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.

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Tolerance, O Tolerance — An Ode, A Lament

I don’t know if anyone remembers, but early last quarter I became quite agitated about tolerance. Never one to let things go, I insisted on writing a short paper (“short” means under 3,000 words) to justify my in-class comments.


Tolerance and Intolerance: A Paradox

Introduction

Tolerance and intolerance are not the innocent, simple, or one-dimensional terms which they appear to be in current American discourse. Each word has been used, abused, misused, and twisted in the service of radically disparate agendas. It is often frustrating when two sides, each preaching tolerance, accuses the other side of demonstrating intolerance – when, in fact, perhaps neither side, whether tolerant or intolerant, has anything life-affirming to offer. Even the “tolerance” being fought over is not the moral high ground.

While neither tolerance nor intolerance is prima facie virtuous, tolerance and intolerance are by no means equivalent. In different situations, either tolerance or intolerance can be the right choice or at least the lesser of two evils. However, I contend that it is moral cowardice and intellectually dishonest to shrug our shoulders and say[1] “who are we to judge?”

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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).

Liberation Technology

This is a slightly modified version of a paper I wrote last quarter. It was originally written for the class “Religion, Space, and Place,” and the paper was styled to make the argument that the Internet is de facto sacred space (and, therefore, misuses of the Internet are desecration). I just cut out the parts which were me sucking up to the professor.

If you are a techie, the paper is a bit simplistic. If you are an academic, my citation style in this informal paper will drive you nuts (I had the prof’s permission, honest!). If you are a Catholic, you probably shouldn’t be reading an atheist blog to begin with — you’ll just raise your blood pressure. However, I really enjoyed writing this paper, and I think it shows.

I’m putting this paper up on my blog, as the first post of 2015, because I have the phrase “liberation technology” stuck in my head. If I say “liberation” in an American context, I evoke the 2003 invasion of Iraq. That isn’t the kind of liberation I’m talking about. If I say “liberation technology,” I evoke “liberation theology,” and I continue to assert various ways in which my prophetic atheism is an explicitly religious worldview.

Without further ado, I give you: “The Internet: Sacred and Desecrated Space.”


While Millennials aren’t the only Americans to consider the Internet a formative part of their identity, my predisposition to view the Internet as a sacred space is certainly rooted in my outlook as a Millennial. I was one of the first people to grow up on the Internet. It provided me a “‘space’ in which to meaningfully dwell” (Smith, Map is Not Territory, 291).

“Millennial” is generational moniker for people born roughly between 1982 – although anyone born in the 1980s is on the cusp – and the turn of the millennium in 2000. Millennials have a number of identifying characteristics, particularly as pertain to their use of technology and their political opinions about technology-related issues.

Asked an open-ended question about why their generation is “distinctive,” “24% [of Millennials] say it’s because of their use of technology” (Pew, “Millennials,” 5). When asked if Edward Snowden should be prosecuted for revealing the scope of the National Security Agency’s domestic spying, 50% of 18-to-29 year-olds said no, the largest percentage of any segment of the population (Pew, “Public Split”); 60% of the same age group said that the Snowden leaks serve the public interest. And while the American public is nearly unified in in their opposition to a two-tier Internet (this means we are generally in support of net neutrality), 18-to-24 year-olds are the most likely to say they “strongly oppose” a two-tier Internet (University of Delaware).

Karen Armstrong writes that a “holy place…is thus bound up with a people’s sense of self” (Armstrong, 191). It makes sense that this formula would also work in reverse. If we know and understand a group’s sense of self, we should be able to extrapolate what places they find sacred. I do not know if my analysis of the Internet as a sacred space would compel anyone who didn’t grow up with the Internet – either designing it or playing on it – to change their mind and to start to view the Internet as sacred. This perception of sacred space may be restricted to a rarified cohort. But what I can do on the strength of my analysis is demonstrate why the misuses of the Internet are so strongly opposed.

It is because some of us see the Internet as inviolate. It is because some of us know the Internet to be sacred.

Profanation by the telecoms, desecration by oppressive regimes, and the pollution of the wellspring of our culture – of the unrestricted liberty, access, communication, coordination, political power, and human potential of the Internet – will not be tolerated.

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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.”

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.