Friday, March 25, 2011

Follow the prophet, to the beat of your own drummer

I posted a little ditty over at Main Street Plaza about making up your own lyrics to Primary songs. Apparently, "Follow the Prophet" is a popular one to alter. Head on over and check out the comments. They're worth a smile.


If you enjoyed this post, I hope you'll check out my new blog.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Am I a Raging Religion-oholic?

This post was largely prompted by the following comments from Infidel753 on my recent letter to the local Episcopal bishop:
Please, please, at least consider the fact that a person who had recently overcome an addiction to hallucinogenic drugs would probably feel the same way after a while -- missing the emotional comfort of the delusions. The danger of this is all the greater when the delusion is something you were raised with from childhood.
There is no such thing as "deeper truth" and nothing can be true on one "level" while being false on another. A comforting or alluring lie is still a lie, and religion is a lie, whether you call it "spirituality" or whatever else... 
[T]he "interpretations" and "meanings" that religion generates are entirely false, malignant, and worthless. In that respect, it really is more like a consciousness-distorting drug. 
There are better ways of interpreting life and giving it meaning -- ways that don't involve religion. 
I don't know a great deal about Infidel. I know he's a bright guy with his own thoughtful and articulate blog, where I've been impressed with both the content and the writing. I know he's described himself as a New Atheist. Given that that's really all I know of him, there is plenty of room for my own projections and attributions here. I'm replying to the reaction that I had.

I hear three main themes:

1. I was deluded by and addicted to religion as a child and appear to be in danger of becoming so again.

2. There are cold, hard, measurable facts that are the only real truth in life.

3. The way Infidel has chosen to interpret life and give it meaning is better than all other ways.

What I find most striking is how similar the tone is to my mother's entreaties to return to the One True Church. I hear genuine concern at what may happen to me if I stray from the path of true godlessness.

Speaking broadly, I'm noticing other similarities between the strident atheists and religious fundamentalists. Let's look at some statements we frequently hear:

"How can anyone possibly lead any kind of fulfilling, happy life without believing in (God, religion, an afterlife, etc.)?"

"How can anyone behold the wonders of science and still believe in or care about (God, religion, an afterlife, etc.)?"

"You disagree with my viewpoint because you've been deceived by Satan whispering lies into your mind."

"You disagree with my viewpoint because you've been deceived by the brainwashing of religion."

"This is different from what I experience and the conclusions I've drawn; therefore it's a lie."

"This is all attributable to biochemical reactions in your brain; therefore it's not real/has no value."

I do not dispute that when I was growing up, I was taught--and believed--things that I now see are clearly not true. But to completely discount all religious experience and disvalue any religious practice strikes me as just as closed-minded as fundamentalism.

I adore poetry and have been reading Roger Housden's compilation For Lovers of God Everywhere: Poems of the Christian Mystics. I loved this sentence from the introduction: "Christian mystics down through the ages have largely acted on the margins of the church, because subjective experience doesn't count when there's a one-dogma-for-all policy to uphold." A discomfort with subjective experience appears to me as the major common denominator between strict secularists and religious fundamentalists. 

I want to address Infidel's assertion that there are better ways of interpreting life. I am not out to convert. I have no desire for anyone who is happy as an atheist--or as a Mormon, Buddhist, Pagan, Jew--to stop what they're doing. Religious experience is subjective, and as a subjective experience, it should have no bearing on public policy and should never be imposed on anyone who doesn't want it. 

I do see religion more along the lines of an art form. I'm going to make a lot of comparisons to music because that's the other art form that I know best. 

There is a science of sound within physics and scholars have developed a theory of music composition that is mathematical and logical and can be analyzed and explained. But there is another layer involved in hearing music that is beyond the limelight of verbal explanation and belongs solely to the realm of experience. No two people experience a piece of music the same way. Not everyone likes the same kinds of music. While I've never heard anyone say they outright hate all music, I can attest that some people seem to "need" music more than others.

I've written before that the reason I persist with religion despite my disbelief is because I haven't found anything in the secular world that "does it" for me the way religion does. My music history professor used to say that hearing music is a physical experience much like tasting food. Sometimes you can't explain why you have the reaction that you do to a certain food or a piece of music; you just do. So I've no doubt that Infidel has found better ways of interpreting life for him, but I believe the alarm that other people are interpreting things differently to be unwarranted.

I'm fully aware that some people do horrible things with religion. I've been the victim of religious abuse on a personal level and I've seen the damage on a global level, but I don't see that as justification for indiscriminately vilifying all religion. To me, that's like saying, "Some people drink irresponsibly with devastating results to themselves and innocent victims, so we should get rid of all alcohol." Never mind the research indicating the various health benefits of moderate alcohol consumption, or the research that practices like prayer or meditation enhance mental well-being. I've heard the argument that moderates lend credibility to fundamentalists and I was once of that opinion myself, but not anymore. Most fundamentalists that I know of think anyone with a nuanced view of religion is just as bad as a dirty atheist. Check out the second one-star review of Krista Tippett's book Speaking of Faith on Amazon, saying she should "focus on the one and only true faith - found in... the Bible, and ONLY in the Bible." 

As far as religion and spirituality all being a lie, I stand by my position that there's a difference between fact and truth. One of my favorite quotes from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is, "Archaeology is the search for fact... not truth. If it's truth you're looking for, Dr. Tyree's philosophy class is right down the hall."

We need cold, hard facts. I love Emily Dickinson's poem "Faith is fine invention":
"Faith" is a fine invention
For gentlemen who see!
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency!
If I have a tumor, send me a surgeon, not a soothsayer. But there are areas of my life, where cold, hard facts are not the right tools. I am a rational and thinking being, but I am also an emotional and feeling being. Science tells me that my emotions are caused by biochemical reactions, but that doesn't help me navigate my emotional life the way a good story or ritual does. 

There are mysteries surrounding our existence here. Science has indeed shed tremendous light on many of these mysteries, as I'm sure it will continue to do, and I welcome those answers. But I personally am not a scientist. I don't have time to run every issue in my life through the scientific method, and I will be dead before science can come up with answers to my most pressing questions about day to day living: love, compassion, anger, hatred, forgiveness. Happiness. So in the meantime, I don't consider it a copout to turn to the heuristics of story and ritual. 

To say that science is better than religion is like saying chemistry is better than anthropology. They are two equally valuable but non-overlapping fields that serve completely different purposes.

Christianity is the religion I'm predominantly engaging with right now. How much do I "believe" in it?

Do I believe Jesus was born of a virgin? No.

Do I believe he rose from the dead? No.

Do I believe I or anyone else will be denied a place in heaven for not accepting him as savior? No. I don't believe in an afterlife at all actually.

Do I believe the New Testament is an accurate account of the life of Jesus? You know, I haven't really delved into the scholarship behind evidence for the authenticity of the Bible, and it's really not all that important to me. Whatever the facts were surrounding a historical Jesus, the Christian story that we have today has survived through the ages because it resonates with the human condition.

I listened to Elizabeth Alexander's interview on Being the other day. She's a poet and is sometimes asked of her poems that are written in first person whether those poems are true. She said, "The truth of a poem is actually much deeper than whether or not something really happened. What matters is an undergirding truth that I think is the power of poetry."

When I approach a religious ritual with the recognition that I'm not actually creating any magic, or a religious story as just that, a story, how does that make me deluded? Religious traditions have cultivated some fine tools for the art of living, and I intend to use them.

Let's take Lent, since it's that time of year. I don't know of anything like it in the secular world. We start with a potent ritual reminder of our mortality on Ash Wednesday, then an invitation to set aside for a time some of the more trivial pleasures or distractions of life to make space for something more meaningful. (Last year, atheist Sabio Lantz wrote about observing Lent "to taste life more fully and more intentionally," which I thought was really beautiful.) Then comes Easter, a celebration of new life, new beginnings, a way to be redeemed from the darker side of our human nature, and I love it, not because I have to please some god who's keeping tabs on me, but because want to be a better person, and taken symbolically, the story of Christ conquering death is a roadmap of how to do it that works for me.

As far as these "hits" of religious ecstasy that I'm supposedly addicted to, that's a problem because... ? I'm a runner, and I can tell you those endorphins feel incredible. I've never had anyone tell me that's a bad reason to go running. Does everyone who tries running love it? Nope. Is running even good for everyone? No. Some people have a foot shape or other physical structures that can make them injury prone if they run. Do I think I'm a superior human being because I can run? No. I run because it's about the only physical activity for which I have sufficient coordination. I love dance, think it's beautiful, wish I could do it, but I will never be a dancer because the mind-muscle coordination required is completely opaque and mysterious to me.

I'll be honest, church is not an exciting, numinous experience every week. A lot of times, I'm only going because I like the people and I like singing in the choir. I don't love running every time I go either, but I know I feel better throughout the day and sleep better at night on days that I run, so I try to do it consistently even when I don't feel like it. Religion does for my psyche what running does for my body. It's a mental and emotional tune up that seems to make the rest of my life run more smoothly.

I really think spirituality is a temperament, and what or whether a person believes has very little to do with it. Like an ear for music, or an ability to dance, either you have it or you don't. With training and practice, it can be developed some, but there's no denying that some people are naturally more inclined to it than others. And just like we can't all be singers or dancers, I don't think everyone should or needs to be spiritual or religious.

My mother attributes my renouncing her religion to my having been deceived by the ways of the world, or because I'm just being stubborn and don't want to face up to what deep down I must know to be true. I attribute my disagreement to thinking for myself, drawing conclusions from my own experience and observations. I've "left" New Atheism for the same reasons. I tried it for a while and decided, You know what? This isn't really working for me. This is not how I want to live my life. This is not who I am.

If strident atheism and religious fundamentalism were the only two options, you bet I would choose atheism, but those are only the two extreme ends of a very wide spectrum. For me, the stuff in the middle is where it really gets interesting, and that's what I'm aiming for.

Do you have to respect my point of view? No, but I would ask that you respect me, and I find comparing my desire to continue practicing religion to a drug addiction to be incredibly disrespectful.

Continuing with my music analogy, a child raised in a musical family is more likely to be a musical adult. I was indeed raised in a very religious environment, and I'm sure this has something to do with my continued attraction to religion, but it's not because I'm still struggling with some residual brainwashing. On the contrary, I grew up with black and white, all or nothing thinking; cut and dry, unquestionable answers.

And I'm tired of it.


If you enjoyed this post, I hope you'll check out my new blog.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Updating blogrolls

I rearranged my blogrolls a bit. If you'd rather have your blog in a category other than the one where I have you, let me know.

Also, I've missed a lot of what's happened online the last several months, so especially if you're a newer blogger, don't be shy about leaving a comment or sending a message if you'd like to be added to my blogroll.


If you enjoyed this post, I hope you'll check out my new blog.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Facelift, and an etymological pondering

After six months of borrowing WiFi from libraries, coffee shops, and hotel parking lots, I have rejoined the 21st century and gotten internet at home. I enjoyed the break but it's good to be back!

I spent most of the day changing things up around the ol' blog. Still some tweaking to do, but whadya think?

Yesterday morning I was thinking about what it means to me to be spiritual. The word "spirit" shares a root with "inspire," one meaning of which is to draw in breath, to breathe. Breathing is what sustains life. One can go quite a while without food, water or sunlight, but if breathing stops, life stops soon afterward. Consciously minding and regulating the breath is at the heart of the practice of yoga, and the starting point for learning meditation. The attention to the breath that I had to learn to study singing has been an essential part of my journey.

In a way, my striving to be spiritual is an endeavor to breathe, to infuse my life with more life, to draw in that which will sustain me and the release that which would deplete me.


If you enjoyed this post, I hope you'll check out my new blog.