Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Contradictions lead to happiness

A 6th generation Mormon, Jeremy Runnells had expectations and plans of living in the Church of Latter Day Saints for the rest of his life. However, in February 2012, Jeremy experienced a crisis of faith. In the spring of 2013, Jeremy was approached and asked by a Mormon Church Educational System Director to share his concerns and questions about the LDS Church's origins, history, and current practices. In response, Jeremy wrote what later became publicly known as Letter to a CES Director, and very quickly went viral on the internet. The CES Director responded that he read the "very well written" letter and that he would provide Jeremy with a response. No response ever came.

You can download the letter from this web site (click on "download the PDF" when you get there - it's a free download).

I found this letter - and the silence from the Mormon church - so hauntingly familiar. I had very similar, specific questions when I was in my teens and was realizing I just wasn't really believing what I had been taught all of my life by Christian churches, that I'd never believed it. The number of Bible contradictions - such as the examples listed here and here - I was realizing for myself were mounting. The cruelty and violence, the misogyny against women were disturbing me in particular, and no one had answers to my many questions and observations - they just kept telling me to "accept" and that I would have answers "some day." I was made to feel bad for my many questions and statements that I felt nothing people assured me I would feel if I said things like, "Christ, I accept you as my savior. Live in my heart." I might as well have said abracadabra over and over.

When I was trying to be a Christian, deep joy was always out of reach. Happiness was oh-so-fleeting. I was afraid of my own emotions, because I was being told I shouldn't be upset no matter what horrors in life I might encounter, no matter what happened in my life or anywhere in the world, because God had a plan, and to be upset was to doubt that plan - in other words, children being raped, people being slaughtered, villages and cities being destroyed by natural disasters, people dying slowly from the most horrible diseases you can imagine, and all other suffering was a good thing, a divine thing, and I would just have to hope and trust there was a reason for it all. God Makes No Mistakes and God is Good All the Time. And I was supposed to seek out other Christians as friends, specifically, and avoid non-believers. In fact, many people said I was to seek out only certain Christians - no Catholics, no Mormons, maybe not anyone that sprinkles instead of dunks...

When I quit trying to believe, when I embraced that life-long doubt in a magical invisible all-powerful friend who allowed, or caused, misery, life very slowly started to get better. No one was allowing tsunamis, tornados, hurricanes, earthquakes and other natural disasters to kill millions of people - those things happened, without any meaning behind them other than weather patterns and geological realities, and there were all sorts of things we, humans, could do to mitigate the damage. And there were all sorts of things we can do to reduce horrors visited upon humans by other humans. And God hadn't abandoned or ignored me as I prayed every day, desperately, for an end to the abuse in my family - there is no God, and I needed to find help to get out of that situation and live a very different life than I'd grown up in.

And I got to be kind to everyone, no matter their beliefs. I got to pick friends and associates based on the character they showed - the kindness, the understanding, the care - not their proclaimed religion. I get to embrace humankind, the brotherhood of man, as a species, as a family.

And I got to hope, in a way I never could before, because I knew there was no omnipotent sentient entity with some master plan causing everything in the world, helpful, glorious or harmful - instead, the world was full of endless possibilities, some of which I could control, some of which I could influence, and all of which were real.

Hallelujah!

Why I love being an atheist

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

true religions & justifications for domestic violence

I recently came across the article "Do You Feel Trapped by Your Faith? When spirituality and domestic violence cross paths " via domesticshelters.org. As I've had friends who were victims of abuse by husbands and fathers and were told that it was "God's will" by their church pastors, that it was their own fault that they were subjected to abuse, I was very interested in reading this article.

At first, I had high hopes: Julie Owens, identified in the article as a domestic violence advocate and educator who specializes in educating leaders of faith communities about domestic violence, is quoted as saying "Many religions support traditional, sometimes rigid, gender roles. Survivors often hear things like ‘Pray for him,’ ‘God hates divorce,’ ‘It’s your cross to bear,’ or ‘You need to work on your communication skills.’ The focus of the faith leader is often ‘How can we get [the abuser] some help?’" It's nice to see a person of faith admit that this happens, and that this puts the person that is being abused at further risk. She also notes that many abused women have been taught that men should be viewed as superior to women, that physical abuse is a normal part of a relationship, that by improving their own behavior, the abuse will stop, that abuse is a test of their faith in God, etc. And she condemns these teachings. Great!

But then the article says, to get help, a woman that is a victim of domestic violence should first "Look to the true teachings of your religion." The implication is that these true teachings of a religion contradict the justifications for spousal abuse and other forms of domestic violence.

Um.... news flash: no one agrees on what the "true teachings" of any religion are. The Church of Christ across the street from me believes that the "true teaching" of Christianity means that musical instruments aren't allowed in their church, and that people going to any other type of church aren't real Christians - it's a church that does not believe in ecumenism. Meanwhile, the Methodist Church across the street from that church plays all kinds of instruments during its services, and its minister and congregation are happy to do joint activities with other churches. Of course, neither church supports marriage equality, so just go four blocks away, to the United Church of Christ church - they have long supported marriage equality!

So... which one is keyed into the "true teachings" of Christianity? Depends on who you ask.

Digging deeper into the theology and history of Christianity, Islam or Judaism - or any other religion, for that matter - can actually lead a person to more theologically-based justifications for even harsher behavior towards women. Finding out more about the earliest believers of a religion, the earliest versions of texts, etc., can provide the basis for savage, even bizarre treatment of wives and daughters. Following the advice from the domestic.org article could actually convince a woman to stay in an abusive relationship - because, like it or not, it's God's will, because the "true teachings" of your religion say so!

Here's my advice: any person or religion that tells a woman that a magical, invisible, all-powerful deity wants her to experience violence, domestic or otherwise, is shit. It's crap. Run! That is NOT anything you should listen to, ever. Don't go to that church or temple, do NOT listen to anyone going there.

If you need a theological justification for better treatment for women from a male family member, you may need to change religions. For sure, you are going to have to abandon any belief in taking sacred texts literally - there's no way to hold on to literalist beliefs and believe that domestic violence against a woman is not somehow justified. There are versions of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and other religions that do not believe there is any justification for physical abuse or subjugation of women, that believe any scripture or Hadith that says so is flawed, a reflection of human prejudice rather than anything divinely-inspired. To find such sects, you're going to have to do some deep research. I suggest you start by making a list of churches or temples or other groups that ordain women - they will be less inclined to believe men ever have a right to abuse a woman than other churches.

But you can also consider that, perhaps, it's time to dump religion. There is hope, wonder, joy and empowerment all available without religion. Secular humanism, for me, is about benevolence toward fellow humans - about kindness and equality. Learn about an ethical philosophy centered on the best of our humanity - on compassion, fraternity, human equality, human rights, philanthropy, consideration, understanding, sympathy, tolerance, mercy, and more, without any belief in the supernatural.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Things you think are in the Bible, but aren't, & what early Christian practice was really like

I'm very fond of Cracked.com. I know - it's a total clickbait site, and it can be quite dickish. But often, the writers really nail an insight or story in a no-nonsense, fact-based way.

Two pieces on the site are particularly awesome to me. One is called "5 Stories Everyone Assumes Are in Bible but Arent." I already knew that these five stories aren't in the Bible, but Cracked does such a good job of breaking it down simply and directly. In summary:
    #5. Sodom And Gomorrah Getting Destroyed For Homosexuality (they weren’t, at least not according to scripture)
    #4. The Seven Deadly Sins
    #3. Purgatory
    #2. The Prostitute Mary Magdalene
    #1. Satan, The Lone Enemy Of God
It's so much fun correcting a Christian I'm arguing with on these points. "Show me in the Bible where it says that." And they begin to scramble... hilarious. I do the same thing with Muslim friends that say the Koran says dogs are filthy. In fact, it doesn't say that - Sura 18 is a story about a dog that honors canines for their protection and loyalty, and recognizes them as members of the family.

Another Cracked article I like very much: "5 Secret Things You Won't Believe About Early Christianity." And it's true: most of the Christians I know refuse to believe this about early Christian practices, those that took place in the first 300 years after Jesus supposedly was on Earth. In summary:
    #5. Women Played A Huge Part In Church History (and were entirely written out)
    #4. Early Christians Spent An Unhealthy Amount Of Time Fighting About Dicks
    #3. The First Church Services Were More Like Lavish Parties
    #2. The New Testament Was Conceived By A Heretic (Marcion of Sinope) Who Thought God Was Also The Devil
    #1. Jesus Was A Shapeshifter?
They forgot one of my favorites to bring up to Christian friends: the Nicean Council's prohibition of kneeling on Sundays and during Pentecost. Standing was the normative posture for prayer at the time of the First Council of Nicea, and it still is among Eastern Orthodox Christians. Kneeling was considered most appropriate to penitential prayer, as distinct from the festive nature of Eastertide and its remembrance every Sunday. So, next time you're in church and everyone kneels, start shouting, "Heretics! Apostates!" Good times...

I blame the First Council of Nicaea in 325 BC for solidifying non-Biblical anti-women views as official Christian doctrine, leading to the horrific religion-sanctioned oppression of women that permeates most Christian sects to this day.

Would Cracked dare articles such as "5 Things You've Been Told are in the Koran, But Aren't"? or "Things About Early Islamic Practices That Would Get Them Called Heretics Today"? I wish they would.

The more you know...

Friday, January 8, 2016

the hijab is NOT about "privatizing sexuality"

I got really upset last night watching The Daily Show. Dalia Mogahed, of The Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, a "nonprofit think tank which produces research on American Muslims and Muslim communities around the world," said that the Hijab is about "privatizing sexuality." As in - because she wears the hijab, her body, her sexuality, are off-limits to men. And that means that, if a woman doesn't wear a hijab, hey, anything goes! And that's no doubt what the men who attacked women in Cologne during New Year's Eve celebrations this year were thinking.

That's not only an offensive idea for women, it's a sexist idea about men. It's the idea that men are somehow incapable of controlling themselves around women who aren't wearing a hijab, women who are sexualized, that because of how those women are dressed, how they are walking, how much makeup they have on, etc., men just can't control themselves and must go after that sexualized bod. Anyone who claims that has NO scientific biological basis for that claim. Men are just as capable of not acting on a feeling of sexual arousal as women. If a man is incapable of restraining himself when he is feeling sexual arousal for another person in his presence, then he needs to get into therapy, stat.

How a woman is dressed is not an invitation for sex. Not in the USA, not in Germany, not in Afghanistan, not in Saudi Arabia. It's reprehensible to think otherwise.

I have no problem with a woman wearing a hijab, or a chador, if that's what they want to do, and if she is doing it as HER choice - no family members or community forcing her to. I think hijabs can be quite beautiful. I've worn a head scarf when I've been abroad sometimes, not because I had to by any law, but because it was the societal norm, it made me feel more comfortable in that particular society, and because I was trying to convey my respect for the community where I was. I've covered my head in Eastern Orthodox churches and Catholic churches for the same reason. But I wonder: would a Muslim woman who believes that I, a non-Muslim woman, should wear a hijab in those communities for all of the reasons I've stated, herself choose not wear hijab in a community for the same reasons I've given for wearing one - because not wearing one was the society norm, because it would make her feel more comfortable in that particular society, because she wanted to convey her respect for the community where she was?

I am as disturbed by a woman being forced to wear a hijab by others as I am by a woman who really wants to wear it but is afraid to because of reaction in public. If a woman wants to wear a hijab, or even a chador, in the USA, and that's what she really wants to do, I'm absolutely fine with that. I saw a woman wearing a chador at the grocery store where I live, and knowing she was Arabic (I heard her speaking), and probably the only Arabic woman in my community at that moment, I made a point of walking over and speaking to her in my pathetic Arabic. Oh how her eyes lit up, how happy she was. I was greeted like a long lost friend - she took my hands and just kept saying, "Welcome! Welcome!" I almost cried. I want her to feel welcome in my community - I want anyone to, hijab or not.

I don't want any woman wearing any particular type of covering - or not wearing something, including a hijab - because family, friends or society forces them to. I dream of a world wear all women, anywhere, can wear anything they want.

But let's be clear: the idea that a woman who is not wearing a hijab is somehow asking for sexual advances is offensive. The idea that a woman who is wearing a mini skirt is asking for sexual advances is offensive. The idea that a woman wearing a tight shirt is asking for sexual advances is offensive. Is this is me wanting an idea of the West to be adopted by the world, then, okay, yes, that's what I'm doing.

I am NOT sexualized because I don't wear a hijab. A pox on Trevor Noah for not challenging Dalia Mogahed on that point.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

An atheist's thoughts on Donald Trump

I could write a scathing critique of Islam, based on my reading of the Koran, my reading of Hadith, my studies of the history of Islam, my readings of articles and speeches by Muslims, my experiences in countries with large populations of Muslims and the activities of people that say they are Muslims - and not just extremists, like members of Daesh or Al-Queda or the Taliban. Scathing. In all sincerity.

I could write a scathing critique of Christianity, based on my own experiences in various churches and with thousands of Christians whilst growing up in the Bible Belt of the USA, my reading of different translations of the Bible, the history of how the Bible was compiled and edited and mistranslated over the centuries, my readings of articles and speeches by Christians, and the activities of people that say they are Christians - and not just extremists, like members of the Ku Klux Klan or the Westboro Baptist Church or Jerry Falwell or Franklin Graham or Rick Warren. Scathing. In all sincerity.

I could write a scathing critique of other religions, based on similar criteria.

I'm an atheist. I see all of the ways religion creates misunderstanding, fuels fears, discourages thought, divides people, inspires people to hate and to act on that hate and to feel justified in acts of hate. It's my hope that humans eventually reject religion, all religion, in favor of universal moralities based on humanism, value of our environment, value of knowledge, and love of the arts and sports.

So please know where I am coming from when I say that Donald Trump is disgusting. His call for a ban on all Muslims coming to the USA is fascist, it's Hitleresque, it's un-American, and it must be condemned by anyone with any shred of sensibility - particularly Republicans and Christians in the USA - with no qualifications whatsoever.

what USA mass shooters have in common

Whether young and white, old and white and Christian, or young and Muslim, the men that shoot up or bomb schools, movie theaters, women's health clinics, military bases or recruiting offices or special events in the USA have a lot in common:
  • they believe they are absolutely, positively, morally righteous / justified in their actions and their violent feelings of hate
  • they are consumed with anger and hate - it dominates at least some aspects of their life (family gatherings, activities outside of work, conversations with friends, what they watch on TV, etc.)
  • they believe they must commit this act of violence, that it is essential
  • they love guns - they have experience shooting a variety of guns, and they greatly enjoy shooting guns 
That's the profile of mass shooters in the USA. Yes, there was a woman that murdered people in San Bernadino, but, so far, she's an exception - though I've long feared an armed woman walking into a Planned Parenthood clinic and opening fire.

What frightens me is that I regularly see people, the vast majority of them men, with this profile on social media in the USA. There are many thousands of men in the USA - mostly Christian, but also Muslim, Atheist, probably Jewish as well - that fit this profile. Many thousands. Many of the men that fit this profile - including mass shooters - also hate women in particular, blaming, women for the problems of the world - or, at least, the problems that they, the haters, are having (unemployment, lack of money, lack of a social life, and lack of sex).

I'm not the only one that sees these patterns.

I'm an atheist, but I never assume someone is bad, or stupid, or both, just because they are a member of a religion. And I never assume someone is good just because they are an atheist. But there is a profile I do fear.

Since this profile transcends religion, since religion seems just an excuse for men's murderous impulses, how in the world do we address this?

I don't know...

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Atheist Morality

One of the charges atheists sometimes get is that without the theist framework, there is no morality... (but) if God is the determinant of right and wrong, then that moral framework seems hardly inseparable from subjectivity. For could not God decide tomorrow that murder is acceptable?

This is quote from an essay by Brett Milam, and it's why I have such a hard time with people that say, "If you don't believe in God, then you don't have a moral compass. Anything goes!"

Christianity, Islam, and other religions, as they are practised by millions right now, today, justify rape, the subjugation of women, the oppression of non-believers or different believers, the denial of full rights and services to certain groups, and slavery. I am an atheist, and I am opposed to all of those practices - yet Christians and Muslims will say that I'm the one that lacks a moral compass because I'm an atheist?

I believe that morality is rooted in humanity, in our humanness - not in religion. Religion is a reflection of that morality, filtered through a belief in a super powerful all-knowing magical invisible being who is in control of the universe. Morality actually comes from our human capacity for empathy and from reality. I have no desire to kill a person, but if someone did have that desire, they have a choice before them, if they think about the act: kill that person, cause suffering to the remaining family, and, perhaps, go into incarceration for the act if it is deemed by society to be unlawful, OR, don't kill. It's not only the legal consequences that keep people from killing another human; it's also the moral and ethical consequences. People who have a desire to kill and then do it believe they are justified in doing so, for whatever reason, often despite what the law or their religious leaders say.

All of the religions that adhere to the Old Testament - Jews, Christians and Muslims - have no religious prohibitions against incest. The Old Testament does not prohibit incest; Lot had sex with his daughters, and had children by them, and neither he nor they are ever condemned for such. Based on their religion's teachings, based on what they believe God has said and done, incest should not be immoral for Jews, Christians and Muslims. Yet, it is - at least for most believers. Why? Mechanisms to avoid incest are widespread both in nature and across human societies - as Psychology Today points out, "the incest taboo is about as close to a universal law as human moral rules get." Humans must have seen rather early on that having sex close with relatives creates an astonishingly high chance that offspring will be born with a serious birth defect. In addition, certain sexless relationships have proven fundamental to our positive development in life, as humans; a trusting, supportive relationship with a mother, a father, a sibling, a step-father, a step-mother, a grandparent, etc. would be absolutely destroyed by sex. Even certain friendships and professional relationships can be destroyed by sexual relations, which is why most people aren't out trying to have sex with everyone in their lives, and many professional settings prohibit teachers, executives, coaches and others from having sex with subordinates. In short, societies' abhorrence to incest comes not from religion, but from our humanity and reality.

So morality for atheists is so much more than "whatever feels right." Our morality is often rooted in a sense of compassion that most humans are born with (the exception being sociopaths). So many of my atheists friends study philosophy, formally and informally - and through such, have developed strong critical thinking skills, and have a strong sense of social responsibility, and a strong concern for global and humanitarian issues - qualities that I just don't find among people who approach work and life from a particular religion. Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, philosopher, novelist and author of Plato at the Googleplex, recently told The Atlantic that studying philosophy helps make a student "a citizen in this world." She also says "It makes life so much more interesting. It’s us at our most human. And it helps us increase our humanity. No matter what you do, that’s an asset."

Morals are fluid, to a degree - what you believed as a child, or even in your 20s, may not be what you believe now. Maybe you thought divorce was unethical and should be prohibited by law when you were younger, following the teachings of Jesus, but now, years later, you yourself are divorced - still reading the Bible, still a Christian, but you have committed a sin in the eyes of Jesus. You altered your moral compass, however, based on reality, and probably based on what was best for you and your family. I sometimes change my mind about the ethics of something for similar reasons - or because of reading about different perspectives.

When I was trying to be a Christian, I was bothered by how all emphasis was on accepting Jesus as God in order to be saved in the afterlife, but there was little said about this life, the here and now, and the importance of compassion, of empathy and of love. I was told again and again how this life on Earth just didn't matter at all - I should be concerned with the afterlife. Sad about people going hungry? Don't worry - Jesus said the poor would always be with us, it's in his hands, just focus on Jesus as your savior so you can make it to Heaven some day.

When I stopped trying to be a Christian, I felt so much more free - to pursue friendships, to act on my sense of social responsibility, to fight against injustice, to explore different ideas, to offer help to others, even to love. I like the Biblical stories of the Good Samaritan (my favorite Bible story, in fact), and the Sermon on the Mount. I like the story of the "Companions in the Cave" in the Quran - also known as the Sleepers of Ephesus, who hid inside a cave to escape a persecution, and took in a dog with them - it seems to me the point is not only their faithfulness, but also that we should treat dogs kindly, as members of our family. I like that one of the Pillars of Islam is Zakāt, the believe that it is the personal responsibility of each Muslim to ease the economic hardship of others and to strive towards eliminating inequality. I love that the Jewish term mitzvah has also come to express an act of human kindness, not just a duty to a god. But I don't believe these ideas come from the magical invisible friend - the one that also says you can kill and rape others. These particular ideas I've named from these three religions make sense. Kindness makes sense. The benefits of kindness, in the long run, are worth the work of being kind. Kindess is universally good - without God.