244. entelechy

SSF_Program

Still haven’t heard from my dad in response to the reply I sent last week. It could be that he’s just processing, but it’s possible that he won’t respond at all. Again, my intent wasn’t necessarily to cut off all contact with him and the family, but that’s how he might read it.

It’s tough because this is a relationship that I feel I should want to hold on to, and yet the facts indicate that it’s a relationship that can’t go anywhere, and that it’s best to let go of.

Speaking of things I’m letting go of, a year ago this past weekend I participated in the MN Song workshop as part of the Source Song Festival in Minneapolis. It’s a festival with the mission to celebrate, promote, and develop American art song:

… by empowering and inspiring a new generation of musicians—composers, performers and audience members alike—through the creation of new works, the initiating of conversation, and the fostering of relationships within Minnesota’s vibrant community.

I’d entered one of my songs, a setting of John Donne’s Holy Sonnet IX, “If poysonous mineralls, and if that tree,”  in the festival and was selected as one of the composers whose works would be workshopped and performed over the weekend.

In retrospect, this was a last-ditch effort to hold on to my identity as a musician and art song composer.

However, it quickly became clear that I was simply out of place among the other composers and musicians there—even the youngest one there. This is the curse of having enough talent to recognize when you don’t have the same gift and seeming facile ability of the others around you. It was an uncomfortable weekend overall, and was basically the final nail in the coffin of my career as a composer.

Towards the end of high school, my dad finally convinced me to major in music composition. It was obvious that I didn’t have the talent for piano performance, and for a while I was planning to major in English (which would’ve been about as useful as a music performance degree), but I assumed that my dad knew what he was talking about as a professional-level musician.

And that’s what I did.

In hindsight, that was one of many pieces of what other people were telling my about myself that I attempted to make fit, never questioning whether those things were true or accurate. For a while it seemed that I was a talented composer. My music was complex and challenging, and that set me apart in the music department at Northwestern College. However, as I came to realize after graduating, that was a very small tidal pool in a very large pond.

And on this side of atheism, that musical identity belongs to someone else, to a person who existed only as a mirror for others’ expectations—people I looked to as authority figures to tell me who I was.

There’s a quote of Julia Sweeney’s from her show Letting Go of God that I’m particularly fond of: “If I look over my life, every single step of maturing for me has had the exact same common denominator: and that’s accepting what was true over what I wished were true.”


As I’ve been delving more into learning about philosophy and the different schools of thought, I’ve come across the views of English pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott.

This video triggered a number of things from my upbringing that probably won’t come as a surprise to readers of this blog. While my childhood wasn’t the living nightmare of physical or sexual abuse that occasionally makes press, as I’ve come to realize over the last few years it was still incredibly toxic on account of my parents’ theology and the theology of our churches.

Like most children raised in fundamentalist religions, I grew up experiencing conditional love and acceptance. My parents preached the importance of showing unconditional love, yet their behavior taught something of the opposite. Compliance and adherence to Biblical rules (as they interpreted them) was heavily stressed. In order for our parents to be happy with us (or at least to avoid punishment), we had to exhibit good Christian behavior.

If we didn’t, it was a sign that we didn’t belong to God and were in danger of the fires of hell.

Of course, my parents had no idea what they were doing. They admitted to making mistakes along the way, but they ultimately believed that this was the right thing, that it was the godly was to bring up spiritually healthy children.

They didn’t know how psychologically fragile and impressionable children are; that teaching a child that they’re inherently sinful could translate to the belief that they’re inherently bad; that these lessons were shaping how their child would relate to other human beings later in life, and to their sense of self-worth or security.

Neither could they have expected that this way of bringing me up would lead to the developing of a sense of false self, to the reflexive repressing of my self, to shutting down, to going out of my way to please everyone out of a fear of disapproval and rejection.

So while I may have had two parents, a roof over my head, and my physical needs met, I lacked real security and the freedom to grow up at a normal pace.

It’s ultimately why I ended up majoring in music composition, why I tried so hard for so long to be a composer, why I applied to grad school for music composition, why I spent countless hours practicing piano as a teenager, why I entered that piece in the Source Song Festival.

 

This is why I’m focusing on being with people who I do feel accepted by/secure with, why I’m pursuing things that make me truly happy and that feel authentic, and why I’m stopping myself doing things for the approval of others.

It’s daunting, but my inner child deserves better than what he got.

Advertisements

241. duffer

Chain_expressing_freedomWhat a month so far.

I finished the month of June in San Francisco at the American Library Association convention, which was my first time in that city, at a professional convention, and marching in a Pride parade other than in the Twin Cities. The latter is less important than the others, but suffice to say that going to ALA was a confirmation that librarianship is truly where I belong.

During the five days I was there, I heard from and met people passionate about keeping information free and accessible for all, and about getting that information into the hands of patrons where it can go out and change the world.

I got to hear the incredible Gloria Steinem speak on the transformative importance of feminism in librarianship.

Heard a (rather cute) guy from the South Carolina Lowcountry Digital History Initiative gloriously nerd out in a session on the technical nuances of making a software program do exactly what they needed it to do.

Was introduced to people in the #critlib movement who are actively taking a critical look at librarianship through the lens of feminism, queer/gender theory, multiculturalism, and so on.

It was truly inspiring.

However…


On Monday I finally got back with my therapist after a nearly three-and-a-half month break. She moved offices, and in the madness of finishing the semester, going on vacation for two weeks, and then going to San Francisco, I hadn’t made an appointment.

And I was also kinda wearing my victim hat. I wasn’t sure if she was going to get in touch with me to set up an appointment, and when I didn’t hear from her, I took it as a conformation that my issues are too fucked up for her to handle, and that she was abandoning me.

Ahh, depression.

As I got her caught up on the latest developments, I shared some of what happened in San Francisco, particularly about feeling alone in a literal sea of humanity. There were over 25,000 attendees at ALA, so for an introvert it was especially overwhelming.

There was the usual sense I have of not knowing how to interact with people, which is especially frustrating at an event where networking and connection-making could happen. Of course, that sort of activity is better suited to a smaller conference organized around a specific discipline or area.

However, that’s how I feel most of the time—trapped in my head with negative thoughts. Why even bother talking to anyone? The minute you open your mouth they’ll figure out what an idiot you are. You’re such a failure as an adult. How old are you? 32. You should be more competent by now.

That’s nothing new, but I shared all of that with my therapist, of having the sense of needing a personality overhaul, because how I’ve been going up until now is not working—for my career, for my personal life, or for my romantic life.

I also shared a major meltdown I had on vacation in Big Bend National Park in Texas last month. In short, the inciting event was having to cross a stream to enter a canyon, something I wasn’t expecting. My friend Matt just went with it and waded through, and I think seeing his seeming carefree attitude set off something in my mind.

Now, granted, I don’t know what’s going on in other people’s minds. Their stories are their own. But it seems to me that most people know how to have a good time. They aren’t caught up in their own thoughts, in insecurities, in a negative self-image from a toxic belief system.

So my meltdown in the canyon was really about my frustration over feeling rigid and stuck and not knowing what to do about that, while most everyone else seems to know how to flow.


Okay, brief diversion.

I’ve discovered a new YouTube channel, The School of Life. Came across it by accident when I saw a link to the video:

My own philosophy education was pretty abysmal. Along with psychology, we were discouraged from thinking too much about philosophy. After all, they were worldly. But I was really struck by some of his ideas here, such as Geworfenheit, or “throwness”—as Heidegger described it, the “attendant frustrations, sufferings, and demands [of life] that one does not choose, such as social conventions or ties of kinship and duty” (Wikipedia).

In Heideggerian terminology, since 2008 I’ve been moving way from a state of Uneigentlichkeit (inauthenticity) towards Eigentlichkeit (authenticity); of becoming more aware recently of the distracting das Gerede (chatter, or idle talk) and how intensely I dislike it; and of wanting to live in a greater state of freedom in keeping with the knowledge of my own mortality—das Nichts.

As Camus would say, I have enough freedom to know that I’m in a cage, but not quite enough freedom to escape it.


A friend observed that it’s not that I think about these things, but that most people don’t.

This is the trouble that comes with thinking too much, and as I watched some of these videos last night, it seems most philosophers are unhappy for that reason. It’s one reason why Camus sticks out. Even in the undeniable face of mortality, he found reasons to live.

And it’s this reason that drove me towards librarianship and grad school, of embracing my sexuality and atheism—my own Eigentlichkeit—and why it’s so troubling that I have difficulty connecting with even people I value most. Life is a brief candle, and even though I know it’s all ephemeral, like how we used to build theater sets only to tear them down, I want to spend mine adding whatever value to my communities.

The realization I’m coming to is that I need to dismantle the old paradigms of fear and self-loathing that keep me rigid and stuck so that I can live free of ideas that no longer serve me.

So that I can actually get down to the business of living.

239. refluent

You’re quite a bit further out from your loss of faith than I am (I lost mine only 3 months ago)… I wonder if you’d consider blogging about how you survived your initial loss of faith, and if you have any advice for those of us who are earlier in the process? You may not have the time or the desire to address such things, but if you do, I’d be interested in what you have to say.

burnt-forestAin’t No Shrinking Violet asked this question in a comment on one of my posts about four months ago, and regrettably I’m just getting around to answering it today. This is partly because of how crazy my schedule has become with grad school and not having much time to write anymore. However, it’s also because until recently I haven’t had a good answer and have been avoiding dealing with that.

A few weeks ago I was on my friend Keith’s podcast, Vita Atheos, and he asked me this question, about how I survived my loss of faith. The short answer is that it took a long time to recover, and I’m still recovering. I was incredibly angry in the year and a half after I decoverted, and not without cause. I’d spent 28 years beating myself up for no reason—over struggles with doubt, my sexuality, and my increasingly secular outlook—and now it felt as if someone had been ransacking my house for most of my life, and I’d just noticed.

My set piece on this subject is that I went from being a Christian to Christopher Hitchens overnight. [Cue laugh track.]

Like many of us, my initial loss of faith was the shockwave of an implosion that happened almost a decade earlier—9 years, 4 months, and 22 days, actually. You can read about that story here if you like, but in hindsight, I wish I could have gone about it in a healthier way. My deconversion was the equivalent of going cold turkey off heroin after a lifetime of dependency on it.

As Julia Sweeney says in Letting Go of God, I had to “change the wallpaper of my mind.” Only I went a step further and burned the enire house to the ground. It wasn’t great, and I burned a number of bridges in the process. I have some regrets about that, about not giving some people a chance to get to know the “real” me, but I probably wasn’t ready, especially considering that the majority of my social circle at the time was evangelical Christians.

I will say that if the Secular Therapist Project had been open for clients in 2011, I would’ve been one of the first to sign up. As it is, it wasn’t until 2012 that I finally started seeing a therapist, and until last year that I finally connected with one who “gets” the deconversion and rebuilding process. It’s rough.

And it’s a different process for everyone. For some, it just made sense to stop believing in God, and for them it was largely a joyful and liberating experience. They don’t necessarily carry around the negative scripts and narratives that dominate the inner lives of former fundamentalist Christians.

I was raised in what in hindsight was an extremely toxic belief system. My parents, pastors, teachers and other authority figures taught me to not trust myself, to not trust others, to find fault in others, but most importantly, to find fault within myself. If I couldn’t find anything wrong within myself, I was to assume that I had allowed myself to become blinded myself to spiritual Truths (with a capital T).

Of course, these weren’t the lessons they were trying to impart, but it’s a natural and unavoidable consequence of the theology we accepted that this is how I’d come to see myself.

The reality I come face to face with today is not so much what they taught me as it is what they didn’t teach me, which is how to love and accept myself, and how to love and accept other people. You can’t truly do either of those things with the fear of eternal damnation continually looming over your head, and the fear that something you or someone else might do could put that in jeopardy.

So this is reality for me right now:

  • I don’t know how to be happy without the impulse kicking in to find something wrong with that happiness and ruin it;
  • I don’t know how to love myself because I can’t look at myself in the mirror without wanting to vomit or smash it, because I can only see the things that aren’t perfect or that don’t meet my impossibly high standards and expectations;
  • I don’t know how to let people in for fear of their actually seeing who I am and possibly rejecting that… or more like my inability to understand their acceptance when I can’t accept me.

That’s a long way of getting around to the question of how I survived my loss of faith four years ago. One answer is that I barely survived—I certainly didn’t grow. I lashed out at and pushed virtually everyone in my life away, especially those who were connected to Seth and his church. I retreated into an angry echo chamber of blogs, books, and online forums which only fueled my hatred of Christianity and Christians.

And a lot of people ran away. They could only see the angry, rage machine David, because that’s I wanted them to see. I didn’t want anyone to see the hurt, grieving, loss-wracked, and confused David who felt cut adrift and isolated from everything and everyone he ever knew.

Going to therapy has helped. Finding the Former Fundamentalists helped. If it had been around in 2011, Sunday Assembly might have helped.

But it was ultimately writing, and this blog, that saved me. Sharing my story and connecting with others with a similar story helped contain that fire.

I’m still recovering, still rebuilding. But it’s still a long road ahead.

238. caustic

cups08I’m now into the twelfth week of classes in my library science master’s program, and between working a full-time job and doing monthly music for Sunday Assembly there hasn’t been much time for writing. With seeing my therapist every two weeks, there’s been plenty of personal reflection, but not much time to actually meditate about it, which has been difficult. Writing is how I process those things, but when one’s life seems to be flying along at 600 miles-per-hour, some things take a back seat for the sake of steering.

So a few weeks ago I was finally on my friend Keith’s podcast, Vita Atheos. It’s terrific, and you should check it out. It’s devoted to “telling the stories of atheists, their journeys towards non-belief, and the struggles that they faced in the past, or still face today because of their lack of belief.”

We’ve been talking about my being on for a while now, partly because of how unique my dual coming out story (gay and then atheist) seems to be in the community. It was an interesting experience being interviewed, and the conversation actually ran about two hours and fifteen minutes. And I didn’t even get to talking about my family!

It had also been a while since I’d told my deconversion story in detail. Most people in my life know the details so we don’t have to rehash them. Although recently, there have been conversations about the weird, fucked up things that I was taught growing up. At times it feels as if I truly came from another culture, or even from another planet entirely.

Because there are few analogues in “normal,” mainstream life—that is, for those who didn’t grow up in a conservative, fundamentalist, religious community. The “real world.”

One of the themes that has come up with therapists over the past few years (including my current therapist) is a sense of being just broken and fucked up from all of the religious programming in my early childhood years, further compounded by internalizing the homophobia that surrounded me at home and in my community. One of the things that’s come up is my inability to truly forgive myself for not knowing better, for not being stronger, for not coming out sooner and standing up for myself.

But as Lalla Ward is quoted as saying to her parents in The God Delusion: “But I didn’t know I could.”

That sort of historical musing is easy to do. It feels good to put ourselves on the moral side of history—standing up to the Nazis in Germany, or standing with Martin Luther King, Jr. against racism. Fifty years from now, children will read with similar horror about homophobia and opposition to gay rights. Of course I wish things could’ve turned out differently, and that I wasn’t trying to rebuild my life and constantly struggling under the weight of depression, anxiety, and inherited self-hatred.

The past few months I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around why I’m currently so obsessed with my age right now and being gay and single at 32. I think I’ve written about this before, that part of it the need to validate myself against the messages I got growing up, that gays don’t have relationships. Part of it is the rampant ageism in the gay community, and the fixation on being young and fit, and I frankly don’t see myself as either of these things anymore. I don’t have time to work out, so I’m still rather scrawny; and now that I’m in my mid-30s my metabolism isn’t what it used to be. I’m not overweight, but I am “gay fat” by the standards of the community (i.e., not having a gym-perfect body, BMI is over 12%).

Maybe it’s just Midwestern gays. I’m starting to wonder if that isn’t what it is.

The reality is that I’m where most of them are when they were in their early twenties, leaving me feeling hopelessly behind and outpaced. It seems so easy for everyone else to find boyfriends and relationships, and I don’t even know how to date. Perhaps it would be easier if my standards weren’t so high, or if I could just have fun; but it’s difficult as it is for me to connect with other humans in general, and I’m really not one for casual dating or sex, which frankly doesn’t leave many options in the Twin Cities since that seems to do it for most guys around here. Everyone here seems to be on Manhunt, Grindr, or Scruff.

#notmyscene

But there’s a much darker reality that I’ve just recently become aware of. It’s so new that I haven’t had time to put it into words, so this may not make much sense, but here goes:

Basically, at this point, I don’t know if I could be with someone when I can’t even accept myself.

Central to Christian fundamentalist teaching and Calvinism is this notion that humans are basically shit because of Adam and Eve. An ongoing theme of my childhood was a virtual obsession with sin and confession, because God is always watching, and Satan is always trying to trip Christians up. Constant vigilance. What could go wrong with teaching a child to believe that they were born flawed, and that even the most minor of unconfessed sins could land them in Hell for eternity?

So even though I know intellectually that I’m likable, even desirable, I don’t feel it. It’s the emotional equivalent of an eating disorder, I guess. What I see in the mirror is not everyone else seems to see. I see trash, failure, ruin, someone whose prime years were stolen by religion.

It’s as if, because I deem myself unworthy, I reject anyone else’s approval of me as a matter of course. Is that arrogant? Probably. But when you grow up fearing the disapproval of everyone around you, it becomes the lens through which you view all relationships.

An examined life may be admirable, but can also be unlivable.

232. degust

Christmas_tree_farm_fireI hate Christmas music—but not the for reasons you might think.

Sure, I hate going into a store in December (sooner in some places) and hearing dodgy lyrics written about a mythological baby god-king.

  • “Worship Christ, the newborn King”
  • “Go, tell it on the mountain that Jesus Christ is born.”
  • “Jesus Christ was born to save!”
  • “Hark! the herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King!”

Unless you’re someone who left behind a religious community saturated with language like this, you’re probably not going to notice this very much. Most people don’t. To most, Christmas music is often infused with rich and fragrant memories of childhood, of time spent with family and friends, and of the beauty of winter (if you’re into that sort of thing).

And most people have likely never stopped to question the logic of the whole Christmas story. A teenage girl in Iron Age Palestine suddenly becomes pregnant with the son of the Hebrew God, who himself is the Hebrew God in human form? As David Hume (via Christopher Hitchens) once quipped, “Which is more likely, that the whole natural order is suspended or that a Jewish minx should tell a lie?”

And why did Jesus have to temporarily suspend his divinity and come down to Earth as a dirty, squalling, snot-nosed infant? Because four thousand years earlier, two presumably immortal humans who lived in a mythical garden ate a piece of fruit that they were warned not to after a talking snake (just think about that for a second—a talking snake) told them to go ahead and do it anyway.

Because of this, God got royally pissed off; threw them out of this garden and put an angel with a flaming sword to guard the entrance; cursed them both with mortality, with work (for the man), and with painful childbirth (for the woman). So now every human born since then was also cursed with this “original sin” and is doomed to burn in the eternal fires of Hell.

(Brief side note: Hell is actually a Greek invention and wasn’t included in Christian theology until a bit later as a means of capitalizing on fear of death to control behavior (especially sexual behavior). Just in case you hadn’t figured out yet what a ludicrous invention this story is.)

As if that wasn’t overreaction enough, now all of creation—every tree, rock, animal, star, planet, galaxy—is cursed and spoiled because of the presumed disobedience of two humans on an insignificant piece of rock orbiting a small unregarded yellow sun (as Douglas Adams once wrote) “far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy.”

Anyway, that’s the fundamentalist Christian take on the story.

And let’s not even get into the fact that early Christians didn’t observe the birth of the their Lord and Savior. According to the website Biblical Archaeology, “Origen of Alexandria (c. 165–264) goes so far as to mock Roman celebrations of birth anniversaries, dismissing them as “pagan” practices.” It wasn’t until late in the 4th century CE that the date of Jesus’ birth was moved to December 25th and celebrated, mainly as a way of appropriating pagan holidays. December 25th has been the date of several Roman holidays, including Saturnalia and Sol Invictus.

Sorry, guys, Jesus was not a Capricorn.

And what are the chances that other gods like Krishna, Mithras, Horus, and Buddha were also born on December 25th? What a crazy coincidence!

For me, the atonement theology underpinnings of Christmas were impossible to miss growing up. It was drilled into us virtually every day that humans are sinful, and the reason that Jesus had to come to earth to be murdered was because of how sinful we are. The whole Advent calendar was essentially a daily theological lesson in how awful humans are, and how the only redeemable thing about us is Jesus dying for our sins to make up for the fact that God loves us so much that he wants to torture us forever to show us how much he loves us.

So you’ll excuse me if I don’t find Christmas carols particularly heartwarming. In those lyrics I hear the self-hatred and self-loathing buried deep in the heart of Christianity, that tells us that not only are we not good enough—we’re fundamentally flawed and broken.

You know, the language of an emotional abuser.

But that is not the reason why I hate Christmas music.

And it’s not necessarily that I hate Christmas music. Some of the melodies to the songs are quite nice. And I do have some warm and fragrant memories of Christmas from my childhood. It was a magical time of year. Everything was transformed, by the cold and snow, and by decorations around town and around the house. We used to put cloves in pomegranates and oranges and hang them around the house, so the house smelled like spices.

When I became an atheist, it was as if twenty-eight years of my life no longer belonged to me. All of those memories, all of the enjoyment that I’d found in singing songs at Christmas, in the celebrations, in the community, were all part of someone else’s life.

You must not seek to add
To what you have, what you once had;
You have no right to share
What you are with what you were.
– C. F. Ramuz, Histoire du Soldat, trans. by Michael Flanders

So that’s why it’s hard for me to listen to Christmas music. It’s not so much the lyrics that bother me anymore. I’ve developed enough coping strategies to walk into a store without asking to yell at a manager to “turn that shit off!”

Christmas music is a reminder of everything that I lost when I jettisoned my faith. Further, it speaks to the fear I have of what I may never have—a family of my own to make new memories with, to banish the sadness of the old ones.

But who knows. Anything’s possible.

212. cuittle

Franciscan_missionaries_in_CaliforniaOn Sunday, in the Wall Street Journal online, writer Dave Shiflett penned an opinion piece about the upcoming American Atheists convention in Salt Lake City, Utah — on Thursday, in fact: “Where Atheists Meet to Evangelize: Telling believers they are rubes may not be the best recruitment strategy.”

Frankly, I’m still not sure what to make of it. I don’t know what Mr. Shiflett’s personal religious views are, but his article contains a number of mordant jabs. “… deity-dissing group,” he calls American Atheists at one point.

“… suggesting that the uninitiated are delusional and feeble-minded might not be the wisest way to expand your brand.”

I’m reminded of what Julia Sweeney reports in Letting Go of God, what her mother says in a phone call after Julia is accidentally outed to them: “Everyone knows that there are those few people out there who don’t believe in God, but they keep it quietly to themselves!”

The timing of Shiflett’s article was curious, because on April 11, Kellie Moore wrote a piece in the Washington Post about the growing number of secular communities: “Don’t call it atheist church; secular communities are growing.”

Moore notes that many of the secular groups are geared towards families with young children, and that the children’s activities don’t include “teaching atheism.” In fact, they try to steer clear of any kind of indoctrination.

“Teaching atheism”? What would that even look like??

In my own Evangelical upbringing, a fair amount of time in church was spent teaching us theology and Christian apologetics, the systematic field by which Christians learn how to present a rational basis for the Christian faith and defend it against objections. Everything from having us memorize Bible verses to lessons on Sunday mornings about the Christian life were intended to prepare us to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19).

Going between these two articles, it’s interesting to see how religious people superimpose their models of church and community onto atheist assemblies. To paraphrase Queen Victoria: “Whatever do atheists do?” They assume that, like them, our goal is to make more atheists; to break down the deeply held beliefs of Christians with cold, hard, scientific logic and rational arguments.

The popular image of an atheist is based on media figures like Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens, aggressive and vituperative voices bent on destroying any belief that isn’t founded in hard science or reality. We are portrayed as angry, bitter loners without a moral foundation or compass. A recent study covered today in Pacific Standard confirmed that Americans intuitively judge atheists as immoral.

One article on Crosswalk.com claims to expose “Chilling Strategies of Neo-Atheists.” If you’re paying attention, this is how Evangelicals portrayed Communists in the 1950s—godless, immoral atheists mobilized by Stalin to turn the United States just as Communist and atheist as the U.S.S.R.

Nicoll claims that part of the atheista strategy is to target the young and turn them into god-hating, anti-religious clones. (Transference much??) He then quotes philosopher Richard Rorty, who described his dream that students might enter college “as bigoted, homophobic religious fundamentalists” and leave full-fledged atheists.

“… we are going to go right on trying to discredit you in the eyes of your children, trying to strip your fundamentalist religious community of dignity, trying to make your views seem silly rather than discussable.”

It’s true that some atheists share this view; that religious people are feeble-minded and that religion must be stamped out if humanity is to survive and thrive. Yet what Nicoll accuses us of sounds more like what Evangelicals having done since the inception of Christianity. “Give me the child of seven,” said Francis Xavier, “and I will give you the man.”

This is the distorted view of atheism that we have to contend with, just as many liberal Christians try to distance themselves from their bigoted brethren.

Honestly, how often does the average atheist think about religion? Probably not much. For those of us who follow the news (politics in particular), it’s difficult to ignore the presence of Christofascism, the kind of belief that seems eager to wield a sword to spread and enforce Christianity far and wide.

So were it not for city councils opening meetings with Christian prayers, daring anyone to bring a lawsuit; wedding photographers and bakers making martyrs of themselves in their increasingly bizarre war on marriage equality; and politicians trying to write their religious views about women’s bodies into law… well, most of us wouldn’t think much about religion.

The new Cosmos (with the amazing Neil deGrasse Tyson) is a reminder that there’s more than a lifetime’s worth of amazing things to think about and ponder!

Yesterday, I posted an article with the musing that punishing those who hold (increasingly) unpopular views about marriage equality “seems to run counter to the very message of the LGBT movement, which is that there’s room at the table for all. The real question is whether equality opponents are willing to sit at the same table.”

This is where I’m also at with Evangelical Christians.

The fact is that, until we invent spaceships to whisk us away to other planets, we’re stuck learning to live peaceably together on this one. The atheists I know are willing to reach out, to build a table where there is space enough for everyone, their views and beliefs (however strange). Because right now, outside of academia, we’re rarely invited to join the party. True, we often self-segregate, but mostly, that’s because we’re accustomed to not even being recognized.

We don’t want to necessarily make atheist converts. We don’t want to dash anyone’s hopes and dreams. Rather, we desire a renaissance of critical thinking—and less dogmatism. We want children (and adults) to be free to consider every possible idea and facet of human knowledge, and decide for themselves what they believe instead of being told that they must accept one particular narrative, without question, or burn forever in Hell.

That’s all.

Because it’s about time we started celebrating the wonder of being alive.

211. plash

TOBThis week and next I am working at a risk management and reinsurance company in Minneapolis through a temp agency. It’s been a bit of an adventure figuring out what exactly I’ll be doing, because at first it seemed that they thought I was an idiot or something. Then they discovered that I had print experience, scanning, proficiency in Microsoft Office, mail room, etc.

Essentially, I’m working with a four-person temp team that the company I’m working for has outsourced a lot of their office support needs to.

Mostly, it’s a lot of waiting around for a project to come up. On my first day, the girl I’m filling in for basically told me to bring a book. Thankfully, today I was doing mail runs (and scoping out cute males around the office–I’ve a crush on the cute guy who sits around the corner), which mostly involves doing a walk-around of both floors to check designated drop trays for any out-going mail.

For my first two days there while I was “training” (i.e., they were figuring out what I was going to be doing), I basically hung out at the front desk with the receptionist. She’s an early-middle-aged Latina with, as I soon discovered, a pretty massive inferiority complex. In the few days I’ve known her, it’s made me wonder how irritating I come across when I give in to negative thinking. She’s also one of those individuals of a certain age where you keep your head down, do your job, watch the clock, and check off the days until retirement.

Let’s call her “Paulita.”

To her credit, Paulita has been working on expanding her mind through reading and exploration of history (she calls it “research”); and she is curious about many things. However, we had a conversation yesterday morning that tested the limits of my tact and incredulity.

Even though it’s technically not allowed, she goes on the Internet to read articles and look things up. For example, yesterday afternoon we were talking about the Civil War and a visit she had to the birthplace of Robert E. Lee. In that conversation, we learned that Lee married the great-granddaughter of Martha Washington, George Washington’s wife. The relation is through her son from her first marriage to Daniel Custis, who died in 1757.

Ah, Wikipedia.

Yesterday morning, while Paulita was on break, I found an article from LiveScience.com on Google News: 3,300-Year-Old Tomb with Pyramid Entrance Discovered in Egypt. She’d mentioned a fascination with ancient Egypt the day before, so I showed it to her when she got back. She mentioned something about wondering if the pyramids were built before or after Stonehenge, and I recalled learning that the very earliest of the Egyptian pyramids (c. 2,670 BCE) were built around the same time as construction on the Salisbury plain began. The circular bank and ditch enclosure of Stonehenge were first excavated around 3,100 BCE, whereas the stone rings weren’t erected until around 2,600 BCE. The Pyramids of Giza were built during the Egyptian 4th Dynasty (c. 2613 to 2494 BCE).

(I looked up all these dates just now. Don’t worry, memory usually prevents me from going full-scale nerd most of the time.)

During all this, Paulita mentioned “Biblical times” at several points, most confusingly in reference to Stonehenge. I’m assuming she was using this phrase to mean “ancient,” but at this point my brain started going into damage control mode. When I mentioned that this kind of building was going on all over Europe around this time in the Neolithic period, that it wasn’t just Egypt, she seemed slightly perplexed.

“But, how is that possible?” she asked. “When God confused the languages and spread everyone out to different parts of the world, how could there have been time for them to have built Stonehenge?”

… big eyes.

“Um… what was that?” I asked, trying to sound as if she’d used a Spanish phrase that I hadn’t caught.

“In Genesis,” she replied. “Have you read the Bible? The Tower of Babel? Men wanted to build a tower to reach to the heavens so they could become like God, and God confused their language so that they couldn’t understand each other and finish building it?”

It was at this point that a sort of United Nations general assembly popped up in my mind. On the one hand, I didn’t want to be “that” kind of atheist and tell her outright that the Bible is a book of myths that never actually happened. On the other hand, I totally wanted to be “that” kind of atheist who tells a well-meaning Christian lady that her holy book is a collection of myths that never actually happened.

Finally, I said, “Oh, yes. That. I was raised Christian” (here she made a gesture as if to say, Then you know all about it!) “… but, you know, there’s nothing in the historical record that I know of that mentions anything like that.”

Her eyes widened a little. “Oh,” she said, sounding dubious but intrigued.

I tried to steer the conversation towards some of the reading I’ve been doing lately about human evolution; about evolutionary differences between Europeans and Africans; how one group of Homo sapiens went south and developed darker skin to cope with the sun, and another went north and developed lighter skin to cope with lack of sun. Their languages evolved differently with them, depending on where they went and how cut off they were from other tribes. And during the Neolithic period, humans started settling down, building huge stone monuments like the Pyramids and Stonehenge as community gathering places to mark transitions in life– birth to death.

This is obviously a condensed version of a lightly meandering conversation that was interrupted by co-worker and the phone ringing. But hearing Paulita attempting to cross-reference history with events in the Bible was… jarring.

It was a stark reminder to me that almost half of Americans still believe that the Bible is real history, and actually happened.

I just…

… can’t…

… mind…

… stuck…

… snrgsflmsnojrssss…

210. lontano

RTA2172Went home feeling more alone than usual tonight.

Had a date at the Mall of America this evening after work. I’ve been talking to this guy for a while. He’s a pilot who works out of the Caribbean and happened to be in Minneapolis for a few hours between connecting flights. He was visiting family in the Fargo area and now is headed home.

I came home after work and managed to find a spot relatively close to my apartment. If I drove home after the date, chances are I’d be parking at least six blocks away due to Minneapolis’ inane, ongoing, “just in case” snow emergency. Parking is only allowed on the east and south sides of streets until April 1. This means that trying to find a spot after 6pm is like musical chairs, if the penalty when the music stops was being transported instantly to Siberia.

After changing out of work clothes, I headed out to get cash and coffee to break a $20 for bus fare. However, I missed the 23H by just minutes. My phone was already on about an 8% charge, but I was able to learn that a 4L was leaving at 7:04PM just eight blocks away. Luckily, the bus was about five minutes late so I made it in time. However, that meant I missed the connecting bus that would’ve got me to MOA sooner, but I had enough phone battery left to find a new connection to get me there.

Just as my bus got to the Mall, we got stuck at a checkpoint going in to the Transit Station. I’m not sure what was going on, and even the bus driver was confused. There was something going on with a taxi several cars ahead that backed everything up.

Fortunately, my date wasn’t too plussed. I managed to get to our meeting spot in one piece, and we had a pleasant dinner together. We talked about his flight career, our families, our hopes and dreams, and a bit about religion. We ended up talking until about 10:21PM, at which point we decided it was time to head out.

He was heading to the airport and was going to take the light rail back to be ready to make his flight in a couple of hours. We said our goodbyes in the transit station at the Mall – handshake, not a hug. Definitely in the friendzone.

The thing is, by the time we got there, it was about 10:30PM. Turns out a bus had left about five minutes earlier that would’ve got me home by way of the 4L. And my cell phone was dead.

After wandering around for a bit, I managed to find an outlet by some payphones in the Mall. It felt ironic, crouching on the floor beside those ancient, corded, handheld receivers while my relatively fancy smartphone charged. I finally managed to get enough charge to get an Internet connection, and discovered that the next bus wouldn’t be leaving until 11:17PM.

So I had some time.

In that interval, dark clouds began to descend, like Dementors, closing in. A metaphorical rain cloud formed, drenching me with its metaphorical downpour. In these moments, it seems like absolutely everything is wrong with my life. My phone dies because my battery is crap. I leave my gloves on the floor of my car, right in a spot where a bottle of motor oil leaked. I miss buses by mere minutes. I get stomach aches that keep me awake all night because of my allergies. The cute guy I’m crushing on has a boyfriend, or turns out to be a total jerk. Everyone I’ve dated or lived with, however briefly, is now either dating or married to someone they’re great with. And I’m perpetually alone, stranded at a metaphorical transit stop with no idea how to get home.

I know, mentally, that this is the depression talking – that my life could be so much worse than it is. Yet why do I go through life feeling a though I’ve missed that one crucial day in class that helped everyone else pass the big test with flying colors, while I barely manage a “C”?

On my last connecting bus home, I did witness an interesting exchange. There was a woman in her mid-40s, with blonde hair and wearing a black leather jacket and dark glasses – the very image of a Gen X rocker. Sure enough, there was a guitar case on the seat beside her. When I got on, she was saying that she didn’t like going out to a bar unless she was playing at it.

Then the girl across from her (they seemed to have been in conversation for some time) mentioned that she cleans for a living (she “puts her all into it”), and needs some kind of therapy to help her “develop a personality” because she has trouble talking to people. She started talking about her collage art and how it was helping her get over her fear of death. The rocker lady was packing up, becoming more uncomfortable with this conversation. Fortunately for us all her stop arrived, and she got off, took her bike, and gave a “peace” sign to the driver.

I wondered on the long walk home if I’ll ever be able to drop the practiced “keep away” look that I cultivated as a deeply closeted gay man in conservative Christianland. I wonder if I was unconsciously doing it on my date tonight, or with any of the other guys I’ve dated in the year since breaking up with Jason. I wonder how often I’ve missed opportunities to connect with someone, a friend or potential romantic partner, who couldn’t see past the thorny barriers I throw up to keep people out.

Walking home tonight, I passed apartment and second-story bedroom windows, flickering ghostly blue and white. We once huddled together in front of fires to keep warm. Now we huddle in front of televisions, alone.

207. congnisance

1024px-Stanley_Kubrick_-_girl_in_classroom_cph.3d02345A few weeks ago at the Former Fundamentalists retreat that some friends of mine put together for our group, I made a troubling observation that I’ve been pondering.

The day was made up of a number of talks and workshops put on by members of the group. It was a wonderful way to spend a Saturday, in the company of like-minded people who are engaged in critical thinking and wondering about our world and our universe.

What troubled me though was how many women spoke up during discussion times — not many. Even during our bi-weekly meetings, the majority of the talking is done by the guys.

Gender variance among atheists is certainly male-leaning. Salon published a piece last year titled “5 reasons there aren’t more women in atheism,” citing things like:

  • “… women are more devout because they have to be. Women’s religiosity is directly related to economic security.”
  • “… sexism is real and has an effect on women’s participation and leadership within the atheist community.”
  • “… it’s no exaggeration to say that managing sexism is exhausting, depressing and distracts from work women could be doing as visible spokespeople of fighting for higher and equal pay, or immigration policies that include uneducated women, or ending sexual predation, or advocating for the right to control our own reproduction.”

One place I’ve noticed this tend is Bill Maher’s show, where he’ll sit a woman guest between two guys who will then proceed to talk over or even around her. The woman may be knowledgeable about her subject area but can’t get a word in before someone else starts jabbering.

Our little tribe is a microcosm of an ongoing conversation concerning women in atheism. Because atheism is still largely a boys’ club. It was born out of the male-dominated academies of the Renaissance and the Reformation, and largely retains the same mindset. It raises concerns for me that women are still being socialized to not voice their thoughts and beliefs. And if I’ve learned anything from the LGBT movement, it’s an appreciation for diversity and the uniqueness of others.

Part of it is, I think, the dynamics of male relationships. When a bunch of guys get together, posturing and competition begin almost immediately to establish a hierarchy. We love to spar, whether physically or intellectually, and learn from an early age that if you’re going to make it in any group of guys then you have to prove that you deserve to be there.

This once meant literal life or death for humans on the African plains. Each male had to contribute to the group, whether through hunting or fighting, or the tribe could perish. This is why you’ll see many boys do ridiculously dangerous stunts to impress each other. We’re still running that same evolutionary program.

Men constantly have their masculinity challenged, especially if you don’t fit into a “masculine” stereotype. If you don’t look, talk, and walk like a dude, you’re not a “real man.” Whatever that means. This is perpetuated in Evangelical Christian culture, with the notion that there’s a Divine ideal each sex should live by. If you grew up in that world or are familiar with the books “Wild At Heart” and “The Heart of a Woman,” you’ll know what I’m talking about.

The blog What Women Never Hear had about a post a year ago about ten ways that men and women differ. (It’s full of Evangelical, heteronormative generalizations, but how can a piece written by a heterosexual guy about gender differences not be?)

  • Girls ease smoothly into family life by anticipating what’s needed and what’s coming. Boys have to be taught to respect others’ interests by honoring their standards and expectations.
  • Girls unconditionally respect others regardless of sex. Boys respect males much more readily than females. They usually must be taught to respect authority-figure females such as mothers, grannies, and teachers.
  • Girls can easily respect others before others earn it. Boys tend to challenge others first and then respect them after they earn it.

There are massive generalizations here, along with the pathologizing of males, but there’s truth to be found here — as there is in all generalizations. However, we cannot lose sight of the fact that we live in the shadow of the Industrial Revolution, when gender roles and expectations experienced massive upheaval after people started migrating to cities. We’re still working out the details of mixed gender spaces that resulted from that shift.

For much of human history, the sexes inhabited different spheres—men, the field; women, the home. During the Industrial Revolution, centuries-old community structures dissolved almost overnight. The Victorian “Cult of Domesticity” called for the abolishing of traditional men’s spaces as the Powers That Be willed that men belonged at home with the family, and not in the company of other men. The decline of male friendship coincides with this as men started seeing each other not as brothers but as competitors.

… okay, this is getting too broad for a thousand words, so to bring it back to the former fundie retreat, I don’t think there was an intent to crowd out women in discussions because I don’t think anyone noticed it was happening. We guys tend to assume that if someone wants to say something that they’ll speak up, not knowing how intimidating it can be at times to enter into the discussion circle. There are some strong opinions in our group!

And I do think there is something to the claim that men respect other men more than they do women. This is not so much a criticism or indictment as it is an apparent inheritance of our bioevolutionary past. But so is tribalism, xenophobia, and aggression. Awareness is the first step towards changing any behavior. And part of the reason we all became atheists in the first place is we refused to ignore evidence that required action and change.

We’re (slowly) evolving as a species. These are the growing pains of leaving behind the African plains and graduating to something more than merely human.

205. moiety

godzilla-tokyo-ruinsI did not watch the Oscars last night. Something about watching institutionalized, self-congratulatory narcissism makes me nauseous. Ellen DeGeneres’ quip in her opening monologue about rain in Los Angeles dampening the evening seemed to sum it up. “We’re fine,” she joked. “Thank you for your prayers.”

Frankly, I haven’t seen any of the films that were nominated this year, aside from 12 Years a Slave, which made me feel guilty about having complained about anything, ever, in my entire life. For one, I don’t have the money. When faced with having to pay rent, groceries, phone bill, car insurance, and other essentials, spending what little discretionary funds I have available on what amounts to flimsy, cardboard representations of reality seems pretty ridiculous. Which brings me to the other reason I don’t go, which is that I find most films these days to be formulaic and predictable, as well as shallow and dull, and not worth my time.

Author Carlos Stevens wrote of the role of movies during the Great Depression: that they “offered a chance to escape the cold, the heat, and loneliness; they brought strangers together, rubbing elbows in the dark of movie palaces and fleapits, sharing in the one social event available to everyone.”

I don’t understand wanting to herd into darkened theaters to sit with strangers, or the desire to mingle gregariously. But I get wanting to escape from reality. It’s why I spent so much time with books as a teenager, preferring fictional universes where heroes overcame their demons. But it’s hard to relate to most of the stories presented for entertainment these days. Where movies of the 1930s were meant to give us hope in dark times, movies of the twenty-first century seem purposed only to numb us to the meandering banality of our own times.

Today I came across an article that explores the evolution of the horror genre and its use as contemporary commentary. The author writes of Wes Craven’s 1972 The Last House on the Left:

Scenes such as our female protagonist being raped and executed are meant to remind you of Mi Li or the notorious photograph of a Vietcong suspect being shot in the head outside a Buddhist Temple. Craven is telling us that the cinema is no long a safe heaven from suffering. ‘Look,’ his films seem to be saying. ‘This is what’s happening outside your door. Do something!’

Rather than attempt to hold a mirror to reality, most movies today promise shiny solutions to difficult solutions in fifteen, easy-to-follow “beats” (as per Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat). From opening image to that pivotal “dark night of the soul” at the end of Act 2, these stories promise that everything will be okay, no matter how impossible the situation.

Right now, it’s difficult to find much hope in these stories given my current circumstances. Sure, I’m not in living Russia, Uganda, or Nigeria, in real danger for my life. But I’m still looking for a job, my unemployment insurance runs out this week, and I’m not sure where money is going to come from in the next few weeks. My car is falling apart. I’m not sure how I’m going to force my unscrupulous landlord to return the security deposit without hiring a crackerjack legal team.

So you’ll forgive me if the avaricious characters in The Wolf of Wall Street or the charade of Dallas Buyer’s Club doesn’t assuage my anxieties. Hollywood loves to glorify the myth of the lone hero, the man or woman who overcomes villains and all odds to achieve his/her goal.

What’s so seductive about a story like 12 Years a Slave is that we know how the story ends. Even in its darkest moments, we know from the historical record that Solomon Northup will be freed. We know that Frodo will succeed in his quest. That Harry Potter will defeat Voldemort.

There is mythic truth in these stories. But that truth is only found in hindsight.

We are all heroes in our own narratives, which means that we are constantly in medias res – in the midst of the story. So I don’t know when life is going to calm down for me, and allow me to live a mode other than near-constant crisis management. As I said to a friend of mine today, it feels as if I’m always waiting for something awful to happen or expecting to be disappointed. One could say that this is how self-fulfilling prophesies are written, yet I’m tired of trying to play Pollyanna and paint a smiley face on a bleak situation.

What little hope I have actually comes from my atheism, and my layman’s study of cosmology and natural selection. In a recent NPR interview, astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson said:

You will never find people who truly grasp the cosmic perspective … leading nations into battle. No, that doesn’t happen. When you have a cosmic perspective there’s this little speck called Earth and you say, “You’re going to what? You’re on this side of a line in the sand and you want to kill people for what? Oh, to pull oil out of the ground, what? WHAT?” … Not enough people in this world, I think, carry a cosmic perspective with them. It could be life-changing.

It’s hard to look at the Hollywood elite gathering in Los Angeles to give themselves awards in light of knowing how utterly insignificant we are, especially when there is so much need in the world and so much progress left to make. As Piper Chapman says in Orange is the New Black, “I cannot get behind some supreme being who weighs in on the Tony Awards while a million people get whacked with machetes.”

It could always be worse. And it’s a miracle that any of us are here at all, given how it could’ve gone countless times for our planet throughout its history.

But it’s difficult to stay hopeful or plan for the future when storm clouds seem to be permanently camped on the horizon.