Monday, February 28, 2011

For consideration

"When I read any scripture, Christian or Buddhist, I always keep in mind that whatever Jesus or the Buddha said was to a particular person or group on a particular occasion. I try to understand deeply the context in which they spoke in order to really understand their meaning. What they said may be less important than how they said it. When we understand this, we are close to Jesus or the Buddha. But if we analyze their words to find the deepest meaning without understanding the relationships between the speaker and his listeners, we may miss the point. Theologians sometimes forget this."

-Thich Nhat Hanh
Living Buddha, Living Christ

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Why I'm here.

Not in the universe, mind you. I'm talking about why I'm here, on this blog, talking about these things.

I grew up in a wackily religious home. My mother's brand of christianity is what I like to call Veggie Tales Christianity. It focuses primarily on being kind, loving one another, loving god, and god loving us. It's rather good stuff. It can be a little naive, and a little blind to the harm the church causes in the world, but its heart is in the right place and it's trying. My father's brand of christianity was as a way to justify the things he already felt or thought. It made him Right and others Wrong, and he was fond of that dynamic. He read the bible the same way he listened to Rush Limbaugh, although he did the latter far more frequent and enthusiastically.

A lot of things happened on my spiritual and religious journey, and I will probably talk about some of them on this blog when it's appropriate. Suffice it to say, I rejected the more hateful and unreasonable tenants of what I'd come to know as christianity and I found my faith grew. I continued to embrace science and reason and I found my faith grew even more.

I find it neither contradictory nor controversial to identify as christian and be very enthusiastic about scientific discovery.

I've also considered my faith to be something private, as long as I've been old enough to consider such a thing at all. Christianity was used as a weapon against me, so I see how it's being used as a weapon against others. I will not thrust my religion upon anyone.

However, in being quiet about the things I believe I've noticed that there is a voice missing from the discussion. We're left with the shriekings of hateful, twisted individuals who use religion to justify the harm they would perpetrate on others. And the only voice to combat them is the voice of the anti-religious (and I am thankful for them).

But it shouldn't be their responsibility. It should be ours. We've let this sickness fester and grow and it's consumed the very foundation of what Christ is purported to stand for. Bizarro Christianity has come to define the religion, at the very least here in the United States where I grew up.

This is unacceptable. We should be calling out the hatefulness and cruelty we see coming from our ranks, not making excuses for or defending it. And that's what I'm going to do here, with my little voice, on my empty blog. And maybe somehow, someone will hear it. And maybe they'll do the same. And maybe we'll rebuke this beastly inversion before it can do too much more damage.

And that's why I here.


Also because science is really neat.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The man behind the curtain is more interesting, anyway.

Like most children, I absolutely adored magicians. My brother and I would play along with silly television specials - being the late 80s and early 90s they were most often David Copperfield - picking cards through the television and being amazed at disappearing planes, trains, and statues.

The thing I always found most interesting, however, was figuring out how it was done. The trick itself was impressive, but unbelievable. I knew it couldn't be real, but the fact that what I was seeing seemed real is what kept me intrigued. That was the point of the thing, to me. The more I learned about illusionist magic and slight of hand the more I loved it.

People will look where you want them to, they'll believe the impossible, and they'll step into a world that's been completely crafted just to support the entire thing. It's wonderful escapism, little snow globe of mystery and awe they can visit for a time.

But that wasn't enough for me; it was always unsatisfying to be in a world someone else had created. I wanted in on the trick. I wanted to know what was behind it, and beyond it. I wanted to know what it meant.

The rising popularity of the internet when I was a kid made that sort of information increasingly accessible. My parents would scold me, telling me I'd ruin it for myself. But it was never, ever ruined. It always made it that much more enjoyable. I could see exactly what was happening and how, and why it worked. It was precise, controlled, and elegant. The flash melted away and I could see the intense planning and practicing that had to have gone into even the smallest slight of hand.

I have never believed that things have to be mysterious to be inspiring, and I don't think I ever will. One of the many reasons Bizarro Christians reject science is, I think, their fear that it will ruin the trick. They want the illusion; they want a world crafted entirely by someone else for their benefit. They want to look where you tell them to look and see something impressively flashy, emotionally exciting, and completely benign.

Having an understanding of how the universe works can only ever make it more profound and meaningful, never less. To attempt to comprehend the vastness of the universe and our indescribably tiny place in it seems to strike a lot of religious people I've known as being coldly intimidating. To exist, though, in such vast universe fills me with a feeling of gratitude. To observe a world that is so complex and elegant, but works without any seemingly supernatural intrusion thrills me. It functions: messy and strange and orderly and disgusting and beautiful and rational and complicated and chaotic and predictable and unexpected and wonderful. Whether or not it's designed by or for anyone it works, and all the warnings I'd received about this way leading to atheism (as if that would somehow be a bad thing) melted away as I found my faith growing deeper. To discover new mysteries at the edges of our capacity to observe or understand and to not have to settle for "well, god must be doing it." How small and insulting to believe that god's extent is simply the illusion, and not the precision and intricacy that makes it sustainable. How fulfilling it is to believe, without a doubt, that we would be able to unravel any mystery set before us given enough time and determination.

And every time we find out how it works it becomes ever more satisfying. We're in on the trick.

I'm content not to feel like the focus of this entire thing; I'm content to not feel special. Letting go of my place in the illusion and seeing what's behind the curtain means the entirety of the universe is special.

And what could be more wonderful than that?

Friday, February 25, 2011

The value of complexity

I was struck by two articles I read, recently. One was on Slacktivist, and the other on Starts with a Bang.

Two very different blogs, two very different styles, two very different subjects. I found it interesting that they shared a common theme, which is that people are attracted to the illusion of simplicity. The first article discusses the complexity of the bible and the strange lengths we'll go to in order to completely ignore readings that require much effort of thought. The second discusses the recent O'Reilly tides debacle in which Bill O'Reilly claimed the nature and cause of the tides was unexplainable and was thoroughly mocked by the internet. O'Reilly then referred to anyone with more than a 7th grade education a pinhead. Stay classy, Bill.

So why the desire to take beautifully complex and inspiring things and ignore or mystify them to the point of uselessness? I don't know that I have a theory, but I definitely have some experience in the matter.

I once loaned my father Firefly, the Joss Whedon series. He likes science fiction, and he likes westerns, so I thought he might enjoy it. I was happy to discover that he did quite like it--it's always a bit hit or miss when trying to predict his tastes. I was immediately perplexed by his explanation as to why he enjoyed it.

"It's black and white. Good guys and bad guys, and you know who's good and who's bad, and there's no gray area stuff messing everything up. Right is right and wrong is wrong and wrong gets punished by the guy who's right."

I wondered if perhaps someone had switched the dvds in the store and I simply hadn't noticed.

For those of you who haven't seen Firefly (and, by golly, you really should) it's the story of a couple of old soldiers who were on the losing end of their rebellion. The monolithic government entity wins, and the rebels make their way to the farthest reaches of the 'verse to try to avoid their grasp. On the way they gather up a young, female mechanic who's impossibly gifted, a mercenary in the purest sense of the word, a goofy and pacifistic pilot, a wandering preacher with a questionable past, a highly paid and respected concubine/prostitute, and a doctor and his sister who're hiding from the same government entity the rebels are attempting to avoid. They get by with petty theft, and are often struck with the dilemma of keeping the entire crew safe, keeping money enough to feed the crew and maintain the ship, and still do right by those they come in contact with.

It is, quite frankly, marinating in grey area.

The entire point of the series and all of its character development is predicated on the notion of tough moral choices and contradictory motivations thriving within the same individual. None of the issues any of the characters cope with are straightforward or easy. Even Jayne, the mercenary, the character with the simplest motivations of all (survival, profit - in that order) is placed in situations that require nuance barely within the realm of his capacity to act upon.

I couldn't understand how my father could have such a perspective if he'd really watched the show. He claimed he watched every episode available, and described familiar plot points. He knew all the characters, strange and flat as his versions may be.

I finally decided that he simply ignored the bits that were outside of his comfort zone. That's sort of how he copes with life, really. He simply ignores the complicated bits, glossing over nuance and augmenting things to fit whatever it was he wanted them to be before he ever encountered them.

It is exactly what he does with the bible.

When I was young we used to spend hours upon hours arguing about the bible. Looking back, it's a lot of time we could've spent discussing the content, but that's not really important on planet Bizarro Christianity. No, what's important is that you believe the bible can only be read with a literal interpretation. Note that I did not say "what's important is that you read the bible literally" because on planet BC you don't actually have to read the thing at all, so long as you purport that were you to do so your reading of it would say things like the earth is 6,000 years old and homosexuality is icky.

Round and round we'd go, with him yelling and pleading and fearing for my immortal soul and all of that business. I, meanwhile, had already had a crisis of faith, abandoned christianity completely, rediscovered the value and complexity of christianity and started on a path that led me to where I am today. Wherever that is. We still had this argument every few years, up until just a few years ago when we stopped talking with enough frequency to actually upset one another in any meaningful way.

But those arguments shone a light into the sort of world my father lives in, and it's a strange place indeed. In his world, things must be simple. There must be Good and there must be Evil, and he must be on the side of Good. He simply cannot cope with anything more sophisticated than that. Contradictions are ignored; mistakes are met with defiant anger or even violence.

My father has never been terribly happy.

There are a lot of people out there who are very much like him.

I've never really understood the attraction, to be honest. Intellectually, I suppose I understand the illusion of simplicity. I definitely understand repeatedly doing something that isn't actually working, flailing about and being vaguely aware that it will never provide the intended result, yet being completely unequipped to recognize any alternative. I, however, have always enjoyed complex and nuanced things. I love digging in as deep as I think I can go only to find more soil. And really, I suppose that's part of what confuses me. If one has made the choice to believe with all their heart in the precepts of christianity they typically claim that it brings them joy. What is more joyful than being able to grab hold of this thing you love and unfold it almost infinitely before you? The more you study the more there is. It changes and confuses and reveals and teaches and you leave with more questions than you had before but there is an endless well of answers for an endless well of questions. You will be wrong about them, and you will go back and revisit and it will mean something entirely new and different.

That has profound value.

Regardless of what you believe or do not believe about the bible it is valuable. Used one way it can lead you to a greater understanding of a divine force that you personally feel. Used another it can lead to a greater understanding of oneself; your inner thoughts, feelings, and experiences manifesting themselves on the pages as you project your life onto this collection of stories and it reveals things you didn't realize were there. Used another way it can lead to a greater understanding of historical or even current cultural context.

My father would frequently tell me I was being disrespectful to the bible, and therefore its author: god. I've heard that on more than one occasion. Considering the bible versatile, adaptable, nuanced, and sophisticated being a disrespectful view of it is, of course, complete nonsense. He was, of course, saying that I was being disrespectful of him, which he often said whenever our opinions on anything differed.

So we're back to why. Why is it attractive to remove all substance from something before being able to enjoy it? Why must things be simple, stark, and utterly boring? I can only guess that to leave those complexities and contradictions leaves us with the very dangerous possibility that we may see the complexities and contradictions within ourselves and there are those among us who simply do not have the tools to do such a thing.

It is unfortunate that they don't realize the only way to develop such tools is to struggle with the substance they've stripped away, as that's where it dwells. It's as if they throw away the meat in favor of just the bone, for fear their stomach will not be able to digest anything more significant. As they waste away, they become yet more convinced their weakened constitutions would merely reject anything more substantial.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

While we're on the subject...

...and then sometimes, someone says something so ridiculous and repugnant that it's difficult to refute simply because one finds it nearly impossible to express anything aside from sputtering astonishment.

This is what we're defending now? The CRUSADES?

Sometimes I think that the right is living up to some sort of dare. When information is just a wikipedia article away, it would seem that lying so blatantly would be ineffective. Republicans and Bizarro Christians see that as a challenge.

The more available the information contradicting what they say, the bigger the lie they're going to try to get away with. They know most of their constituency/congregations could check these claims the moment they're made using the phone nestled in their pocket. They have them trained not to, however, as they've sold their followers on the notion that reality is somehow biased. I would posit that the sort of person who would not immediately scoff and sputter at Santorum's absurd statement is also the sort of person who would reject being shown an entire library of evidence.

What an odd world to want to live in--one where you cannot trust your ears, eyes, mind or heart, and must only trust the person who promises that they will harm people you don't like. How resentful one must be to strike such a bargain.

"I will give up all capacity discern what is real if you will punish everyone who does not make the same agreement."

Please, tell me, how does such a thing glorify god?

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Do not abide it

While reading last week, I came upon this post on Pharyngula.

In linking it elsewhere, I said this:

If religion is the only thing keeping you from doing grotesquely immoral things, especially to other living beings, please seek help.

This, to me, seems uncontroversial.

To my surprise - although why this sort of thing surprises me anymore I'm not sure - it was met with scolding that I should not be so lazy as to use this example to mock or attack religious folks as stupid. I responded thusly:

I am attacking precisely one thing: the exceedingly disturbing argument that "without religion/god what would keep me from raping/murdering?!"

If someone is driven to rape and murder and the only thing preventing them from doing it is "god said don't" and not empathy then they need professional help.

I'm a religious person, [REMOVED], you know that. I'm not attacking religious people, I'm attacking what appears to be sociopathy hiding behind religion.

I would think religious people would be the first to jump up and condemn the notion that empathy doesn't exist and that a relationship with the divine is purely didactic, rather than defend it.

We should not be protecting our weird and dangerous fringe. We should be exposing and expelling it--or more ideally, healing it.

To be perfectly honest, I'm not entirely sure this is even an example of our fringe. I've heard the argument put forth that morality is dependent upon religion in my college ethics, philosophy, religion, and (egads!) science courses at both a private religious university in the heart of the bible belt and a community college in a famously liberal city. I've heard it in churches and youth group gatherings. I've heard it from co-workers and friends.

It's normally not delivered using such graphic language, but the basic premise should make thinking and feeling people deeply concerned:

I would do terrible, awful things if something I perceived as an authority didn't tell me not to.


This is example #2 around here of "Things that should upset Christians as much as it upsets Atheists, although maybe for different reasons." For my atheist friends, you have every right to be terrified of such sentiment, as any reasonable person should.

To my Christian (or any religion, really) friends, why are we defending this? Why do we close rank around those who express concepts that are not only repugnant, but antithetical to what are supposed to be pretty foundational aspects of our faith?

While I must admit I haven't been in a while, I recall church services being around forty minutes to an hour and a half in length, give or take that particular denomination's perspective on praise and worship. It doesn't take nearly that long to generate a list of things god says we ought not do and close with "So don't. 'Cause he said so."

Even Sunday school is full of colorful bible stories designed parse why the tale of a man in a tree means we should humble ourselves and be pure of heart. To simply say "don't be a tax collector; god says so" is to miss the point entirely. If the main method of fellowship and study we employ is to explore why biblical concepts are ones we should live our lives by and how we can incorporate them as we move through the world, I don't really understand how anyone who's ever actually stepped into a church can claim that the extent of what they heard was "god said that's not allowed."

So the entire premise is not only ghastly to anyone who has even the smallest capacity for empathy, but it's also anti-christian in nature. So, again I posit, why do we defend it?

Perhaps it's the same sort of thing that causes any privileged group to jump to the defense of horrible things other members of that group do. Racial, gay rights, or feminist activists point out something terribly harmful someone said, and white, straight, and/or male identified people leap up to say "Well I don't do that!" Bully for you. Then the discussion isn't referring to you, and we can all move on, please, because the grown ups were talking. When someone condemns something that is worth condemning, and the perpetrator happens to identify in a similar manner to us that presents us an opportunity to do two very important things:

1. Condemn it along with them because it is appropriate to do so. The thing needs to be condemned if it is odious, harmful, unreasonable--which in all cases will also make it anti biblical or anti christian.

2. Listen. Reflect. If something is being proclaimed in the name of something you identify as or subscribe to that is repugnant, think on how that may have come to be. Is it common? Is it something you've heard before and have not refuted? Is it something the group it's aimed at insists happens with regularity? Has privilege prevented you from noticing it? Have you engaged in it unintentionally, or given tacit approval by simply ignoring it as an embarrassing anomaly? These are things that should be addressed, both personally and publicly, and we should welcome the opportunity to do so. embarrassing anomalies have a way of gaining steam and becoming "common knowledge," accepted without question simply because it has never been questioned.

I understand the urge to get defensive and treat preposterous ideas as not worth our time or attention to reject lest we discover we may be complicit in them, but those ideas are attractive because they reach the laziest, nastiest inclinations we have. They begin as too ridiculous to acknowledge and become too ubiquitous to effectively counter.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Idiocy, meanwhile, does seem infinitely renewable.

A Minnesota State representative (R-natch) believes that it is Right and Good that we should waste, exploit and destroy what he believes to be the gifts god has given us.

No, really.

This is a prime example of my feeling that Christians and Atheists should both be appalled by the behavior of someone speaking in the name of religion in general, and Christianity in specific.

"God is not capricious. He's given us a creation that is dynamically stable," Beard told MinnPost. "We are not going to run out of anything."

There's a lot to deconstruct, there.

Hopefully, the first thing to jump out at you is the absurd notion that all resources are infinite. Not just coal, mind you, but everything. Even very small children understand that nothing lasts forever, and that eventually the cookie jar runs out of cookies. Most kids even piece together the idea that the jar is not self-replicating cookies; it's some grown-up filling it when all the cookies have been eaten. From there, they also generally realize that cookies come from the store. The more clever or curious among us may even begin to wonder where those cookies may have resided before that and discover that cookies are produced somewhere else entirely and how that happens. While we don't, as children, typically dwell on the notion that perhaps one day we will run out of cookies, we also don't put much thought into the notion that cookies are infinitely renewing. We do grasp the basics of where they came from and how they got there, and go about our business until something threatens that cookie paradigm.

That's how most humans view resources, in general. The more privilege we have, the less we think about the process at all. It's not the ideal worldview, but it's rather typical not to dwell too much on our routine unless it's directly and immediately threatened by change.

Rep. Mike Beard, however, was a kid who not only believed that the jar was being filled by a magical, invisible entity but that it would continue to do so forever and that, in fact, if he smashed the cookie jar into a million pieces that magical, invisible entity would be happy to glue it all back together and continue its endless supply of treats.

Perhaps it was adorable when he was in diapers--although were I his mother, I would find such entitled ignorance bratty and tiresome--but this man has held onto this ridiculous worldview in the face of all reality and wants to risk jobs and lives on it. He's creating policy on coal and he doesn't even have a child's understanding of how it comes to be. This proud and defiant rejection of not only science, but even the vaguest sliver of rationality would be hilarious if he were Some Dude on the Bus, rather than a representative of the 12th largest state in the U.S., who has been elected and re-elected consistently since 2002.

We learn something else about Mike Beard from that quote and his use of the word "capricious."

Rep. Beard thinks that it would make god capricious were he not to give us everything we want whenever we want regardless of our actions. In this model, god is only consistent and predictable if he continues to provide regardless of whether we earned it, deserve it, or feel inclined to care for whatever it is he's providing. In this model, in fact, we can exploit and destroy his gifts, and it would be inconsistent of him not to simply fix it and hand it right back to us.

That's a sickening distortion of Christian doctrine, and an example of a bizarre and twisted conception of and relationship with god.

A major biblical theme is the notion of stewardship--the concept of being wise, honorable, and caring of that which belongs to god. In other words, everything. That includes material possessions, gifts such as talent or wealth, the people around us, ourselves, and of course the environment.

The rejection of the concept of stewardship goes hand in hand with the rejection of the notion of caring for the poor. Something that's become popular in this rising form of Bizzaro Christianity where up is down, wrong is right, cruelty is kind, and god is the manifestation of personal resentment and prejudice. The things we're commanded to care for most are the things we care for least. This takes it a step further into active destruction.

And since god is such an extension of himself and his view of the world, Rep. Mike Beard cannot conceive of a world in which he may not survive while simultaneously acknowledging that this sort of destruction takes lives.

"How did Hiroshima and Nagasaki work out? We destroyed that, but here we are, 60 years later and they are tremendously effective and livable cities. Yes, it was pretty horrible. But, can we recover?" Beard asked. "Of course we can."

The "we" he's really thinking of is of course not Hiroshima or Nagasaki, which suffer profoundly to this day because of our actions. The "we" are those who dropped the bomb, who set the devastation in motion. We razed two cities and annihilated 150,000 - 246,000 lives, but that didn't really affect us! Things are fine, and the consequences were minimal, because I don't experience them!

For people who believe in a being they cannot see, hear, touch, taste, measure or quantify in any meaningful way outside of emotionally, so many of us as Christians have a baffling amount of trouble believing in the experiences of those with whom we do not have constant and tangible connections.

In the most basic terms of decency, imagine going to great lengths over and over to prepare a fantastic meal for someone you love. Imagine, then, that they mash it in their hands, throw it on the walls, flip the table and shatter the plates. When someone comments that perhaps that isn't wise or sustainable type of behavior, this loved one responds that it's ridiculous not to think that you will simply do it all again tomorrow, and forever after. This loved one mocks the very idea that this great and beautiful gift is perhaps something valuable that should be cared for. You will continue to do it because you always have, and you always will. That isn't faithfulness or loyalty. That's abuse.

Those in power in Bizzaro Christianity are bullies and abusers. Like children brought up in an abusive environment, their followers are learning these behaviors as their only recourse in a confusing and difficult world. The cycle may have caused them damage, but at some point they must stand up and take responsibility to seek out new tools and ideas that don't continue to spread cruelty and devastation.

Rep. Mike Beard is, biblically speaking, a swine. Let us protect what is sacred from him.