Energy Versus Spirituality

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.[1] 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.

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[1] 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.

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Life As A Secular Humanist

June 21, 2018 § 2 Comments

The most challenging hurdle that I face as a Secular Humanist, is just how different my worldview is from those that I interact with on a daily basis. The majority find my views threatening to their experience of life. It goes beyond people of a religious persuasion, to friends who are “spiritual.” We might all share the English language, but our meanings are not the same.

Twelve years ago, the metaphysical was my last stop before becoming an Atheist. My friends were shamans, reiki practitioners, wiccans, and various energy workers. I performed as a belly dancer with a percussion group, and wrote odd little melodies on the mandolin paired with my poetry. A perfect day was spent at artist Alex Gray’s Chapel of Sacred Mirrors, where my friends and I hob-knobbed while people at our feet were stoned out on LSD. I viewed life in such a romantic sense; surrounded by people who should only exist in literature.

Often, the spirit world seemed more prevalent than the real world. Much later, I came to understand that the spirit world does not exist—it is simply the strength of the mind. If a person believes something to be true, their mind does whatever it takes to prove that thing to be true. This is enhanced in group experiences, where everyone becomes caught up in a performance of certainty and the exclusion of outsiders. Some people gain power through building on charisma or paranoia. Their position is heightened through supernatural terms where the imagination has no limits.

When people feel that they are having a spiritual experience, they sense a breakdown of physical form, while feeling expansive and united with others. As this occurs, the anterior of the brain—the part which gives us spatial awareness—slows its function. The temporal lobe increases in activity—the part which breaks down space, allowing us to connect, or in some circumstances, hallucinate. This experience is not supernatural, or even spiritual at all. It is what we actually are—physical forms understanding our connection with other physical forms. Rather than the spiritual, I believe in what exists—space, energy, form.

One of my closest friends has a difficult time understanding my views. We first met at the height of my metaphysical phase, and our shared history is a strong bond. She is very intelligent with an intimidating personality that comes from being passionate about a cause. A few months ago, she stayed with us for a week so that she could take a class in the city. She began to get to know the more recent parts of me that we hadn’t fully explored in the brief visits we’ve shared in the past ten long-distance years. My views really upset her, and one night, she and my husband debated me for hours. She has a scientific point of view, and sees the metaphysical as an essential part of that. My husband believes in an uninvolved god and the idea of spirit, but he had never debated against my atheism before. On other issues, yes, but not on this. It really threw me. My two closest allies were no longer my allies. This produced an extreme sense of being alone that lasted for some time after. It is one thing when this sense occurs indirectly with acquaintances. It is entirely another thing, when this occurs in a safe space with those that are closest.

After that, there was a shift. Everywhere I went, it became much more obvious how people express superstitions that are layered within language, culture, and experience. It is embedded in our consciousness, so much so that most people don’t even realize that they are doing it. In reaction, I dodge comments that are so outside of my own philosophy. I develop new forms of language in order to subtract the supernatural, religious, mythical, and mystical.

I go to yoga once a week, which centers me both mentally and physically. I approach it from an energetic rather than a spiritual approach, but of course, highly “spiritual” people practice yoga. I often hear how the Universe does this or that for us, as though it is personified and singling us out from the rest of life—Universe as deity. I smile and say nothing, respecting that I am on someone else’s turf.

A couple weeks ago, one of my instructors said that the “negative” is not a part of us. I found this problematic. Thoughts are not a “dark energy” outside of the self. My thoughts are my own work to deal with and get through. It is the difficulties in life that make us stronger, and I fully embrace that as an essential task. Furthermore, negativity is an opinion. I see pain, struggle, and obstacles to be surmounted as the key to growth. All of life is built on conflict—it is healthy, and how we grow.

At yoga, I also hear the word, “serendipity” which is similar to the more recent term, “synchronicity.” Carl Jung first introduced this concept, and felt that unexplainable events of chance determined a paranormal aspect. My opinion is that synchronicity has yet to be fully explored, but can be explained through science and math, such as quantum physics and probability. For example, subatomic particles connect instantaneously with other particles no matter the distance between them. We don’t fully know the extent to which this occurs on a macro level. Also, in highly populated areas, chance events are more likely to occur due to the increase of possibilities. I personally experienced chance events the most when I lived in the New York City area, and had an extensive social network. Much less so in a smaller network.

Mathematician, Steven Strogatz, said, “Sync is perhaps the most pervasive drive in all of nature.” My cats synchronize as they clean their faces at two opposite ends of the room. Flocks of birds, schools of fish, herds of animals all flow in a synced-up state. Within these actions there is a magnetic quality of bonded forms.

Sync also directs the flow of my work as a writer and an artist. Thoughts magnetize to experience. These connections happen constantly as film, literature, music, art, and conversation both filter through and become my own experience. As I absorb these forms, they direct me to the next things that I will absorb, and all of it begins to overlap in a complicated weave that grows through time and creates the brain that is thinking and producing and creating. Associations develop through comparisons, developments, unities. A magnetism of sync, and an expression of energy.

People often think of the Atheist’s experience as a flat, meaningless, existential dilemma. For example, Christian writer, Francis Schaeffer sums up his view of people without a god as thinking, “man is nothing, the world is nothing, nothing is nothing.” I remember having this same exact opinion as a young Christian. But another thing I wondered back then was, “Why doesn’t anyone else seem to notice how amazing earth is? Why are we looking beyond the stars?” There is a rich experience to be had by scaling one’s vision back from the imaginary to the uncharted territory of life itself. To be fully embodied and present in this existence.

 

 

A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Christian

May 24, 2016 § 1 Comment

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Beginning to explore the world in Venice, age 21

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.

 

Pastor’s Picks For Dealing With People Like Me

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.

 

 

Creating Change Through Art

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

Questions For The Rabbi

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.

Heaven Is For The Living, Not The Dead

July 8, 2015 § Leave a comment

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“If I believe in God, and it turns out to be true, then I go to heaven. If I don’t believe, and it’s true, I go to hell. The safest bet is on believing, and if it turns out to not be true, than what have I lost?”

This is an argument that has been posited to me many times by family members and people within the church. It is known as Pascal’s Wager. Blaise Pascal was a seventeenth century French philosopher, physicist, and mathematician. He believed that there was more to be gained than lost by believing in God due to the potential for heaven or hell in the afterlife. For those who believed, he saw only a finite deficit of pleasure in the present. For those who didn’t believe, the possibility of hell was too great a loss.

If a person struggled to have faith, Pascal advised that they should not look for more proofs of God, but rather they should abate their passions and follow the rituals of the church. Through these actions, they would be cured of their ill—ritual creates belief.

This is a weak argument from every angle. The wager presents an issue that always seemed like a shoddy reason for believing—fear. Pascal tells us that we need to do our utmost to believe on the basis of fearing hell. However, there is no evidence of hell; and there is no evidence that aligning ourselves with a savior figure will take us to heaven and a new earth. Viewed from the outside, these tales seem ridiculous—ancient leftover legends that somehow still make an impact on the gullible.

The concept of heaven and hell did not originate within Judaism. At the time of the Old Testament, they believed in Sheol—a Hebrew word that is said to have meant abyss, dirt-pit, or grave. It is a place underneath the earth where the dead congregate. Families were buried in the same location so that they could continue to commune together. However, the main preoccupation of the dead was sleep. Sheol did not differentiate according to belief. Everyone went to the same place and never came back. There was no soul or spirit that departed from the body. The gate to Sheol was in the West, because the sun sets in the West—an idea directly borrowed from the Egyptians. As time progressed, our current conception of heaven developed from a mixture of sources within surrounding religions. Within the Bible, the gates of heaven are well described, but what lies beyond is quite vague. Perhaps the glory of heaven is best left to the imagination, where it remains until we go to Sheol—the grave pit.

The second part of Pascal’s Wager is the recommendation for non-believers. He assumes that the non-believer is ruled by passions, and because of this, they cannot find their way to belief. By comparison, the Christian is taught to repress their natural instincts. By suppressing an action, the thought of that action grows over time. So it is assumed, that a non-believer who doesn’t subscribe to this repression must be driven by lust and a desire for 24/7 intoxication. But this of course, is not the case.

The illness lies within the repression and remains in the idea that nature is evil. The well-balanced non-believer does not struggle with unbridled tendencies, which is to say that not all non-believers are well-balanced. There are many who have recently left the faith, and are still struggling with leftover dogma. For those that are far beyond that, or never had to deal with it in the first place, “pleasures” are a nonentity, experienced freely and hardly given a thought. They are not an issue of control; rather they are a natural part of life. There is no internal battle going on. People are not driven by “sins,” rather we are driven by the human needs for happiness, health, community, food, and reproduction. Our actions are swayed towards surviving and thriving—a phase of excess is put to bed in lieu of this.

The “sin” is an aspect of a particular belief, and is not a negative for the non-believer. It is a system of control for the group that believes—such as modesty, laws about what foods you can eat, sex before marriage, or resting on Sunday. These “sins” have nothing to do with the person who does not believe. They have no bearing, and are a means of unification for the tribe of the faithful. Avoiding these “sins” is a way for the religious to separate themselves from the pack.

The second instruction for the non-believer is to engage in the rituals of belief in order to start believing. This is another way of saying, “fake it till you make it.” In Judaism and Orthodox Christianity, ritual is the basis of the religion. Believing is not the essential ingredient. The religion is made real through the actions of ritual. But in Western ideas of Christianity, belief is the foundation for entering paradise. One must believe that Jesus existed and rose from the dead, and they must live their lives in accordance with him in order to join him in the afterlife.

When Pascal tells the non-believer to not look for more proofs of God’s existence, he is adding to the marketing campaign of every religion. Religion crumbles through the search for truth. This is why the religious are told not to question. There is nothing original to the faith of Christianity. Within other beliefs, all of the basic tenets were there for up to 3,000 years before the birth of Jesus. Yet, Christians would like to think that their faith magically appeared from the sky. Instead, it was an evolution of ideas, a borrowing of myths, and a copycat of rituals from other religions. The story of history reveals itself as a series of political maneuvers where beliefs reflect the reigning leaders. Rather than spirit, there is conquest.

This borrowing of principles and rituals was nothing new at the time. This is why from Tezcatlipoca in Ancient Mexico to Tammuz of Babylon (to name just two of many more) people worshipped the dying and rising savior figure according to the time of year. Over thousands of years, sacrifice evolved into sacrament, and today we worship the current incarnation of the dying and rising savior—Jesus Christ.

The collective consciousness creates our story and our reality. Belief began as a form of magic in order to fulfill the desire for control over nature. At this point, we have so much control over nature that we may just succeed in destroying it.

The only thing proven by religion is that beliefs spread like a virus, and those beliefs form our culture. I would wager that the single most motivating force for conversion to Christianity is the threat of hell and the promise of heaven. It is a great marketing tool for gathering followers. So much so, that ever since, people have been saying, “Better to be safe than sorry.”

Fear controls the masses. It is a method of herding people into doing what you want them to do. When you take the veil off the fear, the fear has no power. Unmasked, we can see it for what it really is. It loses its mystery and mastery over us. We gain, rather than lose from this process, and only then can we find freedom.

 

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