Friday, July 19, 2013

Laughter As A Way Of Life

I used to be afraid. I felt rage and indignation, mixed with regret and despair.  I felt so out of touch, and I was worried that I would never feel at ease.

Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night. I feel so much useless energy coursing through me. I feel anxious, and feel so many thoughts rushing through my mind simultaneously that I hardly know which way is which.

I am constantly reminded of my insecurities. Usually, I suppress these feelings, for lack of a better way to cope. I felt like I had to choose between suppression - ignoring the feelings entirely, or depression - blaming myself, or anger - venting at situations over which I had no control.

I didn't know that there was another option.

I'm trying. Sometimes I still feel like I'm in denial. My laughter is not a way to separate myself from my feelings - it is a knowing acknowledgement of the absurdity of my life - but is not a hollow, hopeless, or self-defeating absurdity. This is an affirmation.

I have tried, hard, to find another place - a better place - to go, mentally. I end up so often in my thoughts, that I need some kind of refuge. I have tried to appreciate things in my life for the way they are.

So I laugh. And why do I laugh, and what do I find funny?

I giggle about what I don't know - what I once didn't know but have now learned - what other people deeply feel to be true but don't actually know - about patterns others miss that I understand - when I finally learn something that it seems like other people understand easily.

One of my closest friends recently told me that I am one of the most optimistic people she knows. This shocked me. I have never thought of myself as an optimistic person. Now, I am trying to be more like the version of myself that she has apparently seen.

I'm not saying that I am changing to satisfy other people. I'm doing as much as I can to be true to myself, it's just that there are things about myself that I don't like. Besides, the idea of being "true to myself" has always seemed somewhat contradictory and problematic for me, both in theory and practice.

Theoretically, how can I be true to myself when I barely know what I want? Aren't I just privileging the things I already know? What's the fun in that? I want to keep expanding my horizons - I don't know where I will be in the future, and how I can be true to what I do not yet know?

Practically, I've always felt insecure about some of the ways I act. I feel very uncomfortable in many different situations, and yet I can be extremely engaging and gregarious with very close friends and when I'm talking about my passions. Still, I'm clumsy about how I express myself - I interrupt other people too much, and too often find myself waiting to speak again instead of listening to what people are saying. I'm genuinely trying not to be inconsiderate - I really am - I just find it so difficult to relate to people sometimes, that when I feel like I have something valuable to contribute, it's hard for me to hold this is a way that insecurity feeds upon itself.

I'm constantly struggling to live up to my own expectations of who I can be, of what I can do, and what I can accomplish. I put a lot of pressure on myself. All this laughter is a way for me to deflate the tension.

Sometimes, I just look in the mirror, and I start laughing. Then, like the world's unsexiest vampire, I disappear for a little while.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Why Damon Linker Is Wrong On Atheism

In the online edition of The Week magazine, Damon Linker of the University of Pennsylvania and The New Republic published a rant inspired by the recent release of philosopher A.C. Grayling's book promoting atheism. Linker writes in his column, Where are the honest atheists?, to bemoan the idea that godlessness is good for human beings.

While Linker doesn't mind the attacks on religion in "new atheist" books (although he implies that these attacks are over hashed and repetitive), he declares that the "style of atheism rehearsed in these books has reached a dead end" because it "quite obviously is not" true that atheism is good news.

Right away, Linker kneecaps his own analysis of atheism through his failure to properly and thoroughly understand its ideas. I don't know whether Linker is an atheist, but if he is, he needs to pay more attention to his subject matter -- and if he isn't, this is only one example of the dozens of times a non-atheist has written something about atheism that is full of misrepresentations and inaccuracies which the author uses to falsely attack atheist ideas.

Many atheists agree with Linker (!) that the new atheist books have reached a dead end; but this does not mean that atheism is not good news. Moving beyond ideas from The God Delusion and God Is Not Great, a large number of atheists have realized that it is not sufficient to tear down religion to improve the world, but rather, non-religious people must promote forward-looking alternatives to religion.

Linker has missed many developments toward this end. The Atheism Plus movement, which implores atheists to focus on social justice issues - which asks atheists to overcome racism, misogyny, and other unjust forms of privilege beyond religious privilege - is a worthy example of how atheists use their lack of faith as a foundation to inspire larger activism. Atheists have established charities such as the Foundation Beyond Belief, to organize atheist charitable giving and more effectively create positive change in the world.

When Joe Klein of TIME Magazine falsely libeled atheist groups for their lack of an organized response to the Moore, Oklahoma tornado -- several organized atheist groups (including the Foundation Beyond Belief) have, in fact, contributed money and organized volunteers and the distribution of goods for victims of the tornado -- Klein refused to apologize and TIME Magazine refused to issue a correction. Where is the honest atheist?, asks Damon Linker. Where is the person who is honest about atheism?, is a much better and more relevant question.

Atheists are being more open today. Why? Perhaps it is because most non-atheists particularly enjoy depicting atheists as: loners, joyless nihilists; vitriolic and snide; people without morality; people who are not essentially American; people who have no community and are not truly involved in their communities. These stereotypes are false and empty, yet it still remains popular to perpetuate these mindless exaggerations.

"If atheism is true, it is far from being good news. Learning that we're alone in the universe, that no one hears or answers our prayers, that humanity is entirely the product of random events, that we have no more intrinsic dignity than non-human and even non-animate clumps of matter, that we face certain annihilation in death, that our sufferings are ultimately pointless, that our lives and loves do not at all matter in a larger sense, that those who commit horrific evils and elude human punishment get away with their crimes scot free — all of this (and much more) is utterly tragic."

This is what Damon Linker has to say about atheism. Linker describes atheism as a tragedy, only because that is how he chooses to see atheism. I see the same set of circumstances as Linker, yet I ask him:

If atheism is true, why isn't it good news? Learning that our fate is in our own hands, that we have the freedom to solve our problems for ourselves, that humanity is not intentionally designed to suffer, that we are not falsely separated from the natural world, that we need not fear punishment after death, that our sufferings and our joys matter more than we could ever imagine because they belong to us and us alone, that our lives and loves are the ultimate point of our present existence, that those who commit horrific evils and elude human punishment are not rewarded with eternal bliss and that those who lead kind, decent lives do not suffer eternal torture for believing in the wrong religion -- all of this (and much more) is utterly joyous.

Further, Linker completely whiffs by casting Nietzsche's description of the death of God as an "awe-inspiring catastrophe" for humanity as a bad thing for atheism. There is another level of nuance in Nietzsche's thought beyond labeling the death of God as a catastrophe, otherwise how is it an "awe-inspiring catastrophe"? On the contrary, the death of God is an excellent opportunity to avoid a descent into nihilism and create a more meaningful life. If there are no gods controlling the destiny of our lives, then each of us is ultimately responsible for imbuing meaning, creativity, and love into our lives and the lives of our fellow human beings. How can people descend into nihilism when they have such a terrific responsibility before them? There is too much left to do to become a nihilist.

Likewise, when Linker cites Camus stating that the lack of a satisfying answer to the question "why" demands that the goodness of human life must be reconstructed from the ground up, this is not a bad thing. The goodness of human life should originate from the ground up - it shouldn't originate from unverifiable, untraceable divine notions accepted with blind faith. If you must reason from the ground up, suddenly you are exposed to entire new and liberating vistas of compassion. Seeing the tangible reality of how people act, rather than adhering to unimpeachable dogma, it's harder to believe that gay people are less human, that people of other faiths are less moral, and that our individual fates are not inextricably bound to each other and to the health of our environment. Linker asks, in so many words, why do you want to be free? Wouldn't you rather hold on to the shackles of religion?

Linker cites the writing of Philip Larkin, claiming that a world without religion leaves "no solace or reassurance" and "the horrifying prospect of a lonely plunge into infinite nothingness." In later paragraphs, Linker adds that the "whole point of the liturgy performed on the church altar, Larkin implies, is to seduce us with the beautiful and supremely fulfilling illusion that our worldly compulsions have cosmological meaning and significance." No. Without religion, our solace and reassurance is in the present moment. With religion, the meaningfulness of our present lives plunges into infinite nothingness. With atheism, that meaningfulness is paramount and sacrosanct, because it is all we have. Religion does seduce us: encouraging us to trade the life-affirming view that the meaning and significance of our lives derives from our own actions, for the paralyzing idea that our lives are only meaningful in a context outside of our ourselves. Religion poisons and disparages the grandeur of the moment to sell us a fragmentary and unattainable future.

Perhaps my statement attacking Linker for preferring the shackles of religion seems extreme. Here is what Linker says about "the deepest sources of humanity's religious impulses", a statement that deeply disappoints me and neatly illustrates the injustices of too much religious thought:

"The compassionate generosity and honesty of Larkin's atheism also infuse a poem titled "Faith Healing," which reflects on the deepest sources of humanity's religious impulses. Larkin suggests that human beings are creatures governed by the longing to love — and even more so, by the longing to be loved. It is a need, a hunger that never can be permanently satiated. But religion tries, understanding and responding to this crucially important aspect of humanity perhaps more fully than any other institution or practice. When a preacher looks into the eyes of a suffering parishioner, cradles her head in his hands, and utters "Dear child, what's wrong?", Larkin writes, "an immense slackening ache / ... Spreads slowly through" her, "As when, thawing, the rigid landscape weeps." The preacher's love may be a charade, the loving God that appears to act through him may be a fantasy conjured out of a combination of imagination and spiritual yearning, but in that moment faith has demonstrated its unique capacity to heal the human heart."

It is the highest shame of religion that it unjustly redirects the vital human impulse to love and to be loved from its best and most honest source - between actual human beings - to the abstract, rationalizing, sophistical idea of gods. Religion abuses normal human love - the love that we have for each other, from person to person - and arrogantly declares this love to be insufficient, creating a false hunger through its own practices.

When a preacher loves a parishioner, when a father loves a daughter, when a sister loves her brother, when firefighters sacrifice their lives for their communities, the healing of the human heart was there all along - in the love the people gave each other, from each other. It is religion that has the unique capacity to trivialize the human heart, whereas atheism sets the heart free to love on its own terms.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Reflections on a UU Service: 6/30/13 (Part Two)

After that joke, I felt the sermon got off to a rocky start. As is often the case when non-atheists attempt to discuss atheist ideas, the pastor began the substance of her discussion with a misapplied definition of atheism.

The preacher stated that atheism relies too heavily on an absolute certainty to suit her tastes. While I will try not to be too condescending as a philosophy major, I do find it irksome when people who are not familiar with the philosophical and practical definitions of atheism use a false definition as a straw man to give an unflattering impression of atheist beliefs.

Saying, as she said, that atheism is the certainty that there is no god is not accurate. This sort of statement ignores the distinction between weak atheism ("I have no evidence to believe in a god, so I don't"/"I lack belief in gods"/"I can't say what is out there, so I'll default to not believing in gods") and strong atheism ("there is no god"/"the very idea of god or gods is so ridiculous that I can rule it out entirely").

Also, her portrayal of atheism ignores the common occurrence that many people are both atheists and agnostics - that some people are ambivalent about whether they know if any gods exist, but they choose not to commit to any beliefs about gods and live their life as if there are no gods. This is similar to being a weak atheist.

Many of the things this pastor said about atheism really pleased me. She favorably quoted Penn Jillette's idea of moving beyond atheism, and insisted that non-belief should be a starting point, not an ending point, to inspire action and kindness toward others. The pastor complimented atheists many times, often referring to "the open-hearted atheist", someone who puts themselves on the hook instead of a belief in religion or even the acceptance of atheism as a way to solve problems and care for other people. This line of thinking is a great parallel to the Atheism+ movement that has been building on the Internet within the last year. Saying that you're an atheist doesn't make you a more humane person - that atheism must be a motivating factor to improve the lives of other people. I agree.

On a similar note, the most memorable quote of the sermon was when she said, "Proving a negative is a wasted breath when so many people in the world are suffering." While many people assume that UUs are completely impartial to what people actually believe (and the preceding quote may reinforce that assumption), this preacher was fervent in saying that "beliefs matter", and her test for the benefits of different beliefs is whether they leave "walled gardens" or "open doors" - whether beliefs promote "an experience of wholeness" and evoke "unity but not division".

Now, at this point, I have to disagree with the pastor again. Yes, atheism is not enough to improve people or the world. Yes, beliefs matter. Let's examine, though, some assumptions that lurk behind her point about the preposterous presumptuousness of proving a negative.

Atheists need to be loud, clear about who we are and what we want, precisely because our beliefs matter. When most people assume that it is a good thing to be religious, that religion is inherently a social good, and that religion is required for morality...then there is a great danger that people will use religion to promote fear, bigotry, intolerance, hatred, and division without facing any substantial criticism. Giving religion a blank check is a really good way to make sure that anyone can cover for their actions - no matter how dubious, reprehensible, or spiteful - by wrapping what they do inside the contours of the word "religion".

Further, is unity a good test to determine if a belief benefits the world? Is openness a consistently good quality for an idea? Should we remain open to ideas that stigmatize, and spread prejudice? Should we be open to combinations of scientific ignorance and religious rhetoric that decry evolution and harm science education, malign climate change and wound our environment, or promote pernicious practices with no medical validity but plenty of use for faith - such as homeopathy - that when used instead of proper medical care have at best wasted money and at worst ended lives? We should not be open to the worst of religious ignorance and incredulity, and we should not have unity for the sake of preserving dangerous and unfounded ideas.

I am glad that the preacher favorably quoted Bertrand Russell's three main goals in life: to 1) long for love 2) search for knowledge and 3) pity suffering. I believe that humanity can best achieve these goals not with blind faith, but with open minds. It is far more important for our minds than our hearts to be open.


For another good discussion of the relationship between UUs and atheists, see Part I, Part II, or Part III of atheist blogger Adam Lee's accounts of his experiences with UU activities "Can an Atheist Be a Unitarian Universalist?". Note, though, that since most UU congregations are highly autonomous, experiences across different congregations tend to vary greatly.

Reflections on a UU Service: 6/30/13 (Part One)

I'm an atheist. So when I heard that a local Unitarian Universalist congregation would be hosting a sermon entitled "Ten Commandments for Atheists", I knew I had to be there.

This past Sunday was not the first time I've been around UUs or even attended a UU service, but this was the very first time I've attended a regular UU service on a Sunday morning.


First, I loved the fact that the opening announcements applauded the Supreme Court's overturning of provisions of the aptly misnamed Defense of Marriage Act. However, I was taken aback when the pastor specifically celebrated the unity of churches fighting for gay equality. While I am heartened by the coalition of religious groups working to advance LGBT rights, I was surprised that she described the decision as a moment of religious unity.

Do I need to recite that most of the animus against homosexuality in America is driven by religious antagonisms? For every congregation and denomination that welcomes gay people, there are several that openly denigrate homosexuality as a sin and inspire bigotry and hatred towards LGBT people.

While I am glad that there are some religious people working to undo the damage done by other religious groups, giving religion as a whole the entire piece of credit - in this situation - seems to be putting religion as institution in a disproportionately favorable light. People with long memories and a desire to promote acceptance should remember when and why and how various religious groups have fanned the flames of intolerance for many years. To sugarcoat religious intolerance in the name of pluralism is not acceptable.


After the opening welcome and a few other rituals, but before the sermon, the congregation paused for a Meditation in Words and Silence. The invocation was more theistic than I would have preferred, but I enjoyed the chance to sit in quiet and reflect. Notably, the preacher said "Amen" at the end of her prayer, which she addressed to the "Spirit of Life". As a humanist, I strongly believe that - as human beings living a world with no discernible author or controlling intent - that it is negligent to leave the solving of our problems to any force beyond ourselves. While I certainly don't begrudge people their own beliefs, praying to a "Spirit of Life" is not something I will be doing if/when I return to this UU congregation.


Now, let's discuss the most interesting part of this service, the sermon. The preacher used a great gambit to open the sermon: she rattled off a long apology for coming out to her congregation after many years, to declare that she was...not an atheist. I appreciated the suggestion that this was a room full of people who wouldn't presume someone else's religiosity. How many times can you go to a religious service where the preacher disappoints the congregation by saying that she's not an atheist?

(This is the end of part one of my account of attending a UU service on June 30, 2013.)