Category Archives: Religion

A sensitive subject for many. May also get political.

Proselytizing vs. Consent

Sorry for the late post.  Technical difficulties conspired to compound my procrastination today, and I burned up most of my buffer during a shallow Funk.  Better late than never, though.  Hope your ready for a relatively heavy topic…

I was having a conversation online recently about religion (not the brightest idea, I know), when the subject of proselytizing came up. Specifically, why so many evangelical Christians (the denomination in question during this conversation) seem to persist even when politely (or not-so-politely) told “no thank you.”

This video by Penn Jillette was brought up as an example of why. In it, Jillette talks about how he has to respect Christians that persist in their proselytizing, since according to their worldview, they would be condemning a nonbeliever to a fate worse than death if they didn’t do their utmost to “save” them. After all, if they truly believe that non-Christians are going to Hell, it would be criminally negligent of them to not try and do something about it.

I can see where Jillette is coming from: that sort of sincerity, no matter how misguided, has to garner at least some level of respect. However, the more I thought about this issue, the less comfortable I became with that answer. Doubly so when I thought about unwanted, persistent proselytizing in terms of consent.

I realized that, by encouraging people to proselytize even when asked not to, we are also encouraging them to not take “no” for an answer. We are implying that the proselytizer knows better how to run another individual’s life than that individual. We are telling people that their opinions don’t matter, that they are wrong. That all they need to do is give up control and everything will be better.

Do you see where that starts to sound scary?

After all, religious instruction often starts at a very, very young age. As such, the core tenets of a given religion can form huge cornerstones of a person’s personality. If they’re taught to not take “no” for an answer when proselytizing, then how much of a stretch is it to think that they won’t take “no” for an answer in other aspects of their lives? Like jobs? Or politics? Or relationships?

Now, I’m not saying that following a religion that enshrines proselytizing automatically turns someone into a rapist (although if I wanted to be uncouth, I could mention that the Catholic clergy has a lot to answer for these days). That would be an unfair over-generalization. But it’s pretty clear that we have consent issues in our modern society, and I can’t help but wonder if this religious prerogative isn’t in some way contributing to that.

Man, This Soapbox Is Getting A Lot Of Use

I was having another discussion recently about the Science vs. Creationism debate. I was trying to sketch out the broad positions, describe my stance, when I was asked a simple question:


Why does it matter if some people “believe” in evolution, while others believe that the earth was created 6,000 years ago? What effect does it have on our day to day life? Why can’t we all just get along?

Why, you ask?

Because 46% of Americans believe that God created humans in their present form thousands of years ago.

Because these people are degrading our public schools by insisting their junk theories be taught as fact.

Because teaching religion in public schools is unconstitutional and illegal.

Because teaching creationism discourages critical thinking and promotes an unscientific worldview.

Because these people are making our laws and shaping our future, either through direct legislation or through voting.

Because these selfsame anti-science people are the ones denying anthropogenic climate change.

Because religious politicians and corporations are seeking to deny basic human rights to half of the nation’s population.

Because these people are lying to women about their healthcare options.

Because these people are wrong.

THAT is why this discussion matters. Because for far too long we have been silent, thereby letting these evil philosophies worm their way into national discourse. And it is killing us. True, we may not convince the people on the other side of the “debate,” and that makes me sad. But others may see or hear these conversations, people who are more open to changing their minds. I have to hope eventually they will. Otherwise, we may have to wait for the conservative sticks-in-the-mud to die of old age, hoping they don’t screw things up too much on their way out.

Because these are important issues.

Because we have good reason to be angry.

Because all that is required for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.

Science Is Right, You Are Wrong

I pride myself on being fairly level-headed and rational. I really do. But every once in a while I’ll come across something that is just so very wrong that I can’t help myself. Whenever that happens, another iota of my innocence and faith in humanity shrivels up and dies.

Recently, I was involved in a discussion online about science and religion. Someone was trying to make the point that science requires just as much faith as religion. This is wrong, as the findings of science are true regardless of whether or not one believes in them. In fact, faith, by definition, requires the lack of proof.

But that’s a post in and of itself. What struck me the most about this conversation was the sheer ignorance on display in regards to basic scientific concepts. For instance: scientific theory. For most lay people, a theory is an idea of how things work that may or may not be true. But for a scientist, nothing could be farther from the truth. A scientific theory is “a comprehensive explanation of some aspect of nature that is supported by a vast body of evidence” (according to the National Academy of Sciences). After all, gravity is “only a theory.” Evolution is “only a theory.” But you don’t see people worrying about falling up into the sky when the go outside, do you?

Which brings me to another point: this person had such a poor understanding of science and evolution, I wasn’t sure where to even start. Most of these comments came in response to this article, and I’d like to take a bit of space to attempt to respond to them here. Plus, since this is my blog after all, I feel less of an urge to be properly diplomatic. Passionate arguments ahead!

1. The Universal Genetic Code: Could this not also be evidence of a single designer? I mean, the spark plugs from one type of car often work in an entirely different type of car. This doesn’t mean they both evolved from a skateboard.

This shows a staggering ignorance of how evolution actually works. Modern organisms did not evolve from other modern organisms; they both diverged from a common ancestor many years ago.

2. The Fossil Record: The fossil record proves nothing. Fossils prove nothing. When we find a fossilized skeleton, all we know is that something died there. We cannot conclusively prove that the organism had any offspring or that the offspring eventually turned into an entirely different form of organism. Furthermore, the fossil record and the geologic column are an exercise in circular reasoning: they use the fossils to date the rocks and the rocks to date the fossils. Given that kind of criteria, how can we know that what we’re looking at when we look at the fossil record is in any way chronological?

This is the one that had me figuratively frothing at the mouth. Clearly this person could not be reasoned with or engaged in anything resembling rational debate. But let’s attempt some refutation anyway. Here we see an example of the “you weren’t there, so you can’t know” fallacy. That’s the beauty of science: it lets us make models of less observable phenomena through more observable ones. There are also many ways of estimating the dates of the fossil record that don’t rely on relative observations. Also, individuals don’t evolve; populations do.

Oh, and you know what makes a better example in circular reasoning? The Bible: “The Bible is true because it says it is true.”

3. Genetic Commonalities: Francis Collins, the head of the human genome project wrote, “This evidence alone does not, of course, prove a common ancestor.” So…

The fact that we have eyes, mice have eyes, frogs have eyes, dinosaurs had eyes, and whales have eyes in no way proves that we all came from inanimate slime on a rock somewhere. Again, similarities in function might just as easily suggest a common designer as opposed to a common ancestor.

The beliefs of one individual do not necessarily reflect the overarching scientific consensus. In fact, there was quite a bit of concern in the scientific community regarding Collins’ tenure as Director of the National Institutes of Health. So… what?

Genetic commonalities go much further than lots of organisms having eyes. It is a provable scientific fact that we share large percentages of our genome with other species. This is NOT about similarities in function, this is about identical portions of DNA that are present across related organisms.

Besides, you weren’t there, so how can you KNOW dinosaurs had eyes?!? </sarcasm>

4. Common Traits in Embryos: Haeckl confessed and was found guilty of fraud more than 100 years ago now and still the “biogenetic law” persists. Ontogeny does not repeat phylogeny.

So this may not be the best example, I will admit, as it can be easily refuted. But as quoted from Wikipedia, “embryos do undergo a period where their morphology is strongly shaped by their phylogenetic position, rather than selective pressures.” The next statements are more interesting, anyway.

5. Bacterial Resistance to Antibiotics: Variation within a bacterial kind in no way proves that the bacteria is forming into some kind of new organism. Mutation and natural selection only lead to losses of genetic information and changes in subsequent generations of organisms because of genetic information already present is demonstrably not macro-evolution. For evolution to occur, new information must be introduced and this has never been observed.

First of all, kind? What the heck is a “kind?” If it’s being used in the biblical sense, then hoo boy are you under-informed. First of all, mutation and natural selection do not “always lead to losses of genetic information.” There are many ways mutation can occur, from transcription errors resulting in the modification or duplication of a gene, to random fluctuation caused by exposure to radiation. Secondly, the only difference between “macro-evolution” and what I’m guessing you’d call “micro-evolution” is the time scale. Macroevolution is merely microevolution on a geologically compounded scale.

Also, your assertion that the introduction of new information has never been observed is false. I would point you in the direction of this experiment, where an isolated population of E. coli bacteria evolved the ability to digest citric acid.

Despite all the times you said, “We don’t know” you still arrive at the conclusion that evolution “is a fact”. This, if I may be so bold, constitutes faith. You are believing in the reliability of something you yourself admit you cannot empirically know. Hence, why religious people who may not subscribe to the so-called absolute authority of science are quick to point out that the naturalists among us are just as faith-based as the rest of us (to answer ____’s point earlier.) This is not a bad thing, but it levels the playing field a bit in regards to all the claims we throw at each other.

Faith: strong or unshakeable belief in something, esp. without proof or evidence; belief that is not based on proof (; firm belief in something for which there is no proof (Merriam-Webster).

By its definition faith precludes proof. When we say “we don’t know,” we mean that it is impossible to know anything with 100% certainty. That being said, however, we can know something in such detail that we reduce the uncertainty to a functionally negligible amount. That’s the thing about science: it lets us make objective predictions based on things we can observe to help explain the unknown or unobservable. Those of us who have “subscribe[d] to the so-called absolute authority of science” have generally done so after observing the evidence available to us, thinking critically about it, and trying to fit it into existing paradigms. If it fits, great! If not, then the paradigm needs to change. Faith, on the other hand, is required due to the lack of evidence and is preserved through ignorance.

And, to add one more observation: even if the modes of abiogenesis were reproduced in a lab, it still doesn’t prove that abiogenesis is how life came to be (a 1 in more than 10-to-the-80,000th-power of a chance, I’m given to understand). If we were to somehow reproduce evolution in a lab and demonstrate how the event might have occurred in the past, this experiment would in no way prove if, in fact, the event did actually occur in history. Proving that it could happen does not prove that it did. And furthermore, aren’t we also simply proving that if evolution were to occur, it would require an intelligent agent to drive it? When it comes to the science of origins, then, I maintain that all the science in the world will never be sufficient to definitively tell us exactly what took place. It is simply beyond the bounds of science’s abilities to demonstrate. The entire realm of origins is one positioned squarely in the arena of faith: and, contrary to what some of us here seem to believe, faith is not by definition blind or uniformed.

So what you’re saying is you won’t accept proof that doesn’t fit your already-held beliefs if/when it becomes available. This is more of the “You weren’t there, thus can’t know” tripe. Clearly no body of knowledge can shake your faith. At least science is capable of admitting when it’s wrong.

You mention the astronomical chances of abiogenesis; do you realize how likely that still makes it? The scale of the universe, both temporal and spatial, is beyond anything humans are used to fathoming. I’d be curious to see where your 1-in-1080,000 figure came from, by the way. It seems like you’re throwing big numbers out in an attempt to overwhelm.

* * *

So there you have it: my response that I deemed too catty and impolitic to post anywhere but my personal blog. It also marks the introduction of an image that, much like the Drama Llama, may make additional appearances (for better or worse):

The Stupid, It Burns by Plognark

by Plognark

Also, watch Cosmos.

*steps off soapbox*

Losing My Religion

By the end of high school, I was very much in the “spiritual but not religious” camp. Conveniently, it was also a great way to get people to stop asking you about religion, and to avoid thinking too deeply about things. Religion had been a background part of my life for so long, I probably didn’t know what I’d do without it. But looking back at it now, the choice to be “spiritual but not religious” was probably my first step down the road away from belief.

Like I said, it allowed me to avoid thinking critically about my beliefs, and at the time this was a good thing. I had graduated high school a year early, and was well on my way to going to college. I planned to double major, and would have little time to spend pondering the vagaries of existence.

Unsurprisingly, religion and spirituality became less of a daily concern. I was more concerned first with keeping my head above academic water, and then avoiding completely burning out after a grueling freshman year. I began to say and think things like “I’ve got too much going on in my normal life to worry about the next one.” I even stopped referring to myself as “spiritual but not religious.”

I woke up one day and realized how little my previous beliefs had to do with my life. But more surprisingly, I realized how little difference that made to me. I still got up in the morning. I still went to class and work. I still enjoyed my hobbies and the company of my friends. My life still felt full.

For a while, that was enough for me. I became wholly unconcerned with the question of whether or not there was anything “out there,” metaphysically speaking. I guess you could call me “un-gnostic:” I didn’t need to know.

But as it turns out, I was merely ignoring the issue. I had yet to really ask myself any tough questions. As a result, I still held on to a lot of internalized beliefs that I hadn’t critically investigated. The big one was whether or not life (…the universe, and everything) had any overarching purpose that it/we/I was meant to fulfill.

This became my greatest source of angst for quite a while. Unlike other people around me, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, let alone what I was supposed to do. So I worried. And then my old friend Catholic Guilt reared its head to make things even better. So I wandered. I finished college. I fell into a job. I tried grad school. I quit the job, finished grad school. I got depressed.

Until one day I was driving my car and had an epiphany: what if there wasn’t any purpose to things? What if there wasn’t any deeper meaning to life? What if what we saw in front of us was all there was, the only meaning that which we give to things?

I don’t know if I can communicate how freeing that realization was. It was like the sun came out after a long, dark winter. I actually smiled, laughing slightly to myself as I drove down the road. “Everything is meaningless!” I told myself. And I knew that it was true. Rather than sucking the wonder and vitality out of everything, it seemed to enhance them.

So there’s my story, how my faith ended with mostly a whimper. It trickled out gradually, and I found that I didn’t miss it. I still have some baggage from my religious and spiritual past, of course. I don’t always remember that life is meaningless, but when I do, it frees me from a bit of the guilt I carry around with me. And talking with people who may not know about my journey and current worldview can get awkward. Especially given my tendency to not want to rock the boat/cause a scene.

Hopefully you enjoyed this look into my mind. Hopefully you came away educated rather than offended. But just in case, I will add a final disclaimer: this is what works for me. What works for you and makes you happy may be different, and I respect that. I’m willing to have a good conversation about things, even a debate. But if you want me to respect your beliefs, all I ask is that you respect mine.

That’s Me In The Spotlight

I mentioned in my last post that my parents had some difficulty finding a new church after we moved to Colorado. They tried several, but failed to find any that truly struck a chord within them. So they broadened their search, outside the bounds of Catholicism, and even traditional Christianity.

I guess you could say this was the start of our experience with New Age woo.

Past life regression. Angel therapy. Auras. Chakras. The Law of Attraction. The “power of positive thinking.” Things like that.

They found a church that practiced something called Religious Science. Even though it was clear on the other side of town, we started attending every Sunday. Major tenets included the connectedness of all things, that we were all expressions of a “Christ Consciousness” that permeated and touched everything in the entire universe. It seemed to pull teachings and philosophies from both Western and Eastern sources, recognizing a number of great teachers throughout the ages. Positive thinking was paramount, and one simply had to put the intention “out to the Universe” to achieve a desired result. In addition, one always got back what one put out.

I remember a bit more about this time period, not just because I was older, but because the contrast to what came before was quite visible. The philosophies and teachings of my parent’s new church became a larger part of our day-to-day life. Looking back, it still felt fairly Christian at its core, just with some more elaborate window dressings. They even said a version of the Lord’s Prayer during services.

My personal experience in this church was a little different. When we started going, I was still fairly young to sit through the Sunday services, so I instead got to go to what was effectively Sunday school. I don’t remember much about what was taught, but at least I didn’t come home with nightmares.

As I got older, I was given the opportunity to sit with my parents during the service. However, I had a hard time sitting still and paying attention for that long. Whether I can blame that completely on my ADD is open for debate. It’s also possible that I just didn’t find the sermons that interesting. I will say this about my parent’s church, though: the music was pretty phenomenal.

So as my parents had searched, so too did I start searching. I took the more mystical aspects of my parent’s church and went one step further. That’s right, it’s time for the High School Pagan Phase!

I jumped in pretty strongly, too. I meditated regularly in front of my altar. I even attempted some rituals of my own, using props scrounged from what I had lying around. My altar was a white particleboard nightstand, my ritual dagger an ornate letter opener. My candles were glass votives from the grocery store. I started reading a lot, mostly about Celtic Shamanism and other new/old religious like Wicca.

I approached my research and practice dogmatically, trying out what I found in various books. But too often it felt like I was just going through the motions, doing things because I was told that was “the way it was done.” The rituals began to feel empty, and I found myself meditating less and less. I eventually came to the realization that maybe organized religion of any sort wasn’t for me.

I started to think of myself as “spiritual but not religious.”

That’s Me In The Corner

I will admit: I’m a little nervous about writing this next series of posts. I’m going to be talking about very personal things. Things I haven’t really discussed much with friends or even family. Things that many people get very passionate about. True, some of my recent philosophy rants may have alluded to the subject, but this will be the first time I’ve talked about it this plainly, maybe even to myself.

I’d like to talk about how I lost my faith.

I hope you’re still with me. For those of you that are, thank you. I’d like to take you on a journey through my personal history with religion. I’m not trying to offend anyone, and would welcome thoughtful, considerate discussion on the matter. This is a big topic, and one I may be revisiting if better words come to me in the future. With that said, let’s jump in!

Like many people born in or near the American Midwest, my early life was spent growing up Christian. Catholic, in fact. Even though my family wasn’t overly religious, it was still a big part of the background culture. We went to church on Sundays. We got dressed up for Easter. I even received my First Communion. At the time I wasn’t really aware of religion as a “thing;” it was just part of the culture, as ubiquitous and unremarkable as water to a fish. In other words, it was most definitely taken for granted as a given.

But not all my experiences with religion at that time were benign and forgettable. My experience with Catholic school, for instance. While my family lived in Cincinnati, I attended Catholic school (creatively named St. Mary’s, of course) for first and (most of) second grade.* I don’t remember much about this time, other than having to go to Mass as part of school. Even then, it wasn’t very fun. I also remember getting into an argument with my teacher about the number of syllables in the word “tire” (I was convinced there were two, for the record). Other than that, I can’t really comment much on the quality of my education.

That being said, there are a few things that stick with me from this time period. One of them is good old Catholic Guilt. That’s something I internalized all too well, and it’s still affecting me to this day. Sometimes it gets to the point where I can’t even enjoy a day off without feeling like I should be doing something productive, or if I don’t give an activity 110% effort I’m somehow letting someone down. Let me tell you, it’s been great for my self-esteem.

The other thing that sticks out for me is an experience I had once my family moved to Denver. We didn’t know many people out here when my dad got transferred, ans had to start looking for a new church from scratch. One of the ones we tried was a little more… vigorous than what I had been exposed to back in Cincinnati. I don’t remember the specifics of what I was told; all I remember are the nightmares. I had always had an overactive imagination, and it swung into vigorous action filling my head with visions of hellfire and burning pits whenever I closed my eyes to sleep. These visions, on top of my already internalized guilt, were devastating for me. I was convinced that I had done something wrong, and would be damned to suffer for all eternity. I was literally so worried I couldn’t sleep.

Needless to say, my family didn’t stick with that church for very long.

*It turns out telling the parents of a bored second grader that “he would be much happier if you didn’t let him do science experiments at the kitchen table and made him play Candy Land instead” doesn’t endear one to said parents.

I Want To Break Free

The dark voices inside my head were clamoring especially loudly this morning. You may know these voices. They’re the ones that say things like:

Maybe you are just lazy.”

You wouldn’t be in this situation if you just tried harder.”

If you’re miserable, you must have done something wrong.”

You screwed up, and there’s no way to fix it.”

You suck.”

In other words, all sorts of friendly, constructive things designed to encourage self-love and healthy worldviews.

I’ve made efforts to quiet these voices, but every once in a while they crop back up. Even when they’re not screaming at me, they’re all too often murmuring in the background, a never-ending susurration of bile and self-pity. But where do these voices come from? It’s different in everyone’s case, but I would think there are some common threads, ones that most likely involve unhealthy internalized philosophies.

I was not raised in a traditionally religious household. My family was originally Catholic, and I got as far as my First Communion before they moved on. After that, it wasn’t uncommon for us to refer to ourselves as “spiritual but not religious.” a moniker I used myself for some time. The kind of New Age spirituality that proposed positive thinking as a panacea and focused on the “energetic” nature of things.

In case you couldn’t tell, I don’t exactly subscribe to these ideas any more. But somehow I still find my life shaped by them, in ways that often blindside me. I must have been exposed to them at just the right age that they settled deep within my subconscious, and have since resisted determined (and not-so-determined) efforts to remove them.

Let me give you an example: I must have been in third or fourth grade, and my family was still going to Catholic church. Something must have been said to me at Sunday school that day (I don’t remember what), but it literally put the fear of Hell into me. I couldn’t sleep that night; every time I closed my eyes I was faced with lakes of fire and brimstone where I was convinced I would spend the rest of eternity for the most minor of transgressions.

Once my family changed faiths (which is really what it amounted to, in the end), that guilt stayed with me. But this time, it wasn’t because of something I had done, it was because of something I hadn’t done. “In a bad situation? Well, just think positive! Put your intentions out to the universe! Didn’t work? Well, you must have just not been trying hard enough! Everything happens for a reason!”

Telling a teenager/young adult who might be starting to struggle with undiagnosed depression to just “think more positiver” isn’t exactly the most helpful advice.

But somehow I still managed to internalize some of these ideas. One sometimes jokingly refers to “drinking the Kool-Aid” in reference to taking odd, outside-the-norm ideas to heart; it’s not so much that I drank the Kool-Aid, it’s more that I was exposed to it in an aerosolized form, absorbing it more through osmosis than anything else.

And I think that’s where some of my dark voices come from: the internalized, however unwillingly, teachings of my youth. And because we’re exposed to them so young, it can be hard to excise them later in life. They get laid into the foundation of our personality, literally shaping how we view the world. They are, in effect, already inside our defensive perimeter.

How can I get rid of them? I don’t know. In all likelihood, they’re a big enough part of my personality that I may never be rid of them. At this point, the most I can do is to try and quiet the voices of doubt and guilt, keeping them at bay.

But in the dead of the night, when you’re alone with nothing but the darkness inside and the darkness without, it’s hard.