Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The "Right" not to be offended....

I really thought I'd leave "Crackergate" to bigger fish, the real bloggers, as everyone has already had their say and there are probably more posts on this than anyone could ever want to read....

...but hell, this is so much goddamn fun.

I'm going to assume that everyone already knows how the saga unfolded... PZ, inspired by some seriously ridiculous bullshit at UCF, threw a eucharist in the trash, which pissed a lot of people off.

A Eucharist is a consecrated cracker, believed by Catholics to LITERALLY the body of Jesus Christ. Yea, I was a fairly serious Catholic once upon a time, and I never managed to wrap my mind around that shit either. Some poor speaker tried to explain transubstantiation once... something about how wood is always wood, but if you build a chair out of it it, now it has chair-ness, or something. The cracker is given Jesus's "essence" some how.

Yea, I thought that was some crazy bullshit too. Um, dear, please stop, I think you're going to break your brain doing such poorly-executed mental acrobatics. Hint: you're never going to make this doctrine sense. Because it's ridiculous.

One last aside... why is SYMBOLIC cannibalism not enough? It works for most other Christians... but no, Catholics have to give their priests Magic Powers.

So obviously, there are two hilarious things about this situation.

Number one, people are seriously hurt and offended by this "kidnapping" of their savior (dude, what Catholic kid hasn't kept a host a bit longer than they should have to get a good look at "Jesus"...). It's crazy that anyone takes this doctrine seriously, and it's crazy to claim that cracker abuse is a horrible evil act. This one has been covered in detail and there isn't much to say beyond... yea, religions are just as crazy as we think they are.

Number two, not only people offended, they seem to thing that they have some kind of right to punish PZ by getting him fired or something, because he had no right to do what he did. And this goes beyond just crazy religious bullshit into the realm of a vast misunderstanding of the meaning of the right to free speech and freedom of religion, present in religious people but also in people involved in many other causes.

This is what the Catholic Clergy think our rights in this country entitle us to:

Lies and hate speech which incite contempt or violence are not protected under the law. Hence, inscribing Swastikas on Jewish synagogues or publicly burning copies of the Christian Bible or the Muslim Koran, especially by a faculty member of a public university, are just as heinous and just as unconstitutional. Individual freedoms are limited by the boundaries created by the inalienable rights of others. The freedom of religion means that no one has the right to attack, malign or grossly offend a faith tradition they personally do not have membership or ascribe allegiance.

What a... creative... interpretation of the constitution. To bad for them that it is total bullshit.

First of all... hate speech is a rather touchy issue, and I think many rules intended to stop hate speech can over step boundaries of protected free speech, but it is my understanding that "hate speech" rules, be they correct or incorrect, are intended to protect individuals from direct harassment. PZ did what he did in his own goddamn home, and though he did mean to provoke the crazy Catholics, all he did was post something to his goddamn website, he didn't do anything that any Catholic even had to see, much less be personally harmed by. So the hate speech comparison is bullshit, through and through. Purely an act invoked to play the victim.

But more importantly, the above quote invokes a completely imaginary right to not be offended. The scary thing is that groups of all kinds, though religions are the worst, have invoked this right so often and so noisily that many people actually believe that it is a right, or at least a courtesy required in all public discourse.

How many times have you heard "Well, I respect everyones' beliefs...," usually out of the mouths of well-meaning liberals. Hell, I know I used to say it, a lot. Apparently "respecting" others beliefs makes you open-minded and accepting and all sorts of other "nice" things to be (and saying it usually gets you brownie points whether you really mean it or not).

If there were one thing I could do to change the public discourse in this country, it would be to throw the tell-both-sides, all-ideas-are-equal, open-mindness-is-always-a-virtue BULLSHIT right out the window. I respect other people's right to HAVE whatever batshit insane beliefs they want. But no one can make me respect the beliefs themselves, or make me feel bad for not doing so.

And open-mindedness is great and all, but your mind should be guarded with a half-decent bullshit filter at the very least.

I've actually gotten into a disagreement about this with a very close friend of mine. She is also an atheist, although she doesn't exactly embrace the term, but she goes to a small liberal arts school that my boyfriend likes to say is "full of hippies." Her school has, on numerous occasions, had large battles or even cancelled classes because people were offended by something that one group or another posted... in the case that we fought about, it was some kind of vaguely anti-religion publicly posted signs implying that Jesus is an imaginary friend. She sided with the people who claimed that such signs were not appropriate because they're offensive. My response, so?

Now, if you want to have a debate about whether offending people is the best way to get them to change their mind about deeply held beliefs, we can do that. But the assumption that there is a simple right not to be offended is crazy.

Keep in mind, most of the groups asking for such special consideration think they have every right to offend people by "expressing their beliefs" (ex: You're going to hell because you're gay. What, you can't get mad, I'm just practicing my religion!).

And that's the thing. "You can't offend me" can be used to justify banning all sorts of things that don't actually HURT anybody. Gays holding hands or kissing in public places. Muslims playing their "call to prayer" loudly at their places of worship, much like church bells. Atheists publicly denying god. People choosing to have children outside of marriage and refusing to be ashamed of it. Throwing a cracker in the trash. You don't get to say that some of these things are more important than another (but religion is really important to people, can't we leave that alone so we don't hurt anyone's delicate sensibilities!), because the concept behind all of them is the same.

People have a right to have their beliefs. But I don't have to tip toe around dogma that I don't believe in because it's not "polite" to offend people. You do not have the right not to be offended. And all opinions do not deserve the same consideration or respect. You don't get a free pass because a "holy book" told you what to get offended at, or because your opinions are a couple thousand years old.

In the public square, we only have to abide by the rules of the country/state/city we're standing in, not the rules of each other's religions.
And those rules/policies have to be decided on based upon common reality... not bullshit you made up in your head. Calling it your "religious belief" or even your "personal belief" doesn't make it more special than any other idea. If you can't justify it out here in the real world, then we don't have to give a shit.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Book Meme, because I'm bored

I'm too little and new and quiet to get tagged, but this one seems to be going around and it's amusing, so here goes.

Bold = read completely
Italic = started and didn't finish
* = Read for school

1 Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen
2 The Lord of the Rings - JRR Tolkien 
I know, I know, my geek credentials are being revoked as we speak... and I did like them, they just get... slow.  I never finished the last one.
3 Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte 
When I was about 11 I had exhausted the "good" children's books as well as as much as I could take of many fairly lame series (Babysitter's club? Really?  What was I thinking) at our local library, which was quite a small branch.  Our "young adult" section was only one shelf at the time and included lots of lame kiddie versions of adult sci-fi  (I distinctly remember the Young Jedi series. I only made it through one of those.), so that wasn't much help, and neither were my parents. Naive little kid that I was, I walked up to the librarian and asked her to help me find an adult book I might enjoy.  She looked baffled, but eventually led me over to the "Classics" and handed me this book.  I hated it, and unfortunately it put me off trying "adult" books again for awhile.  I've given it a second chance (because its my grandmother's favorite book), and a third (at the request of several overly romantic english major friends) , but my fifth grade opinion holds firm.  The story is alright, but the way it is written... I get annoyed--"Move on already." 
4 Harry Potter series - JK Rowling
*5 To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee
6 The Bible 
Does it count as "starting but not finished" if you never really planned to read the whole thing? I tried half-heartedly once, I didn't even finish Genesis.
7 Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte
8 Nineteen Eighty Four - George Orwell
9 His Dark Materials - Philip Pullman
I really want to reread these now that I'm 1) an atheist and 2) more mature. I think there are things I "got" in terms of the story itself, but didn't fully appreciate what was going on.
10 Great Expectations - Charles Dickens
Dickens and me... same problem as Jane Eyre. The style just drives me nuts. Which is why I stick to mostly things written in the last century or so. I'd really like to find some book to rescue the Victorian era for me, because I feel like there are probably some things I'm really missing out on... but its not exactly at the top of my to-do list.
11 Little Women - Louisa M Alcott
Oh Little Women! One of the few books I've read after seeing the movie where I still am pleased with both versions.  That movie still  makes me cry every time.
12 Tess of the D'Urbervilles - Thomas Hardy
13 Catch 22 - Joseph Heller
14 Complete Works of Shakespeare
As with the bible, I never actually intended to read all of them, but between plays I've seen and plays I've read, I'd covered a lot of them.
15 Rebecca - Daphne Du Maurier
16 The Hobbit - JRR Tolkien
Liked it better than Lord of the Rings, actually.
17 Birdsong - Sebastian Faulks
*18 Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger
Oh Salinger. Yuck. I have an aunt and a best friend who both love Salinger to death, but I found Catcher in the Rye annoying. I was an angsty teenager myself, but I didn't identify with Holden at all. In fact, he pissed me off. I've been meaning to give it another shot, now that I've read a lot more literature... but again, not at the top of my to-do list.
19 The Time Traveller's Wife - Audrey Niffenegger
20 Middlemarch - George Eliot
21 Gone With The Wind - Margaret Mitchel
*22 The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald 
I read this for school the first time, and was rather indifferent about it. I read it again for school (changed schools) and really liked it. Then I took a class on lost generation literature (American writers, roaring twenties) and fell in love with his short stories. Unfortunately, I can't bring myself to read any more of his other books... I read a few for a research paper on how his life was reflected in his work (yes, I was a bit obsessed)..., but ultimately he only had one central story to tell, and he did it best in Gatsby. I still find many of his short stories beautiful or amusing, and Gatsby is good... but the adolescent crush has faded. Fitzgerald is an old boyfriend that I'm still fond of but don't quite fit with anymore. Not like I used to. Kind of sad actually.
23 Bleak House - Charles Dickens
24 War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy
25 The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams
Amazing.  Just brilliant. Ridiculous, sure.  But that's the point.
26 Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh
*27 Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Read this--BY CHOICE--for an over-the-summer, read-and-discuss-online-with-teacher class. Don't ever, ever try to read Dostoyevsky at the beach. First of all, the blinding contrast between the oppressive gritty depressing darkness of the book and the bright sunlight will make you nauseous, secondly, you'll look pretentious as hell, and finally... the book is so damn thick you'll never get rid of the sand. That said, I actually managed to enjoy it a little once I got to the last two pages. The first ray of light in the whole goddamn story is in the last two pages. And it's kind of dull, coming-from-a-long-way-away light, but by the time you get there it feels like cause for a fucking celebration.
*28 Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck
Same class as Crime and Punishment, yes that was a rough summer. I have a thing for Steinbeck too, though he seems more to me like a grandfatherly storyteller than brilliant but screwed up (and therefore attractive, for awhile) Fitzgerald. I liked East of Eden better than Grapes of Wrath, though that was back when I thought my elementary musings on what the book said about the concept of free will were like, important or something. I'm not sure if I would feel the same way about the book now--that one actually is on my list to reread.
29 Alice in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll
30 The Wind in the Willows - Kenneth Grahame
31 Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy
32 David Copperfield - Charles Dickens
33 Chronicles of Narnia - CS Lewis
Totally missed out on the heavy Christian influence here, though I don't know how. Being young is no excuse... it's so blatant! I tried to reread and enjoy it for the fantasy I liked as a kid, but I just can't do it... his meaning behind it smacks me in the face every two seconds and leaves me irritated and looking for a fight.
34 Emma - Jane Austen
35 Persuasion - Jane Austen
36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe - CS Lewis
37 The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini
38 Captain Corelli's Mandolin - Louis De Bernieres
39 Memoirs of a Geisha - Arthur Golden
40 Winnie the Pooh - AA Milne
41 Animal Farm - George Orwell
42 The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown
Good-ish, as popular mystery novels go. Not all that remarkable. 
43 One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
I almost think books employing magical realism should come with some kind of warning label. I loved this book, but I would probably put it down thinking "there must be something I'm not getting here" if I hadn't had experience with the genre in a class.
44 A Prayer for Owen Meany - John Irving
45 The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins
46 Anne of Green Gables - LM Montgomery
47 Far From The Madding Crowd - Thomas Hardy
48 The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood
*49 Lord of the Flies - William Golding
50 Atonement - Ian McEwan
51 Life of Pi - Yann Martel
52 Dune - Frank Herbert
53 Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons
54 Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen
55 A Suitable Boy - Vikram Seth
56 The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafon
57 A Tale Of Two Cities - Charles Dickens
*58 Brave New World - Aldous Huxley
Another one from the summer class, one of the few I thoroughly enjoyed.
59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time - Mark Haddon
60 Love In The Time Of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
61 Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck
62 Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov
63 The Secret History - Donna Tartt
64 The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold
My mother had no idea what this was about when I read it, which is hilarious because she bought it for me without looking at it. A friend of hers eventually saw it around our house and was a bit horrified to learn that I had read it. After an explanation, my mother was as well. Psh. If I can watch law and order and read "literature," I really don't get the panic attack. Chill people. Chill.
65 Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas
66 On The Road - Jack Kerouac
67 Jude the Obscure - Thomas Hardy
68 Bridget Jones's Diary - Helen Fielding
69 Midnight's Children - Salman Rushdie
70 Moby Dick - Herman Melville
71 Oliver Twist - Charles Dickens
72 Dracula - Bram Stoker
73 The Secret Garden - Frances Hodgson Burnett
74 Notes From A Small Island - Bill Bryson
75 Ulysses - James Joyce
My father's favorite book. Seriously. Sorry, I managed to enjoy Portrait of an Artist, but when am I ever going to have the time or the desire to read a book that takes that much goddamn EFFORT. I want to one day, for my father and because, difficult as he is, I kind of like Joyce (he was kind of a prick though, just fyi). But I doubt it will happen.
76 The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath
This was actually hard to read, but I really did... like isn't the right word...appreciate it.  Immensely  This is printed in the front:
Mad Girls Love Song, by Sylvia Plath

I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead;
I lift my lids and all is born again
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

The stars go waltzing in blue and red; 
And arbitrary blackness gallops in:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I dreamed that you bewitched me into bed
And sung me moon-struck, kissed me quite insane.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

God topples from the sky, hell's fires fade;
Exit seraphim and Satan's men:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I fancied you'd return the way you said,
But I grow old and forget your name.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

I should have loved a thunderbird instead;
At least when spring comes they roar back again.
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

77 Swallows and Amazons - Arthur Ransome
78 Germinal - Emile Zola
79 Vanity Fair - William Makepeace Thackeray
80 Possession - AS Byatt
81 A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens
82 Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell
83 The Color Purple - Alice Walker
84 The Remains of the Day - Kazuo Ishiguro
*85 Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert
Again with that summer class. See, it came in handy... the number of bold titles on this list is much less embarrassingly small! In all seriousness though, being embarrassed about not reading the greats is kind of silly.

Anyhow, I hated Madame Bovary. It's supposed to be all feminism-y or something, but couldn't get beyond the fact that Emma is so self-obsessed and awful. I probably should get over my need to like, or at least identify with, main characters... but whatever. I felt much the same way about The Awakening, another supposedly feminist novel where a woman "frees herself from society" by sleeping around and eventually killing herself. The sleeping around in these books isn't enlightenment... it's just reactionary rebellion. And there is nothing wrong with a being a rebel, but in and of itself it does NOT make you a hero.  These books don't get beyond that... the women just kill themselves. And maybe that is what I can't take. Romanticizing suicide is total and complete bullshit. Suicide in healthy adults is almost without exception a selfish and tragic act, period. To quote a favorite post secret card:
“Fuck the poets of the past, my friends.
There are no beautiful suicides
just cold corpses with shit in their pants
and the end of the gifts.”
I guess I can't blame Flaubert for using suicide much in the same way as it has been used in lots of other novels--a dramatic, defiant exit, a refusal to continue in the conditions forced upon oneself--and maybe there is some place for its use in this way. But you're probably never going to get me to enjoy a book that in any way glorifies such a horrific act. Give me a character who actually finds a way to deal, or if you want to go on the tragedy side, gives up or dies without succeeding. Or give me a suicide, with a little more perspective. Please.
86 A Fine Balance - Rohinton Mistry
87 Charlotte's Web - EB White
88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven - Mitch Albom
89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
90 The Faraway Tree Collection
91 Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad
Obviously I've read this one, as I've got a quote from it in the side bar. One of my favorites. Mesmerizingly dark and beautiful, live a river in a forest on a night with no moon.
92 The Little Prince - Antoine De Saint-Exupery
93 The Wasp Factory - Iain Banks
94 Watership Down - Richard Adams
95 A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole
96 A Town Like Alice - Nevil Shute
97 The Three Musketeers - Alexandre Dumas
*98 Hamlet - William Shakespeare
99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Roald Dahl
I have read almost everything Roald Dahl ever published. His children's fiction was 3rd/4th grade, his autobiographical books and more mature short stories 5th/6th. I'm still in love with Matilda--what bookwormish geek wouldn't identify with the little girl an outcast because she's too smart? And really, I wanted to use my extra brainpower as superpowers. How fucking awesome would that be?
100 Les Miserables - Victor Hugo
I have promised my best friend that I will try... but don't hold your breath.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

O Gods of Smallest Clarity

I love this poem, the whole thing is lovely. But the line that really struck me when I heard the author read it was this:

....and those of us quietly/not anything to speak of....

Both its place in the poem, and the way she said it, made that line seem so sad. And I understand that sadness... the not-belonging to something, the loss of what--at least sometimes--seems like a rich and beautiful tradition. But I also feel that while the author had that tone, and felt that sadness, she wasn't apologetic or ashamed or unhappy about it...maybe she once was, but not now I don't think. But that's entirely speculation of course.

Anyhow, it's a great poem, I hope someone else out there enjoys it as well.

Full Text:


If only those perennial opposites, the bully
and the sweet worried one
slept, kept sleeping. Not side by side,
not the lion and the lamb, just that most
ordinary blind passage, brief
and profound, as it happens
all over the planet. I mean the prince
who's happy with gardening, and the other kind
plotting someone's downfall, each
going under for the night. Which is to say, not
our usual taking turns at it, not Greenwich
or daylight savings or eight flight hours from here
equals five hours early or late but right now,
this minute, by my marvelous powers
of desperation and delusion, it's
soldier and monk, Sunni and Shiite,
republican, democrat, all Muslims and Christians
and Jews and those of us quietly
not anything to speak of, no reason or rhyme or
respectively about it, no tit for tat
but everyone sleeping. And the president
curled fetal, his aides and think-tankers
all twitching in their dreams as dogs do,
on the scent or the chase, hours,
many hours to come. For that matter, the Pope is
drifting off and the greeter
from Wal-Mart, and the magician come out
of a long day's practice in a sword-crossed box
rests now, exactly like the oldest woman,
asleep on her side, empty as the young docent
at Ellis Island already certain
it's robot-work, telling the country's vast sad story
of promise and trouble. And I think so many
miners home from their dark to this
gladder one, sprawled out
on their beds where exhaustion is fierce, no longer
patient. Every child in the world is sleeping too,
hunger, once there was, but not here
in this dream, no gunflash, no flood.
Every mother minus panic. Every father
finding his daughters, his sons right where they should be. Even
the torturers gone into that place they might
nightmare for what they've done.
But not yet, not for a moment. And of those
who were done to, for them the rope and hood
and diamond-tooth wire, all banished
a few hours, forgotten
as dream is, in this, the real dream
to ink it out, beyond reach.
Believe me, I want to see
the despicable go down as much
as you do, and the innocent shine. But that's
sleeping too. Or so I try,
an experiment that may be stupid,
full of less not more, as in pointless, as in
hopeless, as in less than nothing
because--o gods of the smallest
clarity, let nothing happen
for an hour, for six hours. Rage.
Let that sleep too, its sorrow
no longer a brilliant rant, no longer anything,
a wash, a confluence of great waters
seen from a distance, the horizon a matter of
on and on where a speck out there
might well be a boat, the figure at the oars
untangling and stretching out. One eye
closed, then the other: welcome
no moon, no stars.

The poem is from her collection Grace, Fallen From.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Welcome COTG visitors!

This blog is ridiculously new, tiny, and poorly kept up, but I am here and I do appreciate your visits and comments. Thanks!

Sunday, June 29, 2008

This week's Dr. Who

What. The. Fuck.

That is all.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Once Again

The plan was not to start off the blog quite this personal, but I already told my fricken life story (or at least a sizable part of it) so damage done, right? Whatever...

So I'm having a bad night. Not a very scary someone-needs-to-save-me-from-myself bad night, but a life-kinda-sucks-and-it's-getting-to-me-more-than-it-should-and-I-don't-like-where-this-might-be-going kind of bad night. Not really a big deal, but annoying.

But here's the thing. For a large part of my life--the better part of four years in fact--I turned to religion on nights like these, or at least the trappings of religion. The thing that always helped and hypnotized me about religious ritual was music, and long after I ceased to be a 100% committed Christian, on a bad night I would turn to worship songs for comfort. The powerful feeling of music coming from my lungs and my lips felt reassuring--life affirming or something. I knew the words by of the worship songs by heart, much of the music is beautiful, and they have deep emotional memories attached to them. Sounds like no downside, right?

The problem is, on nights like these, the desire to sing is still there, which is great, because it gets me out of my head and soothes me. But the worship songs still come to mind, though I no longer even pretend to believe what they say. And the problem with this is not just that they are religious songs--I'm perfectly capable of appreciating and accepting the beauty of something that generally praises god or the beauty of creation or whatever. But some of the songs that come to mind are not just pretty happy light-hearted praise songs. Many of them are like this one:

Once Again
Matt Redman

Jesus Christ I think upon your sacrifice
You became nothing poured out to death
Many times I've wondered at Your gift of life
And I'm in that place once again
I'm in that place once again

Once again I look upon the cross where You died
I'm humbled by Your mercy and I'm broken inside
Once again I thank You
Once again I pour out my life

Now you are exalted to the highest place
King of heavens, where one day I'll bow
But for now I marvel at this saving grace
And I'm full of praise once again
And I'm full of praise once again

Once again I look upon the cross where You died
I'm humbled by Your mercy and I'm broken inside
Once again I thank You
Once again I pour out my life

Thank You for the cross
Thank You for the cross
Thank You for the cross
My Friend.

This song is very Passion-of-the-Christ-y in the sense that it suggests we all soak ourselves in the awfulness of Christ's sacrifice and death, making ourselves feel like shit, or "broken" because that sounds more poetic, and that this will in some perverted way make us happy or enlightened or better Christians. Oh, and we should be grateful for this lovely shitty broken feeling.

The Passion-of-The-Christ, revel-in-suffering-and-sacrifice phenomenon is one of my worst memories from my religious days and represents one of the most damaging ideas in Christianity.

I remember sitting in a movie theater with my church group absolutely numb from the horror of that movie, unable to even express emotion because I was so overwhelmed and because the sobs couldn't break through the pressing weight on my chest, while two of my best friends sobbed on either side of me, leaning on my shoulder or holding my hand.

And because of that understanding-christ's-suffering-makes-you-better culture, we all claimed to love that horrifically painful experience. That is twisted, and wrong, and fosters self-hatred. It's self destructiveness/self punishment akin to the awful depressed/angsty teenage habit of cutting oneself, and encouraging it is disgusting.

"Humbling"? I suppose you could call it that. But I'd rather call it what it is--abuse, whether self inflicted or perpetrated by a parent, pastor, or youth leader. "Yes," they are telling you, or you are telling yourself, "Yes you are a horrible person, a broken sinner, and you must feel this deeply in your soul so that you can understand the wonder of Christ's sacrifice for you." The classic create-the-need-you-intend-to-address trick that religion uses so very well.

The explicit glorification of this mentality present in "Once Again" makes it one of the worst worship songs I've ever sung in terms of conceptual content. Of course, many worship songs use this same theme--I could do an entire series of posts on lines from "beautiful" religious songs that bug the hell out of me--but this song doesn't just say "you saved me" or "you sacrificed for me," it encourages active reflection on the actual violent death of Christ. (Once again I look upon the cross where you died? Thank you for the cross? How very morbid.) I'm sure there are plenty others this bad, and others perhaps worse, but this is the one that comes to mind most readily for me.

And the horrible thing is... this song still pops into my head.
It comes to me when I'm feeling "broken," and some small but deep part of me still wants to find it touching and beautiful.

I do not believe in god, or in the whole hating-yourself-because-you're-so-imperfect-is-good-for-you/motivates-you-to-change thing (this self-punishing mindset exists in some secular philosophies as well and I don't like it there either), so the concepts shouldn't really "hurt" me... but I don't want to sing this song. I don't want to think it, or even know it. The fact that I once loved this song, once sang it in search of comfort and understanding from god, makes me hurt and angry.

But I can't get rid of it, just like I can't get rid of the dead baby pictures or the skit I saw that blamed a desire to kill oneself on immoral acts/dancing with the devil instead of with jesus (instead of on, you know, um, depression).

And in a way, of course, I wouldn't want to, because they're part of my past and my history and my experience and ME and blah-de-blah-de-blah.

But I wish I could break the emotional potency of the song enough so that it wouldn't come to mind on shitty nights when I want to sing. Give me joyful songs, even religious ones if they're relatively innocuous, give me ordinary sad songs, but take away this perverse praising-of-brokenness.

I don't want to ever be back to this shitty-night place "once again," but I know it will happen from time to time. And when it does, the goal is to get the fuck out of it as quickly as possible, not to sit around and praise Jesus for my lovely broken soul.

Monday, June 23, 2008

My Religion Story, Part II

So in part one, I ended my story by telling you about how wonderful my life was after my first retreat. I bet you can already guess where I’m going with this: It didn’t last.

The end of retreat was the beginning of an ever-deepening involvement in the rather twisted world of my youth group. Our young, charismatic, and oh-so-concerned about the state of our souls youth minister was a master of indoctrination. The loving-God-who-changed-lives-and-cared-for-us-part was over and now it was time to get us addicted to a more potent kind of Catholic Guilt than we had previously been accustomed to. We were coming to “Life Nights” (the group was called LifeTeen) on the evils of Abortion, Suicide, Sex… etc, in which the horrors of these things were described in graphic detail (in the case of abortion, an hour long slide show of actual graphics was involved), and worse, we were claiming to enjoy them.

During this period I voluntarily went to church multiple times per week and even was taken once by my youth minister and a friend’s mother to stand outside abortion clinics to help harass people walking in. I’m still intensely ashamed of that, both because it was horrible and because I never even felt that what I was doing was right, but I let myself get sucked in anyways. Thankfully, my mother was horrified at this and prevented it from happening again.

Between the fact that retreat highs don’t last, the crazy guilt, and the questions that, try as I might, I could not banish from my mind, I started to get very, very uncomfortable with this whole religion thing. But I was trapped. This had become a such a big part of my life–I was Catholic and this was my home, my community. And it was so horrible to be ungrateful or doubting when God had fixed my life… so I doubled my efforts. I read my bible every night, cherry picking the inspirational bits to post in my room and give to my friends, and started praying the rosary. I went to extra sessions of Eucharistic adoration, trying to replicate the intensity of emotion in that first experience. These were acts of desperation, because I felt that if I lost faith, I would lose my new happy life.

Stressful events at home and at school accompanied my period of doubt, and one thing led to another… just a few months after the retreat another round of depression hit me, hard. I still wasn’t calling it that, though somewhere in the back of my mind, the word occurred to me. I told myself that I was weak, that I needed another retreat to get back to my faith and make me strong again. I literally counted down the days.

At my second retreat, absolutely nothing happened. I prayed constantly, I was brutal to myself in confession, but there was absolutely no relief. Nothing. Sunday afternoon as we boarded the bus to go back, I felt like being a five-year-old and refusing to leave. I wasn’t finished yet, I needed more time—I knew no way to dig myself out of this mess but to have God save me.

But I boarded the bus and spent the ride home mulling over God’s obvious rejection of me. If God wasn’t willing to help me, than I must be a complete failure, right? But after a second retreat like that one, I stopped feeling quite so guilty and started getting pissed. I was being the perfect little Catholic, and all I was asking was for God to let me be happy. I didn’t want money or good grades or any other form of help, I just wanted to want to get up in the morning.

As I got angrier, I started taking a step back from my circle at church, and I saw things that horrified me.

Our youth minister Meghan played favorites, and her captivating charm was so addictive that those who fell out of her favor (never for any reason other than the fact that someone else was more interesting) were often absolutely destroyed by it. Our group involved at least as much Meghan worship as God worship, and Meghan was very human and very manipulative, sometimes even cruel.

But beyond Meghan, I saw people with real problems in their lives being told that giving it up to God was all that they needed to fix things, when what they needed desperately was someone to get them real help. I saw people who had genuine questions being told to just wait, and they would get through their “dry spell” of faith.

I wish I could say that as soon as I saw all of this, I turned around and walked away. In reality it took me another two years to extricate myself completely from that world, even with a move to a boarding school to pull me away from my home parish. First I went to a new, less harsh Catholic church, then moved into non-denominational Christian wishy-washy-ness, trying to convince myself that it was manipulative behavior and dogma that bothered me. Every step away was full of guilt and there were things that went against church doctrine that I couldn't say or do long after I had decided that logically and morally they were okay, simply because the guilt was imbedded so deep that I would get intensely anxious when considering breaking one of the big rules. (To be fair, I was and to some degree still am a very anxious person, and irrational guilt is something I struggle with even outside of the religious sphere--religion just intensified this tendency.)

But my old objections to the very basic principles of my religion–why is Faith considered a virtue, why do we venerate unnecessary sacrifice, how do we know that we are right about any of this, and how can you base your life on something you can’t prove–grew stronger, and I eventually stopped attending religious services of any kind.

I was functionally an atheist for more than half of my senior year of high school, but the word bothered me. I had never understood how someone could define themselves by something they didn’t believe in, and I was uncomfortable completely destroying part of my identity, even though by this time it was my least favorite part. So I didn’t bother thinking about it, operating under the assumption that God might be there, but it really didn’t matter very much.

But soon after I got to college I made a new friend and when he asked me what my religious beliefs were, I honestly couldn’t tell him. This bothered me, and for the next few months I read about different religions and about the big scary word: Atheism. At first, this was tremendously difficult. Throwing away the remaining traces of my guilt was painful. But I realized that being an atheist made more sense to me than anything else, and I tried the word on for size. In doing this, I finally gave myself permission to stop trying to believe. I was incredibly relieved.

For the first time in my life what I claimed to believe in actually made sense to me, and though it was new, it never felt strange. I felt (and I still feel) that this is what I’ve been trying to believe my whole life–it feels natural for me.

The only people who don’t know about my lack of religion are my family members. My younger brother once said in anger that he didn’t believe in God. He later took it back, but at the time my mother shoved him against the wall and yelled at him for hours. Everyone’s least favorite uncle is the only other atheist in my family, and we all shake our heads at his kids being raised without religion. My grandmother would be genuinely heartbroken if she found out that I had “lost my way.” My family tends to make the common assumption most atheists actually believe in god, they just aren’t strong enough to keep faith through dry spells, or they’re angry about an experience they had with the church.

And I am angry. I’m very angry that at a very difficult point in my life the people that I mistakenly turned to for help were shoving church propaganda down my throat and showing me slide shows of dead babies. I’m angry about the fact that me and several of my friends wasted much of high school struggling to cut ourselves away from an emotionally abusive group of people and a culture that encouraged people to hate themselves, think they were unworthy sinners, and then beg for forgiveness. I am very angry that I let myself be manipulated into believing that my depression was punishment for lack of faith, and angry that I let my religious issues keep me from getting real help for so long. I am angry about many destructive effects of religious belief that are much, much bigger than my own experience. I am angry about enough things to fill an entire post.

But that’s not why I’m an atheist.

I’m an atheist because it makes sense to me.

I’m an atheist because I’m a scientist, because I love the ability to attempt to understand the world without viewing it through the distorted lenses of 2000+ year old doctrine. Religion can teach us a lot about the human mind and human history, but is at best incomplete and at worst damaging in its attempts to construct a guide to morality.

I’m an atheist because I don’t believe that theistic religions arise in almost every culture because of some nonsense about a “god-shaped-hole” in everybody’s heart. I believe religions arise from quirks of the human mind, a desire to make sense of the world, and a fear of death.

I am an atheist because it is much better to take responsibility for your own life and morals than to look forever towards an empty sky.

This all makes me happy, and I am completely comfortable with my beliefs, something I was never able to say before.

I hope that someday I can explain to my family, or at least my siblings, what I believe, but my family is complicated and I’d settle for an acceptance of the fact that I do not want to attend or get married in a Catholic church. But aside from that small snag, my religion story is over.

And that makes me very, very happy.