Apr 06

Why I am identifying as an atheist

Fred Phelps is dead, so there is no god. That statement could probably be interpreted in a wrong way, but it has a nice hook and I need to grab any potential reader’s attention now because this will end up being a long piece.

In my childhood I had a deep interest in the paranormal and supernatural, stoked in large part by The X-Files. Consuming so much literature and other media about UFOs and hauntings and ESP led to me being the hard-nosed skeptic about such matters that I am today. I can’t find a similar parallel in my religiosity, nor do I think my path was as linear as I’ll end up making it out to be here. But I do want to make clear that I’m approaching the question of religion and faith from the position of spending most of my life believing in something and treating the issue as rather serious. Was my faith ever as deep as others? No; I never would have considered killing myself in the hope of a reward in the afterlife. But my faith was genuine, despite the common assertion that atheists were never true believers.

Growing up I was taken to two different kinds of churches (because my parents divorced when I was about five and shared custody), but neither was a fundamentalist ‘Believe or burn’ kind. I guess I could say religion was part of my upbringing a bit more than other kids in my area. I was put in Awana as a child, sent to Vacation Bible School once or twice, and as a young teen there was a Sunday evening youth group thing I was put in. I’m using terms like ‘put in’ and ‘sent to’ because I never asked to go or cared about what we were being told. I took for granted the ideas of God and Jesus, but the need for salvation never pressed on me. I can still remember one time at Awana when we were supposed to be memorizing the books of the Bible. I wasn’t into it, and one of the teachers berated me, saying “You need to learn this.” But I couldn’t care. I just wasn’t interested, but looking back now I find his assertion even more ridiculous. What relation to faith or deeds does memorizing the names of the books have? Anyway…

When I was put in baptism school we were given a little lecture about how being saved is like trying to jump across a wide canyon, and regardless of how much you train and exercise you can’t get across on your own and you need God to do it. It never got through to me in either the ‘imminent threat’ or ‘this is God’s mercy’ way. I agreed to get baptized because it was just expected of me and because my conception of heaven at the time was of the ‘eternal paradise’ variety pop culture usually depicts. Who wouldn’t want that?

Then in my teens I stopped going to church. There was one or two people my age I got along with, but the actual religious aspect never made an impression on me. I’d like to think I was just an unusually perceptive child, noticing how there were so many different religions but no one had any hard answers or actually lived their lives as if they were afraid of being judged. But I think the truth was just ‘God’s not showing himself, why should I be concerned with Him?’ I had plenty of other shit to deal with, why worry about a sky nanny who stays hidden?

This is not to say I had no spiritual side (however you want to define ‘spiritual,’ it’s such a vague term), but it’s indicative of how organized religion was never been able to keep a hold on me. I always had a firm belief there was something beyond this natural realm that affects this universe, events in it, and our lives. As curious as I was about what it could be, I never settled on the specifics of it; though paganism, being much less steadfast in its ideology and more… positive than Christianity, always appealed to me (and still does today, but I’ll get into that later).

So religion was a topic ever on my mind, but not something I practiced or identified with. ‘Agnostic’ was always a fine term, in the ‘lack of knowledge’ way; I actually resisted the idea humans could fully understand whatever was outside this realm, reasoning it would be something beyond our understanding. And I felt being mindful of how not only is this universe and our time upon it finite, but that there is something out there greater than it, was a necessary component of regulating my behavior and worldview. It was not necessarily out of fear but because the idea of something more out of there was so moving and awe-inspiring.

Forces like karma or the idea of some grand design both offered hope for justice and meaning and presented a threat of punishment for bad behavior. Not as a method of vengeance but in a corrective manner. This past year I’ve become aware of how invested I am in the sense of narrative in a story, the need for there to be a logical sequence of events rather than a bunch of stuff happening, and I think this need also applied to my view of the universe at the time. A belief in the spiritual usually involves some form of narrative: that things will ultimately make sense in the end, everything happening for a reason, the good will be rewarded and the bad punished.

In my mid-20’s this combination of ‘spiritual mindfulness’ (expecting there to be more than this world and that my life had some intended meaning down the road) and a need for narrative sense came together as I started learning about organized religions. Not just Christianity but also Judaism and Islam, and I have books on Hinduism and Eastern philosophy that I still haven’t gotten to; theology may be a long-established interest of mine, but it’s hardly the only one and my interest keeps moving from one thing to the next.

So I fell in to Christianity. It’s not that surprising, in that Christianity is the dominant religion in America (where I’m from) so what else would grab my attention? I’m a bit flippant, but at the time I was serious about my faith. The actual conversion story is kind of bland; no miracle or stroke of good luck to make me believe, no pressing on my heart. It was just another step in my trying to make sense of my spirituality and incorporate it into my life.

There was one major problem: by this point my political views had been solidified. I’ve been interested in politics and current events since high school, and by my 20’s I was staunchly liberal (and still am today). So when one of the essential acts of my newfound Christian faith was reading the entire Bible, starting with Genesis, there was an obvious problem looming.

How am I supposed to reconcile commandments to keep slaves, stone homosexuals and witches, and treat women like baby vending machines with my modern views? How was I supposed to read Exodus and get to the parts where God overrode the pharaoh’s free will and not be taken aback? Not to mention the scientific impossibility of young Earth creationism and Noah’s ark, but it was easier to dismiss those as metaphors rather than literal accounts.

No, it was the cognitive dissonance of believing God is good and the fact that the bulk of his book is about military conquest and genocide that always caused problems for me. For the longest time my solution was to ignore the problem. The issue of contradictions in the Bible gave credence to the idea that it was not an infallible text perfectly in line with God’s will (another problem in itself for me), and instead I put stock in the spirit of the law rather than the letter of it. Jesus’ message is one of compassion and charity, and I had no problem with that.

Except if you read the New Testament you see that Jesus wasn’t the uber-hippy pop culture today presents him as. In addition to commandments against murder and adultery, Jesus introduced the idea of thoughtcrime. What the hell is that? And then there’s the big one: the idea of salvation as only given to those who accept Jesus as their savior. What about the people who never learn of Christianity? What about the people who learn of it but their society/culture has a different dominant religion? Is eternal damnation fitting for people who lived good, or at least not wicked, lives but didn’t say the magic words?

But… I believed God is good and all we fallible humans could do is try to look out for each other and aspire to what Jesus said about loving your neighbor. My conviction of my belief in justice extended to the idea that God was not really the petty, vindictive being of the Old Testament or even the more demanding ‘leave your families and follow me’ person Jesus sometimes is.

In other words, I thought that God’s morality and sense of fairness was in line with mine. The silliness of this is apparent in hindsight, moreso as I’ve learned of just how common that is, people believing in a version of God who just so happens to share all their beliefs. But at the time it was a solution for me and I was free to continue to believe and try to live my life as Jesus would want.

Just as there was no ‘Eureka’ moment that led to me being a Christian, neither was there one leading to me today being an atheist. It happened in degrees over several years, as my refusal to ignore the disparity between my morals and that of the Old Testament gnawed away at me. I’ve seen progressive Christians try to reason around this, saying Jesus’ ‘Love thy neighbor’ commandment supersedes the entire Old Testament, or that it’s the spirit of the law that matters rather than the letter (I’ve talked before about Fred Clark’s dismissal of commandments he disagrees with as ‘clobber texts’). I’ve even seen one person argue that the Bible is a test of sorts (paraphrasing here): ‘If you can read the entire Bible and come out loving your fellow man, you pass.’

What? Why would God be toying with people like that, spending hundreds of years encouraging his chosen people to conquer and kill their enemies and then later say ‘LOL, just kidding. You’re supposed to love everyone’?

I finally couldn’t take it anymore, this nonsense that the God of the Old Testament somehow became moral by our present standards. The Bible is explicitly homophobic and sexist, it has no support for democracy or equality, it advocates slavery. And (here’s the big one) Jesus didn’t change any of that. He didn’t say ‘Slavery is immoral’ or ‘I don’t care about sexual orientation.’ His silence speaks volumes.

It was humanity who came to realize that slavery is wrong, not God and not Jesus. And it’s humanity who has come/is coming to realize sexism, racism, and homophobia are wrong. We have done that despite what the Bible teaches.

After I stopped identifying as Christian I moved onto deism. I could accept the idea of a force/being outside this universe who may or may not care about us (it’s what I did before I was a Christian, after all). Then I let go of the ‘being’ part of that equation and went back to calling myself agnostic. I still believed there was something out there, but once again I refused to identify it or claim to know its nature.

And all during this time, from when I was a Christian to today, I was reading blogs and books on skepticism and atheism. Part of it was just an extension of my interest in theology; atheism is not a religion, but it is related to the issue of religion. And part of it, initially, was so that I could argue better for Christianity. I needed to know the case against it if I was going to defend it, right?

It’s too late to make this a short story, but I found the arguments for atheism more compelling. Not just ‘there’s no evidence for God or gods’ or ‘the God of the Bible is a horrible being.’ Those arguments don’t address my long-standing belief that there is something outside this universe and that our time here is only part of our true existence. For the longest time I was in the ‘You can’t disprove this’ camp, thinking that my feelings and sense of innate belief were fundamentally correct.

And I still do feel something when I consider the idea of the supernatural. It may be surprising for an atheist to say this, if you’ve never talked to an atheist before, but do you really think all atheists are completely rational and/or emphatically opposed to any sort of belief? As I’ve made clear I’ve long had the belief in ‘something’ and I believe my brain is wired for pronounced religiosity. Coming to accept there is no compelling argument for the supernatural or a deity of any kind does not mean I no longer have an emotional reaction to, say, paganism’s veneration for nature or the sincere ecstasy of gospel music. I do feel something, and knowing myself I can easily predict that down the road I’ll learn more about paganism or Buddhism and, yes, something in it may appeal to me on an emotional level.

But emotions are not a barometer of truth. You can be startled by a loud noise but your fear is not evidence that there is a threat nearby. You can convince yourself you love someone despite their flaws but the truth of their addiction or abusive nature overrides what you want to be true. And I’ve understood this for some time because even when I identified as deist or agnostic I wasn’t guiding my life by the commands of any specific faith. I didn’t make decisions based on what it would mean for me after I die. If asked I would have used the term ‘functional atheist,’ living my life as if this is all I have and I am not bound by the law of a deity (just as I imagine countless self-identified theists live).

But I’ll never deny I feel something when I consider religion. That’s because faith is not just an intellectual stance of belief or non-belief. There’s a heavy emotional investment, not only for the individual’s view of their self but of their place in society. It’s only recently that I’ve truly considered this, but I’ve long understood that society treats belief of some kind as the default position. Not only that, but so much of society and many works in pop culture treat non-belief or just skepticism as somehow bad. That not having a belief in something beyond this material universe is a deficiency in a person, or an actually negative attribute.

This despite the fact that, from what I’ve seen and read, many Christians in America (I’m using this narrow example because I live in America) have little actual knowledge of what’s in the Bible, or their views on, say, gay rights don’t align with God’s proclaimed views.

This has always bothered me, the assertion that America is a Christian nation even as we move further and further away from following the Bible, but it was the death of Fred Phelps that put the final nail in the coffin for me. Because as I said shortly after he died Phelps understood the Bible, he was right about God hating gay people. Yet I had people actually trying to tell me “No, no. God doesn’t hate gay people.” And I highlighted cartoons showing Phelps either going to hell for his actions or encountering God wearing a shirt with a rainbow flag on it.

That cartoon may be the most WTF thing I ever post on this site. What is this bullshit? As I asked before, and as I’ll continue to ask probably until the day I die: When did God start supporting gay rights?

I said above my image of God’s morality matched my own opinions, which I see as an argument against believing. The fact that individuals invoke God as an appeal to authority to support their own views demonstrates how ridiculous religion can get, but now we’re witnessing this act on a grand scale. As America becomes more tolerant of gay people God starts becoming more tolerant himself. Convenient, isn’t it?

When I called out people on this, I got theists saying ‘You’re just disrespecting my faith’ or atheists/agnostics saying ‘Get off your high horse.’ As if pointing out people are being selective about what to take from the Bible is somehow arrogant or aggressive.

It goes back to how society treats faith as necessary to be a good person. Any argument against faith is considered to be an attack on decent people. But why should religion be put on a shelf out of reach of debate or scrutiny? And more importantly, why should faith be considered a positive trait and why should society go along with the idea that it’s the default position?

The analogy I’ve come up with is how America has this view that our political make-up aligns with the liberal-conservative spectrum; that the Democrats represent the left-of-center group, the Republicans the right-of-center, you have a few extremists on the socialist or authoritarian ends, and the best solution to a problem is usually somewhere in the compromising middle. But that’s not the case. The Republican party has spent decades moving further and further to the right and the Democrats have been following suit, so now the middle is not the middle, it’s conservative.

Likewise you could chart a spectrum with atheism/skepticism on one end and fervent belief on the other, but American society isn’t in the middle. We may behave like it most of the time, following our own morality regardless of whatever scripture people say they follow commands, but the idea that belief is necessary to be a complete person is so ingrained we have atheists calling out other atheists for attacking belief. This past week Matt Bors and Brian McFadden had their weekly video chat and even though both said they’re atheists they dismissed Richard Dawkins as an asshole. I don’t know if there was something recently in the news they were referring to, but I’m fairly confident they are just of the opinion that being a vocal atheist is bad.

“Why don’t atheists just let people believe what they believe?” gets asked so many times, and I expect sooner or later it may be directed me. My glib answer would be “Because you vote,” and I can point to all the anti-women or anti-gay laws that have been set down out of religious belief. But that’s not the real reason. There are progressive Christians who support equality and think it can be reconciled with their faith. But their faith is not aligning with anything in the Bible except the squishiest concept of ‘Love thy neighbor.’ Hell, Fred Clark said at one point that not only can the Bible not be followed 100 percent, it’s not supposed to be.

So… what? God changes his mind? His word is not eternal? Or do humans have the freedom to pick and choose what commandments to follow? Society at large doesn’t want to ask these questions because, just as there is an unspoken agreement to buy into the ‘Democrats are left-of-center, Republicans are right-of-center’ story, there is also an unspoken agreement that religious belief is an unquestioned good, and that the things that are demonstrably bad for individuals or society are easily excised from polite society and everyone else can go back to believing in their now pro-gay, pro-equality for women God. Whatever it takes to keep society on the ‘belief’ end of the spectrum, because we need to stay there.

This is why I am identifying as an atheist. Because we do not need to stay on that end of the spectrum; moreover, I believe we need to move society closer to the atheist/skeptic/freethinker end of the spectrum. We need to challenge this belief that belief itself is noble and necessary to be a complete person. We need to challenge religions like Christianity as they change their own rules to maintain relevance in a society that really does not need them. And we need to challenge individuals who identify with a religion, any religion, out of convenience or social pressure, because the more people who leave organized religion (even if they still hold on to some form of religious/spiritual belief) the less people like Pat Robertson or Tony Perkins can say America is a Christian nation and thus we need to follow their interpretation of the Bible.

I understand the various reasons why people believe, but I also understand that humans are rational creatures and that we can and should evaluate our opinions and ideologies. But this will not happen unless people challenge the status quo. Just by identifying as an atheist I’m going against the majority of people in my own small way, but like the gay rights movement coming out of the theological closet is a crucial step in making this issue known and getting any dialogue going.

Momentum has already been building without my involvement, yes. I’m not pretending I’m doing something grand or world-changing here. I’m just contributing as I can, and will continue to do so going forward.

Apr 05

He labeled the wallet.
I don’t even need to say anything at this point.

He labeled the wallet.

I don’t even need to say anything at this point.

Apr 04

davidessman:

secotm:

I was skimming over this until I got to that last bit on the right. ‘Obi-Wan Benghazi’? Wha?
Also: ‘Hilary Darth Clinton’? Let me make this easy for you, Jerry: Darth Hilary. Boom. Done.
I can’t think of anything funny to say, though. It’s just really stupid.

Wait Hillary Clinton is Jeb’s father? 
Jerry Holbert thinks republicans are the good guys

He has something against Hilary Clinton, at least

davidessman:

secotm:

I was skimming over this until I got to that last bit on the right. ‘Obi-Wan Benghazi’? Wha?

Also: ‘Hilary Darth Clinton’? Let me make this easy for you, Jerry: Darth Hilary. Boom. Done.

I can’t think of anything funny to say, though. It’s just really stupid.

Wait Hillary Clinton is Jeb’s father? 

Jerry Holbert thinks republicans are the good guys

He has something against Hilary Clinton, at least

America has had so many gun massacres we’re repeating the scenes of the crimes.
An ‘even conservatives are waking up to this’ cartoon.

America has had so many gun massacres we’re repeating the scenes of the crimes.

An ‘even conservatives are waking up to this’ cartoon.

Apr 03

I was skimming over this until I got to that last bit on the right. ‘Obi-Wan Benghazi’? Wha?
Also: ‘Hilary Darth Clinton’? Let me make this easy for you, Jerry: Darth Hilary. Boom. Done.
I can’t think of anything funny to say, though. It’s just really stupid.

I was skimming over this until I got to that last bit on the right. ‘Obi-Wan Benghazi’? Wha?

Also: ‘Hilary Darth Clinton’? Let me make this easy for you, Jerry: Darth Hilary. Boom. Done.

I can’t think of anything funny to say, though. It’s just really stupid.

Apr 02

Gonna include this for panel three. Rachel Maddow has covered the problems facing returning veterans often enough to make it clear she’s not in the “Mention the veterans just to appear to care” mold. Whereas Rall has disparaged all servicemembers as hired killers…

Gonna include this for panel three. Rachel Maddow has covered the problems facing returning veterans often enough to make it clear she’s not in the “Mention the veterans just to appear to care” mold. Whereas Rall has disparaged all servicemembers as hired killers…

Apr 01

agoodcartoon:

thesefewpresidents:

agoodcartoon:

davidessman:


It’s time for me to hang up my pen. I feel blessed to have been able to do this job for over 30 years. It wasn’t an easy decision, but I felt that it is time to move on. Thank you to all those who have read and supported my cartoons over the years. I am forever grateful!
Don’t worry though, I won’t be gone for too long. I’m working with Fox News Channel to develop the network’s first animated series set to debut in 2016 just in time for the elections. Stay tooned!
-Bob Gorrell

Yay…?

hahahahaha fuck yes this is excellent i cant wait for that cartoon
 shit wait i forgot to make a joke. “bob gorrel is a sputtering pig.”

A Good April Fool’s.
(…right? I mean, it has to be, doesn’t it?)

 i dont know why i didnt even consider that possibility until an hour after i reblogged that. shit

If this is real, shouldn’t he have included an “Apologies to Warner Bros.” note with the copyright?
But still, here’s hoping.

agoodcartoon:

thesefewpresidents:

agoodcartoon:

davidessman:

It’s time for me to hang up my pen. I feel blessed to have been able to do this job for over 30 years. It wasn’t an easy decision, but I felt that it is time to move on. Thank you to all those who have read and supported my cartoons over the years. I am forever grateful!

Don’t worry though, I won’t be gone for too long. I’m working with Fox News Channel to develop the network’s first animated series set to debut in 2016 just in time for the elections. Stay tooned!

-Bob Gorrell

Yay…?

hahahahaha fuck yes this is excellent i cant wait for that cartoon


shit wait i forgot to make a joke. “bob gorrel is a sputtering pig.”

A Good April Fool’s.

(…right? I mean, it has to be, doesn’t it?)


i dont know why i didnt even consider that possibility until an hour after i reblogged that. shit

If this is real, shouldn’t he have included an “Apologies to Warner Bros.” note with the copyright?

But still, here’s hoping.

Mar 30

I’m just going to post anything related to religion here, because fuck everyone it’s my blog.
Anyway… this. I found it amusing. Is there no tag for ‘Atheism’? And if ‘Spirituality’ is the most vague term, why the qualifier ‘Christian’? Christian privilege, or just a funny mistake?

I’m just going to post anything related to religion here, because fuck everyone it’s my blog.

Anyway… this. I found it amusing. Is there no tag for ‘Atheism’? And if ‘Spirituality’ is the most vague term, why the qualifier ‘Christian’? Christian privilege, or just a funny mistake?

punchystrawberry-deactivated201 asked: About the Deism post: To play Devil's advocate (or Christ's advocate), it arguably seems pretty reasonable for someone calling themself "Christian" to go with the stuff attributed to Christ in the Bible, as opposed to going with the entire Bible. Someone who believes and follows the entire Bible as the basis of their religion might better call themself a "Biblian" than a "Christian".

Because Christian is so broad a term I need to qualify this statement, but most Christian denominations, making up a majority of Christians (practicing or merely avowed), believe that Jesus is God, one and the same. So whatever is attributed to God should be attributed to Jesus.

I know the argument that the New Testament is supposed to supersede and make obsolete the Old Testament, but I have yet to see any Christian who says the entire Old Testament should be thrown out. They all pick and choose, depending on their own values and political values and whatever, which is why I find that argument as a whole invalid.

Mar 29

Deism

Yesterday I asked why progressive Christians don’t just cut out the entire Old Testament and say only the Jesus stuff counts. I was joking, thinking such a thing was too much even for the most liberal ‘God loves all people’ Christian, but then at work today I realized that’s pretty much what Thomas Jefferson did. He cut out the stuff he didn’t buy.

Why don’t Christians today do that, and then call themselves deists? If they’re not going to align with at least a majority of the Bible (and keep in mind, the Old Testament is much more than half of it) then why do they call themselves Christians and imply they take the entire book as scripture?

It’s probably for the same reason people identify as Democrat or Republican regardless of how much their views overlap a party’s platform: convenience and a recognition that going with one of the most popular religious/political designations is the path of least resistance.

What do I mean? I mean society likes to keep things simple, and even though religious identity in a free and democratic society can’t be pared down to the Coke vs. Pepsi, Kirk vs. Picard dichotomy like with political affiliation, there are still limits to how you can answer ‘What religion are you?’ without getting a blank stare. If you tell someone you’re a Libertarian or a member of the Green Party people will think you’re some kind of extremist or grandstanding snob. “What’s wrong with the two main options?” they’ll think, “They’re nicely placed in the middle of the political spectrum.” (And let’s ignore the factual inaccuracy of that belief.) They’ll buy this even if honest introspection would lead they themselves to realize a third party better fits their values than the two big ones, because society has this unspoken agreement that there are two political parties and that’s sufficient.

Most people don’t think too much or too hard about their political beliefs, I dare say. You’re either liberal or conservative and that’s that. And for the individual religion comes down to the choice of the religion your family identified with versus atheism. Picking a third option is, like picking a third political party, seen as… troublesome. A grab for attention, maybe, or a phase. You’re acting out, going against the unspoken agreement that Christianity is either right or no religion is. (I think part of it is how a culture includes a certain religion as part of its identity, and an American taking on Buddhism or Hinduism may, in some ways, be picking a different culture over American culture; but that’s a tangent.)

Since Christianity is the dominant religion in American society most people identify as Christian. Observing Christmas and Easter, their conception of the afterlife (if they ever think of it) incorporating ideas of heaven and hell, questions of morality being related in some way to what Jesus preached or the Ten Commandments. And even though America allows free worship, Christianity is so ingrained in our culture that the idea of ‘not Christianity’ goes to atheism as the default rather than a different religion*.

And deism is this thing sort of in-between Christianity and atheism (in that it’s a form of theism that doesn’t posit the omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent god of Christianity), and if people were even aware it was an option they would see it as an unnecessarily precise thing. It would be easier to just go with what everyone already understands: God or no God. And because having faith of some kind is seen not only as a clear good, but is taken for granted, people instinctively side with the ‘God’ answer, because ‘no God’ is too loaded for most people.

Hence deism doesn’t have much traction in society, while the term ‘Christian’ is applied to such a broad range of people, covering almost every possible interpretation of the Bible including ones that tacitly or overtly say the Old Testament is all bollocks. Rejecting over half the Bible and building a form of Christianity on the small pool of (positive and uplifting) quotes attributed to Jesus is better than saying ‘Hey, God may exist but they don’t interfere in this natural realm.’

 

 

*Although in pop culture non-Christian characters are still theists far more often than they are atheists. Usually Jewish, because Judaism is related to Christianity while the other major religions are, as I said, tied to foreign cultures in the public’s eye.

That’s something which has also been on my mind lately, how society lifts up the idea that having faith or religious belief is the default position, particularly in pop culture. And it’s not just religion; stories involving the idea of supernatural phenomenon may pay lip service to skepticism, but they always leave an unanswered question to leave open the idea “Well, science can’t explain everything.”