Thursday, August 18, 2011
Tuesday, May 24, 2011
It seems almost inappropriate for an (occasional) atheist blogger not to write about the recent buzz surrounding the May 21st Rapture. After all, it’s not every day that the world is allegedly supposed to end. For must people, anyway.
As you’ve likely noticed, it’s not May 21st anymore, and the Rapture didn’t occur. Whoops. Big mistake on the part of Harold Camping and any others who helped him in crafting his apocalyptic prediction. Not that he or most of his devoted followers see it that way, of course. The Internet is humming with pieces about Camping and the Rapture: why he was wrong, what his followers are doing now, and, most prominently, slightly tongue-in-cheek posts and article starting with some variation on “Anyone still out there?”
I won’t be doing any of that. I’ve only a small bit to say on the topic, and then I’ll disappear into the nether once again.
One of the most fascinating parts of all of this for me is the media frenzy. People predict the end of the world all the time, but rarely does the mainstream news take the story and run with it. Perhaps this is the child of 24-hour newsfeeds and a viral-hungry populace looking for the next YouTube hit. Perhaps Harold Camping has enough of a flock built up that he warrants the spotlight. Which brings me to my next point: said spotlight was busy shining on the Rapture this past weekend, instead of other issues it might be focusing on: tornadoes in the Midwest, the conflict in Libya, volcanoes in Iceland, or even the murder trial of Casey Anthony or the continuing scandal surrounding Dominique Strauss-Kahn.
These are important things. These are things that are actually happening, to actual people. It’s a bit odd, really, that an event so few people believed would occur gained so much attention for the few weeks it did. It’s yet another case of non-news becoming news (celebrity gossip as news, “person-on-the-street” opinions as news, Donald Trump, etc.), and I find the whole thing horrifyingly intriguing. Why do people care so much?
Is it because secretly some of them hope it might happen? Is it because secretly some of them believe it will, despite knowing better? Or is it just a fun story, a vulnerable target for ridicule, like a comedic fountain into which anyone can toss a quip or one-liner?
Most importantly of all, why don’t more people ask the obvious question: is there a negative aspect to all this Rapture-rousing?
I say yes. First, the obvious: dozens of people drained their savings accounts, liquidated their assets, and left their families or friends behind in preparation for the event. Their lives, while perhaps not entirely ruined, are certainly changed forever. Imagine looking back on your life and realizing you gave up everything on the word of one very old man with a radio transmitter and a knack for speechmaking. Even if these poor victims get themselves back on their feet, they’ll always look back on that event and wince. They’ll know how far they went, and how close they came to the edge.
I’m speaking of the ones who leave the flock, of course. But what of the ones who stay? That’s the second danger. The subtler one. It’s not just these believers I’m thinking of: it’s the fact that we’ve validated their belief by speaking of it as a perfectly legitimate, reasonable course of action (or at least as one that few openly condemn as foolish). By giving Harold Camping’s Rapture a place in our news, we’ve legitimized it as a real concern. We spent hours talking about it, blogging it, Facebooking it, Tweeting it, and cracking jokes at its expense.
Why are we wasting our time with this? (he asks, and his voice echoes out to the furthest reaches of lolcats and failblog). Why are we handing a microphone to some kook who twisted his own delusional brain into a pretzel in order to concoct a rationalization for an almost certainly impossible event, and then received millions from those he managed to convince of his prediction’s truth? He does not deserve the megaphone, and the fact that he got it for a time shows the common denominator of American culture: we love spectacle. We love watching people make huge commotions as they spiral deeper and deeper into complete disaster.
This Rapture business is no different. It is, in effect, the religious equivalent of Charlie Sheen. But unlike the Vatican Assassin Warlock, Harold Camping’s Rapture isn’t funny, or even particularly clever. It’s just sad. Sad that people ruined their lives over it, sad that many will continue going along with the latest prediction (October 21), and sad that we lifted that charlatan on our media shoulders for a ride around the newsroom.
Thursday, April 7, 2011
“I live to serve God.”
“The Lord gives my life meaning and direction.”
“I am His hands and feet on Earth.”
“The point of life? To know, love, and serve God.”
“I can’t imagine getting up in the morning without knowing I was made for a specific purpose.”
These sentiments took me no time or research to come up with because, frankly, I’ve heard them dozens of times. I may have uttered something like them at some point during my belief. In fact, I almost certainly did. When I was younger, I used to hold a firm belief that I existed for no other purpose than to serve my fellow humans. I was a tool in the hands of my Maker. There was nothing else I wanted or, as I thought at the time, deserved to do with my life. This viewpoint lasted up until the middle of college, when I finally began to think that perhaps I was getting stepped on by a few too many of my classmates and “friends”. That, however, is a story for another time.
The above outlook on life—and the problem of God-given purpose—is the topic of today’s post. What does that mean? Why would anyone want to hold that belief, and what effects does it have on their lives and the lives of those around them? Purpose is a huge topic, so I won’t get into more than the slimmest portion of its surface, but nonetheless: let’s explore.
Everyone wants their life to have meaning. Everyone wants their life to have a purpose. Without purpose, what is the use of living? Without direction, what does one work toward? Even the most hedonistic of lifestyles conforms to this rule, for the purpose of the hedonist’s life is to experience as much pleasure as possible. This is why they exist. Asking anyone on the street what the purpose of their life is will yield responses as varied as the winds. Overall, however, one thing is for certain: religion heavily influences the sense of purpose in the lives of Christians.
So let’s think about that a little bit. For many Christians, their life has only one purpose: whatever God tells them it is. To be more cynical, their purpose is whatever they think God is telling them to do, or more often, whatever someone whom they trust tells them to do from a position of authority. This view provides two very important things: a sense of direction, and comfort. But it’s intellectually unsatisfying, in my opinion.
There’s a lot of talk among Christians about giving themselves over to God for His use. The reasoning is thus: if God made me, He must have had a reason. My job, then, is to figure out what that reason is, and fulfill the purpose I was made to fulfill. For after all, I must have a purpose, or else God wouldn’t have made me. This is the question a Christian feels compelled to ask, and it’s a (somewhat) logical extension from the basic concept of creation: A tool in your kitchen drawer may look cool, but if it has no purpose, why did you buy it? Similarly, a person may be beautiful, talented, and charismatic, but if they have no purpose, why did God make them?
To summarize and/or get myself off this wandering track: Christians find purpose and meaning in their lives by doing what they think God wants them to do. They surrender their wills to their Lord, and act as servants in His service. Look no further than scripture for evidence of this view (Matthew 20:28 “In the same way, the Son of Man did not come to be served. He came to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many people”). Christians relinquish control of their lives. They discard the mantle of autonomy and self-direction in favor of a yoke of obedience. If God wills it, so it shall be. The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want. I am at your service, my King.
But as an atheist, I have to ask the big question: why would you do that?
We subject ourselves to the wills of others all the time. When a friend asks me for a favor and I comply, I’ve subjected myself to her desire over my own. My actions are for her purposes. This is not a problem, nor is it abnormal. Where I find things strange, however, is when the lens zooms out to focus on the bigger picture.
If the purpose and meaning of your entire life is granted by the whims of an invisible God, and the only real way He communicates is through feelings you get when praying and a book written thousands of years ago… aren’t you reaching a bit? Isn’t that just trying to find meaning where none exists? Moreover, doesn’t that make your life seem… less valuable? Less important? Doesn’t that diminish you as a person with thoughts, feelings, ideas, and dreams? I find it all somewhat saddening, now. What has this person given up by choosing to follow the whims of a petty, jealous tyrant God? What could he become, were he to loose himself from those reins and run free?
I’ll try to put this succinctly, because I think I’ve drifted: Christians find purpose for their lives by letting God tell them what to do. I think that’s unfortunate. When I first became an atheist, I struggled with the idea that my life had no purpose, other than the purposes I set forth for myself. Once I accepted this truth, however, I discovered a remarkable sense of liberation. No longer was I forced to live my life for someone else’s reasons. I could do what I wanted to do, and try to arrange things in a way that made sense to me.
I was taught that “giving myself over to God” was beautiful. Now, I see it as a cop-out. Christians, you don’t need God to tell you to be good; you can just be good! You don’t need God to tell you where to go or when to go there; you can just go!
Maybe next time I’m in a snarky mood and someone tells me “I have a God-given purpose for my life”, I’ll retort with, “What, you couldn't up with something on your own?”
Friday, March 25, 2011
It’s been almost two years since I decided that believing in God was, like, totally for squares, daddy-o, and I wasn’t going to do it anymore. My life has changed a lot since then. One thing I can say for sure is this: I like it. I like being atheist. There are many reasons, and today I’ll briefly explore one of them: it’s simpler.
The universe is a complex place. Understanding its finer points is a task far beyond my capabilities. But that’s okay! I know that there are many wondrous things out there that I will never comprehend, and I’m not the least bit upset about it. No one is making me try to fathom how the universe came into existence, or how time can get all distorted by gravity and such, or how consciousness works. There are answers to these questions out there, and I have some idea as to what they are, but their nuances are beyond my current knowledge, and perhaps the knowledge of anyone. Nonetheless, there is a key difference between life before and after my deconversion: I don’t feel any pressure to try to figure these things out.
Life as an atheist in the big city is pretty easy. This is especially true given the fact that I live in a very liberal city—Seattle. My recent relocation to said township has caused a lot of unrest in my life, but I’m grateful for the fact that I don’t need to worry about going to church or anything like that. I work hard enough as it is during the week; I don’t need to waste even more of my free time on the weekend participating in some cult-like mumbo-jumbo. No thank you, I’ll pass on that.
Back to my point: being an atheist is just less mentally taxing than being a believer. Even as I write that I can hear the rebuttal of the theist: “Ah! So you admit that you’re just pretending God doesn’t exist so you don’t have to follow His rules! Checkmate, atheist!” Okay, okay, I’ll address you in a minute. Life is just better if you can live it without worrying about breaking some kind of obscure tenet set down by ignorant men thousands of years ago. I don’t need to wrap my head around why God would allow terrible evil, or how God doesn’t need a creator but the universe does, or why people who claim to believe in justice and goodness can perpetrate horrific crimes against others. All of that stuff is still there, but as a godless person, I can safely live my life without trying to answer those unanswerable questions.
I feel like I’ve drifted around my point here, so I’ll just end with this: I’m not trying to say that we shouldn’t ask big questions or examine our lives. On the contrary, I firmly believe that we should look into our beliefs with care. What I’m getting at here is the idea that as a believer I was called upon to hold a number of contradictory and obtuse beliefs. I was never very good at compartmentalizing those things away; they always gnawed at me. As an atheist, I take time out for science and philosophy. But the time is my own. And if I’d rather just spend an evening playing video games, I don’t run any risk whatsoever of irritating a petty deity.
Argh, this post is confusing and random. Still, more posts more often! That’s my new motto!
I recently realized that writing blog posts is a) time-consuming and b) stressful. Why is this the case? The answer is plain: it’s time-consuming because I tend to write long posts, and it’s stressful because I’m insecure about the quality/interestingness of each post I create. Naturally, I want to write things that people enjoy reading, and will pass along to their friends. There’s tremendous pressure on bloggers to be snappy, witty, and delightfully entertaining at all times. And while I’m certainly capable of creating texts of that nature, it takes a while. I simply don’t have the time to devote to creating posts like that on a regular basis, given the fact that I have a life and a job.
So, the solution? Shorter posts with greater frequency. Get some meat on these bones. Get that post counter up into the triple digits (eventually). Writing posts about things that I’m pondering, considering, raging about, or otherwise interested in is a good way to get myself in the habit of writing. In time, I’ll be able to create longer, more detailed posts with greater speed and skill. I’ll practice, in other words.
I make no promises, but it’s my intention to write more often. So keep your eyes here, because if things go well, you’ll be seeing new posts soon.
Wednesday, February 16, 2011
Seriously [friend], I wish you were here. I really miss you. Being a good little Catholic boy is really starting to get to me. I’m feeling something distinctly non-Catholic coming on, and you are one of my primary sources for such behavior. I miss having you to keep me leveled-out and prevent me from falling too far into a system of rules and doctrines that I don’t really buy into. There’s been a lot going on in my head lately. I realized that while I may be wrong in what I believe, at least I’m not a hypocrite. At least I stick by my guns! Not like some of these guys I live with… all piety and humility out in the world of the Ministry, but get them alone and things stop adding up.
Everything is such a fucking performance with the Ministry! We all pretend that we don’t have these subversive, “heretical” thoughts, and we all keep quiet about the parts of our lives that don’t line up with the Church, but I know that everyone has skeletons in their closets. I’ve seen and heard it. We whisper to each other in confidence, behind closed doors. We keep each other’s secrets. Like the talented actors we are, we put on our modest costumes and play the parts of the innocent church mice. But just as with any theater production, the clothes and costume come off backstage, after the show. It’s all smoke and mirrors with these people! We spout lies scripted by the religion we all claim to follow without exception, and everyone plays his or her part wit the benefit of years of practice. I’m sick of it. I refuse to take part in this façade. Why can’t we all just stop bullshitting and act like the people we know we truly are? You’d be so proud if you could see all the quiet rebellions I’ve incited within the Ministry. I’m tired of pretending to be someone I’m not. And even if I’m wrong, at least I’m REAL! At least I know where I stand! At least I can run the race and say, “This is what I really believe!”
I envision a future for this Ministry where everyone is accepted as they are. Discourse is encouraged rather than silenced. The Church, our immortal, immaculate judge and jury, has been wrong before. There is room for a difference of opinion and understanding. Despite what the clergy profess, I feel that we can go about faith in more than one way. My views are not canon, but they’re grounded in an honest attempt to live in a way that’s true to who I am. I can’t change what I am and what my feelings tell me. Does anyone else feel the same? In the shadows of the Ministry hide others like me, other who understand this concept. Will we ever see the light? Or will the light see us?
Sometimes it’s hard to believe that people who profess such patience, empathy, and faithfulness can be so intolerant. They judge with their eyes and their superegos, knowing full well that their hearts cry out at the sight of a kindred spirit. Again, the theatrics get in the way of how the actors really feel. I think there must be more people in the Ministry who feel this way than I’m aware of. But we must all keep secrets.
The Ministry—and by extension, the Church herself—exerts control through guilt and isolation. We all have our crosses to bear, yes, but at some point the crosses stop adding up. Guilt is a self-imposed behavioral control, and therein lies its brilliance. We are forced to act the way we do because to do otherwise would be to admit that we did not—and furthermore, I think, cannot—live up to the lofty ideals of the Catholic faith. Thus, we feel guilt for our inevitable failings and isolation in our suffering, because to share the alleged wrongs we’ve done would be to invite the possibility of judgment, and furthermore, would be humiliating in the face of the others who are silent about their wrongs.
We all know that we all sin, but if no one says it, then no one is sure where anyone else stands. Each of us feels the lonely burden of being the rock upon which the Church is built; for although we all know in our hearts that we are not alone in our failings, we cannot rest without the verbal validation that other Catholics can provide. This validation is stunted and discouraged as form is social control, perpetuated by the Church herself. But I have started to break free! By identifying the system, I have already begun to exert control over it and claim exemption from it. I know there are others out there who feel as I feel. All I need is the time and courage to find them.
Friday, January 14, 2011
Last night I engaged in a very interesting debate with my girlfriend, who for purposes of unnecessary confidentiality I’ll call Sophie. Sophie and I started off our discussion on the subject of whether or not atheists (or anyone, really) should push their views onto others. Sophie pointed out that believers oftentimes irritated me, and that I spoke very negatively of them when none were around. I had to agree with her. I told her that I was still struggling to find equilibrium between allowing others to believe whatever they want, regardless of how I feel about it, and actively trying to change their minds about beliefs they hold that I feel are mistaken.
Sophie went on to say that atheism was a belief in the way the world worked, and had to be held with just as much faith as any religious conviction. I found myself unable to recall what I’d read in this article or others on the topic at the time, so I didn’t hold my own very well on that, but we did continue to go back and forth on it. We tussled round and round on the issue, trying to clarify ourselves and make our points as clear as possible. Sophie continued to make the statement that atheism was a belief, to which I repeatedly replied that it wasn’t. I used a few classic analogies: If atheism is a belief, then not playing chess is a hobby; atheism is to belief what bald is to hair color; and so on. She changed her tune a bit to point out that she wasn’t talking about all atheism, just my atheism. Now we were on a different track. She switched from the word belief—which she correctly noted is a loaded term—to paradigm, and I felt much less like we were arguing when that happened. Atheism is a paradigm, just as religious belief is. We finally narrowed things down to a set of succinct points, which I’ll attempt to illuminate below.
Sophie’s ultimate idea was that I wasn’t just passively saying that I didn’t believe in God. Atheism is a big part of my life. It’s a part of my identity. And through my actions and my writings I continuously make it clear that I very fervently believe not only that I don’t have a reason to believe in God, but that I have reasons to believe there isn’t a God. I countered back, saying that I didn’t hold any such beliefs; that as many of my beliefs about the world as reasonably can be examined had been examined, and I was living a life in which I actively strove to learn the truth about the world. But it was a losing battle, and I knew it.
Because what I realized, ultimately, was that she was right.
She drew the following brilliant analogy: I have a map in my mind. This map dictates how I look at the world, how I understand and solve problems, and how I interpret what sort of actions I should take. It’s the roadmap for my life. When I was a Catholic, I had a huge “Catholic City” on my map, and all roads connected to and wove through that locale. When I began the process of deconverting and eventually adopted the mantle of “atheist” (which, as I’ve stated before, was a label I deliberately chose for myself), I changed a few of the roads on the outskirts and swapped out a street sign here or there, but in the end all I did was remove “Catholic City” from the map and replace it with “Atheist City”. She leveled this final accusation at me: despite my claims of neutrality on the issue, I put huge amounts of energy and effort into disproving religion where I can, rather than letting it exist until it interferes with my life. I am not a passive atheist. I am an active one.
And that’s true, I realized. Where I am intellectually is not the same as where I am emotionally. On an intellectual level, I am a “weak” atheist. I do not feel that I have any good reason to believe in God or other supernatural things, so I don’t. If evidence comes to light to the contrary, then I’ll consider it openly, and change my mind if the circumstances warrant. But emotionally, I’m a “strong” atheist. I feel strongly that God does not exist, that God cannot exist. I have reasons to hold this belief, but it is a belief, and there is some amount of—dare I say it?—faith involved in taking that stance. I want to line up these two aspects of myself, but for now, I remain unable to do so. It is as she said: my map still has “Atheist City” on it, and I pursue the spread of atheism in a similar manner to the way I pursued the spread of Catholicism.
All the fervor with which I lived my Catholic life was simply transferred to my atheist life. I recall that when I first decided I was an atheist, I desperately sought out companionship and community. I talked to all of my friends about their religious beliefs. I read hundreds of pages of atheist blogs. I started my own atheist blog, to give myself a voice with which to seek out others. As a Catholic I had a very strong support network. As an atheist, I have pretty much nothing. Nothing that compares, anyway. And while part of me doesn’t mind so much—no more obligations to do things that I don’t want to do every Sunday—part of me misses that sense of belonging to a bigger group. Perhaps my urge to evangelize my atheism is derived from a desire to obtain that sense of community again.
The reasons why my mental and emotional states do not line up are not fully understood, at least by me, but I do have a thought or two. One is that I simply don't know any other way to be. Given the fact that I developed most of my coping mechanisms, mental processing techniques, and other such intellectual devices within the confines of dogma, it’s not surprising that I would struggle to find other ways to analyze problems and events. Another possibility is that I’m acting in this manner as a response to my past life as a Catholic. I was so deeply embroiled in the Catholic world… and now I’m out. I suspect the strength of my aversion and distaste for spirituality in general and Catholicism in particular is an attempt to put as much distance between my past self and my present self as possible. Much like the college-bound rebellious teen with strict parents, I want to be everything that the forces that once controlled me aren’t. I want to be the anti-Catholic. The anti-religious. The anti-believer.
The antitheist, if you will.
But what’s so wrong with that? Tolerance is still important to me. I would never want someone to think that I will not tolerate them simply because of what they believe. Yet my actions do not correspond to what I just said, at times. I occasionally make fun of or mock believers, as if I’m better than them. This is wrong, and I need to stop doing it. Those instances are few and far between; for the most part I am very courteous to believers when I talk or debate with them. I suppose in the end it comes back to the point at which the whole debate with Sophie began: I am still trying to find a balance between letting others have their beliefs and trying to dissuade them from holding what I’ve concluded are incorrect understandings of the world. I made a similar counterpoint to Sophie about politics—she’s very active politically—to the following tune: why do you try to convince the other side that they’re wrong? Shouldn’t you just let them believe what they believe? They have votes, she countered. Ah, I replied, but so do believers, and believers use their beliefs to determine how their votes will be cast. I feel that the differences between these two things are minimal; political beliefs can and often are held with as much zealotry as any religious creed.
The bottom line here (for I do so love bottom lines): I am a much more active atheist than I realized. Sophie showed me that. I’ve made atheism a part of who I am, a part of my identity, a part of how I see myself. I am Dale. I am an atheist. Where I still need to reflect and grow in understanding is in the realm of expressing that atheism to others, and what role it plays in my life. More contemplation is necessary on this. Stay tuned.
ADDENDUM: I asked my dear Sophie to read over this piece for me and give me her feedback. Despite my best efforts to recreate our argument in full, I unfortunately misrepresented what she said on a few points, and I wanted to be sure that I did not put words in her mouth. Here is what she told me, in her own words.
Quote: "Sophie went on to say that atheism was a belief in the way the world worked, and had to be held with just as much faith as any religious conviction."
That's not what I said or meant to say. I recognized a large difference in degree. Maybe I didn't communicate that thoroughly.