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.  

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Why I am an Atheist, Part 2: Closet Fundamentalist

Quick background: I grew up in a small religious community, went to religious school, and basically didn’t have any really close friends outside my religion until I went to college.  My religion was Swedenborgianism, or as we officially called it, the General Church of the New Jerusalem.  Mostly, though, within the community it’s just called The New Church (NC).  It’s a super complex, somewhat mystic sect of Christianity.  What makes it unusual is that it follows 30 some books by Scientist/Theologian Emanuel Swedenborg, collectively called “The Writings”.  The Writings are Swedenborg’s account of the spiritual world after having his spiritual eyes opened, and also include a commentary on the internal sense of the Bible.  This gets into complex cosmology/jargon stuff that someone else would probably explain better, but basically the internal sense is the real meaning or message of the Bible, based on Correspondences, which are sort of complex, literal metaphors.  So, like, when God says “don’t murder” He means it literally, but also means don’t hurt other people’s feelings, or think violent thoughts towards other people.  When He says “drink from the water of life”, or something, He means “absorb some heavenly truth” (water = truth, in correspondence world).  You get the picture.  It’s a little confusing because some parts of the bible are to be taken literally, and some aren’t.  How do you know?  There's a complex process that, when you get right down to it, relies mostly on intuition.  Swedenborg does point out a few places where the literal sense is meant (like the Ten Commandments), and then you’re supposed to judge everything else by that criteria. Oh, that didn’t seem like a quick summary to you? Trust me. I have but scraped the surface. 

One of the things that somewhat morbidly amuses me is to look at how the values instilled in me by my religion led me to thoroughly leave the religion.  Now, Bryn Athyn (my home community) is a somewhat polarized place.  It doesn’t really mean to be, but the whole cosmology sort of plays into the division.  The Universe is supposed to revolve around the unity of Good/Love or Truth/Wisdom.  Good and Truth are different from each other, if complementary.  And so, in Bryn Athyn you tend to have the Love people and the Truth people, a divide that is only strengthened by having two separate worship services (in one, people wear jeans, clap along with their happy songs, and put on plays.  In the other people dress up, sing more solemn songs, and listen to longer sermons with harder words and older people.)  Despite being way more open and “do whatever works for you” than I could have been - I almost always fell on the Truth side of things. I held many traditionally conservative views along with a few unconventional ones.  Although I was pretty ok with other people doing whatever, when it came to my own life or debating what was “correct”, I had some definite Ideas that I held onto stubbornly.  They were subject to change, absolutely, as long as the argument was backed by the Writings.  Three of my guiding principals when trying to understand what was right, as I understood from reading the Writings (and the Bible, although frankly I always found it way less interesting) were as follows: 

1. Question Everything. Do not rely on blind faith or “faith alone”.  One of the key tenants of the New Church is that religion has to be questioned.  It is dangerous and meaningless to believe something just because you were told it’s true.  At some point, members have to replace their “historical faith” with real faith, through the method of questioning. By the time I left High School, I was pretty sure I had done that. I was wrong (or, rather, I continued to question things I never even thought to question).

2. Religion has to be useful, and relate to life. The main purpose for religion, the New Church claims, is to lead people to God, so they can be happy.  Heaven is for people whose main loves are God and helping other people.  Hell is for people whose main loves are themselves and hurting other people.  Everyone goes where they are the most happy.  Hell is hellish simply because all the people there suck, and a system of God Laws (complete with some sort of Angel Police Force, if I remember correctly) make sure no one hurts each other (so then they can’t carry out most of their loves, which is additional torment).  But, the idea is that the people in Hell would be even more unhappy if they had to be around all those nice, loving, happy people.  God doesn’t put people into Hell, people choose to go there.  So, main reason for religion: being happy. 

3. Religion has to make sense. One of the interesting things about a religion influenced by the writings of an 18th century scientist is that it has an interesting view on the importance of science and religion.  The marriage between the two is very important to most New Church members (not least because it lets us go “we’re not like those other christians. We believe in evolution.”).  Science is seen as a demonstration of spiritual laws.  Remember the idea of correspondences?  Water is meant to literally exist in this world because of Truth in the spiritual world.  So by looking at water scientifically, how it’s made, how it works on other materials, etc, we can learn things about how Truth works.  Get it? Everything was supposed to support itself in this beautiful science-religion system.  

And then I left Bryn Athyn.  I found out that the “proof” I had relied on to show me that the New Church made sense and helped people be happier was largely made up of downright lies.   I think there’s a reason why Swedenborgianism is so small, and has such a propensity towards forming tight-knit, often xenophobic groups. Questioning works as a faith-strengthener if you don’t think to actually question the core assumptions: that there is a God.  That the Bible and the Writings are His Word. That being in “God’s Order” is the only way to be truly happy.  If you’ve grown up surrounded by people who hold all these same assumptions, you don’t think to examine them.  Especially not if you have a complex body of belief you could question!  Why discuss in any depth the existence of God if you can debate how exactly the three-level, two-kingdom organization of heaven works until the cows come home? I’d often question “is the New Church really the most accurate/useful view of God?” but never would I question “is there a God?”.  

As soon as I got to really know people from other backgrounds, I began to see the lies I had been fed.  Heterosexual marriage is sacred - gay people aren’t as happy.  NOT TRUE. People who have sex before marriage will have a harder time developing healthy relationships.  NOT TRUE.  Religion is there to make people happy and fullfilled - Atheists can’t be happy and fulfilled.  NOT TRUE.  All religions are basically the same, they’re just different paths to God.  NOT TRUE.  So much of it just isn’t true.  It boggles the mind. 

Knowing people who are happily gay, or happily promiscuous, was the thread that started to unravel the sweater.  Taking some anthropology and realizing that different religions actually are different, pulled it further.  Having sex, and then feeling huge guilt over it, sent me into a doctrine-searching frenzy.  I was on a quest.  How could I feel so thoroughly happy, when I was supposedly out of order?  How do we really know what is the right thing to do? When I’m questioning things, how do I really know what is the right answer?  Given that I put such a heavy emphasis on questioning and reason, I figured there had to be a question-proof, reasonable answer.  The answer I found? Read the Doctrines and do what God says.  The reasoning? God is good and true, so everything from Him must be good and true, and the Doctrines are from Him, so they must be good and true.

Good old Swedenborg.  See that?  Logic words!  And yet, a completely illogical argument.

I was not pleased.  You have to believe that the Doctrines are true because God said, in the doctrines, that the Doctrines are true?  Isn’t that just blind faith? Doing things “because God says so” didn’t fit with my happy “I believe in the New Church because it makes SENSE! And there’s SCIENCE!” mantra.  When thinking of my deconversion journey, this is really the defining moment.  I didn’t come to think of myself as an atheist until a few years later, and there were certainly aftershocks of grieving, or thinking maybe I could continue to believe, but this was the straw that broke the camel’s back, the turning point that couldn’t be undone.  

Now, there are many devout New Church members, especially these days, who would argue that gay people are fine and happy.  That it’s really not a big deal if people have sex before marriage (it’s the ‘internals that count’, after all).  That atheists are pretty ok (they just see God differently!). For the most part, I think that’s pretty awesome, even though I don’t understand it in the slightest (and have some obvious problems with the “Atheists do have a version of God they just don’t know it” gloss).  I do, to a great extent, admire people that can work their interpretations of the doctrines to include everything they hold dear. If the New Church is going to continue, I’d like it to at least be friendlier for everyone involved.  However, I find the whole process that leads to such interpretations thoroughly incomprehensible and personally unsatisfying, which is why I sometimes worry that I am a closet fundamentalist (I have, however, heard other people refer to this tendency as a funny little thing called “intellectual honesty”).  God’s order is meant to make the entire universe work - God is meant to be omnipotent and omniscient - this means He should have been able to have His LAST and BEST revelator be able to explain God’s order in a way that is relevant for at least two thousand years, like He (supposedly) did the last time.  It’s been, what, not even 300 years and already we’re saying “well, he didn’t really mean that”?

These nice interpretations don’t follow the coherent system that was supposed to be so crucial.  Heterosexual marriage is meant to be holy based on the composition of God himself (and the way gendered souls are made-up), so gay people shouldn’t be as happy as other people.  God’s order is meant to make people more happy, so people who have casual sex shouldn’t be as happy as people who are looking toward marriage.  But those people are happy. They have different gods than I do, different beliefs, different loves.  I am now part of "those people", and I am happy.  We are happy (contrary to #2), and to say we aren’t is to ignore the evidence (contrary to #3).  Also, to say differently, to say "I know about their happiness better than they do," is also just incredibly arrogant. 

Looking back, I realize that my reactions to religious debates are still largely the same as they were when I was religious; I stubbornly stand by my convictions, and expect others to do the same.  The difference is that today I have more information, more perspective, and more empathy.   If I’m going to believe something is true, fundamentally true, I’m going to base everything else off of it.  I want to see it carried to it’s logical conclusion in every way.  If the extreme is actively harmful or wrong, then to me the whole thing is flawed - I can’t accept it.  If something is true, then it should continue to be true no matter the situation.  Especially if that truth is meant to have been specifically revealed by the omniscient force of the universe!  Now, I’m not denying that balance and moderation is important - it certainly is.  The extreme of anything can be pretty awful.  But still, I think in terms of systems. Even if I personally don’t hurt people, if I hold a belief that many other people use to hurt, I see myself as reinforcing and condoning that hurt simply by holding the same belief.

For example, I refuse to believe in even the most vague understanding of Good and Truth (in the Swedenborgian cosmological sense) because in my mind that belief - that system - justifies homophobia and a whole host of other concepts that I have witnessed actively hurting my loved ones.  Because that’s the logical conclusion.  Gender is seen as the result of the very make-up of your soul (women=good, men=truth, to simplify it a great deal), and the uniting of complementary opposites in marriage is meant to mirror God himself.  Marriage is seen as a microcosm of the force -the Good/Truth union- that makes the entire universe exist and continue. Homophobia was built into the very fiber of the universe I imagined we lived in.  But then I met some very gay people being very happy and right, in a transcendent, fulfilled, absolute way.  I began to realize that people are not just gay/straight, or man/woman.  So, I can’t believe in that imaginary world anymore, not even a little bit.  That world is why I was a homophobe - a well-meaning, friendly homophobe, but a homophobe nonetheless.  It’s one more reason why other people continue to be homophobes. And, no matter how well-meaning, all homophobic ideas contribute to a hateful, toxic homophobic culture.  It kills me to know that I contributed.  I contributed to some of my dearest friends being hurt so, so deeply.  I am no longer willing to hold a belief that can be used to reinforce, in even the slightest way,  something so repulsive.

There are many such seemingly harmless systems I rejected, the connection between the Good/Truth cosmology and homophobia is simply the easiest for me to explain.  After rejecting concept after concept, when do you have to stop calling yourself part of that religious system? When do you have to realize you have no religion? And when you’re left with no religion - what is there to the concept of God? Where’s the proof? What’s the use? 

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Why I'm an Atheist, Part 1: The Emotional Side of Things

*Trigger Warning: self-hating thought processes*

“But if Religion makes people happy, and helps them function…does it really matter if it’s objectively true?"

As a religious, fairly reflective individual I used to firmly adhere to this reasoning.  I was about 17 when I first started to deeply doubt my cosmology. We were learning about the brain, and I was in the process of deciding to take medication for Depression and Anxiety.  Suddenly, my understanding of what makes me, me completely fell apart.  I came to the conclusion that I would never be able to tease apart the randomly firing chemicals due to disease, from randomly firing chemicals due to being human, from what was my spirit.  In the face of this confusion, I figured it couldn’t hurt to pick the understanding I could most live with, and go with it. I decided I had a spirit. I decided that I believed in God, a spiritual world, and the influx from both.  I decided that I was something more than just a disease.  Needless to say, that last was a pretty important conviction for me to hold, especially at the particular time in my life.  Everyone is more than their disease, so I will give credit where credit is due: thanks, Belief, for that brief moment of clarity.  I also, however, would use this line of thinking in my pretend mental debates with atheists, to try and convince my imaginary opponents how much happier they’d be if they would just let God in.  Since then, I’ve seen it employed in similar ways during many real-life debates between atheists and theists.  

I find it important sentiment to address.  Especially given that I am still rather sympathetic to it.  I have some pretty serious problems these days with accepting anything that I'm not sure of for myself, but generally I’m pretty cool with accepting other people’s reasons for remaining religious or spiritual in the face of doubt.  It’s difficult being human, and I would not begrudge anyone their harmless comfort. The problem is that although I find it an acceptable explanation for someone being religious, I do not find it a persuasive argument as to why I should be religious or spiritual.  It has no place in debates. It has no place in my life. It is so far from my experience I have deemed it a completely irrelevant notion. 

Here’s the honest truth, that I mean from the depth of my knowing: Religion is my drug. 

Maybe it’s a medication that works for some people, but I’m a recovering addict and for my own safety I can’t touch the stuff.  Mix in a dash of chemical imbalance? Disaster. 

Religion no longer comforts nor inspires me.  The spiritual high was fabulous - I felt deep, connected, transcendent.  But it got to the point that if I weren’t “working” on something about myself, I didn’t feel alive.  I thought that must be how atheists felt constantly: Dead. Worthless. Numb.  I would frantically start digging deeper and harder, searching for the next thing I could ‘examine’ in the name of regeneration.  Funny how often the incentive to “shun evils and do good” got stuck at the shunning of evils, scribbled in a numbered list spanning page upon tear-stained page. Because do you know how hard that stuff is to change?  You can’t just decide “today I will not be selfish”, check that off your list, and get a gold star.  The perceived lack of change quickly gets added to the long list of faults. Anything good you might have done? Well, that doesn’t really count.  Because it wasn’t really all that good. It came from God anyway. It wasn’t enough. I could have done something even better. And attributing goodness to myself? That is the way to becoming a selfish, self-serving hell-dweller, don’t you know!? So, instead, I would just look at the list, hate myself, and cry. Cry, cry, cry, and cry, until a wave of relief swept over me - a catharsis interpreted as God’s influx, as an angelic community surrounding me.  Maybe if I beat myself to that state of exhaustion enough times, some of the things I hated would actually change.  So, I would make another list, look for another high. 

Although I try to actively employ empathy at all times, whenever someone tells me that they rely on God to get them through, that they would feel hopeless without religion - I can’t help but wonder if they are also addicts. At my most arrogant, I think that religious thinking really doesn't do anyone more good than harm.  Almost all of the religious people I know suffer an incredibly dark sense of worthlessness at some point.  When I’m being a reasonable human being, I understand that my situation is just that: my situation.  But, when I see so many people hurting, whether they are pining after a dwindling sense of God or singing His praises, I wonder. I wonder. 

Mainly, though, I bristle at the insinuation that as an atheist I can't be as happy as a theist. I am the happiest, and healthiest, I have been in my entire adult life. 

As an atheist, I can just live and have that be enough. 
It’s not exciting. 
It’s not glamorous. 
It is helping me heal. 

Am I blaming religion for my own mental failings and fixations?  Probably.  But I ask you: if blaming my religion makes me happy and helps me function…does it really matter?

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

First Orgasms, and Why They're Important

*Trigger Warning: talk of self injury*

*Warning: Personal Sex-Talk Stuff.  Don't read if it makes you uncomfortable! I won't mind. Really.*

I was with my boyfriend for 5 months before we had penetrative sex.  I went from never wanting to have premarital sex ever, to asking, begging, pleading with him to throw caution the wind as I wagged my aching vagina around.  Lucky for me, he said “wait until we get condoms, and after you’ve thought about this with a clear head”.  Although five months seems like a short amount of time in which to undo 19 years worth of training and conviction, it wasn’t sudden.  It also wasn’t nearly finished being undone.  I should also mention that - as my boyfriend just called out from across the room, lounging in post-coital sheets - it was less than 5 months if you count all the amazing oral sex we had.  I didn’t ‘count’ oral sex at the time, but I sure do now.  
So, 5 months of before penetrative sex.  Then? At least six months until I had an orgasm, about a year before I had orgasms on at all a regular basis.  I wonder at this, sometimes.  Because that amazing oral sex we had before penetrative sex? It was amazing.  It was also, however, always directing the physical sexual pleasure toward my partner.  That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it in a sexual way, or never received pleasure, but it did take me a while to simply get comfortable with my nethers.  I had to quiet the thoughts, and to stop cringing at the feel of my own flesh.  This probably doesn’t seem like a big deal - my story is not unusual.  That in itself makes me angry, and sad.  Consider: my partner started masturbating when he hit puberty.  He had regular orgasms for seven years before I had the smallest, rarest of orgasms.  He saw it as such a normal thing that he can’t even remember his first orgasm.  I remember my first orgasm distinctly.  And my second, and my third.  I remember them vividly, almost painfully.  
Now, there are aspects of my situation that made me somewhat unusual.  My brain stuff is certainly a part of that, but I also believe that my religious upbringing was a major factor.  About two months into the relationship, I burst into tears while kissing because I “didn’t want to ruin his future marriage”.   We sometimes discussed in religion class that a useful way of telling if what you were doing with a boyfriend was ‘appropriate’ was to imagine what his future spouse would think of it.  I told this to my boyfriend - he was horrified.   As a teenager, I only thought of sex in the vaguest (or most medical, pragmatic) of terms.  I only began thinking of sex as something I might conceivably find very enjoyable when I started kissing a real live person I was attracted to.  
When I had my first (and second and third) orgasms - I shook and cried in my partner’s arms for a good 10 minutes.  My first thoughts post-orgasm were that it was just like self-injury.   The sense of desperation, of being unable to stop, and of intense relief felt so similar to the times that I had ripped out my flesh in fits of deep depression.  The physical intensity of the emotion terrified me.  For a while, I wasn’t sure that I liked orgasms.  But even though I was dealing with residual guilt, and this weird association with self-harm, I never felt deeply ashamed of orgasming in the same way I had when I hurt myself.  I intuitively knew that orgasming was healthy, that gushing blood wasn’t, and I was angry.  Angry that I hadn’t been told about this before.  Angry that I wasn’t taught that masturbation was a good thing.  Angry that if maybe I had known how to identify my own sexual impulses, if I had even thought of masturbation as an option, maybe I wouldn’t have entered into so many frenzied trances.  Maybe even just the fantasy of sex could have made tangible some of my many faceless urges.  Maybe the warm release of sexual climax could have replaced the warm release of blood running freely down my legs.  Maybe my coping mechanism would have helped me learn to love myself, rather than reinforcing self-hatred.

What kind of lecherous maid am I?!

Hello, World.

Here in my own little space on the internet, I plan on writing down my thoughts on three main topics: Sex, Religion (or lack thereof), and Mental Illness.  I have, or have had at one time, all three!  Hurrah.  This blog is for getting my perspective out there, but also for my own purposes, as I find it useful to work out tricky thoughts with words.

Other things you may see pop up here include feminism, body issue stuff, and general comments on the state of the world.  Also maybe cats.  And maybe eventually some art.  We'll see.

So, why, you might ask, is this blog a funny place to find a foot?  You'll have to keep reading to find out.

Is my name, you might also ask, actually Meyrin?  No, Meyrin is not my given name.  It is now my internet name, and it alludes to a fabulous character from a funny little show (although technically it's Mey-rin.  I have extracted a dash...just for fun).  I was watching this show earlier, and decided that Meyrin would be my name.  Mey-rin wears huge glasses to help her not get distracted by her uncommonly keen eyesight.  When she doesn't wear glasses, she is a deadly assassin.  When she does wear glasses (which is most of the time), she's a clutzy, blustery maid who has a huge crush on, well, everyone.  She exclaims during one of the beginning episodes "WHAT KIND OF A LECHEROUS MAID AM I!?" Besides just being pretty adorably hilarious, that's the question I have spent the last many years asking myself.

So, dear internet, what kind of lecherous maid am I? You'll have to stay tuned to find that out as well (and, frankly, so will I).