Friday, April 30, 2010

Friday Funny: NonStampCollector: Quiz Show


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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

TED Talk Tuesday: Kavita Ramdas: Radical women, embracing tradition

Can women work within oppressive cultures and use traditions to their advantage? The Feminist Mormon Housewives blog has challenged my thinking on this topic, as did Kavita Ramadas's talk. I can't say I agree 100%, but I appreciated being able to look at the world through someone else's lenses.


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Sunday, April 25, 2010


A poem by Naomi Shihab Nye, courtesy of The Poetry Foundation


Because the eye has a short shadow or
it is hard to see over heads in the crowd?

If everyone else seems smarter   
but you need your own secret?

If mystery was never your friend?

If one way could satisfy
the infinite heart of the heavens?

If you liked the king on his golden throne
more than the villagers carrying baskets of lemons?

If you wanted to be sure
his guards would admit you to the party?

            The boy with the broken pencil   
            scrapes his little knife against the lead   
            turning and turning it as a point   
            emerges from the wood again

            If he would believe his life is like that   
            he would not follow his father into war


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Saturday, April 24, 2010

Centered in oneself versus centered on oneself

There was a bit of a kerfuffle in the comments following this post, where I answered some questions from a Mormon believer, stirred by this passage:
"I think being centered in oneself, following one's own innate desires and motivations (without infringing on the rights of others, of course) is a more sure path to happiness [than ceding one's autonomy to a God and/or religion]."
Some confusion ensued when Patrik asked if it was a consensus among atheists that being centered on oneself was a path to happiness. I don't think Patrik was intentionally playing a semantics game (as he pointed out in a succeeding comment alluding the the dictionary definition of "self-centered"); I think he glossed over my intended meaning and perhaps that's partly my fault.

To me "self-centered" and "centered on oneself" imply selfishness and egotism, which I don't think are paths to happiness. Perhaps "grounded" or "rooted" in oneself would have been better word choices than "centered." I appreciated the following comment from Andrew S:
"I can't speak for everyone (or perhaps, not for anyone more than myself), but I think the idea is that it's better to be yourself and be attuned with and to yourself, rather than to consider yourself an enemy and therefore reject, repress, or suppress yourself whenever something or someone says you should (especially in the name of God)."
That's closer to what I was trying to say. I'll try to clarify further.

I think we all have an instinctive inner voice that can guide us toward a fulfilling life. The religion I grew up in taught me to override this voice if it conflicted with external authority. Some examples:

"Hmm, I'm not really sure how it's not racist to say that the Lamanites were cursed with a skin of blackness for their wickedness (2 Nephi 5: 21-23) and then when they repented their skin became white again (3 Nephi 2:12-15), but my seminary teacher says that the dark skin was a mark, not a curse, so I guess that means it's okay and we're not really a racist church after all."

"I don't understand why God would make me smarter than all these boys in my high school physics class if he just wants me to stay home and have babies, but the prophet says I'm not supposed to have a career, so I guess I'll try to stop wanting to be a scientist."

"I'm a worthless, horrible person because I masturbate, and that means I'm almost as bad as a murderer, because sexual sins are second only to the shedding of innocent blood."

"I'm not really comfortable opposing gay marriage, but my church says I'm supposed to, so I guess I should."

Or one of my favorites, I remember not understanding the appeal of the Mormon belief that we can attain exaltation and become like God. I didn't think I really wanted to be a God. Why would I want that? I mentioned this concern to my bishop at the time. His response: If I were more righteous, my desires would fall into line with what my Heavenly Father had planned for me. The underlying message: God (as represented by his appointed mouthpieces on earth) knows what's best for you; you don't. So just be quiet nice and do what you're told follow our loving counsel.

It's taken me many years to relearn to listen to my own inner guidance system and to feel okay about letting myself want what I naturally want, instead of what I've been told I should want. But every time I take a step toward aligning my life with my own innate desires instead of others' expectations, I feel more at peace and more fulfilled.

Plumbing the inner recesses of your life to discover who you really are and what you really want takes time and work. Writing and journaling are useful tools for me, as well as quiet, solitude, music, meditation. These are things that help me stay grounded, centered, rooted in myself. You have the right to be your own authority on what's best for you. Others can offer perspective, but you should have the final say.

That's what I meant by being centered in oneself.


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Friday, April 23, 2010

Friday Funny: Family Guy on Evolution vs. Creationism


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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

TED Talk Tuesday: Jane Goodall helps humans and animals live together.

In honor of Earth Week, I'm featuring one of my heroines, the incomparable Jane Goodall. In this talk she discusses her research and her conservation work. In contrast to the belief I grew up with, that man is unique and has God-given dominion over all other life on earth, she says, "There is no sharp line between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom. It's a very blurry line and it's getting more blurry all the time as we make even more observations."

She also discusses the difficulties faced by people in the developing world, and what we can do to help. Microloans and education, especially for women, are some of the most effective means of empowering these people. I would encourage you to support programs such as Kiva and Women for Women International. Jane's memoir Reason for Hope inspired me to make dozens of changes in my everyday life for the sake of our planet. Recycle. Take the bus. Reduce the amount of meat in your diet. It makes a difference. Our planet is so beautiful, and she's the only home we have. Please let's take good care of her.


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Friday, April 16, 2010

Friday Funny: NonStampCollector: Jesus and the interpreter

A modern-day Christian helps Jesus get started.


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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

LDS Leader Look-alikes

Jon at the USU SHAFT blog has compiled some side-by-side photos of LDS Church leaders and their doppelgängers. They include Henry Eyring and the American Gothic farmer, Boyd Packer and Donald Rumsfeld, and many more. Unbound hilarity! Particularly if you have an LDS background, but I think everyone can appreciate it. You must check it out! Go now! What are you waiting for!


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TED Talk Tuesday: Michael Specter on the danger of science denial

Michael Specter says to rethink phobias of vaccines and genetically modified foods and the efficacy of herbal remedies in this bold talk. He says, "I think we'd have to go back...before the Enlightenment to find a time when we fight about these things more vigorously and on more fronts than we do today. People wrap themselves in their beliefs and they do it so tightly that you can't set them free." Another great quote: "Be skeptical. Ask questions. Demand proof. Demand evidence. Don't take anything for granted. But here's the thing: When you get that proof, you need to accept the proof, and we're not that good at doing that." I wonder what "snake oil science" Sarah Palin would say to that.

Also notable is Specter's acknowledgment of how we have misused science to destroy our planet and many species. He says, "Unless we innovate ourselves out of this mess, we're going away too." Jane Goodall said something along those same lines in her enlightening and uplifting memoir Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey,one of my very favorite books: "You may not believe in evolution, and that is alright. How we humans came to be the way we are is far less important than how we should act now to get out of the mess we have made for ourselves."

Enjoy the talk, and Happy Tuesday!


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Friday, April 9, 2010

I get email.

This was one of the more thoughtful inquiries I've received. A reader called JY graciously agreed to let me publish this message and my response:
I don’t know how I found your blog but for the past couple of hours I have been intrigued with what you have written. I am currently a faithful Mormon and after reading your Rise and Fall of a Testimony post I have some questions for you. My questions are not intended to sway you to “come back to the light.” You have proven yourself as a critical thinker and I believe you have put in the time to establish your position. With that position, your ability to articulate clearly, and your LDS back ground I think you can share a very interesting perspective.
(1) If something of good fortune (the word miracle is too cliché) happens unexpectedly at the right moment…. Do you deem it as luck? After such an experience do you feel gratitude and if so towards what?
(2) The post right after October 31, 2009 you said, “…personal experience is not valid evidence of God…” I looked at the link you offered and it down played spiritual witnesses. I presume you follow that logic. What would a God need to do for you to devote yourself? If you want some kind of evidence, what constitutes as evidence?
(3) Being a parent, do you allow your children to believe in Santa Claus?
(4) Do you feel confident when you say an existence of God is impossible? Impossible is defined as incapable to having existence or of occurring.
(5) What do you miss about the church?
(6) Do you give merit to the Book of Mormon? If you have a patriarchal blessing do you give that blessing any merit?
I understand you do not represent the whole of atheism but I respect your point of view. I’m a fan of your writing and I am interested in what you have to say.
 All excellent questions. Thank you for writing!

(1) If some good fortune comes my way at exactly the right time, I do feel grateful, though not toward anything in particular. I don't see why gratitude needs a recipient in order to be felt. I choose to be appreciative of being alive, of my family and loved ones, of the serendipitous coincidences that come my way because it makes me feel more happy and peaceful, not because I think any external being is bestowing blessings on me and expects to be thanked.

(2) "If you want some kind of evidence..." I wouldn't say that I want any evidence of God, at least not the kind of God I presume you're talking about. I certainly don't miss the Mormon version of God, a personal being who requires obedience and devotion. I can't think of anything a God could do to convince me to devote myself to him. I don't think conceding one's autonomy to a God (or anyone else) is a healthy way to live, even if that God's intentions are completely benevolent. I think being centered in one's self, following one's own innate desires and motivations (without infringing on the right's of others, of course) is a more sure path to happiness.

(3) Yeah, we do the Santa Claus thing. It's fun. We don't use it as a "be good, or else" motivator, but putting out cookies Christmas Eve and rushing for the stockings in the morning makes for a fun family tradition and good memories, and I can't see the harm in it. Our kids will figure out it was make-believe soon enough.

(4) No, I don't think God is impossible, but I think God's existence is extremely unlikely, unlikely enough that I'm willing to risk eternity in hell in the event that there's an afterlife and I'm wrong.

(5) I miss the rituals and the reverence of the temple, the sense of holiness and importance there. That's what I miss most. Besides that, Sunday was a snore fest, but I miss the intellectual picking apart and digging for deeper meanings that took place in Institute classes. Sometimes I miss feeling like I was specially called for some higher purpose in life, but most of the time I think I prefer feeling that my life is mine to live as I choose instead of being under obligation to fulfill some divine mission.

(6) Do I give merit to the Book of Mormon? Yes and no. I don't think it has any divine origin. I think Joseph Smith just wrote it. (Yes, I know he had a sixth grade education, but have you  read the Book of Mormon? I find nothing miraculous or sophisticated about the narratives or the writing structure.) That said, I think there are some good teachings to be found in it. Some I find reprehensible, like Mosiah 3:19, the notion that the way you naturally are is inherently wrong and needs changing, but then, for example, there's Mosiah 4:16 which encourages sharing with the poor (a verse that makes the conservative, "look out for number one" attitude that many Mormons have a head-scratcher to me).

I wrote recently about liking the stories of world religions. I don't personally relate to any of the Book of Mormon stories, mostly because they're almost all about wars and battles and are very male-centric. I don't think that means they're bad, worthless stories though, just not stories for me.

As for my patriarchal blessing, I found it interesting that you asked, because I had actually been thinking about it for several days before I received your email. I'm not sure what I think of it. The patriarch who bestowed it upon me quite obviously had some sort of powerful, numinous experience as he was speaking the blessing. (Though, as I've discussed before, I don't think this is proof that it came from God.) I wish I had kept it. I threw away a lot of my Mormon paraphernalia because I was angry right after I left (I've mellowed). Some of my blessing I think was 100% baloney (no way am I descended from Ephraim), some seemed pretty generic and horoscopish, but parts of it I really liked and seemed meant just for me. I don't care to go into the details on the internet (I've never revealed the New Name I received in the temple either; some things are still sacred to me), but there were phrases that I still repeat to myself from time to time. I've held on to the strands from the past that I feel help me live a better life, and I've left the rest.

Thanks again for your letter, and I'd love to hear any further comments or questions.


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Friday Funny: The Ten Commandments


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Thursday, April 8, 2010

Descarte in three minutes!

Fun stuff! Thanks to Sabio for the link.


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Tuesday, April 6, 2010

TED Talk Tuesday: Adora Svitak on what adults can learn from kids

I'm in the process of reinventing my life and I see becoming as a little child being key to that goal. When was the last time you let your imagination roam unfettered and let your desires lead you, the way you did when you were a kid?


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Friday, April 2, 2010

Friday Funny: Mr Deity and the Really Big Favor

Happy Good Friday!


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Thursday, April 1, 2010

"So what DO you believe?"

I've been asked this a few times, so I thought I'd take a stab at answering it. It's a bit of a challenge because aspects of my beliefs are frequently evolving. Here's where I am today.

I'll preface this with Senator Moynihan's classic quote: "You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts." So the following is my own opinion. As far as influencing public policy or being a blueprint for how other people should live or believe, it should hold about as much weight as my opinion that Mike Rowe is way hotter than Brad Pitt, or my opinion that red high heels go with everything. Glean whatever is useful or rings true for yourself, and leave the rest.

I don't believe in any kind of god out there, no Supreme Being or creator or entity that listens to prayers or intervenes in human affairs or cares about whom we have sex with or whether or not we worship it. I am an atheist. 

Many atheists are content to set spirituality aside altogether, or were raised in non-religious families so never had it in their lives to begin with. That's a position I have no objections to, but that's not me.

Other atheists find non-religious ways to experience spirituality, enjoying and appreciating the natural world and the universe. This certainly describes me. My sense of wonder at the universe in which we live, our planet and the other life forms with whom we share it has increased since leaving organized religion.

But I still find much to love about many religions. I like the stories. I like the symbols. Maybe it's the literary writer in me that has the affinity for narrative and symbolism. In Julia Sweeney's fabulous monologue Letting Go of God,she talks about reading Karen Armstrong's book A History of God.Sweeney appears to reach an epiphany when she reads Armstrong's assertion that what matters most about religious stories isn't whether or not they're historically accurate, but whether or not they're psychologically true. But then Sweeney asks, "But what does that mean?!" She describes sitting in mass Easter Sunday and looking at Jesus on the cross and thinking about death and rebirth. "Okay. I get it. Psychologically true." Then she asks, "But what about Persephone in the underworld? Isn't that 'psychologically true' too?" She asks the question rhetorically, but my would answer would be, "Yes, and I love the story of Persephone every bit as much as I love the story of Christ." I like the stories. I would add, though, that I don't place any higher significance on a story simply because it's associated with a religion. I find purely fantastical stories like The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter to hold psychological truths, too.

I like the rituals. I commented a few days ago about missing Mormon temple worship. I usually found the Sunday meetings boring, but I liked the solemnity and the mystery and the pageantry of the temple. When I was 18 and a freshman at Arizona State University (and still very much a believing Mormon), I used to go to the daily Catholic mass services at Danforth Chapel in the middle of campus. I even took their communion (I didn't know you weren't supposed to). I just liked it. Mormon services (outside of the temple) are awfully sparse when it comes to art and ritual. The ritualism of mass appealed to me, for reasons I can't really explain. Perhaps it had to do with mentally focusing on an activity and flow and ecstasy. 

I don't think that religious practice evokes any sort of external magic, but I think that if the practitioner is in the right frame of mind, hearing a story, considering symbols or taking part in rituals can create an internal alchemy. 

An excerpt from Ralph Waldo Emerson's poem "Gnothi Seauton":

God dwells in thee. 

It is no metaphor nor parable, 
It is unknown to thousands, and to thee; 
Yet there is God.
Along those same lines, the Sanskrit greeting "Namaste" has various interpretations which all acknowledge the divine within each person. 

I have a place inside me that I call my God-spot. It's a physical location within my body, around my aortic artery, where I feel sensations that at one time I associated with God. These experiences made me feel loved, peaceful, made my life feel more meaningful, sometimes gave me comfort. This is the internal alchemy I'm talking about. I realize that this experience can probably be scientifically explained as some sort of chemical reaction in my body and that it's not really caused by some omnipotent being. I like the experience anyway, and I want more of it.

I don't have this experience as often as I did when I was religious. Now, my religion also included an avalanche of self-destructive beliefs and rules and I'm more than glad to be rid of those. If I have to pick between giving up the warm fuzzies or the depression and hopelessness, I'll definitely let the warm fuzzies go. But I'm glimpsing ways to reclaim the good stuff without swallowing all the crap that many seem to think has to go along with it.

My music history professor said in a lecture a few weeks ago, "Extremists rarely create great art; they just open doors." He was referring to the opera seria compositions of Gluck, which were a reaction against the over-the-top, vocally-showy-without-much-plot opera buffa of the Baroque period. Gluck's operas put the text and the plot first, with the music being an almost purely utilitarian means of delivering the text. As a result, his operas are rarely performed anymore because they're boring. Then came Mozart, who gave great care and attention to the text, but balanced and even enhanced the dramatic concerns with beautiful music. Voilà! The middle way that endures for centuries.

I needed a time to let myself be angry for all the ways religion messed me up and all the damage it's caused--and still causes--in the world, but for my personal life, I want to move passed that now. Strict religiosity did not suit me, but I'm finding strict secularism to be ultimately unsatisfying as well. If I have to pick between the two, I pick secularism, but I don't think those are my only two choices. I think there's a middle way.

I'm still seeking.


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Defining God

So, I've begun reading The Case for God by Karen Armstrong and the God she describes is very different from the God I believed in as a child. As a Mormon, I believed in a God who was human in form, our Heavenly Father, literally the father of our spirits. Mormons believe that God was once a man and that as his offspring, we have the potential to attain exaltation and become like him ourselves. (See this chapter of one of the Church's lesson manuals for more on this.)

Armstrong describes God as more of a complex and ambiguous concept in the human psyche, rather than a concretely definable being. I could get on board with that. I like complexity and ambiguity, open possibilities for interpretations and speculation. I have to say, I'm enthralled with the book so far, can't wait to read more.

For those of you who did or do believe in God, what was or is your understanding of the nature of God?


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