Funny* Things People Say to Me

*Funny in the sense of mildly disturbing, not hilarious.

1.) From a classmate in Theological Anthropology: “The promise of Christianity is that if you stop sinning, you’ll become immortal!” I thought that the promise of Christianity was that if you confessed your sins and asked for forgiveness, God would sacrifice someone else.

2.) From a classmate in Intro to the Hebrew Bible: “Hagar got uppity.” Really, dude? You want to interpret Genesis 16, where Sarah whores out her Egyptian slave, Hagar, with the word uppity? Are you out of your goddamn mind?

3.) From a classmate in Ethical Perspectives on War and Peace: “I can keep secrets, so Edward Snowden should have been able to as well.” Lady, if the secrets you are keeping are about the end of meaningful forms of freedom, spill ’em, please.


Winter Quarter Begins Monday

Introduction to the Hebrew Bible: I feel that I’ve already been “introduced” to the Hebrew Bible, but apparently biblical scholarship is different in HUGE, MEANINGFUL WAYS from four atheist friends sitting around cracking jokes about 2 Kings 2:24. (A common atheist complaint: Christians don’t like our interpretations, so they tell us that we are interpreting it all wrong. But, aside from unalterable, if occasionally inconclusive, historical and scientific facts, there’s no such thing as right or wrong interpretation — it’s all merely interpretation.)

The first assignment for Tuesday? Write about your thoughts on “biblical authority.” I’m already baffled. “Authority over what?” is not the first thought of an atheist-atheist; it is first thought of a “sinners in the hands of an angry God” atheist. The Christians in my life tried to teach me that all authority rested with God. The Bible is therefore not an authority at all.

Ethical Perspectives on War & Peace: I’m mostly dreading this class, even though I love the professor (I had him for Ethical Analysis & Advocacy and for Hispanic Ethics & Theology). I learned to generally fear radical pacifists when I took the nonviolence seminar last spring. Don’t misunderstand — violence is bad. Likewise, war is bad. But let’s not be so naive as to pretend that the ends have never justified the means. Inevitably, a classmate will accuse me of playing God, to which I will almost certainly reply, “What’s your point?”

Shaping Public Policy: Ugh, these ridiculous 2-credit classes I have to take in order to round out my schedule! I’ve campaigned professionally. I understand advocacy. My first love was Howard Dean. That being said, if we get away from Christian supremacy for just a little bit — if we actually explore what it means to live in a secular democracy — my classmates’ heads will implode and it will all be worth it.

Theological Anthropology: Woohoo, the good stuff! This is what I’m talking about! This is why I am bothering to go to graduate school! Who are we, why are we here, what does it mean to be human in North America in the 21st century CE? Plus, I love this professor (Postcolonial Globalization in Africa; Rethinking Diversities).

Against Hope

As I said in my last post, I encountered some offensive nonsense coming from the instructor during my Saturday class. She asserted — without any subtlety — that religious organizations are better at peacebuilding than secular organizations are (!). Having already dealt with 9/11 and moon-landing conspiracy theorists, as well as “quantum morality,” I was not in a good place to be told that religions are peaceful entities.

Me: “On what do you base this claim?”

“Religions offer hope.”

Me: (actually losing my cool) “WHOA. Stop. Hope has absolutely no place in this.”

Rather than take on the question of whether or not secular or religious organizations offer more “hope” — because, honestly, where would that discussion get us? — I’d like to use this post to explain one of my core philosophies: Hope is oppressive.

Hope is oppressive because hope is paralyzing. Hope keeps people from taking action, from asserting agency, from rationally weighing potential outcomes and from deciding what is an acceptable risk. Hope is a gamble that you are guaranteed to lose, because while the hoped-for outcome might come to pass, the passive nature of hope is disempowering. Hope just keeps people in line.

Hope is also oppressive because hope is accompanied by the emotions of anxiety and disappointment. Hoping for something is stressful. Hoping for something and not getting it can be devastating.

Hopelessness, on the other hand, is liberating. You’ve heard the expression “beware of the person with nothing to lose,” right? Hopelessness is the space of commitment, the space where we find out who we really are and what we are ready to fight for. Hopelessness is the place where we discover radical self-reliance, because no one is coming to save us. Hopelessness is the place where we make our stand because it has become unbearable to wait any longer, and hopelessness is where justice gets done.

Let me be clear: Hopelessness is not despair. To despair is to lose hope — what happens after hope. Hopelessness is to not waste your energy on hope in the first place and to instead focus your energy on getting things done.

Whee! Week 2! (And musings on tolerance.)

Here are two statements that are quite different from each other:

Tolerance is not a virtue.

Intolerance is a virtue.

This week, I found myself having to defend against the proposition that the first is equal to the second. It was bizarre, because I wasn’t arguing for or against the validity of either statement, which would have been a far more interesting discussion. Instead, I was forced to clarify that when I said “tolerance is not a virtue,” it was not an underhanded way of saying that “intolerance is a virtue.” The two statements are not at all the same.

Neither tolerance nor intolerance is prima facie virtuous, but the main reason that “tolerance is not a virtue” is not an equivalent claim to “intolerance is a virtue” is because of what tolerance is instead of being a virtue: a baseline expectation to be extended to fellow human beings. Tolerance is patronizing and reminiscent of a parent-child relationship (I’m right, you’re wrong). Tolerance is what you enact when you can’t find it in yourself to accept. Don’t kid yourself — tolerance is as much about exclusion as it is about inclusion.

I tolerate the Westboro Baptist Church because I believe in the Bill of Rights. I deserve neither a cookie nor a gold star, because I don’t believe in the Bill of Rights on the behalf of hate groups. I just accept that the Westboro Baptist Church is a gross side effect of the freedoms of religion, speech, and assembly. In a free country, there are going to be hate groups, and that’s unfortunate.

Intolerance is not a baseline expectation. Intolerance is a result of either of two forces: training (no one is born full of hate), or encountering what should not be tolerated (usually in the form of hatred or violence, but never in the form of a human being).

If you would like to be intolerant, here are five things you can try being intolerant of. In no particular order:

  1. Child abuse
  2. Intimate partner violence
  3. Rape (all)
  4. Police brutality
  5. The anti-vaccination movement (which imperils everyone’s health)

I can think of more — a LOT more — but these are the easiest to defend. (Murder didn’t make the cut because, in a society where George Zimmerman, according to the legal process, did not murder Trayvon Martin, the word has no meaning.)

So, to sum up: If you’re tolerating me, don’t do me any favors. If you’re intolerant of any violation of the inherent worth and dignity of every living creature, good for you.

Whee! Week 1!

I’m done attending classes for the week, so I finally have time to report in and get the blog up to speed. I’m taking four classes this quarter, the third time that I have taken a full load of 14 credits.

Rethinking Diversities: I’m feeling good about this seminar. The first book we’re reading is The Trouble With Diversity, and the professor has warned us about his feeling that the author, Walter Benn Michaels, “gets it almost right” but ultimately fails. I see this professor’s point. This is the same professor from whom I took Postcolonial Globalization in Africa last fall, and is one of two faculty members who uses language inclusive of (non)believers in my presence.

Religion, Space & Place: As much as I want to feel good about this seminar, I haven’t warmed up to it yet. I like the professor well enough, but there are too many people in the class. I don’t think we are going to be able to go much beyond the big names in spatiality, which is disappointing.

Christianity & the Classical Tradition: It’s nice to take a class which attempts to situate Christianity into preexisting intellectual traditions. So often it seems that theology students treat the emergence of Christianity as the beginning of history.

Conflict & Religious Peacebuilding: I’m…less than thrilled. It seems, so far, that pacifist Christians are trying to corner the market on peace, which is weird to me. I do not necessarily understand Christianity to be a “religion of peace.”

Past Classes

I’d like to take a post to quickly review the classes I completed during Year One of the great graduate school project.

Vocation & Orientation (1st Quarter): This class almost convinced me that I had made a terrible mistake applying to seminary. We sat around and talked about our “calls.” It took me a while to learn that I too have a call; now I tell people, “I called myself.”

Ethical Analysis & Advocacy (1Q): Fortunately, I was taking Ethics at the same time I was taking V&O. Ethics felt like a validation of my choice to attend graduate school. This wasn’t your undergraduate philosophy course. It was in this class that I read the only book about Christianity that has ever made any sense to me, Doing Christian Ethics from the Margins.

Postcolonial Globalization in Africa (1Q): In some ways, this interdisciplinary seminar was closest to the vision I had of what graduate school would be like. Nearly everything was fair game in this class, and the professor pushed back hard. I’ll be taking a class from the same professor this upcoming quarter and I can’t wait.

Government & Nonprofit Cooperation (1Q): I don’t have much to say about this class because, first, it was quite short, and second, I’m not particularly interested in working within the existing nonprofit paradigms.

Foundations of Social Change (2Q): Foundations is a core course for my degree. It was also the first class in which I openly discussed atheism as a religious proposition.

Hispanic Ethics & Theology (2Q): Given that I’m attending a seminary, taking a class in theology was inevitable. I decided that I didn’t want to take theology without also focusing on ethics.

Identity, Power & Difference (2Q): IPD, as it is called, is a required class for all students. While it bills itself as teaching students to confront and navigate issues of identity, power, and difference, I experienced it as training us for the missionary field. Since I wasn’t prepared to take Mission Prep 101, I resisted and later resented the curriculum. While the class was conceived with good intentions, I felt it did a great deal of harm.

Solidarity & Working Across Difference (2Q): There are two different concepts here, that of “solidarity” and that of “working across difference.” The first is a much higher standard. The second is a daily occurrence. Both are incredibly important to the project of creating an inclusive, organized atheism.

Discovery & Management of Theological Resources (3Q): I consider research to be one of my major strengths. I took this short course in research in order to further strength my skills.

The Heart of Islam (3Q): This was one of my favorite classes. The guest lecturer was Dr. Omid Safi and he was outstanding. This was an important class for me to attend because there is such Islamophobia in the atheist community. I do not call Sam Harris an Islamophobe pejoratively; it is a literal description of the type of fear that causes one (Harris) to accuse a world religion of being a “religion of conquest.”

Independent study on neoliberalism and carcerality (3Q): One of the major reasons to be a prison abolitionist is the vast amount of money that private prisons divert to the wrong type of corporations. Is this an atheist issue? Well…it is for me. I think it may be that religions have the market cornered on ethics of disposability, so why don’t we (non)believers try an ethic of reconciliation?

Community Organizing (3Q): And damn do we need it.

Nonviolence (3Q): I wish this class had used a significantly broader definition of violence. While I recognize that the theory and practice of “nonviolence” has specific intellectual origins as well as an assortment of associated historical events, there’s something depressing about ignoring every kind of violence that isn’t purely physical.

Internship Seminar (4Q).