Saturday, November 3, 2012

Among other things: why I am firmly pro-choice, and why evangelizing by intimidation infuriates me

Okay, so a little background: a friend on Facebook from SPU shared this image on her feed:

And I pointed out the ways in which this picture was misleading, mainly that I consider embryos and fetuses life, just not necessarily people, and that we certainly don't have issues killing bacteria here on earth.

That led to some discussion that, for being on Facebook, was surprisingly civil, that resulted in her advocating for adoption as an option, and then recommending I watch this video (Direct YouTube, in case the site changes). Now, I don't recommend you watch this video. It was infuriating, and is half an hour of a guy (ironically named Ron Comfort) bullying people into agreeing with him. He uses the oft-used "ask leading, scary, intimidating questions that frame the discussion such that when I go in for the kill you have forgotten why you believe what you believe and look like a terrible person if you disagree with me even though you're not" technique, and it's frustrating and repugnant to watch person after person be subjected to it. But the basics: the first 13 minutes remind us of how horrible the holocaust and Hitler were, and includes a disturbing but carefully-selected set of clips of people having no clue who Hitler was. Halfway through we finally get to abortion, and he does the usual of comparing abortion to the holocaust, and corners people into agreeing that abortion is unequivocally murder. In particular, he uses this pre-example of if you were in a bulldozer, and Nazis were telling you to bury some Jews, most of whom but not all of whom were dead. If you don't, you get shot, Nazi gets in and does it anyway. He then takes it one step further, asking that if the Nazi instead gave you the gun and told you to shoot the survivors (actually a more merciful option than live burial), would you do that? The answers varied, but were pretty mixed on the first question, and heavily weighed towards non-cooperation on the second.

After sitting through that for a half-hour, there were a lot of things in my head, but what I ended up writing down was a pretty lucid, I think well-thought-out explanation of why I so vehemently abhorred the video, and more generally, why I am pro-choice. So I decided that all that thinking and writing should find its way out of that particular Facebook thread, and onto this blog. So, with minor editing for context and cleanup, here was my response.

I have so many issues with what this ironically-named Ray Comfort is doing, and think what he is doing is morally heinous. But what he did do is highlight for me what the root problem that I have with legally prohibiting abortion is.

The example Ray was giving at the beginning - with the tank and the gun - is a morally unsolvable question. There is no moral right answer to that question. If the Jews are going to die anyway, and you have a choice between burying them yourself, or dying and letting the Nazis bury them? There is simply no right answer to that question. Either option is terrible, and morally repugnant, and a horribly traumatic experience. But if someone chose to exit with their life and carry that choice with them for the rest of their lives - would you sentence them to death? Would you stand behind them and mandate that they submit to death, because you think they shouldn't bury the Jews?

I certainly hope not. Because as I stated: there simply is no morally correct thing to do in that situation. Those kinds of situations exist. As much as we don't want them to, they exist. It would be so nice if every situation to had a nice, clean, right-or-wrong, black-or-white answer so that we can tell other people when they're doing the right thing or not, and we could know whether we are doing the right thing or not.

But the world isn't always like that. And presenting people with a situation like that - where there is no moral right answer, where every option is horrifying and morally repugnant - and then pressing them to answer, pressing them to make a decision, and making it clear that if they make a decision that you think is the less evil of the two, then they are wrong and morally lacking and bad people - that is evil. It is wrong, it is cruel, and it is evil.

To bring this back around to the topic of abortion: I believe that abortion is another of these situations. An unwanted pregnancy is a morally heavy situation. There is no one right answer to what to do when faced with an unwanted pregnancy, especially when there are severe consequences to carrying the pregnancy through. There is no clear, shining, white, correct answer. There is no choice you can make that is not messy and difficult and distressing.

For me to go in, with legislation, and decide (especially as a male who will never be pregnant!) that for everyone, my choice is the correct choice - in this situation where there are no clear right answers - is morally repugnant, and I simply cannot do that. If you find yourself in that situation, by all means carry the baby to term and give it up for adoption. But don't force everyone else to do so, just because that is what you have wrestled out of this insanely difficult, no-right-answer situation.

In summary: Like the tank example, an unwanted pregnancy is a complex, morally heavy, very difficult situation, with no one right answer. There is no one morally right answer to it, and forcing one answer on everyone is morally repugnant.

Now, I also had significant and independent issues with the video itself and how it was filmed, its arguments, and particularly with how Ron Comfort treats people. The comparison of abortion to the holocaust is a common one, because the holocaust is the example of ultimate evil in the world, so most things people see as evil eventually get compared to Hilter and the holocaust. But there is a world of difference between killing people, with lives and children and mental activity and birth certificates and consciousness, and killing an embryo that has no appreciable mental activity, no consciousness, no sense of self. Taking an ultimate evil and aligning people's actions with it is deceptive and does not result in useful change.

As an example, consider this: octopuses are very complex creatures with consciousness, some basic sense of self, they have families and brains and beating hearts, they care for their eggs, and show signs of incredible intelligence and problem-solving skills. But our society has accepted that it's okay to kill them because they taste good. Would you kill a person if they tasted good? Why is it okay to kill octopuses? Is it because they can't talk to us, can't communicate? Because they are different from us? Does that mean it's okay to kill mute people, or people with severe mental disabilities, because they can't communicate as well? Does it mean it's okay to kill people of other races because they're different than us? No. No rational person would answer those questions affirmatively. You could probably find some off-the-wall neo-nazi who will give you repulsive quotes about how he would kill those people, for effect, if you wanted. But the majority will say no. Am I okay to conclude, then, that those who kill and eat octopuses are evil, that calamari is the new holocaust, that we should immediately outlaw the killing of octopuses? If you're willing to do that, what about pigs? They are also surprisingly intelligent creatures. Cows?

In the case that you are a vegetarian, and you do think that killing animals is morally repugnant - do you think we should make it illegal to kill animals in all situations? Outlaw meat entirely? If not, why not? You just agreed that it's morally wrong, why should we not outlaw it?

You may think that what I am doing is unfair, or full of logical fallacies, or beside the point, or painting you into a corner, or just a bunch of distracting, question-firing, I'm-smarter-than-you bluster.

That's because that's exactly what it is. If you step back from my rapid-fire questions, my cornering you with carefully selected questions, you realize that there are reasons that as a society we think it's okay to eat animals. Most people - at the least - aren't advocating for outlawing pork, and that is a good thing. Because there is a difference between killing octopuses and killing people, even if my questions made it seem like there wasn't.

And that's exactly what Ron Comfort is doing. It's ruthlessly effective, but it's bullying, it's unfair, and in my opinion, is an evil, very morally problematic thing to do. And it does nothing, in the end, to further your point, except to bully and intimidate people to agree with you, at least while you have a microphone shoved in your face, but it does nothing to foster discussion or change hearts and minds.

Another minor counterpoint: Ron is arguing that fetuses are people, which is not a universally acknowledged or agreed-upon point. But for the sake of this argument, I will pretend that's a given. He then gets people to say that they value life, that they wouldn't shoot the Jews, and then asks them why they would kill babies, isn't that the exact same thing? And because he's bullied them with his questions and framed the conversation very specifically, they can't find a way out.

Killing is bad, but killing isn't killing isn't killing - even if it is undeniably human. There's a reason we have trials and varying punishments, and don't just hand out the death penalty every time someone causes the death of another person. There's a reason we have manslaughter, and first-degree murder, and second-degree murder. It's because even murder - that universally bad thing - is not black and white. It's not simply all right or all wrong. If I fail to secure something in my truck and it ends in the death of someone, I undeniably caused their death. Should I get the electric chair? No. There should be some punishment, but few people will argue that I deserve to die. Did Ted Bundy deserve to die (or spend life in prison)? Most people will agree with an emphatic yes. If I kill someone because I thought they were going to kill me, but I ended up being wrong, should I die or have life in prison? Probably not. Should I spend more time in jail than if something fell out of my truck? Probably.

And most saliently, in my opinion: why is it morally acceptable to wage war and kill hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians? Why is that killing okay? You probably have all kinds of reasons, and a lot of them are probably good ones. You have justifications, and that's a good thing. I may not agree with them all - I personally have never seen a wholly satisfying justification for war - but you probably have reasonable justifications.

What does this all have to do with abortion? Because even if abortion is killing a human life - which I don't believe that it is - you can't just say that it is wrong at its face because of that. As a society, we have several justifiable reasons to kill someone. It is striking when put that way, but it's very true. So you have to offer some additional argument - besides "it is killing someone" - to justify outlawing it. And again, this is even if an embryo is a full-fledged person with rights. When you start offering those reasons, there we can hash back and forth why we believe the different things that we do, but simply saying "it's killing, you said killing was wrong, therefore you contradict yourself" is facile, frankly lacking in thought, and not at all useful. Taking that reasoning to make laws and intimidate people into agreeing with you is wrong, and watching that kind of bullying happen for half an hour straight was incredibly frustrating and discouraging.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Chick-Fil-A: It's about Jesus

This morning, I came across an article posted on Facebook by one of my relatives entitled "Why the Chick-Fil-A Boycott is Really about Jesus". Said relative (like half my family) lives in Kentucky, and is therefore in the midst of this whole Chick-Fil-A kerfuffle. As a resident of Portland, Oregon, I on the other hand am 300 miles from the nearest Chick-Fil-A, so I've been largely staying out of this whole mess. But when I saw the above article title, I had hoped that perhaps it was some progressive Christian that had written a good article about how Jesus didn't care about the gender of your life partner, and was more concerned about excluding people and making outcasts of people, and therefore would be appalled by Chick-Fil-A's loud stance in His name and their support of so many organizations that actively oppress others.

But, alas, that was not the case.  Instead, the article asserted that this wasn't about Chick-Fil-A's consistent opposition to homosexuality.  No, this boycott was actually about the fact that Chick-Fil-A is Christian, and believes in Jesus:

As weary as we may be of the culture wars, the Chick-fil-A controversy is a harbinger of further ostracism to come. In the United States, the words of Jesus are coming to pass for those who hold tightly to His vision of sexuality: You will be hated because of Me.

This is dangerously close to the mistake many Christians make: extrapolating Jesus' words into if you are hated it is because you are doing my will.  Which is, when actually stated, preposterous, of course.  But when you hold up Jesus' phrase as evidence that you are doing His will, you're pretty dangerously close to stating exactly that.

And here's the thing: I've read every recorded word that Jesus ever spoke on this earth, many times.  And I can tell you this, and any honest pastor, scholar, or Christian should be able to tell you this: Jesus said nothing about homosexuality.  And he said very little about sexuality.  In fact, in a summary that jibes with my recollection, exactly four things.  And all of those things center around one thing: be faithful to your wife.  Don't get divorced, except maybe in the case of adultery.  And even if you are an adulterer: humans don't really have the right to condemn you, and neither does Jesus, but please - go and sin no more.

That's it.  That's all Jesus said about sexuality.  As far as we have recorded, there is absolutely nothing that Jesus said that could be remotely construed as having anything to say about homosexuality.  Opponents of homosexuality never pull out anything Jesus said, because there's nothing there that is helpful.  It's all Paul and Leviticus, because that's about all there is.

And there's another thing.  Chick-Fil-A has hardly been quiet about its Christian principles and founding.  They've been adamantly closed on Sundays for as long as they've existed.  It's a point of pride for them, it's their trademark, their thing.  And have liberals risen up in distress and anger, calling foul, organizing boycotts, because they're not open on Sunday?  If we have, I didn't get the memo.  And the thing is: there has been no such uprise, because the issue we have with Chick-Fil-A isn't that they're Christians.  I have no problem with Chick-Fil-A not being open on Sundays, even though that is a pointedly and necessarily Christian thing to do.  If this was a case of "Christophobia", shouldn't there be an uproar about this brazen and in-your-face proclamation of Christ's resurrection?  Shouldn't governors be up in arms because this establishment dares to stand up for its beliefs and not operate on a perfectly good operating day?

But there hasn't been.  Because I - and most liberals, I think - have no problem with Christians in and of themselves.  There are many Christians I respect deeply and agree with wholeheartedly.  The reason I oppose Chick-Fil-A is not because they're Christian.  It's because they are vocally and proudly in opposition to homosexuality.  And that is exactly why this boycott is happening, and why there is an uproar.  To assert otherwise is deceptive and ignoring the facts.  The article in question has this to say about the subject:

When the mayors of prominent U.S. cities in the north and west told Chick-fil-A they would not be welcome there, they were making a statement that goes beyond one’s position on gay rights. These remarks were an example of social ostracism – not just toward those who hold to traditional views on marriage but especially Christians who hold these views and seek to practice their religion accordingly.
Now, let's look at the statement that started all this, that from the mayor of Boston:

You called supporters of gay marriage "prideful.'' Here in Boston, to borrow your own words, we are "guilty as charged.'' We are indeed full of pride for our support of same sex marriage and our work to expand freedom to all people. We are proud that our state and our city have led the way for the country on equal marriage rights.

I was angry to learn on the heels of your prejudiced statements about your search for a site to locate in Boston. There is no place for discrimination on Boston's Freedom Trail and no place for your company alongside it. When Massachusetts became the first state in the country to recognize equal marriage rights, I personally stood on City Hall Plaza to greet same sex couples coming here to be married. It would be an insult to them and to our city's long history of expanding freedom to have a Chick-fil-A across the street from that spot.

That short statement packs in the phrases "same sex marriage", "equal marriage rights" (twice), "discrimination", and "same sex couples", but not once does it mention Chick-Fil-A's Christian affiliation.  Go ahead and read the whole letter.  You'll find more references to same sex marriage, and once again, absolutely no reference whatsoever to Chick-Fil-A's religious afilliation.  Some may say that Thomas M. Menino is being sneaky and trying to attack Christianity without mentioning it, but I find it a whole lot easier to believe that what he has an issue with is exactly what he says he has an issue with: vocal opposition to something that his city and state have been on the forefront of promoting: marriage equality*.

The article also tries to brush aside Dan Cathy's opposition to homosexuality, saying "In context, it appears he was speaking primarily about divorce."  They also complain that his statements got him "suddenly labeled 'homophobic' and 'anti-gay'." Firstly, the thing that most people are boycotting is Chick-Fil-A's history of generous corporate donations to groups fighting against homosexuality.  Chick-Fil-A has been labeled as anti-gay for a long, long time.   Dan Cathy's recent statements are just a flashpoint that brought the company's views more into the public eye.  Secondly, the divorce claim is a rather weak attempt at distracting from the actual issue.  The assertion that Dan Cathy would make such a statement solely to speak out about divorce is a bit of a stretch.  Public Christian figures don't speak out against the evils of legalized divorce, and they don't campaign to outlaw divorce.  The "traditional family" is used relentlessly to mean heterosexual families, and is never used in the non-existent divorce debate.  That's not to say that Christians aren't opposed to divorce - most are, at least in principle.  But divorce is never cited as an agenda that is trying to take down Christianity.  If Dan Cathy was actually speaking out about divorce, he would have made it very clear, if only because it's not a topic of public discussion.  Homosexuality, on the other hand, is, and the assumption is that he is addressing issues of public discussion.

The article also at this point claims that he is supporting a family model "that has been the norm for thousands of years."  I'm not going to spend much breath countering this statement that any historian - or again, any honest Christian - can tell you is patently false.  But unless you want your model of marriage to include wives as property, extramarital affairs as standard practice, marriages as a method of social climbing, polygamy, and recreational gay sex as an accepted norm - and that's just in the Western world - then I'd be a little more cautious about claiming the last few thousand years to your tradition.

The article also claims as evidence of its Christophobia a hypothetical Muslim business that declaimed homosexuality.  Would they receive the same backlash?  I like to think they would, the article doesn't think so.  The problem is, we have no way of knowing, because there are very few businesses that are publicly Muslim.  This is probably because Muslims are often feared and characterized as a bunch of terrorists and extremists, so I doubt that a publicly and vocally Muslim business would do very well.  There's also the factor that, despite claims of persecution and Christophobia, 78.4% of Americans are Christians.  The fact that 0.6% of Americans are Muslim also goes a long way to explain why there isn't a nationwide chain that proclaims its Muslim values.  But let's pretend that this hypothetical Muslim business did exist and thrive, happily and without controversy closing five times a day for prayer, for years.  I would be glad for them.  And then say they made an open statement against homosexuality.  I would like to think that there would be a similar uproar.  If there weren't, however, I don't think it would be because we harbor this Christophobia but not an Islamophobia.  I think it would be, in fact, precisely because we are trying to avoid being cast as anti-Muslim and Islamophobes, even though our actual issue is their stance on homosexuality.  I can see that happening.  But in the end, it's a hypothetical anyway.  It is useless to wax about what reactions would and wouldn't be to prove a point, because no one knows what the reactions actually would be.  You could argue that we should have a similar aversion to seeming anti-Christian and Christophobe, but I would simply point back up at the percentages - 0.6% versus 78.4%.  Christians are far from a minority that can be categorized and excluded from society, and that makes all the difference.

In fact, here's another wrench in the argument this article makes: you know us liberals and boycotters that are protesting Chick-Fil-A, supposedly because they are Christophobes?  There are Christians among us.  A lot of them.  In fact, less than half of Christians even identify as conservative.  Of the hundreds of millions of people in this country that love and worship Jesus Christ, less than half of them think homosexuality should even be discouraged.  And there is a huge portion of those protesting Chick-Fil-A that are part of your ranks as Christians.  The problem those protesting have with Christians is when they use their money, their status, and their platform to oppress other people.  People that we care about.  It's when the owner of Chick-Fil-A stands up and says that he supports the "traditional family" and "Christian principles", by which he mans that he doesn't think two men should be able to get married.  In fact, progressive Christians - and there are a lot of them - are often even more incensed by his statements, because he is claiming to speak for their God, for their Christ.  I don't claim to be a Christian, but I know many of the more progressive variety.  And Dan Cathy is using the Jesus Christ that they know and love to advocate for oppression and exclusion - and that doesn't honor the Christ they know.  It's antithetical to the Christ they know.  And that is why, for them, this debate really is all about Jesus: because the Jesus they know would be saddened and dismayed at Dan Cathy's statements.

*That said, a disclaimer: I believe that Boston's mayor is overreaching is bounds here.  It's one thing to fight for marriage equality via legislation, and quite another to discriminate against companies based on the views of its founder.  And in a statement that for some reason I hadn't heard about yet, NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg - hardly a paragon of conservatism - agrees with me, saying it was inappropriate "to look at somebody's political views and decide whether or not they can live in the city, or operate a business in the city, or work for somebody in the city."  He expanded on that, saying "trampling on the freedom to marry whoever you want is exactly the same as trampling on your freedom to open a store."  Well put, mayor.  Citizens like you and I are perfectly entitled to boycott, protest, and support whoever we want, but when it comes to government entities trying to use their legal powers, that crosses a line.  One other note: as a private entity, however, Jim Henson's company is perfectly within its rights to sever business ties with other private entities that go against what they stand for as a company, and I applaud them for doing so.

As another small point of agreement: the article declaims the widespread use of "homophobia" for anything opposing gay marriage.  I, too, tend to think that the word is overused and used as a broad brush.  These are complicated issues, and most of the opposition is not borne out of conscious hatred, but out of an allegiance to values of their faith.  I firmly believe that this allegiance is misplaced and unnecessary - even antithetical - but it's the allegiance nonetheless.

All statistics quoted are from the Pew Forum on Religion.  Some of the numbers required a little calculation to get the totals I quoted, and those calculations are in a Google Spreadsheet.

Monday, June 11, 2012

An open letter to the non-allies in my life

Again, my posts are few and far between. But this one opens with an image!

Today I wanted to re-post this Colbert quote on Facebook (with some commentary):

But I didn't, for the same reason I don't post much potentially controversial stuff to Facebook. I feared that regardless of what commentary I added, it would be taken as simply an attack or a dismissal, and ignored. What I actually want is to gently prod and perhaps give an opening for discussion to those for whom it is most relevant. And yes, that's mainly you, Mom and Dad, but to varying degrees my brothers, college friends, and people from my hometown. So I remembered that I had this blog, and decided that it would be an excellent medium for further commentary, since it's longer-form, and is more of a read-at-will thing and less in-your-face than just a Facebook post.

So for starters, the quote in text form, since image macros are kind of obnoxious. Steven Colbert to Neil Patrick Harris, openly gay actor/singer/dancer with a husband and two adorable kids:

You are also the biggest threat of all: you're a gay person I like. Your threat is that you make being gay not seem threatening. It's almost as if your happiness does not take my happiness away.
The reason this quote was so striking to me is that it very closely resembles remarks that I have personally heard on multiple occasions. There are two specifically that come to mind. One is the general unhappiness about Glee featuring gay characters, which I wrote about (in a less discussable and more exasperated form) two years ago.

But more pointedly, it reminds me of what my parents told me when I was planning on living in an apartment with Aaron, a gay floormate, my junior year of college. I distinctly remember being told (hedged and perhaps hesitantly, but clearly) that living with a gay person would cloud my judgement, that it would make it harder to separate the sinner from the sin, that it would make me more accepting of that lifestyle. Which is pretty much exactly what Colbert is poking at here. At the time, I was already pretty skeptical of Christianity's opposition to homosexuality, and I may have even rebutted with something like, "You mean it makes gay people seem like people?". But here we are, four years later, and I still told my parents they didn't have to come to my most recent PGMC concert because it was explicitly about being gay, and they were uncomfortable with parts of the Christmas concert.

And guess I wish I had more to say here. I can't really say much, because I can't argue with religion-based convictions that leave no room for compromise. As long as it comes down to "scripture says" and differing interpretations are precluded from the start, I can't really add anything to the discussion.

But if you're someone who knows and cares about me, even if that's despite my liberal views, I suppose I would just say this: this "issue" of homosexuality isn't just a theological precept for me. It's an operative, life-based conviction. In the past few years, the number of people I know and love that are gay and other shades of queer has only grown, and yes, your fears (and Colbert's mock fears) have come to glorious reality. It has become nothing less than absurd to me to think that Jwo and Ryan's tenth anniversary should be less worthy of celebrating just because they're both men. And it is disturbing and hurtful to me that people close to me oppose such unions. Especially when their reasons, one way or another, come down to a particular interpretation of words that were written over two thousand years ago.

I know I can't really say anything, especially in a blog post, to budge most people's convictions. But at least know that my status as an ally of and advocate for those who are gay is not because I just swallow up whatever the liberals tell me, or because I feel the need to rebel against my upbringing, or because I no longer value my faith. My advocacy is a direct result of getting to know a wide variety of gay people - as well as many loving, frighteningly intelligent people who are also allies - and finding that gay people are people who want to be able to have their love and relationships recognized and accepted and celebrated, just like the rest of us.

And I know there may be all kinds of defensive reasons you have that they're different, but I'm pretty sure I've heard them all at this point, and I'd love to discuss any one of them with you. Because I've unvaryingly found that when you realize that gay people are sincere, loving, unassuming people like you and I, those reasons end up falling far short of justifying any non-trivial distinction between gay relationships from straight ones. And when those reasons are used to exclude, dismiss, fire, shame, suppress, or simply ignore people that I love, it hurts. Especially when those doing the excluding are also people I love. So I'd be glad to talk more about all of this with any of you, because I truly believe that, even within your faith and your politics, there is no reason you should have to continue standing against the people that I know and love.

Additional note: The thing I desperately do not want is for comments here to be used to try to argue or convince. I will perhaps try to clarify and offer my perspective (as per the last paragraph), but I firmly believe that disproving or changing minds solely via comments is futile.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Morality sans faith

QuickAs usual, not-so-quick context: for my capstone class, I had to write a paper about my career choices and such, and being at a Christian University, many of the questions I was supposed to answer revolved around God, God's "calling" for my life, and such things. I decided, as I have as of late, that I don't want to pretend that I have an active faith or even know what God is all about, because there's no reason to, and it's counterproductive anyway. So I began to answer the pertinent questions thus:

The question of how God fits into all of this is a very complicated one for me, personally. Or, conversely, it could be framed as a very simple one, depending on how you ask it. As far as I am certain, and as far as my conscious decisions are concerned, God has not really had any effect on my decisions or career choices thus far.

I haven't posted here in forever, mostly because I've been really busy with school and just life in general (and because I have a Tumblr now to fire of shorter thoughts before they're gathered into a long-winded post here). Since this essay turned out to be a good thinking/writing out of my current position (or lack of position) on God, faith, and the surrounding matters, I thought I'd post the relevant parts here. The contents also partially explains my lack of writing here. A significant reason is that I've been busy, and my mind has been very full dealing with other things in my life, pushing less critical things like this to the back burner. But part of the reason it's not so critical at this point, and another reason that I haven't been dealing with such things, is because I've kind of reached an end of sorts. I've more or less been here for a while now, and I talked about it in my last post. But I've reached somewhere that I am pretty comfortable in, personally, at least, and it's a place that doesn't involve God, except peripherally, because of those around me. I'm not opposed to the idea of God, or Christianity (although I'm very opposed to many expressions of Christianity I've witnessed), or theism in general, and I'm open to faith if that's where I end up. But right now, I just don't have any reason to go there, I don't have any need for a divine being or any reason to go seeking after one. It's an interesting place to be, especially when I'm surrounded by Christians and people who are varying degrees of concerned with my eternal destiny, and what they see as a revocation of my faith. In reality, I have simply acknowledged that as far as I'm aware, I have at no point in my life had any more than a fa├žade of a faith, designed to fulfill expectations and act like I was supposed to. When I went looking for something beyond that, the only things I found that made sense and resonated with me personally had no need for God to get involved. So that's where I ended up.

Anyway, as tends to happen when I sit down and write, that was a longer digression than I was intending. And I'll digress just a little more before getting to my essay, by way of introduction to what I actually wrote about: many (probably most) Christians rely on their faith and God as the source of their morality, and to a great degree, meaning, ambitions and motivations. As a result, many assume that non-theists, with this source of all morality and meaning ripped out of their lives, have no moral structure and no meaning in their life. I've heard this kind of rhetoric repeatedly from Christians who just don't understand that God and faith are not the only valid source of morality and meaning. There has recently been an effort by atheists to counter this notion, including billboards asserting that you can be "good without God." I'm a huge fan of this effort, but it has ruffled a lot of Christians' feathers, to the point that many of the billboards have been vandalized in various ways. I sort of understand (but disagree with) the opposition, and am severely disappointed by (but unfortunately not surprised by) the vandalism. But anyway, that's another topic, I have an essay to excerpt from. Maybe more on that later. What now follows is an excerpt of my career essay that does a decent job of detailing what my morals, ambitions, motivations, and goals are in the absence of faith. Because I do, in fact, have a decent moral framework that is not dependent on God any kind of faith. Anyway, slightly-edited-excerpt time:

To answer whether or not I see God's direction in my career path, what talents God has given me, and how I see myself serving God in my career, my answers are, simplistically, "no", "none", and "not", respectively.

Of course, it is a little bit more complex than that. My parents, for one, would certainly argue that God has given me these talents, whether I acknowledge it or not, and that God has been guiding my career path, and indeed life, regardless of whether I acknowledge God or not. And if God does indeed exist, and is something similar to the Christian God, that would be true. Additionally, I don't pretend to know for sure whether or not there is a God, and whether or not he or she has done these things in my life. But none of my conscious motivation or decisions have really taken that into account. What has affected my decisions significantly is my personal beliefs and morals, which are certainly influenced by my Christian upbringing, and still bear significant resemblance to generic Judeo-Christian morality. But prior to coming to college, and processing through significant discussion and 40,000 words of blogging, my motivations for such morals were solely out of conformance to my upbringing. That base has now shifted to a vague moral humanist kind of foundation, built on a basic belief in common human dignity and human rights, and some sense of the ubiquitous Golden Rule – things that are hardly exclusive to Christianity, or even theology. But that is from whence my motivations stem.

As for God's role in my life? As far as I can tell, and as far as I'm concerned, my talents and aptitudes are a result of genetics, upbringing, opportunity, and generally, the great cosmic dice of stochasticity. I realize that I am insanely privileged to have drawn the metaphorical lot that I have – a heterosexual, cisgendered, white, middle-class American male attending a private university with talents and skills that I was given the opportunity to build, take advantage of, and expand upon, and ones that, with the aforementioned education, usually result in a solidly upper-middle-class starting wage. My consciousness of this privilege, along with my other beliefs, motivate my desire to use those skills and resources, within and beyond my career, to advocate for minorities, support those fighting for human equality whenever I can, and work to end oppression, discrimination, and economic disparity where I can. This can include something as simple as contributing monetarily to organizations and efforts that do this work, as well as things like using my skills for things like building a website for Haven, working for organizations like Agros International, and getting directly involved myself in advocacy and assistance.

So these are the things that influence my day-to-day and long-term choices, rather than morals and mandates stemming from God or a Christian worldview. And these are the things that will continue to motivate my life, regardless of where my faith, or lack thereof, ends up landing. Any faith I ultimately embrace will necessarily be very concerned with these kinds of priorities, and the root motivation will likely be bolstered by whatever theology I may end up with. My career path decisions thus far have largely been motivated by opportunity and alignment with my skill and talents. As I mentioned above, I am very fortunate that those things line up with a career that is in demand and well-compensated. These motivations are influenced by my moral framework and beliefs – working for Agros, for instance, was an excellent pairing of my passions and skills with my beliefs. And beyond that, my greater vocation – what I do with my time and other resources outside of my job – will be greatly influenced by that as well.

So briefly, I see myself not so much serving a God that I don't understand or believe in as much as I see myself serving a humanity that I see very clearly all around me – working, as best I can, to make the world a better place for everyone, especially those less privileged than myself. I am in a good position to do so largely because of the talents, skills, and aptitudes that I ended up with through a combination of nature, nurture, and luck, and I intend to use that position to work for the bettering of the world in general. That is my service, my motivation, and my career plan.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Some responses to my update

As often happens when I say things (especially since these cross-post to Facebook), people responded. My last post generated intriguing and particularly wide-ranging responses, so as often happens, I'm writing a response post, because any response comment would just be an endless, impossibly thin column, and it separates original responses from any responses to the response, so it's better for everyone.

So! First of all, a few specific responses, moving into some more general response, with specificity sprinkled liberally throughout.

Tyler surmised that I don't like Dawkins and Falwell because they are "confrontational." That isn't quite right. I don't dislike Dawkins and Falwell simply because they are confrontational. I dislike them because they are dismissive, angry, and publicly and shamelessly place people who don't think like them almost at some lower level of humanity. Both of them horribly distort and misuse their belief systems, or at least how I believe their belief systems should treat other people. Central to my belief, regardless of whether I believe in God, is the humanity of humanity - that we are all people, all worthy of equal respect and dignity, and should be treated as such, with respect and deference. It's moral humanism on one side, a more social justice Christianity on the other, and the Golden Rule no matter where you come from.

And I'm not really irritated by people trying to convert me - mostly just amused, actually. Because I've been there, done that, heard all the reasons and arguments, hell, advocated most of them. I highly doubt anyone trying to convert me is going to tell me anything new, and no one thus far has. That doesn't mean I know everything - I certainly don't. But anyone who is trying to convert me isn't likely to tell me anything I don't. And it is true that the people who have been most influential in me not just throwing the baby out with the (pretty damn brackish) bathwater are mainly those around me who are confident in their faith and make no attempt to convert me - only understand me better, if I ask them about things. These are people who have years of experience on me, people who I know think hard and critically about their faith, and admittedly many of whom share the same periphery that I do. Many of these are professors at SPU, and are a large reason I am thankful for my experience here.

And as for Danny's (intentional or not) pointing at the historic witness of Jesus. That is something I need to look at more, which is an interesting challenge. There is, of course, the Bible, and books like Case for Christ (which I read back in the day), but those are, for very good reasons, pretty one-sided. We did base our calendar around the guy and swear by him, but that's because we're Western culture, which is increasingly becoming Global culture. The Arab world had their own calendar and swears, before the world became standardized on Western culture. Christianity did spread, but much of that spread (Constantine, the Holy Roman Empire) were not reasons that I can exactly get behind. So there's that. But I do need to have a good idea of what to do with Jesus existing historically regardless of where I end up, which I don't really right now.

Which kind of brings me to the central issue - whether or not an "intellectual conversion" is at all possible, at least for me. Danny separated "faith" from "relationship with God", and I don't think that's a meaningful distinction for me. I spent the first twenty or so years of my life doing Christianity just fine, purportedly even believing in it, whatever that means absent a relationship. I certainly adhered to all the principles, argued for them, and was ready to tell others why what they thought was wrong if it didn't match my perspective. But that all fell apart when that faith's foundations crumbled. That faith was based on things like opposition to evolution, the evils of the world, fear and avoidance of Hell, conservatism, and a whole lot of really terrible analogies. My faith was defined by what it was not - it was not tainted by liberalism, it was not doing bad things, it was not going to Hell, and significantly, it was not really questionable, because it was not wrong. Obviously, things kind of fell apart when I realized that evolution was science, liberalism wasn't all hell and brimstone and really at the core is being more concerned about people, Christianity isn't primarily about getting a ticket to heaven, and the world isn't going to corrupt me if I don't shut it out. I suppose it did corrupt my conservative evangelical Christianity pretty thoroughly, but that's not nearly a bad thing.

So I've done a faith about knowing, about arguments, about being convinced. They ended up being really bad arguments. And maybe there are good arguments out there, but I still am repulsed by the idea of someone having to convince me that there is a God. Especially when so many have failed, and have presented pretty poor excuses for arguments. And Christians seems predisposed to arguments that include "Christianity is right" as an assumption somewhere, even though they don't realize it. But even if there were good arguments - if "faith" is separate from (or at least not a result of) "relationship with God" - I don't think it's a faith that I want. It feels like a very empty faith, a meaningless faith, and if this faith is going to have a significant effect in my life, be reason for doing things, that's not what I'm looking for.

I'm not sure what I am looking for. If anyone else is involved, I think it is more of someone introducing me to God than convincing me of God - but that's complicated because God isn't corporeal, and it sounds annoying to boot. I'm not trying to make God into anything specific, or put God in a box, or really require anything of God - except that God shows up in some recognizable fashion. Not in the fact that my life has been pretty good thus far, or that something unlikely (but still feasibly possible) thing happened. Nothing that proves to me that God is there. Matt, I agree that any experience used to prove God's existence is pretty questionable. And experience isn't reliable, but it's all we've got, really. If the only time I experience God is while I'm getting a root canal, it's unlikely that I'm going to do much with that. But even if I initially experience God while getting a root canal, but then continue to be able to communicate and experience going forward? That may be something different. I'm not sure. I think I agree with your and Danny's consensus though.

The point being, if I'm going to have faith, I want it to be based on knowing that God is there. That can only come through first-person experience, like Kristen's that I mentioned in my previous post. And whenever I talk to someone and we're past any proving or arguments or such, it always comes down to that. It was a similar situation whenever Becky and I really talked about it. They just know that God exists, and have some kind of relationship with God. They don't have any arguments or reasons that convinced them. They have supportive evidence, but none that makes any sense without the experience of God existing.

And I don't really have anything that I want God to be. I have a lot of ideas of what I don't want God to be that mostly boil down to "hypocritical". And I suppose, with that, some basic parameters - just and loving for starters. And pride is certainly a factor. It's always a factor. I'm human, perhaps more prideful than most. But I also don't want "pride" to be an excuse to dismiss my ability to know anything, or be confident in anything. Because I don't think it's prideful to think that modern science, for instance, knows a lot about how the world works. Not everything, not enough to rule out God (which is probably impossible anyway), but a lot. Certainly a lot more than 2000 years ago. "Pride" is too often used to just dismiss anything the dismisser doesn't like. I'm not in any way accusing you of doing so, Evan - I actually very much appreciated your thought. I just don't really know how to not be prideful, but at the same time have a faith that is rational and reasonable and has intellectual integrity. I suppose maybe I don't trust God enough to be that - I spent too long believing that God hates science and evolution and thinks reason is dangerous, primarily a tool of humanity to explain God away. I'll have to think about that one. Thanks.

And Nicki, you just posted, but your post lines up nicely with what I was going to wrap up with anyway, so here goes! One of the big problems with most reasons I'm given to believe is that I'm perfectly content, right now at least, to live without God. I don't need a God to explain how I got here, why the world works. I don't need a God to motivate me to be good to my fellow human beings, to follow the Golden Rule. To take the relationship analogy perhaps a bit far, I'm happily single as far as God goes. I wouldn't mind a relationship. It might well make my life better and fuller. But I don't need that for anything. Perhaps that's the wrong attitude to take - but if I were to pursue God as if I wanted God more than anything, I would have to do a lot of playacting, and I've done quite enough of that in my life already.

And for the record, I do go to church. Not really for any terribly spiritual reasons, and certainly because of a certain amount of momentum, and a touch of expectations. But primarily, at my home church, there are good people who care about me, and many of whom are some of those good examples above, who are confident and thoughtful in their faith, but don't try to push that on me. Sometimes I go to other churches, many of which remind me that not everyone is doing things horribly wrong. Some (Quest, for example) are doing very good things. Yet others remind me that, yes, some people still are using Christianity in ways that I find repulsive. I limit my visits to such places, but even at some places, there are kernels of right.

I'm not sure how to actively put myself out there without presuming things that I don't believe. I'm open, I'm even willing to do a little investigation, if from a noncommittal perspective - reading the Bible not as a book of my faith, but as the book of Christianity. But much beyond that - actively seeking - ends up requiring too much pretension and acting. Again with the likely inappropriate extension of the relationship analogy: actively seeking out a relationship, as if you desperately need one, is a bad idea. I'd much rather run into someone, at the Teacup, downtown, at a bookstore, on the bus, and have things go from there. That's a little harder with God, since God has no corporeal presence, but if I continue on through life, open to the idea of a relationship with God, and God is around and interested, I'm betting I'll run into God sometime along the way.

I get annoyed very quickly with Jesus-is-My-Boyfriend-type things, and painting God as a romantic relationship, but I think the analogy works okay here. It's true of any relationship, romantic or otherwise. If I'm not interested, closed off to new relationships, it's unlikely I'll start any. But if I'm open, but not actively looking, I'll probably run across some. Some friendships and/or relationships I run into will greatly interest me, and I'll pursue them. But looking for relationship for the sake of being in relationship isn't what I want to do - in personal relationships or God ones.

So, to exit the relationship analogy, which has been stretched quite enough. I'm quite content right now to be a moral humanist. I don't need God to fill any holes in my life, which I don't think should be God's function anyway. I have a basis for morality (common human dignity, basically), an explanation (enough, anyway) for how the world got here and how we work (science), and meaning in life (making the world a better place for those who surround and will follow me, and enjoying the time I have). I'm not opposed to God showing up, or having a relationship with God. But it's not really something I need to sustain me. If God exists and is a relational God, I'd be quite interested in getting to know him, her, or it. But I have no reason to assume that is the case, so I'm going to have to run into God somehow - in a way that I recognize - to get that started. Which, I suppose, is what I'm waiting around for.

Thanks, all, for your input - it's got me thinking, and I probably didn't address everyone's points in here, but rest assured I read them and will mull them over, because they are all great thoughts. And I would be glad to talk with any of you about such things - I always love fleshing things out in person.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A brief update on faith, theism, God, and me

It's been far too long since I've posted here, I've been busy with all kinds of life things, and have been spending more time over on Tumblr as well. But I just posted over there something that would make just as much sense here, that kind of explains why I haven't been posting as much here. So here goes.

I have been reading a thus-far intriguing book called Cloud Atlas, but I left it in the library yesterday and it hasn't showed up in their lost and found yet.  So I resorted to reading the other book that has been langushing in my laptop bag for far too long, ever since my father read it and gave it to me.  Said book is There Is A God by Anthony Flew, supposedly "the world's most notorious atheist," who I had never heard of.  After reading, evidently he was a lot bigger among philosophers in the 60's, 70's, and 80's than he is these days, which would explain my ignorance of him, but I still think the claim is a bit reaching.  In 2004, he apparently came out as believing in God, and some atheists got pissed, and religious people all over got really excited.

Now I'm a little underwhelmed by all of this, because he's only a deist, and doesn't even believe in the afterlife, which makes it a rather Pyhrric victory for Christians, I would think.  And some of the endorsement quotes were less than heartening.  Francis Collins crows that "Flew's colleagues in the church of fundamentalist atheism will be scandalized," the Denver Post calls it an "Intellectual conversion of great significance," and I've been highly disappointed and extremely skeptical of "intellectual conversions."  But I've nonetheless made it through half of the preface and the introduction and two and a half chapters thus far.

I gave up halfway through the introduction, because I decided that its author, Roy Abraham Varghese, is, or at least comes across as, a pompous ass who gleefully delights in pointing out the apparently hilarious failures of atheism.  Of what I read, he spent about a third of it quoting the likes of Richard Dawkins and another promoting Flew to almost godlike status in his philosophical brilliance (without, of course, mentioning that he's a deist at best).  It's full of gleeful dismissal, and absolutely maddening to read.  And I've long held that if someone gets to hold out Dawkins as an example of reasoned, respectful atheism, I get to pull out people like the late Jerry Falwell and James Dobson as examples of reasoned, respectful Christianity.  From what I know of him, Dawkins is as bitter and gleefully dismissive as Varghese, and I want nothing do do with him.

So I gave up on the preface, hoping that Flew himself, having been an atheist for fifty years, would have some semblance of respect for the position.  I haven't been disappointed - he hasn't made me want to throw the book across the bus yet, for instance, and has been very respectful of both sides thus far.  But he also has spent three chapters talking very dryly about the various philosophical papers and debates he's been involved in, how he chummed with C.S. Lewis, and his various schoolings and romantic endeavors.  I suppose this is kind of an autobiography, but it's been a dull, frustrating, mildly but not egregiously self-important one.  Certainly not raising himself nearly to the importance that Varghese did in the preface, or I would no longer be reading this book.

The first chapter was interesting, in that he discussed his upbringing, which was rather similar to mine - a preacher's kid who did all the right things mainly to fulfill expectations but never had any heart or real interest in it, faced questions that he was in no way equipped to handle, and gave up.  I haven't been quite as conclusive as he was, but the similar background will hopefully be beneficial.  But after that, as I said, a bunch of paper titles and summaries, and name dropping, and not much substance.  There was a brief dismissal of determinism that I found altogether dissatisfying (because I have thought about these things) and he called the basic "first cause" argument "formidable," (I don't think throwing God in as yet another proximate cause really helps anything, no matter how much you pretend God magically gets to be not proximate), but that's about it.

But he promises to actually get to the challenging and arguments for God in the next seven chapters, so hopefully there will be things of substance in there.  But I admit that I highly doubt Flew will be successful in doing anything but frustrating me with mischaracterizations or improper dismissals, because so-called "intellectual conversions" have always left me wholly wanting and completely unconvinced.  

In fact, I don't think anything is going to happen on the faith front until God decides to show up.  That might sound a little defeatist or apathetic, but I don't really have any good reasons to have faith, and I don't understand reasons for faith other than "God exists, so we should get to know him/her/it."  Trying to argue God into existence or threaten me with consequences if I don't believe isn't going to cut it.  And really, I'm jealous of those who have experienced God, and I don't think it's fair that I haven't.  I'm not opposed to the idea at all, and I'm not opposed to theism.  But I just don't have any good reasons - making my family comfortable is not sufficient reason to lie about my motivations for everything in life and basic beliefs.

Earlier, Kristen posted a section of her admissions essay, which contained this brief excerpt:

It was at this retreat that everything changed. While my friends raised their hands fervently in praise during worship and knelt piously in the aisles for the altar call, I sat in the back, scornful and skeptical. And God, with a gentle persistence I would learn to recognize and appreciate in coming years, showed up. It is difficult to describe this experience fully, as I suspect words could never do it justice; however, in that time, God was there. God was real. We sat together for the remainder of the service, at which point God obligingly moved on and I was left joyously pondering my newfound revelation.  I still lacked understanding, but this experience provided me with a basic foundation of faith from which I could begin to seek.

And I was jealous.  Because at this point, I'm not even that scornful or skeptical.  Just a little cynical, but that's mostly at Mars Hill and the like.  Why doesn't God bother to just show up?  If God exists, why does ze insist on sitting back on the sidelines, watching me flail around, being offered pathetic, circular, and in general unsatisfying arguments for zer existence, witnessing all kinds of miscarriage of Christianity and Jesus' stated goals?

And it's that, really, that has been why I haven't really posted here. I haven't really gone anywhere spiritually recently. I've cut out all of the parts of Christianity that I found unnecessary, hurtful, and problematic, I have a fairly coherent Christian theology, at least for all the peripheral stuff, that I would be willing to adopt. But I don't have any good reason to embrace theism, much less Christianity. And I don't think that's something that can be argued or reasoned, I think it's something that can be experienced. Because all of this God-talk, all of theology, doesn't really make sense if you don't have a relationship with God. And I don't, and I don't know how to. And as the omnipotent, invisible, imperceptible being, I think it's kind of God's job to reveal Godself to me, because I can't hop over into whatever ethereal realm God resides in, and all attempts to pray or read the Bible just end up with me talking to myself and getting mad at how the church has misused Scripture.

So until that revelation happens, I doubt I'll be convinced.  I'll read the book, I'll continue discussions with my father and others who care about me, I'll keep my options open, but I can't think of anything that would convince me.  It's not for lack of trying, it's not because I just haven't heard your awesome argument.  It's because arguments aren't what I'm looking for.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Theology, one word at a time

We are often asked to describe something - our life, our ambitions, ourselves - in a limited number of words. Sometimes one, sometimes two, maybe three. Ernest Hemingway is famous for his six-word story: "For sale: baby shoes, never used," and the idea has inspired many similar efforts across literature and the internet. This interest in distilling something - ourselves, a story - into its smallest possible form is strong and widespread, because it requires every word to count - discarding only the most essential of essentials, to arrive at the purest essence of its subject. Pondering this, I thought it would be interesting to write my theology in one word, then two, then three, and so on, as a unique (and hopefully helpful) way of expressing the most important aspects of my faith, and going outward from there. Each summary must stand on its own, without its surroundings, and be true to my beliefs. The first word is easy, since I've titled my creed of sorts a "Theology of Love." So I'll start there. This, I hope, will be a work in progress, hopefully improving (and not just growing) as I go. Getting too long may start getting unweildly and not as useful, but thus far, figuring out what one word needs to be added is hard. We'll see.
  1. Love.
  2. Love everyone.
  3. God is love.
  4. Love God, all humanity.
  5. Love your neighbor above yourself.
  6. Always share God's love. By example.
  7. Love everyone perfectly. Any failure is sin.