September 11, 2018 § Leave a comment
I often tell people, that as an Atheist, I believe in energy, but not in spirituality. It means that I stay mindful of what is rather than what isn’t. That I am invested in the earth rather than in the imaginary.
People often describe the intense feeling of being interconnected with all of life as a spiritual experience. I see that experience as simply tapping into what we actually are—elements of earth that are all part of the life source that it grows in cycles of time. When my niece stayed with me last summer, she observed how I interact with other life forms. Whether it was being mindful of tiny crabs under rocks at the beach, or the way that I show respect and appreciation for my two cats, she was intrigued by how I strive to honor all of life. If we’re only aiming to think of ourselves in the scheme of our environment, then we fail the environment completely, of which we are a part. For me, this is a meditative state of living within an awareness of all energy and life forms. That’s not to say I’m always in that state, but I aim for it. In all honesty, it is most difficult to feel that way towards other humans when they can be challenging to deal with.
In comparison to the state of being grounded in nature, spirituality specializes in the things that are unseen and unverified. It generally believes in the existence of “souls,” but only for human beings. Spirituality either makes gods of imaginary entities, or of the universe itself. Because its basis is within the imagination, it breeds superstitions of all kinds that build fear in people, and lead to an obsessive development of rules and regulations. In both the East and the West (except in extremely ancient and indigenous traditions), it furthers the concept that we must transcend the body through prayer and rituals of purification, that lead us toward the dream of immortality after death, or reincarnation.
I’ve been working on my book, on the history of religion and conquest, for the past three years now. It’s been a fascinating journey, and what continues to be most striking is the interconnection of myth stories throughout time and region. It is also interesting to perceive exactly when certain ideas took shape, and how they affected culture on a massive scale. For example, if a person comes to a vague idea about what it takes to get to paradise (and imaginary ideas are always vague), they may do whatever it takes to get there, even if that means killing hundreds of people for the glory of their god. If they believe that the apocalypse will occur in their own lifetime, they may live in extremes of piety, seeking signs and symbols at every turn. And if they believe in purity, they will attempt to regulate bodies and control women through a rigid patriarchy. These various reactions then become layered in the culture, both within these beliefs, and outside of them.
Every decade, the number of people who attend church in the U.S. goes down. According to the Public Religion Research Institute, in 1986 only 10 percent of young people (eighteen to twenty-nine) claimed to be religious “nones,” while in 2016 that category went up to 39 percent. One aspect of that shift, is that our sense of ethics has grown beyond religious literature and institutions. In my own case, when I read the Bible I’m struck by the violence, the hatred for outsiders, and the way in which women are property with less rights than they ever had before. In the New Testament, the Evangelical concept of “family values” appears ironic next to the words of Jesus telling his followers to leave their families and follow him. Adding to this ethical disconnect, in the age of science, people are less susceptible to a literal belief of myth stories.
Two attacks that I often see made against Atheists is that we must either be nihilists or pantheists. Even in my dashboard dictionary, the example for nihilist is: “dogmatic atheists and nihilists could never defend the value of human life.” My question is, why does life lose value without a belief in things that don’t exist? Shouldn’t life have more value if I only believe in existence? As for the view that I must be a pantheist, this assumes that as a human, I must worship something. I don’t believe in worshipping anything at all.
Instead, I am simply aiming for awareness. Activities that bring me toward this daily goal are:
- Exercise – to achieve balance in mind and body.
- Expression – for meditation and reflection.
- Experience – to build connection within a diverse community.
- Empathy – through understanding other points of view.
- Exploration – which brings clarity from being outside of routines.
This is my practice of cultivating presence in an energetic world that is alive, and therefore constantly shifting and in flux. These points might sound basic, but I find them challenging because every day is a new beginning. For example, I have days when I would like to avoid flow, and stay within a rigid space of control. It is easy to grow cynical and hard. Much more of a challenge, however, to remain open and flexible and alert to the experience of life.
 Fred Edwords, “Faith and Faithlessness by Generation: The Decline and Rise are Real,” The Humanist, August 21, 2018, https://thehumanist.com/magazine/september-october-2018/features/faith-and-faithlessness-by-generation-the-decline-and-rise-are-real.
June 3, 2018 § Leave a comment
Two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of sharing on The Problem with Purity, at the American Humanist Conference in Las Vegas. It was a great experience, and I met so many amazing activists and leaders. Karen Garst, the Faithless Feminist, offered to post a transcript of my talk on her blog, and here is the link: faithlessfeminist.com/blog-posts/the-problem-with-purity/
It’s been quite a difficult few years, and I’m back to being on the upswing again. My dad recovered from his illness, my husband survived cancer, my two cats of 16 and 17 years went back to the earth last year, and now I’m building beautiful relationships with two playful Siamese mix cats – Circe and Django. Sometimes it takes raw experience to fully understand our own strength.
In January I started in a master’s program at Johns Hopkins University, and my education is challenging me beyond what I could have hoped for. My book on religion and conquest has also come a long way in the past four years of development. I’m committed to growing everyday as a critical and creative thinker.
This summer, I’m looking forward to sharing more with all of you on this continuing adventure of life.
May 24, 2016 § 1 Comment
It wasn’t easy being the weird outsider creative kid growing up in the Fundamentalist church. I constantly berated myself for being an “over-analyzer” as though this was a fault rather than an asset. I struggled to conform to the unified whole, but was always left with the same person hiding inside my head. Secretly, I knew that the only path to my complete self was through diversity—of thought, of lifestyle, of culture. I knew this, though everyone around me kept saying over and over, “Be in the world, but not of it.”
I began drawing obsessively from about the age of seven, and by my teens was doing figurative paintings in oils. People were often impressed by my work, yet the feedback I most remember is, “These are beautiful, but when are you going to start bringing glory to God?” I took this to mean that if I wasn’t painting scenes from the Bible, my art had little value. This was the basic concept of what an artist should be. The entire back wall of the church was covered in tacky oil paintings depicting the life of Jesus.
I was trained to mistrust everything outside of our tightly woven sub-culture. I not only looked down on people who were not Christian, but I feared them as well. I absorbed these lessons of conformity, and though none of it felt right, I was afraid to ask questions. A question meant doubt, and doubt could result in my family, my friends, my church, my school, rejecting me. It was a narrative I had observed before, and one I was to experience to some extent later on.
These memories came up strongly for me as I did research from two books written by Christian writers—Art For God’s Sake by Philip Graham Ryken, and State Of The Arts by Gene Edward Veith, Jr. The two authors seek to “educate” the reader with a call to reclaim art for their faith, as though art should not be determined by the artist, but by the establishment. Ryken begins by observing the issues within the church for artists, with words that ring true to what I experienced:
“If anything, things are even more difficult for Christian artists. Some churches do not consider art a serious way to serve God. Others deny that Christians in the arts have a legitimate calling. As a result, Christian artists often feel like they have to justify their existence. Rather than providing a community of support, some churches surround them with a climate of suspicion (Ryken, 9).”
The individual artist is not only underestimated in their role, but also feared in their ability to examine and critique the system. The church is leery of this type of behavior since their ideology is based on faith rather than fact. From his fair assessment, Ryken’s treatise quickly devolves into a derailment against the art world, and the two writers—Ryken being strongly influenced by the work of Veith—go on to display their lack of education on modern art, and their inability to explore the work beyond face-value:
“In many ways the art world has become—in the words of critic Suzi Gablik—a ‘suburb of hell (Ryken, 13).’”
Along with sweeping generalizations of the non-believing artist:
“It has always seemed to me a great evidence for the Christian faith that those who reject it acknowledge, if they are honest, that without God they have no hope in the world (Ephesians 2:12). Great unbelieving artists generally do not pretend that the absence of God in their lives is in any way fulfilling or a cause of rejoicing. Lacking God, they express their own emptiness. Looking outward, they probe and find that everything—other people, their society, nature itself—is a sham and a cheat. Is not their experience exactly what the Christian would predict (Veith, 210)?”
Veith’s observation here is a classic projection of his own beliefs onto those with an entirely different set of values. He holds assumptions about their worldview and their experience, concluding that they must be depressed and confused. I can’t comment for other artists, but since I am an unbelieving artist with greatness left to be determined, I take offense to Veith’s view. The only sham is the idea of God itself. With a bit of historical research, it doesn’t take much to understand that all gods pass away. The people who have created them, however, continue on in their formation of ideas.
Personally, when I first realized that God does not exist, I suddenly understood the concept of self-responsibility. There is no outside source directing my course. It is all on me—my choices, my initiative, my discipline. There is no one to blame for a misstep but myself. This redirection brought a sense of presence. I became more of a problem-solver. Fully embodied in nature, I no longer found it suspect. Rather than looking beyond this existence, I found the enormity of the present. There was nothing empty about this experience, and it improved my work as an artist.
“But whatever stories it tells, and whatever ideas or emotions it communicates, art is true only if it points in some way to the one true story of salvation—the story of God’s creation, human sin, and the triumph of grace through Christ (Ryken, 40).”
If a believing artist chooses to fall in line by directly promoting the church—as the church so often requests—their art degrades into propaganda. The general viewer is not interested in an art show as a form of religious proselytization. Rather, the audience seeks metaphor and examinations of established ideas. When a power structure uses the artist as a vessel for the promotion of a prerogative, the artist is subtracted down to the role of artisan. Yes, under a patron the artist may toy with the limits of their role, or use their artistry to go above and beyond, but the subject matter is typically chosen for them. Before the Renaissance, artists were generally viewed as artisans, and they received little respect in society.
Through many centuries of power, the Catholic Church understood the sway that art could have on their congregation. They staked their claim on visual artists, funding them and commissioning major works of art. Since most people could not read, the art served as the narrative. Though this set-up has changed drastically since then, the view that the church should direct the course of the art, still persists.
During the Reformation, as early Protestants sought to differentiate themselves from Catholicism, they destroyed many works depicting saints, and their fervor led to a general mistrust of art as being idolatrous. As a result, artists in Northern Europe faced a shortage of patrons for their work, and suddenly they had to paint of their own accord, without a commission directing their course. Subject matter shifted from religious and mythical depictions to scenes from everyday life.
Inadvertently, this rejection of visual art by the Protestant church led to the artist as a free agent. As the ideas of Humanism developed, art evolved as an ever-shifting landscape, wide and varied. It went beyond the limits of “beauty” and became a process of experimentation and exchange. When the individual is given value, there are no borders on creativity. We now benefit from the conceptual artist not only in art itself, but also in science, technology, and so many other aspects of contemporary life.
The problem between Christianity and art lies in the essence of both. Christians are told to not ask questions by accepting the mythical as being true. The artist is instructed to examine the details of every concept, and dissect the visual down to its basic elements to build it back up again.
It makes sense that everything I wanted to express as a young girl was in opposition to the limits imposed on me. In response to being instructed that a woman must be submissive, I painted strong women that I wanted to emulate. In order to work through my fear that the “darkness” would consume me, I dove right into it, and found that if you face it without fear, it has no power and does not even exist. I wanted to understand what made the world evil, and all I found was a world full of stories that only make sense when you listen, when you search, when you read from start to finish.
The thing is, even when you make these realizations, you still have to live in a world inhabited by people who think that myths are true. I have let go of my anger enough to have a dialogue with the people who tried to make me something that I was not. And since I am not a Christian, I can ask as many questions of believers as I choose. I keep them on their toes, and we have all grown for it. Every day, I lose another piece of the fear that I was raised with. It turns out, that being an “over-analyzer” was my greatest strength, not my greatest weakness.
February 27, 2016 § 7 Comments
As I watch my father fighting for his life, I feel so clearly now, the roots of myself in the warmth of his skeletal hand. His hands have always been beautiful to me. As a child, I loved the way those hands expressed a sense of his anatomy in the way the tendons and the veins stood out beneath his olive skin. Now those hands have shrunk to half the size, his fingers swinging like branches of a graceful tree, from arms that are deflated and covered in scars and sores from being poked by needles. Tubes descend and rise with his movements, from his chest, from his index finger, from his nose.
I’ve written many times about our debates over his religion, and my lack thereof. I miss those debates very much. And I miss my father’s cooking. He loved to spend entire days cooking meals for our Sunday dinner. He now watches cooking shows from his hospital bed in the ICU as a sort of hope for the future. That one day, he’ll be able to eat again, rather than have nutrients pumped through a tube. He’s been suffering from Ulcerative Colitis for a little over a year. His care was not handled properly, and by last November, he was down to 105 pounds and spent Thanksgiving in the hospital. Then three weeks ago, his colon burst, and he had emergency surgery to remove it. Since then, he’s had E.Coli; fluid in his lungs; a lung perforation that leaks air around his heart; and now an abscess in his unused stomach, which can’t be operated on because his lungs are too weak.
This has been going on for so many months now, that I feel I’ve made peace with whichever way this goes. But when I heard the news yesterday about the air around his heart, I experienced an anxiety attack that kept my hands from working, made me dizzy, and sent weakness into my knees. My mom has been experiencing this continually, but it was the first time that I felt it too.
Growing up, my dad and I had a volatile relationship. I now see that this was because we are exactly alike. We are both stubborn, and equally tenacious. We struggled against the iron will of the other. At that time, he was also very distant, both physically and emotionally. He worked long hours, and came home exhausted. He traveled for business constantly. It wasn’t until he retired that we all got to experience what a wonderful person my father really is. My parents spent a year living in Italy just before that, and it changed him in many ways. He transferred all of his technical engineering skills into a passion for food and the process of creating beautiful culinary experiences for friends and family.
When my father is in the hospital, I pick up the reins, and I do my best to fill his role. I cook the meals that make my family smile, I do my best to keep my mother calm, I instruct her on all the things my father always did—like the banking, and the computer issues, and the organizing of their lives. I feel all of the pressure that he carried for us for so many years. A lot. It is heavy. And when I am alone, I realize how hard I’ve worked to be strong for everyone, and I see that I am depleted and weak.
Thankfully, my sister just flew in recently, and she is staying with my mother so that I no longer have to fill that role. I don’t have a great deal in common with my mother and sister, but we are all getting to know each other in new ways. It’s my father who is so much of what I am. In the same way that he always has, I spend my days analyzing information and solving problems. I am very much in my head. I have to remind myself to be social. I’m not the warmest person in the world. It takes some effort. All of my pleasure comes from art and expression. Without that, I lose my sense of self. So I guard it carefully, and I fight in order to do it everyday. My father is not an intellectual, but he understands art and design. He has the same appreciation for film and music. There is an affinity there that I am lucky to have.
However, there are also the parts of me that my father will probably never understand. He will most likely never comprehend why I am an Atheist, and because of this, our worldviews are quite different. He does not understand the sort of wife that I am to my husband, in a relationship of equals, with different opinions and views than my spouse. My work ethic is not fully perceived by him, as it is not for most people who don’t understand the amount of effort it takes to write books and make art on a daily basis. Yet, he has a great appreciation for my talent, especially in regards to visual art.
I’ve seen my father go through many changes in the past four months. As his body became more toxic before surgery, I saw the negative side of my dad that I hadn’t seen in years. He was angry constantly, and prone to panicky moments. Almost every topic of conversation stressed him out. Yet, the day after his colon was removed, along with all of the toxins it had released; the dad that I know and love was back again. A few days later he told me that I’m his baby, and such a sweetheart. Words so uncharacteristic for him.
In the midst of my panic attack, I considered what my life would be without my father. If he doesn’t make it, I will no longer have that complicated person who I most relate to. And yet, he would still live on through my family. All I have to do is look down at my hands to see his hands. My sister, and my nieces—we all have traits of his.
Yet, he says he’s going to get better. He submits to every treatment in order to do so. He tells us not to worry. But of course, we do. We wake up on the hour, and check our phones for missed calls from the hospital.
In this place that lies on the balance of life and death, it is hard to be fully invested in life. But life goes on. He’s been in the ICU for exactly a month now. I have an art show coming up, and a book to finish, and piles of research to get through in the process. And without all of this, my mind would never have a break from the processing of what we are all going through.
Life is at once a rhythm, and also a series of unexpected things. Roles reverse, or change completely. The lessons we need to learn are not by our choosing, yet they are necessary in order to find our sense of empathy. Struggles have their importance. They refine us and bring us closer together. They show us what we most value, and the takeaway is to spend our lives learning to be fully embodied within that and aware of the brevity of life.
January 18, 2016 § Leave a comment
A few weeks ago, I was interviewed on The Liam Scheff Show – Deep Sex Talk. You can listen to the archive at the link below, where we discuss what I learned from being polyamorous, and how it improved my skills in navigating a monogamous relationship. I discuss a few scenes from my memoir, No End Of The Bed, and share a bit about my current project, a non-fiction book on the evolution of religion, and how religion effects culture at large.
This episode aired on UCY.tv on 12/20/15, and on Truth Frequency Radio 12/24/15 90.7 FM Denver, CO and 97.3 FM Eugene, OR
December 24, 2015 § 3 Comments
My parents had some talks with their pastor about my views, and I’m wondering what they told him. I’m an Atheist—that dreaded word that no Fundamentalist Christian wants to hear in regards to their offspring. On top of that, I am writing a book about my views, and even worse, delving into the history of how religions grew, which reveals that ideology is as fragile as a house of cards.
My partner and I love to debate with my parents every time I uncover some new piece of research. I get excited about my project and love to share what I’m working on. Michael, on the other hand, struggles to understand why my parents believe. He has a high opinion of them, which doesn’t match up with his low opinion of their bizarre faith. In response to our queries, my parents offer up quotes, though we keep hoping for words that come straight from their own thoughts. It never happens. Instead, they run through the usual church-approved clichés of Pascal’s Wager, the fiction of science, and “don’t believe everything you read,” which can easily be used against their literal belief in the Bible.
So Pastor Lee gave my parent’s some guidance on how to counter my arguments with “evidence.” This led to two books by Josh McDowell—77 Faqs About God And The Bible: Your Toughest Questions Answered and The New Evidence That Demands A Verdict. Though I wasn’t interested in borrowing the books, somehow I was sent home with them anyway.
McDowell’s bio reads like the usual bag of tricks lifted straight from the pocket of C.S. Lewis. He was a 19 year-old agnostic who wanted to prove faith wrong. With five more years to go before his frontal lobe was fully developed, he found evidence for faith. From there he attended all manner of Christian universities to become the big-time Christian author that he is now. He has 115 books to his name, many of them co-authored. That’s at a rate of about 3 books a year.
The first book I was given, 77 Faqs About God And The Bible: Your Toughest Questions Answered, had me at the title. It’s important to note the spelling chosen here—not Facts but Faqs—either way it’s ridiculous. Each chapter begins as an apologetics question followed by an “answer.” But that’s the problem—there are no answers to be found. There are opinions, suppositions, feelings, but nothing founded on fact or even research.
My favorite example is, “Does God have a gender?” According to McDowell, God does not have a gender based on the scripture where Jesus refers to his followers as a brood of chicks that he wants to protect like a mother hen. Therefore God is both paternal and maternal.
McDowell is missing the big picture. This is mainly because I’m sure he’s part of the crowd that believes the world is only 5,000 years old. The invention of patriarchal Abrahamic religion—which evolved from the Indo-European religion of the Storm God—was a direct attack against Goddess-centered beliefs and matriarchal societies. Over the course of thousands of years, beginning in the Neolithic period, women slowly began to lose their rights as the god of war succeeded the gods of agriculture. Eventually women went from being landowners and traders to becoming the property of men.
Gods always have a gender. Man is the author of the current god, and that god is most certainly male. He began as the Father God, and within Christianity, he is the father and son in one. It is now forgotten that the Mother Goddess birthed him, and that she was once the head of the trinity. The mysterious Holy Spirit now holds her place at the table.
Lets move on to McDowell’s magnum opus, The New Evidence That Demands A Verdict. In this book he claims that since all ancient cultures have a story about a massive flood, the story of Noah must be true. McDowell missed the course on metaphor. I’m sure there was a massive flood at one time, and this natural disaster spawned many legends. Legends grow, and legends evolve. Every culture had a different hero in the tale and a different version of the story. These cultures thrived on myth—the spoken word tales were both an entertainment and a cautionary tale. Ideas spread throughout the globe in the same way they do today—just a lot more slowly. The beliefs of Ancient Mexico share similarities with the beliefs of Ancient Egypt. It is absolutely incredible that distance makes no difference in the spread of legends and beliefs. This does not make the Bible factual. It is not meant to be—it is a religious book after all, and nothing about religion is based on facts. It’s based on politics, power, and control wielded through the weaponry of fables.
McDowell also shares that since several historical sources mention the existence of Jesus (Josephus for example) the story of his life must be true. Existence and story, however, are two different things. All you need to do is read a celebrity gossip magazine to understand this truth. What people say and what really happened are two different things. None of McDowell’s sources verify claims to a virgin birth or a resurrection—claims that were also made around all other savior gods in history, some who “lived” thousands of years before Jesus, displaying all the same signs of divinity that he apparently did.
Reading McDowell’s vague allusions brought up some anger issues that I thought I had fully worked through three years prior. For every Atheist argument, McDowell claimed that the research—which was directly quoted from the Bible—was taken out of context. This was all he could come up with. Perhaps what McDowell is really saying is that it’s taken out of the context of being in an obsessive relationship with a violent and jealous god whose misdeeds are ignored in order to fantasize that he’s all-loving and all-forgiving. Since I am no longer in a relationship with an imaginary deity, I can see the contradictions clearly, and in truth believers see them as well, they simply choose to ignore them.
Emotionally, those two books brought up all my fears about being trapped in stupid. My nightmares came back—the ones where I can’t escape Christian high school and I can never get out or grow up or have my own views. At least this time, I had the strength to say, “I don’t belong here.” After about a week, I wrote my feelings down, and the dreams went away.
The problem with McDowell’s books is that they only make sense to believers, which is of course his target audience. Christians say that those who don’t believe are sinners, but I say that not believing is the ethical choice. Growing up, I always knew it was wrong that we looked at outsiders as fallen people who couldn’t help themselves. I always knew it was wrong that as a female I was less than. I knew it was wrong when I was told not to ask questions. Looking back, I can’t imagine how my superiors actually succeeded in getting me to believe that the Bible was true. Sure, I wondered why stories like that didn’t still happen today. Religion is a game of pretend—seek and you shall find smoke and mirrors.
My parents are never going to let go of the hope that I will come back to God. Though we communicate our feelings and views openly, it still feels like I’m barely ever heard. My mother used to condemn people for their superstitions. She didn’t realize that she was at all superstitious, but that’s what religion is. I wish that they could see it. Maybe it’s just enough that religion ends with me.
October 8, 2015 § 3 Comments
Lets begin with the obvious—this cartoon makes no sense. I’ll start with a believer’s standpoint (though I am certainly not a believer) and then work my way back to the values of democracy.
According to a believer’s conception, God is imagined to be 3 things:
Omnipotent – Unlimited authority and power
Omniscient – Perceives all things with unlimited awareness
Omnipresent – Everywhere all at once
Therefore, it really doesn’t matter if teachers mention God in schools or if classes of students are all required to pray to him, because according to the 3 O’s, the idea of God goes beyond all that. In the cartoon, however, God only exists in places where he is allowed in by the pawn aka human. This tactic is used for the purpose of causing a guilt trip – “the evildoers caused this shooting, and if God was still taught in schools and prayed to in schools, this wouldn’t have happened. God would have intervened.”
Here we are faced with the problem of religious thinking – it promotes a superstitious mindset that is prone to forgo critical thought in favor of fear mongering.
Now lets look at this from a democratic angle. Within the Fundamentalist church, it is often taught that the United States was founded on Christianity. From their standpoint, God should be taught in schools. However, in truth many of the founding fathers were critics of faith (Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson in particular) and they did their best to keep politics and religion separate because they had seen the damage caused by state religion in England and Europe (massacres, torture, fascism, to name a few). So as new settlers aimed to make their denomination the supreme belief of their town at the expense of all others, Jefferson fought back with the 1st Amendment. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”
Within the sphere of public school—a state run institution intended for all students of all beliefs—the state has no right to impose a specific belief system on the students. However, those students are free to express their beliefs otherwise. Under the Amendment, prayer in public school should have never existed, but it did. In 1890, Catholics were the first to take a stand because the schools performed Protestant observances. However, prayer in public school wasn’t overturned until 1962 – a case that began with Engels, a Jewish man who was upset to see his son praying incorrectly according to their faith.
Keeping religion out of public school was further confused in the 1950’s. Though the pledge of allegiance was written in 1892, the words “under God” weren’t added until 1954. This was also the same era when “In God We Trust” was added to our bills.
There are exactly three religions that worship God – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The Abrahamic God has specific attributes that don’t equate into being Brahman (the supreme deity of Hinduism). And in Buddhism, for many, there is no God at all and worship is not an aspect of the faith. Rather, enlightenment is the ultimate goal. Last but not least, there is the Secular Humanist who enjoys the realm of scientific inquiry and the sheer magnitude of nature. Forcing all of these groups to pray according to a certain faith, or to pray at all, is nothing short of fascism.
I often wish that I had been allowed to attend public schools. My parents believe that I was given a superior education by being put in a private Christian school by the third grade, but I truly doubt it. Within the public school, my needs were attended to and I was recognized as a child with learning disabilities. But once in private, I was one loner in a mass of students I could never keep up with. The older I got, the more the pressure to conform became excruciating. The Bible was drummed into my brain, chapel was a continuous drone of “Lord I lift your name on high’s” and life seemed like a continual guilt trip. On top of this, I was constantly bullied and harassed.
I wonder what it would have been like to be in a school where I was not told who to be and what to worship. I wonder what it would have been like to truly experience diversity at that young age. Early on I had a nice friend who was Buddhist, but after my mother picked me up at her house and saw the statue of Buddha in the foyer, I was no longer allowed to play with her. Personally, I loved my friend’s home and felt humiliated by my mom’s reaction. It wasn’t that my mom was afraid I would convert to Buddhism, it was that she considered all other faiths to be evil and demonic.
I remember a sense of constant outrage in the 1980’s that prayer in school was no longer allowed. To the Christian Right, it spelled the demise of our youth. To them, things were always getting worse, not better. And still, to this day, life is not based on fact but on fabulous fictions. Just like this cartoon, which doesn’t even get the premise of their own religion straight.
September 28, 2015 § Leave a comment
In my last post, I stumbled on the idea that religion teaches us to see the world from a specific point of view, while art teaches us to see the world from all points of view. This topic deserves to be expanded. The word “art” can be a little vague because we forget the wide breadth that this covers within culture. To name just a few areas where art is who we are—film, television, literature, journalism, architecture, fashion, visual arts, theater, the art of making a speech, the art of making a meal, the art of conversation.
Art provides empathy. Empathy is the greatest experience that we can achieve. Through all of the means I have listed (and then some) we strive to share something special to us in order to give that feeling to others. We find a breakthrough in our craft, which leads to the completion of a story, which leads to the beginning of another story. By sharing this, others may feel what we feel. Or maybe they don’t. Maybe they are opposed to what we feel, and they will create a different story out of that experience.
By sharing, we spread the meme, and the meme grows. It is an organic process—ever-evolving. Through that evolution, life continues to change, only remaining the same in its substance. When we do not allow the story to shift and change, we’re in danger. If we do not allow metaphor and symbolism to have their way, we’re lacking in the imagination that can save us.
In my research, I’m currently studying the process of the mystics. Mystics often come from a traditionally religious background, but they have also been some of the great non-practicing figures, such as the poets Rimbaud or Walt Whitman. Writer Gershom Scholem shares:
“The most radical of the revolutionary mystics are those who not only reinterpret and transform the religious authority, but aspire to establish a new authority based on their own experience… The formlessness of the original experience may even lead to a dissolution of all form, even in interpretation (On The Kabbalah And Its Symbolism, 11).”
The word mystic can easily be substituted here for artist. Through persistent study, the artist breaks down what came before to create a new language. This language not only captures the zeitgeist, it transforms it.
The literalist, on the other hand, sees the words within holy books as stagnant, unmoving, ever the same. This causes a conservative rigid outlook on life—black and white, good and evil, wrong or right. To get beyond the words, we must stare at the words for a long time. We must examine their meanings. For example, the word good comes from god. The word evil originates from devil. Our language is steeped in religious concepts. The more I have examined these two words and their meanings, the more I have realized that they don’t actually exist. They only exist as a cultural concept, and not as a reality. Good and evil creates false judgments against outsiders, against people who have a different lifestyle or culture than our own. Within the parameters of good and evil, there is a language of conformity. These terms allow people to persecute others on the basis of differences and a lack of understanding.
We are an animal, and animals have motivations for survival. The greater portion of our faults come from being easily spooked. We over-compensate when we perceive the slightest threat. We are over-crowded in cities, stressed out and impatient, over-worked and struggling. News stations work hard to keep us uneducated and afraid. This in turn makes us want to commit atrocities against perceived threats.
Democracy is extremely fragile. We must be vigilant, because at any moment democracy can turn back into fascism. Last week the president of China visited Seattle. He had dinner at Bill Gates’ mansion. Fascism is happening right now in China. Activist artists such as Ai Wei Wei, Liu Yi, Zhao Zhao, and Chen Guang are threatened by the government on a daily basis. Leading up to June 4th, over 100 activists were taken into custody before the 25th anniversary of the massacre at Tiananmen Square. Some were imprisoned on trumped-up charges. Others were spirited away by police on forced vacations. Anything in order to silence the voices that are determined to remember the protesters who lost their lives in 1989. It is clear that not much has changed since then. Art is a threat against those who spread fear.
We must be grateful for our freedom of speech. In the US, just sixty years ago, you’d be hard-pressed to find a copy of Lady Chattely’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence (one of the greatest novels ever written). Allen Ginsberg underwent an obscenity trial for his poem Howl. Henry Miller’s novel Tropic of Cancer was banned for close to 30 years until the early 1960’s. People in Hollywood were blacklisted from working in film, and censorship was around every corner. Communism became a dirty word, and the American government used that fear against us. We are told that we live in a democracy, but vigilance is necessary in order to fully achieve that.
This week is Banned Books Week, highlighting some of the great truth-tellers of our time and of the past. Some of the works epitomize the statement that you should write as though no one is ever going to read your work—they are daring and free. Other books might seem commonplace to us, but in other cultures they are viewed as dangerous. By empathizing with the characters in these books we are taken into a different point of view than our own. We are given the possibility of a mind expanded. For the fundamentalist or the fascist, that is a truly dangerous prospect.
To view 196 banned titles, click the link to visit Powell’s Books
September 14, 2015 § Leave a comment
Recently I had the opportunity to speak with Rabbi Elazar Bogomilsky in regards to some questions I had for the book I’m writing on the origins of religion. Beforehand, my contact gave me a study guide entitled Judaism Decoded. Like every faith, Judaism has an argument for why their religion is chosen above the rest. In the guide I learned that while other belief systems began with the visions and experiences of just one to a few people, the Jews say that millions of people witnessed God at Mt. Sinai when Moses was given the commandments and instructions on how to live. Apparently, every eyewitness relayed all the same details and shared the same memories—blaring trumpets, bad weather and all. And yet, only Moses was allowed to ascend the mountain and be in God’s presence. It made me wonder why one has to believe the unbelievable to subscribe to a religious way of life.
This brought me to a point that the writer Karen Armstrong makes in her lectures. She has a fascination with the many Jews and Orthodox Christians who do not put any emphasis on the act of belief. Rather, they find their spirituality through the expression of ritual. Faith is not the main goal, but rather it’s the ritual that transforms the individual. I wondered if the Rabbi felt the same.
Rabbi Bogomilsky is a very busy man. After a day of playing phone tag, he finally had some time to talk. I was glad that I had taken time to prepare. In response to a question on the continuity of Judaism, he spoke of the Torah and why the oral tradition is so important. Today, we can barely understand the ancient texts that tell us of the events surrounding Moses. In comparison, the oral tradition stays current to contemporary language. “The Torah never changes, but our application of it changes.”
I asked him if he agreed with Karen Armstrong’s summation of Judaism as not being belief-centric, but rather ritual-based. He strongly disagreed. “We are not commanded to believe in God, but we are commanded to know God… The world is mundane. God elevates it from mundanity. In Hebrew the term for the world is olam, which means concealment. Through God we are given the tools for how to take a mundane world and elevate it. It’s a mental act, not emotional.”
Of course, different sects of Jews believe different things. In regards to the majority of Jews in Seattle who are non-practicing, he chooses not to judge. He understands that it’s a big commitment. And then he made my favorite comment: “Most people don’t think about their mission or purpose, they think about their existence—what job to take, who to marry, etc.” Right then, I felt a kinship with the Rabbi. Though I do not subscribe to a faith, my study of religions through history, and the expression of that study through writing and art, is my purpose and mission. The main difference between religion and art is that faith teaches a person to see the world from a specific point of view, while art teaches a person to see the world through all points of view.
Even in the most routine of days, I have a hard time comprehending how anyone could see the world as mundane. In fact, it is often within the routine that I find my most elevated moments. Through the exercise of a discipline, there is either frustration or a breakthrough. Each offers a new lesson. In each moment we are growing. Perhaps “olam” features well into this daily discovery. There is always something hidden to discover.
In this same vein, I have reached a new phase in my research of religion. Mainly, I’m no longer angry, and I no longer care about my own personal story of escaping the grip of Fundamentalist Christianity. Rather, I am in love with my topic. All religions are connected to each other, whether adherents would like to admit that or not. It makes for an incredibly fascinating story. And though I can recount the horrific details of conquest, torture, and sublimation within religious history, there is also so much we can learn about ourselves through an understanding of what we have believed throughout time. It has become my key to understanding human nature.