As far as labels go, “Faitheist” is not so bad

I’ve struggled with the word “atheist”.  It’s accurate; I don’t believe in God.  Strictly speaking, that does make me an atheist, so why do I always add a caveat?  (I’ve done it just this week in a blog post.)  In part, I suppose I am a bit of a coward.  I know that word frightens people, so I just avoid it.  But it’s more complicated than that.

The most prominent atheists of our time have largely been individuals who not just didn’t believe in God, but were advocates of an anti-religion movement.  Richard Dawkins, whose The God Delusion is perhaps the most famous modern atheist text, is (in my most humble opinion) quite a bit of a jackass.  While I find value in many of his arguments for the non-existence of God, I find his manner, tone and ultimate goals to be rather detestable.

I am ashamed to admit to my own moments of religion bashing.  When faced with the (primarily Christian) fundamentalist rhetoric in our country, I have reacted and pushed back against organized religion as a whole.  It has been the significant relationships with Christian friends who are open to conversations about faith and morality that have caused me to realize that religion isn’t the problem. 

Enter Chris Stedman and his new book, Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious.  I didn’t even know how much I wanted this book to exist until I absorbed it within 20 hours of stumbling across it during a book buying binge.

The image to the left is my actual copy of the book, taken so that I can point out the 23 post-it flags sticking out of the pages.  Occasionally I’ll grab a post-it flag to note a quote or passage that I really love – something that I want to highlight when I talk about the book or pass it along to someone else.  I felt compelled to do that 23 different times as I was reading this book.

The book is, at its core, a memoir of Mr. Stedman’s journey from his irreligious childhood, through a born-again Christian period in his early teen years, to an angry, reactive atheism and finally to the realization that by seeking the commonalities in all of us, people of all faiths, beliefs and non-beliefs can come together to accomplish our common goals.

This idea that it is worthwhile to make an intentional effort to find common ground is, to me, the difference between mere diversity and engaged pluralism.

The idea of engaged pluralism is what I’ve been striving and yearning for, admittedly from a more political than religious perspective, in recent months.  We have common goals – prosperity, safety, love – basic ideals that we all want to accomplish, regardless of our political or religious affiliations.  We can’t accomplish them independently, not to mention when we’re in opposition with each other.  We need to come together and find the common ground.

Mr. Stedman’s proposal for how to do that is simple: Learn about each other.  Talk to each other.  Tell your story.

There is so much about this book that I love and long to share and talk about with others.  (I hope that you might buy the book and join me in conversation in the comments.)  The desire to bring atheism out of the darkness and help people to understand that not believing in God does not mean that our moral character is any weaker.  The yearning for conversation across differences with the intention of finding the commonalities.

I also feel as though I’ve been given some language to talk about my own beliefs.  The “faitheism” label was originally bestowed on Mr. Stedman as an insult, but one that he accepted with some pride.  I want to write it across a t-shirt or get it tattooed on my forehead.  The one thing that I was a bit disappointed by in the book – and perhaps in the entire movement – is that the word “faith” continues to be applied to those with a religious affiliation.  It’s just a word, I know, but it’s one that means a lot to me on a deeply personal level.  To me, faith is believing that I have a purpose – even if it is one that I define and not one that is divinely bestowed.

I told a friend of mine today that it was likely that I would be talking about this book ad nauseum for some time to come.  I really hope that I might entice you to join me in that discussion – via blog comments or Facebook (if we happen to be connected personally).

If Jesus is your guide, I don’t understand your vote for Romney

ImageI struggle to understand why the most devout Christians tend to vote Republican*.  It’s a bold statement coming from someone who uses the atheist label (albeit only for lack of something better) – and I am always reluctant to bring it up publicly.  I don’t have the right.  

I’ve had this conversation with a good friend, who is also a devout Christian, and she’s as baffled as I am.  Through her, I discovered a brilliantly well-written blog, Faithful Democrats, whose tagline is “Because Jesus Wasn’t Kidding About Loving Your Neighbor“.  Not only is there a community of intelligent and articulate Christian Democrats who see the same hypocrisy, but they are snarky, too.  I’m in love.

There are a number of really great posts, such as Voting Biblical Values, Who would Jesus vote for?,  and Buttprints in the Sand.  (That last one isn’t quite as coherent as some of the others, but it cracks me up, so it gets a mention.)

The underlying idea of all of the posts is that Jesus, as he is represented in the Bible, preached about love of your neighbor, providing for the poor, and leaving the passing of judgement on others to God.  Sound familiar?

It’s pointless for me to try to represent Christian values, when it’s already been done more eloquently by actual Christians.  Here’s just a sample:

From Who Would Jesus Vote For?

Giving to “God the things that are God’s” requires promoting a government that serves the good of the people, by lifting up lowly, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, giving shelter to the homeless, giving education to the ignorant, and welcoming strangers and foreigners. 

From Voting Biblical Values:

I am voting biblical principles on November 6th.  I am voting for President Obama because he protects the sanctity of life, not just while it’s in the womb, but with health care, education, and a social safety net that insures no one gets left behind and that women will continue to have access to family planning and if need be, safe and legal abortions.  I am voting for President Obama because he supports not just one hetero-normative model for families, but rather stands by families in their beautiful diversity and believes who we love should never stand between us and our civil rights. I am voting for President Obama because he understands care for the environment entrusted to us is not the butt of a joke, but our solemn responsibility.  I am voting for President Obama because Jesus simply was not kidding when he demanded we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned, heal the sick, and care for the least of these in our midst. 

 From Jesus Doesn’t Care or Why Liberals Need Christ:

As Christians, it does not matter if a person deserves our help or not.  We are commanded to give it, no matter what.  Jesus did not say, “whatever you’ve done for the least of these who deserve help, you’ve done for me.”  He did not command, “feed my sheep who are hungry through no fault of their own.”  Do.  Love.  Serve.  No qualifications, no exceptions.  (Do you know who did say we should only love those who deserve it?  Ayn Rand).  The reason we do this is because every single person bears the image and likeness of God.  We don’t love people because of what they have or haven’t done; we love the Christ that is within them.

I’ll likely be exploring this topic more in future blog posts, beyond just the role of Christianity in American politics.  While I identify as an atheist, the values I live by are the same as the Biblical values outlined above – and I just consider them to be good moral sense.


* To be fair, I don’t even know if this is true – but it is certainly the impression that the Republican party (and their media outlet, Fox News) would like you to believe.

Mawwiage, that bwessed awwangement: Opposing the Opposition to Same-Sex Marriage

I just spent 15 minutes of my life searching the internet for any well-written, non-religious arguments opposing same-sex marriage.  That’s 15 minutes of my life I’ve wasted and I’m never getting back.

I am undoubtedly more passionate about the subject of marriage equality than I am about any other social or political issue.  I’ve been writing about the issue – at least privately – since I was in junior high school.  And as I’m writing this blog post right now, I have to wonder why I’m bothering at all.  Are there people on the fence on the topic of marriage equality?  Is there someone out there who needs to be convinced with my impassioned argument?  Are there individuals in opposition of marriage equality who hold a rational opinion on the subject that I can refute?

These aren’t rhetorical questions.  While the tides are turning and those opposing equality are beginning to fall into the minority, there does still exist a very large percentage of Americans who believe that a same-sex couple should not be permitted to be married in a civil ceremony.  But why?

The Biblical Argument

There is no question that the vast majority of same sex marriage opponents will cite a religious argument or biblical argument.  “The Bible says that it is wrong.”  “The ‘Church’ defines marriage as between a man and a woman.”

If I were so inclined, I could reference the counter-argument to any biblical references with those passages that are obviously not followed to the same letter and literal translation as biblical references to “man lying with another man”.  (That’s in quotes, but I’m paraphrasing.)  We’ve all heard the counter-argument.  There are plenty of Christians and others devout in their faith who would also happily counter this and argue for equality.

Regardless of any biblical counterargument, the fact remains that a religious opposition to same sex marriage is an invalid argument in a civil, secular debate.  So let me be clear on how I see this:

1.) Your religion does not dictate my civil rights.  Full stop.  End of story.

2.) No one is suggesting that your church should be required to marry or recognize the marriage of a same-sex couple.

The “Definition of Marriage” Argument

Aside from biblical definitions, there are those who will argue that “marriage” is defined as being between a man and a woman.  (I’d argue that the definition is out-dated, but that’s not relevant here.)  If this were truly the crux of the argument, then a viable compromise is to remove the word “marriage” from all civil unions.  Marriage would no longer be a civil institution, as it’s definition is discriminatory.  All couples wishing to enter into a legal agreement that comes with obligations and rights would sign a civil union agreement, which would come with equal rights for all couples.

Suggest this to someone who opposes marriage equality, though, and they’ll likely insist that marriage and civil unions are not the same.  That the word “marriage” means too much – so much more than a civil union – and they don’t want to be denied the opportunity to be married in the eyes of the law.  To which I would say, yes.  I agree.  No one likes to be denied their human rights.

The “Next Thing You Know, We’ll Be Marrying Goats” Argument

I don’t even want to recognize this by giving it space in this blog post, but it’s out there.  There are really groups of people who think this is somehow the natural progression of same-sex marriage.  We’re talking about committed, homosexual relationships between two consenting adult humans – the same type of relationship that has existed since the beginning of time, with varying levels of openness in civilization throughout history.

Granting equal rights to same-sex couples is not a “slippery slope” to anything other than an increase in legal revenue for same-sex divorce.

The “Children Need a Mother and a Father Argument”

First of all, we’re talking about marriage and not raising a family – and yet the argument is still made in opposition to same-sex marriage.  Second of all, children need parental love.  From wherever that might come.

Point me to a “study” that has been done that shows how children from heterosexual, married couples are better students/athletes/people than other kids – and I’ll show you a study full of bias.  Do children in two parent homes perform better in school?  Quite possibly, as they are more likely to live above the poverty line, attend good schools, get three healthy meals a day and have at least one parent who has time to be available in the evenings.  No studies (that have not been soundly and widely renounced as biased and unscientific) have shown a significant difference in the performance of children growing up in a stable home with heterosexual parents versus children from a stable home with homosexual parents.

The “States’ Rights” Argument

Okay.  I guess.  My opinion on Federal versus States’ rights not withstanding, the fact remains that same-sex couples should have the same marriage rights as heterosexual couples – whether those rights are granted by the Federal Government or the State Government.  But since there are federal tax implications and other advantages of marriage, the ability to marry must be dictated at the Federal level.  If you want to argue that we should erase those Federal benefits for all married couples, I’m willing to entertain the States’ Rights argument.  (I’d still argue for equality in each individual state, of course.)

Is Heaven Real?

I recently shared a copy of Newsweek magazine with a good friend of mine, after reading the cover story Heaven is Real: One Doctor’s Experience with the Afterlife.  I picked the magazine up myself specifically because the cover story intrigued me, albeit with a very different perspective from the way that I suspected it would intrigue my friend.

This post isn’t specifically about my views on god (or God, if you prefer), but it is probably helpful to give at least a little bit of explanation.  If I have to label myself, I choose “atheist”, although that certainly isn’t a clear term to describe an extremely complicated subject.  I am certain only that I will never identify as “Christian”, “Muslim” or “Jewish” – but I leave myself open to thinking about the subject of god in any number of ways.

My friend is Christian and I envy the clarity of her faith.

The article that I passed along recounts the experience of a neurosurgeon, Dr. Eben Alexander, who, previously convinced that “afterlife” experiences recounted by patients were caused by their own brain chemistry – not any true spiritual journey, has his own near death experience.  He describes an experience of puffy white clouds, ephemeral beings and feelings of complete peace.  Dr. Alexander’s argument for changing his opinion on the subject is not because he, himself, had an experience – but that his brain was uniquely incapable of consciousness at the time due to his illness.  His own journey contradicted his previously held assumptions about the science behind the experiences, that required some level of active brain function.

The article is an interesting read, and I recommend that you check it out regardless of your belief in an afterlife.

After sharing the article, my friend asked me what I thought of the article – and I have since struggled to give her my answer.  I did think that Dr. Alexander made a compelling argument that we should, perhaps, re-examine our assumptions about out-of-body, near death experiences.  I’m not able to fact-check the neuroscience in the article, but assuming that he is correct about the biology of his experience – our current explanations don’t hold true.

Does that make me think that Dr. Alexander did, in fact, journey to heaven during his comatose state?  That all of those patients before him did, in fact, find themselves in the heaven that we read about as children?  Here’s where I hesitate to be too open with my own beliefs.  If he believes that he was in heaven, if he now has a deeper faith that makes him more connected to his life and his purpose… I think that’s an amazing sign of faith and miraculous in its own right.  Why does it matter what I think?

My most passionate belief on the subject of “faith” is that it is personal and meaningful to every person in his/her own way.  I don’t want to convince someone to believe the same things that I do.  In matters of “faith”, I have no illusions of being “right”.  It’s not a subject of factual arguments and I have no desire to change anyone’s mind.

With that said, I did, of course, have my own thoughts after reading Dr. Alexander’s recounting of events.  The article didn’t change my own mind about heaven.  In the specific case of out-of-body experiences, I think our brains are translating something far more complicated into something far more simple that we can understand and process in our human lives.  I don’t believe that after death we journey to a place in the clouds where we find eternal peace.  I don’t believe there are angels waiting to guide us.  I don’t believe that our ancestors exist in a specific location where we can “join” them.  It’s not that I don’t believe that there is something bigger in the universe – and that we’re a part of that something even after our human lives have ended.  I think there are infinite mysteries that we can’t even fathom or dream of that are so much larger than what we know.

My thoughts?  I think we have a lot more to learn about our brain chemistry and about our ability to create and translate emotions into sensory experiences.  But as for my thoughts of heaven, those haven’t changed at all.  I still think we don’t know anything at all about what comes next.