Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Expanding on "drop by and lie"

In a previous post, I mentioned Jennifer Michael Hecht's phrase "drop by and lie" to refer to nonbelievers who participate in religious practices for whatever reason. I also raised the issue of whether I was doing this with the Vedanta Society. Here's my follow-up.

It boils down to how you define your terms. That probably sounds like I'm trying to weasel my way into or out of something, so let me illustrate my point with some examples.

If I were interested in converting to Catholicism and wanted to know what they believed, the Nicene Creed would be a pretty good summary. More importantly, not believing those statements is a deal breaker (this is also true of Orthodox and many Protestant denominations). If I wanted to become a Muslim, I would be expected to pray five times a day in the prescribed manner and regularly recite the Shahada. So if I didn't believe that Muhammad was a divine messenger, that would be a deal breaker between me and Islam.

So what does the Vedanta Society expect of me? Well, there isn't a creed or list of commandments. There are some ethical guidelines, but they are just that--guidelines, not rigid absolutes. Besides, the ideas in those guidelines are hardly extreme. I think most people would agree that honesty and refraining from stealing are good things! Regarding the philosophy, this page provides a starting point. A lot of the terms they use may be familiar, but in many cases those terms are defined differently than in the Abrahamic religions.

For instance, a lot of the Vedantic literature, especially Advaita (nondualistic) Vedanta, talks about unity with Brahman. Some try to equate Brahman with God, but that's not necessarily accurate. As you may have guessed, there are varying schools of thought on just what Brahman is. One way to look at it is as a sort of Uncaused First Cause, but without the personal attributes that Abrahamic religions typically give to such an idea. Another perspective would be in terms of Albert Einstein's description of "the orderly harmony of what exists" or Stephen Hawking's "embodiment of the laws of the universe." (Sources: the Einstein quote is mentioned in The God Delusion, and the Hawking quote is mentioned here.) I won't say that Advaita Vedanta is inherently pantheistic, but it certainly seems to allow for that interpretation.

A related question is how to define theism in the first place. In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins defines theism as belief in a supernatural being who created the universe and intervenes in its events. If you define theism in that way, you could end up calling a lot of religiously observant people atheists. In fact, my favorite Pew Forum survey indicates that at least in the US, majorities of Hindus, Buddhists, and even Jews do not believe in a personal God. Some people use the term nontheists to include atheists and people who reject the idea of a personal God but are still religious in some form.

Applying nontheistic ideas to the Abrahamic religions is often considered blasphemy, although some have tried. But in Eastern religions, these ideas are at least considered valid interpretations, if not necessarily universal ones. The Resident Minister at my local Vedanta Society told me, "When you pray, you're having a dialogue with your Higher Self." Of course, even nondualistic Hindus perform rituals involving various deities, but the deities are generally considered to be useful metaphors. So while it may seem slippery to Westerners to conceive of God as Einstein and Hawking described, these ideas are well within the mainstream of Hindu thought. There are certainly Hindus who disagree with nondualism, but in the arguments I've seen, nobody has claimed their opponent is not Hindu for disagreeing with them (for an entertaining study in contrast, type "you're no Buddhist" with the quotes into your search engine of choice).

In summary, at no point in my interactions with the Vedanta Society have I been asked to profess anything I don't believe. In fact, I have discussed specific doubts with the Resident Minister as they've come up, and she always tells me I don't have to believe those things (because I'm slow on the uptake, I keep asking). And there's precedence for her answer in the tradition.

So, if I don't believe in anything supernatural or that there's an immortal soul within us that survives death, why do I bother? So far, I've found that the philosophy and practices I've learned about in the Vedanta Society help me detach from the ego. I'm fully aware that many do not consider detachment from the ego to be desirable, or that religious language is useful in any case. But those are personal preferences, not empirical truths.

I know this arrangement may be untenable in the long term. It's entirely possible that as I learn more, I'll find something that I can't support or cast aside. If that happens, I'll walk. Either way, I'll keep telling you all about it.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Confessions of a Christmas hater

When Bill O'Reilly first started foaming at the mouth a few years ago about the so-called "war on Christmas," my first thought was, "Sweet! Where can I enlist?" I envisioned Jon Stewart and me wearing t-shirts that said "Soldier in the War on Christmas." One of the nice things about my Jewish phase is that I had a ready-made excuse not to go too crazy with the whole Christmas thing.

Christmas has almost always been tied up with disappointment for me. Not because I didn't get the toys I wanted as a kid, but because I could sense that my relatives, other than parents and siblings, were disappointed in me. And I think they still are, even though I served my country in the military for 8 years and will probably be the first person in my family to finish a graduate degree. They'll probably remain disappointed in me for as long as they live, even if I become a professor at a prestigious school or help with some research breakthrough in industry. Why? Because they have this very clear idea of what a woman should be and do, and I don't fit it. If you're wondering who would, Victoria Osteen would probably be a decent reference point (I was going to say Sarah Palin, but she's clearly more accomplished than her husband, and some of my relatives might consider that to be upstaging).

As a kid, it was clear that my behavior wasn't feminine enough for them. I was told I'd never catch a man the way I was, which, truth be told, was just fine with me. The idea of marriage or even long-term commitment seemed to be a kind of slavery (my stance on this has mellowed with age, at least in theory). But to them, my not catching a man was a terrible outcome. In fact, until I got married, some relatives asked my sister if I was a lesbian (I don't know if this idea has resurfaced since my divorce).

Fortunately, as an adult, I don't exactly lose sleep over this disfavor. In fact, I see who does have their favor, and I certainly don't wish to trade places with any of those people! But spending every holiday season in my formative years being confronted with my own perceived inadequacies is enough to make me annually consider booking a vacation over the holidays in a country that doesn't celebrate Christmas. If said country has a relatively clean beach, so much the better. ;-)

Monday, December 14, 2009

Disaster narrowly averted

I think I've mentioned before how religious my extended family is. Over the weekend, my grandmother was in the hospital awaiting surgery (it went well, and she's doing much better!). A bunch of us went to visit her, so it was almost like a family gathering. Normally at family gatherings, I just tune out the conversation and pretend to be fascinated by something on my phone, so despite the gulf between our opinions on things, we don't get into a lot of entanglements. But a hospital room provides much closer quarters, so I had to engage in more active lip-biting than I typically do.

During the afternoon, one of my aunts started singing the praises of Joel Osteen. Fine. Normally, this is where I start to tune out and find another conversation, but no such luck this time. Apparently, he had recently preached this sermon about how you should shout praises to God when you're feeling worried. Again, fine. I could see how that might have some psychological benefit. But what bothered me is how she kept talking about "the Christians" in Old Testament events like the battle of Jericho (Hint: there were no Christians in the Old Testament). It took all my self-restraint not to say, "Don't you mean the Jews?"

Later on, my stepmom wondered aloud why we have certain organs, even though we can live without them. This was relevant to the issue at hand, as Granny was having her gallbladder removed. Without even thinking about the implications of my statements, I rattled off the standard Biology 101 answer: "Well, these things were probably more useful at a previous stage in our development. I mean, look at the tailbone..."

We've never discussed the issue, but the look on my stepmom's face indicated I'd hit a nerve. Granny chimed in, "Well, nobody really knows about that stuff." I took that as my cue to bow out. It's things like this that make me think that even if it were a worthwhile goal to rid the world of religion (I'm not saying it is, or that it isn't), it would be impossible to achieve. We've still got flat-earthers, for dog's sake.

I did at least get in one positive point. We were discussing contentment and how important it was, and I said, "Every major religion teaches that in some form." That seemed to please everyone. Those who know me personally know how conflicted my relationship is with my extended family. Like all people, I'd prefer to get along with them. But it seems that to get along, I have to pretend to be someone I'm not.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

What hasn't changed

I figured I should clarify some things since my search seems to be taking on a new direction. It might seem that I've done some sort of theological 180, but I haven't. I'm no more likely to believe supernatural explanations for events in India than I would believe someone claiming that Jesus appeared in a grilled cheese sandwich.

Here are some of my beliefs that haven't changed:
  • Separation of church and state FTW!!!! (Duh.)
  • Science is the best tool for determining the facts of the world around us.
  • I have a serious problem with people who do harm in the name of religion.
  • I highly doubt that there's some sort of omnipotent being in the cosmos that worries about the minutae of our sex lives.
Here's a really interesting talk given by author Jennifer Michael Hecht on what she calls Poetic Atheism. She talks about the need for ritual and having some outlet for feelings of transcendence. She also mentions the need to remember death and that life is not fair. I'm glad that there are groups out there trying to meet those needs, but I just don't see them in the freethought groups in my area, unfortunately.

Hecht uses the phrase "drop by and lie" to refer to people who use religion for various social benefits. That phrase may sound like she has contempt for such people, but that's not the case. She's fully aware of the needs that this behavior serves. Naturally, I wonder on a regular basis if that's what I'm doing with Vedanta. But those thoughts are voluminous and complicated enough to require their own post, so I'll save them for later.

Friday, December 4, 2009

We've reached a milestone

Apparently this blog is now officially spam-worthy. Not only that, it was spammed in a foreign language (Chinese characters, I think). Since this blog is not a democracy, I have already deleted the offending comment. If you want to advertise here, pay Google like everyone else.

I'm not going to post a long, impassioned plea for spam-free comments, since I imagine there is almost no overlap between the people likely to spam this blog and the people who actually read it. I'll just say I hope it doesn't get to the point where I have to start moderating the comments.

Actually, I'm more amused than anything. I can't imagine that this site gets enough traffic to drive a lot of revenue for the offending sites. Also, I assume that all you readers are far too intelligent to click on that sort of thing, yes? ;-)

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Your concern is appreciated

Can I start a backlash against a backlash?

I should probably begin with the disclaimer that I haven't read any of the Twilight books or seen any of the movies. My commentary doesn't have anything to do with the actual content of these books and movies, just the discussion about them.

An acquaintance of mine keeps posting stuff on his Facebook page about how Bella and Edward are in an abusive relationship, vampires are creepy and therefore not proper objects of lust, etc. This stuff may be completely true, but I can't help but wonder about a couple of things:
  • Since when did we look to literature for role models on how to conduct relationships? In fact, there was a point after my divorce where I distinctly remember thinking, "Wow, I'm glad I'm not a 19th-century literary heroine, because this is probably the point in the story where I'd kill myself." For the record, I had no desire to do that; I was simply remarking on the all-too-common fate of such women after failed romances.
  • The Twilight series is obviously the first time a bunch of teenagers have obsessed about something. Ever. We didn't see the same thing when Titanic came out or anything. Leif freakin' Garrett, for dog's sake.
So maybe Edward is mean and nasty to Bella, who still hangs on him like a lapdog. A big part of most people's teenage and young adult years is working out their unrealistic expectations of other people, romantically and otherwise. Hopefully these people have models of healthier relationships around them, but if not, I don't think that's Stephenie Meyer's fault. Give people some credit. I don't know anyone who reads, say, Harlequin romances who actually expects to be swept off their feet by some drop-dead gorgeous billionaire.

If the whole thing bothers you that much, save your concern for the fictional characters and redirect it toward actual people in your life. The flesh-and-blood humans might actually appreciate it.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Defensive Dating

By sheer numbers, my post-divorce dating life is not going well (don't worry, this post isn't going to turn into a pity party). My OkCupid profile didn't get the results I'd hoped for, and I've actually disabled my account until I figure out how I want to retool it.

Fortunately, some recent events have made me realize that one thing is actually going very well: I'm spotting guys who are a bad fit for me before they get too close. Not too long ago, I would have been taken in by anything that looked like interest that was thrown my way, which would lead to us attaching to each other like lampreys. And eventually, I'd wonder why I felt so drained and suffocated. So I'm almost as glad that these sorts of things aren't happening as I would be if I'd met the love of my life.

Just as in sports, offense tends to get more attention than defense. And as in sports, it helps to be competent in both areas if you want to win a championship. I freely admit that my offense needs work. But I'm immensely glad to see that the defense is doing its job. I love what Drew Barrymore had to say in a recent interview about her love life: "I'm not in the wrong relationship, and it's great!"

I hope everyone has a happy Thanksgiving, or failing that, can keep the hip flask well-concealed.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

That community thing again

I've touched on the idea of community several times before in this blog, and I've basically said that religious groups tend to do a better job of providing supportive communities than secular groups do. I don't even think that's a terribly controversial statement. Typically when non-religious people discuss this issue, they might offer reasons why it's the case, but I don't think I've heard anyone dispute that it's the case. In fact, that's probably a big part of why I started attending those Vedanta Society services.

This was driven home to me in the last few days. One of my great-aunts passed away, and the outpouring of support from her church community and those of the surviving relatives was amazing. In fact, there were so many people who came to the memorial that it had to be moved to a bigger church, and nobody complained. The night before the funeral, some people cooked copious amounts of food and brought it to another relative's house.

The whole experience has helped me better articulate the issue I've hinted at repeatedly: what does freethought offer to those who are down and out? Former criminals and addicts often embrace fundamentalist forms of religion because it gives them a less destructive way to live their lives. If there is to be any such thing as a freethought movement that goes beyond the fringes, it needs to become competitive in this market, so to speak. There needs to be some way to reach people who've hit rock bottom.

Freethought groups love to cite surveys that show declining attendance at religious services, and even declining affiliation with organized religion in general. And those things are certainly true. But I don't think it can be assumed that such people are all ready to embrace purely secular ideals. What doesn't get mentioned is that while "Unaffiliated" may be the fastest-growing group, it also has one of the worst retention rates. Specifically, of those who were raised without a particular religion, slightly less than half remain that way. Of these people who went on to embrace a religion, 51% gave "spiritual needs not being met" as their top reason.

Let's assume you don't believe in anything spiritual, and therefore not in any such thing as "spiritual needs." Then what needs are not being met? Human needs, of course. If secular groups want to be taken seriously, then they need to hit religion on its own turf: offering meaningful support to society's most vulnerable.

What I'm kind of hoping will happen is that someone will read this and tell me where and how these things are already happening. I think groups like Foundation Beyond Belief have some great ideas, and I wish them success in their goals. But I'm mainly concerned with action at the local and regional levels. Could we see atheist-run soup kitchens and disaster relief organizations in the future? What other ideas do you have to improve this situation?

Friday, October 30, 2009

I'm a lousy ideologue

I know I'm probably going to alienate a lot of freethinkers here. If you're interested, hear me out. If not, well, don't, I guess!

To be clear, I haven't affiliated myself with a religion, but it's fair to say I'm investigating it.

Here are some quotes (I'll give sources at the end of this post):

Nothing is extraordinary or supernatural in life. There are no miracles. [...]When we classify something as a miracle, we might as well say that, "I do not know how it happened."

If the scriptures say something about [...] the world around us - which contradicts what perception and inference [...] tells us, then, the scriptural statements have to be symbolically interpreted.

The second statement was actually written over a thousand years ago! The tradition they come from is Hinduism, particularly the Advaita Vedanta school of Hinduism. Philosophically, it's actually very similar to Buddhism. In fact, one of the criticisms directed at Advaita Vedanta is that it's Buddhism in a Hindu framework. Both groups tend to take a skeptical approach to things.

Long before George Harrison chanted the Hare Krishna mantra, some Americans were familiar with Hindu teachings courtesy of Swami Vivekananda. Swami Vivekananda introduced Hinduism to many Americans when he participated in the Parliament of Religions, held in Chicago in 1893. Since that time, Vedanta Societies based on his teachings and those of his teacher, Sri Ramakrishna, have slowly sprung up throughout the United States.

As you may have guessed, there's a group in my area. I've checked out a few services, and have had some very nice chats with the nun who serves as Resident Minister. She told me that the group is basically apolitical and stays out of the bedroom. She also told me that if I have a hard time believing in a particular thing, I shouldn't believe in it until I can verify it for myself.

So what distinguishes them from, say, Unitarians? Philosophically, probably not much. Both groups tend to consider ethics a mostly personal matter and focus what ethical talk they do have on being a good person to those around you. Both groups tend to see mythology as useful metaphor.

The differences come down to practice. In Vedanta, while each member may interpret things differently, everyone's still using the same set of metaphors and symbols. In Unitarian congregations, that tends not to be the case. I can't think of much offhand that actually unifies Unitarians. Also, my experience with Unitarian congregations is that they tend to be more political than they let on. I think I may have mentioned before on this blog that I like my separation of church and state to apply in both directions.

See, if I'm going to give a group (religious or otherwise) significant amounts of my time, there needs to be some benefit. I don't necessarily mean, "What can the group do for me?" as much as, "Does this group have a worthwhile purpose, and can I make a positive contribution to it?" So far, I seem to be able to answer "yes" to both parts of that question with Vedanta. To refer back to the title of this post, I'd rather do some good with people I may disagree with on some things than do nothing with people I do agree with.

For the time being, I'm trying to take it slowly. I haven't outfitted my apartment with statues of Hindu deities or anything. I'm aware enough of my own history to know that this might not work out. But for the time being, I'm enjoying participating in a really nice community to the extent that I'm able.

Quote sources: The first quote is from the podcast "Vedanta and Yoga," put out by Swami Tyagananda of the Ramakrishna Vedanta Society of Boston. The episode containing the quote is called "Practice of Raja Yoga" and is dated 11/16/08. I get the podcast through iTunes; I don't know if it's available through other means. The second quote comes from Adi Shankara, the person who consolidated the Advaita Vedanta philosophy. More information about that here.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Buddhism redux

(h/t to Deip for the title!)

So why has the possibility of "cutting a deal" with a religious or spiritual group even arisen? I've talked before about how much I loved the sense of community I felt when I was going to synagogue regularly. And it didn't come from debating the finer points of Jewish law. It came mostly from ordinary conversations about jobs and families. I felt valued as a human being.

And I don't feel that way in the freethought groups I've hung out with (if any of you are reading this, sorry). In those groups I feel like a stack of ideas, if that makes any sense. When someone new comes in, they're asked the typical getting-to-know-you questions, but usually the only real interest is in the person's deconversion story. I don't feel like there's much interest in me (or anyone else) as a person. In fact, one day when I was venting about a personal problem that had nothing to do with religion, it was clear they had no interest. If anything, I got shamed a little because I wasn't handling it like a hyper-rational being. (Edit: I don't think it was anyone's intent to shame me. It was probably just an unintended consequence of less-than-stellar people skills. But that was cold comfort at the time. 10/27/09)

So would it be possible to make nice with the Buddhists? Unfortunately, the closest group to my home is affiliated with the zendo I had the bad experience with. While it's possible that a lot has changed in the last ten years, I wanted to check my alternatives first. Fortunately, there are many groups within a reasonable distance. I also wanted to check out some Buddhist websites so I could see what actual practitioners had to say about their practice. In too many cases, it amounts to, "My practice can beat up your practice!"

There's a term that describes the whole thing beautifully: spiritual materialism. Ironically, this term was coined by a Buddhist author (Chogyam Trungpa, if you care). It refers to the tendency of people to pursue spiritual practices in order to build their egos--the Dharmic version of "holier than thou." And unfortunately, when so many people are convinced that they are on the one true path that the Buddha intended all those years ago (stop snickering! Of course there's such a thing! </sarcasm>), it tends to stifle real dialogue.

Most people at some point in their lives go through a stretch where they keep breaking up with and getting back together with the same person. But they almost always end up breaking up again over the same issues (yes, I've learned this the hard way). Generally, people don't change much over time. This is neither good nor bad in itself.

Regardless, it would be really arrogant of me to expect a person or group to change its habits for me. If I thought for a second that I could find a Buddhist community that resembled the ideals in Rahula's book, I'd probably join up in a heartbeat. But I just see way too much of the "look at how enlightened I am" vibe (and have even been guilty of it myself at times) to go down that road again.

Fortunately, Buddhism does not have a monopoly on meditation. In fact, I've previously discussed forms of meditation that aren't specific to any religion. Living close to a major city, I have a lot of options. In fact, I think I might have found one that I could live with. But since I try to stick to one topic per post, I'll save that for another post.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Dark Thoughts

I don't think I'm going out on a limb when I say that most people have their Dark Thoughts that bother them. They tend to appear in the brain at inopportune times and say things like, "You're unattractive," or "You're not good enough."

I am no different. And sometimes, the Dark Thoughts are really hard to shake. Those who know me personally can attest to how difficult such thoughts are for me to shake once I'm in their grasp. Perhaps this is an actual psychiatric condition, but I don't think so.

One of the side effects of this sort of thing is that I become not-at-all-fun to be around. I start posting cryptic Facebook status updates that trigger worried phone calls and text messages from those close to me (if any of you are reading this, don't worry, I'm OK right now. Of course, you're welcome to contact me just because, though!).

A few weeks ago, it was driven home to me just how much I was scaring the people around me. Jenny showed up at my apartment because I hadn't responded to her text messages. The actual reason I hadn't responded was that I hadn't received the messages because my phone was malfunctioning. But I'd been enough of a downer lately that she felt the need to check on me (for the record, I had no intention of harming myself).

As it turned out, I had decided that morning that I had to make some kind of change. In fact, when Jenny arrived, I was listening to a guided meditation on loving-kindness. This type of meditation is practiced regularly in some Buddhist traditions and is called metta bhavana, which simply means "cultivation of loving-kindness" in Sanskrit.

So I decided to read up some more on Buddhism. Perhaps a deal could be reached? Details next time.

Friday, October 2, 2009

I need to update my musical tastes

It has been brought to my attention that my musical tastes are woefully out of date, much like someone who's worn the same hairstyle for decades.

Like many people my age, I got into They Might Be Giants in the early 1990's. I stayed with them through the addition of a regular live band (which actually produced some great albums), and even some of their forays into children's music. Now they're coming to Dallas at the end of the month, but it's a kids show. I posted this dilemma on my Facebook page, and a friend pointed out that this seemed to be the new direction for the band, and that they do the theme song for Mickey Mouse Clubhouse (not having children, I didn't know there was such a thing). While I appreciate what they're doing from an educational perspective, I must admit the music isn't doing anything for me.

It seems like all the other artists I followed in high school and college have either stopped making albums, or at least stopped making good ones. For instance, I'm glad that Elvis Costello seems to have found domestic bliss and whatnot with Diana Krall, but I preferred his music before he got so respectable. In the interest of fairness, I'll say Ms. Krall has produced some worthwhile stuff during this time. I actually don't blame her for his decline or anything; I'd pinpoint that on when he decided that he and Burt Bacharach needed to do a full album together. If you can listen to the middle third of that album and not imagine yourself in an elevator, you're a better person than I am.

So it's time for me to find someone to get into who's releasing awesome albums now. Is the new Mika any good? The consensus seems to be that it's decent but maybe a tad overproduced. But I've only listened to previews and not the whole album. Also, I want to emphasize the "now" part of the first sentence of this paragraph. I don't want to hear about great 30-year-old albums, even if I haven't heard them before. If you have any recommendations, leave them in the comments.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Dipping my big toe oh-so-tentatively into the pool

When I got back into freethought a little over six months ago, I have to admit that I was excited about one thing. I knew from previous experience that freethought is male-dominated. My plan was to waltz in and snap up some handsome freethinking fellow, and we would be blissfully rational together.

Do I even have to tell you how that's turned out (hint: it's at the top of the page)?

At first I was slightly miffed that I wasn't just swamped with men wanting to do my bidding (hey, I can dream). But I realized that while I liked the idea of being a dude magnet in theory, I had to admit that in practice I wasn't actually into any of these guys as more than friends.

So I've taken my search online. Those of you who keep up with the atheist blogosphere are no doubt aware of the publicity that OkCupid has gotten recently. For everyone else, the gist of it is that mentioning "atheist" in your message to another user greatly increases your chances of getting a response over mentioning "god" or any particular religion (details here and here if you're interested).

But for the time being, I am not closing the door to theists. As long as the guy doesn't try to convert me or drag me to his house of worship on a regular basis, I don't see it being a problem. I've heard some atheists say things like, "I could never be with someone who didn't believe rationally." But everyone has some irrational beliefs. It's part of human nature. Also, there are other qualities to consider in a potential partner, like kindness and fashion sense.

Obviously, you have to strike a balance and draw the line at certain behaviors, beliefs, etc. But this is true for everyone, religious or not. Maybe in the future I'll have a bad experience with a theist that will lead me to change my mind. But for now, I'm not limiting myself to atheists/agnostics/Pastafarians/etc.

So what are your experiences with religious/non-religious relationships? Please feel free to share them in the comments!

An announcement

I had an epiphany the other day. No, I haven't had a vision from Ganesha (although, as visions from deities go, I could do worse--Ganesha's adorable!), but an important realization, nonetheless.

On my Facebook profile, my observations about everyday life seem to get more of a response than when I try to be profound. So I'm going to widen the scope and lighten the tone of this blog. It occurred to me that people who talk almost exclusively about their religion (or lack of it) tend to be incredibly dull. My attempts at philosophical ramblings have been good practice for me, but perhaps not as interesting for the reader.

I'll still talk about religious and philosophical issues, but I hope to do it in a more lighthearted manner, and in the context of other topics. For example, I'll post some stuff about freethought and dating soon, possibly even later today. After all, what good is a religion or philosophy if it has no applications to your everyday life?

Monday, September 28, 2009

Some thoughts on meditation

It's probably a failing of mine that I let my bad group experiences with Buddhism get me away from meditation in general. After all, I generally found meditation very beneficial on an individual level. I wouldn't say that it gave me any radical insights, but it did help me as far as coping with my circumstances. In fact, when I was meditating regularly, people often asked me how I was able to handle crazy people and circumstances so easily, and meditation was the answer I always gave them.

Over the summer I looked into the possibility of meditation without religious trappings. One thing that came up was autogenic training, which is not meditation per se but frequently comes up in discussions on the subject. Autogenic training mostly involves visualizations and affirmations about relaxing various parts of the body. One thing it shares with meditation is that people are encouraged to practice it daily at regular times. I didn't really care for it myself, but others have had good experiences. If you're interested in trying it for yourself, click here.

Something that seems to be a little more my speed is passage meditation. It can be tied to a religion, but it doesn't have to be. Some freethinkers will probably be put off by Easwaran's use of religious language, and there's no doubt he was a religious man (he was Hindu and published his own translations of some Hindu and Buddhist scriptures). But in his book, Passage Meditation, he deals with that issue:
I hope you will understand that the word “Lord” here does not refer to a white-bearded gentleman ruling from a throne somewhere between Neptune and Pluto. When I use words like “Lord” or “God,” I mean the very ground of existence, the most profound thing we can conceive of. This supreme reality is not something outside us, something separate from us [emphasis mine].

For those familiar with Hindu doctrine, this could be interpreted as aligning with the idea that we are all one with Brahman. But it can also be interpreted as simply appealing to your own best instincts. And I think most people would agree that some of our instincts are better than others. That explanation may not be good enough for some freethinkers, but it's good enough for me. If you're interested, you can click here.

So those are my thoughts on meditation in a nutshell. Feel free to provide your own in the comments.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

So now what?

When I began my "spiritual search" in earnest about a year ago, I had this idea that I would find something, settle on it, and that would be it. I would just live out my life according to that system's principles. But that certainly hasn't been the case! Freethought has definitely been more of a beginning than an ending for me.

So if there are no (or at least very few) hard and fast rules, what constitutes a life well-lived? Among the so-called New Atheists, Sam Harris attracts a lot of criticism for his interest in Eastern religions. However, as he explains in this 2007 speech, he's interested in finding a philosophy where personal happiness doesn't depend completely on personal circumstances. Harris also expresses interest in the potential transformative quality of the experiences some people have in meditative or contemplative states.

Your friendly neighborhood library probably has access to scientific journal articles through sites like PubMed or EBSCOhost. If you can get that access, you'll find that a lot of studies have shown that meditation in general has some benefits. No one method stands out as being superior, but almost all of them have been shown to reduce stress and improve mood.

Instead of aligning your chi or your chakras or whatever, there's probably a perfectly natural explanation for these experiences and the benefits people find in them. So how is it that meditation helps so many people? I don't claim to know the answer, but I think it's a question worth asking. It's certainly not a settled question, as there are many people who freak out at the mention of meditation. I'll discuss my own experiences with meditation in a future post.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Enjoy whatever support system you have

For the last couple of days, I'd been feeling a bit melancholy. So few of my friends live near me, and I was starting to get a little down about it. That, and for some reason, school has really been tiring me out. I'd posted a series of Facebook status updates that indicated fatigue and frustration, and apparently, I'd posted enough of them to warrant a phone call from my dad to ask about me. I was in class when he called, so I had to call him back. When I did, my stepmom answered the phone and also asked if I was ok. I talked to her until Dad came to the phone, and Dad and I talked about my schoolwork. "Take a nap," he said. Fortunately, I was about to do that very thing.

It's easy to think, "Well, Dad's supposed to do that," but even if that's true, I've seen plenty of instances where that's obviously not the case. The day before I graduated from boot camp, we got to spend the afternoon with our families. That evening, I heard more than one person say, "Not once did my family say they were proud of me." And while my family has its share of issues (and maybe a few other families' shares, too), they tell me they're proud of me all the time.

If you don't have a good relationship with your family of origin, you've probably created a family of choice. Embrace them. Cultivate all the connections you can. Take no one for granted.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Is everything permitted?

Those on all sides of the religion debate are familiar with Dostoyevsky's line, "If God does not exist, then everything is permitted." This is another expression of the argument from morality; i.e., the existence of morality implies the existence of God. "Morality implies God" and "No God implies no morality" are logically equivalent statements. If you don't understand why this is so, type the word "contrapositive" into your search engine of choice.

Many people have attacked the argument from morality with various logical devices, but that's not what I want to get into here. I'm more interested in approaching an accurate understanding of reality than in scoring imaginary debate points. Let's look at the parts of this argument. Is there such a thing as absolute, unchanging morality? I'm not sure there is. I think what people are really saying with statements like Dostoyevsky's is, "Without religion and its underlying fear of punishment in a life beyond this one, society would descend into chaos."

I think most of what we call morality entails rules of the road that have been deemed useful to society at some point. Since humans are social animals, we prefer to live in groups. This means that something like random killing is a survival threat to the group, and other members of the group are therefore motivated to stop it. So there are perfectly natural explanations for why we have rules of order in society.

Even those who claim morality is fixed and can be found in, say, the Bible are on shaky ground. If this were true, then people's understanding of the Bible wouldn't change over time. But it obviously has. In the past, the Bible has been used to justify slavery and poor treatment of women and gays, just to name a few. Now you don't hear pro-slavery preachers, and things have at least gotten better regarding treatment of women and gays in many religious groups. Is this because there's been a new revelation from the heavens where God says, "Maybe you shouldn't use me as an excuse to be such a dick to people?" To my knowledge, they're not selling Bibles with new bonus books added or anything, so I'm going to say no. What's changed over time, then? Human understanding, that's what.

This doesn't mean I can say, "No morality implies no God." The rules of formal logic don't work that way. But I can say that morality can't be used as an argument for God's existence because it hasn't really been established. You can't use an unproven idea to prove something else. Perhaps it would be nice to live in a world of absolute certainty, but there's no evidence that that's how the world operates.

Some Hindu traditions emphasize the phrase "Neti, neti" regarding the Divine. This can be translated as "neither this nor that" or simply "not this, not this." In other words, if you think you understand what the Divine is, you're probably wrong. This concept can also be useful in observing earthly matters. Anytime you see certainty, it probably wouldn't hurt to step back and say, "Well, maybe not."

Friday, August 28, 2009

The religion that got away, Part 2

Just as I discovered the Buddha's teachings in Germany, I began to pursue my study of Judaism in an equally unlikely place--Hawaii. My husband at the time was stationed at Pearl Harbor, so I had many occasions to visit the base. I'd noticed that near the main clinic was something called the Aloha Jewish Chapel. On most military installations, the Jewish community has to be content with taking its turn at the regular base chapel for its services like everybody else. But AJC was a dedicated synagogue.

I attended a Friday night service on what happened to be the first night of Chanukah. My initial welcome consisted of this very sweet old lady who insisted I fill up a plate with various goodies from the potluck they were having for the occasion. Despite not knowing a word of Hebrew, the service leader and the congregation made great efforts to make me feel welcome and help me keep up with what was going on in the service.

Within a few weeks I was attending Hebrew lessons before the services and conversion classes during the week. Since there was no rabbi at AJC, my conversion classes were with a nearby Reform congregation. I mentioned in Part 1 how Judaism struck me as practical (in the sense that behavior is emphasized more than theology), and the things I learned in conversion class seemed to confirm this. While Kabbalah has been big in some circles, note that many of these circles tend not to have many Jewish people in them, not entirely unlike Buddhist groups with no Asians. ;) Hashing out the details of regular Jewish living is enough to keep most people occupied! You may have heard that some traditions refer to Jews as "People of the Book." After just a few weeks of study, I began to think "People of the Library" was more accurate! That was something I loved about Judaism--that you could dedicate your life to studying it and still not know all there is to know.

I also liked the emphasis on debate and discussion. For example, if you look at an untranslated page from the Talmud, you'll notice right away that you can't read it like a typical book. The core concept under discussion is in the center of the page, and the various commentaries (which don't always agree with each other!) surround it, often going into the margins of the page.

The support I felt from the military community motivated me in ritual observance, too. I lit Shabbat candles every week, attended a Passover Seder, and even fasted for Yom Kippur. I really felt like I was meant to be Jewish. Unfortunately, the Reform rabbi had to step down due to health problems before I could make my conversion final.

And truth be told, there were other issues. I encountered a lot of resistance at home, and in retrospect, I can't blame my husband for his reaction. I'd shown no signs of this interest before we got married. But that acceptance was so important to me that I stuck with it. Eventually, he learned to sort of tolerate it and even managed to acquire a taste for matzo ball soup. But once we came back to Texas, we never could settle on a congregation. And by the time we divorced, I'd pretty much had it with organized religion.

However, I'll always be grateful to that community in Hawaii for supporting me through some very tough times in my life. If I had to pick a religion for some reason, Judaism would probably be it. Although my actual beliefs may line up more with various Eastern religions, I never felt the sense of community with them that I did in the synagogue.

As you've probably guessed, the community issue is really important to me. But I think that deserves its own post, so the details on that subject will have to wait for another time. I've rambled enough for now.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Skepticism for school

This doesn't have anything to do with religion per se, but I wanted to address something that is often repeated as an article of faith without any real evidence to back it up. School either will start soon or has already started for some people, and I wanted to discuss this matter.

Liberal arts colleges (like my alma mater!) love to tout their undergraduate focus in their brochures. They're chock full of statements like, "Since we have no graduate programs, we can guarantee that all your classes will be taught by actual professors." Implicit in this statement is something akin to, "Those poor, downtrodden students at the big scary state schools have to take some of their classes from the great unwashed--I mean, graduate students." (Cue the horror movie music of your choice at this point.)

After a couple of years at a big scary state school and indeed having some classes taught by grad students, I think I can safely say that there is no correlation whatsoever between people's teaching abilities and their relative positions on the tenure track. I've had excellent teachers who were grad students, and terrible teachers with doctorates from prestigious schools.

If there's any factor that could be said to make a difference, it's probably just a personal commitment to decent teaching. It may seem odd that a large number of college professors don't put much thought into their teaching skills, but in many cases, evaluations of their job performance rest on other factors, like publishing research. Published research also accounts for a lot of weight in things like university rankings in various publications. You can argue how wrong this is if you like, but don't expect to get very far.

If you really need your hand held through a class, even big scary state schools have assistance available. When I was struggling in a technical writing class, I went to the writing lab and got help. College is not like high school. Success is not handed to you on a plate. It's OK not to be a natural whiz at everything (it took me a while to make peace with that!). And generally, unless the question is over something specific that the instructor wants, the help from fellow students in the labs is just as good as what you'll get from an instructor during office hours.

Just think of it as practice with taking responsibility for your own success. That's how life is.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The religion that got away, Part 1

I've mentioned previously how I had to take two theology classes at Texas Lutheran. The first one pretty much made me into what most people would call agnostic, although I didn't yet think of myself as one. That experience did not put me in a great hurry to take that second class, and I wanted to be as far away from Christian teachings as I could get. Being at a Lutheran college and all, that wasn't very far, but they did offer a course on Judaism that was taught by a rabbi. I figured that was my best bet.

I learned that in many cases, Jewish and Christian interpretations of the same scriptures are often radically different. This is due in part to some differences in translation. The commandment cited by Christians as, "Thou shalt not kill," is cited by Jews as, "Thou shalt not murder." The verse in Isaiah that talks about a "virgin" conceiving is translated in Jewish Bibles as a "young girl" conceiving.

Sometimes the disagreements are over interpretation. The biblical story where Abraham is told to sacrifice Isaac is viewed by many Christians as God's way of testing Abraham's faith. But a common Jewish interpretation of that passage is that it was God's way of telling Abraham that there would be no human sacrifice in this new religion Abraham was founding.

As you may have guessed, these experiences tore away whatever shreds of Christian faith I might have had left. I didn't leap right into Judaism, but after I decided Buddhism wasn't for me, it was something I decided to give a shot. The religion I learned about in class struck me as practical (I'll expand on this in Part 2), and I liked the idea of a religion that was more focused on action than belief.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Some good things from my Buddhist experience

Despite my issues with institutional Buddhism, I did pick up some very useful tools in my studies. One of the big things I remember from reading What the Buddha Taught is that Buddhism takes a different approach to its teachings than Western religions do, at least in theory. In a recent post, I paraphrased Michael Shermer in saying how if you don't believe in Jesus's literal existence, death, and resurrection, you can't really consider yourself a Christian.

However, if it were possible to scientifically disprove that Siddharta Gautama (the man who became the Buddha) ever existed, most Buddhists probably wouldn't stop practicing their religion. In What the Buddha Taught, Rahula says that Gautama's literal existence is completely beside the point. The point is that the teachings are there for us to follow.

Or not to follow. Buddha actually told his disciples not to believe what he was saying just because he said it. He encouraged his followers to test his teachings against their own experience. Rahula uses the illustration of claiming you have an object hidden in your hand. As long as I can't see for myself, I can choose to believe or doubt you. In other words, it's a matter of faith. But if you open your hand and show me the object, it's not a matter of faith because I can see for myself. For someone raised in an evangelical Christian background, the idea of a religion that allowed for and even encouraged a healthy level of skepticism was huge. Even though my skepticism turned out to extend to a lot of Buddhist teachings, I still admire and use that approach.

The other big idea I took from Buddhism was that of being in the present moment. I know that's not unique to Buddhism, but that's where I first encountered the idea. Like anybody else, I'm prone to get stuck reminiscing about the past or speculating about the future. And I wouldn't say that people should never do those things, but probably that most people do too much. Focusing on the present moment via meditation or other means helps pull me out of the whirlwinds of over-speculation.

For those of you who have left a religion, are there certain principles you still find valuable, despite rejecting the religion as a whole? What are they?

Friday, August 14, 2009

Why I'm Not a Buddhist, Part 2

Part 1 of this story can be found here.

Shortly after I got back from Germany, I landed a job in the Dallas/Fort Worth area and moved up there. Most of the Buddhist literature I'd read talked about the benefits of regularly meditating with a group and studying under a teacher. So I decided that once I was settled in my new environment, I would try to do that.

Like the denominations in Christianity, there are different schools of thought of Buddhism. The big ones are:
  • Theravada (the oldest current school)
  • Mahayana (includes Zen and most of the groups Westerners think of when they hear "Buddhism")
  • Vajrayana (includes Tibetan Buddhism)
The book I'd read was written by a Theravadin monk, but at that time, the bulk of the information I found on local groups was in the Zen tradition, so I began to focus in that direction. I read some of the standard books on Zen and attended some introductory classes at a zendo (a Zen meditation hall) that were followed by zazen (the actual sitting meditation).

The meditation was beneficial enough, but I found the group experience unsatisfying for three reasons:
  • The actual teacher in charge of the group was very inaccessible. In fact, I never met the guy, even after months of sitting with the group.
  • Conversations seemed to revolve around showing off one's "Zen cred" rather than actually working through any meaningful issues, or even just chit-chatting about each other's families and jobs.
  • People talked about things like chakras and thousand-armed goddesses, assuming they needed no explanation or evidence. A bit odd when you consider that most of these people had probably come to Buddhism from Christianity or Judaism.
Several years later and in a completely different part of the country, I had essentially the same experience in another zendo. So I don't think it's just me.

It seems that any time a group of people tries to get together to practice Buddhism, it tends to get fused with whatever the local folk religion is. This is even somewhat true in the US, where you can find places advertising a sort of Christian/Zen synthesis. Also, if you consider New Age hippie crap a religion, you can definitely find your share of Buddhist groups fused with that in this country.

Or maybe the moral of the story is just, beware the Asian spirituality group with no Asians in it.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Why I Chose the Title I Chose

It's the story of my life, and yes, the story of my "spiritual" life in particular. Every time I think I can unreservedly embrace a particular religion or philosophy, something always seems to whisper in my ear, "Well, maybe not."

First, I'll talk about the one that started it all for me: the Southern Baptists. They tend to take a beating from just about everyone who isn't of some kind of evangelical persuasion, and from many who are. In many cases these beatings are justified. For one thing, they tend to dole out a fair number of their own beatings against pretty much anyone who doesn't adhere to the official vision of what a good Southern Baptist should be like. Before you ask, no, it doesn't matter if you're Jewish. That's what Jews for Jesus are for, silly! ;) And don't even get me started on their teachings regarding women. Even Jimmy Carter can't take it anymore.

But I guess like someone who comes from a run-down area, there will always be some comfortable familiarity between myself and the Southern Baptists. When I was Christian, I liked not having to follow a set service structure every time. I liked the lack of bureaucracy between ordinary churchgoers and church leadership. And this will probably sound crazy, but give me the old school gospel hymns over that contemporary Christian pap any day of the freakin' week. I'd much rather hear "Victory in Jesus" played in four parts on a slightly out-of-tune upright piano by a 75-year-old retired kindergarten teacher than contemporary "Jesus is my boyfriend" music (sorry, Dad).

Of course, there's the whole issue of my disagreement with the vast majority of their teachings, which is why I left in the first place. And it always seems like every time I think I've found a religion I can live with, I always reach what I call a "How could you?" moment. Don't get me wrong, I know that there's no group, religious or otherwise, that I can agree with everything they do or say. But it would seem dishonest to identify with a group if you don't agree with at least their core teachings.

To me, this raises an interesting question: what is the threshold of belief or nonbelief with regard to a particular religion? Obviously, the answer depends in part on the religion. Since I've talked mostly about Christianity in this post, that's what I'll stick with. Famous skeptic Michael Shermer said on a Penn & Teller: Bullshit! episode on the Bible that if you don't believe Jesus rose from the dead for people's sins, then there's no way you can honestly call yourself a Christian.

So, what do you think about that? Do you agree with Shermer's assessment? If you disagree, how would you draw the line between belief and nonbelief differently? What about other religions?

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Why I'm Not a Buddhist, Part 1

I've talked before about how studying theology basically made it impossible for me to keep professing to be Christian. By the time I graduated from Texas Lutheran, I considered myself a rabid atheist. At the same time I came face-to-face with another widely-held belief that turned out to be false: that a college degree guarantees at least some kind of decent employment.

With no spiritual ideas to comfort me and no real job prospects ahead, I spiraled into a depression. I was able to buy a little time, having been accepted to an exchange program that allowed me to spend 4 weeks in Germany. Sadly, because of my personal issues at the time, I didn't enjoy it as much as I probably could have, but the trip was far from a complete waste.

My host family would leave English-language books in my room for me. Usually, they were just standard popular novels, but one of the books was What the Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula, a Sri Lankan Buddhist monk. If you're looking for an explanation of the core tenets of Buddhism, this book is an excellent source. It doesn't talk a whole lot about practice, but it doesn't claim to, either.

The philosophy outlined in the book seemed refreshingly simple. It talked of liberation from suffering and only believing things you could confirm with your own experience. I also liked that the Buddha never claimed any sort of divine ancestry or connection. In fact, Buddhism as explained in this book did not require belief in any gods at all. Could this be what I needed?

Truth be told, I was really unhappy being an atheist. In retrospect this probably had more to do with other circumstances of the time, but there it is. Not only was I bummed out, but those close to me were really freaked out by the idea of my being an atheist, especially my mother. All these combined to make me think that maybe I could find a home in Buddhism.

In part 2, I'll talk about what happened when I tried to put the ideas I'd discovered into practice.

Monday, August 3, 2009

My 15 Minutes of Freethought Fame

The Denny's caper story also got picked up by the Friendly Atheist. To anyone who comes by from there, thanks! Let me know what you think.

I'm glad to be able to contribute a small piece to this curious story. I feel like I should thank him by proving why the square root of 2 is irrational or something. Not that he doesn't know that (being a math teacher and all), or even that it's an amazingly difficult proof (it isn't), but I can vouch for the fact that math teachers love that stuff.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

We're on a Mission From...Ourselves

Previously, I'd discussed this promotion that a Denny's in Euless, TX was doing. The promotion said that if you came in with your church bulletin, you would get 10% off your meal, and the restaurant would donate the same amount to the church named in the bulletin.

When I told Jenny about this promotion, she was completely behind the idea of taking a bulletin from the North Texas Church of Freethought, and seeing if we could get the discount and the donation. So we decided we would go to the next available monthly service, which was held this morning.

Jenny had never been to one of their services. I'd been once before, and it was all right. I came in expecting not to be offended, but not to be wowed, either. Fortunately, I had a much better time at this one than at the previous one. The theme for this service was "Good and Evil," and one of the musical selections was the theme from Underdog! How cool is that? Definitely beats "The Old Rugged Cross" in my book!

Perhaps next time we'll join them at the usual after-services location for lunch, but today we had a mission to accomplish. I looked at the bulletin, and it had the required information for the promotion, which was the full name of the organization and its mailing address. Off we went!

We walked into the restaurant and didn't see any signs advertising the promotion, so they might be trying to phase it out. We did see a woman sitting at a booth with her hair in curlers, though. That was pretty funny.

When we got to our table, we asked our server about the promotion, and after asking the manager, she told us that the deal was still good. Sure enough, when it came time to pay, they did honor the deal. Although the manager who rang us up did do a bit of a double take when she saw the bulletin, which featured, among other things, the subtitle, "A Rational Approach to Religion," and a large boldfaced headline about how God is not necessary to have morality. So if NTCOF gets a check from Denny's for somewhere in the neighborhood of $3.50, um, you're welcome.

Who wants to bet the promotion ends not too long after the owners realize they're donating to a secular organization?

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

For Those Needing a Good Laugh

Type the phrase "secondary virginity" into your search engine of choice. Just do it.

Actually, in keeping with the concept, do it, feel terribly guilty about it, then promise to never, ever, ever do it again until you've been given permission.

My favorite piece of advice, courtesy of LoveMatters.com:
Avoid intense hugging, passionate kissing and anything else that leads to lustful thoughts and behavior. Anything beyond a brief, simple kiss can quickly become dangerous.
Because, you know, you gotta watch that intense hugging.

If you'll excuse me, I'm off to explode with laughter. That is all.

Questioning Assumptions

The hardest assumptions to question are the ones you make about yourself.

I have avoided swimming pools for most of my life, and it's not because I'm self-conscious about how I look in a swimsuit. I'm much more self-conscious about not being a very good swimmer. It's not so bad that I have trouble staying afloat, but let's just say if you see someone who looks like me doing laps, that's a good indication it's not me.

I took those Red Cross swimming lessons when I was a kid--three classes, in fact. Actually, it was the same beginner class three times because I flunked it the first two times. My third instructor really put in a lot of extra work with me so I could pass the third time. I wish I could remember her name so I could thank her properly. I had (and still have) issues with putting my face in the water. I've never been able to coordinate that with the whole breathing thing.

For any experienced swimmers out there, that probably sounds really dumb, but one of the stories of my life is that hard things are easy for me, and easy things are hard. Calculus and programming? Relatively easy for me, while just about anything touted by others as really easy sends shivers down my spine. For instance, when I was in the Marine Corps, I was always hearing about how easy marksmanship is. Guess who can't hit the broad side of a barn with a rifle?

Enter my friend Jenny, who was on her high school's water polo team. We've been going to the gym and doing the usual cardio and weights thing. She suggested trying out the pool and is now determined to make a water creature out of me. I can get around by doing a sort of elementary backstroke. I'm pretty sure some of the other swimmers thought I looked like a doofus, but I don't really care. My goal isn't to be the next Dara Torres; it's simply to have a good time in the pool and burn some calories while doing it. So by that standard, last night was a success!

Jenny seems to think she'll have me front crawling eventually. I like the idea, but I don't know how long that's going to take. I think I'll work my way up to a standard backstroke first. Small steps. If I could get to a point where I'm actually comfortable front crawling, that would be huge for me. That's why I try not to be too critical of people who dress badly or otherwise look silly when they exercise. At least they're out doing something instead of staying on the couch. I wonder how many people are scared into inaction by fear of how they'll look.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

I Smell an Opportunity

I found this at Friendly Atheist. The gist of it is that a Denny's in Euless, TX (near Fort Worth) is offering a 10% discount and a donation of the same amount to the church of the customer's choice for bringing in a church bulletin.

How can a godless heathen take advantage of this offer?
  1. They could swing by a church and swipe a bulletin. But I'm willing to bet most don't want to go that route.
  2. They could bring in a bulletin from the North Texas Church of Freethought and see what happens.
I posted this idea in the comments on the Friendly Atheist post and over at Atheist Nexus. Thoughts?

Friday, July 24, 2009

Good Things About "Organized Freethought"

After my previous post, you may wonder why I don't just "cut a deal" with one of the more liberal religions, as many in my situation do. For example, I have a good friend who told me he's not convinced Jesus was divine, but he finds beauty in the Anglican rituals, so there he stays, keeping his opinions to himself. I'm sure he's not the only one. Technically, if I were to go the Unitarian route, it wouldn't even be cutting a deal, since I wouldn't be required to profess any creed or adhere to any particular doctrine. And many freethinkers have found happy homes in Unitarian churches.

Well, as you may have guessed, I've kind of already tried that. The thing about liberal religion in general is that it's a crapshoot at the group level. I attended a Unitarian church in Austin a few years ago that was actually pretty cool, and probably the only reason I didn't come back is I was really trying to do something else at the time (more on that in another post). But I don't live in Austin any more, and my Unitarian experience where I currently live has left me cold for a couple of reasons.

You can probably guess that I have little patience for fundamentalism of any stripe. But there are other things that I hold in almost equal contempt. The first one is New Age bullshit. I thought about finding a more polite phrasing, but I think it's necessary here. If you value science at all, the belief that you can't sign a contract because Mercury is in retrograde is no more tenable than some Middle Eastern guy who lived a few thousand years ago managed to get every species on the planet onto a vessel about one-third the size of a modern aircraft carrier. Obviously, not every liberal believer has these views, but often such views are spared the skepticism they deserve in the name of tolerance and respect.

The second issue I often run into with liberal congregations is actually the flip side of the same issue I've run into with conservative congregations: I don't like politics being preached to me. At first it was a little easier to stomach when it referred to politics I generally agree with, but I've come to find even that distasteful. That whole "separation of church and state" thing? I'm a huge fan of it--in both directions. So this, combined with the previous paragraph, does not exactly make me a lot of friends in any kind of religion.

And that leads to the things I like best about "organized freethought," to the extent that there is such a thing: freethought groups are always at the forefront of promoting church-state separation issues and the teaching of proper science. You have the right to believe all the craziness there is on this planet if you want to, but the second you try and tell me I need to believe something, well, you'd better have some evidence for it, especially if you want to write these beliefs into law.

I highly recommend this post at Pharyngula that reminds us:
This is atheism: we have no dogma, we have no infallible leaders, everyone is naturally flawed, and we recognize that within our ranks there is a huge diversity of opinion. [. . .] There is no Atheist Supreme Leader. There is no Atheist Pope. There is no Godless Ruling Council, no Atheist Inquisition, no Freethought Dogma.

You could be forgiven for thinking otherwise at times. Remember that anytime you feel tempted to appoint yourself the Ideology Police.

Monday, July 20, 2009

When "Not Collecting Stamps" Becomes a Hobby

A favorite Internet chestnut is that atheism is a religion like not collecting stamps is a hobby (alternate version: like bald is a hair color). I'm sure whoever came up with that is proud of himself (since vocal atheists are almost exclusively male, I feel pretty safe saying "himself" here).

Fair enough. It's a catchy statement. So let's check in on the latest meeting of the local Non-Stamp-Collector's group, shall we?

Reg (the group leader): Let's all welcome Judith to the Non-Stamp-Collector's group.
Group: Hi, Judith!
Reg: So, Judith, did you ever collect stamps?
Judith: Yeah, when I was a kid. My parents are still avid stamp collectors.
Stan: Hey, Reg, have you had a chance to read Why Stamp Collectors Have It All Wrong yet?
Reg: Not yet. Did you crash that Internet poll: "Is stamp collecting totally stupid?"
Stan: Oh, yeah! We totally turned that around. I don't know why stamp collectors can't see the fallacies in their arguments.
Judith: (wonders if they're ever going to talk about something else)

OK, that's enough of that (yes, the names are shamelessly pilfered from Life of Brian). Do you see where I'm going with this? Judith knows she's not into collecting stamps, despite it being the predominant hobby. But she was kind of hoping for suggestions on alternative hobbies, and she isn't getting any. And if you spend most of your time complaining about stamp collectors, well, then that is a hobby.

At this point I think the metaphor is obvious enough, so I'll dispense with the references to stamp collecting. I actually don't want to condemn these types of groups outright, because they certainly have value. It just depends on what kind of group you want to have. For some people it's important to have a safe space to air their grievances. But if you're going to be that kind of group, your membership will almost certainly remain small.

For people who want to expand their freethought groups, it might be necessary to lay off the bashing of those who aren't hardline atheists and incorporate activities other than talking about what they don't believe and playing "spot the fallacy." I brought a friend with me to one of the groups I hang out with, and she's been afraid to come back because she felt like people were looking down on her for identifying as agnostic instead of atheist.

It might sound like I'm saying the second kind of group is better than the first, and I'm actually not. Like I said, safe havens are important to have. Just realize it's going to narrow your group's focus considerably. If you're ok with that, keep on doing what you do. Just don't wonder why more people don't come.

For even better phrasings of this argument, check out this post on The Meming of Life by Dale McGowan. He's a professional. Trust him.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

My Early Faith: The Coroner's Report

As you might expect, I've read my fair share of arguments for and against the existence of God. A favorite counter to certain atheist arguments is, "That's just the crazy fundamentalists. Even most believers don't believe in that God. You should read some sophisticated theology."

Well, I've read my share of theology, and every argument I've seen boils down to cherry-picking. This is not to say that fundamentalists don't cherry-pick, because I think you have to with the Jewish and Christian scriptures. It just seemed like these "sophisticated theological arguments" could all be said as, "Ignore the parts you don't like."

Let's take that sentiment to its logical conclusion, shall we? Say someone gives you a novel and tells you it's the best book you'll ever read in your entire life, but oh, you might want to skip this paragraph, this chapter, etc. But this book is the gold standard for all books. Is it, if you're having to skip portions of it? Sounds more like a book in need of a competent editor!

I'm not inherently opposed to the "ground of our Being" God-concept. However, I don't think there's acknowledgment for that in how Christianity is usually practiced. That seems a bit odd, because I'm willing to bet that there's a lot of individual Christians who believe that way, but I don't think there's a real institutional framework for that mode of thought (as opposed to most Eastern religions, where that pretty much is the framework). I don't really know what such a church would look like, but I'd think it would have to toss out a lot of the old hymns and rituals, or at the very least approach them differently.

Since that church doesn't exist, a lot of people have to make big compromises for the sake of community. And I understand that everyone makes some compromises when choosing to be part of a larger group. But that seems like an awfully big one to me. While I do find some of the Gospels' teachings inspiring, it's not enough to enable me to sit through songs with militaristic overtones and being preached at like all I need to do is read the Bible more (or its flip side with watered-down hymns and a message I could get by watching Oprah). And frankly, I find just as much inspiration in texts from other religions as I do the Gospels.

Once opened, you can never close the gate of "psychologically true." The trick is where to go from there, and I haven't seen much advice from theists in that regard (you can probably guess what an atheist's advice would be). Don't worry, I have some issues with atheism, too, which I'll discuss soon.

Friday, July 17, 2009

How Theology Killed My Faith

First off, I'd like to apologize for yesterday's somewhat craptastic post. I think it's about as exciting as, well, sitting through a Lutheran service on Setting II. But it does give some background for the information in this post, which I think will be a bit more interesting.

Texas Lutheran requires all its students to take two theology classes. There's an introductory course that everyone has to take, and after that you have your pick of advanced classes. I had put off the intro course because I had this terrible fear of it being a kind of Sunday school for college credit, even though friends assured me that was not the case.

I finally got around to the intro class my junior year. It certainly wasn't Sunday school! We read books like Honest to God by John A.T. Robinson and Dynamics of Faith by Paul Tillich. Robinson said that instead of thinking of God as "up there" or "out there," we should think of God simply as love. Tillich said that faith was whatever our "Ultimate Concern" was and that God is "the ground of our being." Reading books like these illuminated the theological and intellectual canyon between clergy and laity in most denominations. Apparently Robinson's and Tillich's ideas were much less controversial among theologians and pastors than they were among ordinary members.

At first I was furious. I felt like these ideas had been kept from me as if I'd be too dense to understand them. And then I started pondering the implications of these ideas and got really furious. I thought, "Well, if it's all just metaphor and poetry, why bother?" Now I just think the Hindus beat these guys to that approach by a few thousand years.

I actually have more to say on this topic, but the point I want to make deserves its own post, which I'll probably put up sometime tomorrow.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Then Came the Lutherans

After my falling out with the Southern Baptists when I was in high school, I was invited by a friend to try out her church. Going in, my knowledge of Lutheranism was limited to what I'd heard about the Reformation in history classes, which wasn't a whole lot.

The liturgy threw me off completely. It took me months to get the hang of flipping back and forth between the liturgy and the hymns. Sometimes it felt like one of those Choose Your Own Adventure books: "For Sundays during Pentecost, skip to page X. For Sundays during Advent, skip to page Y." I didn't even know what Advent (or Lent, for that matter) actually was until I started going to the Lutheran church. I knew they made Advent calendars for Christmas and that some people gave stuff up for Lent, but I'd always figured that was just something people did in other parts of the country, like sledding. I didn't fully get the ideas behind the structure of the Lutheran service until I had to study the structure of the Catholic Mass in a music history class a few years later. But eventually I was able to at least follow along capably.

I never really cared for the service (although Setting I of the Lutheran Book of Worship was at least less dreary than Setting II), but they were nice enough people, and there were punch and cookies after most services, not to mention real wine in Communion! For those who don't know, Southern Baptists use grape juice, and they don't call it Communion--they call it "The Lord's Supper." So I was happy enough there, and I enjoyed the community service stuff I got to do with the Luther League.

While I only attended that church for a little over a year, that happened to overlap with my taking the SAT's, and in the demographic info, I checked "Lutheran" as my religious preference, which turned out to be pivotal. Shortly after the SAT's, I had a falling out with my Lutheran friend and figured it would be best if I stopped going to that church. However, I received a letter just before the start of my senior year from Texas Lutheran College (now Texas Lutheran University). It began something like, "We thought you might be interested in the benefits of a Lutheran education."

"Um, not really," I remember thinking.

However, the letter went on to say that because of my GPA and test scores, they'd give me $2000 off the top, which quickly turned "Not really" into "Keep talking." The short version: they were the highest bidder, so that's where I ended up after high school. That's when things really got interesting.

For next time: details about my time at TLU, and the effects of studying theology.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Promised details and underlying assumptions

As mentioned previously, I was raised Southern Baptist. This was mostly due to my paternal grandparents' influence. I didn't have a lot of stability early on, but what little I did have came mostly from my grandparents and other extended family. They also went to church regularly, which my parents did not, and I created a connection in my mind between stability and church attendance. I also considered my grandparents to be the nicest people in the world, which I think is how most little kids feel about their grandparents. So it wasn't a huge stretch to think more church attendance would make me a nicer person.

Kids learn very quickly what behaviors get them positive feedback. For some, it's athletic ability; others have artistic talent or even just a certain natural charm. My shortcut to positive feedback involved a gift for memorization (I think I'd have preferred athletic ability, but such is life). Obviously, this came in handy during church and Sunday school, where I memorized Bible passages like a fiend.

In fact, this ability led to the only time I've ever been really useful in an athletic event. At church camp one summer, we had this relay race that involved the kinds of things you typically find in a summer camp relay. However, this race came with an important Biblical twist: the next-to-last person would tag the last person, who would sit down in a chair, recite the books of the Bible by memory, and then run about 50 yards to complete the race. I've never been a fast runner, but I could say all 66 books of the Bible in 21 seconds. This enabled me to get enough of a head start to where my slow running didn't matter, and our team claimed victory!

So that's enough about my background for now. I promised to list some of the assumptions underlying my search:
  • Claims of divine revelation are unreliable at best.
  • Reason is an effective tool for finding truth.
  • Delusion is dangerous.
I'm not saying reason is the only tool or even that it's always the best tool, but I've found it useful, and when I see something that runs contrary to reason, it raises a red flag. The third assumption is mostly based on experience.

It's probably a bit early to ask, but I'll do it anyway: is there any particular topic you'd like me to address? Submit your ideas and any other feedback in the comments.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Here goes.

I had a birthday recently, and I decided that it was time for me to get off the spiritual fence. Sometimes I feel like Susan Sarandon's character in Bull Durham, who's "tried all the major religions and most of the minor ones." But it's been pretty much impossible for me to find something that offers meaning but doesn't also blatantly contradict what we know about how the world works.

So, a little bit about me: I was raised Southern Baptist until I was 15. After that I attended a Lutheran church for a while, which led to my attending a Lutheran college. It's one of the great ironies of my life that taking the required theology courses accelerated my journey away from organized religion, which I'll elaborate on in a future post. By the time I graduated, I considered myself a rabid atheist. That didn't last long, though, probably in part because it freaked out people close to me.

Between then and now, I've checked out my share of religions. But after all these dalliances, I've started to wonder if it's all a bunch of hooey. I think I can safely say that I don't believe in a personal God who intervenes in the world. But that's not the only conception of God out there. And there are several religions that don't require belief in any supernatural beings.

In the interest of full disclosure, I'll tell you that I currently attend meetings of freethought groups in my area. It's fair to say that I am a sort of atheist by default, in that I am unconvinced of claims for God's existence that I've heard so far (Note: I am not asserting, "There is definitely no God."). However, you won't find atheist paraphenalia all over this site, as I don't yet consider the question settled.

This blog is going to consist mostly of my musings as I settle that question. I also reserve the right to comment on whatever else I feel like. ;)

Next time: more about where I am now, and some of my underlying assumptions on my search.