wanted to name the baby Lilly.  Or Lucy.  Or…

In late March of 2011, we lost our second child.  It happened in a grocery store restroom.  Sarah was alone.  I received the call around 11am, and like I am prone to do, I informed my boss, without emotion, that Sarah had a miscarriage, and I was going home for the day.  Sarah’s reaction was immediate - emotional, angry, frustrated, sad, everything.  I felt nothing.  This happens all the time, I told myself.  Women miscarry all the time, and usually they don’t even know they were pregnant.  It seems natural enough.  No need to get too worked up about it.

My emotional state changed after I brought Taylor home from daycare.  We all sat down on the couch to talk, something we never do.  She could sense something was wrong.  I summoned all the courage I could find, and told my daughter that something happened to the baby, and the baby died.  She wasn’t going to be a big sister, at least not right now.  That’s all I could spit out for awhile.  Unlike the kind of sad she gets when she skins her knee or has to go to bed, Taylor’s face got sort of pale, and she came to embody sorrow in a way I’ve never seen before.  She didn’t cry.  She just…felt.  She asked a few normal, soft questions, and Sarah answered  as best she could.  I just cried.  I couldn’t look at Taylor.  I grabbed a pillow and hid my face, and just cried. When I could speak again, I held her as close as I could and whispered in her ear that I’m so sorry, I know how much you wanted to be a big sister.  My sorrow, in that moment, was not for myself, not for my wife, and not for the child we had lost.  My sorrow was for my failure to deliver what my daughter wanted more than anything else.

We lost the baby over a year ago.  Most days, I still rationalize it with science, because the facts are true, even if I don’t like them.  Miscarriages really do happen all the time.  It’s not an affliction abnormal to people, and I don’t feel cursed or treated unfairly.  But I wonder.  I wonder what we would have named our child.  He or she would be almost 6 months old right now.  How would our lives be different?  We haven’t had the same luck with fertility since then.  Maybe we’ll luck out, maybe we won’t.

Most days, I don’t think about it.  But Sarah did something I’ve come to appreciate.  She made a memory box, with an infant outfit, a shoe, a baby book, pacifier, and a necklace.  She cut out some words, and framed it in.  When I need to, I spend a moment looking at that box.  It bring back those moments on the couch, when I felt more sorrow than I’ve felt before.  I can feel what I need to feel, and leave those feelings there, in that room, focused on those two terrible words, “miss you.”

I wrote some crappy poetry about this subject, if you're so inclined: