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Posts from the ‘Agnosticism’ Category

Living After Faith

It has been a year or two since I have began listening to Living After Faith, a podcast produced here in Seattle by Deanna Joy and Rich Lyons that addresses the process of leaving religion with all its complications, challenges, and joys.

Without knowing it, Rich and Deanna have been a major source of support and encouragement in my recent life.

Although my own experience with leaving religion was much less traumatic than either of theirs, I have identified with many of thee speakers and stories shared on the podcast. Through them, I have learned so much about so many peoples’ lives, lessons that have given me new insight this crazy thing called life.

And I have rarely come away from an episode without a good laugh and a good dose of hope and a strong reassurance that I am not alone.

Don’t know why it has taken me so long to share this amazing resource.

Rich and Deanna Joy (and those who make LAF possible), I thank you – for your time and energy, your honesty and positivity, your frankness and vulnerability, and for the living picture you provide of what a beautiful thing a life-after-faith can be.

Christians and Pagans and Atheists and Einstein

There is a great song by Dar Williams called Christians and Pagans. If you’ve never heard it, have a listen:

Back in 2009, when I was reeling from the shock of loosing my life-long faith, scrambling to reconstruct some semblance of a worldview, and aching over the huge gash that had been torn in the safe, warm, loving fabric of my family relationships, this song was my catharsis.

And my hope.

I would sit and listen to it on repeat, fighting tears, aching inside for the all of the parents and children, brothers and sisters, cousins and grandparents and friends throughout human history who, for whatever reasons, have found themselves on opposite sides of a dividing line.

Having one’s heart strings stretched across the brick and mortar and barbed wire and chasms we’ve constructed between various ideological camps – it hurts.

When I lost my Christian faith, I didn’t stop loving my Christian family. And they didn’t stop loving me. And while I understand the reasoning and experiences that have led them to their conclusions, I have had other experiences that have led me to mine. Ones that can be explained in words, but not fully transmitted.

How can I expect my parents to follow the winding trail my mind and heart have travelled since I left home? And how can I begin to understand the lives they lived before I was born, and even after, inside their own minds and hearts, that have forged and strengthened their own convictions about life?

I can’t. We are all stuck inside our own heads, and there is only so much that can be shared through words.

And that leaves us in this awful tug ‘o’ war between love and pain.

I hope that someday it will be like it is in the song – that my family and I will be able to gather around the table, hold hands, celebrate the beauty of life, and choose to respect each other as equally intelligent, good, legitimate people, accepting each other’s differences and seeming crazy-ness in spite of our mutual inability to comprehend, understanding that we are all just trying to “[make] sense of history and [draw] warmth out of the cold.”

I guess we are pretty close to that already, maybe even farther along in some respects. And I am so thankful for that – for my parents’ determination to stay in my life and love and support me, to allow me to participate in theirs; for their growing willingness to engage me in conversation on philosophical topics, to ask what I really think, to clarify what they really think. I am thankful for my siblings’ continued support and communication and care.

I know at times it would probably be less painful for all of us to just go do our own things and check in occasionally to discuss the weather and other innocuous topics.

I’m so thankful that’s not my family.

The one thing I am wishing these days is that they could identify with this line from the song that I love so much, the one that goes, “And you find magic from your god and we find magic everywhere.”

There is magic in life. There is beauty and awesomeness and mystery. I experienced it as a Christian. And I experience it now as an naturalist, perhaps even more profoundly. And it is those who live in light of this magic, wherever they find it, that, I think, tend to be the kind of people that other people want to be around and who, little by little, are loving the world to a better place.

Albert Einstein probably said it best:

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.

I, of course, believe that the most accurate, whole, and satisfying perspective from which to experience this awe is a naturalistic/humanistic one.

But whether you consider yourself a Christian, a pagan, an atheist or anything else in between, I hope you are finding it – that magic, that sense of wonder, that keeps your inner spark alive, that makes life worth living.

If you are not, don’t waste another minute. Life is short. Go get it. And don’t be afraid of boxes and lines. Crossing them might be painful. It might stretch some cords. But love is amazingly elastic. And amazingly strong.

And the wonder is worth the pain.

Don’t Be A Fundie, Be A Kid

I used to be a Christian fundamentalist. I used to believe that The Bible was the inerrant word of God; that it was the clear, explicit, absolute, ultimate Truth, never to be questioned; that those who believed otherwise were either ignorant or intentionally turning a blind eye.

At least, I thought that’s what I believed.

When I had my “quarter-life crisis” and started really desperately searching for Meaning and Purpose and Answers, and started really studying the Bible in depth for the first time, I realized that I had been basing my life on one interpretation of the Bible that existed among thousands, one that was selected for me by the chances of birth and education.

That realization was partly what forced me to open my mind and consider that I could have it wrong; that somewhere out there among the billions of other people who believed billions of other things, there could be someone who had it more right.

I consider that dawning to be one of the best things that has ever happened to me.

I was home for Easter a couple of weekends ago. I spent time with my parents and brother, sharing meals and goodnight hugs, talking in depth on topics that are too touchy for over-the-phone conversations, attending Sunday service with them at my old church.

And I had a horrible wake-up call: I realized I was in danger of becoming a fundamentalist all over again. Not as a Christian, this time, but as an atheist.

When I was young, the certainty with which I held my Christian beliefs was perpetuated by the homogeneity of my social circle. I was never forced into close contact with anyone who thought much differently than I. Everyone I knew and trusted supported me in my perspective. We all believed the same thing. We all talked in the same terms. Our beliefs were affirmed and reinforced daily as we continued to talk mostly with each other.

My world now is much less homogeneous. I live in the middle of a large and ethnically diverse city. I come in contact daily with people from many different backgrounds and persuasions. I have friends who are gay, friends who are Evangelical, Catholic, Muslim and Buddhist; friends who are older, younger, single, married.

You’d think this would keep me pretty open-minded.

But here is the problem. Deep down, I want to be affirmed. I want to be right. And so I gravitate toward those friends who make me feel that I am. They are the ones I am most honest with, most vulnerable with. They are the ones I spend the most time with, the ones I really let into my heart and mind.

And that is not good.

Because it isn’t until you really let someone in, really learn to love them, that you can really understand them. And without understanding, it is far too easy to let our tribal nature take over and turn the Different into Evil. We need understanding. We may not always agree with a person, but we do need to try to see where he/she is coming from.

Being at home with my family and old friends, I remembered again how the world looks from their perspective. And I remembered that, just as my beliefs are the product of the chance encounters and experiences life has brought my way completely apart from my own volition, so are theirs.

I have a good Christian friend who went away to grad school and fell in love with a “flaming liberal.” It totally took her by surprise. And it was really a shock for him too, to find himself in a relationship with her. We he left his hometown for the school (which happened to be in the South), his friends teased him about falling for a “fundie,” which is pretty much what she was at the time.

Oh Life, you are so ironic.

Though the relationship didn’t last, and involved the hurts and complications that many relationships do, I think it was good for both of them – to come face to face with “The Enemy” and realize that underneath the unfamiliar style and mannerisms and terminology, they really both wanted the same things: to be happy and healthy, for the world to be happy and healthy, to be forgiven for their shortcomings and loved unconditionally.

I wish every person could learn to love someone different; someone they might once have thought unlovable. I think it would make the world a much better place.

In closing this post, I need to say two things:

First, to Christians or theists reading this blog, I apologize if I have ever made you feel belittled or stereotyped. I may not agree with you about some things, but I understand why you hold the convictions you do, and that just like me you think what you think and you do what you because you believe earnestly that it the most best/right thing to think and do.

Second, to Christians and atheists and people of all creeds and colors, let’s not be “fundies.” Let’s not pridefully and unbendingly assume that we have it all figured out and the rest of the world are idiots. Let’s honestly and humbly engage in conversation and try to understand each other.

Let’s try to remember that we are all on the same team. We are all part of one tribe. If there is an enemy to be fought, it is the tragic need we have to protect our own egos and cling stubbornly to absolutes that bring us a false sense of security.

We’ve got to let go of that. We’ve got to be free.

In Matthew 18, Jesus urges his audience to “become as little children.” No matter what you believe about the Bible and it’s origins or the identity of Jesus Christ, that is good advice.

Because the thing about children is that they are free; free of shame, of fear of judgement, of the need to judge others; free of assumptions and certainties. They recognize the incompleteness of their own knowledge. They live with humility.

In their unassumingness, kids build bridges. Fundies build walls.

Let’s be kids.

Why This Atheist Still Gets Up In The Morning

monks

Sometimes, even on sunny Saturday mornings, I have moments when I feel like quitting.

Which is ridiculous considering how easy my life is compared with most. I have a clean, warm home; a closet full of clothes; plenty of food to eat; a job and health care and friends and family to love; and on top of all that, nobody shooting at me. That is a lot.

But still, even when life is easy, life is hard. It is hard in other ways, inside.

You see the never-ending conflict and hurts and injustices between people. You carry the guilt of collective practices that are damaging the earth. You experience and/or anticipate the inevitable pain and frustration and limitations of aging. And, in very lucid moments, you realize the immanence of your own death and the deaths of those you love.

And you just can’t help thinking…what’s the point?

When I had these days as a Christian (and I had plenty of them), I would collapse into a heap and throw myself onto the mental safety net of God’s omnipotence. I didn’t know how he was gonna do it, but I had complete faith that, somehow, someday, he would make everything right.

There is a quote by Julian of Norwich in her work, Showing of Love, referencing the ultimate end, that says, “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”

I came across it in my universalist days (which turned out to be, for me, the gateway to atheism), and it brought me a lot of peace, believing that no matter how much I screwed up my own life or humanity screwed itself, God would fix it. He would make everything okay.

I would remind myself of that, and stand up, put my head down, and just keep going, and hoping.

I think the emotional need to have this fail-proof back-up plan of The-Salvation-Of-Everything is a huge part of why so many people are compelled to believe in some sort of god concept.

We don’t want to be ultimately responsible for ourselves. We want that cosmic mommy/daddy out there who will pick us up, dust us off, pay the bill, change the tire, and reassure us that everything is under control; that we are safe.

If you were lucky enough to have an earthly parent or two who did those things for you, you know as I do what a gift that is. It makes the transition into adulthood much less painful.

But it is still painful.

At some point, we all have to grow up. And growing up means learning to be your own parent: your own fixer and protector, your own last resort, your own safe place. It means being responsible for your own life.

And if you, like me, happen to not believe in a personal god with a will and the unlimited power to manipulate this reality, it also means being responsible for ALL of existence – this miraculous, inexplicable, self-existing, crazy, beautiful phenomenon that we are privileged by our consciousness to witness. It is a precious and fragile thing, life. And if there is no god, it is up to us to preserve it.

That is when things get really weighty. When you realize that.

Now, when I have those what-is-the-point days, I can’t just throw up my hands and trust that “All shall be well.”

But I can still hope. And I can act.

I read a story recently (a true one) in a book by Joanna Macy, about some Buddhist monks in Tibet who were exiled from their country by the Chinese and only decades later were allowed to return. They, their homes, monasteries, and communities had suffered terribly during the Chinese occupation of Tibet in the fifties, and seven years after returning, they were still rebuilding the center of culture and education their land had once been.

The political atmosphere, however, remained volatile. No one could predict what might happen in a year, or ten years.

The following passage from the story explains a revelation the author had while she and her husband were there in Tibet, observing the monks’ efforts, and wondering about their will to continue in the face of unlikely odds. It was revelatory for me, as well.

As we stood on the outer wall, I watched Bon-pa Tulku smile calmly as my husband queried him about Chinese policies and the prospects of another period of repression. I saw that such calculations were conjectural to him, as were any guarantees of success. Who knows? And since you cannot know, you simply proceed. You do what you have to do. You put one stone on top of another and another on top of that. If the stones are knocked down, you begin again, because if you don’t, nothing will get built. You persist. Through the vagaries of government policies you persist, because in the long run it is persistence that shapes the future.

When I have my giving-up days, now, I still do the same thing I did as a Christian: I stand back up and keep going.

It could be that in spite of my efforts, our efforts, the world may not improve much. And I’m pretty sure it’s never going to be perfect. So I’m left to choose between two evils:

I can plop my butt down and live out my days in selfish hedonism, starved for meaning and fulfillment, depressed that life isn’t the way I want it to be.

Or, I can pull myself up by the bootstraps, head back out into the fray every day, do the little bit I can in my little corner of the world, and hope for the best.

Both options are hard, and either way, life is going to suck a lot of the time.

It makes more sense to me to do the hard, sucky thing that MIGHT produce some good – some positive change that could benefit our children and grandchildren and maybe even alter the course of evolution and consciousness – than to do the hard, sucky thing that is guaranteed to find us a hundred years from now squatting in the same dark hole, or worse.

And I see enough good, enough beauty, enough creativity and awesomeness and love in humanity to make all the frustration and set-backs and agony of the journey worth it, to make life worth preserving.

I hope you do too.

Because it is not “persistence” as a vague notion that shapes the future, but persistence lived out by individual, real people – like Bon-pa Tulku, like you, like me – who together form communities and societies and countries and the human race.

If humanity is going to persist, you and I must first.

The Homage Of Reason

Thomas Jefferson, who was not a Christian as some think, but rather a Deist, once made the following statement: “Question with boldness even the existence of God; because if there be one he must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear.”

Religion is a funny thing. It requires us to believe the incredible; to accept on faith a whole panoply of assumptions that are often seemingly arbitrary and sometimes even contradictory. And then it asks us to turn around and reject all other religious claims as bogus, usually on the basis of reason. We are encouraged to observe and think critically when it comes to other religions, but when the light is shone on our own, a point inevitably comes at which we must swallow our doubts and “just believe.”

It is a very good thing that, throughout human history, there have been numerous individuals unwilling to do that. For in the arena of ideas about the nature of reality, observable, verifiable fact and reason are the only standards we have by which to measure whether or not an idea is (or could be) true. Reason is what has allowed us to better understand our world and harness its resources and functionality to solve problems and improve our lives. Reason is the universal language by which we can have conversations across cultures and religions and differing personal experiences. Reason is the only place we can begin the search for what is true.

If you are here, reading this, you have likely taken the step of “boldness” that Jefferson advocates, and that takes courage and humility. To hold your deepest convictions with open hands and honestly consider another point of view or new piece of information, and to ask yourself, “What makes the most sense? What is the most reasonable explanation for these facts? What is the most good and right?” and to be willing to accept ANY answer, to change your position, if necessary, even if it will hurt, even if you will lose face, for the sake of truth…that is no small feat.

If it is one you have undertaken, I commend you, and celebrate the victory of reason over fear in your life.

Disney vs. OkCupid: The Paralysis and Power of Online Dating

I used to think there was a man out there in the world somewhere that God had picked out before the beginning of time to be my husband. I used to pray for him, even. I believed, in general, that God had a perfect plan for every aspect of who I was to be and what I was to do, and that if I was seeking His will for my life this pre-ordained and perfect plan, including the perfect man/marriage, would come to be…and I would live happily ever after.

As my Christianity became more reasoned and “flexible”, and even after it was gone completely, I still held onto a vague, lingering idea of “soul-mates” or “destiny”…

…which isn’t too surprising, considering that the largest percentage of our society does also…

…which, in turn, isn’t too surprising, considering most of us were raised with some flavor of theism and, perhaps even more significantly, on a steady diet of Disney movies and romantic comedies.

It just recently occurred to me as I was watching The Little Mermaid with the two-year-old I care for (and having all sorts of qualms about the messages it might be sending to her impressionable young mind), that one of its biggest and most blatant questionable messages, one I had never before stopped to consider, is this very idea of soul-mates.

In every Disney movie I have ever seen, there is only one man. There is only one prince. Only one possible outcome.

Ariel’s social world, for example, consisted entirely of her family and three friends who, though all male, were excluded outright from her list of potential lovers per the unforgiving reality of the species barrier (Sebastian = crab, Scuttle = seagull, Flounder = well…flounder).

So from the second she first laid eyes on Prince Eric (who was, seemingly, genetically related enough), Ariel knew. Though she might have been distracted by the other human males she observed on the ship had the playing field been equal, it was not. Prince Eric was clearly the most handsome, clearly the sweetest, clearly the most thoughtful, funniest, best-dressed. Clearly, The Prince.

There were never any questions of political leanings, life-style preferences, religious beliefs, geographical constraints, or medical conditions addressed. And there was no doubt about sustaining long-term chemistry or commitment. There were no other options, so it was a given that, once princess and prince had overcome the obstacles and been united in love, they would live, of course, happily ever after.

And it is the same in almost every romantic comedy and book and love story I can think of that are icons of our American (and perhaps Western hemisphere, first-world) experience. No real decisions ever have to be made. The relative merits of one potential life partner over another never, or rarely, come up.

This glaring inconsistency with reality was magnified by my recent excursion into the world of on-line dating.

In the past four weeks I have looked at probably a hundred profiles and interacted with numerous potential mates – all intelligent, attractive, fun, thoughtful, talented men – and while it has been an adventure getting to know so many new people and a great boost to my ego feeling wanted and admired, it is also rather overwhelming

I have only been out on actual dates with four different people, and already I feel I have too much to evaluate and decide between, and too much more still to learn about these individuals in order to make a good decision.

In real life, there are thousands of “princes” out there (or none, if you are a glass-half-empty kind of a person). None of them are perfect. None of them are going to be perfect for you, nor you for them. They, like you, are human and unique. You will not see eye-to-eye on everything with any one of them. There is no crown atop one man’s head blinking like a homing beacon to signal that he is “The One.”

It is really rather unfortunate. It makes this whole process of finding a long-term partner MUCH more complicated than you grow up expecting it to be.

All that to say, I don’t believe in soul-mates any longer, at least not in a pre-destined sense. I believe we choose a person – probably rather arbitrarily – and then MAKE them our soul-mate over time as we continue to choose them again and again, continue to change them and be changed by them, continue to learn who they are and understand more and more how they see the world.

But choosing is much easier said than done.

Living in the world today, we are faced with SO much more choice when it comes to almost everything – food and material goods of all kinds, education, occupation, geographical location, even physical appearance, and now dating – than our grandparents and great-grandparents ever could have imagined. We are forced daily to make hundreds of decisions, large and small, that they never had to consider once.

And psychologists, sociologists, economists and observant people in general are beginning to realize that all of this choice is not a good thing. It is paralyzing and breeds discontent.

And I’m beginning to understand this as it pertains to romantic relationships. When the whole world is your “sea” the perfect “fish” could still be out there. And that makes us – makes me – hesitant to commit.

But here’s the thing: I could spend the next five years, probably, meeting potential partners from Seattle alone, and really do very little to increase my chances of marital happiness…

…because another quite poignant observation people have been making is that we don’t actually know what we want. We don’t know what is really going to make us happy.

So basically love, like life, is a crapshoot, and you just have to do your best to eliminate possibilities that you are pretty sure will make you UNhappy, point your feet towards ones that you suspect might bring you some sort of intrinsic joy, and then MAKE THE MOST OF IT!

In other words, find someone you respect and admire, whose company and conversation you enjoy, whom you find physically attractive, whose values and life goals are compatible with your own; do your best to understand and acknowledge their weaknesses and be honest with them about yours; prepare yourself for the inevitable loss of “sparkle” with the passage of time and increased familiarity, and take steps to keep adding that sparkle back in; and then, finally, take their hand and say,

“We are both two crazy human beings who just happened to run into each other in this big, broiling mess of 7 billion, who don’t really know what we want or how those wants will change in the future, who don’t really know, completely, how to be happy. But we’ve decided we like each other enough to commit to navigating this giant experiment of life together, and we’re going to do our best to navigate it in a way that will allow us to keep liking each other and keep choosing each other, flaws and all, over all the other imperfect people out there who may or may not temporarily make us happy.”

Perhaps some will see this logical, realistic approach to relationships as cold and unromantic. Some might even make a rather cynical (but very good) joke of it.

But I view love and marriage now with as deep and wide a sense of beauty and magic as I ever did – not in spite of its randomness, but because of it.

You could have met any one of 7 billion people, but you met him. Your life circumstances and experiences could have caused you to take one path, but you took the one that led you here. Those same experiences could have predispositioned you to value and choose another, but you chose her.

That kind of love – one that basks with wonder in the miraculous occurrence of near-zero-probability events – and looks with gratefulness on the joys those events brought to life, in spite of the inevitable accompanying pain and grief…

…that kind of love is so much more alive, so much more real, so much MORE than any happily-ever-after Disney story I have ever heard.

And unlike a Disney love which requires a princess to sit around waiting for the stars to align or The Prince to get his castle and trusty stead in order, this kind of love can be actively sought, grown, and chosen by any two people willing to seek it.

For me, that is freeing. And empowering.

More On Truth: Pontius Pilate’s Age-Old Question

Every heard of Pontius Pilate?

If you’re a history buff, you likely have. If you were raised in any sect of Christianity or studied the religion even briefly, you DEFINITELY have.

For those of you who are neither, poor old P-dawg was the unlucky guy reportedly responsible for the authorization of Jesus’ crucifixion.

Talk about being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The book of John in the New Testament relates the conversation that took place between Jesus and Pilate, in which Jesus explains that he “came into the world to testify to truth,” and claims that “everyone on the side of truth listens to [him].”

These assertions prompt Pilate to shake his head resignedly (as I imagine it) and ask his famous question: “What is truth?”

As I suggested in my previous post, while I do think ultimate, objective truth exists, I do not think human beings are completely capable of detecting it. But it is a question we have been driven to ask since the beginning of recorded history. And a really weird question, when you really think about it.

Anyway, I wish Pilate would have had the chance to read Professor Eric Steinhart on this topic. I referenced his article at the end of my last post, before I’d had the chance to read it, and now that I have, I must recommend it again. He talks about Truth, and what it is, expertly and thoroughly, but in a way that is understandable even for a layperson like me.

Is there a greater food for thought than the question of truth!?!?

I get goose-bumps just thinking about it…