This I Know For Sure

Fact: There is not enough love in this world.

Which leads me to understand why people grasp on to religion, even if religion fails to live up to its loving reputation more often than not.

One of my seminary professors was a native Spanish-speaker who wanted us to understand that the Bible says different things in different languages. He told us that, in English, it is perfectly acceptable to love cheese, love your children, love your spouse, and love your god. In Spanish, it would be absurd to use the same word to describe these four things. But there is one duplicate in the set of four; the intimate, life-changing, self-altering love you feel for your spouse is the same word you’d use for what you feel for your god. He told us that he felt this same love for Jesus, and I believe him. I believe him because I recognized the emotion. I know, from the inside, what intimate, life-changing, self-altering love looks like. It’s hard to fake.

And I understand why you’d want to love Jesus so, so much. Unless you are very lucky, there is no one else who would die for you. There are days when the world is unbearably lonely to live in. Maybe you’re trapped on the freeway, boxed into your little metal container and surrounded by hundreds of strangers who you can’t communicate with because they are also boxed into little metal containers, and the alienation you suddenly feel — the fear that, omg, this is life — needs to be kept at bay by any means at all, even by a tacky “Honk if you ❤ Jesus” bumper sticker.

We (non)believers do believers a disservice when we assume that “Honk if you ❤ Jesus” can’t indicate an intimate, life-changing, self-altering love. We (non)believers do ourselves a disservice when we assume that such love is so easily found that we can cavalierly tell believers that they don’t need to go to Jesus for it. Where are (non)believers finding love? Do you immediately know? And do you have any ideas how to offer atheistic reassurance to your fellow human beings in the middle of a traffic jam? Personally, while I enjoy a nice Darwin fish, I don’t find it to be existentially calming.

Mark 4:39 is existentially calming, even if I don’t believe that the very elements obeyed a man named Jesus from Nazareth when those words were spoken.

Peace.

Be still.

(Non)belief means not offering a pat answer. It means finding ways to enhance human life that are more reliable than fairy tales. Building community, developing personal relationships, offering assistance to people you don’t know, helping people who don’t deserve your help are tangible ways to increase the amount of love in the world. Resisting violence and systems of domination are acts of love. #BlackLivesMatter is love.

Love has to be demonstrated to be felt.

I want to live in a world where there is more love. Don’t you?

Demons and Heathens: Mental Health is an Atheist Issue

During spring quarter, which happened to also be the final quarter of my program, I took a class called Sects, Cults, and New Religious Movements. As with most of the classes in my Methodist seminary, we didn’t really spend much time on the non-Christian point of view, even though a pretty sizable percentage of cults and new religious movements are non-Christian. Instead — as was typical for at least 80% of the courses I took in graduate school — we spent time talking about how uncomfortable the Christian students are made to feel by non-mainstream Christian beliefs, non-Christian beliefs, and (non)believers themselves. There was a lot of…how should I put this? Well-meaning liberal Christians feeling the crap out of their feelings. (The one evangelical Christian in the class was my buddy, but that’s a different post about how sometimes an honest enemy is the best friend you can have.)

I’ll be honest, it was boring. Until it was infuriating.

One day, a student got up on his little soapbox to talk about his time interning as a hospital chaplain. Both the internship and the soapbox are extremely common experiences in seminary; it wasn’t at all surprising that this man — let’s call him Gus — had worked in a clinical setting and wanted to preach about it. It was a little bit unusual for Gus to discuss working with psychiatric patients, though. Seminarians share the biases of the wider culture, and in general, we’re all terrified of talking about mental illnesses.

Gus, as it happens, had a different point of view. He had been counseling a patient who was being treated for, in his words, demon possession. It was her third hospitalization and medical science was obviously not helping because it was not treating the underlying spiritual cause. According to Gus, this patient believed (and he agreed) that there was no point in continuing hospitalization when the needed treatment involved getting right with God. Brimming with righteous anger, Gus told the class that the doctors ignored him or laughed at him when he brought the need for an exorcism to their attention.

In the discussion which ensued, I learned that perhaps only 25% of our classmates believed in demons; probably fewer believe in actual possession. But it turns out that they all fervently believed in spiritually-integrated care that addressed the possibility, however remote it was seen to be, of demonic possession. Mainline Christian conclusion: Doctors have no business telling a patient with psychosis that the symptom can be treated with biomedical interventions if the patient would rather go to a priest or a faith-healer.

My contribution to this discussion was sadly limited by my classmates’ general disagreement with the facts I tried to offer, such as the correct medical definition of psychosis or the fact that types of religious preoccupation can very often be manifestations of an underlying disorder (which is not to say that having religion is a mental illness; it isn’t, and atheists need to stop saying it is). My experiences as a mental health advocate were voted down in the low democracy of the graduate classroom.

Looking back, I regret not taking a more aggressive stance. My diplomacy got us exactly nowhere. I should have said: Demons are fiction. Your mental illness is no more caused by demons than it is caused by a tiny troll living in your stomach.

I don’t have a romanticized view of medical science, and I certainly have no illusions about involuntary hospitalization, which is the least effective way to combat a mental illness. Involuntary treatment is and should be the treatment of last resort, and only should be used in cases where there is obvious risk to the self or to others. The fact that patients with mental health conditions are trapped in the jaws of a medicolegal system wherein psychiatric advance directives — one of the few ways to anticipate how one will be treated in the case of involuntary hospitalization — are abrogated at the whim of the clinician is nothing short of a crisis. Defensive medicine is not helping anybody, and neither is the 17 year lag it takes for new research in mental health to make its way into medical practice. In short, we’re talking about a very serious, very complicated problem.

But…let’s talk about adding demons to this mix. We’ve spent the last 300 years trying to get demons out of medicine. Evidently we haven’t had much success with the church-going rank-and-file, but, thank the God I don’t believe in, we’ve had better luck with the doctors. We know we’ve had better luck with the doctors because, as just one example, an anticonvulsant is the first treatment for epilepsy (or, if you live in a civilized place, you can try MMJ), and skull trephination to let the demon out is not.

To say that we — as graduate students, as doctors, as religious leaders, or whoever — should treat mental illness as though it is spiritually different from other bodily maladies is, to say the least, infantilizing. To say the most, it is criminally irresponsible and will lead to unnecessary human suffering. In extreme cases, you will continue to see children killed by their parents by either neglect or by smothering/stabbing/beating to eradicate the “demon.” Those of us who know that demons aren’t real have no business tolerating this belief, damn that it’s “sincerely held.”

Because I realize that demons aren’t real isn’t the argument that will carry the day with mainline Christians, let me make the Christian argument as well: Jesus of Nazareth came so that you may have abundant life. People who are suffering are not living abundantly. People who claim that their suffering is in the service of Jesus are misinterpreting the Gospels they hold so dear.

Ed Snowden is an Atheist Issue

Changing the world from an atheist perspective encompasses a ton of different issues. Gamer culture, philosophies of science, principles of good dog ownership…these are all atheist social change (ASC) issues. It shouldn’t surprise anyone when I say that the surveillance state is an ASC issue. This is not mission drift. Our mission should be to make the world safe for (non)believers.

In a world where (non)believers can be imprisoned for blasphemy or executed for apostasy, we can’t take an easygoing approach to social control. Without a certain amount of security — the kind of human security where private conversations are kept private and where speech doesn’t carry a death sentence — we can’t be (non)believers. We can’t be in community and we can’t be intellectually rigorous. In America, we might lose our jobs or our homes. In other countries, we might lose our lives.

Edward Snowden has been living in exile for two years because his belief in liberation technology over the power of the modern nation-state compelled him to take radical, heroic, self-sacrificing action. Two years in exile would be an enormous price for any of us to pay, and Snowden isn’t done paying. His anniversary in Moscow is presently causing the nastier corners of the Internet to rage over the US government’s inability to serve up his head on a platter — and by nastier, I don’t mean “out of the mainstream” or “insignificant.”

My (non)believer friends and colleagues, you don’t have to agree with what Snowden has done. You are permitted your squeamishness moral discomfort about whistle-blowing and breaking the laws of Empire. But you need to have Snowden’s back, because he has yours. You, of all people, will not be free in a Panopticon.

Imagining Atheism Complexly: “White Wine in the Sun”

I had a rather amazing experience this past Wednesday, as I was given the opportunity to “preach” (what is it that atheists do instead of preach?) — and not just preach, but in fact organize an entire hour — at my school’s weekly chapel. Three administrators, including the president of the school, attended.

Good nerdfighter that I am, I spoke on imagining atheism complexly. Why promote one passion when you can promote two, three, or four? I’d like to write something on complexly-imagined-atheism (complex atheism, for short!) in the near future.

I ended with this video:

The Good Atheist

Probably the strangest thing about attending a seminary for my (first?) graduate degree is the expectation that I’m “not really an atheist” (in the sense of Oprah Winfrey saying that if you can feel awe, you aren’t really an atheist; everyone knows that atheists are grouchy and only eat Brussels sprouts). If you can discuss religion, if you can do theology, if you can say the word “spiritual” with a straight face, then you aren’t really an atheist…or at the very least, you’re a GOOD atheist!

If the expectations of my classmates are anything to go by, a good atheist is an atheist who respects other belief systems and who is constantly sad that her personal systems of meaning-making can’t guarantee everlasting life. She’d be an atheist who feels included in moments of silence that nevertheless end with “amen” and who never makes religious people feel awkward.

So, Christian people are disappointed to find out that I’m not a one-of-the-good-ones atheist. Oh well.

The ironic thing is that, according to some atheists, I’m not a good atheist either — as in, I’m not good at being an atheist. Not because I’m attending a seminary or because I can say the word “spiritual” with a straight face, but because I’d rather do feminism than do atheism, because I’d rather join hands with a liberationist than a rape apologist, because I do religious people the courtesy of taking their life experiences seriously (which is markedly not the same thing as taking their beliefs seriously; I just can’t stand anyone who is in the business of auditing other people’s lives).

Clearly I’m not a “good atheist” by either definition presented thus far, so I’ll just have to create my own.

To my mind, a good atheist is a person who behaves ethically and who does not express god-belief/belief in the supernatural. Because a good atheist is not saddled with 6,000 years of patriarchal theology, a good atheist is able to seek out, identify, and reject the patriarchal artifacts in our culture. A good atheist in my social location is aware that the current Euro-American conception of “God” is particular to this time and this place and knows that to assume all believers worship “God” is ethnocentric in the extreme. A good atheist knows that people deserve respect, even when their beliefs don’t. A good atheist is not afraid to point out when beliefs don’t deserve respect. A good atheist knows the difference between ignorance and choosing to be ignorant.

Those are the most general guidelines I can come up with. Here are some other guidelines which are more particular to me and my own experiences. Please note that your mileage may vary and that you are never under any obligation to do something which makes you feel unsafe.

  • A good atheist is OUT. A good atheist is constantly in the process of coming out.
  • A good atheist recognizes when she is the recipient of Christian privilege and rejects it. A good atheist recognizes when other people are dealing in Christian privilege and calls it out.
  • A good atheist has carefully considered how to identify herself. Is she a skeptic? Maybe. Is she a freethinker? Maybe. Is she an agnostic? Maybe. But she has considered all of the connotations and decided that to identify herself as an atheist is the most intellectually honest approach available.
  • A good atheist is not holier-than-thou, or rather, more-atheist-than-thou. As interesting as de-conversion stories can be, the quality of the story does not determine the quality of atheist. The idea of “atheist street cred” is basically meaningless.
  • A good atheist, if speaking publicly about atheism, is well-versed in counter-apologetics — which is to say, you shouldn’t ever concede a philosophical point. It isn’t turtles all the way down and you know it.

Feminist Atheist, or Atheist Feminist?

“Atheist” and “feminist” are two identities which don’t get along so well. It’s a shame, because both are unfairly stigmatized, and I think the “a-word” and “f-word” could gain a lot in a collaborative partnership. Which is why I (of course) claim both identities and discuss how both inform my work as a social change agent.

The trickiest thing — at least as far as the low-stakes issues go — is deciding how to present myself. Am I a feminist atheist, or an atheist feminist? The first noun will become the adjective, informed by the core identity of the second, whether or not I would wish it to be.

So is my brand of atheism an explicitly “feminist atheism,” or is my feminism informed by atheism, just as many schools of feminism are molded by an outside source (i.e. ecofeminism, Marxist feminism, Christian feminism, etc.)? I’m not being asked to choose between the two identities, but I am interested in how just changing the order of the words shifts the theoretical foundation in a significant way.

Give the options, I’d have to say that I think feminism reflects my core motivations better than atheism. The reason for this is simple: I could stop thinking, talking, and writing about atheism, and the supernatural would still be a lot of hooey. The ontological argument, while fascinating and important, is not the issue on which social change currently hinges. In contrast, to stop talking about feminist issues would be to surrender to a politically-regressive, theologically-oppressive movement prioritizing the cis-male of the species over the cis-female (and just forget about the trans* people). Giving up on feminism is a tangible step backwards.

Let me put it another way. Richard Dawkins is a rape apologist. I do not mean this pejoratively, even though that’s a pretty rotten thing to be. I mean that anyone who compares being a victim of sexual assault to being a drunk driver has clear, well-defined loyalty to rape culture. There is nothing essentially atheist about Dawkins’ victim-blaming, but there is something essentially misogynistic. If my primary concern was with the ontological argument, I wouldn’t care. But instead, as an embodied female, living in rape culture like a fish lives in water, I simply cannot “do atheism” without the bedrock philosophy that I am deserving of personhood. I demand to be seen as a whole person. If Dawkins feels the need to ‘splain to women how rape culture really isn’t so bad…well, forget him. No one died and made him god.

What is meant by feminism (in this space)? 

For me, feminism is a political philosophy which promotes choice in all things. In a consumer-oriented culture, choice is often reduced to “would you like fries with that,” so let’s specify choices as being related to embodiment.

Far-reaching conclusions can be drawn from this one philosophy: Stop-and-frisk is a feminist issue. Prison abolition is a feminist issue. Marriage equality and trans* liberation are feminist issues. Animal welfare is a feminist issue. Palestine is a feminist issue.

All of these issues are about how our embodiment is perceived and interacts with the world around us. Troy Davis and Trayvon Martin were both executed because of their embodiment. Those deaths are, in addition to being a racial issue and a criminal justice issue, a feminist issue.

I cannot be safe in my own body unless everyone else is also safe in their own bodies. Feminism means all of us or none. This, more than anything else, is the ethical commitment that gets me out of bed in the morning.

Atheism is the arena in which I would like to enact feminism. Atheism without feminism means absolutely nothing. You might as well go out and join the Quiverfull movement.

Science and Social Change

Here is another basic proposition that will inform my writing on this blog: Hard science is a liberating force. While I don’t like the word spirituality at all (if a more poorly defined term exists in the English language, I certainly haven’t heard it), I wouldn’t hesitate to apply the connotations of “spirituality” to science. The worth of my life — the essence of what it is to be human for me — is increased by the Hubble Deep Field. That is the spirituality of hard science.

It is interrelated, but by no means interchangeable, that I approach life as an atheist and that argue atheism is a valid religious view and deserves a seat at the table.

Here are the three reasons why science is liberative.

ONE: Science is anti-authoritarian. Anyone can do it (normal disclosures about kyriarchy apply, but examples like Mary Anning defy the notion that all science has always been solely institutional), anyone has access to the fundamental tools (yes, YOU can use and/or identify variables, controls, and the scientific method), and the final arbiter is evidence, not authority (i.e. the Catholic church eventually had to admit that the planets orbit the sun, ’cause, ya know, they do).

TWO: Science is fundamentally an attempt to better the human condition, and mistakes that have been made in the name of science are not an argument against that goal. The epistemology of science is not malicious. Some scientists have been — and so have members of every other human population. Things get blamed on science that are correctly blamed on racism (Tuskegee), imperialism (the atomic bomb), capitalism (Big Pharma), or sadism (Nazi medical “experiments” — which were not even scientific). I assert that science is fundamentally an attempt to better the human condition because the universe is a complex, dangerous place, and knowledge is power. We should be celebrating that Eve ate the apple; I cheer the fall of ignorance before knowledge.

THREE: Science is not a zero-sum game. I can “win” science without someone else losing. I’ve heard the argument advanced — over and over and over, ad nauseam — that “we shouldn’t send people to Mars when children are starving in Africa,” as if the 0.48% of the federal budget that goes to NASA is genuinely what’s going to make or break world hunger. We know perfectly well that the redistribution of resources from the center-of-empire to the margins-of-empire would have an immediate and lasting effect on the well-being of people in the two-thirds world, whereas a mere tweak of the federal budget makes no guarantee as to the distribution of resources or even regards the amount of knowledge we could potentially lose out on. There never has been, and I doubt there ever will be, a trade-off between spending on sciences and spending on humanities or human welfare.

Geekdom

I’m going to take some time before school starts to lay out a few basic propositions that will inform my writing on this blog. The first proposition I want to go over is the importance of geekdom.

Millennials — those of us born between 1980 and 2000 — are just as capable of being serious academics as the generations which preceded us. The major distinction is that millennials really like to do their theory with a dash of pop culture. As a graduate student, if I can’t relate my theological studies to my personal pantheon (think Star Trek, Terry Pratchett/Discworld, and the Whedonverse), it seems like a wasted day in the academy. I feel particularly lucky because, in recent years, geekdom has gone mainstream. I would casually place the emergence of popular geekdom in 2007/2008, with the premier of The Big Bang Theory and the first Iron Man movie.

As with atheism, making geekdom safe for women, gender-variant and/or gender non-conforming people is a major arena of social change. Just this week, Anita Sarkeesian was driven from her home by death threats. Making geekdom safe for people of color is equally critical. The first examples that come to mind are both involving blockbusters: When Idris Elba was cast as Heimdall in Thor, white supremacists freaked out. The “real” Heimdall, they claimed, would have been white — as if the Marvel universe isn’t stretching Norse mythology already. (This is also an atheist issue in that there is no “real” Heimdall and therefore accurate portrayal is a moot point.) These same people further freaked out upon the release of The Hunger Games, claiming that the character Rue shouldn’t have been “made Black” for the sake of “political correctness” — regardless of the fact that Rue is described in the book as having brown skin.

Documenting incidents such as these is an endless project and not very rewarding, so I’m not going to do it. I’m just introducing the idea of geekdom as a feminist issue and a social change issue.

Geekdom is also an atheist issue, although the reasons are perhaps not as overt. It’s the little things, like how we are valued in sci-fi; Captain Picard is revealed to be an atheist in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Who Watches the Watchers” while the high-profile television atheists are sociopaths (Alan Shore from Boston Legal, Dr. Cox from Scrubs, BBC’s reimagining of Sherlock Holmes).

Geekdom can be a culturally appropriate vehicle for atheist voices, from Joss Whedon’s The Avengers (in which Captain America, who personally knows two gods, continues to insist that there is only one god) to Terry Pratchett’s defense of existential atheism through the mouth of Granny Weatherwax in Lords and Ladies.  Perhaps the Force is divine, but there is no god in Star Wars. Perhaps J.R.R. Tolkien was Catholic, but Samwise Gamgee is not.

Geekdom is my culture. I’m not letting the theists claim it as their own just because C.S. Lewis was a Christian apologist.

Year Two

Last year at this time, I was a week away from my first day of graduate school in a Methodist seminary.

I didn’t start a blog at that point because, honestly, what was there to say? I didn’t see the conflict. My degree program is the Master of Arts in Social Change, not Master of Divinity. I’m not training for ministry or chaplaincy, so I’m not sticking my nose in where it doesn’t belong. I just understood (and understand) religion as part of what needs changing. For that reason, studying social change in a religious environment is perfectly logical.

Looking back, it’s a little bit bizarre that I had so much faith in the ability of a seminary to welcome an atheist, whatever the nature of the work she is planning to do.

I’ve learned a lot in the past year. For example, I’ve learned that the first time someone calls you out for not having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, it’s annoying. The twentieth time, it’s a pattern.

Oh, how I wish now that I had kept track of the pattern.

To be fair, there are a lot of people who are supportive of what I’m doing, including the president of the school. Having institutional support is valuable and I would not want anything I write in this space to reflect poorly on my institution. The school has problems because all schools do. I have never been treated worse than any other student just because there is no personal god in my theology.

Of course, if that changes, the news will break here.

In part, this website will be my professional voice where I hope I will be able to articulate who I am, what I’m about, and why I said, “Theology, that sounds fun!” But I’ll also be blogging, for your entertainment and mine, about the wild and wacky world of the only atheist seminarian I know (me, in case you didn’t catch it). It’s Year Two, and there’s an incoming class. People are bound to say the darndest things.