Sunday, January 29, 2017

"All Things Bright and Beautiful" to my #AtheistEar

One song from our hymnal happened to have a series of books and TV episodes associated with it. I actually never got to watch this particular TV show when I was a kid, because it was aired in a Sunday morning time slot that put it squarely in the middle of our church services.

But I read the living heck out of the books, and while this wasn't the intent of the author, the lessons I took from his stories planted the seeds of skepticism in my brain.

I can't recall whether any of my choral groups performed this version of the hymn or not, but the John Rutter recording seemed the most familiar (and least cheesy) of those I could find on YouTube.

(Lyrics - and music - are available here.)

Songs like this one, which take the sense of wonder we all feel when we look at the world around us, and attribute that wonder to a concept of God are pretty common, across many cultures. The words bugged me when I was younger, because they focused so heavily on the pretty and charming side of nature, while completely ignoring the inherent danger. That seemed creepy and Orwellian to me, even then.

Nature's red in tooth and claw seems to be as apt a thing to attribute to an omnipotent being as each little flow'r that opens or each little bird that sings. And if we were going to give God credit for all of the sweet, pretty, and delightful things in the world He made, shouldn't he also get credit for making the violent, brutal, and dangerous things, too? When I questioned that, I got uncomfortable and tortured answers, which seemed to indicate that my elders were uneasy with the implication that an omnipotent God should also be held to account for what we call "evil."

It would take me about thirty years to process the cognitive dissonance that this produced. For several years during college, I was obsessed with the musical Jesus Christ Superstar in part because the character of Judas does what he does out of a sense of duty. He thinks he is "the good guy" when he goes to the Pharisees to turn Jesus in; and when he realizes that he was manipulated into doing an "evil" deed as part of God's plan, he is devastated:

I know you can't hear me
But I only did what you wanted me to
I'd sell out the nation
For I have been saddled
With the murder of you

God I'll never know
Why you chose me for your crime
Your foul bloody crime
You, you have murdered me

taken from: Jesus Christ Superstar - Judas' Death Lyrics | MetroLyrics 

Considering things from Judas's point of view is not generally approved of by the elders, either, by the way. They will remind you (with no sense of irony whatsoever) that Jesus Christ Superstar is fictional. But if you set aside the interesting puzzle of how much of the Jesus story is literally true, you will notice that they are still attempting to pull that sleight of hand wherein God gets all the credit and glory for everything good. The point of this trick is to shift anything evil - even if it was His idea, and necessary to His plot - onto you.

None of that epic philosophical struggle shows up in James Herriot's very popular books about a Yorkshire veterinarian in the 1930s. Instead, you get a lot of amusing stories that reveal the character of the small towns and farms of the English countryside. Herriot certainly doesn't set out to undermine God, here; in fact, I rather think that he would consider the themes in his stories to revolve around how humans misunderstand nature.

Selecting the lyric of that hymn for his title would indicate that he, too, attributes all of the goodness he sees around him to God. If anything, I think his intent was to bring out the good and the noble side of the subjects of his tales, and show that much of what people consider "evil" is better treated as ignorance or fear of the unknown, and that knowing more gives you the power to do more good. I still embrace that hopeful theme.

The TV series I always wanted to watch...
Among the anecdotes about farting boxers and contrary cattle, the stories that I related to most were those that revolved around Herriot's frustration with the science-denying farmers with their terrible "home remedies." In some of these tales, Herriot would contrast attitudes he ran across through several visits to different farmers.

One might have a calf with an easily treated calcium deficiency, but he would treat it with absurd tinctures and potions to avoid a veterinary bill. That farmer would finally give in and call Dr. Herriot, only to attribute the miraculous recovery to whatever arcane ritual had been performed before the good Doctor's arrival.

Another would call the vet right away only to find a deadly and un-treatable condition that required Herriot to put down a "perfectly good animal."

And then - possibly the worst feeling - there would be a case so difficult and mysterious that even after Dr. Herriot thought he would lose the animal. Yet, when he solved the mystery and miraculously saved the animal, the farmer would shrug, unimpressed, and mumble something like, "That's what ye charge so much for, innit?"

Sharing Herriot's affable frustrations over the years primed me to recognize the human animal's susceptibility to fooling himself. Failing to spot the holes in the stories we tell ourselves is widespread, and it's rare indeed that anyone responds well to having those holes pointed out.

I get why people respond so poorly and unpredictably to having their worldview challenged. I get why they would be suspicious of someone trying to change the way they think. It can be terrifying to realize that the core assumptions you've made about the nature of the universe and the benevolence of the God you worship have some internal inconsistencies. Most people who realize that their myths aren't true are going to recoil in horror.

Some may face the dilemma that fictional Judas faced; a deep sense of guilt for acting in a way they thought was good. Some may feel less noble, and simply double down to save face. And if you're the one pointing out the dangerous flaw that threatens their sense of self, their integrity, their nobility? Well, you're probably going to take the brunt of their reaction.

Don't feel bad - that's just nature demonstrating how wise and wonderful it is.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Ben Folds Five's "Mess" to an #AtheistEar

"And I don't believe in God
So I can't be saved
All alone, as I've learned to be
In this mess I have made."
It's a little bit embarrassing to admit this, but the first time I heard these words, I had to pull my car over to the side of the road and weep.

I remember that sensation of shock. It felt like my organs turned into liquid and drained down into my legs. My arms felt weak, and once I was safely stopped with my hazards on, I turned the music off and sat limply in the driver's seat with my eyes closed until the feeling passed.

Then I played it again.

(Lyrics are available here.)

This happened in England, in 1999. My friend Neil had given me a pirated cassette copy of The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner with a hand-written label. I probably still have it, though I bought my own copy as soon as I could locate one. The whole album spoke to me, and I've written about that before. But this song, with this chorus, was like a lightning bolt.

I can point to that moment in my tin-can Mini, pulled over and weeping on the A-10, as the moment when I realized that I didn't believe in God, and hadn't for some time. I still did not publicly acknowledge this until much later.

One good question I've asked myself over the years is why it took so long for me to realize I was not a believer any more. Part of that answer lies in my environment. My family was a strong influence on my beliefs as a child, of course, and after I joined the Air Force in 1994, I was surrounded by people and groups bent on ensuring that I conformed to some broad notion of American Protestantism. They didn't seem phased by the contradictions inherent in insisting that military members follow a Bronze Age pacifist whose central message was "love thy neighbor;" in fact, they didn't seem to care what anyone actually practiced or believed, as long as they "believed in something."

As a kid, I had actually been more of a fire-brand type of believer than most of those in my church and family. They worked hard to curb my more outrageous fundamentalist tendencies, and as I grew up, I began to recognize the worst parts of myself that religion brought out in me. Much of my book (available on Amazon, if you haven't read it!) describes the drawn out process I experienced of recognizing the corrosive influences of my religious faith, and the uncomfortable realization that the Truths I had never questioned didn't hold up to a rational examination.

But despite the slow trajectory of my departure from the faith of my childhood, I was still conditioned to react with disgust and aversion to the idea that I might be an atheist. So, I went along with the confirmation classes required to baptize our first child, and paid lip service to the military leaders who insisted on maintaining my "spiritual fitness." (Strictly speaking, that term came into fashion after I left the service; it was a vague, universal notion while I was in, but mostly nameless.)

Societal pressure from outside was only part of the answer, though. The other part was purely internal. For at least that decade prior to Reinhold Messner's release, I clung to the notion that there had to be something intelligent running the universe. I couldn't figure out what it was or ought to be; I couldn't see it through all of the conflicting descriptions attributed to it by humans. But without it, I felt lost.

Without some kind of God, I realized, I was the only one accountable for myself. And I couldn't handle that.

"All alone, as I've learned to be, in this mess I have made."

The most common reaction a religious person has to discovering that I don't believe in the supernatural is to accuse me of "hating God." Christian theology is built entirely on the idea of salvation: of God taking the responsibility of our "sin" off of our shoulders for us, and they see that as some kind of great gift. They don't understand why anyone would turn down such an amazing gift, much the way someone deeply invested in a multilevel marketing scheme can't understand why anyone would turn down the amazing opportunity they are offering.

What I realized in that car that day was that I couldn't hate something that didn't exist...but I was terrified to accept that there was no Eternal Being out there responsible for my mess. I was scared and angry to face facts.

That heavy moment passed, though, and I realized that without a mystical Savior to push my mistakes onto, I needed to sort out my own mess. Despite what a childhood in Christianity had taught me, I knew better. I knew wishing and believing wouldn't accomplish anything. So after I had spent the previous decade telling myself I was spiritually searching for answers, I spent the following decade owning the answer and fixing my mistakes.

It's a work in progress, clearly. But once you accept the hard truth, you can make progress.

You save yourself. That's how you get saved. But you're not alone; that's why I'm here.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

The Smoking Gun That Brings Down Trump

Sorry about the clickbaity title, but if I've learned anything from my years spent on social media, it is that reasonable behavior is ignored in favor of the unacceptable. Human nature, I suppose.

But with the inauguration in five days, I felt compelled to address the subject of Trump's illegitimacy as a U.S. President. If you're angry with me for expressing my anger over the election of Donald Trump, I suggest you consider these thoughts:

First: No, he did not win the election - by his own standards.

Before the election, it was well known that Trump had stated (and his fans & surrogates had embellished with suggestions of violence) that if he did not win the election, that said election would be illegitimate. The only way he could lose, he claimed, was if "they stole it" from him. Had the vote been precisely reversed - had Hillary Clinton taken the Electoral College victory while Trump took the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes - Trump supporters claim that they would have taken up arms and taken to the streets.

Since the results did fall the way they fell, however, I have had to accept the Electoral College results. I do this because those are the rules I agreed to by being a citizen of this country, even while knowing that if things had gone the other way, all of the people now gloating and telling people to "get over it" would not have been remotely as gracious in defeat as they insist we should be.

Second: My stance is not a mere "difference of opinion" for you to ignore.

When Thomas Jefferson wrote the words "we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal" he expressed an idea that was itself imperfect but which pointed towards the kind of society that we are still trying to build. Progress means ensuring that "all men" includes all people, and that "created equal" means equal treatment under the law. But Jefferson had to call these truths "self-evident" because he and the other American Revolutionaries were trying to create something that had never existed before, and which we are still trying to understand and define.

Our foundation was not actually based on any existing, widely accepted idea. It did not come from any existing tradition or pedigree that people of that time would have recognized. It was a direct and purposeful denial of the tradition of the "divine right of kings." Our democracy aimed from the beginning to place the power over the government into the hands of the people being governed, and not leave it in the hands of a king. And the only way for that founding ideal to be legitimate is for that power to be held and exercised by everyone who is subjected to it.

For me, supporting my country and my fellow citizens requires me to oppose anyone who seeks to take their power away and concentrate it in the hands of a king. I am required by the oath I took at the beginning of my career to oppose enemies "foreign and domestic" who attack that fundamental power.

I don't take that lightly, and I have lost friends over the years because they tried to dismiss what I had to say as a "difference of opinion." And my objection to Donald Trump's presidency is driven by his inattention to foreign enemies (specifically, Russia) as well as his tacit support for domestic enemies (specifically, the KKK and white nationalists using the label "alt-right").

If I have to, as my ancestors did, I will fight in any way I can to defeat those enemies.

Third: I will not throw flowers for Hitler.

For nearly a decade, the rhetoric I have heard from Donald Trump himself, and from people who now support him, has sought to indict Barack Obama's presidency as illegitimate, foreign, and monarchical. One of the friendships I lost during Obama's first term was that of a woman I knew in college who tweeted that the Obamas were behaving like Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette and that they should meet the same fate at the guillotine. I called her out on that, and she and her husband - a non-commissioned officer in the U.S. Army, no less - attacked me for doing so. Another of the friendships I lost at that time was a colleague who declared me a "traitor" for voting for Obama. He and I did not speak from 2009 until his death a couple of years later.

I don't need friends who act that way.

Now I see a lot of parallels between that 2008 election and 2016, in that the same kind of people - and the president-elect himself - now want to claim a mantle of legitimacy that they tried to deny to a man who actually won his election. These are people who demonstrate daily that they have not read and do not understand our Constitution, even while they spent these past eight years running down a President who taught Constitutional law. I do not claim that President Obama's views and positions were always "right" — I think he made a lot of terrible mistakes regarding executive power and civil liberties — but I do assert that he was qualified to be a President. You might say I consider him qualified to make those mistakes.

But Donald Trump's behavior during his campaign, the policies he espoused, the people he chose to support, and his actions since the election have all proven him to be uniquely unqualified to be President. He has already declared himself to be above the law. He has already ignored foreign interference with our electoral process and demonstrated a pattern of putting his whims and his fortunes ahead of the country's needs. He is so ignorant of the law and of the consequences of his choices, he is unqualified to make the mistakes he is already making.

In short, he has so far behaved exactly like a monarch... and his defense of this behavior has not been to say, "No, I am not a monarch," but instead to say, in essence, "I accused Obama of behaving like a monarch, and you accepted him; so now you have to accept me."

After years of accusing a legitimate, sitting President of being a secret foreigner/sleeper agent and un-American dictator, Trump has demonstrated that he is going to behave like an un-American dictator while actual evidence of foreign manipulation of our media, our electoral process, and our president will be swept under the rug.

Last: Even you don't "agree with" Trump.

Over the course of my adult life, I have engaged in debates of various form and tone with any number of friends, family, and acquaintances. Individually, we share a lot of common ground when it comes to personal morals, integrity, and basic human values. We tend to disagree on "fundamental principles" which we struggle to understand, let alone defend. We are all pretty weak on economics; we all grapple with the philosophical purpose of laws; we have a hard time dealing with identity politics; and we differ on the existence of the supernatural.

I often complain about tribalism, and object to the loss of nuance that follows when we confine ourselves to addressing complex problems with oversimplified political talking points. I hate that many of you consider me to be "a liberal" and yourselves to be "conservatives" when those labels distract us from our commonalities. I regret how often I'm forced to rely on the dumbed-down shorthand of those labels.

Many of my so-called conservative friends and family are actually economic liberals, and their stated values of democratic government, individual liberty, and rule of law make them "liberals" by the standards of global history. But even those areas where you are truly "conservative" in a meaningful sense of that word are areas where Donald Trump promises to violate your values.

Where you and I agree that the economy should not be micro-managed by the government, Donald Trump has promised to personally interfere for the sake of "jobs." He has already claimed to do this several times, and as a conservative, you ought to be vehemently opposed to both his intent and his methods. He distracts from this by decrying "regulation," but again, he has no idea what those regulations are, or what they actually do, and if he fulfills his promises to eliminate them, our food supply, our air, and our water will all be put at risk. Let alone our jobs.

Where you and I agree that our political parties are corrupt and unduly influenced by money, Donald Trump has certainly shown them up. But instead of forcing reform, he has simply paved the way for an amoral "might makes right" form of political discourse. (Not to get side-tracked, but what he has done closely resembles what Vladimir Putin did in Russia during his first election.) His election has assured that those with power will be able to choose their electorate in order to keep power, instead of ensuring that the people have the ability to get rid of leaders who work against their interests.

Where you and I agree on morals, like "love your neighbor" and the Golden Rule, Donald Trump has demonstrated a complete lack of these morals. He is a bully who abuses the law in his business dealings and cheats those who work for him whenever he thinks he can get away with it. He doesn't even conform to the behavioral norms that those of you I disagree with consider desirable. He is an admitted sex offender ("grab 'em by the pussy"), a serial divorcee, a failed socialite and B-list celebrity who embodies all of the things in our society that you consider gross and offensive.

And where you might be piously religious, he is most obviously not. "Two Corinthians"? Even I have more respect for the Bible than that. The fact that I, as an atheist, reject his amorality and his pretense at belief instead of embracing him as some kind hero of non-belief should tell you something disturbing about him. He does not, and will not, represent you or your values.

My hope is that those of you who don't really support any of the things Trump represents will "get over" your distaste for those of us you would rather write off as sore losers, and recognize the peril that we are both in. You need to recognize that this isn't about Hillary anymore; her candidacy is off the table. But we are at a point where any alternative to the danger we are facing would be preferable. We just need a smoking gun to condemn the guilty party.

The smoking gun that will take down Donald Trump is you.

You need to contact your congressional representatives, particularly in the Senate, and let them know that you will not support them if they prop up a monarch and destroy our Constitution. For now, we still have the power to stop this; if we ignore the problem, it may be too late in just a couple of months.

And that is not just my opinion.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Take 6's "Spread Love" to my #AtheistEar

If you aren't a vocal musician from the 1990s, you may not remember the unexpected popularity of a cappella groups from that time. After Bobby McFerrin's hit with Don't Worry Be Happy, and the success of Spike Lee's Do It Acapella documentary, we seemed to have an explosion of vocal groups take to the airwaves with varying degrees of success.

My personal favorites were a six-part group called Take 6, who took home Grammy awards for their 1988 self-titled debut album. Here's my favorite track from that record:

(Lyrics are here.)

Take 6 were very definitely a gospel sextet. The opening track of their first album, a song called Gold Mine, is every inch a love song sung to God; they include traditional spirituals If We Ever, and Mary (as in "O, Mary don't you weep"), and Get Away, Jordan; they also turned in gorgeous arrangements of contemplative hymns such as A Quiet Place and He Never Sleeps. (which, honestly, deserves a minor cover by Disturbed so you can feel as creeped out by the lyrics as I do! But I digress...) They even do a sassy take on the story of David and Goliath.

But Spread Love is the only song on the album that doesn't quite cross the line into being a "religious" song. It goes right up to that line, but then it does something that I, as a humanist, really appreciate. See if you spot it:

Seems like everything we hear is just a tale
But I've got something that will never, ever fail
(It's called love)

Spread love, instead of spreading lies
Spread love, the truth needs no disguise
I've often said love could open any door
Oh, but I wish we had much more
More love is what we need

Christian theology is, at its core, supposed to be about love. A recurring theme in song and sermon is to equate God and love. It's such a deeply ingrained notion that when I was 17 and listening to this album, it never occurred to me that this song wasn't overtly omitting any mention of God or Jesus. But look again - where the "something" that will never, ever fail is implied to be Jesus, just because of the context of who the group is and their expected audience, the words only talk about love!

Adult Atheist me, looking back across not-quite-thirty years, can really appreciate a song like this that I can sing without internally editing in a footnote*. To me, as a humanist, these lyrics are exactly right: lies are hateful, and we are all better off with the truth. If you love the truth, you'd better be spreading love.

You don't have to be into the spiritual or supernatural to buy into the idea that boasting, gossiping, and wallowing in trash culture is a harmful waste of time. You don't have to be religious to value honesty and desire the real answers to our toughest questions. In fact, most of the atheist thinkers I follow - people like Libby Anne and Dan Fincke among others  - found that abandoning their childhood faith in the supernatural did not mean abandoning morals altogether.

Of course, I see plenty of people spreading the lie that because people like me don't believe there is some mystical, supernatural force about, we are without morals. Or worse, that we are moral relativists (talk about the Pope calling the kettle black). But the truth is that there is a lot of moral common ground between the core teachings of many faiths and the personal morals of non-believers.

So, I'll ask you to do me a favor - and don't spread that lie.

Not that you won't find just as many frustrating examples of non-believers behaving badly as I find of Christians (and Muslims, and Jews, and any number of other types of religious followers), but the point is to address the specific behavior, and not waste time reinforcing the stereotypes of the tribe.

And that's hard for me, too.

* Like, "Okay, the words say 'Yay, God' here, so I feel like an idiot because I don't think there is any such being...but whatever, I'm alone in the car with the windows rolled up."

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Gershwin's "It Ain't Necessarily So" to an #AtheistEar

So we've put 2016 behind us, and we're looking ahead to 2017; but some of us are looking with unease and trepidation. This past year taught us that as a nation, we haven't put to rest the evils of the past. My theme song going into the year is one by George & Ira Gershwin from their opera Porgy & Bess.

Here's a performance by Cab Calloway - and it's remarkable to me that this was never pointed out to me as a song to avoid by all of the cultural gatekeepers of my youth:

(Lyrics are available here.)

The song was originally put in the mouth of a shady drug dealing character who draws criticism from his pious neighbors for his blasphemous attitude, and there were greater controversies surrounding the racial stereotypes in the show that distracted from the fact that one character was so blatantly casting doubt on the scriptures. I imagine its subversive tone was exactly what made the song compelling to later artists, though.

And these days, when "fake news" is suddenly a thing that people seem to be worried about, a song like this seems rather necessary. More than ever, we need to examine what comes through our feeds and question assumptions before we make decisions. That healthy skepticism that makes you question things that don't sound right is something you want to cultivate.

"But wait," you might say, "I was taught not to question the scriptures! And you telling me to do just that in a sassy, jazzy song is blasphemy!"

Well, I'm sorry you feel that way. I really don't know what to tell you that will make you feel better about the things you believe that I think are silly fiction. Imagine what you would tell me if I told you that I believed every word of Doctor Who to be literally true - and if I condemned you to an eternity of torture for not believing it, too. You would be perfectly within your right to tell me, "Good luck with that," and not to trust my judgment on certain matters.

We're all in the same predicament. I'm not going to try to force you to see things my way. But you're not going to last long if you don't develop a strategy for figuring out what's real and what's not.

I recommend keeping this song handy - maybe make it the notification for your news feed. Depending on your sources, you may get more reliable meaning and guidance from the immortal words of Cab Calloway:

Wadoo, zim bam boddle-oo,
Hoodle ah da wa da,
Scatty wah !
Oh yeah !...