270. incipient

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denethorIt’s about time for this monthly check-in with the blog. It has been over a month since the last one, after all.

The combination of working full-time plus the wind-up to the end of this semester has been kicking my ass recently. Perhaps it’s the research methods class I’m taking, or enduring a contentious and divisive election for almost two years, but I’m feeling pretty run-down.


What I have been planning to write about is the increasingly clearer picture of one of the dominant psychological constructs in my mind.

Let’s call him “Talos.”

He started out as a sort of mental protector figure—an internal proxy father in place of the one I didn’t entirely trust or feel safe around. He was a distant man (who himself had had a distant and sometimes physically abusive father) who tended to work a lot. He tried to do things with us: take us to parks, teach us to ride bikes. But it was clear he didn’t really know how to do any of the “traditional” things one expects from a father.

As we got older, the desire to connect with my sisters and me manifested in various ways (such as going to baseball games with my younger sister, or going to concerts with me), but so did his critical voice. While his intent was probably to help us by pointing out our mistakes, he had a way of turning compliments or feedback into backhanded insults.

Following one of my piano recitals as a teenager (which I thought went pretty well), we were driving home afterwards and after a moment of silence between us, he mentioned how some of my ornamentation had been slightly off.

In college, following the performance of one of my songs in a colleague’s recital, he said later that he thought a song I’d written previously had sounded more “true” to my style.

This was the state of things growing up. Some of that came from their theology, such as where Paul writes in Romans that “everyone among you [is] not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned” (12:3).

Praising or encouraging us would’ve given us big heads, I guess.


A few weeks ago I was catching up on the WTF with Marc Maron Podcast, and Julia Sweeney was on. At one point they talked about growing up with an alcoholic parent:

MARC MARON: See, I’m projecting because what I was gonna say is that the children of alcoholics either become alcoholics and drug addicts, or control freaks.
JULIA SWEENEY: Oh, really.
MM: Well, yeah.
JS: I wonder if I’m a control freak.
MM: You don’t feel like one… Usually it’s because you’re in this position with a grown person that’s completely out of control all the time, and you’re constantly—you can’t do anything about this primary situation in your life, so when you get out of that you’re like, “I’m gonna keep it tight.” You know what I mean? There’s a reaction.

And that got me thinking about growing up in a rigidly-controlled religious household where one never felt entirely secure. Some flip out once they leave home and become totally debauched.

Others become control freaks.

Guess which direction I went.


For me, the gradual appearance and rise of Talos began as an internalization of those parental admonishments. After all, to a child, the sun rises and sets with their parents. It’s biologically wired into us to unconditionally accept what our parents tell us. Skepticism carried no survival benefits.

It started as anticipation of disapproval—of observing, learning to predict what behavior would result in a spanking, or a lecture, or a threat of burning eternally in hell.

As I got older though, Talos grew in size and scale. He was the internal eye, standing over my shoulder to criticize everything I did. And nothing was ever good enough. I’d practice piano for 3-4 hours a day to get one section of a piece just-right. I’d edit and rewrite papers until they felt perfect.

He also commented on the world around me, evaluating passing glances or turns of phrase.

“They know what a horrible person you are.”

“Nobody here likes you.”

“What a miserable disappointment.”

“You’ll never be good enough.”

This goes beyond stunted self-esteem.

It was crippled self-worth.

I was trying to come up with a face this week to put with Talos, and John Noble’s Denethor from The Lord of the Rings films came to mind. There’s this scene in particular:

It was a self-protective impulse turned inwards on itself, like a black hole. And once I became aware of my sexuality, that mechanism went into overdrive, controlling every thought and mannerism lest anything give me away to my parents, who were big fans of James Dobson and Focus on the Family.


I’ve also been considering how this has impacted my romantic life, and my attitude towards myself and my demisexuality.

Specifically, is this sexuality an inborn trait, or is it the result of this darkly controlling inner force that looms over everything?

Regarding my orientation, of only being sexually attracted to men I have a close connection with, that has always been there. The more I got to know someone, the more attractive he got.

But would I feel more comfortable being more sexually and romantically open if Talos’ shadow wasn’t everywhere? Would I feel less pressure to find romance?

Who knows. But no wonder I stopped smiling around age eight.

But even non-sexually/romantically, would I feel less anxious in social settings if Talos weren’t threatening me not to fail, to say the wrong thing, to not let everyone know how stupid I am?

Though I’m now an atheist, the pressure to be perfect is no less overwhelming. I’m constantly analyzing social situations, draining my mental CPU.

The curious thing is that I became my own jailer.

So how then to unlock my own cell?

262. conciliate

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“Over the course of just a few years, as I would go home to Spokane to visit [my friends], instead of them asking me what TV show or movie I’d been in, they asked me if I’d met anyone. And I was sort of asking myself the same question—and with growing concern. I thought: “Wait a minute—when did I go from being the cool one that people envied to being the one the people were a little worried about?”

“And I watched my friends’ marriages become longer, more knowing marriages; and their kids getting big and bigger; and the walks after dinner with the dog; and all the talk about the lake cabins. And I began to wonder if maybe they hadn’t made all the right decisions.” – Julia Sweeney, In the Family Way


elegant wine glass broken on a dark background

It’s been an intense last couple of weeks since last we met.

Let’s work backwards from today.

Last Thursday my housemate’s dog was attacked by what we’re 99% sure was a coyote.

Around 11:30pm, I looked in the back room and there was one dog sleeping but not the other, which gave me a bad feeling. When I went outside to look for him, I found him about halfway out in the middle of the backyard, collapsed and bloody.

I quickly bundled him inside, unsure of how badly he was hurt. We called the nearest 24-hour vet clinic and drove him over. He was in rough shape, with more lacerations and bite marks than we initially saw, and ended up being there a few days until he was eating again and moving around.

He’s home now, on some pretty fantastic pain medication, and slowly recovering, but it was horrific to find him like that.


Going back further, a week prior to the coyote attack, I was physically assaulted at a friend’s house.

Yeah.

The short version is that me, my friend Ben, and Jason, a housemate of my friends, were talking. He and Ben were in a heated discussion about the causes of the ’91 U.S. invasion of Iraq, and at one point Jason (who is a veteran) held up his arm to display a scar from a bullet wound, as if definitive evidence for his position.

As politely as he could, Ben said something to the effect of, “Just because you were wounded doesn’t mean you’re right.”

(In hindsight, we should’ve realized we weren’t dealing with a rational person.)

This is when Jason stood up and yelled at Ben: “Get the fuck out of this house.”

When we both just stared at him in dismay, he screamed “You think I’m kidding?”, marched over, grabbed Ben and physically tried to throw him outside.

At this point, out of concern, I tried to intervene.

All of this happened in the span of about fifteen seconds, and at some point I should’ve realized how stupid that was. However, I have no experience with physical violence, preferring to leave physical altercations to the Cro Magnons among us.

So this is when Jason grabbed me by the throat, shoved me backwards into the kitchen, and slammed me against the wall several times. I don’t remember much about the attack, but it was horrific. I’m still emotionally shaken from the incident, haven’t been sleeping well, suffering from flashbacks, etc.

All symptoms of PTSD.

Yay. Because I need more emotionally damaged shit to deal with.

The next day I filed a police report, and the officers basically told me that since I wasn’t injured enough that there wasn’t any grounds to take any further action since the city is bogged down enough with violent crime and domestic abuse cases as it is.

To top it off, my friends that he lives with, who I’ve known for some time and whose wedding I was in last year, have no plans to evict him from their home, though he attacked me, unprovoked.

Basically, my relationship with my friends is now strained because, although they acknowledge he was squarely in the wrong, they’ve refused to take any punitive action against Jason, arguing that throwing him out would do more harm than good.

And turns out that, although I filed a police report, prosecutors are unlike to press charges because I wasn’t injured enough.

So no, I’m still not okay.


My therapist had a few observations to make about all this when we met on Monday.

Aside from my personal safety, she’s concerned about the ultimatum that I made a few days after the attack to the homeowners that so long as Jason continues to live with them that our friendship can’t continue.

Frankly, I’m concerned too, since it continues a pattern in my relationships that whenever I feel threatened or put in an impossible situation (such as with my parents, who saw nothing wrong with wanting me to be part of the family while they continuing to hold hateful and bigoted views about me).

Yes, I cut off my parents.

I cut off friends I’d known for years from college and church who opposed marriage equality in Minnesota in 2012.

I cut off friends who remained friends with Seth after he dumped me in 2011, interpreting that as their taking his side over mine… and turning against me.

Essentially, my therapist mused, growing up in a household where everything was closely scrutinized through a lens of Reformed, Atonement theology, and where I legitimately felt in peril for much of those formative years as a closeted gay man, it’s natural that I’d still be on high alert, fearful of people turning on me or attacking.

How is that past orientation limiting my present relationships, I wondered. Is it?

How is that narrative script of fear causing me to become intractable and stubborn, and how is it closing me off to future happiness?

How, like Uncle Andrew in C. S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew, do I cleverly defend myself “against all that might do you good!”

But more on sex next time.

Because you really wanted to know, right?

 

244. entelechy

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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.

239. refluent

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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.

217. indelible

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Bell_Rock_Lighthouse_during_a_storm_cph_3b18344While driving to work this morning, I had a rare moment of lucidity. I was thinking about the day and everything ahead. On that list of things to worry about is whether or not I’m going to have to take my former landlord to court to get my security deposit back.

Then one thought came to the forefront: You don’t have to give him any more bandwidth in your headspace. I asked myself: Will worrying about this influence the situation one way or other?

Probably not.

I’ve also been thinking in general lately about expectations — what I expect from my family, friends, potential boyfriends, myself, my career, my future.

In fact, most of the disappointment I’ve experienced, and currently experiencing, seems to stem from the failure of reality to live up to what I consciously or unconsciously imagine it should be. Sometimes I don’t even have a clear idea of how it is that I thought things should turn out — I’m just dissatisfied with the result.

In a piece for The Guardian, Julia Sweeney writes that in the first few months of being a parent, she rewrote her entire childhood. “Turns out it was probably not nearly as bad as I once thought it was. In fact, my newly revised attitude about my mother is that she did the best she could.”

I don’t know why it’s so easy to resent our parents for committing this unforgivable sin. That’s not to say there aren’t some horrific parents out there who truly fuck up their kid , nor that there aren’t childhood wounds to deal with and heal from. But how much should we expect from flawed human beings who find themselves tasked with taking care of and raising a tiny, helpless, blank slate of a human being?

For the last couple years, and probably before, I’ve resented my parents for failing their young gay son. Of course, they didn’t know that this was the situation. Frankly, I’m not sure what the outcome might’ve been if I’d come out as a teenager; said that I didn’t want to be heterosexual, nor that I needed “therapy.”

So what should I really expect from them now, as an adult? A few months ago, my mom told me (again) that, should I ever get married, that the family would not attend my wedding. I’m not sure about my sisters. My youngest sister probably wouldn’t. The younger one might. She’s the only one who has seemed at least outwardly accepting.

It is hurtful, to say the least, to have the memory of how big a deal they made over my younger sister’s wedding in 2008. I even played piano and wrote a piece for the ceremony. I suppose my expectation is that family might trump their narrow religious views; that they would be happy just to celebrate with their only son over his finally having found love and commitment.

What I suppose that means is that I expect them to be different from who they are, which seems as unfair as their wishing that I were heterosexual — which is to say, cease to be me. Of course, their religious identity is not written into their DNA. They do have a choice in their belief system.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how I feel judged by virtually everyone I come in contact with, especially people who I perceive to be better off than me. I recently had a realization about that: namely, that really the only person who’s judging me is me. I’m projecting my negative thoughts about myself and my perceived lack of worth on to everyone else.

Like Julia, I’ve been rewriting my childhood as of late. I wonder now if it wasn’t my parents who were super critical of me, but rather that it was me all along. That’s not to say that the religious views of my home and church didn’t influence me. In Christian fundamentalism, we’re taught to view ourselves as broken, flawed, perverted, dirty. “But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.” (Isaiah 64:6)

We’re taught to search ourselves for wicked thoughts, and to assume that anything we think or do is sinful and evil: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9) If you’ve seen documentaries like Jesus Camp, children are pressured into making confessions, even to point of manufacturing sins just to be forgiven and avoid hell.

My parents didn’t always do the best job of making my sisters and I feel loved and accepted, just as they likely didn’t always feel loved and accepted as children. They’ve asked forgiveness from us for past mistakes, so we’re all trying.

I’m not entirely sure how my sisters internalized our early upbringing. For me, it made me hyper self-critical. I’d get angry with myself before anyone else could, sometimes for things that even my parents weren’t angry or disappointed over. I wanted to prove to everyone that I expected nothing but perfection from myself. Consequently, I grew up hating and despising myself for failing to be all that I expected myself to be.

When I get angry over mistakes or losing a game, I’m really angry at myself for failing to be perfect — to catch on to the rules, to notice patterns, to develop strategies. In essence, in those moments I wish that I could be someone else. To cease to be me.

So why is it so hard to stop? I suspect it’s partly that I’m so used to this that I’m afraid of any positive change, unsure how to live without the negative voices and energy, even though it’s psychologically and emotionally draining. It’s the same reason why I’m struggling to let go of my feelings for Seth. I haven’t felt anything like since then. Feeling something is better than nothing.

One step at a time.

212. cuittle

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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.

201. confutation

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creationismYesterday was Darwin’s birthday, so I watched an HBO documentary called Questioning Darwin, a look at the Creationist movement in the United States and its fierce opposition to the theory of evolution by natural selection. It’s basically a dissection of everything I was taught as a child about myself, the origin of life, and my purpose on Earth.

First, some quotes from Creationists in the film:

  • “We believe in Creation, because of our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and God’s word, the holy Bible.”
  • “If the theory of evolution is a fact, the Bible must be false, so we’re all stupid ignoramuses.”
  • “I do not believe that we’re some sort of highly evolved primate.”
  • “The Bible says we are created a little lower than angels, which is much more noble and majestic than the explanation that evolution gives for who we are.”
  • “I don’t know how someone could observe humans and miss the dignity that’s put there by God alone.”
  • “To put man down as just an animal, that we’re no different than a dog, is preposterous. God made us in His image, and so to say that man is an animal, and God created man in his own image… does one come back and say God is nothing more than an animal?”
  • “If we are just a product of this random mutation process, where does morality come from? Where does hope come from? Where does love come from?”
  • “If that’s the way the world works, then you believe in a God that doesn’t intervene. That takes away any possibility of miracles, any possibility of answered prayer, any possibility of the resurrection.”
  • “To think I have no communication with God would be so devastating. I can’t even imagine adopting such a view just to make peace with Darwin.”
  • “I can’t imagine life without knowing that God has a plan, and that that plan is not just for the here-and-now, but that plan includes a hope and a future, and a future way beyond whatever we’ll face here on Earth but a future with Him in heaven.”

What I hear in these voices is fear, thinly masked by certainty in a belief that promises to deliver both answers and purpose. These are people terrified by an existence that’s marked by uncertainty and danger. In a way, they’re right to be afraid, irrational as that fear is.

The beginning of my journey to atheism was indeed in finally accepting the theory of evolution by natural selection. I’m not sure when that happened, exactly—somewhere in the years after graduating from Northwestern College. The more I considered the fossil and genetic evidence that all life on Earth is related, and for the age of the universe and the Earth itself, the less likely it seemed that it was designed. For a while I flirted with the idea of theistic evolution, that God put everything in motion. Then something Julia Sweeney says in Letting Go of God stuck with me:

Intelligent design gets everything backwards. It’s like saying that our hands are miraculous because they fit so perfectly into our gloves: “Look at that! Four fingers and a thumb! That can’t have been an accident!’

Fact is, far from “fearfully and wonderfully made,” we more seem to be haphazardly assembled.

This view of a naturalistic universe had real implications for the beliefs my parents had handed me as a child, beliefs that mirrored the sentiments offered by the quotations above. How could a loving God allow such a world to exist? If I, a being made in the image of God, wanted to prevent suffering, how could an all-powerful being then not banish it completely?

At one point, several individuals talk about surviving substance abuse and how their addiction turned to Christianity. This is a popular talking point: without God we’re just animals, slaves to our darker impulses and passions—that we’ll tear ourselves apart. I don’t know how many presentations I sat through growing up: of “recovering sinners” warning us how bad it was on the outside, and that our only hope for overcoming sin and temptation was Jesus.

A fellow from Answers in Genesis sums it up at one point: “When asked what is the primary reason I believe evolution is incompatible with Biblical Christianity, I can sum it up in one word: death. Whether we’re young or old, death is inevitable.”

In the debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham last week, this issue also came up. Ham said something to the effect of: “Bill Nye can’t tell us what happens after we die.” And that’s true. We don’t know. I don’t know. Yet somehow this becomes a talking point for Creationists to insert a Gospel pitch of salvation through Jesus Christ. You cannot talk to a Creationist who won’t do this at some point.

Their response to the news that we’re essentially alone in an amoral and indifferent universe is to try to shut their eyes tight and stop their ears. For them, if evolution is true, that means that life is pointless, aimless, meaningless. I love how Julia Sweeney puts it in Letting Go of God: “What’s going to stop me from rushing out and murdering people?”

For me, accepting evolution was liberating. For years, I agonized over the struggle between my “earthly” desires and my supposed divine purpose on Earth. The news that I’m an animal, with the same origins and subject to the same needs and forces as other creature on this planet, was a relief. It meant there’s nothing wrong with me, the opposite of what Christianity taught.

It’s futile to argue with Creationists. Their arguments are based on emotion, and apparently fear of death and spontaneously becoming murderers or kleptomaniacs. Or gay. Thus, they can easily dismiss threatening, rational evidence in favor of the Bible.

Darwin wrote: “Man in his arrogance thinks himself a great work, worthy the interposition of a deity, more humble and I believe truer to consider him created from animals.”