Is Anti-theism Atheism’s Fundamentalist Sect?

After Craig Stephen Hicks murdered three of his neighbors on February 10, 2015, a new discussion has taken the national stage: the “dangers” of anti-theism.  I’m not going to bury the lead, I’m an anti-theist.  I oppose ALL religions and supernatural beliefs.  (Even more strongly, though, I oppose killing your neighbors.)  Mr. Hicks’ facebook page, much like my own, is filled with comments, memes and articles opposing theistic themes.  Does this mean that his anti-theistic leanings fueled his murderous acts?  Are anti-theists dangerous?  Are anti-theists some fundamentalist branch of atheism just as jihadists are fundamentalist Muslims?

Anti-theism isn’t a sect

Many faiths have a fundamentalist branch.  Fundamentalist Christians try to force creationism to be taught in public schools.  They oppose the march of progress in science, women’s rights and even some electronic technology, suggesting such things are the “mark of the beast”, referencing the Bible book of Revelation.  They beat gay men to death.  They blow up clinics.  They shoot doctors.  At their core, they are motivated by a literal interpretation of their holy book, the Bible.

Fundamentalist Muslims similarly oppose modern culture.  They attempt to make Sharia law the law of the land in which they live.  They also oppose women’s rights.  They have shot entire classrooms of students to death because little girls were being taught to read.  They have thrown battery acid in the faces of little girls trying to learn.  They engage in “holy” jihad, murdering infidels, those who don’t hold their beliefs.  They murder journalists for publishing drawings of their “prophet” Mohammed, an illiterate man who raped young girls.  At their core, they are motivated by a literal interpretation of their holy book, the Quran.

Almost without exception, the horrific, reprehensible and murderous acts performed by any of these fundamentalist groups can be directly excused, permitted and instructed by their so-called holy books.  Some readers may find this to be arguable or offensive.  It is neither.  It is simply true.  The bible places women distinctly below men.  It encourages child abuse, slavery, genocide and more.  The Quran, in addition to these things, directly instructs the bringing of violence against non-believers.  Fundamentalists are not perverting their faith.  They are actually representing it in a much truer form than their moderate counterparts.  Moderate believers of any faith have simply tempered the barbaric, bronze-age teachings of their faith with modern, humanistic, secular beliefs.

Is it fair, then, to apply this same formula to anti-theism?  Atheists are the “moderates” and anti-theists are the fundamentalist sect?  No.  The reasons for this are plain.  Atheism is not an ideology.  It has no tenets, no creed, no common goals, no holy writings.  Atheism makes no claims about the universe, human rights, or any other important matter.  Atheists simply maintain that there is no credible evidence for any creator, personal god or supernatural force.  That’s it.  Nothing more.  Atheism isn’t a belief any more than not collecting stamps is a hobby.

If this is the case (and it is), we’ve already ruled out an anti-theist sect.  A non-belief can’t have a sect.  But let’s set that aside.  Let’s pretend that’s not the case .  Let’s give this non-starter some traction and suppose anti-theists are dyed-in-the-wool atheists who are more aggressive and perhaps, like Mr. Hicks, violent and dangerous.

Anti-theism isn’t violent

Anti-theists do more than say there is no god.  Anti-theists directly oppose religion and supernatural belief.  Anti-theists are often very vocal about the harms and shackles brought on humanity by trying to determine the will of a silent and invisible god and then acting out these fantasies in society.  Anti-theists argue against bad ideas. Anti-theistic activism can take many forms.  It may be a conversation over coffee with a friend discussing the harm caused by religious employers taking over their employees’ healthcare.  It could involve an Establishment-clause lawsuit brought to remove religious symbols from public land funded by public money.  Anti-theists may even take to the internet, like this, and try to promote objective discourse about the harm religion is doing to our human family.

The mechanics of anti-theism, though, don’t have any route to violence.  Opposition of bad ideas comes in the form of presenting (what we believe to be) good ideas.  As Dr. King said, darkness can’t eliminate darkness, only light can do that.  How can an anti-theist oppose the limiting of someone’s rights in the name of the supernatural while in the next breath take away the believer’s rights by bringing violence upon them?  This holds no water intellectually.   If an individual attacks or murders a believer, it is because they’re xenophobic assholes not because anti-theism calls for it.

Believers often say that they can “hate the sin, but not hate the sinner.”  Perhaps that can be so.  (I would actually argue against the notion of sin, but that’s for another time.)  In a similar way, someone who opposes religion can oppose bad ideas without opposing the person who holds them.  When I argue against religion in government I don’t wish any harm to the person in front of me.  I don’t feel that I’m unique in this way.  Look at the well-known anti-theists.  Never have I seen Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins argue for violence against believers.  Hitchens argued for military action in Iraq (which I disagree with), but this was based on the ACTIONS of the government of the land, not on the beliefs of her people.  I would challenge anyone to make an intellectually-sound argument for violence against another person based on their beliefs.  I can’t see a path there.  There are no building blocks in opposing the supernatural that justify killing your neighbor.  I can’t see a link between anti-theism and hurting a believer.  If you can, please, make the argument in the comment section below.

Opposition to Anti-theism

As it stands now, atheists are the most distrusted group in our culture.  Anti-theists, their more outspoken brethren are placed on an even more contemptible plane.  Why must this be so?  There are no beliefs beyond question, above criticism.  Progress comes ONLY through criticism and objective analysis.  The anti-intellectual movement in our nation is at its peak now, though.  Ignorance is celebrated.  Faith is given the same credibility as actual, proven science.  Religious beliefs are used as a crutch for all sorts of societally-unacceptable behaviors.  Those who oppose these justifications are thought to be arrogant or are called assholes.  Why?  If these ideas are sound, shouldn’t there be plain answers to our objections?

And now, Mr. Hicks heinously murders three of his young neighbors.  He was an anti-theist.  They were Muslims.  The link, then, is assumed.  However, even if Mr. Hicks murdered these innocent folks based on religious hatred, the argument still hasn’t been made that he built this hatred on any sound argument… simply because there isn’t one to be made.  His hatred was his own.  These awful acts were not instructed or inspired by a holy book.  There will not be another to pick up his mantle while he rots in prison.  Not one of the “four horsemen” of the “New Atheist” movement called for this disgusting act.  He didn’t act to curry favor with a god or obtain a divine, after-death reward.  He was simply a murderer.  His horrible deeds stand alone, not with a group or a belief.  No anti-theists have cheered him or taken his acts as some sort of template.  As with the rest of respectable humanity, anti-theists mourn the loss of Deah Barakat, his wife Yusor Abu-Salha and her sister Razan Abu-Salha.  Their deaths were senseless, their murder heartbreaking and their murderer inexcusable.

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Shaping belief and the illusion of choice

Nearly every week I have people ask me, some with good intentions, others as they peer down their nose, “Why did you choose to believe in atheism”? Of course, I understand (generally) what they’re stabbing at. I used to believe something in the neighborhood of their own beliefs, and now, some time later, I no longer do. The asker of the question usually wants to know what the intellectual vehicle was that took me from point B for belief to point A for atheism.

Before we can look at this with the attention it merits, we have to firm up our foundation. First, “atheism” is not a belief or an ideology. One cannot believe in atheism any more than they can believe in non-leprechaun-ism. Atheism makes one claim and that is that no evidence exists for any of the personal creator gods (Jesus, Allah, Jehovah, Baal, etc.) exists and therefore any claim to knowledge of intent or actions of these beings lacks any substance or import. Atheism doesn’t address human suffering. It doesn’t talk about ethical claims regarding genocide or slavery. It is not an ideology. So while we might embrace a philosophy compatible with our own views, whether it be Christianity, Islam or Humanism, atheism doesn’t even attempt to make claims in these arenas.

Since atheism isn’t a value-based philosophy or an ideology, we have to concede that one cannot “choose” to believe in atheism. Atheism isn’t that kind of belief. But let’s say that’s just semantics… What if we’re just getting bogged down in definitions. Can we still “choose” atheism or Buddhism or any other belief structure? Are we so self-aware that we can consciously select what beliefs we entertain in our psyche?

“Of course!”, you say. “I absolutely choose my beliefs!” Almost everyone I’ve spoken to makes this claim. “I choose to believe in God.” “I choose to believe in the good within us all.” “I choose to believe in progressive political philosophies.” It certainly feels like we select our beliefs, doesn’t it? But before we write that in stone, that our values are selected a la carte from some ideological smorgasbord, let’s try a few exercises.

Every day, we all receive and observe various claims that are made about the world around us. Our brain evaluates those claims and either validates them by accepting them, or we may dismiss a claim as unbelievable or not credible. This happens perhaps hundreds of times per day. “The weather will be snowy and cold.” “The economy is making a strong surge.” “Joe Politician deserves your vote.” “There are WMD’s in Iraq.” “Jesus loves you and is the only way to life.” You might be thinking, “Yeah, I choose to believe this or that, but not the other.”

To demonstrate the lack of choice in belief, though, consider the following statements which I think most will agree with: 1) The total area of water covering the earth is greater than the total area of dry land. 2) The Easter Bunny is a myth and does not actually exist. 3) 2+2=4. 4) If I jump out of an airplane without a parachute, I will almost certainly die.

Any problems with any of those statements? Probably not. If you do, the message of this post will be meaningless anyway. Now, since you (may) claim that beliefs are chosen, I want you to select one of the statements above and then choose to believe the opposite. You might say, “I can do that. I can tell people that I believe in the Easter Bunny.” What have you done there, though? Have you actually changed your belief or have you professed a belief that doesn’t actually conform to what you actually hold to be true in your mind? Every day people make outward professions of things they don’t actually hold to be true in their own minds. I’m not asking for a profession here. I want you to legitimately change your belief, for real, if even just for a moment. Can you do it?

“Of course not!”, you say. Those are obvious points with concrete answers. I can’t believe 2+2=5. I know that’s not true. You do? Why? Because you have been shown convincing proof, proof that you have accepted that has become so firmly rooted in the pathways your brain that you cannot EVER accept any other answer to that equation other than “4”. So is that a bad example? Does the strong evidence spoil it? If so, switch to the Easter Bunny. After all, there’s no evidence against the existence of the Easter Bunny. Yet I’m betting you’re a non-Easter-Bunny believer. Why? This isn’t factual like our math problem. Choose to believe (not profess) that the Easter Bunny is real. Did you do it? Did you choose your new belief?

“Don’t be silly with these silly math problems and nursery rhymes.” Okay. Let’s hike deeper into woods of non-objective belief. Let’s think about the issues of gay rights as it pertains to the rights of two adult gay people to marry legally in the US. For the purposes of the exercise, I’ll state my view. I believe that two gay adults should be able to marry legally in the US (and the world, but that’s not the point) and enjoy the same rights and benefits as a heterosexual couple. Do you agree? Do you have your viewpoint in mind? Why do you hold it? What are you basing that on? Good… now, at the count of three, choose to believe the opposite. Three… two… one… GO! Did it work? Are you ready to hold up your “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” signs? No? Why not. Beliefs are chosen after all. Surely, even if only for an exercise, we should be able to choose a different belief.

What would it take for you to change a deeply-held belief, then? Let’s say it’s the 1980’s and you believed that AIDS was a gay-only disease, as so many of the time did. What changed the minds of an entire population (at least an entire population who believed that way)? Was it a choice? Did everyone say, “Man, this is a shitty viewpoint, I’m going to change it?” No. Evidence. Evidence changed the beliefs of an entire population. It didn’t happen all at once, of course. Why not? Since beliefs are based on the value of evidence in our own brains, different individuals valued the evidence at different times. Some folks took longer to convince. Was this a choice? Absolutely not! Consider the factors that went into that. Would a Baptist from Kentucky evaluate empirical evidence about AIDS and the homosexual population the same way that an anthropology professor from UCLA would? No. Ultimately, though, any intellectually-honest person had to acknowledge the facts of what AIDS was and how it was transmitted. No choice was involved. A tipping point is reached when the value of evidence becomes too strong and the brain has no choice but to embrace the new idea.

In the interest in full disclosure, I do have to say that I’m a few credit hours shy of my PhD in neuroscience (note the sarcasm, I have no neurological training beyond basic psychology courses in college).  However, from what I understand, there are countless studies that bear out what I’ve stated.  The pathways in the brain that influence decision making and the sensation we call choice all operate in the subconscious, doing their work long before we’re ever aware of their influence.  For example, think of someone you knew from High School.  Who did you think of?  Why?  Did you choose to think of this person?  Really?  Can you say what influenced you to “select” this person?  You can’t.  You requested this random information from your brain and it supplied an individual to remember.  Did you choose this person?  No.  This person appeared in your thoughts.  Don’t think so?  Move either your right hand or your left hand.  Which one did you move?  Why?  What led you to move the hand you did?  Think it was choice?  Had you been hooked up to an imaging device, you would see that your brain made the choice well before you were even aware of it.  This wasn’t your “choice”.  It occurred well before your conscious mind was engaged and aware of the hand that was going to move.

What does this mean for belief?  How fair is it to judge someone based on their beliefs?  I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t be critical of bad ideas.  If someone believes something harmful, we should be able to be critical of that.  If people don’t choose their beliefs in the way that we assume they do, though, isn’t a larger portion of empathy and patience due? Won’t empathy, patience and a willingness to dig hard to find common ground the best way to grease the wheels of cooperation and community?   The atheist didn’t “choose” his “beliefs” any more than the young child of Christian parents “chose” to believe in a literal interpretation of the bible.  The child born in Egypt didn’t choose to become a Muslim.  This doesn’t mean these will be their respective beliefs forever.  Other influences in life may spring them from something they’ve held to be true for decades.  But their exit from that religion or ideology will be due to so many influences that are beyond the control of the individual.  A fundamentalist who ultimately accepts evolution does so, not because he or she chooses it, but because the value of the evidence in the brain finally overwhelmed the foothold of the previous belief in his or her brain.

This doesn’t mean that all choices are pointless or an illusion.  However, we should recognize that the influences in the pathways in our brain precede our conscious thought so much more than we’re aware of.  This should very much affect the way we interact with those around us.  The value of empirical evidence and the effectiveness by which we present it becomes infinitely more useful than any fervor by which we would otherwise criticize or attack their beliefs.  An attack doesn’t accomplish anything since those beliefs are embraced below the conscious mind.  Evidence is the only thing that can spring the trap.  It can take time, sometimes years for someone to alter deeply held ideas.  We’re still at the mercy of our own psyche, though.  Our species hasn’t evolved to a level of self-awareness that we can really choose what we believe.  So how will you treat those who profess different beliefs than  you?  Will you attack them?  Will you wonder why they “chose” an ideology so foreign to your own?  Or will you attempt to find common ground and use logic and respectful dialogue to whittle away the differences?  I would argue we should work those tendencies into our subconscious.  If ever there were a choice to be made, we should choose to embrace dialogue, honesty, logic, reason and respectful interchange.  This is the way forward.  This is how we evolve with better ideas until someday we really do have the self-awareness to choose what we believe.

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Atheism: Is it the result of spiritual trauma?

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When you’re a non-believer, people tell you all the time why you believe what you believe.  “You’re just rebelling.”  “You had a lapse of faith.”  “This is just a phase.”  “You’re mad at God about something and you’re just acting out.”  These (often unsolicited) comments, and countless like them, are usually easily dismissed out of hand.  Some people offer these suggestions in good faith, wondering why you left what brings them so much joy, comfort or purpose.  Other people offer their uninvited analysis of your beliefs to be shitty since they still hold the moral high ground as God’s representatives.  Today, though, one of these suggestions on the cause for non-belief got me thinking.  This person, who is very genuine and well-intentioned, suggested that a person will move from belief to atheism because they had been “spiritually damaged”.

Spiritually Damaged I’ve heard this one before, but this time the source seemed to have some pretty decent credibility in the area.  She also wasn’t coming from the angle of judgement or justification like so many others who came before her. It’s pretty likely that she has seen some friends who were once strong in the faith drift into apathy due to a bit of spiritual trauma in their life. I, too, have seen people let personality conflicts, stresses in everyday life, the death of a loved one or other difficulties push their religious habits to the fringe of their routine. The difference between this friend and me is that I don’t see this as a bad thing.

To say that spiritual damage has never pulled someone into apathy, even disbelief, doesn’t appear to be a defensible position. Is this always true, though? The other question that follows is, “Is it the chicken or the egg?” What came first, the individual’s doubt or the trauma? Isn’t it entirely possible that the very mental disposition to give up belief in the supernatural has been lying suppressed, only to gain traction when the shit hits the fan?

“Trauma” Reveals Mistaken Trust Consider it… for years or decades, a religious individual invests in the notion that through their efforts they’re “building up treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consume”. The faithful also believe in promises in Hebrews 13 and Deuteronomy 31 where God promises that, “I will by no means leave you nor by any means forsake you.” The spiritual man hears this so often that he believes it, he relies on the truth of it. These beliefs are a security blanket, an insurance policy against anguish and morbid fear.

Sadly, as is the case so often in any of our lives, bad times come. In the days and weeks after a trauma, the spiritual person looks for the comfort they’ve been investing in for much of their life, for all of their religious life. What happens when he/she discovers that the well has been dry all along? What happens when they look to God for comfort, not expecting a miracle to remove the trouble, but just looking for a payback on the spiritual investment of decades? Trauma came, the person shaken, looking for a spiritual “hug” of sorts… only to find they’re shivering, alone.

When faith gets shaken and doubts roll in, why is the “trauma” to blame? Isn’t it evident that the tumult was actually just the decoder ring that revealed what the spiritual person might have suspected all along? All of the doubts that had to be suppressed because he/she didn’t want to appear to be spiritually weak… All of the times that the spiritual person tried to convince himself that his faith was unshakable, that it was rooted on a staunch, unwavering foundation… in those weeks after the “trauma” he realizes that it was nothing more than mental gymnastics, cognitive dissonance, an empty investment.

At that point we realize that it’s not fair to say that spiritual damage is what moved the spiritual man to atheism. The trauma was simply the catalyst, the trial that reveals what was present under the surface all along. Faith is often a tenuous thing. It requires constant reinforcement. It must be surrounded by people of similar conviction. It must be fueled by frequent (almost constant) reinforcement refueling via study, worship, fellowship.  One might reason that faith in such a powerful thing as the almighty God of the universe would be unshakable, no matter the trial or adversity. But at the end of the day, it’s so often not the case. Only the most stubborn or determined can maintain their beliefs (or at least continue to profess their belief) when the shit hits the fan. It’s in that moment that they realize that had it been true, had there been a supernatural friend who wouldn’t leave you or forsake you, well… he’d be here now, wouldn’t he? The comfort the spiritual man seeks wouldn’t be forever on the horizon. It would be in his heart, a warm comfort around his shoulders. But instead, another kind of liberation comes from the trauma. Not a liberation from the anguish of the moment, but freedom from the tyranny of false hope, of living up to an imaginary standard (sin) that is the cruelest taskmaster of all (even thinking the wrong thoughts is an offense).

What about scriptural promises that ensure the reader that God will not allow you to be tested “beyond what you can bear”?  What about the example of Job who lost everything only to be rewarded?  Does the argument that God is “refining” someone with incredibly grievous trials hold water?  Is a slide into atheism a failure of such a test?  Did the “trauma” simply expose a weakness in the follower?  My answer to that comes, not as a former believer, but as a parent.  While it’s true that our kids often do have to learn lessons for themselves, would any loving parent allow dreadful calamity to befall our child just to teach them?

There’s a pretty significant difference between allowing our child to fail an assignment because they ignored our reminders to do their homework and not reaching out and stopping them from getting hit by a bus, because, after all, we have reminded them before about looking both ways.  If God is love, as 1 John 5:3 suggests, why would he allow torture, murder, sexual abuse of children, starvation, centuries-long wars, battery, birth defects, cancer, etc.?  Are these “traumas” for our purification?  Is it spiritual damage that weakens us?  Or is it spiritual damage that causes us to pause (reluctantly) and consider, “If I were God, would these things exist?”  As soon as you answer that question honestly, you’re almost assured of being a non-believer.  If you had the ability to stop a child from being molested, would you?  That is the difference between any healthy person and God.

In the end, the “spiritual damage” reveals that the harm that’s been done has been from the “belief” itself all along. Giving up on belief is the natural product of logical reasoning and basic human morality. Faith and reason are incompatible. Spiritual damage, along with the trauma that causes it, can actually tear the band-aid off of a wound that has needed to heal for decades.  It’s a wound that festers due to unfulfilled promises and unsustainable beliefs.  Like someone suffering incredible thirst who gives in and drinks seawater, swallowing these empty assurances robs us of our chances of sustaining a happy, healthy life.  Spiritual damage may actually be the mental and emotional distillation we need to finally put the reins to our life in our own hands.  Embrace the spiritual damage, the trauma… it may very well be a “blessing” in disguise.

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Does it really matter?

If the internet is good for one thing, it’s that it’s where arguments go to die. Sadly, their death isn’t the result of some resolution or reconciliation of the sides. Rather, these arguments often actually die in that they lose all hope of ever seeing any kind of real settlement. Both (all) sides, sure of their stance, never budge, and seldom even listen for any reason other than to compose a retort to eloquently demonstrate just how right they’ve been all along.

To what end? Qui bono? These questions often hit me after hours of pounding away at someone’s argument, usually while neglecting the people who are actually in my company. Politics are fun, but religion… I’ll gladly waste all hours of the day debating this divisive topic. Does morality come from religion? Did the figure of Christ ever actually walk the globe? Does God exist? Is belief good for mankind?

Each of those questions matters. There are scenarios where the continuation of our species can waver based on an answer to one of them. These are critical issues that bleed out into all sorts of other arenas like politics, social science and so on. So why the header above: Does it really matter? Didn’t we just agree that they do, even if we disagree on the extent?

It seems as though the answer really depends on each of us and the mechanics which we’re willing to apply to the debate. Are we trolls who want to belligerently and disrespectfully insult someone’s dearly-held beliefs? (As a side note, sincerity of belief does not insulate it from critical analysis.) Do we dig in and take Ken Ham’s approach when asked what could possibly change his mind and he replied plainly, “nothing”. That isn’t debate. It’s verbal bludgeoning. It is disingenuous, at best, to approach a debate this way. I know anecdotal evidence is flimsy, but I can make this statement with confidence because I’ve been this guy SO MANY times.

When approaching an argument, there’s initially no way to know if the person you’re debating is truly interested in critical analysis or if they simply want to piously expound their holy rightness. This does become apparent rather quickly in the discussion, though. We mustn’t fall into our own self-righteous trap of assuming it’s the other guy who’s derailing the discussion. “Am I legitimately listening to and answering his/her entire questions, or am I just looking to rebut?” If all parties can’t, at least, try to make the answer to that question “yes”, everyone has to ask “Does it really matter?” Why continue to pound away at one another? Is there satisfaction in hearing ourselves tell ourselves what we already believe? Because if who you’re debating isn’t somewhat committed to an honest discussion, that’s all you’re doing. This lesson took me YEARS to learn.

Let’s get a bit more specific

So this is where the focus takes a turn from the general to the more pointed. With everything we’ve discussed so far, let’s consider this: if I don’t believe in your God and you do sincerely believe in one (or the reverse of this, for that matter), does it matter? Is there a practical matter that is impacted by this division?

Now before we delve into that, I acknowledge there are things we will do differently. You may go to church on Sunday, I don’t. But other than the allocation of our time, where is the division? You may put a nativity out at Christmas, I won’t. Other than decorations of our own personal lawns, where is the division? You may vote for a candidate because of his faith, I not so much. Each of our votes still counts the same, right? There are some things that each of us will support and feel passionately about that the other side will obviously, almost necessarily, oppose.

I’ve always maintained that we don’t choose our beliefs. There is simply no way I can choose to believe Florida has more land area than Alaska. There is no way you can choose to believe the earth is the center of our solar system, let alone the universe. Our intellect processes information and draws conclusions from that info. This is a must. How flimsy our intellect would be if it were plug-and-play, being able to insert any notion, regardless of the footing it stands on.

I don’t hold out that this means beliefs can’t be influenced. As someone who enthusiastically supported a fundamentalist Christian religion just half a decade ago, I can attest that beliefs can be altered, sometimes in significant ways. However, there was no way someone could have stood on my head and forced this. The path was my own, even if the influences were external. Even if we don’t choose our beliefs, it seems our ego needs to believe we choose our beliefs.

So if our beliefs aren’t chosen and are almost always unalterable by force, is it wise, reasonable or beneficial to put up a wall between ourselves and others due to beliefs? Does it matter? (Of course, the caveat to this is if these beliefs are literally harmful). Where is the difference between calling a gay person “unnatural”and labeling a Southern Baptist “dumb”? Neither of those things are true and both are a form of discrimination. I disagree with a fundamentalist who claims humanity has been on the globe just six millennia. That doesn’t mean it’s my place to name call. Make no mistake, that statement is subject to analysis and criticism. But that doesn’t mean that individual chose that belief any more than I choose to disbelieve it.

Where does that leave us? Does it matter? Should we just never discuss important matters because we’re likely to disagree on them and because we didn’t choose our beliefs? Clearly not. Our health and advancement as a species depend not only on cooperation, but on each of us refining our beliefs through debate and criticism. This increases the quality of our collective beliefs as our individual beliefs are refined. This may feel like I’m talking in circles. It doesn’t matter… it matters.

The “matter” lies in the motivation of the participants, the forum in which it’s discussed (though a conversation between two friends can “matter”), and the intellectual honesty each party can display. The pissing contests that are so common on Facebook, YouTube and myriad internet forums are rarely productive. Feelings are often hurt, defriending occurs, but seldom does anyone walk away with any change in viewpoint or approach.

Most times we know this before we ever engage in these fights. After all, that’s all these “discussions” ever are. But they’re so tasty, so irresistible, and so rarely satisfying that we keep engaging, hoping the next one will have some of that satisfaction previously missing. But after each engagement, how would anyone involved answer the question, “did that matter?” It’s unlikely anyone left with a good taste in their mouth.

These internet scuffles do nothing to produce any sort of unity or compromise, the essence of a civilized culture. Instead, they seem to cement the misconceptions, stereotypes and occasional misgivings that were already held. If any of us wants to legitimately be a part of the solution and not the problem, a change in approach must be made.

The first way to be a part of a healthy debate is to be quick to identify and walk away from the many toxic ones. This can be hard, it takes usually takes humility and self control. We feel the need to defend the virtue and legitimacy of our viewpoints. But once we see that the other side has no interest in an actual exchange, what benefit comes from sticking around?  This can be difficult since so often we’re actually baited into the argument by people just looking for a fight.  The sooner we see that they’re actually arguing with themselves more than anyone else, the easier it will be to walk away.  

Next, it’s up to us to be everything we want our dance partner to be. If we want patience, honesty and a willingness to answer questions without red herrings or ad hominem attacks, we absolutely have to be these things ourselves. This can mean we have to endure being placated, spoken down to, spoken over or occasionally insulted. However, as long as we believe our opponent is still working in the bounds of productive debate and they’re not being mean-spirited, there is still hope for progress. 

What if we listened to the entire question before we bulldoze our opponent with our tidal wave of syllables? What if we stop picking apart their syntax, hoping to gain an edge, and honestly acknowledge what they’re driving at?  The more empathy we can muster, the more we can entertain a thought even if we disagree with it, the closer we get to a place where we can have difference without division. If our opponent meets us in this place of honest exchange, we start to find that it begins to matter.

Discussions that occur in this way become building blocks. The foundation we build could slowly mean that we don’t have a society divided by Tea Party-esque use of religion to divide and serve a larger agenda. It could lead to the “new atheist” movement being more empathetic of religious traditions. Hopefully we can all learn the difference between having personal religious beliefs, icons, habits, etc., and legislating our beliefs into the lives of our neighbors. And maybe, just maybe, the internet can be a place where arguments go to thrive. Because if we can be honest and empathetic, our differences will only make us stronger. We will see that they should be valued not insulted because they really do matter.

 

PS – You may need to show me this post the next time I get sucked into a debate that doesn’t matter.  🙂

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What does it mean to move on?

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“Why don’t you just move on?”  I’d say I get this question more than any other.  I get it from friends, from acquaintances, co-workers, even strangers.  Anyone who has any knowledge of my past wonders aloud why I even bother with god, the Bible or belief in general.  After all, I’ve left the theocentric life behind.  So why don’t I “move on”?

At times, I’m sure those words are said with sincerity.  If this “belief” stuff bothers me so, why not keep it squarely centered in the rearview mirror?  Stop reading the bible, don’t pray or go to church and just generally abandon all thought of the supernatural, right?  The sincere “move on” folks hope that by shaking the dust of belief off my feet that I will have an easier path to happiness.

Other times, the “move on” comes with less sincerity and more annoyance.  If this “god” stuff bugs you so much, just “move on”, forget about that stuff.  ‘Why are you wasting so much energy on something you don’t believe?’  Others still are bold enough to say that any continued brainpower spent on belief only goes to show the power of god and that he must exist.  Is that true?  Why haven’t I just “moved on”, no matter what the reason?

What does it mean to move on?  What are things we move on from?  A bad relationship.  A job we lost or left.  A family member or close friend who proves to be toxic.  A horrible event or abuse that we suffered.  What about a system of belief that composed your entire social, emotional and ideological identity?  For each of these scenarios moving on means something different.

When I have a bad game of Call of Duty, I tell myself I need to shake that one off before the next one.  When a friend breaks up with a significant other, he or she is also wanting to move forward with life.  Now clearly, those are two different scenarios, and each will be left in the rearview in starkly different ways.  A good game of Duty quickly erases getting pwn’ed the game prior.  However, the grief and sadness over losing someone who was central to your life is a much more substantive and meaningful loss.  No one will pretend that a video game shapes them (well, sadly not no one).  But, we’ve all had our hearts broken.  At one point or another, we’ve all told ourself to “move on”.

How does this equate to my adapting to life without the structured belief that I was ingrained with for nearly a quarter century?  Is this the bad game of Duty or the bad breakup?  Clearly, it’s neither.  Every situation is unique.  But much like that breakup, where friends are often divided like assets, I “lost” in my break from my former religion.  People I had considered to be close friends vanished from my life.  But, unlike that breakup where some stay loyal to each side, my breakup with god cost me everyone I was close to.

Wrapped up in all of this was more than just a peer group to identify with. I lost my own identity, I forfeited the larger portion of myself.  Notice I didn’t say the greater portion of myself, just the biggest chunk.  The best part of myself, the parts that could be salvaged and built upon, stayed in my heart.  That core is what has been ever-present in the “move” of moving on.

The move is perpetual.   I can’t ever hope to say, “I’ve moved on.” Like so many things in life, this is a process.  Gone are the days of black and white in my former life when I would say that you have either gotten over something or you haven’t.  Programming from that former life will continue to peek out until the day I breathe my last.  I’m coming to terms with that.  Any expectation to fully root out that indoctrination would lead me only to frustration and disappointment.

In the past, those in my life would not have tolerated that way of thinking.  I had to conform, to fully evict those “worldly” ways.  My choice now, though, is to surround myself with friends who recognize the process happening inside me, knowing they have a process, albeit a different one, happing in them as well.  My best friend, my wife, has been my strongest support in this regard.  She reminds me not to expect old ways to never blindside me, trying to sway me in an unhealthy way. She sees me cry when I miss my “friends”.  She listens, knowing that sometimes there’s just nothing to say.  Then she helps me build a life without that toxicity.  That kind of support can’t be overvalued.  Thanks, babe! (and sorry to the reader for the mushiness) 🙂

No one can show you how to move on.  Recovering from a harmful event can be nearly impossible without a champion like Angie.  It could be a friend, a cousin, a parent or maybe a therapist.  This companion lends support, helps to maintain focus and will almost always refuse to let us give up on ourselves.  What he or she can’t do, though, is the actually heavy lifting, the determination of where the path takes us.  They might be a great First Officer, but we are both the Captains and Navigators of our own lives. For me, I came from an environment where the “path” was laid out for me.  It was the same path as the person to my right and to my left.  There was no autonomy, no dignity, no individuality.  There could be no “moving on”, only advancing through hierarchy of their world.  Thankfully, I jumped ship.

Now I’m on the “outside”, and the question I referenced at the outset comes up.  So why not?  Why bother with belief and gods and the like.  Am I sabotaging my journey?  Am I raking fiery coals into my bosom, as the bible says?  (couldn’t resist, damn programming) Quite simply, no.  I recognize what shaped me for all those years.  I know how hard I argued in favor of god and salvation.  When I talk about these things now, I’m not really talking to a Facebook friend or a co-worker or a family member.  I’m talking to the me of several years ago.  I’m reminding myself why I started my sojourn away from the Organization.  Like the tattoo I have on my arm, talking about belief serves as a reminder for me: don’t betray what you believe, Eric.  What you’ve given up is worth less that what you’re working for now.  Stay the course, persevere.  Don’t ever allow nostalgia of days with old “friends” to distract you from what that way of life really was.

I don’t expect many who read this fully “get” what I’m striving for in this post.  I apologize for the fragmented way this article stumbles about.  I’ve rewritten it so many times, and I’ve wanted to just scrap it even more. But I won’t.  I need to post this for the old me.  This is a signpost in my trek.  Even without a single reader, this stands out for me, a written souvenir of a hard road.  If you’ve read this far, thank you for traveling with me.  Thank you for your empathy.  Thank you for your patience.

I haven’t fully moved on from my years in the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  I don’t expect to.  But one by one, I’m rooting out each of the venomous habits they left behind in my brain.  Rather than finding frustration in any relapse into their way of thinking, I find satisfaction in going down a more positive path.  Like life, it’s the journey that makes moving on worthwhile, not the destination.  I remember those whom I was close to when I was a Witness, but I refrain from hoping for a joyful reunion.  They still have their own poison to move on from. I hope they do, I hope they find their own journey.  In the meantime, my path is my own.  For the first time, it’s my own. I am moving on.

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