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.


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36 comments:

  1. I have struggled with the two extremes of returning to the LDS religion or maintaining a front of anti-religion atheism. Living in Utah Valley means hardcore atheism--condemnation of religion in general--leaves me with little to no community, something I deeply miss (and romanticize) from my time as a member of the LDS church. But I cannot imagine accepting the sexism that runs so rampantly within the LDS church, the judging I experienced and propagated, the fact that I have no sense of belief--I can't fake my life just to belong.

    But oh, I do love being around people, I love connecting and enjoying conversation and company. There are many middle grounds, and to perpetuate the religious (and now apparently non-religious) assessment that you must be either or... that just doesn't sit well with me.

    I am glad there are others who question this false dichotomy.

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  2. Wow! Great post, Leah! You've had some time to think about this one?

    Really liked the comparison to running - knowing how endorphins work doesn't take anything away from the feeling.

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  3. I think the big concern a lot of empiricists have with "a little religion" is that very very few people manage to stop there, and once someone has decided to think from a magical perspective, it tends to bleed into other areas of their life (and via their actions, mine).

    Of course there are people like Martin Gardner who manage to believe in a God, but be logical and rational even about that, not trying to explain it logically, but admitting that it is something they enjoy that can't be defended via empiricism.

    On a side note, it's important to make distinctions between an Atheist, an empiricist, and a scientific skeptic, they are different and seem to get muddled fairly often =)

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  4. This is awesome! I agree with you on all the dynamics of what religion is and how some people seem to "need" it more than others. I feel drawn to it myself. I recently saw this quote from Dawkins "I'm against religion because it teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding the world." Isn't he kind of assuming that the world is "understandable"? I can't find any form of philosophy/religion/science that suddenly makes the world just fall into place. There are no answers.
    Incindentally, you might really enjoy Frank Schaeffer's book "Patience with God". He compared religious fundamentalist's to the New Athiests and claims that they are basically the same thing. :)

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  5. Even though I'm not a spiritual person, I like the message of this article.

    I'm disappointed in some of the "new atheists" I have talked to who are so against religion that they won't even see the apparent value that it has had for billions of people throughout time -- even if that value is aesthetic, metaphorical, etc.,

    I had a conversation with someone who was willing to say that we should spend less time reading fiction of all media so that we can "confront reality." What a drab existence...

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  6. This is so great. You put into words a lot of things that I have been struggling with myself lately. Thank you.

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  7. I love this post! While I'm an agnostic/atheist, I'm a deeply spiritual person. Consequently, I find the supercilious attitudes that many "New Atheists" manifest toward anyone who expresses a form of spirituality—no matter how harmless it may be—to be extremely annoying.

    "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."

    Yup. I suspect that, too and it would be nice if people from different sides of the spectrum would stop trying to vilify each other as inferior beings.

    I'm really glad I discovered your blog. :)

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  8. I wrote a long comment from work (bad girl, bad) but somehow WordPress or Google or some server somewhere rejected it. Starting over... to make a long story short, your post resonated with me, as a fellow ex-Mormon, even though I have no desire to go back. I left voluntarily 25+ years ago and seldom gave it a thought until recent years. I finally threw in the towel after Prop 8 (specifically, viewing "8: The Mormon Proposition") and sent in and was eventually granted my resignation.

    Strangely, after becoming addicted to the Irreligiousophy podcast, I'm starting to renew my interest in Mormon culture, as I realize that, as a second- or third-generation Mormon on both sides (maybe fourth? Danish convert pioneer forebears) and an active, faithful member until I was 29, it is an important part of my heritage. So now I am addicted to blogs by ex-Mormons -- in fact that's how I found this one. I do miss the sense of community and belonging that I had as a Mormon, but at the same time I hated feeling separate from the rest of humankind. I hated feeling like I had to try to turn each encounter with a nonmember into a missionary opportunity. It felt like I was being conditioned to use people, to see them only as a chance to do my righteous thing. Didn't feel so righteous.
    I look forward to exploring more of your blog posts.

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  9. I am curious what lies in your thoughts regarding the statement that science is the most followed religion of the modern era...?

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  10. I like to read your blogposts.

    I guess I come from a very different upbringing and I have never had a religious family. Being unaware of the fact that there are people who think, for real, that god/gods exist until I started going to school. I have such a hard time trying to understand religiosity and the ceremonies you describe are all very strange to me. But I have other ceremonies from my upbringing.. Secular christmas, secular hunt for the esterbunny eggs, birthdays and dining in a restaurant with my family when to celebrate something.

    I don't like bullies and people who claim to have the truth. Some atheists are both bullies and claims to have the truth. While others, I hope I can be included here, tries to understand and discuss.

    Even when it's hard.

    Fundamentalists with black and white views are the scariest fucking bunch in the world. And they are so many. Religious, political, atheists. Labels, labels. Same thing in the end. People putting fingers in their ears and shouting loud.

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  11. Wow, great post. And I think I understand where you're coming from with your "spirituality" and needing of rituals. We all as humans need that and this is the reason church's/religion exist because they have that in spades. I'm an Atheist originally from Miami and came by the way of Los Angeles currently living in Provo,UT. So you can tell I'm very lonely here. I guess what Infidel753 was trying to say that because you grew up with these rituals you pine for them and they can lead you back to religion. Which I don't think is the case as you pointed out that you are still an atheist in this post.

    After reading your last post about you joining an Episcopalian church I'll admit I raged like Infidel753 and wanted to shoot off a post in the same tone as Infidel753 did but I knew you would respond and explain why you joined the church in a more detail post follow up. With reading these following posts I now understand why you're going to church even though you're an atheist. You live in freaking Idaho! And as you mentioned in previous posts you're most likely going to stay there awhile. I've heard that Idaho is more desolate than Utah and so finding people to meetup with of your own persuasion is pretty impossible. Had you lived in a major city you wouldn't go to a church due to you'd be able to find atheist groups that you can commiserate with on a daily basis and other groups as well and find and create your own ritual much more easily and naturally without resorting going to a church to fill those needs.

    Like I said before I live in Utah and I'm an atheist and never grew up with religion. Do I get lonely? Yeah. Would I resort solving my loneliness by going to a church since there's one every four blocks? No. Do I like rituals? Yeah. So the way I've solved the conundrum is easy. Like you I'm a musician as well. I play Trombone. I'm Latino and like Latin music. So I searched for a club that played live Latin music and guess what there's actually a place in Provo that hosts such a venue! So every other Thursday night I go and play trombone at that club and get my "spiritual" kick that music gives me and as you can see it has become a ritual due to how the event is programmed for the night. So it's my "church" of Salsa, Meringue, and Bachata. I then needed to find a group of people who were of my own persuasion so I looked up online for atheist groups in Utah. And I found a gathering that happens on every Thursday in Salt Lake City at a cool pub. So I go there every other Thursday that I'm not playing at the club and that has become a ritual. And the cool thing about this group, even though it's billed as an atheist group, it's a mixed pallet so it's not all "New Atheist". It's Agnostics, Pagans, Buddhists- essentially "godless" individuals coming together. Also, I have started going to a Yoga studio due to the need of getting in shape and to get the benefits of meditation to ease my stress. And that has turned into another ritual and I'm bonding with my classmates and satiating my need to be with other people of like mind. So basically my point is it seems you're lonely and need something that'll get you outside of the house and meetup with people. So I suggests finding groups and gatherings that will satiate your need of ritual and need of bonding. Because you're an atheist going to church is not going to do it for you in the long run. So I agree with the premise of what Infidel753 was trying to point out and what I feel is the issue. You're just doing things that are familiar to you instead of just trying out new things and creating your own rituals. Yes, I know, you've pointed out you've tried the "secular" route and haven't found anything that gives you that spiritual kick. Keep trying you'll find it, trust me. You gotta create your own rituals and enlightenment(spirituality) if you want to be a happy atheist.

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  12. I'm struggling with this myself. I'd like to go to church, even though I don't believe in it, but because of a heinously backwards local priest and a lack of gas money, I can't. So I'm feeling a little bereft of poetry and beauty in my life. And I noticed, the less time I spend in church, the more contempt I develop for religious people, and I really really don't like that. I've finally reached a point where I don't feel like a hypocrite going to church, and I don't have the means to go! Life. *sigh*

    I loved this post.

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  13. I hate to try to push my new religion either, but have you checked out the UU church? You can believe whatever you want and there is beautiful music and a wonderful feeling and support system there. As far as I can tell, they really are preaching "accept everyone, no matter what their beliefs and we will not tell you what to believe. Lets just help people and love people." That was exactly what I was looking for and I found it. Sermons there are not about God, but about philosopher's/writer's/historical figure's/scientist's/famous atheist's lives. I love it there. I don't think I'll ever be an atheist because I like to believe in miracles and spiritual experiences. I don't know that I believe in God in the traditional sense, but I like to believe that the spirits of billions of people who have gone before us have created a kind of tapestry of spirits that are out there caring about us and guiding us. I'm not saying that I "know" this, just saying that I like to believe it. And I am free to believe ANYTHING I want. I love that fact!

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  14. Aural, thanks! I would never go back to Mormonism. I didn't fit there socially even when I was a believer, but there is a lot of middle ground to be explored.

    Andrew, thanks. Yeah, this one has been coming together in my mind for quite a while, finally got around to writing it all out.

    Rhacodactylus, I understand the concern that once the floodgate is open, who knows what could happen? Perhaps just as there are some people who can't drink at all without drinking too much, some people would be better off "abstaining" from religion altogether. I also think that religion is as irremovable a part of humanity as alcohol is. People are going to be religious one way or another, so perhaps education about a "responsible religiosity" may be more productive than eradication attempts. I've not heard of Martin Gardner; I'll have to check him out. And thanks for the distinctions between three groups that often but not always overlap.

    Young Mom, thanks! I've heard of Frank Schaeffer's book and think it sounds interesting. I love your observation that we don't have anything that just makes the world fall into place! Very astute! That doesn't mean we shouldn't keep trying to understand the world, but let's not got throwing out some tools in favor of others. Let's use the right tools for the right questions.

    Andrew S, So it was you! I saw the conversation on reddit and appreciated your defense. I agree that completely disvaluing all religion is extreme. I think it's divisive and polarizing. I think a better approach would be to recognize it as a human phenomenon that probably has evolutionary roots, and instead of fighting it to say, Let's study this, recognize it for what it is, and adapt it and make it better. Universal participation is not required. :-)

    Kiley, thanks!

    timberwraith, thanks! Yeah, I'm annoyed with the vilifying too. Thanks for stopping by, and I've enjoyed what I saw on your blog as well.

    Jeanmarie, thanks for reading. Gay issues were one of the major reasons why I decided to officially terminate my membership. For better or worse, having been a Mormon has shaped so much of who I am. I'm learning to make sense of that as I go forward with the rest of my life.

    James, I haven't given that a whole lot of thought. I don't consider science a religion. I think science is important and essential and has done a world of good. I just don't think we should put science on so high a pedestal that we completely throw out other means of knowledge acquisition.

    Emelie, thanks for reading. Yes, I'm tired of seeing the world in black and white. I don't think it's accurate or helpful. And I appreciate dialogue and discussion.

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  15. jesavius, thanks for reading and thanks for your kind intentions. I'm not convinced you really understand where I'm coming from though, and that's okay. I'm not sure if you haven't really read my posts carefully, or if we're just on different wavelengths. Maybe some of both? First of all, I actually live in North Dakota, not Idaho (not sure where you got that idea, though socially they're probably pretty similar). Second, I have not joined the Episcopal church; I just attend services there. Third, I have said specifically that I no longer wish to be identified as an atheist.

    There is a local freethought group here in Fargo. I go to their meetings from time to time and enjoy them. I'm part of a community choir and enjoy that too. Planning to start going to a yoga class and expect to enjoy that too. I go to concerts and lectures and whatnot. But I don't get the same thing out of these activities that I get out of religion. I try to explain that inthis post. Perhaps that will shed some light on my position. If not, we can agree to disagree.

    I've lived in Provo before, so I know the churches-on-every corner phenomenon you're talking about. You seem to have the impression that all churches are alike. You point out that it gets lonely but you wouldn't go to church fill your social needs even though they're readily available. There's a Mormon church about the same distance from my home as the Episcopal church, but I would never go there. That doesn't fit me socially or spiritually. It's not a social need I'm trying to fill with religion. I "do" the vast majority of my religion at home. Alone.

    Finally, I don't quite understand the insistence that I must find secular means to fill my needs when the religious ones I have are working just fine. The "keep trying" to be a happy atheist, while I'm sure well-intentioned, reminds me an awful lot of people who told me that I just needed to "keep trying" with Mormonism to make it work for me. Isn't it possible that pure secularism really isn't right for everyone? I maintain that I am the best qualified person to determine what's right for me.

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  16. Carla, do you know about The Poetry Foundation? Might help with your art and beauty withdrawals. I read poetry a lot more than I read any canonized scriptures.

    Becky, I do know about the UUs. There's a write-up about them in my sidebar under "My Favorite Posts." I think they're wonderful, but not quite what I'm looking for for myself. And I think it's fine to come up with our own stories and beliefs. We need stories. It's human nature.

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  17. You don't believe in god(s) but you don't identify as an atheist? I thought the definition of atheism is the rejection of belief in the existence of deities. Nothing more and nothing less. As in there are no one ideology or set of behaviors that all atheist adhere to.

    Thanks for replying and clearing up further on your stance on religion and why you still attend religious ceremonies. Thanks for the link to your post "Why do you still like religion when you don't believe in it?". I should have read that before posting a comment. I now see where we differ. Because I wasn't raised in strict religious environment I never needed the strict ritualistic environment to invoke deep thoughts and ask deep questions about myself and the world around me. I can look up into the night sky and "feel the spirit". But you are different you need something more concrete and ritualistic to invoke that feeling since you were raised LDS. I'm totally in agreement with you in we as humans needing narrative myths. I too love the virgin birth myths such as the Jesus Christ myth. My two favorite all time virgin birth myths are Hercules and Luke Skywalker;)

    Love the Indiana Jones quote. I'm totally with Indie on facts are better than "truth" argument. I think it's more fun to learn about what is/was than what we perceive as "truth". But that's because as Indie I'm a realist.

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  18. Hi jesavius,

    I'm aware of the definition of an atheist. The reason I feel like that no longer describes me is that as I'm exploring different conceptualizations of God, I'm questioning my disbelief in such a concept. I might refer you to the last paragraph of this post where I said:

    "I’ve tried to respect other people’s right to define themselves by whatever labels feel right for them, and not to tell any self-defining agnostics that they’re really atheists, or vice versa. I know plenty of atheists who consider themselves spiritual people, but the label “atheist” doesn’t feel authentic for me anymore. I’m not sure “agnostic” is right either. Perhaps “non-literal theist”? "

    I also have to say that the Episcopalians are anything but strict. I, too, feel a sense of wonder looking at the stars or being out in nature, but I'm also very cerebral and like kinesthetic, symbolic, literary means of contemplation. I also don't know that Indie was necessarily saying that fact was better than truth, just that philosophical and speculative sorts of contemplations weren't part of his field. I'm curious as to whether you would see philosophy, whether secular or religious, as a field that has any value, or if for you it's only facts and realism that are worthwhile. Philosophy isn't everyone's cup of tea, and that's alright, but there's a strong philosophical aspect in the way I approach religion.

    Also, if you're putting "truth" in quotes and saying facts are better, what sorts of deep questions are you asking about yourself and the world around you? Not trying to be antagonistic, genuinely trying to understand.

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  19. I think it's worth mentioning that the middle ground you claim to occupy is actually situated quite deeply in the atheist end of the pool. The 'religion' that you advocate is a castrated, harmless form that (I would guess) almost no one follows.

    I don't think you will find many atheists ('strident', gnu, or otherwise) who would argue with the potential benefits of social interaction, self-knowledge, and ritual that you seem to value. We just have a problem with people tying said activities to objective reality in any way. You apparently are not guilty of such an offense. As long as you don't believe that Jesus (or whoever) /really/ died for your sins or that you'll /really/ cash in on those 72 virgins, religion ceases to be any more dangerous than a taste in art or music. (a point I believe you were making) If you want to pursue that warm fuzzy feeling you get from religious poetry, literature, music, ritual, meditation, etc, I don't see any conflict with atheism /unless/ you claim: "warm fuzzy feeling, ergo Jesus/YHWH/talking snake/FSM"

    But, again, I think (I may be wrong) that your position is an extreme minority, and not one that your typical 'new atheist' would have a problem with.

    On an unrelated note, glad to see you blogging again. I inevitably enjoy your writing.

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  20. Old Rasputin, I would absolutely agree that I'm on the skeptical, non-literal side of the spectrum. I would also like to point out that most atheists who have learned about my continued interest in religion don't see anything wrong with it. Most reactions have been along the lines of, "So you like going to church? Cool! Have fun!" But then there are those who react as though anything related to any kind of religion is automatically tainted, worthless, stupid and dangerous. A reddit user called brillient had some not-so-brilliant things to say about my need for "pretty stories" and how this obviously makes me inferior and irrational and not appreciative enough of science.

    You are right that my position is a minority one within religion, but I also think it's one that could gain a foothold, because I think a lot of people are realizing that the literal interpretations we've given to these things (that we've invented, by the way) isn't really working.

    And I love hearing that you enjoy my blog. :-) Thanks for reading!

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  21. Facts vs. "Truth" this is where we mainly differ. I'll try to keep it short about why I put truth in quotations and why facts and realism appeal to me more. I'll just take looking up in the sky as a quick example. I'm a crack astronomer and always loved looking up. I marvel at the (a)symmetry and chaos that is our solar system and galaxy and why it is what it is. How everything stays in balance and what can tip that balance and make us go the way of the dodo bird. Ever since I've read Arthur C. Clark's space odyssey novels I've been paying close attention to the moons(satellites) of Jupiter. Not for alien existence but just the cool alien landscapes that they each have:) Not all 63 but just the Galilean satellites . Studying these four moons is so freaking awesome I can't put into words. Wondering how these moons came to be, how they formed there orbits and seeing those orbits effect Jupiter, light,gravity, us here on Earth, the sun etc... It's like an Alvin Ailey choreographed dance being performed for billions of years. Studying these moons has swayed me to realism is better because it makes me ask more deeper questions, more nuanced questions, more pertinent questions and cooler answers. And these questions can be easily transfered to me and the world around me objectively and subjectively.

    I love philosophy because I actually majored it in college. From studying philosophy it never occurred to me that it was the study of seeking "truth" it was more of the study of seeking the why and the how to better understand our environment and our place in it. In sole rational terms nothing more nothing less. I also came across religious philosophy naturally and loved how they too were trying to put rational terms for moral code and the failings of man.

    I guess what I'm ultimately saying is realism/rational approach is better in asking the deeper questions. Like why the virgin birth myth was so prevalent in our history for ten thousand years?(and still to this day ex.Star Wars and Japanese Anime). What is the beauty of innocence? Studying the psychology/sociology/philosophy behind these myths in realistic terms just opens up more doors of questioning and satisfying answers for me in the long run. Nerd rant over.

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  22. jesavius, thanks for answering. I'm sorry to keep pestering, but I'm still confused. Studying moons, obviously the realm of facts, with ample room for wonder at the beauty and intricacy of it. And the fascinating phenomenon that similar myths pop up in non-interacting cultures throughout the world and even now seem to capture human imagination I'm sure could be studied in psychological and sociological ways that would generate some concrete data.

    But... here's where you lose me: How do you determine facts and concrete answers for a question like, "What is the beauty of innocence?" That's a profound question, and I'm at a loss for how there could be a real, rational, factual answer for that.

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  23. There's probably a rational, factual answer, to something like, "From an evolutionary standpoint, why do human beings find innocence appealing?"

    And while the question IS profound, and enjoyable to contemplate on its own, I would say a rational factual answer to that question would only serve to enhance my subjective enjoyment of it. Knowing the facts makes the transcendent even more so to me. Facts and evidence-based knowledge "do it" for me in a way religion never did.

    I guess I'm still having a hard time understanding why it's religious stories in particular that seem to do it for you. Once I lost my literal belief in the supernatural, religious rituals and practices just seemed hollow and silly to me. I don't understand why the story of Jesus should be any more powerful or meaningful to you than the story of Persephone, or any other story on the same theme.

    I enjoy the stories of Greek mythology because nobody takes them literally anymore. I enjoy the story of Jesus a lot less because way too many people take it as an indisputably factual account and try to use it as evidence in places where it has no business being (e.g. in public policy debates). That's probably the core of why I find modern religious stories so putrid: they haven't been de-fanged and de-clawed the way ancient mythology has. Even being personally secure in the knowledge that the stories are false, I wouldn't let myself participate in them because I wouldn't want to enable anyone else's potent belief in stories that are socially harmful.

    True, there is more than one way to "interpret life and give it meaning," but I think some ways are arguably more socially responsible than others.

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  24. Mike,

    "Knowing the facts makes the transcendent even more so to me."

    I would agree with that.

    As far as the question of why Christianity over ancient mythologies (or over something like Harry Potter, for that matter), the best answer I can give is, because it's there. I wouldn't say the story of Christ is more powerful to me than the story of Persephone. I've gained tremendous insight into myself through the myth of Persephone in particular, and also the myths of Artemis and Aphrodite. But there's no place where I can go out and participate in the rites of the Greek religion. The kinesthetic "doing" part adds another indefinable dimension for me. I freely admit that I don't have a rational answer for why I like religion better than other activities any more than I could tell you why I like spinach better than arugula. I just do.

    As far as the socially responsible side, one of the reasons I felt I should write my letter to the Episcopal bishop was that I wanted the people there to know where I was coming from. It was my way of saying, "I appreciate and value what you do here, but I'd like you to know that I don't believe in these things the same way most of you probably do."

    I've heard a lot of people who abhor religion say something like, "Well, if all religious people approached religion the way Karen Armstrong or John Shelby Spong does, then I wouldn't have a problem with religion." If that's the case, why frown on people who practice religion that way? Especially when people like us probably have a better chance of infiltrating "the enemy" of literal believers than those who insist that something that is precious to them is silly at best, a scourge at worst.

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  25. All right, I guess I can dig that. But you know, you could always join one of those Harry Potter fan groups. One of the really rabid ones that practice the spells and everything. :)

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  26. Hmm. Now the idea of joining a Harry Potter group has got me thinking. If you were able to find a dedicated group of local people who met each week to worship ancient Greek gods and goddesses and practice ancient Greek religious rites, would that appeal to you in the same way your current religious practice does? Even if you knew that everyone else was there for the same reasons as you, that they all knew full well that it was all just mythology?

    If you knew that everyone in your Christian congregation felt the same way you do about Christian stories, do you imagine attending church with that congregation would still hold the same meaning for you? Do you think it's the people surrounding you who are treating the stories with such sincere respect and reverence that adds the extra layer of "something" for you? Do you think it would be the same if you knew they were all just faking it?

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  27. Mike, interesting question that I hadn't considered before. I will ponder and get back to you.

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  28. Thanks for this post -- I love reading about people who have a thoughtful and nuanced view of religion. Right now I feel like I'm in religious limbo and probably will be for a long time. I'm starting to be okay with that. I found a lot of peace in the idea that I only need to make sense of things that affect how I live my life. As an example -- I don't need to know if Christ really lived as long as I try to love others, improve myself, and be happy.

    I choose to believe in a happy afterlife because it brings me comfort. I don't even care if it's true or not anymore -- once I'm dead I'll find out. No need to worry now.

    Anyway, I probably come across as pretty rambly, but thank you for this post. I just found your blog and I'm definitely browsing around a little. You make me feel less alone, and that's saying something.

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  29. Conifer, that means a lot. Glad to have you here.

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  30. I really appreciated how you described Easter. Coming from one who isn't a particularly religious Christian, I think the true goal of a meaningful Christian is to love God for the sake of loving him, not to get on his good side. As much hope as heaven gives us, it's distracting us. Heaven and hell are like a rewards/punishment that makes prosocial behavior a means to a goal rather than doing it for the sake of love. I think that's why sometimes atheism looks so good, because they have no god to impress when they are altruistic.

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  31. Thanks for this post -- I love reading about people who have a thoughtful and nuanced view of religion. Right now I feel like I'm in religious limbo and probably will be for a long time. I'm starting to be okay with that. I found a lot of peace in the idea that I only need to make sense of things that affect how I live my life. As an example -- I don't need to know if Christ really lived as long as I try to love others, improve myself, and be happy.

    I choose to believe in a happy afterlife because it brings me comfort. I don't even care if it's true or not anymore -- once I'm dead I'll find out. No need to worry now.

    Anyway, I probably come across as pretty rambly, but thank you for this post. I just found your blog and I'm definitely browsing around a little. You make me feel less alone, and that's saying something.

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  32. Old Rasputin, I would absolutely agree that I'm on the skeptical, non-literal side of the spectrum. I would also like to point out that most atheists who have learned about my continued interest in religion don't see anything wrong with it. Most reactions have been along the lines of, "So you like going to church? Cool! Have fun!" But then there are those who react as though anything related to any kind of religion is automatically tainted, worthless, stupid and dangerous. A reddit user called brillient had some not-so-brilliant things to say about my need for "pretty stories" and how this obviously makes me inferior and irrational and not appreciative enough of science.

    You are right that my position is a minority one within religion, but I also think it's one that could gain a foothold, because I think a lot of people are realizing that the literal interpretations we've given to these things (that we've invented, by the way) isn't really working.

    And I love hearing that you enjoy my blog. :-) Thanks for reading!

    ReplyDelete
  33. I wrote a long comment from work (bad girl, bad) but somehow WordPress or Google or some server somewhere rejected it. Starting over... to make a long story short, your post resonated with me, as a fellow ex-Mormon, even though I have no desire to go back. I left voluntarily 25+ years ago and seldom gave it a thought until recent years. I finally threw in the towel after Prop 8 (specifically, viewing "8: The Mormon Proposition") and sent in and was eventually granted my resignation.

    Strangely, after becoming addicted to the Irreligiousophy podcast, I'm starting to renew my interest in Mormon culture, as I realize that, as a second- or third-generation Mormon on both sides (maybe fourth? Danish convert pioneer forebears) and an active, faithful member until I was 29, it is an important part of my heritage. So now I am addicted to blogs by ex-Mormons -- in fact that's how I found this one. I do miss the sense of community and belonging that I had as a Mormon, but at the same time I hated feeling separate from the rest of humankind. I hated feeling like I had to try to turn each encounter with a nonmember into a missionary opportunity. It felt like I was being conditioned to use people, to see them only as a chance to do my righteous thing. Didn't feel so righteous.
    I look forward to exploring more of your blog posts.

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  34. There's a chance you're qualified for a free $1,000 Amazon Gift Card.

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Religion, skepticism, and carving out a spiritual life post-Mormonism