Whatever Happened to Polite Discourse about Ideas?

Regardless of where you stand on recent political events, I think you would be hard-pressed to argue today that tolerance for conflicting ideas and freedom of speech is being observed. The news of late has been a carnival of misinformation, name-calling, slander and hatred, the likes of which I have seldom seen, with warring sides laying claim to the “real” truth and leveling horrific accusations at one another. Reading and listening to the news has become akin to voluntarily drinking poison – the venom and vitriol are acidic; and bitterness and rage are contagious. I do not choose to surround myself with corrosive influences in my personal life, but they are finding their way in through my desire to follow current events. I am in a toxic relationship with the news.

The climate is not improving in the wake of the recent presidential election. It is getting worse. We are a nation at war with itself, and a house divided cannot stand. This concerns me deeply. Rather than polite discourse about ideas, we have a kind of raving domestic violence case. We are shrieking incoherent condemnations in a pitched battle for total control, aiming for complete annihilation of our opponents. When emotions run this high, we lose sight of real issues. At the end of the day, we are all in this American thing together, and we have more in common than we are letting on. We are focused on our differences, and inventing boogeymen. Who exactly is attacking race, religion, and gender? Who is promoting the exclusion of anyone from constitutional protection, or proposing that anyone cannot be part of this nation based on the above, should they pursue it legally? I could argue convincingly that men, and especially fathers, have been stripped of their reproductive rights and the right to pursue happiness by corrupt government bodies and family court systems – who out there cares about that, when we can decry male privilege? Maybe putting an end to toxic masculinity is the higher priority. When did feminists decide to take up defense of Islam and Sharia Law, systems that actually do oppress women and deny their fundamental rights?

Dogma. It is in part why I abandoned my religious upbringing. When your arguments don’t make sense anymore, and are not grounded in reason, but are driven by a desire to advance your worldview and see your ideas implemented at any cost, then truth becomes subjective. I have seen journalists and talking heads using the term “post-truth” to describe the condition of our present discourse, implying that we’re not working with facts anymore; we’re just saying whatever we want and calling it truth. They are right, to a degree. Where they err is in the assertion that the political right is the faction creating this post-truth culture. It is everyone. Liberals are outraged when they claim that conservatives don’t pay any attention to data, and then they present disingenuous interpretation of data to serve their cause. Take the gender wage gap myth. The only way to argue that there is a gender wage gap is by taking the mean salary of all employed American males, and comparing it to the mean salary of all employed American females, regardless of title and position. The mean female salary comes out lower.  But when one accounts for all relevant variables, by taking a look at mean salaries between males and females working the exact same jobs, the gap is reduced nearly to the vanishing point. A reporter for the Huffington Post, a left-leaning news outlet, revealed this in an article entitled “Wage Gap Myth Exposed – by Feminists” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/christina-hoff-sommers/wage-gap_b_2073804.html). And yet, we still hear the wage gap myth coming out of government talking heads and feminists everywhere. If you point out the facts, and you happen to be male, you are labeled a misogynist, a woman-hater. God help you if you are also white.

We are witnessing a war on truth, a siege on ideas. Somehow we have lost our ability to discuss our differences politely – that, or wherever it happens, it’s not getting attention. Free speech is under attack. Race and gender baiting are shamelessly leveraged to arrest the discussion of actual issues. I’m not saying our country doesn’t have any issues to deal with in these areas, but for everyone’s sake, we must stop generating hysterical national crises that do not exist.  I would like to turn on the television one day and hear a real debate, where meaningful data is evaluated rationally, and minds change in the undeniable light of the facts. Where hatred and incoherent rhetoric are no longer mainstream. But I do not believe that goal can be achieved by the silencing of dissenting voices in order to create a safe-space utopia where nobody is ever offended. We will always be passionate, emotional, conflicted human beings. We will always think and say dumb and hurtful things. That is our right, and that right is protected by the first amendment.

America, please… can we just talk?

There’s Nobody there to take the Wheel

Let go and let God.

Jesus, take the wheel.

It’s in God’s hands now.

At various points in my life, when the chips were down and I was struggling with whatever the seemingly cataclysmic issue or event, I would receive the above advice. Usually delivered lovingly and with a sense of profundity, these platitudes never really helped. With a sigh of long suffering, I would accept that the problem, whatever it was, was not in my control, god knew what he was doing, and I was to renew my focus on staying obedient to him and everything would work out. Whatever the result, it was god’s will. Pray fervently for the strength to endure, and the wisdom to know what to do. Pray for god’s will to be done. Don’t fall into sin, or god will remove his blessing. The outcome may be worse.

Any natural consequence can be explained away as god’s will. He gets credit for the good, and is absolved of the bad. The underlying belief is that god is in control of everything, and he is working all things toward some master plan that we cannot possibly comprehend. Our suffering, in the meantime, is for his glory – our character is being built and shaped. We may not understand what he is doing now, but we will in time, even if that takes until we go home to glory.  When we get to heaven, we’ll finally know why all those children had to die of cancer. Trust and obey, for there’s no other way.

There have been times in my life that I trusted and obeyed, as well as I could, given the labyrinth of scriptures, doctrines and commandments one has to navigate in order to pursue holiness. Then there were other times. I got trapped in a cycle that went like this:

  1. When things are good, I must be in the Lord’s favor. Rejoice!
  2. When things are bad, I must be out of his favor, because of some sinful condition. This phase was accompanied by crushing shame, depression, and hopelessness.

What I started to notice as the years stretched on is that the only tangible result of any given behavior was its natural consequences, whether good or bad, helpful or hurtful. Both good and awful things happened to me regardless of the status of my faithfulness or faithlessness. In fact, I started to see that many of the decisions I had made in the past, out of a sense of duty to obey god’s will and commands, were resulting in unnecessary present day pain and consequences. I made a lot of decisions over the last thirty-nine years based on a sense of duty and obligation; decisions I never would have made had I been true to myself and viewed all the details and considerations rationally, as opposed to seeing them in a Christian funhouse mirror that others had built and put in front of me. Hindsight is twenty-twenty, especially when you take off your blinders.

It took a surprise, high-conflict divorce after fifteen years of marriage, with three children, to realize I didn’t even know who the person closest to me really was. To acknowledge that I was in an abusive and treacherous situation, with a liar and a cheat. I was so wrapped up in what should be, flogging myself for my failures, that I was blind to reality. That is a dangerous place to be. During the divorce, I reviewed how I had felt since year one of my marriage. I felt trapped already, at the outset. I wanted out. I got married for the wrong reasons – I felt a sense of obligation, because my wife and I had become “one flesh” already. The marriage was a mistake. Not all in the Christian community would have counseled us to get married, so it was MY mistake. I believed I had a responsibility to this girl, and to god.

We could have corrected the mistake easily, shortly after we made it. But divorce is biblically forbidden, except in the case of adultery (although some would argue it’s forbidden even then). Being in the marriage wasn’t good for me, and it wasn’t fair to my now-ex-wife, either. But hey, the Bible says we do this no matter what, so let’s hang in there until kids are involved and it gets much worse!

If I had been honest about who I was and what I really wanted – if I sought truth instead of submitting myself to authority and dogma early in life… Things would be much different.  I would have made decisions that were healthier for me and others, and saved a world of hurt. The best thing to come out of all this is my wonderful kids – but they have experienced the pain, too. They continue to experience it. I wish that wasn’t so.

Some things are good to let go of. Bitterness, anger, resentment, control over things you have no control over. Let those things go.

It’s the “let god” part that I have no faith in anymore. There is nobody there to take the wheel. If you trust god to tell you who you are, make your decisions, clean up your messes, bring all the right people into your life and work everything out in the end, you are likely going to be brutally disappointed, and probably highly deluded. You just might waste the only life you’ve got.

I reached a point where I couldn’t stand the cognitive dissonance anymore. I had to become intellectually honest. I had to let go of god, and embrace the responsibility that comes with freedom. I do not regret it for a moment.

Snowmageddon 2017

If you live in the Pacific Northwest, you’re well aware that we are on day two of a significant winter weather event. We received the most snowfall in the area (for February) since 1990. Overnight temperatures in the high 20’s have meant icy and treacherous driving in the mornings, and I am working from home today, like most my colleagues – staying alive.

It’s times like these, when the world quiets down and there’s nowhere to go, nature’s spires and fronds blanketed in silent, frosty white, that I like to reflect on the horrors of third and fourth-wave feminism. Just kidding – I reflect on feminism all the time. The weather has nothing to do with it, although I would liken the overall posture of modern feminism to an icy winter’s morn, and the gender war landscape to an inch-thick sheen of ice on a crowded city street. Travel at your own risk.

These are shallow observations. I have quite a few books to read and people to talk to before I expound on modern feminism and the gender wars. That day is coming.  I can’t avoid the ice forever.

Feminism is threaded through my religious upbringing and de-conversion story. I am still grappling with exactly how to interpret and tell it.I will say this: I have no problem with real gender equality, and I don’t know anyone who does. There is something else going on these days.

Just some thoughts, as I wait for the end of Snowmageddon 2017.

Stay safe!

 

 

Heavy Metal Albums are Demon Possessed

At my eleventh birthday party, I received an unexpected gift. It was a pool party, and my guests and I were laughing and splashing and getting our fun on, sunlight glittering like diamonds on the surface of the pool around us. Aaron, my only male friend with long hair, walked up to the edge of the pool where I was treading water. He gestured me out of the pool, and curious, I climbed out. The time for opening gifts was past, but I could tell he had something for me. He pulled me aside into the shadow of a nearby tree that overhung the poolside fence, and his demeanor became just as shadowy as the shadow we were standing in. He produced a small gift from behind his back. “Happy birthday,” he said, followed by “don’t tell your mom about this.” He handed me the gift. It was a cassette tape. Metallica: Master of Puppets, it read. The cover was a series of rows of white, cross-shaped headstones, receding into the distance over a dark landscape; tumultuous, red, cloudy sky above, with the band name floating in the air, in the most sinister font face I had ever seen, with a puppet master’s hands manipulating strings attached to each headstone. The way this gift had been presented to me, coupled with Aaron’s dire warning, convinced me: this thing was pure evil. I thanked him, a bit shaken, and nervously tucked it away in one of my other gift bags. I had a dirty secret. I felt like I had already committed a sin.

My parents, our church, and many figureheads in the fundamentalist Christian movement at the time taught that music was the devil’s tool. Artists like Ozzy Osbourne were said to be inspired by demons, or Satan himself, and music was the vehicle through which they would twist and pervert the minds of people, especially youth. Listening to such music was tantamount to allowing the devil a foothold, creating a doorway through which demons could enter. The year was 1986, and the “Satanic Panic” of the eighties was sweeping across the nation.  The Geraldo Rivera Show aired their infamous “Devil Worship: Exposing Satan’s Underground” special (if you haven’t seen it, it’s worth a watch to get a sense of the hysteria, and can be see for free on YouTube in multiple parts starting here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qocBf3_mmic). Satan worship was said to be on the rise, with pen-and-paper role playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons being targeted as an influence, alongside musical artists such as the previously mentioned Ozzy. Satan could infiltrate your life in any number of ways – my parents also learned that Cabbage Patch Kids were individually named after evil spirits by occultists in a foreign country, as a way to secretly open doorways in the homes of families across America.

An occult object now in my possession, I was fearful. Had I knowingly brought Satan and his demons into our home? I took a peek at the cassette tape from time to time, but I was terrified to give it a go in my tape deck. Would the act of playing it release the evil within? What would happen after that? What would I become? No, it was too risky. I would seek the counsel of a close friend.

I packed the evil cassette tape with my things, headed out for an overnight at my friend Kyle’s house. His family attended my church, and between the two of us, maybe we could figure out what to do with this hellish abomination. Once in his bedroom, I revealed Master of Puppets. Behold – an artifact of the devil. Kyle instantly understood the gravity of the situation. “What should we do with it?” I said.

“Maybe we should burn it,” came his reply.

“Yeah, but what happens then?” the possibilities were endless, and frightening.

We decided burning it was the best way to go. I wonder if the Puritans had a similar conversation during the Salem Witch Trials. Kyle and I were convinced that once we set the cassette tape afire, we would likely be witness to the release of demons into the air; shrieking, swirling, soaring up into the atmosphere, looking for a new home. We agreed that they could not touch us, because we were saved. We belonged to God. We would be safe. We rode our BMX bikes out into the woods and found a quiet place, where nobody could be harmed. I laid Master of Puppets on the ground, in the dirt. I knew what we were doing was the right thing. The Christian thing. I felt bad that Aaron didn’t understand, and wondered if he understood that he was unwittingly a part of something nefarious, Satan’s operative. I would try to save him someday. It was my duty.

I flicked my Bick lighter, and the flame sprang forth. I touched it to the plastic cassette cover. The flame took, and slowly, the entire think caught fire. I prepared myself for the worst. Tensions were high as the black smoke licked up into the air, the smell of burning plastic surely only a prelude to what would soon be a raging hellscape to which one we would be immune. And then…

Nothing happened.

Nothing.

“Hmm, that’s weird,” I said. Maybe you couldn’t see demons, or hear them.

I wasn’t sure how to interpret this, and I didn’t give it too much thought at the time. We had done the right thing, so I thought, and that was that. I would never be corrupted by Metallica: Master of Puppets. One less doorway in a world of doorways.

In retrospect, I mark this as the first time it registered with me that what my parents and people in the church were teaching me might not be true. I think some part of me wanted to see evidence of demonic activity that day, tangible evidence that what we all believed was real.  I have been looking for evidence ever since, and I have found none. Maybe the nature of demons is such that there is no way to produce evidence, and maybe they don’t exist. Some would say the evidence is more subtle and personal, but among the host of explanations for the things that happen in our lives, the messages that run through our heads… Is the influence of demons the most probable explanation?

Here’s what I know for sure: Metallica’s Master of Puppets is one of the greatest thrash metal albums of all time. It is a landmark achievement in music, and one of my favorites. Thank you Aaron!

Listen to it in full, here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K6LA7v1PApU

 

Good Things

It is not all bad growing up in a fundamentalist evangelical Christian home and community. I took a few moments recently to reflect on the things that I appreciate about my religious upbringing, in order to share them here.

At the end of the day, Christianity is about love. Loving your neighbor, putting other’s needs before your own (there’s a dark and co-dependent side to this particular coin, but I’ll get to that later), self-control, self-sacrifice, humility; these are values I learned, and learned well. To their credit, many followers of Christ put these values into practice daily. They are more important than lists of do’s and don’ts, and condemnation of behaviors and lifestyles that are considered sinful, such as homosexuality and abortion. Don’t get me wrong, those things are condemned, but the Christians in my life are not Westboro Baptist Church types, known for hateful rhetoric (see the Westboro web site here, if you are unfamiliar: http://godhatesfags.com/). In fact, the Christians I know would condemn Westboro Baptist Church and their tactics, and so do I. Westboro is not the face of biblical Christianity, though it is one of the faces that anti-theists like to call attention to when arguing that Christianity is harmful; and let’s be fair, people claiming Christianity have done awful things over the centuries. Finding examples of those who give Christianity a bad name is easy, dating all the way back to the first century A.D. People are people, and you can find bad apples in any basket. Any group of adherents to anything is going to have a contingent of hateful people (see supporters of any political candidate, left or right). I do not identify with those who search for the worst, find it, and paint an entire community and its figure-head with one brush (see the 2016 election cycle).

Christianity taught me about forgiveness. I learned to let go of blame, bitterness, and anger – all are toxic if indulged, though there are healthy and proper expressions at times. I learned to give charitably. I learned to be a good listener. I learned that I can be just as wrong (if not more-so) as those at whom I’m pointing my finger, and I learned to examine my thoughts and motives carefully. I learned to grieve for and encourage others. I learned that hope springs eternal. I learned to stand up for what I believe in, even when the chips are down.

Could I have learned all these values without faith and religion? Arguably, yes. Such was not the case though, and here I am.

I will carry many of the values I took from Christianity for the rest of my life. I have some wonderful friends, many of whom will spend time praying for my soul when they hear that I no longer place faith in their doctrines.  They will call me spiritually blind. Many will choose not associate with me, or think of me as a sad, deluded individual. I will be grouped with the Lost… I am okay with all this, because I must be honest with myself and others. I am open to whatever honest inquiry reveals.

I am grateful to Christians, and Christianity, for much. That will never change.

I am also saddened by much. I will deal with that in the next post.

Wisdom?

A family in conflict.

A young man trying to find his identity.

A married couple on the verge of divorce.

A young woman with a personality disorder.

At times in our lives when we are struggling, hurting, lost and confused, we seek answers. We desire solutions, some relief from the thing that afflicts us. We are vulnerable and susceptible, seeking comfort, safety and understanding. Most of us will at some point reach out to an authority figure for help, someone we respect, who will listen to us and be able to provide sound counsel. It is good to have people in our lives who we trust, individuals who offer their knowledge, wisdom, experience, love and compassion when we need them most.

When you trust in the wrong person, the results can be disastrous.

The Bible teaches that God gives wisdom to those who ask for it:

“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” (James 1:5, English Standard Version)

Simple, right? Just ask God, and wisdom is yours. It makes logical sense, then, that leaders in the church would be full of wisdom – these are the people who diligently study scripture, pray ceaselessly, and who have been placed in a position of spiritual authority. Many self-help resources will advise you to seek the help of religious clergy in working through the difficult situations you’ll encounter in life. If God is real, and the Bible’s promises are true, then God will grant the requisite amount of wisdom to be applied to any problem. Christian clergy believe that the Holy Spirit gives them the right words to say at the right time – that their advice to you has been generated supernaturally, or that events leading up to your exchange were orchestrated to deliver a unique message. If this were true, then all advice from clergy would be one-hundred percent trustworthy, one-hundred percent of the time. It is not. Most of these clergy are not near qualified enough to handle your deepest struggles and provide healthy guidance.

In my experience, religious and personal bias almost always results in the distortion of reality, and sometimes produces pure fantasy. Well-intentioned people who believe they have a direct line to the mind of God are predisposed to think all kinds of strange things, and will not hesitate to speak authoritatively into your life. You may find yourself walking away with a new views that hadn’t occurred to you, having received a slight tweak to your identity. You may even develop a habit over time, a habit of looking to your new authority figure whenever you need to make a difficult decision; weighing their thoughts more than your own, responding to their guidance without question. In my childhood, this kind of blind allegiance was encouraged by my parents and our church leaders. They taught me not to think critically, but to trust and believe. I have been burned many times.

Doubt (not to be confused with pessimism) is a wonderful counselor – it leads to discovery. I am quite content these days to ignore the menagerie of characters dogmatically laying claim to what’s right for me.

Sometimes, there is no answer.

Pussy Hats

I have to take a break from my story today, and get something off my mind; something that has been bugging me since the Women’s March that took place on Saturday, January 21.

I have no problem with peaceful assembly and protest, and I do not deny that women have had a hard fight for rights over the decades that they should have had to begin with, as human beings of unquestionable and equal value. I have a high degree of respect for women, which is why I was baffled and disappointed by some of the things I observed during the march.

Enter the Pussy Hat.

pssyhat

You can see an ocean of them here:

gty-womens-march-washington-4-jt-170121_12x5_1600

I get it – many in this crowd have female genitalia. They’re women. That’s great. But with nearly a million people congregated at the nation’s capitol, the unifying symbol was… a pussy hat? I started grappling with the meaning of this immediately. I googled “pussy hat” (carefully), and found the movement’s web site at http://www.pussyhatproject.com (nothing lewd here, but probably NSFW because of the nature of the language). According to the web site, the Pussy Hat Project started back in November 2016. This is the Project’s two-part mission statement:

“1. Provide the  people of Washington D.C. a means to make a unique collective visual statement which will help activists to be better heard.”

“2. Provide people who cannot physically be on the National Mall a way to represent themselves and support women’s rights.”

A unique visual statement was most definitely made, but what was it? Which rights were we talking about in a sea of pink, knitted pussy hats gathered at the National Mall? If the Project had to reduce its message to a single symbol for visual effect, was this the right one? Was this not the symbol of the very thing that Donald Trump boasted about grabbing, in an awful sound byte that aired in the run up to the presidential election? Maybe that was the point – to rub it in the president’s face. Pardon the pun.

Jokes aside, I question the project and the symbolism. The message seems rather crude, and I think it distracts from the real issues women face. I saw photographs of children wearing these hats. My own daughters witnessed this on television. Are they old enough to comprehend what they are seeing? Might a little girl subconsciously absorb the message that the most important thing about a woman’s identity and message is her genitalia? Would it be unreasonable to think that the Pussy Hat Project has objectified women? What if we had elected a woman president, and a million men marched on the Capitol with Dick Hats? Begin the process of trying to forget that visual.

Aside from hats, there were a number of other crude and irresponsible demonstrations at the National Mall, including Madonna’s use of hard expletives and openly claiming to have fantasized about blowing up the White House on live national television. I think a movement can, and should, do better than all this. I have no doubt that there were many people at the march who clearly articulated their real concerns, even their anger, with dignity and class. It would be unfair and inaccurate to paint the entire movement as vulgar and irresponsible; my intent is not to do that, nor to minimize the positions and feelings of the marchers.

Still, I can’t help but feel a bit put-off by the gender-based rage and animosity that I witnessed. The symbols and messages seemed vague and sometimes inappropriate, extreme in their vitriol. A few casting a shadow over the many, I certainly hope. Are things really this bad?

I waited in line behind a woman waiting for coffee at work today. She was wearing a pussy hat. I had a negative, unspoken internal reaction. Therein lies the problem, and I do not think that was the Pussy Hat Project’s goal. Then again, maybe it was, and things are much worse than we’d like to admit. .