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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Coming Out

This will be my last post on Grace To Wisdom and my first on Recovering From Dogma.  The reason will become clear by the end of this post; the former title no longer fits.  I've imported all of my Grace To Wisdom posts to Recovering From Dogma for posterity so that one can trace the story.

It's been over one year since my last blog post.  I could blame it on the insane amount of business travel I've endured, but that would be a cop-out.  No, this has taken so long to post because I've had to rewrite it so many times as I've pored over how best to be true to what I say in a manner that is respectful.

I've struggled with a disclaimer so as not to offend anyone of differing views.  Instead, I have decided to dispense with it altogether for this simple reason: This isn't about you.  While everything in this world is not "all about me", this particular blog entry is.  This is my blog created, in part, to give voice to my story.  This is not an attack on anyone or their beliefs or views, it is an expression of mine.  I'm not here to express or validate your views; If you want to do so, write your own blog, write your own book, tell your own story.

More importantly, I will not disown you, defriend you, or cast you aside for having views different from mine.  I love my friends for who they are, not for what they believe.  I will, however, eventually cast you out of my life for your behavior toward me; life is too short to endure and enable trolls.

My purpose for this blog post is mainly driven by the need to be true to myself.  It's one of the elements found here in Regrets of the Dying, a wonderful post from a palliative care provider:
     #1. I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

True to the title of this entry, this is a coming out of sorts.  If you follow me on Twitter, there have been loads of hints along the way.

I can already hear the murmurs and gasps: "What's he about to say...could it be...?"  "I KNEW IT...he likes to cook and he has WAY too many shoes.  He's also freakishly into outerwear!  According to his wife and his own admission, he did most of the interior decorating and color selection in their home.  Hmmm - What's up with that?"

No, it's not that.  I'm still firmly (so to speak) and happily heterosexual (It's not a choice).  Although, I imagine I am feeling an angst similar to that experienced by those who come out with their sexual orientation.

In additional to telling my own story, I want to be an agent of support for those with similar experiences.  Recovering alcoholics, drug addicts, cult survivors, and others with trauma in their backgrounds often seek to help others with a shared experience.  It's been said that we spend most of our lives either benefiting from or recovering from our upbringing.  I want to help others with their recovery.

In November, I became aware of a coming out campaign: the Out Campaign for atheists.  In addition to the many Christians and people of other faith traditions I follow on Twitter, I also engage many atheists, agnostics, secular humanists, and others.

My first thought upon discovering this campaign was why?  Why do they feel the need to "come out"?  Don't they know they'll be persecuted, ridiculed, perhaps lose their jobs, and damage relationships if people know the truth about where they stand? - of course they do - which leads to one of the reasons why they feel so strongly about this expression.  It shouldn't be that way.  They shouldn't fear reprisal, anywhere - particularly in a free country - regardless of faith or lack of faith.  Living truthfully, honestly, asking hard questions and being skeptical of ancient, dogmatic answers given to us from tradition should not be cause for shame.  Quite the opposite: They should be proud of who they are and their quest for truth.

But I'm not coming out as an atheist either; not because I think there's anything wrong with identifying as such, but because the title seems unnecessary and I'm not sure it fits me.

I've read reams of both conservative and liberal Christian literature, apologetics, and the bible (several times, cover to cover).  I've led adult Sunday School classes and bible studies in Baptist, Presbyterian, and Methodist churches (and groups outside of church).  I've served on church committees and tried to do it right as a Christian.  Over the past few years, I've also read volumes of work by Robert Ingersoll, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, John Loftus, Dan Barker, A.C. Grayling, William Lobdell, and many other non-religious writers and scholars.  I've grown to appreciate their perspectives on so many things and they add new perspective to what I've spent most of my 47 years mired in.

I recently watched a Youtube video of Sam Harris speaking at the Atheist Alliance International conference in 2007.  His speech was entitled "The Problem with Atheism".  You can also see an edited transcript in The Washington Post.  Sam makes an excellent point about the atheist label being unnecessary.  I'm not compelled to call myself an Aastrologer, an Aracist, an Aalchemist, or add an "A" to anything else I don't believe in or ascribe to.  But theism, as ascribed to in most churches in Western Christianity no longer makes any sense to me.

I've spent quite a bit of time over the past few years studying church history, canonization, historical vs. mythological Jesus, and Christian apologetics.  I appreciate how theistic thinking came to be and how it's been used throughout history as an attempt to understand the world around us.  But for me, it no longer withstands scrutiny or aligns with my life experience.

It might surprise most Christians to know that there is an increasing element within Christianity that could also be labeled atheist.  Some Christians identify as pantheists, others as panentheists, and no longer believe in a theistic, personal, intervening God.  They remain Christians because they see Christianity as a way of being in this life as opposed to their faith being all about an afterlife, which may or may not exist.  It's their cultural heritage and helps them find community and common purpose.

Let me stop there with how I got here and briefly state where I am.  There will be plenty of time for discussion in future posts.  I suppose the best illustration I can give here is to recount the story you may have heard in different forms about a pastor (or believer) speaking with an atheist.  The atheist describes many of the dogmatic descriptions of God he had been taught or heard of.  The pastor listens closely then closes with "I don't believe in that God either."  For now, let me assert some of the things I no longer believe in.

Heretical rant
Huge questions:  1) Is there is a God? and 2) What is its nature?  Like most humans, I still seek answers to these questions, but so far, I don't have an absolute answer.  I don't know that these questions will ever be answered or are knowable (see epistemology).  But I do know of several answers that no longer make any sense and I'm not going to pay them lip-service any longer.
  1. "The" bible (which one?) is now an interesting book to me primarily from an anthropological perspective, but its authority as "The Word of God" no longer holds any water.  We know too much about its history to accept it as divine.  I still see some wisdom in the bible as I see wisdom in many other human works.  Quoting what the bible says about itself to claim authority is circular reasoning and requires an a priori faith, which I no longer have.
  2. I also see much in the bible that is heinous, yet attributed to God.  A couple of my favorite examples: God tells a man to lead his son to be sacrificed to show devotion to himself (God), only to have God say Ah...I'm just kidd'in at the last minute.  Really?  At least a cruel joke if it were true.  I'd go further and describe it as narcissistic sociopathy.  Penal substitution (Refer to my previous diatribe on penal substitution atonement theology)?  Multiple accounts of divine genocide?  I'm not interested in the Nixonean defense, "If God does it, it's not immoral."  Nonsense.  I see why people once believed these things, but I no longer do.
  3. If there is a God, is he to be feared?  Is he jealous?  I don't accept such a god.  Yes, I know there is language in the bible that describes such a god.  See #1.
  4. If there is a God, will he torture me or cast me out of its presence for eternity if I don't believe the right right things about him while here on Earth?  This concept no longer seems even remotely rational or moral. See #1.
  5. This notion of believing the right things about a God in order to gain favor in the afterlife now seems absurd.  Calvinism and notions of being predestined as the elect, more absurd still.  I used to believe it, a priori, but I no longer do.  Who am I or anyone else to be favored, selected, elected, set aside for all of eternity?  Any god who could decide such things and cast the rest aside is neither great nor worthy of worship.
  6. I no longer believe in cosmic reward or punishment for decisions, only consequences that result from our actions.  I no longer believe in sin against God, only behavior that either helps or hurts others and the world around us.  Karma?  Would it be any surprise that we reap what we sow?  Even without a spiritual element, this makes sense.  
I'll stop there with the list of things I don't believe and refer you to About the Bible, by Robert Ingersoll, written in 1894.

So what's left?  The only redeemable elements of any religion to me are 1) Community and 2) Service to humanity the world around us.  With the exception of Unitarian Universalists, church in America is centered mostly around shared beliefs and believing the right things.  I no longer feel compelled to ascribe to creeds which make no rational sense and are not supported by reason, evidence, or scholarship.  Unfortunately, I cannot participate in a faith community in my region without keeping my mouth shut, lest I be (hopefully just figuratively) lynched.  I had a front row seat on a powerful church committee and watched a pastor's career end, prematurely, because he didn't believe the right things, according to a group of well-heeled conservative literalists who had it all figured out.  I will not commune around their beliefs, dogmas, and behaviors.

If you know me, you'll agree that keeping my mouth shut is not my strong suit.  For these reasons, I'll need to find community elsewhere.  For these reasons also, I understand why atheists are coming out and finding community with one another - with anyone - who won't persecute them for tossing dogma aside and attempting to understand the world as it is, through science, scholarship of all kinds, and through rational thought, rather than gulping down twisted interpretations of ancient mythological writings.  For these reasons, I add my voice to theirs.

I no longer buy the apologists arguments for morality only existing in the presence of a God, as defined by them.  Humans cooperating in community and behaving in ways that help rather than harm themselves and others does not require a God.  There are good and bad people across all lines, including atheists and agnostics.

Good people help other people because they love them and it's the right thing to do to advance society and civilization.  I'm not interesting in helping or advancing only those in my club or who share my beliefs, yet that's exactly what goes on with so many religious people today...insider trading for jobs, favors, service, giving, etc.  Not in the right church?  You're on the outside and not part of God's Kingdom.  Nonsense.

Drum roll
So here it is: If labels are important, then I suppose I'm coming out as a Humanist.  I should probably go further and label myself a Secular Humanist, since humanism is an overlay in much of religious tradition.  Humanism and religion are not mutually exclusive.  Were it not for its humanist elements, religion would be worse than a completely impotent construct and more capable of inflicting harm than doing good.  I desire to grow personally and I want to get better at joining hands with anyone for the betterment of humanity and the world around us.  It now seems more important than ever to participate as a member of this world, helpful in my community and circles of influence, for goodness' and humanity's sake and not purely out of service to a God I cannot grasp.

I regret some things I've done and said in the name of God or Jesus and the negative affect it has had on some I've encountered.  I regret some decisions I've made under the delusion and cop-out that it must be God's plan.  I no longer believe in or see evidence for such a plan or guide in all matters human.  My decisions - good and bad - have been my own.  All that said, I'm going to move past regret and attempt to return to a path of growth that helps rather than harms those I encounter.

By no means am I giving up on all things spiritual.  While my current leaning is that most - if not all - that we experience can be understood through psychology and other science, I suppose I'm still hopeful for a spiritual realm and will continue to examine evidence and my own life experience as it comes.  I'll no more reject spirituality, consciousness, and the like dogmatically anymore than I will accept the dogmas given to me out of heritage.  I still experience things I cannot explain and there have been events so bizarre that I may never understand them.  Coincidence?  Perhaps.  Some sort of spiritual connection between all of us who choose it?  Perhaps, I don't know.  A God who judges me and torments me for all of eternity based upon what I say I believe about "Him"? - highly unlikely - and if I'm wrong about that, then "He" is neither all-merciful nor worthy of praise.  Using what a bible says about itself as evidence won't do.

Despite all of this, there is also hope in Humanism alone.  We have more power than we think and Humanists of every stripe can come together without creeds of the supernatural as a force for good. (Humanist Manifesto III).

If you wish to continue to follow / engage in the journey, please follow my new blog: Recovering From Dogma by joining at the top.

So, to the extent that this statement makes sense to you, blessings my friends.