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: