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.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Rock Beats Scissors, Kids Beat Hell

“You could always come visit at West Hills.”

“Iiiiii don’t think so.”

“But you’ve never been there.”

“I’ve heard enough from you to know I’m not interested.”

“If she wants to hear an atheist give a sermon, she can just talk to you right now,” my wife chimes in.


This conversation with my mother yesterday encapsulates how things are between the two of us when it comes to religion.  We had been discussing the current state of my childhood Baptist church, and her discontentedness with the current pastor and his methods.  Despite claiming to be “on the edge” of leaving, she figured she could just “wait out” the pastor.  She’s done it before, at least a half dozen times. 

Once upon a time, mom and I had a great relationship.  With our faith in common, we’d talk about Bible studies, Max Lucado books, and our shared love of the concept of grace.  While my dad had been the more dogmatic of the two growing up, mom had the stronger convictions, having converted to Christianity as an adult.  When I went through my “on fire for Christ” phase in middle school, mom had great resources to share with me, and every question seemed to have an easily accessible, black and white answer.

My loss of faith was hard on my mom.  To be sure, my fervor for doubt wasn’t nearly as endearing as my fervor for Jesus, and just as I had done as a believer, my speech as a skeptic was barbed with accusations of bad intentions and intentional ignorance.  Critics of atheists often say that atheists are just as fundamentalist as fundy Christians, and for good reason.  A lot of the times we are. 

Eventually I matured enough to leave faith discussions alone most of the time.  But when it came up (and with a sister who became a tongues-speaking Pentacostal, it came up fairly often), the loss of trust was obvious.  Any statement in opposition to her beliefs was a direct attack on the core of her identity.  I was still her son, and she cared about me, but not at the expense of her church.  We could discuss the past, but discussion of theology ended quickly with platitudes and changing of the subject.  The lack of curiosity baffled me, and still does.    A few months ago I asked her what it’s like to hold a belief system that maintains that her son, and people like him, are going to hell.  “It makes me sad,” she said, referring to me going to hell, not to her belief that it’s true.  The belief in hell, it was quite clear, was more important to her than I am.

I haven’t been a parent for as long as she has, but the idea of holding any idea as more important than my kids boggles my mind.  My daughter took on a different faith structure than me at age five!  It’s a challenge to choose my words carefully so that I never tell her she’s wrong, but it can be done.  It certainly doesn’t create a barrier between us.  In fact, her claim to believe in God led us to become church-goers again, a decision that seems wiser every day.  I’m really looking forward to talking about this issue in twenty years; I want to ask what it was like to given free reign to choose her religious path.  I’m hoping she’ll feel like she, and her thoughts, were always valued, even when they weren’t shared.