Sunday, August 12, 2012


Well, it's a year later and I might start writing this thing again. This last year has been quite something, but right now I just want to make an observation:

I find it hilarious that a lot of ex-fundamentalist-christian-bloggers refer to the Christian Patriarchy as CP (also the popular acronym for the New Church phrase Conjugial Partner).

Actually every time I come across it it makes me giggle.

I might have some problems.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

A Quite Engaging Engagement

One of the exciting things that happened this summer was that Bassie and I decided to be engaged.  We are interested in reclaiming this term and redefining what, exactly, it means.  So far, it’s been an extremely interesting process!  Basically, we have re-committed ourselves to each other in a very specific way, and plan to have some sort of commitment/marriage ceremony (or two, or three…) at some point in the future (I’m telling people about 3 years, but it might be longer).  I want to talk a little bit about what this engagement is, why we’re doing it, what we’ve learned so far, and what I hope to work on in the coming years.   Because it is different, and exciting, and frankly I think we’re pretty damn cool.  

Interestingly, I have only just gotten over my sadness/anxiety about being with someone who didn’t see himself getting married ever.  In the past few years, I decided that I also didn’t need to get married, or even particularly want to.  It’s hard to give up such ingrained cultural expectations for yourself (more so than I realized, as you will soon see).  But, partially because I no longer put so much stock in the idea of getting married, Bassie had a shift in his thoughts on the matter.  He realized that we could do engagement and marriage in a really cool, aware way - that it could be a really neat way of reminding us to be mindful of each other.  In short: that we could do it for us.  After realizing this he, well, proposed it.  As he put it:

“We have been together for a long time and are the best people ever together…We deserve to and would be helped to have something to remind us of the extent to which we've made each other's suffering and joy (and what not else)  each other's. Because we are a really big deal, and thoroughly interdependant in the best possible way.”

Such a keeper, right? Needless to say, I thought it was a great idea.  We told people we were engaged.  I was so jittery excited happy, and could not sleep the whole evening after, but sort of frustrated because (I forgot to mention) he happened to be in a different country at the time (yes, we got engaged over Skype, and it was awesome).  However, I was surrounded by good friends who all assured me that long engagements were great, being proposed to over Skype was the coolest thing ever, that if we didn’t want to be normal-engaged or even never got actually married OF COURSE it still “counted”, and hey - have an engagement shot! And then, slowly, over the next few weeks/months, the cultural expectations started to seep into my brain and drive me crazy.  Where’s the ring? When are you getting married?  How did he propose?  Everyone has been more than supportive and loving, but for some reason I got super insecure answering these questions.  

When I first saw Bassie two weeks later, there developed some pretty serious tension.  We were actually pretty unhappy, and “fought”/disagreed much more than normal.  Part of the tension was because we were in an unfamiliar environment, but part of it was because we were adjusting and trying to figure out what the hell it even means to be engaged.  I’ll be the first to admit that the actual uncertainty was mostly on my part.  It’s incredible how hard it is to abandon childish notions of “how things are done”.  This period of discomfort ended up being for the best, as it gave us the opportunity to really address some things about our relationship that we need to change, and brought to the forefront a lot of our individual habits that really hurt each other.  And really, that’s what being engaged, for me, is all about: recommitting myself to creating and mainting an adult, loving partnership with my best friend.  It means hard work.  It means me changing things about myself that I thought couldn’t be changed.  It means taking responsibility for both my faults and my needs.  It means making him, and our relationship, and my own well-being a very real priority in my life.  We do not see getting engaged as a one time static event, or even as a preparatory or transitional period, but rather as a new and important state-of-being in and of itself. 

There are many nuances to our engagement, and there will likely be many more posts about them, but right now I want to talk a little bit about the cultural (and consumeristic) shit surrounding such declarations of loving partnership.  Like I said - it’s brought up a lot of hidden expectations and desires I didn’t even know I had.  I am, frankly, thankful for the chance to examine and consequently eradicate them. It really bothered me for a while, for example, that we didn’t have rings yet.  Then, once we got a beautiful old ring for 7 euro at a gift shop as a temporary ring, when I looked at other women’s engagement rings it bothered me that I didn’t have a normal sparkly stone ring. I got weirdly self-conscious or embarassed about talking with other engaged or newlywed friends.  I felt like people would judge me, like if I didn’t get this sparkly (probably unethical) ring, it somehow didn’t count - or other people would think it didn’t.  Bassie was pretty much like “well, I love the ring you currently have, and I think stone rings are ugly and boring, but I guess you can get whatever you want as long as it’s not awful”.  So, once home, I spent a lot of time looking at various websites and designs, trying to decide what sparkly ring I would want.  As I searched, the things I was looking at got increasingly less actually-cool, and more and more conventionally-cool.  I was up really, really late one evening, looking at the various wedding websites, and suddenly got horribly disgusted and ashamed.  Why in the world would I want a ring that I chose, just because it was pretty and meant something to the rest of the world, to symbolize the most important, dynamic relationship in my life.  It really would only be about me and my ego.  It occurred to me that if I really wanted a ring with a stone in it, I could just buy one myself and wear it on my right hand.  I realized that I wanted a sparkly “real” ring because it symbolized being a grown-up to me, but had nothing to do with my relationship with Bassie (except, you know, we are grown-up).  Once I came to this conclusion, it was fascinating how my tastes in rings shifted! I was no longer at all attracted by expensive diamond rings, but more at interesting handmade rings with stones like garnet or aquamarine (I do still really like sparkly stones - minerals are so neat).  So, as it stands, I might buy myself an “I’m a grown-up” ring at some point.  I will wear my gorgeous Greek ring with pride and joy.  Sometime soon, Bassie and I will also get each other coordinating plain bands with a gatha inscribed on the outside, and possibly “Creating Sangha” on the inside.  A gatha is a short poem used by Buddhists to help them in meditation and mindfulness.  Sangha is the Buddhist word for a community of people that support each other in their practice.  It’s unusual. It’s us.  It will actually be an active player in helping to strengthen our relationship.  One of my biggest laments about losing religion was that I think ritual can be so incredibly powerful.  Now, I am just so excited to create new and meaningful rituals with a person I love. It’s also pretty neat to be face-to-face with the normal trajectory of things, and reject it. It’s been a very active process of figuring out what I want out of life.  I have already changed drastically over the past few months, our relationship is stronger than it has ever been, and everything promises to only improve. I could not be happier, and I gather Bassie feels the same way. 

Next Up: what our engagement will actually look like in the years to come, dealing with family assumptions, and other thoughts on trying to explore and create new ways of relating to other human beings. 

P.S.  I know and love many people with sparkly rings that their partners chose and then presented them with.  They are, of course, very meaningful to them, and I think that is beautiful.  I don’t mean to be putting down anyone else’s unique relationships, but rather am exploring how my own relationship is also unique, along with being unusual and absolutely fucking great. 

Also, to any couples out there looking to do weddingy things, but are kinda different and trying not to get sucked into just doing whatever,  Offbeat Brides is a pretty neat resource. I like looking at all the different people, weddings, and pretty colors.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Quick thought.

I think my least favorite part of being back in a religious context is the constant and saccharin romantasizing of death. It makes me feel so ill. How I ever found it comforting I'll never know.

In other news, I'm back to being in a place (emotional/physical) where I can blog (or even just communicate in general), and oh man do I have some thoughts for you. What a summer it's been. Expect more soon.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Fear & Coming Out

Note: this post, even more than the others, is really just me figuring some stuff out.  More of a public journal entry than anything else.  You've been warned.

Fear.  I’m scared.  I’m scared of a lot of things.  Most of all, I’m scared of disappointing people, and hurting them because of that disappointment.  I really don’t like it when people disapprove of me.  But, my life has been pretty awesome so far.  I have the ability to step forward and really say something.  Even if I lose some people, even if my parents completely disown me (which I don’t think they would, oddly enough), I have enough people that know who I really am, and who support me in that, that it seems a little silly at this point to hide at all.

I think I will keep this blog written under a pseudonym, mainly because it allows me to write about vulnerable things without fear.  Because really, even the most open person ever isn’t going to be like “hey mom! I had great sex this weekend. Orgasms are great, don’t you think?”  Well, maybe, but I’m realistic enough to know that if my real name were attached to such sentiments I would not be a happy person.  Because even though I know it’s important, constantly defending yourself seems more exhausting than I can deal with at the moment.  But I’d like to be able to bring some basic openness into my everyday life.  Small things, like putting “atheist” on my facebook profile.  The kind of stuff where I’m not going out of my way to tell people, but I know I’m not hiding either. 

It’s weird, because I’m not completely secretive.  Over the years, various parts of my emotional/mental life have inevitably come to light.  My entire immediate family knows I’m going to be living with my boyfriend next year.  My parents know I had sex this one time (although I think they accidentally got the impression that I wasn’t going to again…I swear I didn’t say that!).  My mom, at least, knows that a few years ago I was unsure about what I believed - she even supported the questioning and told me about how she didn’t get confirmed until she was older for similar reasons (well…then I started talking about my reasons for questioning, and she got quiet pretty quickly.  But still).  My family knows I’m a feminist, queer-friendly, commie-liberal.  They reacted not as badly as they could have.  Sure, we’ve gotten into fights.  Sure, there are still heavy, meaningful silences when I say something like “oh, let [my sibling] do that.  I did, and I turned out ok!”.  Sure, there are subjects that we very pointedly don’t talk about.  Sure, they told me that I was a huge disappointment, and that they thought what I was doing (i.e. going on a trip alone with my boyfriend) was evil.  But they still talk to me, most of the time.  We still laugh, and chat, and get annoyed at stupid stuff.  They still say they love me.  We’re still family.  That’s more than a lot of people can say. 

What I’m saying is, it’s certainly not because of my good upstanding moral values that my parents still talk to me.  So why would it be different if I told them that I’m a confirmed atheist?  I think I’m scared of crushing their hopes that this is just a phase.  They never outright say so, but there are gentle hints that despite all the other stuff, they still think/hope that I put some stock in religion.  I’m not sure, but I feel like that would hurt them more than anything else.  Part of me thinks it’s not really necessary for them to know.  But, on the other hand, I think it’s necessary for me to be out.  It could help other people struggling with believing to know that there are others who don’t.  And, in order to be out, my parents have to know.  

And then there’s my siblings.  I can talk to them about most things (they are also, for the most part, feminist, queer-friendly, commie-liberals), but I don’t think I’ve told them that I’m an atheist.  I don’t think they know that I have sex.  Mostly just because it’s awkward.  We’ve been pretty thoroughly trained to just not talk about anything actually pertinent to our emotional or mental lives.  For a long time, I don’t even think they knew I had depression/anxiety!  My parents never told them, and I wasn’t about to confide in them about all my terrible feelings.  I felt I needed to protect them (I’m the oldest).  I never intentionally hid it from them, we just never talked about it.  It sort of surprised me, when recently it came up in conversation with my sister and became clear she had no idea.  I had always just assumed my mom told them what was going on with me.  So maybe now it’s my turn to take responsibility, and tell them what’s going on with me.  Thinking about how alone I felt when I first decided to have sex…I don’t want them to feel like that.  Maybe it’s not too late.  I’m the big sister here.  I can’t stay self-pitying forever.  There are so many worse things happening.  Maybe by using my relatively good position to give me the strength to come out, I can help alleviate some pain.  

So. I think I have something of a resolution. I will talk with my siblings within the next two weeks.  I will tell them that I’m an atheist, and that I have sex, and if they have questions about any of those things they are more then welcome to talk to me at any time.  Also, that I completely support them if they are religious and/or don’t have sex!

I also might tell my parents that I’m an atheist by the end of the summer.  That one I need to think a little more on, but I think I will. Because, like I said, I have proof that I can survive their disappointment, and that they are made almost as uncomfortable by it as I am  - so will quickly try to ignore it.  Which sounds kind of horrible, but actually just means that then I can get on with living my life in freedom.  

I’ve been meeting more and more people who have left.  People of all ages - even some that are related to me!  And you know what? They’re still alive, they’re happy, and they even have their own communities and support networks!  Many of them are very open, and nothing terrible has happened.  There’s this big Bryn Athyn boogeyman, that says if you leave, or you disagree, or whatever, everything will be awful and everyone will hate you.  I’m beginning to think that maybe it’s not true (although I guess that depends on who you are and who’s relationships you value keeping).  What is it, exactly, that I’m so afraid of?  I’m still not sure.  Any ideas out there?

Another thing that has been niggling at my brain more than usual lately is a dilemma that has plagued me since I first gave up on the Writings.  In the words of the Clash: should I stay or should I go? Is there any point in trying to change Bryn Athyn? For the first few years of my non-religious phase I decided I should just leave.  I couldn’t care about what was going on in Bryn Athyn, because I had too much to work out in myself.  I got sucked into the BA mindset far too easily.  I was too easily confused, too easily persuaded, and fell far too easily into wondering if I was evil, or wrong, or “maybe religion isn’t so bad…”.  There were too many hazards for it to be worth it.  So, I dealt with being in Bryn Athyn when I was there, but when I wasn’t I tried to just put it out of my mind.  I think this was the right decision for that period of my life, absolutely.  But, now that I have mostly accepted who I am, and confirmed what I do/don’t believe, I’m wondering if maybe it’s time to reenter the discussion.  I look at people like Amy Childs, and think about how much strength just knowing she exists gives me.  I realize how important it is to have open apostates working for change.  Part of me wants to come back and be a superhero, or something.  Create a haven for everyone who feels lonely and harmed.  Cruise the streets righting wrongs, that sort of thing.  I think I just might be healed enough that it would be ok.  But, at the same time, I am still just so over it.  I have a life to go live, thanks.  More on this later, as I have a whole cultural-relativism mind-tangle I’ve been meaning to write out.  For now, though, I think coming out to the family in various ways, supporting those who are still in the Bryn Athyn circle working to make it better, and continuing with this blog is a good step.  

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Many Paths to Bigotry

One day, I realized that different religions actually are different.  Kind of a funny thing to realize, but it hit me extraordinarily hard.  On the one hand, I do sort of like the “many paths to god” idea.  It’s certainly better than the “you are wrong, so you’re evil, so I’ll kill you” viewpoint.  On the other hand, once we get past the let’s-kill-each-other phase, there are some assumptions couched in this viewpoint that sincerely trouble me.  

I do think that, when it comes right down to it, people are just people.  We’re not really as different as some would like to believe.  In some ways religion does play more-or-less the same role across the board.  In a nut shell, it helps people make sense of death, life, society, and themselves.  Our similarities are certainly cool and important things to realize. 

Yet, cultures can be drastically different from each other. Religion is often part of that difference.  Religious differences aren’t just about what names you assign your deities, what pictures you draw, or what songs you sing.  Religion is a way of structuring society, and understanding one’s place within that society.  Even beyond that, cosmology! Cosmology - the understanding of the cosmos.  We base our understanding of the universe and our place within it on our cosmology.  It affects our brains and how we function.  If cosmologies are different, it creates very real differences between the societies and the individuals under question.  In Judeo-Christian cultures we tend to base our understanding of the world around a divide of what old school anthropologists term the “sacred” and the “profane”.  In other words, we have natural stuff and sacred stuff - the world is divided into two distinct spheres. When in church, it’s expected that one acts differently than when not in church.  Certain objects are seen as special, and because of that are treated differently than other objects.  To not respect the sacred/profane divide is seen as rude at best, sacrilegious at worst.  This divide is generally seen as a ‘natural’ part of life.  You have the sacred stuff and the normal stuff, the religious places and the secular places, the clergy and the laity.  I’m not sure just how much it’s related, but such dichotomous thinking also happens to characterize a lot of the Judeo-Christian mindset - heaven/hell, good/evil, spiritual world/natural world, man/woman, adult/child, man/beast.  Growing up exposed to only Judeo-Christian customs, the sacred/profane division just seems like the “way things are” - it seems like a crucial part of what makes a religion.  But, this is not a universal way of experiencing the universe.  Anthropologists and religious scholars have argued that this divide just does not exist in many non-western religions.  

In my experience, trying to forge similarities between religions leads to projecting completely foreign concepts onto another person’s framework.  This can happen on a large, cultural scale, or on a small, individual one.  For illustration’s sake, an example!  At the beginning of my romantic relationship, when I identified as Christian and Bassie identified as a secular Buddhist, I tried to make his Buddhist beliefs into the same as my Christian ones (and tended to just straight up ignore his atheist stance).  We’re saying the same thing! You just say “enlightenment”, where I say “regeneration”! You just say “meditation”, where I say “prayer”! We’re doing the same things, looking to the same God, trying to reach the same destination…right?  I look back onto this time of our relationship with a little bit of shame and a lot of amusement - because we were very much not doing or saying the same things.  I remember one time, in the hopes of bringing us closer to God as a couple (oh jeez), I suggested we try meditating together.  He meditated, I pray-meditated (read: thought about god, the beauty the universe, let my mind wander, tried to get ‘out of myself’, and entered into that spiritual high I talked about a while back).  When we were done I said “So! What did you think about?”.  Much to my confusion, his response was “Nothing? I was meditating.  I thought about breathing.”  Me: “Well…what about breathing?” Bassie: “Nothing, just breathing.  That I was doing it.  Meyrin, I don’t think you quite understand what I’m saying when I talk about meditation.”.  Alas.  Zen meditation is not the same thing as prayer.  They do distinctly different things, and reinforce different understandings of how the human mind works.  I refused to believe it for a long time.  I thought he must just be doing it wrong, or didn’t want to talk about it.  Now, looking back, I realize that I was coming from a place of intense arrogance.  I was just refusing to listen.  I refused to understand what my loved one practiced - it was more important for me to have the illusion that he believed in fundamentally the same things that I did.  As it turns out, we do believe many of the same things, it’s just that they don’t have anything to do with a god.  And, we still have our very real, significant differences. We’re still happy together precisely because we don’t try to trick ourselves into thinking we’re the same, and in fact actively work on not just glossing over the differences.  Our relationship is stronger and more loving when recognize and accept those differences, and weaker when we try to project our own mental weirdness onto the other person. 

The differences between cultures are real, and beautiful.  They are not just different ways of saying the same thing - they are different ways of saying very different things.  By trying to make them the same, we are silencing many distinct viewpoints.  We are also saying that other beliefs or thought-systems are only valuable if they have similarities to ours.  It is the height of ethnocentrism, a holdover of colonialism, and extremely disturbing.  The many-paths-to-god approach hinges on the assumption that we can only like each other if we secretly think the exact same thing.  Why is being basically the same a prerequisite for tolerance?  While it might be a good way to introduce someone to being tolerant, it’s a pretty scary notion to stop at.  It’s a way of saying “look, Ma, I’m tolerant!” without actually giving up ideas of superiority.  If you approach other religions on their own terms, not only will you actually understand them better, you might also end up challenging some of your own beliefs about how the world works.  Most importantly, you will exercise the ability to accept that other people aren’t you, and learn to see that as a valid and awesome thing.  You will, in fact, become a more genuinely nice person.

(Quick Atheist Plug:  of course, once you realize that religions are saying inherently different things, and that they are all still equally valid, it becomes a lot harder to give any sort of authority to one particular culturally-steeped religious system.  Thus my Evil Atheist Agenda is realized.)

Monday, May 23, 2011

Deep Shit

*Trigger Warning: Discussion of suicide* 

Whenever anyone mentions a ‘true self’, “inner truth’, or “deep thought” I get wary.  I struggle with the notion of deepness in part because I don’t actually know how to define it.  The word ‘deep’ is used so often, and means something different to everyone who uses it.  I get confused when people use it, because some of the definitions I find extremely beautiful and crucial to being a decent human being, while some of the definitions I see as being an extremely powerful tool for destruction.  It’s difficult for me to tell which people are talking about.  Often, I think it is difficult to distinguish the difference within one’s own brain, which scares me.  The difference, I think, has a lot to do with attitude - not just valuing deepness, but privileging it over other aspects of life considered shallow.  It’s the difference between a relaxed softness and an anxious rule-based need for deepness. 

I’ll begin by saying that I like it when people are self-reflective.  I do think that humans have the ability to look at themselves in at least somewhat objective terms, but in a super subjective way.  Basically, I think humans have the ability to examine their emotional and mental landscapes, and figure out what would be the best way for them to move forward; by “best way”, I think I mean the way to alleviate pain and inflict as little harm as possible on both others and themselves - in a long-term sense.  But, I also don’t necessarily think that means it’s the “true” path or even that the place in the brain where one figures that stuff out is more important than the other parts of the brain. I do, however, think that the ability to self-reflect leads to the reflector being a much nicer person.  Dare I say better?  I think I would.  It’s confusing. Because on the one hand, I don’t think that people are good or evil.  I don’t even think those terms have very much meaning when we’re talking about other people.  I’m a pretty stark relativist.  On the other hand, I really do hate it when people are huge jerks.  Empathy and its cultivation is extremely important to me.  I see empathy as the key to pretty much everything, and empathy does take a certain willingness to look at oneself, a certain “deepness”.  But at the same time, why can’t we just live our lives?  Why do we have to be constantly looking for more?  I know there are distinctions here, but I can’t seem to make them very clearly.  Sometimes I feel hugely righteous.  When I see someone hurting my loved ones out of their arrogance and entitlement, I get angry.  I think that that person is objectively WRONG.  I think to myself that I know, in a Truth way, that the ability to reflect on your actions and thoughts makes you a better (in a Good way) person.  And yet, when talking about good and evil, or about what makes a bad person, that very empathy that I value so much kicks in and tells me that there are no bad people.  If someone doesn’t want to reflect on their actions, that is their right.  BUT, again, it’s not…actually.  Because one’s rights do not extend to include impinging on the rights of others.  We all have blind spots - does that make us bad people?  No, probably not, but the unwillingness to even try to keep an eye out for those blind spots really repulses me. 

So, in a way, that’s my really only Belief: that humans have the ability, and in fact the responsibility, to reflect and evaluate their thoughts, feelings, and actions, making sure they are not hurting others unduly.

From my observations, this reflection process can also give the person a greater potential for happiness.  But is it an imperative? I don’t think so.  I am disturbed by the idea that “deep thoughts” are somehow seen as inherently more valuable than thoughts deemed non-deep.  I get that our minds work on a variety of different levels, but I just don’t buy that we should be striving to get to our deeper or truer self.  It’s all valid, it’s all part of who we are.  We have a right to our vices.  More than that - we have a right to enjoy our vices without guilt, as long as they are truly harmless to other people. Things that look like attachments can be useful, beautiful.  And, I think you can develop a harmful attachment/addiction to “deep” things! 

So, deepness.  Tricky.  Sometimes it means that deep reflection that informs empathy and is our responsibility as humans.  But, sometimes it also means looking at a flower and  thinking about the miracle of life, or the way our spirits grow like a flower, or how I should be like a flower, and while that’s all well and good sometimes you need to just fucking look at the flower and think “oh hey. It’s a flower,” relax, and move on.  And, importantly, that approach is just as valid.  Just as useful.  Just as important.  We need to all just fucking relax and accept that sometimes we’re ‘deep’, and sometimes we’re ‘shallow’, and realize that both ways of being have equal potential for crushing harm (to both others and oneself), as well as healthiness and intense beauty.  We also need to clarify our terms, and avoid the harmful definitions of ‘deepness’ like the poison they are.  I have decided that I will think of all the definitions on a sort of spectrum, and have identified three main types: 

1. Deep Looking.  This is a term I got from Bassie, my beloved atheist-buddhist boyfriend.  I think Buddhism, in it’s zen philosophical friendly secular form, has a pretty good way of dealing with “deep” stuff.  I don’t actually know very much about Buddhism.  As I said, Bassie considers himself a secular Buddhist.  I’ve read some Pema Chodron, and some Thich Nhat Hanh, and have found both extremely helpful, and full of extremely wise insights.  I intend to learn more, and develop my own meditation practice informed by what I learn.  My brief foray into Buddhist thought has also always been fraught with this problem of terminology.  As mentioned, I tend to have knee-jerk reactions to terms like “deep”, or “enlightenment”, and the like.  But, I’ve found that Buddhists are remarkably chill about their deep stuff.  The purpose of meditation is not to take you away from yourself, or even deeper into yourself (which for me often does mean away, a feeling of being “higher” or something), but to actually just be in yourself.  All of yourself.  Sitting quietly present.  It’s the process of acknowledging where you are, and sitting with that, even if where you’re at is “fuck this deep shit. TV is fun”.  You listen to your thoughts but don’t do anything about them one way or the other - you accept them.  You observe them.  You look.  The act of looking can shift them, but it’s not an intentional weeding of thoughts.  Action with non-action is an incredibly powerful concept.  This is the kind of self-reflection that I think is useful, even crucial.  Deep observation of the whole self, both deep and non-deep.  We need to know what’s going on inside of ourselves, and be ok with it, and make our decisions (whatEVER they may be) knowing where we’re coming from.  

2. Deep Thinking.  At it’s least harmful, this kind of deepness is just kind of silly.  At its most harmful, it is the beginning of an alienation that is integral to a very bad dynamic (see #3).  I think what I’m talking about here is most succinctly defined as overwrought academic philosophizing.  Generally, it comes more from a place of self-aggrandizement than actual interest in figuring some stuff out.  “Look at how smart, special, and transcendent I am,” kind of thing.  I don’t actually have much to say about this topic, to be honest, mostly because it just doesn’t currently interest me much.  It annoys me, but doesn’t really bother me in an active kind of way, save that I think it can lead to more harmful ideas about deepness.  I do think that this kind of thinking often is couched in the assumption that “deep” is better than (and opposite of) “shallow”, or, more pointedly, “mundane”.  In this case, it allows people to feel superior - to look down on other people for not being as special and deep.  Not all people who engage in deep thinking act or feel superior, but in my experience they are rare (and, frankly, much more into Deep Looking than Deep Thinking).  Deep thinking, in my mind, also includes the assumption that by thinking deeply we can come upon Truths of the universe.  For the most part, I just don’t buy it.  We can come to some truths about how we work in the universe, but not much beyond that.  In my experience, relying on deep thinking as a way of reaching Truth with a capital ‘T’ ends up with people thinking they have more truth, or truer truth, than others; that they know what is unquestioningly the “best” way to go about life.  Our brains are changing, flawed, human.   They can tell us something about our own changing, flawed, human journey, but I doubt that I can learn anything objectively, universally true about things outside of myself solely by sitting and thinking about them really hard.   Another major problem with this way of thinking is that it sets up the dichotomy that leads to what I term “deep fighting.”

3. Deep Fighting.  This is the most harmful version of “deep” stuff.  It’s not just harmful, it’s paralyzing.  It’s the idea that we have an ‘inner’ mind, or self, and an ‘outer’ mind, or self.  The inner mind is meant to change the outer mind.  The inner mind is thought to be truer and better, where the outer, “natural” self is lesser and bad - an object requiring destruction.  People wage spiritual war on parts of themselves as a result of this kind of mentality.  I cannot accept that this is in any way healthy.  I cannot see how it does anything but create a turmoil that is impossible to escape.  Quite the opposite of Deep Looking, Deep Fighting does not encourage integration - it actively pulls the mind apart, alienating people from parts of themselves.  I am not the only one to have noticed this, but it makes me angry that people will acknowledge the pain and suffering related to such ‘reformation’, and yet continue to advise and counsel people to willingly enter the battlefield.   Swedenborg talks about the inner and outer minds, and discusses the pain of temptation.  He talks explicitly about how that pain is a necessary part of being reformed.  Many people do, literally, frame this process in terms of spiritual warfare.  I am nervous about pointing out actual instances, because it’s such a sensitive topic, but there’s this one post that has really stuck with me.  Now, I’ll start by saying that the writer is a minister in the New Church who I have heard nothing but good things about.  He seems pretty cool, a smart guy, and a good minister.  This post, which I first read last year, encapsulates so many things I had been thinking - I thought I was the only one who saw the connection between “fighting temptation”, or reformation, and a deep feeling of hopelessness and despair.  In my community at the time this was written, many people had recently taken their own lives.  Here, Mac tries to understand where the feeling of despair comes from that is sometimes at the heart of suicide:

“Spiritual despair is when you are faced with the impossibility of your own redemption. When you look at your own dysfunctional behavior and at evil you discover in your own heart and cannot see any hope of change. Despair is often the final stage of the spiritual trials we call temptations. Spiritual despair causes you to feel like you’re drowning, like you’ve been punched in the gut, like you’re trapped under the ice, like you can’t draw a breath and soon will suffocate if you can’t manage to somehow escape the flood and suck in some air. In despair, things that once seemed certain–the existence of God, the love of friends, the value of life–fall to doubt and even rejection.”

This rings so painfully true.  I agree with every word of this, to my core.  It’s so true, and so heartbreaking.  Again, I hesitate to point to this post critically, especially seeing as Mac wrote this from a place of grieving for a dear friend.  So I want to be clear: I am not criticizing this post itself, and I am certainly not in anyway meaning to criticize the writer.  I am criticizing the system.  I am pointing to this post because I agree with the premise so whole-heartedly, but the conclusions made and the answers offered in the New Church (and much other religion) make no sense to me, and seem to be perpetuating the problem.  

One of the responses to this despair is that it’s unpleasant, but neccessary.  As the post points out, “Over and over you will see references to spiritual rebirth as a result of spiritual struggle.  And know that hell wouldn’t need to attack so fiercely if heaven wasn’t just around the corner,” and “The great things in life only come after struggle”.  It’s the old “no pain, no gain” adage.  I flatly disagree.  I do not think that great things only come after a struggle.  I think that change does often include a certain discomfort, but not intense pain - not completely engulfing hopelessness.  You can change with softness - in fact, I would argue that you can only change with softness.  You have to be kind to yourself, to nourish yourself.  I think many people in the New Church would even agree with that, but there is no system in place to help foster self-nourishment.  The teaching is to just accept the Lord’s love.  What does that even mean? It is so useless to me.  It’s like telling someone with a mental disorder to “just stop”, or someone with anorexia to “just eat more food” (and then “oh yeah, but don’t binge and get fat either”). How is that at all helpful?  It doesn’t actually do anything to change the system that creates the misery.  I can pretty much guarantee that every single New Church person in despair can point to the passages that say everyone is loved by God - but it doesn’t alleviate the feeling of despair.  That was my experience, anyhow.  If anything, it made me feel worse, because I couldn’t feel myself getting better; I couldn’t just accept the Lord’s love.  I couldn’t accept my own love.  Surrendering, ostensibly to God, just left me in a pool of darkness, at the mercy of my own hatred.  Along the same lines, another response to the despair phenomenon by the New Church is that it’s a lie, that “it’s a nasty trick”.  This completely invalidates the feeling of despair.  You shouldn’t be feeling like that, it’s just you falling for the hells.   You don’t really need to feel like that, or even worse, you don’t really feel like that.  Just stop listening to those thoughts, those feelings.  Fight harder.  This way of thinking is alienating, and it doesn’t help.  It fosters shame, hatred, and frustration, without offering any real way out.  It’s mental self-injury.  It’s harmful, and wrong. 

The post also says that “Despair sets you up for the next temptation, shatters your resolve so that you backslide into behaviors you had been trying to break free from. Like going on an eating binge just because you slipped once in your diet, despair can trigger a series of decisions that themselves lead to even more despair.”  I think this is an interesting metaphor.  One of the things I’m really interested in these days is the fat acceptance movement and the idea of intuitive eating.  The premise behind intuitive eating is that dieting of any kind is unhealthy and screws up our internal, natural ability to know how to nourish ourselves.  That if we eat whatever we’re in the mood for, eventually our impulses to backlash against the dieting will calm down, and our instincts will lead us naturally and softly to eating a variety of healthful foods.  Yeah, you might eat only cake for a week, but after a week you’ll be like “Oh Man. Carrots would be awesome right now.”  I think the same thing will work spiritually.  If the diet isn’t working, stop dieting.  Try to stop attaching moral designations to thoughts and feelings.  Quit the whole thing.  GET OUT.  

“Spiritual despair is when you are faced with the impossibility of your own redemption. When you look at your own dysfunctional behavior and at evil you discover in your own heart and cannot see any hope of change.”  Why, then, don’t we give up on the whole idea of redemption? The idea of evil? The idea of temptation?  How can anyone in good conscience counsel troubled people that the key is to willing enter into the process of fighting temptation, when they know that it will end in deep despair? It makes me so livid.  I have been in that place before, and it is a state I would not wish on my worst enemy, let alone my dearest friends.  Even if surrendering to God’s love worked, I would never want anyone to endure this state for even the briefest moment.  So much can be lost in that small moment.  Many of my loved ones have attempted or contemplated attempting suicide.  At least half of the people who are really close to me have been there at some point.  I live my life in fear that I will lose them.  Sometimes I go into periods of slight paranoia, where every time my mom calls my heart skips a beat, terrified that she will tell me that someone I love has taken his or her life.  Deep fighting is taking casualties - it is making me watch my loved ones as they gasp for breath, unable to accept any comfort I might offer.  First of all, let’s start working on ways of getting people out of despair that are actually effective.  Secondly, we cannot stop there - let’s start working on ways to prevent violent despair in the first place.  We need to stop Deep Fighting, get rid of the dynamic entirely; it is killing people, every day.  I am furious, and scared. This is not a matter of philosophical pondering to me - it is a matter, literally, of life and death.  

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Reflections on "Jesus Camp"

When I was religious, I tended to “other” forms of Christianity that weren't my own.  I could see that they were flawed, but my version was different. I was special.  So, I want to be very clear here: I am an atheist.  I have a problem with religion.  I have a problem with even -sometimes especially- the non-extreme ‘nice’ ones. 

This past weekend I watched the documentary Jesus Camp.  I expected to be horrified.  I had seen clips back in the day, when I was much closer to my old religion.  The clips sent chills down my spine.  To my surprise, this past weekend when I finally watched it all the way through, I found it oddly refreshing.  

This film follows a group of Evangelical Christians kids, who are attending a camp lead by a woman named Becky Fisher.  These are the scary people other Christians point to as poisoning the Christian image.  They speak in tongues.  They tell their children that they have to avoid temptations of sin.  They claim to be building “an army of God”.  They bring their kids to anti-abortion rallies with red tape across their mouths. They are outspokenly anti-science, and train their children to repeat complete nonsense. Watch the trailer here

So, what exactly did I find refreshing? The lack of hypocrisy.  These are people who believe in an all-powerful saving Jesus Christ, and then carry out that belief in every aspect of their life.  Yes, It’s extreme, but it’s also honest. And, in a way, the very extremity is what I liked. It’s easy to point to and go “Wow. That is so viscerally wrong”.  It begs for criticism, for evaluation, for questioning. I do think that moderate, liberal Christianity is different, but the things that I found disturbing in this film happen on a regular basis in even the most moderate of Christian households - they are less noticeable, more insidious, more part of our cultural fabric, but they are there, and they are harmful.  

First, the things I found pretty cool:

1. Becky Fisher:  A woman who has devoted her life to something she gets great joy out of.  A woman. Preaching. To children.  Call me bitter, but if the institution labeled as the awful extreme christianity boogeyman can get that women make powerful ministers, it’s got one progressive leg up on where I grew up. 

2. Empowerment of Children: These children do not follow the “seen but not heard” aphorism.  There’s one boy named Levi, who feels his calling is to preach.  He writes sermons.  He preaches to both his peers and adults.  And, from the looks of it, is taken seriously when he does so.  That’s pretty cool.  There’s one girl who goes up to a woman in a bowling alley, unprodded by any adults, and gives her a pamphlet, asking if she’s found Jesus.  This same girl proclaims that although she gets teased a lot for being weird, she doesn’t care what anyone else thinks.  She just says “Are you the one who’s going to judge me? Nuh-uh!” and goes about her business.  Another thing that struck me was the prevalence of young boys being moved to tears, and that being not only accepted, but encouraged.  There’s one scene where a little boy, I’d guess about 6 or 7, falls to his knees, sobbing.  A little girl (about 4 or 5?) hands him a tissue, gives him a hug, and they both keep on going. He crying, she administering tissues.  Truly, fundamentalist christianity is almost always fraught with problematic, rigid gender roles.  And yet, here we have boys crying, in public, unashamed of their shame.  There’s something so open about that.  First of all, they are acknowledging that they feel shame.  One of the problems that many ‘nice’ christians have is that they’re not supposed to feel shame.  So, if one does feel shame, then it just piles onto the list of shameful things.  There’s no way to really deal with it.  Secondly, BOYS. CRYING. IN PUBLIC. BECAUSE OF EMOTION. Now, maybe my perspective is a bit off. I currently tutor a young boy (early teenage years), who although he is hugely sensitive and emotional tells me at least once a week something along the lines of “well, I wouldn’t really cry, because boys don’t cry.  That’s lame.  I never cry.”.  I feel like so many of his problems would be solved by being able to feel and accurately identify emotions, and then know what to do with them. It makes me so angry.  I try to tell him that it’s ok to cry, but I don’t think he believes me.  

3. Emphasis on Instincts: Well, actually, this is pretty simple: I think speaking in tongues is cool.  Seriously.  I imagine it would be an awesome feeling to just go with whatever sounds you feel moved to make, free from the idea that sounds have to have meaning.  Like improv for your voice!  These are kids who, although brainwashed and in a stifling, toxic environment, are learning to be in touch with their instincts - even when those instincts seem weird to other people.  Feel like falling to the ground? Fall to the ground! Feel like shaking your hands? Shake your hands!  Feel like convulsing on the floor? Convulse, with all your heart and body, convulse!  Now, you can learn those things without thinking your impulses come from a supernatural being working through you.  My point is basically that the world would be better if everyone took modern dance. 

4. Consistency:  At one point, Becky tells the children “We can’t have phonies in the army of God.”  She points out that people who go to church, but then don’t live the principles in their daily live, are hypocrites.  I’d have to agree.  The aftermath of this claim, however, is that you have children crying, weeping to be cleansed of their “hypocrisy”.  Clearly that doesn’t exactly fill me with the warm fuzzies. But if you’re going to believe something, you better goddamn actually believe it, you know?  They’re just so refreshingly blatant.  At the end of the documentary, Becky goes onto a radio show that’s been cut in throughout the documentary.  It’s run by a moderate christian who is horrified by these extremists.  He challenges Becky about why she preaches to children - saying that it’s important for children to have choice.  Her response? “I don’t think any child gets anything by choice. As I understood your question to me, was do you feel it’s right for the fundamentalist to indoctrinate their children with their own beliefs.  I guess fundamentally, yes I do.” There you have it. It’s there. Her opinion, in the open.  You can debate it.  You can disagree.  There’s no “well, no, but I’m not reaaaally indoctrinating them.  I’m just teaching them about God.  They still have choice, I just don’t want them to have very much experience with the wrong options, so that they choose the right thing” or any of that other bullshit. 

Now, all this being said, there’s a reason I’m not signing up any time soon.  All of these things are possible to create outside of a religious context.  In fact, they’re probably even easier to create outside of a religious context (I’m serious about my modern dance hypothesis).  And the bad stuff?  It’s bad. 

1. Indoctrination: While I appreciate Becky’s honesty, I don’t think it’s right to indoctrinate children. However, I also don’t think Fundamentalists have a monopoly on indoctrination.  Every time you tell your child “God is real. Heaven is real. Hell is real,” it’s indoctrination.  Every time you take your child to church, tell them they have to fold their hands and say a prayer they might not even think about, that they have to sing songs about a variety of spiritual things, that’s indoctrination.  Every time your answer is “because God made it that way,” or “I just know,” or “God works in mysterious ways,” it’s indoctrination.  Every time you tell them “our religion is correct”, it’s indoctrination.  Even when you tell them “God loves everyone” or “all goodness comes from God”, it’s still indoctrination.  It’s teaching them to believe things without evidence, without choice.  It’s teaching them they don’t have to go through a reasoning process to know things, and that they don’t have a choice in pretty much anything.  Religion works precisely because it penetrates the deepest fiber of our brains. It affects how we see the world, how we think, how we interpret what goes on around us in a very specific way.  If you raise your children with any kind of religion held up as exclusively true, that’s indoctrination.  

2. The Political Use of Children:  This is one that I think is a pretty legitimate criticism of fundamentalism as different than moderate Christianity.  It’s creepy.  However, I’m pretty sure that there are some moderately religious households that still tell their children “abortion is evil” and leave it at that (mine was certainly one of them).  Or, even if you tell your children “God loves everyone, and gives everyone choice,” it’s nice, but it’s still…creepy.  We should learn to talk to our children about why we think things politically, teach them how to develop their own conclusions, not just tell them that it’s because of our interpretation of God.  The invocation of God has such a finality, such a righteousness involved.  It stops the conversation, or diverts it pretty drastically.  It strangles empathy, and stifles any ability to productively engage the other side in a discussion. 

3. Shame: This one seems too obvious, the examples too numerous.  I don’t know where to start. Children crying, asking to be cleansed of their ‘sins’.  A small boy who admits, through tears, that he sometimes has trouble believing in God.  Adults telling children that “the devil goes after the young”.  In one especially poignant instance, there’s a girl who loves dancing more than anything (only to Christian rock), but says “when I dance I have to be sure not to dance for the flesh,” and admits to having "problems with that". She looks a little abashed, then brushes it off, says she’s working on it, and tells everyone else out there who might be struggling with a similar issue that they’re not the only ones.  Later, hers is the most heartbreaking of the tear-streamed faces.  A child - she can’t be more than 11 or 12 - is worried that she is dancing ‘for the flesh’.  This struck me in particular, as I have a particular fondness for dancing for the flesh.  I think it can help you learn a lot of things about your flesh, and it's connections with your fleshy, fleshy brain (again, really, modern dance, everyone, do it).  Does she even know what adults mean when they say “dancing for the flesh”?  What do they mean, anyway? Do they mean don’t dance sexily? Or, as I expect she thinks they mean it, are they saying don’t dance just for the sake of dancing? If I understood correctly, every time she dances and doesn’t actively think about praising Jesus with her dance, she counts it as dancing for the flesh.  A sin.  Something she’s working on.  I cannot even begin to express how painful I find this, or how harmful such an alienation of one’s own body can be, especially for a young girl.  And again, as most people know, Fundamentalism is definitely not alone when it comes to dishing out shame.  I would argue, however, that they are joined not just by other extreme religions, but even the kindest of God-Loves-Yous.  I focus on the dancing example because it illustrates so clearly what I see as a major problem with belief in a “higher power”: alienation from oneself.  Belief in a bigger power I’m down with.  I wouldn’t want to get in a fight with gravity, or the ocean, or a volcano, or the stars, for instance.  I do think there is a useful, beautiful humility that comes from contemplating the bigness of things.  But a ‘higher power’ - of any kind?  Not the same thing.  It sets up a hierarchy - a hierarchy one can never escape, a hierarchy that structures the very core of one’s identity.  People are taught to see themselves as innately less-than, as powerless, and not in a helpful “wow that wave is big; my life is so short and the world is so awesome” kind of way.  A pious person’s motivation is supposed to be completely from outside of themselves; they are meant to improve themselves out of duty, from a place of feeling inferior. And, if they don’t develop a shame-guilt-inferiority complex of some kind, chances are the coin simply came down on the other side.  If there is a higher power, and that power is your god, speaking to you, a chosen one, your willingness to practice compassion and empathy are extremely (and understandably!) stunted.  Still, there is a hierarchical ladder ordering your mind, and compared to everything else on earth, you come the closest to the top rung; God is in your image, you have the truth, you are His people, why wouldn’t you be more right than that other guy?  A bigger power can let you feel humility without losing yourself, and a joyous wonder without thinking you caused it.  A higher power either makes you feel the lowest of the undeserving low, or the highest of the ruling high. 

While overall I found the lack of hypocrisy refreshing, I also don’t think that any organization operating in the current world while basing itself on a sprawling document that has been passed down, morphed, and changed for thousands of years can ever really be free of hypocrisy.  I don’t think that fundamentalism is necessarily the logical conclusion of Christianity; I think the nature of the beast lends itself to many interpretations that can then be carried out more-or-less consistently.  The Bible is rather contradictory, and so actual consistency is impossible - you gotta just pick what you think is most important and go from there.  But Fundamentalism is one of those interpretations, and it’s just as valid, based on just as much logic, as the liberal sects of Christianity.  All religion is enmeshed with culture, with modern problems, and with the personal opinions and personalities of its members.  I like that to the observer, Fundamentalism showcases this so clearly, so blatantly.  It’s not afraid to be what it is.  This is why, I think, so many conscientious, empathetic, religious individuals are repulsed by the documentary.  Othering, in this case, is a defense mechanism.  The similarities are what’s disturbing.  It’s painful to realize that the ideas one holds so dear can be interpreted to do such blatant harm.  So, we call it “twisting the truth”, “profanity”, “craziness”, in order to avoid looking at how the same problems are playing out in our own lives.