197. Huit d’Épées

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huit-d'ÉpéesThe stories we are told as children are templates we unwittingly carry with us through childhood and into adulthood, on which we pattern most of our thinking and the way we ultimately live.

Growing up in the 1980s and 90s, my family watched television shows like Rescue 911. Stories like that of “baby Jessica” falling down a drain and getting stuck there for 59 hours, or a boy who was skewered by a pair of scissors after running with them, taught us valuable lessons for how not to get hurt — as well as instilling us with a certain sense of paranoia.

Anything could kill us.

Other stories were not so helpful. Having been brought up in church, I heard stories that fundamentally shaped the way I viewed the world, myself, and other people. To be a good Christian, I had to blindly accept everything in the Bible as absolutely true, ignoring all doubts, no matter how reasonable.

Anything “wrong” I did, regardless how insignificant, from telling a lie to disobeying my parents, put nails in Jesus’ feet and hands. And because God views all sin as equal (except for homosexuality), getting angry with someone is the same as killing them.

gatewaysCertain activities and pursuits were satanic gateways into our home and lives. (We had several books about this; one was called Turmoil in the Toybox. He-Man, the Smurfs, Care Bears, and G.I. Joe were all discussed.)

Non-Christians will ultimately attempt to lead good Christians off the path of righteousness. Demons were everywhere, spiritually blinding people (including Christians) to more easily drag them to Hell.

And there were always Bible references to back up these claims.

All of these narratives, and more, were crammed into my head from a very young age. Before the age of seven or so, the areas of the brain responsible for critical thinking haven’t developed yet. Dawkins writes in The God Delusion:

A child is genetically pre-programmed to accumulate knowledge from figures of authority. The child brain, for very good Darwinian reasons, has to be set up in such a way that it believes what it’s told by its elders, because there just isn’t time for the child to experiment with warnings like “Don’t go too near the cliff edge!” or “Don’t swim in the river, there are crocodiles!”

There is a condition I learned of recently called Religious Trauma Syndrome. Dr. Marlene Winell, who first identified RTS, likens it to PTSD, clinical depression, bipolar disorder, and borderline personality disorder. It’s brought about when one leaves fundamentalist religion—and often families and entire communities—behind. Symptoms include:

  • Confusion, poor critical thinking ability, negative beliefs about self-ability & self-worth, black and white thinking, perfectionism, difficulty with decision-making;
  • Depression, anxiety, anger, grief, loneliness, difficulty with pleasure, loss of meaning;
  • Loss of social network, family rupture, social awkwardness, sexual difficulty, behind schedule on developmental tasks;
  • Unfamiliarity with secular world; “fish out of water” feelings, difficulty belonging, information gaps (e.g. evolution, modern art, music);

Dr. Winell writes on her website:

The doctrines of original sin and eternal damnation cause the most psychological distress by creating the ultimate double bind. You are guilty and responsible, and face eternal punishment. Yet you have no ability to do anything about it.

In essence, Religious Trauma Syndrome is the void left when the support structures of religion fall away, revealing the deep scars and toxic thought patterns that fundamentalist religion is adept at whitewashing with pat excuses or victim blaming. “You just don’t believe enough!”

Swords in Tarot are associated with action, force, power, ambition, change, and conflict. They’re also connected with thoughts, attitudes, and beliefs.

The number eight (at least in the Rider-Waite Tarot deck) describes boundaries and limitations, as well as inner strength and power of will.

In the Eight of Swords, a maiden is bound and blindfolded, isolated from the distant town and surrounded by swords. The sense is one of gloom, despair, and hopelessness. One website interprets the card this way:

Your “ego” represents the non-trusting, doubting, over-analytical part of your mind which is unable to make any decisions… you have restrained yourself from activity long enough, avoiding the present by trying to convince yourself that there are no alternatives. These beliefs keep you hemmed in—they always provide reasons why nothing will work… You are not being held back by direct force, but by your training – this belief in your own helplessness and your blind acceptance of what you have been taught… Recognize that nothing prevents you from leaving—you are bound only by your own “illusions.”

For ages, my sense of self-worth and my self-image have been colored by stories from my childhood that told me my only value was in Jesus’ death. Nothing about me was inherently good. My purpose in life had been decided by God; to not seek that purpose was arrogance.

Self-denial is a cardinal virtue. “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness.” I attempted to do this by shutting down my id, especially once my libido kicked in. Consequently, I struggle with actually wanting anything, or making decisions. I fear emotions, especially pride. I constantly doubt myself and my capability.

However, my perfectionist drive knows no bounds. For example, during a piano lesson in college, I burst into tears after failing one portion of the piano proficiency exam: black key minor scales. By extension, I was a failure in every other area of my life.

Actress Natasha Lyonne said of recovering from heroin addiction: “Not only do you have to smash down the house, but you have to then take out the Indian burial ground underneath the foundation of the house and then begin to rebuild.”

Actress Julia Sweeney describes her deconversion as having to “change the wallpaper of my mind.”

Mine felt more like burning the house to the ground.

Yet the message of the Eight of Swords is that the mental prison of my parents’ religion is only an illusion.

Time for some new stories.

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124. weltschmerz

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This is not a word of the day, and frankly, I don’t care very much if it is or is not. I’m frankly tired of the self-imposed rules and standards I weigh myself down under.

Here’s my Word Of The Day, and it’s pretty apropos at that:

Weltschmerz, noun: 1. Mental depression or apathy caused by comparison of the actual state of the world with an ideal state. 2. A mood of sentimental sadness.

This is the word that sums up my mood.

Last night I watched the independent British film Weekend, with Tom Cullen and Chris New, about two guys who hook up at a bar and then try and decide if what they have is something more serious. It’s a totally non-traditional romantic drama in about every sense of the word; and very raw, in a way that will shock most Americans. There’s a scene towards the end where they make a wry joke about, “Is this our Notting Hill moment?” They both admit that they’ve never seen it, but figure that that particular moment is when someone comes running up in the rain to make a romantic declaration and everything gets wrapped up nicely.

Which it does not.

Which is a bit more like real life.

In real life, women get crushed by bulldozers. Tibetan nuns burn to death protesting brutal Chinese occupation. Children are molested by middle school teachers. There is no third act, no climax, no catastrophe leading to dénouement.

Freytag works great for describing what’s on paper—not so great off. Life is a bit too unpredictable, and most of the bits in between the exciting bits very boring.

How is a raven like a writing desk? They produce very few notes, and all of them flat.

Raised in American culture, in a media saturated with happy stories, we have these presupposed ideas about how life is supposed to go; and romantic dramas/comedies all start just before the big relationship of the protagonist’s life is about to begin. And we all seem to live in that place for whatever reason, our life stories written for us by the big Hollywood studios that bring us (and our dollars) back to the multiplexes and the Netflix instant queues again and again, like addicts looking for a fix of comfort and security of the hope that maybe—just maybe—life doesn’t suck as much as we secretly think it might.

There’s a bit from an Okkervil River song (“Our Life is Not a Movie or Maybe”) that goes:

No fade in: film begins on a kid in the big city. And no cut to a costly parade (that’s for him only!). No dissolve to a sliver of grey (that’s his new lady!) where she glows just like grain on the flickering pane of some great movie.

In life, we don’t matter. We are all the protagonists of our own stories, but no one else is watching. We are the lone author and audience. Everyone else is just extras, with a few people getting speaking parts and supporting roles. And we are the extras and supporting players in other protagonists’ stories.

For me, a gay man, I don’t have stories playing for me up on the alluring cinema screen. Those are stories for the straights, for the people whose lives have been written out for them if they choose to pick up that volume. I spent most of my formative years pretending that I wasn’t attracted to the other boys. This isn’t my era. The young people of my era are coming out now when they’re seven or eight. They’ll flirt with other young boys when you’re supposed to be learning how to flirt. Some of them will get hell, but in this changing climate most of them probably won’t.

I’ll never learn how to flirt, how not to not pretend that I’m attracted to a guy; to openly stare across a room at someone.

A few moments ago this guy who lives about a mile away asked me if I wanted to come over and cuddle. I don’t know if he meant any more or just that. As nice as that would be, to have someone, I don’t want just someone. Right now, I want to cuddle with a guy who knows me, who knows just by looking that I’m feeling bad and insecure and crazy. I’m so tired of being crazy and lonely because I’m crazy and can’t carry on a normal relationship with another human being because I’m broken because (cliché cliché) my parents fucked me as a child. (Not literally. Figuratively.)

But life doesn’t sort itself out into three neat little acts: exposition, introduction, dramatic premise, situation, inciting incident; conflict, obstacle, antagonist, low point; climax, falling action, equilibrium, resolution. Doesn’t work that way.

I need to be found. Not by some god, which is what they always told me I needed. I’m tired of other people telling me what I need, even though I don’t even know what it is I need.

I need to be found by someone.

But that probably won’t happen.

And don’t tell me that I just have to wait and be patient. The people who sell you that line are the people who got lucky, who didn’t have to wait, or who are on the other side. The other side always looks rosier once you’ve made it past the thorns, which seems to be the whole tenor of my life. The promise of roses, the potential for roses, but just thistles.

It’d be great if my life were a movie, but it doesn’t work like that.

In real life, the guy gets on the train and leaves for two years, and we never know if he comes back. No earnest, soggy, moor-top confessions of love. No last-minute interventions from a benevolent, sentimental author. No hero overcoming all obstacles in spite of impossible odds for sake of paramour. No convenient character arcs.

Our life is not a movie. No ‘maybe’ about it.

100. singularity

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This story begins with a boy, seven or eight years old, crouching outside on a mid-summer day under a clear blue sky. The boy is peering down into a puddle. It had been raining the day before and there were many such muddy puddles all around. He stares down into it, wondering, perhaps, if (like in The Magicians Nephew or Alice Through the Looking Glass) another world lies just beyond the reflection of the sky above; if that reflection is the mirror image of another universe, with another boy, who is also looking down into his puddle beneath his own clear blue sky.

He stares at it a while, and then it hits him like a bolt. He is looking into a puddle, at his own reflection, at a natural mirror. No such worlds lie beyond. This is all there is.

That, I suppose, is one of the formative moments of my cognitive development as a young person. Growing up on the outskirts of a farming town in rural Kansas, there weren’t many opportunities for… entertainment. So my two younger sisters and I had to create our own. We read books. We ran through fields. We acted out our favorite movies. We developed our imaginations.

Growing up in a fundamentalist Christian family was perhaps not the ideal upbringing for a boy with an inquiring mind and insatiable curiosity. I was always the child in Sunday school asking questions, trying to figure out the story or the lesson, and aggravating the hell out of the adults with my persistence. In church during the sermon I would draw as the pastor talked, illustrating what he was saying in a way that made sense to me. In fact, one week one of my drawings was even published in the church bulletin as an example of how young people were “taking part in worship.”

I’ve been asked over the past several months why, after nearly twenty-five years (you can’t really count the first five, can you?), I suddenly became an atheist. My answer is always that there was no “suddenly” about it. Like the slow progress of evolution over billions of years, my own “coming out” as an atheist was a slow journey; with countless small changes and adaptations along the way, being gradually divested of what I wished were true, what everyone was constantly telling me was true, and accepting what is true.

At first I considered beginning with September 11th, 2001, driving in to college with my father and listening to the first reports of the attacks on the World Trade Center on National Public Radio; and then watching in chapel as the first and then the second tower fell, knowing that there were doomed people still inside them; or later that day watching the footage of people leaping from the top floors of the buildings rather than burn to death in the jet fuel inferno.

But that would be too easy.

Perhaps we should start in my living room when I was about eight years old, sitting in an orange arm chair and watching a Billy Graham crusade on television, and the reality of hellfire and damnation sinking in for the first time as he described the eternal suffering of those who died without having Jesus as their savior. There were tears that evening, and it frightened me so badly that I begged God to please spare me from that fate. I searched my soul for some sin that I might confess, sure that I’d done something to offend God at some point in my life.

A while later I ended up praying “the prayer” with my father, largely after my younger sister had done the same with my mom. I didn’t want to be left out, after all. And for a while things seemed good. I had Jesus now. I was “in.” But any changes I experienced didn’t last very long, and I found myself praying over and over again for that same feeling of newness that I’d experienced the first time.

It was never to last.

It wasn’t until my family moved to Minnesota and we found the church that I’d be at for the next fourteen years that my training as an evangelical really began. My fifth and sixth grade Sunday school teacher was an ardent Creationist, and at one point she even arranged for Ken Hamm to come and do a seminar. Those days were exciting.

My church also had several pastors who were great teachers and apologists. These men knew the Bible, and were able to communicate biblical truths in a way that was both relevant and instructive. There was no screaming, finger wagging or podium banging from the pulpit, and to this day I honestly believe that these men love God and love people. One of the pastors in particular deeply engaged my mind and my intellect, and challenged me to think.

And overall it was a positive experience. The people at my church formed a family of believers, both inside the church and out. They mirrored a kind of Christian love and acceptance that still produces warm feelings to this day. Some have experienced unspeakable shame, threats and all manner of psychological trauma at their churches growing up. Me, I recall the little old ladies in their red hats, and evenings in choir practice. (For a time we had a top-notch group, and not your regular warbly church choir—we were an auditioned and solid vocal ensemble.)

But on September 11th, 2001, I watched the towers fall and for the first time God seemed powerless and even uncaring. How could such a thing happen? How could God allow it? Didn’t God care about those people? And I had to assume then that there were many who “died without Jesus,” which meant that they were ushered from one hell directly into another. And it was the will of God.

I remember that morning that we had a speaker in chapel who changed his topic from whatever it was he would’ve been speaking about to Habakkuk, a prophet who I still admire and respect today. Habakkuk was writing on the eve of the arrival of the armies of Babylon, and questioning the wisdom of God in allowing injustice. “How long will I cry, and you will not hear? I cry out to you ‘Violence!’ and will you not save?” It was a particularly pertinent passage for that horrific morning. I don’t remember much of what he said, but the response did ring hollow in my mind. How could a good God allow that? Because we were Calvinists and fundamentalists, we had to assume that this was all part of God’s ineffable plan—but why?

That night, as I watched the image of the falling towers for probably the twentieth time, I said out loud, “There is no God.” And part of me waited for a lightning bolt to strike or an earthquake, but it was just me and the television.

It was then that I began to question my faith—not so much in response to the horror that I’d witnessed, not to mention the nightmares at the end of the 20th Century, of the genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia and even in the Darfur. Rather, it was the passivity of God, and the seeming resignedness of his followers—almost a shoulder-shrugging at the inhumanity going on around them. As a child there was a song we sang in my family: “Soon and very soon, we are going to see the King. (That’s sung three times.) No more crying there, we are going to see the King…”

I remember watching the film “Quo Vadis,” a 1951 biblical costume epic with Robert Taylor, Deborah Kerr and Peter Ustinov. In one scene condemned Christians wait to be sent into the Coliseum to be torn apart by wild animals. As they waited, they sang a hymn. And my mom began to sing that old hymn: “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wonderful face. And the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace.” But I remember thinking that it seemed such a waste to be killed over a belief, and pondering whether I could hold out under similar duress.

One night years later in my church’s youth group, shortly after the Columbine shootings our youth pastor proposed a similar scenario: A gunman threatening to kill us unless we renounced Christ. What would we do? My initial reaction was to go with the handful of Jesus deniers (after all, you could always ask forgiveness later), but I’m ashamed to admit that I ultimately caved to the pressure and the guilt towards being a dutiful Christian—but that same thought was nagging away at me. “It’s not worth it!”

For me, church was largely a social activity. It was about being with my family and my friends. God was an important part to be sure, but if I had to be honest he was more window dressing than a personal force for me, and theology was the language we spoke—and going to a Christian college for four years, I got pretty good at speaking it too. But as I felt I was growing more certain in my faith, so did the doubts that had steadily been growing in my mind since September 2001—was God even there? He never seemed to intervene.

In high school the husband of our children’s pastor died of brain cancer, and my family went to the viewing. Several years earlier one of the older boys lost part of his leg in a motorcycle accident. And as we stood there with friends, with the casket not far away, I wondered how she could still believe in God, when God allowed all that to happen, for her husband to suffer unimaginably before finally dying. They all believed he was in Heaven, with Jesus. They even went on how he’d been such a witness to the nurses, and to everyone he’d encountered. “That was Jesus in him,” they’d say.

I remember another incident from much earlier in my childhood, when one of the sons of our pastor in Kansas died in a car accident. I don’t remember the details, but the family’s car had hit a patch of ice or something, and the car had rolled, and only he had been killed. The rest of the family sustained injuries, some severe, but they lived. I was puzzled by everyone’s resignedness to this—how it was all part of God’s plan.

Some people have said, “It sounds like you just don’t like how God chooses to work.” And maybe that’s true. I don’t. But every time I’d watch the news or open a paper, someone was being murdered or robbed, and Heaven just seemed silent. And I started to wonder if it wasn’t that God was choosing to be silent, but that God wasn’t there.

On August 24, 2008, I came out as a gay man after over thirteen years of struggling with same-sex attraction and failing to overcome it. Imagine the pained confusion of a twelve-year-old boy, having read all of the books about adolescence, and knowing that I was supposed to be having thoughts about girls and instead having thoughts about… other guys. My friends were starting to talk about girls, having growth spurts, getting more masculine and… well… sexy. It wasn’t until the age of sixteen one autumn afternoon while raking the leaves outside, under a clear blue sky, that the thought finally occurred to me:

I’m gay.

It explained everything. But I couldn’t be gay—not and be a Christian! So I tried to be attracted to girls. I’d masturbate at night and try to force myself to think about being with a girl, and at first I’d try to trick myself into thinking about a guy and a girl, but the girl would always disappear and I’d get off with the image of being with a man sexually. And that led, of course, to more praying and begging for God to please take away those thoughts and feelings. But Heaven was ever silent, and I was left with the guilt.

So in 2008, when I finally came out, I made a sort of deal with God that I was going to figure this out. As Dan Savage said of the Catholic Church as a teenager, “That can’t be right. They must be wrong.” I started researching scripture in depth, stopping just short of studying biblical Greek and Hebrew myself—I was going to find out what the bible really said about homosexuality. And I found some really interesting information, but the more I looked and the deeper I dug, the less satisfied I was with the answers I was finding. And I started to become aware of this voice that had made itself heard that evening in front of the television that hadn’t gone away: “There is no God.”

Years previous to September 11th, I was sitting in the car listening to This American Life, and it happened to be the episode with Julia Sweeney where she tells an abbreviated version of Letting Go of God. In the dénouement of the show (which I’ve quoted on here more than once), she recounts the moment where she first begins to lose her weakening grip on the faith she’s desperately trying to hold on to:

One day I was Cometing out my bathtub, and I thought, “What if it’s true? What if humans are here because of pure, random chance? What if there is no guiding hand, no one watching?” I realized I had spent so much time thinking about what God meant that I hadn’t really spent any time thinking about what not-God meant.

A few days later, as I was walking across my backyard into my house, I realized that there was this teeny-weeny thought whispering inside my head. I’m not sure how long it had been there, but it suddenly got just one decibel louder. And it whispered, “There is no God.”

And I tried to ignore it. But it got a teeny bit louder. “There is no God. There is no God.”

And then I felt like I’d cheated on God somehow. And I went in the house, and I prayed. And I asked God to please help me have faith. But already it felt slightly silly and vacant, and I felt like I was just talking to myself.

And then, over the course of several weeks, God disappeared.

My teenage self heard this and felt both a mixture of self-satisfied pity, but also of fear. It seemed to me that Julia had just given up; that she hadn’t tried hard enough. Everyone has doubt, but you’re supposed to soldier on. After all, “the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Matthew 24:13). But there was also a part of me that was afraid she was right; and, looking back, knew that I was hearing that same voice too.

On the night of my birthday this year, after I’d just been dumped by Seth, the guy I’d been in the quasi, one-sided relationship with, it finally came crashing down. I’d been so excited about the church he was starting with my friends, and the thought of being in that church with them, and having a whole new community of friends—but mostly of being madly in love with him. And as I vented my rage at him, it was as if the glasses were suddenly taken away and for the first time I could plainly see that I hadn’t really believed any of it; that I hadn’t believed in God, in the theology I was so good at talking about, in Heaven or Hell, or any sort of divine purpose for my life or for anyone else’s life. It was a bit jarring to do it all at once, but I was finally being honest.

For years I’d had clashes with my parents over my “ungodly” behavior: The swearing, the drinking, the overtly self-centered behavior I’ve admittedly exhibited over the years. One night as my dad and I were driving up to Forest Lake to look at a car after my SUV had died, I admitted to him that I really wasn’t a Christian. I could “talk the talk,” but I hadn’t “given my heart to Jesus.” Not really. He said he knew.

This past summer I lived with my parents for a bit before finding a new place to live, and in one of the many discussions I had with them, my mom accused me of never really giving God a chance. “A chance for what?” I shot back. “God has never been real to me. Everyone else seemed to have these experiences with God, these personal encounters, but I’ve never once had any of that. Give God a chance at what?”

I’ve had religious experiences, to be sure, which were more emotional than spiritual. They were always connected to highly charged moments in my life, in periods of deep depression or brokenness, or to music. And there were a few times when I could almost sense the presence of God near me, when I was attempting to pray, but it was always fleeting, like seeing something out of the corner of your eye.

In the weeks following the debacle with Seth, I considered my decision to reject God. Was I leaving God, or leaving the Church? Was I just mad at Seth and this was my way of lashing out at him—or was there something more to it? As I thought and read and listened and discussed, the more I, like Julia, had to admit that there wasn’t enough evidence to continue to believe in God. Neuroscience is able to duplicate many of the experiences of transcendence that I had; and if I looked back over my entire life so far, God was always part of the window trappings, part of the paraphernalia of the Christian community I’d grown up in. And that wasn’t reason enough to continue. I could try to fake it, to go to church anyway, sing the songs, sit through the sermons (even though I didn’t believe any of it), and enjoy the company. But that’s not me.

I’ve had overall positive experiences in the church; and despite my family’s dysfunction (and the fact that all three of us kids are incredibly neurotic, can’t really trust anyone, never felt loved, and never feel like we’re good enough), a good home life too—but I never had a choice about what I believed or what I was taught, and we lived in an insular community where exposure to outside ideas was limited. It was God’s way, or Hell, and who wants eternal damnation (especially as an incredibly imaginative nine-year-old)? And I could’ve just as easily grown up in a home with bigoted non-Christian parents who didn’t want a gay son, but I grew up believing I was broken, disgusting and the worst sinner for being a homosexual or not trying hard enough to overcome it, and that God was going to send me to Hell if I didn’t literally straighten up.

Since coming out as an atheist, I’ve had much more peace of mind. I no longer fear Hell, or God. My thoughts are my own, and I’m free to think and believe whatever I want. And life without God isn’t as hopeless as we were always taught it was! It actually means more now than it did as a Christian. We live in an amazing universe, as a race of highly evolved primates who for whatever reason are able to think and reason and know and love and appreciate the beauty and wonder of our world. And the fact that this is the end result of billions of years of evolution makes it seem even more remarkable—and there’s still more evolving to come!

I don’t regret all of my life as a Christian. I made wonderful friends, and did some pretty cool things that were a part of that experience. And it’s made me who I am today. However, I’m left wondering who I’d be had I left religion sooner, or come out as gay sooner. But of course it doesn’t do any good wondering what might’ve been. That only leaves you crazy, bitter and stuck in the past. Things went the way they did, there’s no changing any of it, and here I am.

And all of those things have led me here, to realizing that who I am is who I always have been: the skeptical post-theist. I’ll always be the kid asking questions, aggravating the hell out of everybody else because I can’t just stop at the answer, and looking up from the puddle and at the clear blue sky and realizing that this is all there is and that there are no worlds on the other side—but also realizing that true wonder and magic are all around us.

And that that’s okay.

78. nevermore

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Cross with dark, stormy backgroundThis weekend I came to the realization that I can probably only date other free thinkers or skeptics—guys who grew up in the Church and, after much thought and weighing of evidence, decided that it was no longer tenable to stay there.

Frankly, it’s not an easy thing to turn away from the place that has been your home for all of your life. From my earliest remembrance, the church was the primary social and sociological organizing feature of my life. I can still vividly remember sitting in the hard pews of the Evangelical Mennonite church that my family attended, feet dangling off the side, not yet long enough to reach the floor.

… I remember singing hymns together, and the older Mennonite woman who taught my 1st grade Sunday school class, and the felt board and pieces she used to tell Bible stories.

… I remember lunches, dinners and missionary gatherings in the community hall, and playing games in there during AWANA and vacation Bible school.

… I remember Christmas, Advent services with the candles (and mine catching fire several years in a row), Easter, and all the services in between.

It’s not that I don’t care about the Church, or about religion, or even God. I take it very seriously, which is why I can’t believe anymore—because I take it too seriously to believe on such a profound lack of evidence as there is. As Richard Dawkins writes in his endnote to Chapter 11 of The Selfish Gene:

“I don’t want to argue that the things in which a particular individual has faith are necessarily daft. They may or may not be. The point is that there is no way of deciding whether they are, and no way or preferring one article of faith over another, because evidence is explicitly eschewed. Indeed the fact that true faith doesn’t need evidence is held up as its greatest virtue; this was the point of my quoting the story of Doubting Thomas, the only really admirable member of the twelve apostles.”

He continues in the same endnote: “Faith is powerful enough to immunize people against all appeals to pity, to forgiveness, to decent human feelings. It even immunizes them against fear, if they honestly believe that a martyr’s death will send them straight to heaven. What a weapon! Religious faith deserves a chapter to itself in the annals of war technology, on an even footing with the longbow, the warhorse, the tank, and the hydrogen bomb.”

I’ve dated a number of guys who have held various religious beliefs. My first boyfriend had a horrific experience coming out as a teenager in his Christian community, where he was literally thrown out of his house by his conservative fundamentalist parents, as well as shunned by everyone he knew.

It’s been a mixture, with some guys still believing that Christianity is the way and trying to reconcile homosexuality with the Bible; but mostly the guys I meet are apathetic at best about Christianity. Like most American men, church doesn’t have a strong draw for them. Most grew up around Christianity but once they were old enough drifted away; and for many gay men, we get the message early on that the church has no place for homosexuals. Some might even go so far as to say that gays make Jesus throw up.

I’m at a place right now where there’s a lot of internal anger towards the church and its teachings. Having grown up within the system, while I’ve known many decent and kind religious people, I frankly believe that religion itself is too often used as a tool of psychological abuse and terrorism, subjugating individuals through fear of damnation and glorified ignorance in a sort of holy Stockhausen Syndrome.

It’s ironic. When I first came out, I was committed to only dating Christian gays, even going so far as to joining Christian gay dating sites and online forums (such as the GCN Network, which is where I met my first boyfriend). Now the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction, where I should probably only date date agnostics or atheists, guys who have come out of the church and are committed to free thought and eradicating ignorance and religious abuse and inculcation from the world.

This experience is so defining and pervasive that it honestly makes it difficult to connect to others. That was what made it easy to connect to Seth—our common religious backgrounds and the experience of growing up gay in a fundamentalist Christian environment. But that chapter of my life is over, and a new and brighter one has begun—and now I want to share it with someone who understands that; who takes faith and religion seriously but also realizes through having lived it how toxic and deadly an ideology it is.

What it comes down to is that I can’t date guys who are willing to suspend their critical thinking skills in light of everything that we now know. Looking at the long term (which is where I’m at in seeking a relationship), our beliefs about the world are fundamentally different. He’ll believe that everything happens for a reason, and that there is a God benevolently looking out for us in Heaven, whereas I do not. My deepest sense is that there is a God (though that being is probably more akin to the God of the Deists than the personal God of the Evangelicals), but see no evidence to believe that life has any intrinsic purpose beyond that which we ascribe to it. The universe doesn’t care about anyone. It is amoral, non-sentient. Therefore, we must care about each other.

Similarly, I couldn’t date a guy who is apathetic about religion, because what we think and believe does deeply define us. It’s somewhat like having lived through combat—difficult for anyone who hasn’t experienced it to relate or fully appreciate the gravity of the emotional, psychological and social ramifications. Turning your back on your religion is a huge decision—one not to be taken lightly.

75. votive

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On the way home this afternoon, I was listening to this passage from The Selfish Gene:

A lamppost in woods at night“Consider the idea of God. We do not know how it arose in the meme pool. Probably it originated many times by independent ‘mutation’. In any case, it is very old indeed. How does it replicate itself? By the spoken and written word, aided by great music and great art. Why does it have such a high survival value? Remember that ‘survival value’ here does not mean value for a gene in a gene pool, but value for a meme in a meme pool. The question really means: What is it about the idea of a god that gives it its stability and penetrance in the cultural environment? The survival value of the god meme in the meme pool results from its great psychological appeal. It provides a superficially plausible answer to deep and troubling questions about existence. It suggests that injustices in this world may be rectified in the next. The ‘everlasting arms’ hold out a cushion against our own inadequacies which, like a doctor’s placebo, is none the less effective for being imaginary. These are some of the reasons why the idea of God is copied so readily by successive generations of individual brains. God exists, if only in the form of a meme with high survival value, or infective power, in the environment provided by human culture.”

Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, p.192-193

In my last post and in posts previous (in particular, one from a few weeks ago), I’ve been discussing and considering the idea of the existence of, and belief or non-belief in, God. I’ve pondered various theories, from theism being an evolutionary advantage for our early ancestors that we just never got rid of, to it being a “mind virus” that infects a person until a good dose of rational thinking cures him or her of it. But this idea of God being a meme (that is, “an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture” (source: Merriam-Webster)) finally put into words what I’d been trying to articulate. Considering how fast Internet videos and catch phrases spread now, and that some are more or less enduring than others, puts the whole thing in better perspective. God is an idea—and ideas, as Alan Moore once wrote, are bulletproof.

Or is God an idea?

Along with this I’ve considered the possibility that I’ve made God what I want God to be—or not to be—to suit my notions of the world and how I think it works. It certainly is more convenient for there to be no God, since it eliminates the “problem of pain.” This world is all there is, and there is no benevolent God in the afterlife waiting to wipe away all our tears and put all things to right. We don’t have to work out how or why God might allow terrible things to happen because there is no God to allow it. Things just happen. Children die. Planes fly into buildings. We’re just another animal on the Serengeti plains, eating or trying to avoid being eaten.

But I keep wondering if we’re simply asking the wrong questions. Supposing that there is a God (and my sense is that there is). Why would such an all-powerful being expect us to erect this monolithic ideology around the idea that people are intrinsically evil (tainted through no fault of their own, simply by virtue of the fact that they’re born and without any choice given to them, by this supposed Sin Nature that was imputed to them when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden however long ago it was) and that Jesus had to be born as a human in order to be tortured to death for our sins (which we seemingly have no choice about committing since it’s inevitable that we’re going to do something “sinful”)?

If we look not to the Bible but to the world around us, we see a common theme: it’s broken and a mess, but we do the best we can and life goes on. Why instead do we spend all this time flagellating ourselves (literally or metaphorically) about what awful sinners we are in God’s eyes? What a colossal waste of time and energy considering how brief and wonderful life is! It would be like going to the Louvre and instead of marveling at the incredible works of art, we’re outraged about how other people aren’t appropriately appreciating the artwork, or aren’t looking at it in the right way, or littering, or talking too loudly—and completely missing the point.

This afternoon one of my good friends at work and I were discussing her son and his three neighborhood friends, and how she wonders which one of them might turn out to be gay. She and her husband are trying to raise him in as affirmative a way as possible so that he feels free to be who and whatever he is. Her neighbors are of the same mind.

Then she talked about a friend of hers from college whose friends finally made him come out for his own good, because they didn’t care if he was gay—they just wanted him to be authentically himself and to be happy with that. Hearing stories like this—about parents who love and encourage their children, and friends who do the same—both inspires and kills me. One of our art directors at the agency has a gay son who is currently studying to be a dancer at Julliard. They knew he was gay early on, and when he finally realized it they basically told him what any parent tells their straight son or daughter—we love you, and be safe. No complications. No hand wringing. No soul searching. As if it was normal.

Because (pardon my Finnish) it fucking is normal—se on vitun normaali.

What if I’d grown up in a family where my parents didn’t care whether I was gay or not? How much unnecessary mental anguish could I have escaped? And, thinking beyond just myself, I wonder what kind of a world we might have if all parents did that. If kids didn’t worry about being bullied at school because they were or are perceived to be gay.

It comes back to this cultural god meme.

I’m going to backtrack for just a bit and lay some groundwork—and I’m going to focus for now on homophobia, which happens to be on my brain and is currently (and no doubt will be) a major moral and political issue in the upcoming presidential campaign. Now it’s telling to me that the only places where homophobia still has a strong foothold is in the Americas, the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Let me focus briefly on the latter two:

  • Asian culture (and forgive me for generalizing here) is one steeped heavily in tradition and honor to family, though the up and coming generation is becoming increasingly Westernized and progressive, and less tradition-bound. To an outsider, it appears almost militaristic in its demand of unquestioning obedience and conformity to social mores.
  • Africa—and here I’m trying hard not to be conscious of making generalizations or value judgements—is a continent that seems largely dominated by violence, ignorance, poverty and fear. That’s also true of many societies, but I look with sadness at the genocides and ethnic cleansings of even the recent past in Rwanda and the Darfur, and the apparent utter disregard for human life in the ongoing slave trade. That AIDS continues to ravage the continent because men largely refuse to practice safe sex, or believe that the rape of a virgin will cure them, is another symptom of a continent in desperate need of enlightenment.

Africa and Asia are two continents where any of the monotheistic religions haven’t had much historical presence, which is why I singled them out, and why I’m not surprised that the cultures would be strongly homophobic. For hundreds of years, the Americas have had a strong Christian dominance, and the Middle East is home to the Abrahamic religions of Judaism and Islam. Both began as largely tribal societies and religions, their religions reflecting the dominantly patriarchal hegemony of the culture.

Okay—brief excursus on sexual politics in the ancient world (which is very relevant to the discussion here) and we’ll get back on topic. Gender roles were rigidly enforced in the ancient world as social stability required that everyone know their place—and free males (those who held military or monetary power and property) were masters of that world, all others (women, children, slaves, foreigners) subservient to their wills. Consequently, because males were at the top of the social ladder, it was logical that their God was male too since he must be a bigger, stronger and invisible version of human males. And so God, like a freeman, becomes a homophobe.

Sex was often the politics of the ancient world, and a freeman’s social dominance often expressed itself through sexual dominance as well. A freeman could have sex with anyone—so long as he wasn’t violating the property of another freeman. Penetration is the key word here. A freeman could penetrate (i.e., dominate) anyone of a lower social rank—women and girls (all females were considered property of males), boys and male slaves. It was shameful for one freeman to penetrate (i.e., dominate) another since that other male was either taking on the role of a non-dominant (i.e., a woman or slave) or proving himself unworthy as a freeman by being soft or weak. Inevitably theology was woven into all of that, and it became a sin for two men to have sex since God, the überman, like any freeman, doesn’t like the idea of one man penetrating another.

Sorry, this is a huge idea to tackle in one blog post, and I must sound absolutely batshit insane and sex-obsessed, but bear with me. Fast forward a couple thousand years. At the core of every Christian pastor and politician’s polemic against gays and calling for the protection of “family values” is that same ancient meme, passed down like a collective virus that shapes and defines the culture around it.

And now I’m getting to Europe, which we purposefully haven’t talked about yet.

For over a thousand years the Roman Catholic Church was the dominant reigning power in known Western world. It dictated the thoughts and beliefs of everyone with an iron fist, from kings to serfs, holding the threat of damnation and often torture and death for heresy and unbelief—but it too was infected with that same cultural god meme that had come up through the same tribal Hebrew culture from which Christianity sprang.

Douglas Adams wrote, “There are some oddities in the perspective with which we see the world. The fact that we live at the bottom of a deep gravity well, on the surface of a gas covered planet going around a nuclear fireball 90 million miles away and think this to be normal is obviously some indication of how skewed our perspective tends to be, but we have done various things over intellectual history to slowly correct some of our misapprehensions.”

It was around the middle of the 18th century that people started having brilliant new thoughts, and the new meme of rationality began to take hold like a anti-virus in what came to be known as the Enlightenment. Suddenly it wasn’t okay to just blindly accept whatever you’d been taught or held to be true. We could understand the world and life through logic and rational thinking. And it took several hundred years, but eventually someone questioned whether our belief that it was unnatural for “man to lie with man” or “woman with woman” was right.

And that happened in Europe—just as the Enlightenment happened in Europe.

So if you’re still tracking, I don’t think it’s by accident that Europe is less homophobic, or that it thrives in places where rationality doesn’t. It is by employing reason that we move forward (in what I believe Dawkins considers a next stage in human evolution), for it was by employing reason that we abolished slavery in the Western world, developed science and medicine, recognized basic human rights and that women were the equals of men, and first got a glimpse of our place in this vast and incredible universe.

And now back to the idea of God.

… remember God?

Supposing there is a God, but we’ve created an idea of him in our image—male to boot, in all his jealous, raging, egotistical glory (and I don’t think it’s coincidence either that most theologians were males)—and built an entire civilization around that ancient meme. What must that God think of the amazingly ape-like creatures who go around stuffing each other or themselves into artificial moralistic boxes, or even going around killing each other, based on how they think he wants them to live.

What if God is like the curator of the Louvre, seeing all the silly Puritanical visitors obsessing about how furniture is arranged instead of enjoying the artwork?

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I want to talk about Feng Shui, which is something I know very little about . . . Apparently, we need to think about the building being inhabited by dragons and look at it in terms of how a dragon would move around it. So, if a dragon wouldn’t be happy in the house, you have to put a red fish bowl here or a window there. This sounds like complete and utter nonsense . . . there aren’t any dragons, so any theory based on how dragons behave is nonsense.

There are all sorts of things we know how to do, but don’t necessarily know what we do—we just do them. Go back to the issue of how you figure out how a room or a house should be designed and instead of going through all the business of trying to work out the angles and trying to digest which genuine architectural principles . . .  just ask yourself, ‘how would a dragon live here?’

We are used to thinking in terms of organic creatures; an organic creature may consist of an enormous complexity of all sorts of different variables that are beyond our ability to resolve but we know how organic creatures live. We’ve never seen a dragon but we’ve all got an idea of what a dragon is like, so we can say, ‘Well if a dragon went through here, he’d get stuck just here and a little bit cross over there because he couldn’t see that and he’d wave his tail and knock that vase over’. You figure out how the dragon’s going to be happy here and lo and behold! you’ve suddenly got a place that makes sense for other organic creatures, such as ourselves, to live in.

So, my argument is that as we become more and more scientifically literate, it’s worth remembering that the fictions with which we previously populated our world may have some function that it’s worth trying to understand and preserve the essential components of, rather than throwing out the baby with the bath water; because even though we may not accept the reasons given for them being here in the first place, it may well be that there are good practical reasons for them, or something like them, to be there.

— Douglas Adams, impromptu speech delivered at Digital Biota 2, Magdelene College, Cambridge, September 1998


I’ve been doing quite a bit of thinking and writing lately about the veracity of Christianity and how it’s mostly a complete crock based on the extreme lack of evidence and support for believing in God (and, if you don’t believe in God, well, the whole rest of religion sort of falls apart around you).

The other night while shelving my books, I was listening to Douglas Adams’ posthumous book, The Salmon of Doubt, a collection of his published and unpublished writings from the nested subfolders of his Macintosh computer. The excerpt from the speech above is from a talk he gave at a science conference titled “Is There an Artificial God?“, which starts off by admitting to being rather cowed at first to be “in a room full of such luminaries,” but after a couple of days realizing that “you’re just a bunch of guys!”

I was particularly struck by those last few paragraphs of the speech, up until which he’d spent the majority of the time building up the case for a God-less world and discussing the definition of “life” (in a Douglas-like roundabout manner); but I guess his words spoke to the part of me that still holds onto belief in God, however irrational it seems at times. I’ll freely admit that there is about as much evidence for God as there is against, although the atheists do seem to have the stronger argument—after all, the invisible and the non-existent look very much alike.

Where does the idea of God come from? Well, I think we have a very skewed point of view on an awful lot of things, but let’s try and see where our point of view comes from.

Imagine an early man surveying his surroundings at the end of a happy day’s tool making. He looks around and he sees a world which pleases him mightily: behind him are mountains with caves in – mountains are great because you can go and hide in the caves and you are out of the rain and the bears can’t get you; in front of him there’s the forest – it’s got nuts and berries and delicious food; there’s a stream going by, which is full of water – water’s delicious to drink, you can float your boats in it and do all sorts of stuff with it; here’s cousin Ug and he’s caught a mammoth – mammoth’s are great, you can eat them, you can wear their coats, you can use their bones to create weapons to catch other mammoths. I mean this is a great world, it’s fantastic.

But our early man has a moment to reflect and he thinks to himself, ‘well, this is an interesting world that I find myself in’ and then he asks himself a very treacherous question, a question which is totally meaningless and fallacious, but only comes about because of the nature of the sort of person he is, the sort of person he has evolved into and the sort of person who has thrived because he thinks this particular way. Man the maker looks at his world and says ‘So who made this then?’ Who made this? – you can see why it’s a treacherous question. Early man thinks, ‘Well, because there’s only one sort of being I know about who makes things, whoever made all this must therefore be a much bigger, much more powerful and necessarily invisible, one of me and because I tend to be the strong one who does all the stuff, he’s probably male’. And so we have the idea of a god.

Then, because when we make things we do it with the intention of doing something with them, early man asks himself , ‘If he made it, what did he make it for?’ Now the real trap springs, because early man is thinking, ‘This world fits me very well. Here are all these things that support me and feed me and look after me; yes, this world fits me nicely’ and he reaches the inescapable conclusion that whoever made it, made it for him.

This is rather as if you imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, ‘This is an interesting world I find myself in – an interesting hole I find myself in – fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!’ This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it’s still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything’s going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise.

I love the puddle analogy. And he makes a strong point—we have a natural tendency to want to believe in God or a deity of some sort. Try as we might, we never entirely grow up, and the thought of having a “heavenly father” is rather nice. Someone to look out for you and so on.

Lately I’ve been having discussions about God along the lines of, “What does it matter if it’s literally true so long as you believe it?” I think it matters quite a lot, personally. A recent NPR article on Evangelicals questioning belief in a historical Adam and Eve had quotes from two scholars—one is Fazale Rana, vice president of Reasons To Believe, who said that “if the parts of Scripture that you are claiming to be false, in effect, are responsible for creating the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith, then you’ve got a problem.”

The article continued with a quote from Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, who said that “without Adam, the work of Christ makes no sense whatsoever in Paul’s description of the Gospel, which is the classic description of the Gospel we have in the New Testament.”

Alternatively, you have Dennis Venema of Trinity Western University saying, “There is nothing to be alarmed about. It’s actually an opportunity to have an increasingly accurate understanding of the world — and from a Christian perspective, that’s an increasingly accurate understanding of how God brought us into existence.”

Nothing to be alarmed about? Even when Paul wrote that “death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come” (Romans 5:14), or “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22). This is a literal, non-metaphorical Adam that Paul is talking about.

We could say that, okay, Paul was studied in Jewish theology so his perspective reflects his theology. Of course he assumed Adam and Eve were real. Standards and expectations of scholarship were different back then—they would have never questioned the veracity of the story. The entire Jewish culture was based on it!

Besides—who’s to say that Paul had any more authority than any other early Christian writer (e.g., Augustine, Tertullian, Origen, etc) just because he was the first to tackle theology? Aren’t our attempts at describing God just stabs in the dark anyway? And most every post-first century Christian writer based their theology on the work that Paul did in those early years of the Church.

Okay. What if Adam and Eve are merely metaphors for humanity’s “sinful” condition, and the rest is still true? That Christ came to earth to die and redeem us? After all, we don’t necessarily need a Garden of Eden for people to kill, cheat, lie, steal, etc. However, if there was no Tree of Life and no “original sin” to offend God in the first place, why did Jesus end up on the cross? What was he “saving” us from?

This is where everything starts to fall apart for me. The idea that it could be a fiction and still “true” in the psychological sense is very attractive because it offers you the option of having your proverbial cake and eating it too. Again, of all people I should have the least problem with gleaning “truth” from fiction. But somehow, it just doesn’t add up. You can’t base an entire belief system on what amounts to a fairy story. Either it’s true and it happened, or it isn’t and it’s irrelevant, which pretty much makes the rest of Christianity irrelevant. It just turns into this self-help religion, and there are plenty of those around that do a better job and don’t teach you that you’re a horrible person and God loves you, but unless you believe this, this and this, he’s going to throw you into Hell forever.

Now, as to Adams’ proposal of an “artificial god,” a fiction which has been around for thousands of years because it works as a psychological construct, I’m on board to an extent. Yes, there are tenets and principles of Christianity that are good. Love your neighbor. Do as you would be done to. Don’t steal. Those are good things. And just like the dragons of Feng Shui make complex architectural principles simpler, if believing in God makes your life simpler, then you should believe in God.

I guess what I really don’t like about Christianity is its denigration of both humans and human intellect. It ultimately teaches that you’re a horrible, disgusting person who, for no direct fault of your own, was saddled at birth with this collective guilt that Jesus had to die for 2,000 years ago by being nailed to a tree. What’s so wonderful about that?

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This morning I was listening to This American Life from 29 July, a show in two acts about thugs and various kinds of thuggery. In the first act, a man in Egypt is subjected to the nightmare of beatings, torture, false imprisonment and then charged with being a thug, all because he wasn’t going along with the military coup before and during the ousting of Hosni Mubarak.

In the second act, a social worker fights to redeem a young man who enters the criminal justice system who she is determined to save and believes in against all evidence to the contrary. As the story goes, he is eventually connected to a horrific murder, goes to prison, escapes, and kills two more people before he is finally caught and sentence to death row. Through it all, the woman maintains his innocence—until he finally confesses to the murder he was originally accused of, as well as another murder that he was never suspected of, because “he found God . . . and needed to atone for what he’d done.”

Later on, she goes to visit him in the maximum security prison where he will eventually face execution. He began to change, the story went, one day while flipping through the trial documents.

He looked at the photo of his victim, the girl he killed, alive and beautiful. Then he held it side-by-side with her autopsy photo and thought, I did that. He pauses and puts a hand over his face, as if he’s collecting himself enough to continue. But watching Kenneth relive this is like watching a bad play. The words are disconnected from his gestures. He makes a show of weeping, lowering his eyes, shaking his head, and covering his face with his arms. When he looks up again, I don’t see any tears.

The crime for which he went to prison involved robbing two female university students, then later kidnapping them, taking them out into the middle of nowhere and shooting both of them. One girl died; another survived and managed to get to help. “He went back, he said, let them beg for their lives, and shot them, over and over.”

Then the victims of his prison break. A farmer, the one with the truck, was trying to run away when Kenneth gunned him down. And finally, this. After the car chase in Missouri, state troopers made Kenneth walk over and look at the lifeless body of the delivery driver, thinking Kenneth would be remorseful. Instead, Kenneth says all he saw was the man who got in the way of his escape, and he spit on the body.

In one of the earlier episodes of the fourth season of Torchwood: Miracle Day, a child molester and murderer (Bill Pullman in a fantastic change of role for him) is executed by lethal injection, but due to The Blessing (the event by which everyone in the world stops dying) occurring just before his execution is carried out, he survives and is released since he cannot be tried or executed for the same crime twice. In the second episode, he is confronted during a TV interview à la 60 Minutes with the image of the girl he brutally killed. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” he says, weeping, tears welling up in his eyes.

“What good is ‘sorry,’ Mr Danes?” the interviewer scoffs. “Is it going to do anything for Mrs Cabina every morning when she wakes up?”

What is it about “finding God” that is supposed to engender sympathy or forgiveness for even the most savage of criminals? As if praying a prayer erases a multitude of wrongs – if not on earth then in heaven. This is one of my primary objections to Christianity: that you could savagely murder a room full of people and then have a pang of conscience, ask for God’s forgiveness, be rightly executed for your crime, and go straight to heaven to be with Jesus for all eternity without a blemish on your soul. Because Jesus paid it all.

Quick primer in atonement theology. There are two main schools of thought here:

  • The Christus Victor, or ransom, theory: Humanity is enslaved to Satan on account of the Fall, wherein Adam and Eve imputed Original Sin to all their descendants. The best analogy here is in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, where Edmund betrays his brother and sisters to the White Witch (the Satan figure in Narnia) and becomes her slave since every traitor is her lawful prey. To save him from death, Aslan (the Christ figure) dies in his place, but because of the Deep Magic from the Dawn of Time, “when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table [i.e., the Cross] would crack and Death itself would start working backwards.”
  • The Penal substitution, or satisfaction, theory: Same premise as Christus victor; but here, God is the Righteous Judge and humanity is the Wretched Criminal. “Sin” is the inexorable debt to be repaid to God for Man’s rebellion against him, and Man is automatically found guilty by God, the only perfect being in existence; and so he is condemned to be separated from God for all eternity in Hell (e.g., life in prison). But Jesus, the perfect sinless Son of God (don’t get me started on trinitarian theology), is sent to serve that sentence and is born the God-man and executed, thus fulfilling the conditions of the sentence. And God declares the debt as having been paid in full.

Richard Dawkins responded to the theology of atonement, how Abraham and Isaac prefigures the Crucifixion, and Original Sin in an interview with Howard Conder this past March. Dawkins said: “The idea that God could only forgive our sins by having his Son tortured to death as a scapegoat is, surely from an objective point of view, a deeply unpleasant idea. If God wanted to forgive us our sins, why didn’t he just forgive them?

“If there’s something I can’t stand about Christianity, it’s this obnoxious doctrine of Original Sin, which I think is actually a hideous, and demeaning and a vengeful doctrine. It’s the idea that one can be absolved; that a sin by somebody else has to be paid for by a different person, which is a horrible idea.

“It would be persuasive if the judge said, you’re forgiven. That would be great. That would the kind of thing one could empathize with. But that’s not what he said. He said, ‘Okay, we’re going to hang somebody else for your crime’.

“I think it’s a horrible idea that – given that the judge is all-powerful; given that the judge has the power to forgive if he wants to – the only way he can do it is to sacrifice his son. I mean, what an incredibly unpleasant way to do it, given that you have the power to forgive, that you are all-powerful!”

So what’s so wrong with a murderer (or anyone else for that matter—liar, adulterer, thief, homosexual, or whatever else you call a “sin”) being forgiven and getting off scot-free? Or with Jesus paying your sin-debt for you? It’s precisely that—you get off scot-free. And let’s say that the people you killed weren’t Christians. Let’s say you tortured them—horribly—before you then murdered them, had that pang of conscience later after you realized what you did, prayed “the prayer” and were “saved.” The problem is that you sent however many into an eternity in hell (because they weren’t “saved”) while you yourself skip out of jail into a blissful eternity in heaven and Jesus pays the $200.

What kind of a theology is this? To borrow from Julia Sweeney Letting Go of God, it would be as though Hitler had a “come to Jesus” moment right before he died. According to atonement theology, if he was truly sincere, no one would sit him down and say, “You fucked up, buddy! Now you’re going to spend an eternity in hell!” Quite the opposite. His sin of having murdered millions of people (among other things) would be expunged, paid for on the Cross by Jesus.

Supposing an inmate who suffocated in the gas chambers of Auschwitz ran into the man responsible for their death in heaven? Or Susie Cabina running into Oswald Danes who raped and murdered her as a 12-year-old? Or Cecil Boren or Dominique Hurd meeting Kenneth Williams (the kid from the This American Life story earlier)? Or conversely, any of them going to hell and learning that their murderer had been pardoned by God?

Now, it may be fair to say that I just don’t like this arrangement because I don’t think it’s just. God sees all sins as equal, and if a sinner truly repents, who are we to begrudge God for granting pardon since we are just as guilty as the murderer? Does that make me the Unmerciful Servant whose debt the king forgave? Or a grumbling vineyard worker who resented the owner for paying those who showed up at the last shift the same as those who had worked all day? Possibly—to both.

However, as to the question of whether a murderer who “found God” should be worthy of our forgiveness, I say the only person who can truly forgive the wrong is the victim him or herself.

In Tony Kushner’s play Perestroika, Ethel Rosenberg returns to haunt Roy Cohn, who effectively killed her by pulling strings with the presiding judge to get a death sentence. As Roy lies dying of AIDS, Ethel stands at his bedside.

I decided to come here so I could see could I forgive you. You who I have hated so terribly I have born my hatred for you up into the heavens and made a needle-sharp little star in the sky out of it. It’s the star of Ethel Rosenberg’s Hatred, and it burns every year for one night only, June Nineteen. It burns acid green.

I came to forgive but all I can do is take pleasure in your misery. Hoping I’d get to see you die more terrible than I did. And you are, ’cause you’re dying in shit, Roy, defeated. And you could kill me, but you couldn’t ever defeat me. You never won. And when you die all anyone will say is: Better he had never lived at all.

In the scene that follows, Roy feigns reverting to a childlike state, calling for his mother, begging her to sing to him. At first, Ethel is bitter, angry, and refuses, but finally relents when he persists. She sings him an old Yiddish song, “Shteit a bocher.” Then, once she thinks he’s dead and turns to go, he suddenly sits up and exclaims, “I can’t believe you fell for that ma stuff, I just wanted to see if I could finally, finally make Ethel Rosenberg sing! I WIN!” After which he actually dies.

Towards the end of the play, Ethel returns in a final gesture of forgiveness to help Louis say Kaddish over Roy. They end with the blessing, “Oseh sholom bimromov, hu ya-aseh sholom olenu v’al col Yisroel v’imru omain. You sonofabitch.” The Hebrew translates to, “He who makes peace in His heights, may He make peace upon us and upon all Israel; and say, ‘Amen’.”

So in the end, I’m conflicted. On the one hand, a God who pardons the unpardonable and allows his son to be tortured to death for our sins is utterly offensive. On the other hand, what are the limits of forgiveness in light of eternity? What is the extent of forgiveness? And what is the extent of retribution?

Many friends of mine say that the criminal justice system should be restorative instead of merely punitive—that the purpose should be to eventually restore an individual to right standing in society (provided that there is no danger posed to society). But to what extent can a debt be considered “paid”? Does such a person deserve to walk free, or receive our collective forgiveness?