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Posts from the ‘Change’ Category

Mind Travel

Space_Shuttle_Discovery

I’ve been a bit of a hermit lately, for reasons I will save for another post. But from inside my bedroom, where I have spent most of the past few days, I have traveled all over the world. All over the universe, in fact, in search of what there is, and what is real, and what is true, and I have made a few discoveries (well, ideas new to me, at least), all thanks to Netflix, and the “interwebs” and some good books, and my own imagination and reason. Which brings me to the first of these new insights…

1) IN MY MIND, I AM FREE. Absolutely free. It was Stephen Hawking who presented this fact to me. Those were his exact words, in fact, spoken from the wheelchair he inhabits every day, unmoving, depending on a computer for communication, and on numerous machines and caretakers to meet his basic needs. And while it seems like a given now that I’ve thought about it consciously, I never had before. It seems somehow inappropriate to take Stephen’s words – so profound in his case – and apply them to myself. And yet I think any human being could do it justly.

We are all constrained in so many ways by the circumstances of our birth and biology. We will never experience first hand another time, another perspective, another set of DNA, another childhood, besides the ones chance bestows on us. But like Hawking, all of us still can experience infinite other worlds, unconstrained by location or genetic ability or socioeconomic privilege. Our memories and imaginations, together, can take us anywhere – to bygone moments of our own previous lives, or to infinite other worlds, past, present, and future, so long as we can dream them up…or look them up on the world-wide-web.

And our minds can do this instantly. At one second this morning, I was jogging past a newly remodeled home, enjoying the neighborhood scenery, mentally constructing my to-do list for the coming work day; the next, I was breathing in the scent of fresh-cut wood and standing in my sixth grade shop class, seeing it all through the somewhat hazy lens of memory, but feeling acutely – for just a brief second – all the angst and wonderings and insecurities of middle school life in the 90’s. Smell is a powerful vehicle for mental travel, isn’t it? Like a time machine inside your brain. And speaking of time…

2) TIME IS NOT CONSTANT. Did you know this?!? I guess it has been common knowledge since the early 1900’s, but somehow it escaped me. Turns out, time flows, like a river, sometimes slower and sometimes faster. There are a couple of things that slow time down. One is proximity to mass. The nearer one is to a massive object, the more slowly time moves. Did you know that the 36 satellites orbiting our planet, which together support our global positioning system, each contain a super-precise clock that measures time to the billionth of a second? And that, in addition, this clock contains a mechanism to correct for the difference in time between earth and space (approximately 38,000 nanoseconds per day) that would otherwise accumulate and render the GPS system useless?

The other thing that slows time down is speed. The faster you travel, the more slowly time passes. As with proximity to mass, the difference in the passage of time at higher and lower speeds in miniscule. It is not until you are moving super, super, super quickly that there will be a significant difference. And of course you wouldn’t notice a difference. If you were traveling in a train around the earth at a crazy-fast speed, and had a very precise clock aboard the train with you, both you and your clock would perceive time as passing normally. However, when the train came to a stop and you stepped out, you would find that your clock was slightly behind the clocks that had remained stationary outside the train, where stationary people (and their clocks and watches) had also perceived time as passing normally. Crazy, huh?!?!

I guess Albert Einstein calculated/predicted these things in his Theory of Relativity. A lot of people didn’t really believe it completely, though, until we started messing around in space where we (and our fancy-schmancy super clocks) were removed a sufficient distance away from the mass of the earth and, likewise, able to achieve speeds that friction from the atmosphere on earth made previously impossible to attain. I don’t know where I was when they taught this in grade school. Maybe too concerned with those angsts and wonderings and insecurities I was talking about earlier. But Stephen explained it to me yesterday on Netflix, and now I am just like, WHAAAAAT?!?

I have been telling my mother since the time I was 11 or so that time is weird. And my conviction of this fact keeps growing.

3.) DISCOVERY IS AWESOME. One of the most exciting characteristics of life is the potential it holds to change us. In one moment our picture of the world can totally morph, or expand exponentially. To grow in our understanding of the universe and what it contains; to think consciously about it all – even about our own consciousness; and to ponder what it means and what we are to do with the precious, precious thing that it is – this, by my definition, is what it means to really live. I started my third career a few months ago, in a new field, mostly unrelated to the previous two which, in turn, were themselves fairly unrelated. And with each new work experience, I am filling in, bit-by-bit, the pieces of my self puzzle, figuring our what makes me tick. Discovery – for sure – is a big ticker.

I’m thinking about going back to school to get a PhD in neuroscience. Anybody want to fund that? 😉

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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.

Humans Anonymous

Human beings are prone to addiction.

I don’t care who you are, or how much balance/temperance/ restraint with which you live your life. I KNOW you have a penchant for some thing or another. A go-to habit or vice that you know is, to some degree, unhealthy.

It could be as insignificant as nail-biting. It might be as serious as alcoholism or anorexia. But I know you have at least one.

Because we are needy creatures. All of us. Whether we are married or single, old or young, black or white, gay or straight, employed or not, we almost all have days when we feel something is missing; when we are longing for some unidentifiable “more.”

As a Christian, I thought that something was God. That we were made with a “God-shaped hole” in our hearts that could only be filled by a personal relationship with him through Jesus. Of course, I was always baffled as to why that empty feeling persisted even in the midst of my most fervent phases of Christianity.

I did have moments of freedom and peace. Moments when everything was so clear and light. I knew what really mattered in my life. I knew who I was and what I wanted. I was filled with love for the world and grace and forgiveness for its brokenness. I lost all sense of self-consciousness.

And those moments, as a Christian, did often follow times of extended prayer (in the form of journaling) or worship (in the form of singing praise songs), or an inspiring sermon.

They also happened after long hikes out in the mountains, long drives in the car with a good CD, intimate conversations with a close friend.

Before I stepped off the ledge and finally let go of my faith, I wondered if those moments of clarity and insight and absolute magnanimity and peace I had had would disappear.

They didn’t.

Funny thing – they actually happened MORE frequently immediately following my de-conversion. And they happen now about as often as they used to. Maybe even slightly more. And that makes sense.

Because I’ve learned by experience that those moments were not brought on by some sort of increased mystical connection with God. They were produced by mental space and focus and a regaining of perspective.

When I have my “zen” moments now, when all seems right inside my heart and mind and in the world, it is after a good long journaling session, or a quiet day of gardening and organizing, or a heart-to-heart with a kindred spirit, or an amazing concert, or a powerful true story, or a bike ride out on one of Puget Sound’s beautiful islands.

These types of activities accomplish the same thing in my mind/heart/spirit that prayer-journaling and worship and Bible reading and sermons accomplished before:

They get me out of the crazy-busy world, out of my crazy-busy life logistics, and out of my crazy-busy head.

They quiet all the mental noise and help me realize that everything I have, I need; that everything I am is alright; that I need not live in fear of pain or loss or sickness or even death, because those things are inevitable. Worrying about them only increases their chances of occurrence, and when they do come, they can be dealt with then – one day at a time, with patience and mindfulness and compassion and love.

I do think we humans have a sort of “hole” inside of ourselves. Not a God-shaped one, necessarily, but a sort of empty-ness. I think at its root it is really the unfortunate tendency resulting from natural selection to want as much as we can get our hands on; to want the best for ourselves; to never be satisfied with what we have. And while this character trait has clearly been effective in helping our ancestors survive to pass along their genes, it also has resulted in a lot of inner turmoil.

And I think in order to deal with that inner turmoil – so we don’t get home from a stressful, painful day of life and eat an entire bag of chocolate chip cookies (my particular addiction of choice), or fry our brains on Seinfeld re-runs, or drink ourselves into oblivion, or cut ourselves, or force ourselves to run 10 miles on five carrot sticks, or finally end it all by jumping off a bridge – we have to raise our level of consciousness.

We have to realize this self-defeating character flaw we all have and rise above it. We have to let go of our selfishness and self-awareness and insatiable need for more. We have to step away into the quiet and take a good look around and see reality.

We have to tell ourselves, “Enough!” I have enough. Enough food. Enough clothing. Enough toys. Enough time. And I am enough. Pretty enough, smart enough, good enough, accomplished enough.

And then embrace life. Drink deeply of it. Of the beauty and wonder of the natural world, the awesomeness of the universe, the glory of humanity’s capacity for understanding, communication, exploration, discovery, creativity and survival. Of our own infinitely unique personalities and bodies and abilities and joys.

Hi. My name is Erin and I am a recovering human. It has been eleven days since my last cookie binge. I know there is a good possibility it will happen again. But by the grace of my mind and reason, I am living one day at a time to the best of my ability, letting go of my selfishness and desperate pursuit of More, reminding myself that there is Enough.

If you are on a similar journey, my heart goes out to you. Welcome to Humans Anonymous.

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.

Freedom to Love

I ended my last post with a hopeful view of what love and marriage can be, should they ever come about in the life of a given individual. However, I spent the majority of it moaning about the complexity and overwhelming-ness of finding and choosing a life/marriage partner.

And now I am feeling a little sheepish.

Never once in the midst of all my agonizing did I stop to consider what it might be like to be denied the freedom to undertake this “task” at all, one that is, perhaps, among the most profound of human pursuits and most significant sources of human joy and meaning.

And yet, that is the reality for possibly ten percent of people alive today.  Should they be fortunate enough to birth and grow the kind of deep, irrational, vulnerable, and committed love we all long for, they are still not guaranteed the opportunity to live out that love publicly or be accepted as part of society.

Considering recent political events surrounding gay rights (i.e. signing of the same-sex marriage bill here in Washington State, and the passing of a similar bill in the Maryland House of Delegates) I’m hoping this won’t always be the case.

But right now, if you happen to have romantic affections for a person of your own gender, things look pretty grim.

And this is tragic.

I mentioned a while ago, in the first installment of my Why I Am Not A Christian series, that probably the earliest major issue I had with Christianity – one that played a large part in my deconversion journey – was the idea of Hell.

Homosexuality was a close second.

Growing up in a very rural, very conservative, relatively homogeneous community, I did not come in contact with many openly gay people. So it was relatively easy for me, for a while, to accept the teaching of my church that homosexuality was a sin; that it was a sinful life-style chosen by sinful (or deceived/deluded) people.

But then I started volunteering with a church youth group and began mentoring a young girl who happened to have two moms, who were some of the kindest, warmest, most welcoming people I had ever met. I was baffled at their kindness and grace toward, and the freedom they granted their two daughters to participate in, an organization that looked down on, even condemned, the love that formed the foundation of their shared life…a life that appeared to be as full of love, understanding, forgiveness, consideration, selfless-ness, wisdom, temperance, and all-around good family values as the most exemplary heterosexual Christian marriages/families I had witnessed.

I couldn’t wrap my head around what could possibly be bad about that love.

According to 1 John, after all, “Love is of God, and everyone who loves is born of God. He who does not love, does not know God, for God is love” (Ch. 4. vs. 7-8).

I was blessed to be born to parents who knew how to love each other and their children. I grew up witnessing real love in action every day. And what I saw happening in that girl’s family between her moms, between her and her siblings, was no different than the deep love I saw pass between my own mom and dad, and as a result among my brother and sisters and I as well.

Then there was my dear friend in college, a Christian, who revealed to me that he’d struggled for years and years with homosexual feelings. I was baffled. He was one of the most faithful, courageous, upstanding, passionate Christian people I had ever been privileged to know. There was no question in my mind that he would ever have chosen to entertain those feelings or ideas by his own volition.

I began to consider the possibility that scientific findings of genetic predisposition toward homosexuality might have merit. But that left me questioning God’s character. How could crippling my friend with this condition that He supposedly condemned, possibly bring Him glory? It had only been, thus far in my friend’s life, a source of self-loathing, isolation, alienation, paralysis, and pain and torment of all kinds. Why would a good god allow that?

(Years later another dear Christian friend, this one female and one of the most intelligent, thoughtful, analytical people I know, came out to me. The conversations we had about her childhood feelings toward men and women, combined with my knowledge of her character and some reflection on how I had experienced my own sexuality as a child, finally quashed any possibility remaining in my mind that homosexuality is a choice.)

Then I moved to Seattle. I met and made friends with many more people like my youth group mentoree’s mothers. Some single, some in relationships. Some “preppy” and highly educated. Some a bit “stoner” and unambitious. Some hipster. Some jock. Some philosophical and thoughtful and analytical. Some younger. Some older. Some more emotional and irrational. Some kind and generous. Some self-centered and cynical…

…basically running the same gamut of human beauty and ugliness and quirkiness I had witnessed among the heterosexual people I was formerly solely familiar with.

And then I got to know Christians – real, dedicated, Bible-believing ones – who not only welcomed openly gay people into their communities, but actually viewed their love as another equally beautiful, right, and good manifestation of the love of God.

And then I discovered there is very little in the Bible that actually addresses homosexuality. Much less, in fact, than there is addressing issues of dress and clothing and hairstyle and diet and many other details of daily living which we completely disregard or interpret as being directed to certain people in a certain time and place but not applicable to current life.

And I began to think more about some of the objections to homosexuality put forth by those who oppose it, asking whether they made sense, whether they were valid. And I found that they didn’t, that they weren’t.

For many people, I think, regardless of what their religions or philosophies tell them, there is an negative “knee-jerk” reaction to homosexuality, simply because it is foreign to them. Most people (90% is the estimate) are genetically pre-dispositioned toward heterosexuality, so it is true that homosexuality is not “the norm.” Most people cannot imagine being attracted to someone of the same gender. It feels as unnatural to them as an attraction to a sibling or parent. And that rarity of homosexual people in the general population has been hugely compounded by social pressure. In many cultures of the world for the past two thousand years, homosexuality has been condemned, forcing gay people to remain “in the closet.”

And as human social behavior has proven over and over again, ignorance breeds distrust. We automatically fear what is unfamiliar to us. And that is an unfortunate quirk of the human psyche that we really need to get over.

Those who continue to entertain this instinctual aversion often attempt to support the “unnatural-ness” of homosexuality by pointing out the fact that it produces no offspring.

That is, of course, a fact. However, heterosexual partners participate in all sorts of other healthy, normal sexual activities that likewise produce no offspring. Heterosexual couples have sex at all periods of a woman’s menstrual cycle, despite the fact that she may not be in her fertile window. Sterile couples also have sex, even when there is no hope at all of conceiving. Couples who are using natural methods of birth control enjoy each other’s bodies in sexual ways that are physically gratifying and expressive of love and intimacy.

Should sterile couples not be allowed to marry because they can’t produce offspring? Should heterosexual couples only touch each other when they’re ready to make a baby?

Neither should a homosexual couple’s inability to produce offspring be used as reason to prohibit their sexual expression of love and intimacy.

Some people might stop me here and say, “Well, if we allow this ‘unnatural’ form of sexual expression, what is to prevent bestiality, or pedophilia, etc.?”

While it hurts me to legitimize this suggestion with a response, I will nevertheless point out that human sexual behavior must always be (is usually, in psychologically healthy individuals) regulated by our consciousness and volition in such a way that justice is done by all involved.

Our government exists for the purpose of protecting the rights and freedoms and welfare of its citizens. We have laws against pedophilia and bestiality in order to protect those vulnerable and less powerful (children and animals) from physical and psychological harm. An adult man wooing and sexually using a young girl who is physically and emotionally immature and unable to make a free, reasoned, healthy decision about what to do with her body, is a much, much, MUCH different thing than two adult men or women who find each other attractive choosing to act consensually on that mutual attraction.

It may be true that manipulation and abuse occur in homosexual relationships, but they occur as well in heterosexual ones all the time, and nobody would therefore conclude that heterosexual sex is bad because it can be used to control and hurt people. Neither should we allow the instances of unhealthy homosexuality to discredit homosexuality in general.

Others may object to homosexuality because of its ramifications on a societal, rather than individual, level. They say that children need a stable home life, with a loving mother and father providing resources and guidance and protection, to grow and develop optimally.

And I believe they are right…mostly.

Research has shown that children do do better in two-parent homes where these needs are met. What it hasn’t shown is that these two parents must be a male and a female, specifically. Most of the research out there has been done comparing single-parent homes to two-parent homes, and most of the two parent homes existing in our historically anti-gay U.S. society happen, not surprisingly, to be heterosexual.

By my own afore-mentioned experience, a family with two moms can be just as loving, healthy, and secure a place as a family with a mom and a dad. If research has been done comparing mother/father homes with mother/mother or father/father homes, I would be surprised if it showed any significant differences in child outcomes when extraneous variables are controlled for.

Another argument that often comes up but makes very little sense to me, is the idea that homosexual marriage somehow devalues heterosexual marriage.

Marriage has meant many different things to many different people over the course of human civilization.

Perhaps you are a Christian who believes, based on your particular interpretation of the Bible, that God ordained it as a sacrament to signify an eternal commitment and bond between one man and one woman, as a reflection of his love for us and as a means of populating the earth and bringing glory to him. Is your belief or commitment, or the beauty you find in it, diminished by the vastly different views and marital practices of an aboriginal tribesman in Africa or your Buddhist neighbors next door? I don’t see how it could be.

The love and marriage and type of commitment shared by two women who happen to live down the street, should have about the same amount of affect on the value and sanctity of your own marriage as the love and marriage and type of commitment shared by two twenty-somethings in India whose parents betrothed them as children: absolutely none whatsoever.

The beauty of America, the thing that has made it unique among nations, is the great degree of freedom we have here to live exactly as we see fit. It is true we must reach consensus on certain issues if we are to live peaceably, but beyond those essentials we must all – for the sake of our own interests – adopt the motto of “live and let live.”

For what if the tables were turned? What if you were in the minority?

You may feel your point of view on life, your chosen life-style, is the best and most right. And many may agree with you. But those who don’t hold their own beliefs with equal conviction and earnesty. Why should another’s way be required of you if your way is not hurting him nor impeding his ability to live out his convictions? Why should yours be imposed on him?

If you value your own freedom to believe that homosexuality is not a good way to live, you must value the freedom of your neighbor to believe the opposite.

If you value your right to pursue life, liberty and happiness in whatever way you see fit (within the bounds of civil behavior, of course), you must value the right of your neighbor to do the same.

And of all the avenues by which humans pursue happiness, the road to love – real, true, committed, intimate, love – is undoubtedly the most travelled, the most promising, the most fundamental.

The fact that so many people are denied this pursuit, essentially because it makes some others uncomfortable…it breaks my heart.

May the 21st century bring to the human race greater wisdom, greater understanding, greater acceptance and grace for those who are different…

…and the freedom, for ALL people, to love.

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.

Why I Am Not A Christian (Part IV)

7.) NO ANSWER IS BETTER THAN A BAD ANSWER.

It is true that there is SO much we don’t yet (and may never) know about how the world works, how life got started, who Jesus actually was and how the events surrounding his life (assuming he was a real person) actually played out (and for that matter, what actually went down in most of human history). There is so much that we just can’t explain based on what we currently know, especially when it comes to events (whether biological or sociological) that happened in the very distant past.

And that doesn’t sit well with us.

We humans have this beautiful and obsessive need to understand things. (Perhaps engrained in us by evolution, that we may better predict and prepare for future events and thereby promote our survival…?)

And this need has driven us historically, in the absence of clear, observable explanations, to make up explanations. Weather patterns, reproduction, disease, and so many more natural phenomena we observe have been attributed to the intervention of a god or gods. But as time has marched on and human understanding has increased (in large part due to the development and application of the scientific process) more and more of these phenomena have been moved from the supernatural “shelf” to the natural one.

Today we know that the movement of the stars across the sky is the result of planetary orbit and has nothing to do with any sort of drama being played out by divine beings. We know that earthquakes happen because of shifts in tectonic plates caused by temperature differences between the earth’s core and crust and the resultant convection of molten rock, and not because any god is angry with us. We know that babies are made when a sperm fertilizes an egg, and that children often inherit the diseases of their parents as the result of the random sorting of DNA during meiosis and the uniting of randomly selected gametes, and not because of a family curse.

At one time, these phenomena were completely mysterious and the causes anyone’s guess. Today they are not.

Today, there are other questions that stump us. How could the first protein have been made if it takes a protein to make a protein? How could multi-part molecular systems that work so intricately and elegantly have happened accidentally? How come a few rare people recover miraculously and unexpectedly from terminal illnesses? Why do certain equally rare people have visions and insights and skills that are far above and beyond what most of us ever experience?

And the list goes on.

And just as human beings have done in the past when life is mysterious and unexplainable, many of us are tempted to say, “This is evidence of God. There is no way this could happen without the intervention of a supernatural force.”

It’s the whole “God of the gaps” idea. And the problem with it is that the gaps keep shrinking, even disappearing, or at least moving to a more theoretical, distant level.

Educated, thinking Christians (and theists in general) may say that in all of our explaining, we’ve really explained nothing. Genetics may be the mechanism of transmission of traits and disease, gravity and inertia may underlie movements of the stars and planets, etc, but God is behind all of that. He created genetics and the laws of physics and set it all in motion. He may not be individually manipulating in real time the sorting and recombination of chromosomes that create each individual person, but he put the materials and systems in place that would eventually lead to the genetic combinations that would make you and me.

At this point in time, with the now overwhelming body of evidence in support of evolution and an old earth, many Christians have had to apply this same reasoning to the development of life, positing that while evolution may be the mechanism God used, he was the ultimate cause and mastermind – the one who laid the groundwork and wound the clock and knew from the beginning of time how and when bacteria and cuttlefish and giraffes and humans would come to be.

And for the sake of this argument, I can concede that. There could be that kind of God behind it all.

Of course, if that is the kind of God you’re going to believe in, there are significant chunks of the Bible you can’t accept as literal. And other parts you can’t accept at all.

At the end of the day, a “god of the gaps” is pretty much useless. For me, the current absence of scientific answers is not reason enough to believe in a god that brings with him so much baggage and cognitive dissonance. It is possible there may be something “supernatural” (i.e. forces we cannot see or detect) at work in the world, but I’m certain (for reasons addressed in earlier posts) that it’s not the Christian God.

From my point of view, it’s much better to leave the question blank and keep searching for a good answer, than to accept a bad one for the sake of immediate gratification.

And this idea of having no answer brings me to my last point…

8.) GOD AS A “FIRST CAUSE” IS NOT NECESSARY.

If you are a Christian, this idea might be one of the most difficult to wrap your mind around. It was for me.

I’d lived all of my conscious life with the assumption that SOMETHING was behind all of this crazy amazing-ness we call reality. Even if we could figure out how it all happened, no amount of time or scientific observation could ever help us figure out why, and in my mind there HAD to be a why, or, as philosophers and theoretical physicists call it, a “first cause.”

And this assumption is held by Christians and theists of all kinds, and probably most people who have lived. Everything we experience in life has a cause behind it, so we conclude that the universe must also. It makes sense to us on a gut level.

We just feel that there must be a reason for the existence of the universe, especially a universe that is so vast and intricate and amazing and incomprehensible. And for Christians, that reason is God.

But here’s the thing. If God is the reason behind the universe, he must be even more vast and intricate and amazing and incomprehensible. So, if we stick with our thinking, there must be a reason or cause behind him, too, ad infinitum.

At some point, you must accept that something just IS. That he/she/it exists without cause.

And I realized that it makes much more sense to accept the universe as the self-existent Thing than it does to push the problem back one layer onto a concept (God) for which we have no objective evidence and which conflicts with observed reality on so many levels.

Now that I see things this way, I can hardly remember what it was like to think otherwise, kinda like looking at a Rubin vase sort of picture. But I tell you, it was a huge leap for me to make at the time…

…perhaps the hugest of them all. (I will have to dedicate a post in the near future to address this, I think.)

But for now, I need to wrap things up.

CONCLUSION

While I continue to value many of the teachings of Jesus, I am not a Christian in the traditional sense. And never will be one again, most likely.

And I promise you it’s not because I don’t want to be.

Life is freaking hard and painful and unfair and overwhelming. And it was comforting beyond words to believe that all the pain and grief of life was somehow going to be made right one day, was somehow going to be worth it.

To be certain that good would inevitably triumph over evil…

To know that when Mom died, when Dad died, when my sisters and brother died, that they would not be gone…that I would be reunited with them forever in a place of perfect peace and joy…

To trust that abused and starving children would be greeted with love and nurturing and warmth and home when they passed on…

To believe that one day I would have a perfect body that would never get sick, never be in pain, never get old or wear out…

To always have someone to talk to when I was feeling alone and confused…

It made life more tolerable, and less overwhelming, and easier to keep living on certain levels, and it was a loss, I can assure you, to have this life-long foundation dissolve underneath me, along with the free, open, honest and vulnerable relationships I’d always been able to share with my parents up until this point.

There is still a lot of love between us all, but now there is pain, too. Now there is awkwardness. Now there are walls.

I would give anything to have family be the way it was when I was still a Christian. Family was my thing. It was my happy thought; my reason to get up in the morning. It was what I most valued. It still is. And I hope that someday everything will be okay somehow, but I don’t know that it will.

The point is, my life would be a lot easier and a lot happier in a lot of ways if I could believe again.

But the funny thing about belief is that you can’t fake it.

People always talk about Pascal’s wager as if it’s really an option. But I don’t get that at all. If you are just believing perfunctorily, God’s gonna know it. Saying you believe does not make you a believer.

Either you believe or you don’t. And you can’t control whether or not you do.

You can control the information you take into your mind, to a certain degree. And that is what happened to me. I quit controlling what I let in. In my search for truth (which I was initially convinced would lead me back to God and a deeper understanding of him) I opened the doors of my mind wide.

And a flood of new information rushed in.

And unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you see things), learning is irreversible. I can’t un-know things that I now know (unless I suffer a traumatic brain injury or we invent the neuralizer Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones had so much fun with in Men in Black.)

And these things I have learned in my recent history, that I didn’t know before, are many. While I have given a brief overview of basic, foundational reasons I no longer believe in the Christian God, there are many, many more details and facts logged away in my mind that have lead me to this conclusion…

And it is those same facts that have helped me form the framework of the wonderful and beautiful new things I DO believe.

Someday soon I will share them.