Archive for the 'Where agnostics come from' Category

My Yom Kippur

For the Jews, Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement. I don’t pretend to know why, or what day Yom Kippur actually is. I’m also not a Jew, so technically, this might be cultural appropriation. But by cracky, today is my Yom Kippur.

I don’t mean to be dramatic, but I had an epiphany this evening that can’t be ignored. I was reading E. J. Dionne’s new book, Souled Out, which is one of the many books I was thinking about in my previous post, “A New Age.”


Souled Out is about “reclaiming faith and politics after the Religious Right,” according to the subtitle.  Dionne’s opinion is that the Religous Right (distinguished from those who are both faithful and political by their representation of religion as “a realm of cultural combat in which only abortion and gay marriage matter”) is done, and that people of faith are tired of being told that they must either hate gays or be unChristian.

“I would insist… that believers eventually get around to asking whether what they believe is true,” Dionne writes. “…few believers are blind automatons who never subject their beliefs to serious inquiry. Mother Teresa was not alone among believers in asking why she was not hearing from God.”

Here is the main point of my atonement. Without knowing it, I have always nursed a secret arrogance about believers. I have always believed (without realizing it) that I was smarter, stronger, more flexible and open than those who believed. Religion of all types has worried me, and I have taken that worry too far.

I don’t take back a single post I’ve ever written on this blog. I have believed and meant everything I’ve ever written, and that’s not what I feel I should atone for. What I feel I should atone for is the dark jewel of judgment that I’ve feared in others but tonight found in my own jewelry box. Why did I believe that most believers were judgmental morons, while knowing some of the most fantastic people in my life were believers? Julie, Tina, Mary, Wendy, Deb, Dawn, Sarah, Mike, Buddy, Michele, Gail, Heather! Why did I assume that all these people were exceptions to the rule, believers who questioned, that I had had the good fortune to meet, while still nursing this unexamined belief that believers never questioned?

I know some of the reasons, of course. Being agnostic means being told repeatedly that you’re not paying the least bit of attention to what’s all around you. Being unchurched means being told that if you’d just come to church… And being gay means being told that you’re bound for hell, hated by God, and have no choice but to change or deny who you truly are if you’re going to be re-embraced by God.

But that’s not the true reason I’ve felt this way. I’d love it if any of it were, and I’m sure that all of it helped me to justify it. But the fact is that I’ve been just as tribal as those I accused of tribalism. I assumed that those like me were intelligent and questioning while those not like me were not, even if they would like to be.

Without going on further, because that would sound like justification: I apologize. I atone. I ask forgiveness. I was wrong, and I hope to stop being wrong.



Argh. I just tried to read a book that I was really interested in. Huston Smith is a genius, as far as I’m concerned, and I loved his The World’s Religions. And so last night I started reading The Soul of Christianity, which is intended to describe “a path between culturally rigid, intolerant evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity and nontranscendent, liberal Christianity.” Sounds fascinating, right? Right.

Well, I ran into a snag right away. Smith begins with a discussion I’ve often heard, how science purported to replace religion and turned out not to be able to do that. I actually agree, but I’m of the opinion that science and religion can work together and that proponents of religion don’t need to be all “na na na na na, science, you suck!” any more than proponents of science need to claim that religion is irrelevant.

But the real snag was something he mentioned in passing. He described proponents of science as “conveniently forgetting that humanity is fallen and in need of redemption from its sinful nature.” It occurs to me that this might be Reason # 11 for why I’m an agnostic. I know the Biblical basis for this belief, and I know the historical basis for it. But I simply can’t share it.

I don’t think that human beings need God because they’re fallen. I think we need God because our job in life is to rise. Whatever you think about evolution, history tells us that we’ve been trying for millenia to be better and failing pretty frequently. But it also tells us that our belief in God has made a huge difference. Or our faith in humanity, or innate sense of justice, or the prophets who have come forward to push us forward by a few centuries in terms of justice and compassion.

But I object to the idea that humanity is fallen. A child needs help, instruction, and time to learn to be a good person. They start out with nothing and they improve and fall back, improve and fall back, and do their best to transcend the amoral state they’re born into. Or they don’t, and cause harm. But how deeply negative to think that humanity needs to apologize for some fallen state! We may need to be saved from ourselves, often from a catastrophic failure to transcend ourselves. But fallen? Can’t go there. However, I also can’t be very articulate about why. So I’ll return to this subject later when I’m less spluttery.

Mitt Romney’s speech

I didn’t see Mitt Romney’s speech about religion last night, so I can’t comment on it intelligently, although I do plan to read the transcript. Here, though, is a very interesting take on the speech from an expert on Middle Eastern affairs. Juan Cole is a very well-informed man; he speaks Arabic and follows the news in the Middle East (with a special emphasis on Iraq due to the war there) both as it’s reported here and as it’s reported in Arabic.

Anyway, his take on Romney’s speech was not very positive. If you don’t feel like clicking through, here’s the money quote:

Kennedy wanted to be accepted as an American by other Americans. Romney wants to be accepted as a conservative Christian by other conservative Christians.

This conundrum is the price the Republican Party is paying for pandering to the religious Right. Can a secular person even win the Republican nomination any more? If you make yourself captive of the Protestant Right, then you will discover that they believe Mormons are heretics. The Republican Party has established its own litmus test, and since it has been a dominant party in recent years, we’ve all been affected by it. Romney’s plight in finding it hard to be accepted by that constituency mirrors the plight of secular and unchurched Americans, on whom the very people Romney is sucking up to want to impose their narrow and sectarian values.

I have to say, as an agnostic, I find the Republican party scarier every year. While it isn’t the party for me anyway – I don’t agree with many of their positions, even if I do agree with others – the progressing religiosity of the Republican party is scary to me. Perhaps this is good context for my earlier post about religion being scary, to which some folks took a bit of exception. I believe quite strongly in the concept of the separation of church and state, for the very good reason that our nation has many different religions represented. Since many religions take it as an article of faith that theirs is correct and others are not, no religion in a pluralistic nationa like ours can be trusted to have power over others. That protects Christians from Muslims, Muslims from Jews, Jews from practically everyone, and Mormons from Buddhists. Or, you know, whatever.

But there seem to be those elements in the Republican party who want America to be, not just a Christian nation, but a Christian-only nation. The idea of a nation with many Christians? I have zero problems with this. I live in one. But a Christian nation? That wouldn’t be a very happy place for someone who is (a) not Christian, or (b) not religious. And in the last few years I’ve heard an awful lot about how people like me are evil, inspired by Satan, and undermining the former righteousness of America. Remember how Jerry Falwell blamed 9/11 on the ACLU, gays, feminists, and various other groups whose opinions don’t fit with his? I’m sure he was only the most public, not the only, religious leader to draw that conclusion.

This kind of thing has lent itself to the somewhat cranky tone of many of my posts of late. Frankly, being agnostic is sometimes kind of a rough gig. I find myself being drawn to the more inspired and all-embracing aspects of religion, and then driven away by the religiously political folks who think they aren’t for people like me and aren’t afraid to say so. And with every campaign cycle, they say it more and more. They talk about how judges who don’t rule on cases the way they want them to should be assassinated. They talk about how women who want control over their own lives and bodies are murderers. They talk about how gay people shouldn’t have rights like everyone else, and some of them even suggest that they should be executed.

I don’t have to be gay or a woman or a party to a lawsuit to find that terrifying. I don’t have to be anyone, in fact. I just have to read history (or the newspaper) to know how religious feelings sometimes become so intense that they override any sense of justice, fairness, or empathy with others. I used the example of the Taliban the other day, and I’m reading a book right now about how anti-Jewish polemic in the Bible, subsequent events in history, and the characteristics of German Lutheranism (and the leadership of a genuine wackjob) led to the horror of the Holocaust (or the Shoah, as some Jews prefer for it to be called).

I don’t have to believe that America is headed for anything like that to be worried at the prospect of what would happen to me or my fellow nonreligious folks if extreme political Christians ever found a way to impose their beliefs on our government.

Since I’ve posted about this before, I suspect that folks will suggest that I should focus on matters spiritual rather than the craziness of the political. Believe me, I try. But I’m guessing that I’m not the only agnostic/unchurched/secular person who feels this same fear. And as discussed in yesterday’s post, fear upsets the balance between reason and faith. I find that I can’t relax into the kindness of a religion when I feel the need to defend myself from many of its followers.

I would almost argue that in this day and age, Christians who want to spread the good news might have to come to grips with this problem first.

Consider what’s happened to Islam. It’s a venerable religion with more than a billion followers. Yet the acts of extremists who have twisted the tenets of the religion to fit their violent agendas have firmly associated Islam with terrorism, at least in some parts of the world and certainly here in America. If Christianity becomes too fully identified with intolerance and repression, what is its chance of spreading the good news?

Reason and faith

I don’t know what most folks think about Al Gore. I’ve always liked him without knowing too many specifics about him; environmentally concerned, a long-serving senator who helped pass the legislation that brought about widespread access to the Internet. (No, he did not try to claim he invented the Internet from scratch. I really get tired of that nonsense.) But I think he might have written one of the most timely books this year.

Sometimes I think of him as America’s Professor, in that he’s focused his efforts on teaching the country about the issues he feels strongly about ever since he lost his bid to actually lead the country. His latest book, The Assault on Reason, has got to be one of the most reasonable and intelligent books I’ve read this year. And whatever you may think of his voice or his preoccupation with wonky things, his thoughts on the compatibility of reason and faith are really important right now.

Yep, the compatibility of reason and faith. That’s a lovely phrase. I don’t think that religion is irrational or that intelligence is secular. What I get upset about are people who insist on a choice between the two. And unfortunately, there are plenty of those. Al Gore ain’t one of them.

What I like about his book is that he believes the real villian is neither religion nor reason, because both are necessary. He describes how the Enlightenment, which transformed a feudal and violent world into a literate and more rational world (if not necessarily less violent!), led to a belief that people could govern themselves rationally instead of allowing kings who were supposedly divine to lead with whatever brutality they desired. But he also acknowledges that reason wasn’t the only answer.

The Age of Reason also had a dark side, of couse. Claims to reason have justified appalling atrocities, including the so-called scientific racism that justified Nazi anti-Semitism and so much else. Moreover, the abstract nature of reason made some of its most zealous practitioners dangerously numb to human realities rooted in emotional attachments and shared feelings of responsibility for community, family, and nature. [emphasis mine]

Gore says that it’s fear, not reason or faith, that upsets the balance between spiritual and secular considerations. And he’s got a point. I can’t think of a better example than the Taliban.

As many people know, this theocracy emerged in the chaos of Afghanistan, after years of a proxy war between colonialist Russians and American-funded mujahideen had destroyed any semblance of government, order or law in that country. After so much death and destruction and terror, these men – many of whom grew up in refugee camps along the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan – thought that the solution was Islam. Initially, they brought order to the country, at least to some extent. But in the extremity of the terror around them, they made Islam into a terrible thing too, using violence and occasionally murder to impose the purest Islam they knew onto everyone in the country. Their fear of anything that might corrupt the purity of their Islam led them to conduct public executions and even to assault other religions. Remember how they blew up those 6th-century statues of Buddha in the Bamyan valley of Afghanistan?

If Gore is right, and I suspect he is, the answer to the conflict between religious values and science is not for one of them to win. It’s for everybody to just settle down and think instead of being so afraid. The terrorists are not just about to blow us all up and we’re not all just about to slide downward into the pits of hell, nor do we need to invade any more countries or let anybody open our mail to keep us safe from, well, anything.

End rant.

My epiphany

I’ve been thinking about this business of a faith community and whether it’s lonely to live without one. Someone suggested in a long-ago comment that it was, and that by being agnostic and remaining aloof from any faith community, I’m to some degree electing a lonely existence.

I’ve realized that that’s not really true. And I’ve also realized why. I think because our society has become so mobile, the places where folks find company for the journey have changed. I think it’s different for everyone, of course, and while my circle of comfort and support is based on different stuff than others, by this I don’t mean that anyone else is wrong to find comfort or community at a church.

My point is, it used to be that you found your circle in places – neighbors, church, nearby points of gathering. While that hasn’t totally changed, people move around so much and change jobs so much that they tend to find their peeps in similarity rather than in place. Not that I’m saying people used to settle for who was nearby, but the consistency came from those who lived and worked and attended church nearby.

But I find my friends in commonality, away from where I live. I meet them at jobs and at social gatherings for people who share the same needs that I have.

Plus, living here in a state where a lot of people have lived here since childhood and have had the same friends since then, it’s much easier to form bonds with other transplants, people who have moved from other states like I did. And as we’re apart from our families and don’t necessarily live near each other, our bonds are in commonality and not in place. I draw my strength to face life from friends, whose distance (or sometimes estrangement, unfortunately) from family leads them to be more loyal to friends than to family. They’re as loyal to me as I am to them. We help each other for six months in a row when one of us has to sell a house that she wasn’t planning to sell, and do each other’s errands when one of us has a baby six days early.

I doubt I’m unique in this. I guess what I mean is that since I only seem to encounter God when it’s quiet and nobody’s around, this is what works as a faith community for me. There’s faith in ordinary life, too, and that’s where it is for me.


You know, for a country whose bedrock principles include freedom of religion, we only do so okay. I doubt many Buddhists or Jews or Muslims are prevented from actually practicing their faith – and I may be wrong about that – but it’s for sure that they can only be so visible once they reach a certain plane. Consider Keith Ellison, the first Muslim member of the House of Representatives, of whom Glenn Beck of CNN immediately said that he needed to be reassured that Ellison wasn’t a terrorist. (Ellison is my representative, and I can assure you he’s a lovely man whose concern for his neighborhood in North Minneapolis is apparent and whose politics are about peace.) Another rep said that Ellison should be required to take his oath of service on the Bible and made a big stink when Ellison preferred to take the oath on his copy of the Koran.

Today, in the House of Representatives, a Buddhist cleric was able to deliver the opening prayer, but several protesters had to be removed from the chamber before he could do so. They were shouting prayers and disrupting the Buddhist cleric’s words, referring to his presence as “an abomination in [the Lord’s] sight.” Nice.

This is exactly the kind of thing that leads me to doubt and distrust. Certainty in religion often seems to lead to intolerance, arrogance and finally oppression of others. Uncertainty seems to lead to more spirituality and connection with God. But where is the church where people say, “I’m not sure. Let’s figure it out together!” ?

Hazing the Hellbound

Third or fourth (maybe fifth? who knows?) rule of blogging: Every post creates more posts. Yippee!

 When last we spoke, I was sounding off about Lee Strobel’s take on Us Hellbound. (I’m being a little snarky with that phrase, but I also assume that I fall within his category.) Since then, some valuable comments have come in, which stimulated more thought and (hopefully, with this post) more precision.

Several of you agreed with me, which is always enjoyable for my sense of righteousness. (I can run off to my agnostic friends and say, “See?”) I especially liked the idea of the Gospel as practical, as expressed by Chuck, because that seems to approach the idea of the Axial Age that I’ve been reading about.

However, sprocket23 (good handle!) made an excellent point, that to evangelize to Us Hellbound is an act of love. Absolutely, I agree with this and I’ve seen this. I even had this in mind when I wrote the post, because I’ve had several friends tell me that they just don’t want to get to heaven and see that I’m not there. I believe that nothing but love motivates that kind of thing. So even if I didn’t say this in my earlier post, I do not question the motivation behind spreading the Gospel.

But my original point was that I object to the practice of seeing non-Christians as hellbound. Is it true, as Chuck points out, that Jesus never mentioned anyone being “hellbound”? If so, that wouldn’t surprise me. Although I respect the devotion of Christians to their idea of Christianity, I sometimes feel there’s a gap between what Jesus said and what Christianity (or later Christians) said.

Regardless of the scriptural basis of whether or not someone is truly hellbound, though, the real wrong is the idea of any human being presuming to determine that. I stand by my original thought that it is absolute arrogance to think that you know whether someone is hellbound or not. Catholics think Protestants are hellbound; some other sects think Catholics are hellbound; a whole lot of people think Jews are hellbound, and it’s all based on a scriptural interpretation and an opinion about the worth of that sect’s beliefs. Unless a whole lot of us are hellbound (and how again do we know until we go?), the sorting system isn’t really clear to any of us.

And arrogance just isn’t cute. Arrogance doesn’t make me think, “Hey, I think I should open up to this person.” On the contrary, it makes me irritable. Maybe I’m just contrary, but arrogance makes me more suspicious, not less, that the person in question doesn’t know what they’re talking about. I suspect, in fact, that this is at the heart of why a lot of evangelism doesn’t work. We’ve discussed this before, but I think it bears repeating because I think it’s a message that some evangelizing Christians won’t want to hear, even though listening might make them more successful with exactly what they’d like to accomplish.

If you see someone as hellbound, you have judged them. Period. And even where love abides, judgment makes for a big stone around its neck, dragging it away from its true purpose and real transcendence. Only God can judge, and the rest of us mostly have to theorize.

If you’re certain based on Scripture that someone is hellbound, you can have the comfort of your judgement, I guess. But you’ve also saddled yourself with a burden for your evangelism. Even if you don’t want it to, your attitude that someone is hellbound will communicate itself in the way you speak, the arguments you come up with, and other subtle factors that will tell your listener that you aren’t just saying, “Hey, this really was the right path for me and here’s why.”

When people can hear you saying, “You’re going to hell unless you do what I do,” the resistance springs up. You can dislike that fact all you want, and you can give reasons why it shouldn’t be that way. But if you can’t accept it as true (the way you want others to accept the Gospel as true), you’ll always be working with an anchor around your neck.