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.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Frances Farmer's 1931 essay from high school, "God Dies"

Film star Frances Farmer (1913-1970) was a senior at West Seattle High School in April 1931 when she wrote this essay, titled "God Dies." The essay won first place and a prize of $100 in a contest sponsored by The Scholastic, a magazine for high school students. Here is her essay, as published in The Scholastic on May 2, 1931.

--

"God Dies"

No one ever came to me and said, "You're a fool. There isn't such a thing as God. Somebody's been stuffing you." It wasn't a murder. I think God just died of old age. And when I realized that he wasn't any more, it didn't shock me. It seemed natural and right.

Maybe it was because I was never properly impressed with a religion. I went to Sunday school and liked the stories about Christ and the Christmas star. They were beautiful. They made you warm and happy to think about. But I didn't believe them. The Sunday School teacher talked too much in the way our grade school teacher used to when she told us about George Washington. Pleasant, pretty stories, but not true.

Religion was too vague. God was different. He was something real, something I could feel. But there were only certain times when I could feel it. I used to lie between cool, clean sheets at night after I'd had a bath, after I had washed my hair and scrubbed my knuckles and finger nails and teeth. Then I could lie quite still in the dark with my face to the window with the trees in it, and talk to God. "I am clean, now. I've never been as clean. I'll never be cleaner." And somehow, it was God. I wasn't sure that it was … just something cool and dark and clean.

That wasn't religion, though. There was too much of the physical about it. I couldn't get that same feeling during the day, with my hands in dirty dish water and the hard sun showing up the dirtiness on the roof-tops. And after a time, even at night, the feeling of God didn't last. I began to wonder what the minister meant when he said, "God, the father, sees even the smallest sparrow fall. He watches over all his children." That jumbled it all up for me. But I was sure of one thing. If God were a father, with children, that cleanliness I had been feeling wasn't God. So at night, when I went to bed, I would think, "I am clean. I am sleepy." And then I went to sleep. It didn't keep me from enjoying the cleanness any less. I just knew that God wasn't there. He was a man on a throne in Heaven, so he was easy to forget.

Sometimes I found he was useful to remember; especially when I lost things that were important. After slamming through the house, panicky and breathless from searching, I could stop in the middle of a room and shut my eyes. "Please God, let me find my red hat with the blue trimmings." It usually worked. God became a super-father that couldn't spank me. But if I wanted a thing badly enough, he arranged it.

That satisfied me until I began to figure that if God loved all his children equally, why did he bother about my red hat and let other people lose their fathers and mothers for always? I began to see that he didn't have much to do about hats, people dying or anything. They happened whether he wanted them to or not, and he stayed in heaven and pretended not to notice. I wondered a little why God was such a useless thing. It seemed a waste of time to have him. After that he became less and less, until he was…nothingness.

I felt rather proud to think that I had found the truth myself, without help from any one. It puzzled me that other people hadn't found out, too. God was gone. We were younger. We had reached past him. Why couldn’t they see it? It still puzzles me.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Self Help Cults & Their Leaders Ruining My Day

Today, I watched a rerun of an ABC 20/20 episode from 2010, called Deadly Devotion, about self-help guru / cult leader, James Arthur Ray. He is a proponent of the so-called "Law of Attraction" from the oh-so-deceitful book, The Secret, which says that, if you want whatever it is you want hard enough, and visualize it, you'll get it. And if bad things happen to you, it's because you didn't visualize a good life hard enough. He was featured on Oprah's talk show - she's also an advocate for this way of thinking.

Colleen Conaway, James Shore, Kirby Brown, and Liz Neuman are all dead because of their devotion to Ray's philosophy. Conaway jumped off a roof during an exercise where she was supposed to pretend to be homeless - she'd been directed to pretend this by Ray, as part of a seminar she was attending, and paid a substantial sum to attend. The other three were killed during a sweat lodge exercise lead by Ray. This article from The Verge chronicles these deaths and the activities and methods of this dangerous man.

When you read articles and see clips of Ray talking, you will read about and see methods you've heard before, by Jim Jones, Marshall ApplewhiteJoseph Di Mambro, and the Church of Scientology: intense physical experiences, extreme fasting, isolation, and other exercises that can alter a person's mental state and make them more pliable by a charismatic leader. You will see delivery in the style of Tony Robbins and Joel Osteen, and it's really easy to draw parallels between the philosophy promoted by The Secret and the Christian prosperity theology. Just want something badly enough, just visualize it, and follow the rules set out for you by Mr. Successful, and you, too, can achieve all you desire.

When you hear people that follow, or followed, Ray, you hear from people who are, or were, vulnerable in some way psychologically or emotionally - and with a lot of money. They are looking for something - they often aren't even sure what - and they think they can find it in a seminar or video or magic book. They paid, or are still paying, hundreds, even thousands of dollars to Ray - he's not doing anything charitable. These people are intelligent, often with university degrees, but they are also emotionally-hungry, even damaged, people who get caught up in this scam, this cult, and some, even after the deaths of Conaway, Shore, Brown and Neuman, still follow him. Arthur Deikman, a San Francisco psychiatrist, wrote The Wrong Way Home, and in it, he says, as quoted on this page: “I began to see that cults form and thrive not because people are crazy, but because people have two kinds of wishes. They want a meaningful life, to serve God or humanity, and they want to be taken care of, to feel protected and secure, to find a home.”

I guess the reason this piece on Ray is really bothering me in particular is because I've recently been coaching a dear friend who regularly attends spiritual retreats lead by various folks, and who became involved with a group in Costa Rica I'm convinced is scam at best and a cult in the making at worst. He lost a few thousand dollars to the two leaders of this "retreat," and I fear he could have lost much more had he stayed - and fear it's only a matter of time that more people do. These two retreat leaders frame their oh-so-remote location as a place to volunteer, to interact with local people, to work and live simply, in nature, to get back in touch with simplicity, and blah blah blah blah blah. In truth, they are just like Ray: they take some ceremonial practices by Native Americans and twist them into activities that may leave participants feeling fulfilled or weakened and even more vulnerable - either way, perfect prey for exploitation. They isolate. They push people to engage in hard physical labor and then berate them for not doing the activity "correctly." They probe deeply into a person's past, asking lots of incredibly intimate questions. They lash out at those who question, and if a person leaves the retreat in anger, they paint that person as negative, as someone that needed to leave before he or she brought the others down.

My friend is a warm, giving, talented, intelligent person, but he's also fragile in some ways and is looking to come to terms with some horrific events in his past, to heal emotionally. I have to be careful how I coach him through this - I can't shake him and say "Stop this nonsense!" I can't make him feel stupid. I have to be gentle in my encouragement of him - I encourage him to ask questions, to never assume someone's goodness just because they have a fancy web page or a book, to look to medical professionals to address the dark spots in his soul, to look for all of the many happy people around him who don't follow any gurus, and to believe that honest inspiration doesn't come with an expensive retreat or subscription to something. There are healthy ways to cultivate friendships, to create your own identity, to feel secure, and to be a part of something larger than yourself that don't require you to humiliate yourself, to learn a special language or to adhere to some creed filled with lots of psycho babble. It's a tough assignment - he'd be offended that I just called what he believed in psycho babble.

There was one bright spot in all this: this episode of 20/20, renamed "Deadly Devotion", was shown on Oprah's network, OWN. So, there's that, at least.

I look around me and I see dozens of ways to cultivate friendships, create an identity or definition for myself, to feel secure, and to feel a part of something large than myself: nonprofits with events I can attend and with volunteering opportunities in which I can participate, a community theatre company with productions I could audition for or just work behind the scenes or in the front of hour on event night, a citizens academy run twice yearly by the local police, all sorts of civic groups (Rotary, Lions, Kiwanis, etc.), a farmer's market that would welcome me in any way I wanted to help each week, events at the library, a jazzercise class, a karaoke night, and on and on. I invite my neighbors over for a cookout and corn hole. I walk my dog through the neighborhood and say howdy to anyone I pass. It feels good, real, authentic. It brings beautiful people into my life. And I never have to use my credit card for any of it.

If someone you know is reading books or watching videos by James Arthur Ray - yes, after being let out of prison, he's back in business - show them this blog. Show them this article from The Verge. Such people are reckless at best and deviant at worst.