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.