Monday, December 2, 2013

Building a Hypothetical Theology

I’ve recently found myself nodding along with a number of Christian writers and speakers, almost as if I’m part of the group.  “Well, that’s weird”, I thought to myself. If I really broke it down, these beliefs are just like anything else lacking sufficient evidence, so why do I like what they’re saying so much? I realized that despite my lack of belief, I’ve started developing a hypothetical theology.  A theology built around values that make sense, and a God that would embody those ideas.  My hypothetical theology isn’t tethered to a particular book of alleged inspiration, just what seems to me to be common sense, and valuing of humanity.  It agrees with the part of the traditional philosophical definition of God contained within the ontological argument, that God is that which none greater can be conceived.  While I don’t think this argument necessitates God, I think it’s a fair definition.  With that definition in place, here are some of the basics of the hypothetical theology I’ve started to form (and as always, I could be wrong about everything):

God is superior to a human being

Taken literally, I doubt many would disagree with this statement.  But in practice, it’s perhaps the least believed in concept in Christianity.  Imagine, if you will, a child stealing a pack of gum.  The child’s parent, upon discovering the theft, confines the child to a bed and applies a mildly acidic lotion to the child’s entire body.  The pain is immense and constant, but is not fatal.  The parent ensures this lotion is present every day, all the time, for the duration of the child’s life.  We recognize this scenario as absurd and unjust.  And yet we are asked to believe, on a much more hideous scale, this is how God treats sinners, only with God, the sinners never get the mercy of death.  Somehow God’s “nature” demands this, though the maturity gap between God and human must surely be greater than parent and child. We wouldn’t accept it from a person, but we’ll try so hard to justify it for God. 

Or consider a close friend who meets someone new, and decides to end the friendship with you, crowning this new person as best friend.  Out of insecurity, we subject our former friend to the same punishment as the thieving child.  We wouldn’t accept it from a person, but God is allowed to be eternally insecure over those who leave the faith. 

Time after time, the behavior of God, as described by the authors of the Bible, is far worse than we would ever accept from a mere fallible human being, but because BIBLE!, we’ll fall over ourselves making excuses for God’s behavior.  In my hypothetical theology, God is not an asshole, and if someone says she is, they’re wrong.  A God that forgives is greater than one that does not.

God does not have a favorite genitalia

I suspect that even complementarians would admit that if they were in charge of things, the male superiority they’ve extracted from the Bible would be done away with.  They’ll assure us that they’re just trying to obey the Bible, and it’s not their fault that women aren’t allowed to lead.  But as we’ve all experienced in day to day life, sometimes our mothers have more wisdom than our fathers, and our sisters more than our brothers.  But if we’re talking about God, it’s different.  In my hypothetical theology, gender bias is recognized for what it is – the privileged men of thousands of years ago enforcing their own privilege, and stamping God’s name on it.  A God that doesn’t have a favorite gender is greater than one that does.

God is not mute

Many Christians have embraced a strange idea without knowing it; The only words God ever spoke have already been spoken.  The Biblical authors can be trusted to have communicated them correctly, and every human being since is so unreliable that they must be prevented from changing or adding to these previously expressed words.  We don’t think so highly of the iron age in any other arena.  We reject their medicine, their hygiene, their lust for war, their science, their polygamy and their sense of style, but we’ll totally trust them to give us all the words we need from an all-powerful, totally living God.  This all-powerful God has been stuffed into a book, and if the believer were marooned on an island, their only method of knowing what God has to say to them would be whatever verses they’d memorized.  On this point, I think the Mormons are right.  It doesn’t make any sense that God just arbitrarily shut up 2000 years ago.  An accessible God is superior to a silent God.

We can’t accurately imagine God in its entirety

A huge piece of what created problems for me and my faith is that I was taught that God can be heard, understood, followed, trusted, loved, and rationalized.  I don’t think it makes sense to say any of these things.  When we speak of light years, that light travels 671 million miles an hour, and would take 100,000 years to cross the milky way, we can assign words to these ideas, but we can’t truly understand them.  With light years, we at least have a relative frame of reference with which to speak of distance and time.  With God, we’re left stumbling in the dark.  We’ve never seen someone or something that’s even close to all knowing, let alone omni-present.  Yet we speak of God as if we can understand him.  We assign silly concepts to God like being unable to tolerate sin, as if that would be any big deal to an entity that can be everywhere all the time.  We assign emotions of jealousy and anger to God, as if our “sins” can somehow truly offend an entity that exists at all times of history simultaneously. We pretend we know God’s nature, and that’s why people must be divided, built up or held down.  And by mere coincidence, when we speak of God’s nature as an individual, it is we, as individuals, who tend to benefit from our understanding of God (I’m doing this right now).  Rare would be the religion that believes God looks more favorably on another group, another individual, or another set of ideas. 

The infinite is not something we can understand.  Omnipresence, omnipotence, omniscience, these are incomprehensible concepts that we try to bottle up, and then we base our worldview and our behavior on the scraps we can hold onto.  In my hypothetical theology, most of God is, and will always be, an unknowable mystery.  And that God is greater than a fake one locked inside a book.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Pastors Saving Faith

Over the last year, I’ve had the unexpected pleasure of becoming acquainted with a number of excellent pastors.  This might be a strange thing to say, since I don’t believe in the foundation of what they preach.  But these people have redeemed pastors for me, and by contrast, shown me where things went wrong for the pastors I grew up with, none of whom would have dreamed I’d say goodbye to faith.

Like a lot of young evangelicals, I experienced my “on fire for Jesus”  phase during middle school.  Puberty brings about lots of emotions, and among them, an emotional connection to the faith I’d been taught from birth.  Apologetics were the norm for me, and my youth pastor, a drop-out from Multnomah Bible College, fed those flames with a lot of skill.  People like me were his dream; We were young, outspoken, confident Christians who wanted nothing more than to set the world on fire for Christ.  If youth group had been held every night, I would have been there.  Retreats were the highlight of the season, and summer camp couldn’t come soon enough.  Looking back, the best (and in retrospect, the worst) parts of my childhood involved that youth group, and that youth pastor.

Like most things that begin with an emphasis on emotion over intellect, eventually the zeal simmered down, and the focus on apologetics increased.  Entering high school, and with it, the high school youth pastor (my church had different pastors for middle and high school), my zeal for my faith lessened as I realized that the pastor couldn’t handle the questions I was asking.  It wasn’t that he didn’t want to.  He just hadn’t been trained on things outside the very narrow scope of evangelicalism.  So many times, the answer to a question was, “We’re humans.  We’re not capable of understanding everything.  We just have to have faith.”  At 12, this was sufficient.  At 16, it was not.  Josh McDowell books were passed around, and some of the staff that were attending seminary would try their best to answer all the questions, but evangelicalism wasn’t built for doubt, and it showed.  Doubt was a sign of spiritual weakness.  Faith was the starting point, not the conclusion.  While each point of doctrine had been arrived at somehow, now that those items have been decided upon, it was apparently not necessary to explain how or why they became known to be true.

My mom thinks if I had attended Portland State, I would have remained a Christian.  It’s her belief that my atheism is some kind of rebellion against authority.  For her, it can’t be real.  Surely it’s just a phase, a sad detour on the road back to Jesus.  While I can’t say what would have happened if I hadn’t gone to a Christian college, where I finally lost all my faith, I do think that if my upbringing had been in a more flexible environment, things might be different.  As I said in my sermon a few weeks ago, faith is tenuous.  It comes and it goes, and it does this without our permission.  I firmly believe this. But I also believe there is value in community, and a community that can handle a divergence of opinion is a community that can keep its members while they sway wildly back and forth in the ideology.

Tonight I was reading from the blog of Eric Muhr, a youth pastor at Newberg Friends Church.  I’ve never met Eric.  I hear you want to avoid his van on a road trip.  In any event, in reading his blog, I felt really sad.  After thinking on it for awhile, I think what’s so sad about Eric’s blog is that he is the kind of pastor that might have saved Christianity for me.

In an entry from November of 2012, Eric writes:

“I want to normalize doubt for those who might otherwise feel abandoned by God and by their community.  I want to encourage serious questions that challenge our thinking and open up opportunities for growth.  I want to be part of a community that used faith as a tool (never as a weapon).

And I hope.
That 20 years from now.
Some former student.
Watching graduation reruns.
Might ask herself why she’s still at church.
And think of people who weren’t afraid of her questions, people who loved her because of (not in spite of), people who inspired and encouraged and modeled for and listened to and learned from…
That should would think of so many people
And that one of them might be me.”

A professor at George Fox recently commented on something Eric wrote, saying, “I’m so grateful that you’re involved in the religious development of my children.”

At the meeting we attend as a family, Taylor’s youth pastor, Mark, is the kind of person that I believe will preserve the option of faith for her.  It won’t be ruined with too much certainty, and it won’t be made silly with too much subjectivity.  Mark once told me that over half of his high school students don’t believe in God.  And yet, they show up.  They think together, learn together, and form a community together.  This is a pastor I would trust my child with.  Faith will be presented in its best light, and when they’re old enough, my kids will decide for themselves.

Quakers are unique in that the pastor isn’t a dictator.  He or she doesn’t have much executive power.  His/her opinion isn’t the most important opinion.  As I see it, the pastor’s most important contribution is setting the tone for how the meeting will be.  And in that regard, Mike Huber is a helluva pastor.  While listening to Biblical sermons as an atheist can be a challenge, on multiple occasions I’ve been startled by the direction he has taken with verses I’ve heard a million times.  One Sunday I had to bite my lip as he started telling one of my least favorite stories, the story of Abraham and Isaac.  I’d been waiting to be disappointed for a long time, and it had finally come.  But as the sermon turned from the verses into practical application, I was stunned when he said, “God does not ask us to sacrifice our children.  We. Don’t. Sacrifice. Our children.  We don’t sacrifice children in hoodies.  We don’t sacrifice our LGBT children.  We don’t sacrifice…”

What I appreciate most about Mike is that he’s never told me no.  When I’d only been visiting for two months, and asked to give an atheist manifesto from the pulpit, Mike said yes.  3 months later when I wanted to do it again, Mike said yes.  And a month ago, when I asked to give a sermon that included rejection of Biblical infallibility, and rejection of religious dogma, Mike said yes.  With each of those events, I finally got to air my grievances about church, to a church.  And each time, I’ve been swarmed with smiles, hugs, hand shakes, and “Can I get a copy of that?”  I’m in a community that can handle my lack of belief.  And if faith ever comes back, they’ll be able to handle that too.

Pastors are important.  There is nothing more personal than the things we believe about life and death.  And I’m so grateful, after 10 years of myself and the wind, to have people I can trust with these questions, especially when they tell me they can’t answer them.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Dogmatic Certainty

The following was a spoken message at West Hills Friends Church, given on November 10, 2013.

I’d like to open with a quote from the influential evangelical pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, Mark Driscoll:

“There is a strong drift toward the hard theological left.  Some emergent types want to re-caste Jesus as a limp-wrist hippie in a dress with a lot of product in his hair who drank decaf and made pithy zen statements about life while shopping for the perfect pair of shoes.  In Revelation, Jesus is a prize fighter with a tattoo down his leg, a sword in his hand, and the commitment to make someone bleed.  That is a guy I can worship.  I cannot worship the hippie, diaper-wearing, halo Christ because I cannot worship a guy I can beat up.  I fear some are becoming more cultural than Christian, and without a big Jesus who has authority and hates sins as revealed in the Bible, we will have less and less Christians, and more and more confused, spiritually self-righteous blogger critics of Christianity.”

This kind of statement is fairly representative of what I call dogmatic certainty.  I was raised in it.  Maybe you were too.  For the believer who has certainty, there is truth, and there are lies.  There are truth-holders, and there are those who are intentionally trying to squash the truth wherever it’s found.  Certainty allows a person to not only proclaim that something is true, it lets them bellow it with conviction, as if the truth of the statement is so obvious that any doubter must be unintelligent. The person of certainty generally doesn’t care about history, tradition, or scholarly research.  It is from the bowels of certainty, or perhaps to compensate for uncertainty, that fundamentalism emerged, and with it, the unfortunate doctrine of Biblical infallibility.  Biblical infallibilists believe that the entirety of the Bible is true and without contradiction or error.  Largely developed by evangelicals in the 1970s, infallibilists spend enormous amounts of time attempting to show that despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, verse sequences like the following are completely in harmony with each other:

Proverbs 26:4 Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself.
Proverbs 26:5: Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.
1 Corinthians 14:33a: For God is not the author of confusion

New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman has this to say about the supposed lack of contradictions in the Bible:

“In Matthew, Jesus says, “Whoever is not with me is against me.”  In Mark, he says, “Whoever is not against us is for us.”  Did he say both things? Could he mean both things? How can both be true at once? Or is it possible that one of the gospel writers got things switched around?”

I’ve yet to figure out the purpose of holding a certainty-based doctrine like Biblical inerrancy.  If God is both real and alive, is it worth abandoning one’s intellect to try to make 66 books written over a thousand years by mostly unknown authors line up perfectly?  Is that the point of Christianity?  Are we talking about a faith system or a simple algebraic equation?

Just as religious certainty squashes civil conversation and ruins relationships, so does non-religious certainty.  Consider this quote from atheist biologist Richard Dawkins.  Consider if you, as a theist, would feel comfortable discussing your beliefs with him:

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all of fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control freak; a vindictive, blood-thirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously  malevolent bully.”

I looked up a few of those words.  Filicidal means someone who kills their own son or daughter. Pestilential means someone who tends to produce pestilence.

By stating his opinion with so much bile, Dawkins eliminates himself as a conversation partner, hurting the listener, and his own cause in the process.  Maybe atheism is true.  Plenty of smart people lean that direction.  But to exhibit so much certainty about a position that is at least a simple lack of belief, and at most an aggressive reliance on an unproven negative, is to place conviction above evidence, and superiority above a relationship.

Very recently an evangelical pastor staged a conference whose goal was to announce that members of the charismatic traditions of Christianity are going to hell because they violate the Bible’s oh-so-clear admonishing that speaking in tongues is the work of the devil, and blasphemes the holy spirit.  Ironically, it was Mark Driscoll, lover of the sword-swinging Jesus, who showed up to conference intending to pull the charismatics out of hell.

So if we shouldn’t display our beliefs with dogmatic certainty, what should we do? After all, for many people, their faith is their most cherished possession.  I’d ask you to consider the times in your life when someone has impacted your life by a display of their faith.  Did they persuade you with logic or reason?  Did they dismantle your doctrine detail by detail, and replace it with their own?  I’m guessing that’s not what happened.  For me personally, my opinions on theology haven’t changed in years.  What has changed is my attitude towards people of faith, and towards certainty.

When OneGeorgeFox hosted a lesbian Christian singer in Newberg last year, I went as a supporter of the effort to influence the school’s policies towards LGBT people. I went in spite of the group’s Christian motivation for wanting the policies changed.  After the show, I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen since graduating from Fox 10 years prior.  She asked how I’d been, and I explained that I hadn’t been back to campus since 2003, and that faith and I parted ways a long time ago.  My friend is a very faithful person.  She might be the most Jesus-centric person I know.  But her response to hearing of my atheism wasn’t to challenge my conclusion.  She simply said, “I’m glad you’re here.”

I didn’t know what to say.  At that time in my life, I wasn’t used to being treated like a person who is separate from my ideas.  What Kim communicated with those four simple words is that I matter more than my doctrine.  What she said was not a logical proof.  It wasn’t a Biblical retort or a defense of her Quaker beliefs.  She was putting her faith into action, omitting the text of her faith in favor of the love that inspires it.  And she didn’t know it, but she crushed the way I viewed religious people.

My view of religious people changed a little more the first time I visited West Hills six months later.  After the awkward hymns and sermon with science fiction references in it, Kathy Edge stood up and expressed a very real sense of doubt.  I don’t remember the details, but at that time, it was possible that aspects her faith system were useless and wrong.  She said it out loud, and she sat down.  No rosy platitudes about how everything happens for a reason.  And nobody rushed over to make sure her doubts weren’t really all that serious.  They were, and that was ok.  Because in this place, faith really is faith.  And with faith comes the possibility that we’re wrong.

By definition, faith goes beyond what we can prove.  By definition, faith is a hope that beyond all the miserable stuff that we can be certain about, there might be something better, and just maybe we’re better off hanging onto that hope than clinging to what little certainty we can justify.  Faith is tenuous.  It comes and it goes, and it does this without our permission.  I hope that those of you who have it can recognize how fortunate that makes you.

When we converse with others, let us speak with curiosity instead of certainty.  Let our actions demonstrate that we might be wrong, and we know it.  Let us put people before doctrine, and love before creeds.  Let us remember that people aren’t changed by challenges to their pyramid of things that are true.  People are changed by being shown, not told, that there’s a better way to be.  And finally, let us seek the truth together, confident that even if we never find it, the search will have made our lives more fulfilling.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

She is my Light

Originally submitted as an entry to Minding The Light, issue 15, which can be found here:

I cried in the car recently.  As everyone knows, cars have a
no-crying-allowed rule. 

My daughter has an ongoing tantrum problem, and we've been at wit's end
trying to figure out how to stop them, or at least shorten them.  So when
Taylor told me she found something that helps her calm down, I was thrilled!
She turned on the Ipad, and played an Alicia Keys song called "Never Felt
This Way".  The song is about someone she loves, and how all she needs is
that person in her life.  Taylor told me the song reminds her that all she
needs are her parents, and that keeps her calm.

I told her that I have a song that reminds me of her as well.  I had the CD
in the car at the time, so I played it for her.  I figured she'd like the
song, but I didn't expect her to ask me to explain why it reminds me of her.
I told her I wasn't sure I could tell her without crying, but I'd give it a

"Taylor, for most people who believe in God, like you do, there are lots of
reasons to have hope.  People who believe in God usually believe that God is
with them all the time, and that someday, after they die, they'll get to
meet God, and talk to God, and ask any kind of question they want to ask.

People like me, we don't have that kind of hope, as nice as it sounds.  And
sometimes, it's hard to find reasons to stay happy about what's going on in
life.  If we're sad about something, we don't have that magical idea to hold
onto, that someday it will all be ok.  For me, when I really need it, the
happiest idea I can turn to is you.  You give me more hope, love, and
encouragement than anyone or anything else in my life."

I Will Not Let Go, by David Bazan

When you get this message
I'll be high above the Earth
Thinking 'bout the promises that I keep
When I touch down in Texas
Land in Dallas/Fort Worth
I will call you up, and wake you from your sleep.
I will not let go of you

Who or what controls the fates of men
I cannot say
But I keep arriving safely home to you
And I humbly acknowledge
That I won't always get my way
But darling, death will have to pry my fingers loose

Monday, October 28, 2013

All Fallen Leaves Should Curse Their Branches

There are few sights more disturbing than videos of the Westboro Baptist church kids singing songs about how much God hates fags.  We don’t blame the kids, of course.  They’re parroting what their parents have taught them.  And kids, as all parents are well aware, will believe whatever we tell them to believe.

This is a huge responsibility, and we should take it seriously.

I’ve become increasingly bothered by posts and videos my friends and acquaintances have put up recently in which their children are either repeating the things they’ve been indoctrinated to believe, or are using some very basic logic to reach conclusions based on what they’ve been taught.  The parents seem shocked to discover that when they teach their 10 year old about sin and forgiveness, their child learns to internalize sin in a way that is entirely inappropriate for a child of that age.

If you grew up evangelical, as I did, perhaps you remember the entirely made-up notion that children eventually reach an age of accountability, after which time they are fully responsible for the sins they commit.  Before that age, God can be counted on not to eternally punish them for stealing their sister’s candy bar, because obviously the punishment wouldn‘t fit the crime.  But after the age of accountability, any violation of any part of God’s commands are in such a violation of God’s nature that he will eternally punish them for those violations.  The exception (because Bible) is if that child comes up with the correct series of thoughts.  Get your beliefs lined up correctly, and you’re forgiven.

The notion that a five-year old is capable of making a decision that impacts the next 5 years of her life would be ridiculous.  But in Christianity, those same kids are assumed capable of deciding their eternal destination.  It’s no wonder parents are so eager to indoctrinate them.  Eternal hellfire is at stake.  When we believe radical things, we are capable of radical actions.  See Syria, or Afghanistan, or Westboro, or Jesus Camp.  Kids will believe what we tell them to believe, and do what we tell them to do.

If we’re lucky, our kids will grow old enough to let us know what they think of what we made them believe.  Will they appreciate that we respected them enough to leave their minds well enough alone, so they could sample the choices available to them without bias?  Or will they resent us for instilling division and certainty into their minds, forcing them to transform their entire worldview to escape those things? (<---- autobiographical).

David Bazan sums up the tragedy of parental indoctrination in this song:

Finally, this movie is scarier to me than any horror movie.  If it’s not scary to you, I’d ask you to consider if you’d feel the same way if it were called Allah Camp.

Richard Dawkins is a jerk, but on this point, he's spot on:

Thursday, September 19, 2013


I’ve been sitting on these stairs

Watching the door sit cruelly closed

Waiting for you


A smiling friend came by

Showed me trees and kids and sunrise

“Are you sure he ever left?”


A stranger yelled through the door

Slipped a book through the mail slot

“He wrote this for you”


A breeze came through the window

Said if I look at mystery deep enough

I’ll find you there


When you left

You weren’t a sunrise, book, or mystery

You just were


I wonder if I dreamed you

But so many seem to get their turn

And what an amazing dream


So dream of mine

If you’re alive, and I’m alive

Let’s speak again like old times


I’m a little older

A little sadder

But I haven’t left those stairs

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Philosophies of Prayer

Philosophies of Prayer


My life is full of people who pray.  And when they pray, the things they pray for tend to vary, as does the response when what they’re praying for either happens or doesn’t happen.  There doesn’t seem to be a consistent philosophy of what prayer is, who it’s for, and the expectation from the recipient.  These are a few of the philosophies of prayer that I can deduct from various people in my life.  I’d love to hear your philosophy of prayer in the comments.  (To be clear – my questions about prayer are because I’m genuinely curious about these ideas, not because I’m mocking the idea of prayer)

The most common philosophy of prayer that I deduct from people is that God is able to intervene in human lives, and depending on what is said during the prayer, or how many people pray for it, God will choose to intervene or not to intervene.  People with this philosophy express urgency about prayer, often forwarding messages through prayer chains, or taking comfort if they know a whole bunch of people are praying at the same time.  “God, please heal Samantha, as she has cancer.  Let the doctors do a good job, and help her family to be comforted.”  This philosophy seems to assume that the outcome of Samantha’s cancer is undetermined, and God, as prayer recipient, will give an answer in the form of Samantha’s life or death, the success or failure of the doctors, and the emotional well-being of the family.  To those with this view, I ask: In your opinion, is God inside or outside of time?  If God is inside of time, what does that say about God’s omniscience?  If God is outside of time, is it consistent to believe that your prayers matter, as the outcome is presumably occurring simultaneously with the sickness?  Should the patient die, should it really be believed that God’s will includes senseless things like cancer, or dead children, or war?  What does it say about God that your prayers may or may not change God’s mind?  What does it say about God if the quantity of prayers make a difference in the outcome?

A different theory I heard preached recently is that God cannot intervene in human events, but can provide comfort and express empathy to people as they go through their experiences.  In this philosophy, because of human free will, people determine the outcome of human events, with God present as a handcuffed companion.  God is there to mourn with you, but she can’t intervene the way one might hope.  To those with this view, I ask: If God wants to do something (say, prevent a terrible crime), but can’t because of human free will, what does this say about God’s omnipotence?  Is asking for comfort also asking for God to intervene, which this philosophy says can’t be done?  How does the philosophy of a non-intervening God related to a potential afterlife? (I'm assuming that this person believes in human free will because it allows people to choose salvation in some way).

The last philosophy of prayer says that prayer is for the human, not for God.  Life is either pre-written (because God knows everything that will happen), or if you’re a deist, God isn’t involved with humanity at all now that life has been put in motion.  For these people, the expression of prayer helps them on an emotional level, without the expectation that anyone is coming to help them.  For these people, I ask: what is the difference between prayer and meditation?  What is different about praying compared to a conversation with a close friend?

What’s your philosophy of prayer?

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Death Alludes, At Least For Now

“You’re not dying,” he said. “But I don’t know what’s wrong with you.”

At the beginning of May, I quit a 20-year, 2-liter per day Diet Dr. Pepper habit.  I’d gotten a nasty cold, and while staring at the 2-liter bottle, I had an epiphany of sorts.  I’d known, of course, that the chemicals and preservatives in soda couldn’t be doing good things to my insides, but for some reason, on that day, I was able to decide I didn’t need it, so I quit.

Two weeks later, I began to notice on involuntarily twitch in my left index finger.  It didn’t hurt, but it was noticeable; The finger would gently oscillate side to side, causing anything I was holding to jiggle slightly.  Figuring it was like the occasional eyelid twitch everyone gets once in awhile, I didn’t think much of it until it had been happening for two weeks.  The company insurance had finally kicked in, so I went for a check-up, and asked the doctor if she had any ideas.  She asked about my caffeine consumption.  I told her that I increased my coffee intake from about 2 cups in the morning to 3, but I couldn’t imagine it could be caffeine, since I’d just quit drinking 2 daily liters of caffeinated soda.  She asked me to quit drinking any caffeine for a few weeks to see what happened.  The results were mixed.  The frequency of the tremors dropped significantly, but not completely.  At one point I went 2 days with no tremors, but the third day they were back with the usual frequency.  Caffeine seemed to exaggerate the symptom, but it wasn’t the cause.

Sometime in June, my left thumb began to spasm, with a much more noticeable movement.  It only happened a few times, and stopped after the second day, but it was weird enough to get me to start Googling.  The results were not what I wanted to see. Nearly every possible cause of the tremors was either fatal or degeneratively crippling.  Parkinsons. Brain Tumors. Cancer.  Even some of the best case scenarios, like permanent benign essential tremor, meant this was never going to go away.  The doctor scheduled a neurology consult.  That appointment was today.

It’s hard to know how to properly panic when you don’t have enough information to know if you should panic at all.  Intellectually, I woke up this morning knowing I might receive a terminal diagnosis.  I knew that could happen, but I didn’t feel like it would happen.  My reaction has been mostly cerebral - I have a pretty good idea of the possibilities, most of them bad, but my mind is apparently an eternal optimist.  It hadn’t sunk in what I’m facing.

The neurologist was running 45 minutes late.  I feel like if you’re in a business where you tell people they’re dying on a regular basis, punctuality should probably be a priority.  As I watched the receptionist take phone call after phone call, life seemed like a formality for a little while.  I thought about how in a hospital, yes, people live and die, but people are also coming to work and going home from work.  To the patient, it’s life and death, but to the staff, it’s a job.  If I tell a good joke, maybe a nurse will mention me over dinner when he goes home, but probably not.  My death, within the context of that building, would be nothing more than a new claim would mean to me at my office.  On some level, I think I had a brief conversation with the universe, acknowledging its futility, but appreciating the chance to be involved for awhile.

The neurology exam didn’t show any symptoms besides the tremor.  Medically speaking, it’s possible I have extremely early signs of Parkinsons.  At this stage, there’s no way to know for sure.  It’s also possible the tremors will stop just as inexplicably as they started, with the cause forever being mysterious.  He had me take a blood test for Wilson’s disease, gave me some dietary experiments to try, and told me to come back in six months.  Maybe next time I’ll have more stuff wrong with me so he can tell me how scared I should be.  Or maybe I’ll have this damn tremor for the rest of my life.  Clock in, clock out.

A year ago, death was something I dwelled on.  I feared it deeply, and was desperate for a way not to.  I don’t know exactly how, but over the past year, I’ve managed to change my approach from fear to curiosity.  Most likely, we die, and then we’re dead.  But maybe that’s not the end.  Maybe.  It’s that maybe that has made the difference.  And perhaps the difference between being afraid and not being afraid is recognizing you don’t have enough information to justify the fear that comes with being certain of the worst case scenario.

*UPDATE* I wrote this last night (Thursday). This morning, the lab called to say my blood test for copper levels was low, and more follow up testing will be done.  Copper levels are tested when Wilson's Disease is suspected.  Should know more in a few weeks.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Why We Became Atheists (and why we didn't)

In recent years, the Christian church has been doing a lot of soul-searching regarding why the younger generations are leaving the church in such large numbers.  It’s been a fascinating topic to follow.  It’s a bit like hiding behind the couch at Thanksgiving, listening to your extended family talk about you while they think you’re running an errand.  The theories are interesting; Some are thoughtful, some are well-intentioned but wrong, most are ridiculous.  My purpose in addressing this is two-fold.  First, I think churches still have an important role to play in society, and I feel like constructive criticism might be helpful.  Second, there are still areas in life where people like me face discrimination simply for the thoughts we have.  These areas of discrimination can only be changed if the discriminators realize they're wrong for being that way.
To begin, I'd like to ask you to agree with me on a few basic ideas.  First, as intelligent people, we get to explain our beliefs to others.  Others don't get to tell us what we believe.  For example, if I trusted what my youth group leaders taught me about Mormons, not only would I be factually mistaken, I'd have a whole lot fewer friends.  Likewise, if many of you really believed what your pastors teach about atheists, you and I probably wouldn't be friends right now.  So, if you tell me what you believe, I'm going to believe you.  I only ask for the same courtesy.  Second, let's do our best to engage each other with charity.  What I mean by charity is that if something is unclear, or can be interpreted two different ways, let's choose to interpret it in the way that is most charitable (or kind) to the speaker.  So many disagreements occur because the reader assumes things about the author that probably were not intended.  So let's do our best to assume that we're not trying to offend each other.

The topic of apostasy is complicated - statistical studies aren't always clear in their terms, and often focus more on why people stop going to church, than why people lose their faith entirely.  Certainly, the former group includes a lot more people than the latter.  In Rachel Held Evans' article on the subject, she focuses on why millennials are leaving the church, and concludes a number of things that I agree with:
* We want an end to the culture wars. We want a truce between science and faith. We want to be known for what we stand for, not what we are against.

* We want to ask questions that don’t have predetermined answers

* We want our LGBT friends to feel truly welcome in our faith communities

She also concludes a number of things I don't agree with, including the final conclusion:

*We’re not leaving the church because we don’t find the cool factor there; we’re leaving the church because we don’t find Jesus there.
Like every generation before ours and every generation after, deep down, we long for Jesus.

Rachel is a fantastic ambassador for Christianity.  In fact, if the majority of Christendom believed and spoke the way she does, I suspect most of the religious culture war would be over, and the vitriolic atheist response to Christianity would subside significantly.  That said, even she seems to agree with perhaps the biggest obstacle to interfaith relationships: the possibility that she's wrong about Jesus doesn't seem to be on the table.

We've all been wrong before, some of us more than others.  What makes the search for truth so amazing is how great it feels to discover something new that we've been missing.  Sometimes that feeling comes during a change within a religious framework, sometimes it comes from leaving faith entirely.  But if truth is what we're committed to, it must at least be fathomable that everything we've come to believe in is absolutely false.  Science, supposedly a fierce rival of religion, operates in exactly this way.  Science constantly tries to prove itself right or wrong.  And when it discovers it's wrong, all the better, for truth has replaced falsity.  Faith systems tend to not only be immune to self-reflection, they often seek to avoid it.  This is not only unhealthy, it's adverse to truth-seeking.

Last year I attended an interfaith conversation between Paul Metzger, a professor at Multnomah Seminary, and a Buddhist monk.  The monk explained that when conversing with Evangelicals, he understands that at the core of everything they're talking about is a giant pillar of faith that's never going to move.  So, he has to talk around it in hopes of improving these interfaith relationships.  I submit that this should not be so.  If any part of our worldview isn't up for debate, are we really searching for what's true, or are we searching to confirm our biases?

That said, let's look at some reasons why some Christians seem to think people leave the church, or become atheists:
According to some guy at, people become atheists because of a bad relationship with their father.
According to Josiah Concept Ministries, people become atheists because they don't want accountability to God. 
According to, atheists hate God
Regarding church attendance, this reverend suggests young people quit attending church because churches are no longer intellectually challenging, churches are no longer leaders in ethical and moral decision making, and churches are no longer visionary - focusing on soul-saving instead of community building. I really enjoyed this article.

The issue of why people leave church seems a lot more simple to me.  Rachel Held Evans, and the reverend cited above, have a lot of good input on that idea.  But leaving church over politics or social buffoonery is quite different from losing faith entirely.  Many non-church goers still believe in all or part of the faith tenants held by the church they've left.  Likewise, many church-goers don't believe in God at all.  According to one study (referenced here), 18% of Unitarian Universalists are atheists.  Buddhism, depending on the strain, is an atheistic religion.  Atheists can be found as active members of many religious communities, including Judaism, Mormonism, Quakerism, and many others. But why do people lose faith in the first place?

My own story on that question is here and here.  But speaking in generalities, if you ask us why/how we lost our faith, most of the answers will look something like this:

1 - Faith is not supported by evidence. Certainly there are very smart people  who spend a whole lot of time trying to appeal to God's existence via science and philosophy.  But as technology has allowed new generations of people to access information and arguments that used to be hidden by religious parents, if they acknowledge it existed at all, more and more people are comparing their faith to the supporting documentation, and finding little to nothing is there to hold up the faith structure.  This isn't a matter of saying, "I don't want to obey God."  It's saying, "I have believed in God by faith, but if faith as all there is, I'll pass."  To then say that the person who arrives at this conclusion "hates" God is like saying a person "hates" Krishna or Baal.  Silly on its face, isn't it?  As Hemant Mehta correctly states:

     Moreover, blogs and websites espousing non-religious viewpoints and criticizing Christianity   draw tons of Internet traffic these days. For every Christian apologist's argument, it seems, there's an equal and opposite rebuttal to be found online. I call that "Hitchens' Third Law.”

Christians can no longer hide in a bubble, sheltered from opposing perspectives, and church leaders can't protect young people from finding information that contradicts traditional beliefs.

2 - Mean-spirited politics allow the initial doubt, leading back to #1.  The younger generations have spoken clearly on many issues that are not in unity with our parents.  We don't think gays are an abomination.  We don't think marriage is only for straight people.  We don't think men are superior to women.  When we hear these things being preached at church, it's so obviously wrong to us that we allow the possibility that the whole thing is a sham to enter our minds.  Some of us then conclude #1.

3 - One or more traumatic experiences rule out a loving God.  Millions of dollars have been made by Christians writing books trying to get around the problem of evil, both human and natural.  Some are convinced that free will solves the problem.  Many others are not.  While I personally don't think conclusions about the supernatural should be based on individual experiences, for many people, their experiences are insurmountable.  For them, either there is no God, or God is not all-loving. 

4 - The Hell doctrine.  I don't think much explanation is needed.  For many people, hell allows the whole system to be doubted, and from there, #1.

With these things in mind, let's continue a dialogue about God.  But let's do it fairly, and let's listen to each other.  Christians and atheists aren't so different.  We often share the same values, the same morals, and have the same goals for society.  Let's find those things and focus on them together.  

I asked a group of my fellow atheists to briefly sum up how/why they became atheists. Here are their responses"

* "The concept of Hell got in the way of the concept of a loving God that created us. Also, seeing the all powerful God through clear eyes so as to comprehend that He is a creation of all the worst traits of humanity."

* " I was tired of pretending to be god so I stopped being a Christian"

* " My personal rejection of faith came from finally asking all the questions that had been repressed inside of me by fundamentalist christianity. We were told that reason, and doubt, was the voice of satan. The day came when I could no longer suppress the questions. As I started to ask them, the answers that I received gradually lead me down the path to atheism.

* "Eventually I realized that the whole threat of eternal torment is actually the psychological hook that when implanted at a young age, or at a point in one’s life when they are the most vulnerable, can produce an almost impenetrable motivational framework that is extremely difficult to break away from."  More here.

To close, here's an amazing video from a really ballsy church, recognizing International Interview an Atheist in Church Day:

For the best part, here's a shorter version:


Monday, July 29, 2013

The Ghosts That Haunt Me

A few years ago, I had a claim at work with a family that had lost their one-year old son to cancer.  A few months prior, Sarah and I lost a child to miscarriage, so I was especially affected by this family. As I dealt with my own grief, reading the journal of this dad allowed me to cry - something I can rarely do with only my own thoughts to prompt me.  Crying is healing.  Every now and then I try do it on purpose - sometimes via his journal, something via YouTube videos (SoulPancake is a great channel for this).  More recently, 2 friends of friends have lost children, and I came back to this journal to help me deal with the pain that comes up each time. I share it below in hopes that if you need to release some stuff, maybe this will help.  The full journal can be found here:

Dear Bubba,

Today would have been your fourth birthday.  I wish, with all my heart, that you were still here.  Life did not offer you or I such choices.  For if it had, you would - without question - be in the position to write a letter like this to me.  I mean I wouldn't expect much.  You're four.  An "I miss you Dada" would suffice.  But here I sit with a heavy heart writing you this letter and wondering what it would have been like to see you at four.  I simply can't imagine.  You will always be stuck at 21 months in my mind.

Your little sister, Lily, looks so much like you, Monkey.  Every once in a while I'll catch a glimpse of her at just the right angle and it's like I see you.  She has your head with your gentle spirit to boot.  Now get this, she is 13 months old and still doesn't crawl.  She just scoots on her butt.  Everywhere.  She's pretty good at it but I'm sure if you were here, you'd show her the ropes.  You'd show her how kissing your mom's feet makes her squeal, or how pulling Big Red's hair makes her squeal too (though with very different emotional results).  I'm pretty sure you would love your little sister.  She's pretty sweet.  When your Mom is missing you terribly, she always manages to do something pretty cute to lift her spirits.

You'll be relieved to know that Makena has not changed much.  Still talks.  A lot.  Still forces us to play games that only she knows the rules to.  Still makes us very tired by the end of the day.  She can be very sweet and tries to include your name or thoughts of you in everything we do as a family.  I know her relationship with you could be tempestuous at times but she really loves you, Carter.  You will always be the first man I saw fall completely head over heels for my oldest daughter.  And that wasn't just because she pushed you.

Your mom is doing okay.  She still manages to make us laugh with her dorky sense of humor.  She's a great mom to your sisters.  She has her hard days; I have mine.  I doubt that will ever change.  I often catch her just staring blankly into space and I know her thoughts are with you.  I do the best I can to keep her happy, but going through life with a broken heart isn't easy.  No matter what circumstances we find ourselves in (good or bad), there will always be something in our lives that is missing.

I am not sure why I am writing to you.  I don't believe in heaven and I don't ever intend to.  The only places I know I will see you again are in my memories and my dreams.  What I do know is that the more time passes, the stronger I feel your absence. Lately, I unconsciously stare at your pictures while a voice in my head repeats over and over, "I miss my son."  Going on without you is the hardest thing your Mom and I will ever have to do.  We miss you, Monkey.


ps ka-chow

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Out of Compliance

The circle has a lump in it
Can you see it?
Naked and sharp, standing alone
Fallen outside the V
Like a straggling duck

Another cycle of the moon
Nobody smoothed the poor blemish
It shivers in the dark, out of breath
No blood to revive it,
The flaw cannot be allowed to be

The circumference closes
To make the circle whole again
So much more easy, nay, pure
To scab over than to expand
Creating a beautiful new shape

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Faith = (a) Relative

I spend a fair amount of time oscillating between being skeptic-friendly among believers, and religion-friendly among skeptics.  As a non-believer, there are times when faith-based ideas are harming people, and I think it’s right to point those things out.  As someone sympathetic to certain religious ideas and people, there are times when believers and religion are criticized too harshly, and I think it’s right to point that out as well.  I’m working on an analogy in my head that I think will be helpful for me in future criticisms.  It’s something like this:

When being critical of someone’s faith, I want to shape my words as if I were criticizing that person’s parents.

If I think back to when my faith was the most zealous, if someone were to mock what I believed, I would have taken it personally.  My faith = me. It wouldn’t really matter what the issue was, what would matter is that something I hold more dearly than anything else in life was being attacked.  I don’t have time to dissect your criticism of the validity of the historical Jesus if all I want to do is punch your face.  Similarly, if someone called me up and said “your mom is a whore,” my first response is not going to be a critical analysis of the quantity of my mom’s bedfellows. 

People hold their faith in the same way they love their relatives.  It’s personal far more than it’s an opinion.  So if my goal is to produce change (and usually it isn’t), my approach can’t be so harsh that I’m self-defeating.  Maybe there really is a problem that needs correcting.  If so, I need to be civil about it, pick my battles, and choose my words as if I still intend to be your friend after we’re done talking about it.  I've gotten better at this, but sometimes it's so much fun to poke you in the eye that I forget how much that probably hurts.

The same approach should apply to anonymous interactions online.  It’s not acceptable to be a jerk just because I can’t see your face after I troll your Facebook post.  Most of our societal problems will require the cooperation of people with opposing ideas if we’re going to fix them.  And if one of those problems is what you’re doing because of your faith, you’re not likely to stop if you can’t be convinced that you’re wrong.  And I don’t know about you, but nobody ever changed my mind with a knife in their hand.

Here are a few examples of people doing it right (on both sides of the aisle):

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Utility of Ignorance

The moment I knew philosophy was my cup of tea was during my introduction class, freshman year at George Fox.  Mark McLeod posed a question aimed at helping us think about happiness and utility in a different way.  The question was phrased as a choice.

Fact:  Your spouse is cheating on you.

Fact:  Despite your spouse cheating on you, your marriage is fantastic.


You have two choices.

Choice 1:  Learn the truth about your spouse’s infidelity, and deal with the consequences.

Choice 2:  Never learn about your spouse’s infidelity, and live the rest of your days within a fantastic marriage.


Nearly the entire class, myself included, raised our hands saying it was more important to know the truth than to be ignorant and happy.  One dissenter, Josh, resident skeptic (and the first atheist I ever met), disagreed.  It would be better to be happy, he claimed.  In this case, what was true was not necessarily better than remaining ignorant of the truth.  I’ve come to agree with this perspective.  What difference does it make to me to know this truth if all it does is make my life worse?

This example is quite relevant to my open question on the existence of God.  Atheists will often ridicule the argument that religion is useful, arguing that the truth is more important.  Since there’s no reason to believe in any gods, it’s a waste of time to be a part of religion.  I’m conflicted on this point.  While Pascal’s wager is a poor expression of utility, there seems to be something within it that makes sense.  If atheism is correct, but theism produces more happiness, is that not an argument for theism?

It’s more complicated than this, of course.  A person can’t simply choose to believe or disbelieve.  But over time, I think a person could intentionally be less skeptical, and more open to at least a basic notion of God that might provide more reason for optimism.  Conversely, for the believer, should it become apparent that one's belief system has at minimum some substantial errors, should this discovery be pursued?   Which is better?  To be right and miserable, or wrong and happy?


**For the purpose of this article, I’m intentionally ignoring issues regarding the truth of value of the existence of hell, which adds a different dimension to the question.  I’m also ignoring the entirely real possibility of being a content atheist.

Monday, June 17, 2013


Have you ever been asked a question with an obvious answer, but then had to take most of the day to figure out how to answer it?  This happened to me yesterday; Sarah asked me why advocacy for gay equality is so important to me.  Someone had asked her that question while we were marching in the Portland Pride parade, and she answered that she was mostly there because of me, and wondered how I would have answered.  I thought it was an easy answer until I tried to put words to it.  The real answer brought me back to some stuff I haven’t thought about it in depth for quite a long time.

Towards the end of fifth grade, right around the time that puberty started to set in, I developed 2 crushes.  The first was Olympic gymnast Kim Zmeskal, who was my first celebrity infatuation.  The second was a boy in my class at school.  It was a confusing situation at minimum.  As middle school started, pretty soon it wasn’t just one person, it was all sorts of people.  People of both genders, both people I knew, and people I saw on TV.  I didn’t have words for my feelings, but it was at this age that I started getting zealous in my faith, and the leaders of the youth group started giving talks on sex.  Lust, we were taught, was a sin, and we should pray for deliverance from it.  Masturbation, we were taught, was wrong, since it can’t be done without lust.  I didn’t necessarily disagree with these things, since, as my dad was fond of saying, “if you disagree, you’re not disagreeing with me, you’re disagreeing with God.” 

With my feelings and my faith in sharp disagreement, middle school was a rough three years.  Words like gay and bisexual were rarely used.  Those sorts of things were so obviously sinful that it wasn’t worth bringing them up.  I heard about a guy at church who “used to give into homosexuality” before marrying his wife, a very large woman who seemed a strange match for him.  Homosexuals were not “gay,” because gay implies it’s not a choice, and being gay was most certainly a choice.  Stealing is a choice, murder is a choice, and having sex with your own gender is a choice of rebellion.

Except it wasn’t a choice.  I hated how I felt.  My prayers consisted mostly of praying NOT to feel the way I felt.  My freshman year, I now believed these feelings were permanent.  I had my first girlfriend, and I was attracted to her, but this did nothing to stop my attraction to other boys my own age.  I spent most of that year, when I wasn’t at school or at church, in my room, drowning in fear of my feelings.  I’d listen to Jars of Clay and Counting Crows over and over, usually falling asleep to Soul Asylum’s “Misery Inc.” on repeat.  I didn’t blame God for how I felt; This was clearly a problem with me.

Following freshman year, as puberty wrapped up its cruel and unusual work, my feelings for guys disappeared, almost overnight, and permanently.  Female lust was back with a fury, and lusting for guys seemed weird, almost gross.  The loss of those feelings was like behind freed from prison.  I entered sophomore year with a zest for life I hadn’t had in a long time.  I joined a bunch of choirs, quit the sports I’d grown tired of, quit doing most of my homework, and did my best to have fun with life, as I hadn’t done at all freshman year. 

When Sarah asked me the question, and I thought back on this awful time in my life, it’s awful to realize how little help was available.  I knew literally zero people who were tolerant of same sex attraction.  In the mid-nineties, in my universe, there was no Human Rights Campaign, no PFLAG, and if there were Pride parades, I would have viewed them as evil because of dogma.  The books I was reading, the sermons I was hearing, every influence in my life told me my feelings were wrong, and evil, and I was choosing to have them.  How much more tolerable would life have been if I could have trusted someone with my experience?  I half-confessed them to my dad once in a moment of weakness.  My parents took me to a Christian counselor, but I wouldn’t admit that my feelings were sexual, so the sessions didn’t do much good.  It wasn’t until I’d graduated college and was going through marriage counseling that I finally admitted out loud what I went through.  I owe Mark McLeod a huge debt for helping me take the shame away from my memories of those years.

I may not be a person that’s influential to anyone in the same situation these days.  But with 2 kids, someday I might be.  And I feel like I owe it to Freshman Me to be visible and available in my support of anyone with feelings society tells them are wrong.  They’re not wrong.  They’re not a choice.  There are people who care, who will accept you even if your parents or your church won’t.  And even if you hate your feelings like I did, being able to talk about it might make all the difference.

My lasting memory of Pride yesterday is the face of my friend A.J. as he got to march through the streets as an out Gay Christian.  He walked with his mom, and his church.  The pride on his face was palpable; Maybe for the first time, every important segment of his life was screaming with validation.  May all future people be so fortunate.