Blog

Ritual Doesn’t Do It For Me

Yesterday the Earth crossed the celestial equator. Since 21 December, the position of the sun on the eastern and western horizons has been shifting steadily northward, bringing more direct light to the northern hemisphere, and more oblique light to the southern hemisphere. These two days when the sun crosses the celestial equator are the equinoxes, equal nights, so named because the length of the day and the night are roughly equal. The equinoxes and solstices are days of significance which have been known to humanity for thousands of years. Our earliest religious rituals occurred on these days, calculated through generations of observation, and marked by stone circles in the landscape. The vernal equinox in particular was a day of celebration and renewal as life reemerged from its winter slumber. Wiccans and other contemporary pagans continue to celebrate this day, and the others, in the Wheel of the Year.

I spent the mid to late 1990s studying Wicca and contemporary paganism. I built myself a small altar and decorated it with stuff I liked. My athame was a dagger with a mermaid handle. The mermaid held a pearl between her hands. My cauldron was a ceramic bowl with hand painted mermaids inside. (In case you’re wondering, I’ve had a thing for mermaids since 1982.) I had the consecrating sea salt, the candles for the casting of the circle, and even a small crystal ball. I had the kit, now I was all set to become a practicing witch. So I practiced, and I practiced, and I practiced, but I still wasn’t getting the hang of it. Was I supposed to feel something? Was I supposed to enter into some kind of altered state of consciousness? Was I supposed to become ecstatic? Rituals felt artificial to me. So-called sacred space was just me sitting in my room. There was no god or goddess present because I knew a long time ago that gods and goddesses weren’t real. They were just characters in stories invented by our ancestors to explain natural phenomena or the origins of culture.

A friend of my mom’s attends the local Unitarian Church, and so I checked out their website to discover that it offered Wheel of the Year services. Having been a pagan for a decade, and a lapsed pagan for another decade, I decided to try attending yesterday’s Ostara celebration in an effort to connect with other human beings and maybe alleviate symptoms from nearly five years of severe social isolation. I accepted my awkwardness, acknowledged it, and still managed to meet people and engage in conversation. I figured my familiarity of the religion would ease my inevitable discomfort from putting myself into a religious social milieu. There was indeed familiarity. There was sage smudging, circle casting, calling of quarters, invoking of deities, meditation, singing, and dancing, all of it familiar, and all of it feeling just as hollow to me as it did when I was practicing it on my own fifteen years ago.

Truth be told, I don’t want to be religious. Religious ritual offers me nothing. Yesterday, in an attempt to create new social connections in my community, I found myself sitting indoors to pretend to practice a nature religion. The tiny sound of a ticking clock resonating off the wall behind me filled the room and reminded me of the artifice of the ritual. The experience reminded me a great deal of the underwhelming Christian services I’d attended. Sit down. Stand up. Sit down again. Sing a hymn no one knows the words to. Meditate, or pray, or whatever. I felt the same hollowness to the ritual that I’d felt years before in my solitary rituals. Afterward, when I walked out of the building to head over to my bicycle, I was greeted with a stunning view of the Orion constellation in a crystal-clear night sky. The planet Jupiter hovered over Orion’s shoulder. The spectacle stopped me in my tracks, and for that moment I found myself having an actual spiritual experience.

I’ve written before about the idea of secularizing religion, taking the rituals of religion and making them accessible to nonbelievers. It sounds like an interesting idea in theory, but I realize now that rituals, whether they’re secular or religious in nature, probably only work for people who gain something by participating in them. It might be friendship, a sense of community, or even a simple dopamine rush. I understand the mechanics of ritual, the symbolism of the accoutrements, the meaning behind the invocations, but none of that has ever connected with me at an emotional level. I’ve never been one for pomp and circumstance.

I used to be an avid practitioner of yoga, though I kind of gave it up after a particularly awkward breakup with a yoga instructor. When I did practice, I was particularly fond of vinyasa, the flow of the body from one pose into another. I’ve also been an avid cyclist all of my life, and have gone on numerous long-distance rides as well as short commutes in town. I have found that I’m the most at peace when my body is in motion. Not just any motion, mind you, but focused motion with intent. The physical movements of yoga bring strength and flexibility to my body. The riding of a bicycle transports my body across the landscape and allows me to see firsthand the world in which I live.

I’ve finally settled once and for all that ritual leaves me feeling unfulfilled. If I seek a spiritual experience, then I will do what I know works for me. I will stick to drawing, bicycling, stargazing, and maybe I’ll get back into yoga. And while I don’t plan on attending any more Wheel of the Year services, I will no doubt continue, as humanity’s ancestors have done for generations, to observe the solstices and equinoxes, even if it simply means taking a personal day to go outside and ride my bike.

History Religion

What Language Did Moses Write?

The Bible is a fascinating compendium of texts documenting hundreds of years of history and politics within its pages. However, the accuracy of this history should be taken with a very large pillar of salt. Despite its anachronisms, its contradictions, and its debatable veracity, it is nonetheless an accessible starting point for anyone interested in studying the history and culture of the ancient near east. The books of the Bible reflect a long literary tradition dating back to the very dawn of human civilization along the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. This collected work is an analysis and interpretation of the growth and metamorphosis of a tiny nation in a narrow band of land found smack in the middle of numerous empires far more powerful. It reflects glimmers of humanity’s transition from nomadic life to urban life. It addresses the fears and concerns of a people as they adapted their theology around the ever changing politics and social dynamics of the nations surrounding them. For over a thousand years, the Bible was a living document. Today it is fixed, never again to be edited or redacted, only interpreted. But how does one interpret these texts outside of the historical context in which they were written? This blog series will be looking at the origins of the Bible in its historical ancient near eastern context.

The Torah, the written Law of the Jews, is the collected five books of Moses. Also called the Pentateuch (from the Greek meaning, literally, five books), these books are traditionally accepted in both Judaism and Christianity to be authored by Moses himself. In the Thirteen Principles of Jewish Faith penned by Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (also called Rambam or Maimonides), principle eight states that Moses is the literal transcriber of every word of the Torah. Principle nine states that the Torah is complete and perfect as it is, with nothing needing to be added nor taken away. Within the Torah there are a handful of passages which specifically mention Moses writing down the law. Exodus 24:4 states that “Moses wrote down all the words of the LORD.” Exodus 34:28 describes that Moses “wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the ten words” while fasting from both food and water for forty days and nights. Moses also wrote down the history of his people as they wandered in the desert. Numbers 33:2 says that he wrote down military formations as the Israelites left Egypt. There are additional verses of Moses writing things down, both law and history, and these verses suggest that the Israelites were a literate people during the Exodus and (presumably) while in Egypt. If that’s the case, then what language did Moses use to transcribe the law?

Logically, the answer to that question would be Hebrew. But there’s a problem with that answer. If the Law was written at this time, it would have to have been written in Egyptian hieroglyphs. Biblical chronology dates the Exodus to sometime during the 18th Dynasty of New Kingdom Egypt. This is the era of renowned Pharaohs such as Hatshepsut, Amenhotep III, infamous Akhenaten, and Tutankhamen the boy king. The Egyptians offer ancient near eastern scholars very well preserved historical records for that era, and there is not a single shred of evidence to support the presence of the Israelites in Egypt during that time. The earliest Egyptian mention of a tribe called Israel doesn’t appear until the late 13th century BC on the Merneptah Stele, and they are not found in Egypt, but in Canaan. Inscribed near the bottom in Egyptian hieroglyphics is a passage “Israel is laid waste, its seed is not”. Israel exists, though it does not appear to be the vast tribe of Egyptian slaves depicted in the books of Moses. Instead, they were a small tribe of nomads in the hill country of Canaan.

The Hebrew language itself would not emerge until around the 11th-10th century BC, three centuries after the Biblical date of the Exodus. Hebrew is in the Semitic language family, which includes modern Arabic and Aramaic as well as ancient Amorite, Canaanite, and Ugaritic. Its script is derived from the 11th century BC Phoenician abjad. The earliest written Hebrew inscriptions do not appear until the 9th century BC, and the earliest dates for passages from the books of Moses are two centuries later. The Hebrew language is an integral aspect of Jewish identity, but the biblical dates do not sync up with archaeological evidence and the historical record. Though the history in the Bible records Bronze Age events, the history of the Bible itself does not begin until well after the reigns of David and Solomon.

If Moses could not have written about the Exodus because 1) he lacked the Hebrew language to do so and 2) it never historically happened, then where and when did these stories emerge? Did Moses even exist? What is the genesis of Genesis? In my next post in this series, I’ll take another look at the Documentary Hypothesis (which I’ve written about before), as well as look at the historical context of the Levant between 1200 and 900 BC to find out more about the nomadic Canaanites calling themselves Israel.

Blog Queer

Robot Gender

David Willis gets me, and he has no idea who I am. Probably. Willis is the creator of several webcomic series, Roomies, It’s Walky, Joyce and Walky, Shortpacked!, and Dumbing of Age. If you haven’t read them, then you totally should because they are excellent.

Why does Willis get me? In 1986, the animated Transformers movie released in theaters. I was twelve years old at the time and a serious Transformers geek. I went to go see it, not expecting to discover something very fundamental about my identity during the movie. That year, Transformers fans were introduced to the very first female Transformer, Arcee. I totally fell in love with Arcee. She was sexless, but still female, which turned out to be quite appealing to me. The character of Arcee is how I discovered, though I lacked the language to describe it at the time, that I was a homoromantic asexual.

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These memories reemerged within me recently when I learned about a new Transformers character named Windblade. On Willis’ Tumblr page, he recently reblogged a three-page preview of the upcoming Windblade comic series. On the last page of the preview in the last two panels, one character turns to Chromia and inquires about both Chromia and Windblade being referred to as “she”. Chromia doesn’t reply. As someone who is alternatively gendered, I got a big smile out of that moment. Transformers are a race of sentient robots which can alter their forms from humanoid machine to vehicle, or electronic device, or mechanical animal, or whatever. As robots, they arguably don’t have sexual dimorphism the same way human beings do, yet they do seem to have gender identities. What I like about Transformer gender identities is that they seem to be defined not by physical characteristics, but by personal choice. Chromia and Windblade are female because they choose to be, not because some part of their physical forms make them so.

Shortpacked! by David Willis

Shortpacked! by David Willis

Transformers may have been intended to be genderless the same way BigDog, Roomba, or Topo might be considered to be, but that’s not how they are received. The more human-like characteristics a non-human character acquires, whether it’s something abstract like behavior or personality, or more concrete like a humanoid body or face, the more likely it will be assigned a gender by human observers. I don’t think anyone ever viewed Optimus Prime and Megatron as not-male. They were always male. Even other robots with far less humanoid characteristics such as R2-D2 in fiction, or Asimo in real life, are often presumed to be male by default. This is not the fault of the robots, but with human beings who seem to be inherently anxious around gender ambiguity.

In my own day-to-day experiences, people are often uneasy around me because they aren’t 100% certain which category they should put me into. I present a very androgynous appearance as it is an aesthetic I’ve been trying to cultivate ever since I first learned what the word ‘androgynous’ meant. While I’m quite happy with my ambiguous gender presentation, it does cause others a great deal of consternation possibly because they aren’t sure whether to be sexually attracted to me or not. (Some folks are really into androgynous types, and I’ve had the pleasure of dating a handful of them.)

There is a character in David Willis’ Shortpacked! with whom I identify sooooooo much, I no longer feel like I’m an isolated freak in the universe. That character is Ultra Car, and she describes herself as a “homoromantic asexual trans-chassis woman”. (Note what I wrote above about myself and you’ll understand why I think Ultra Car is so fantastic.) Ultra Car began life as a sentient automobile, but acquired a new female chassis and a gender (which she’s still working out) to go along with it. In her words, “I wasn’t ever a ‘dude’. I wasn’t an anything. I was a car. You meatfolks decided I was a ‘he’. Not that it matters. Your stupid sexes are dumb and gross.” Bam! That right there is why David Willis gets me.

On my Twitter bio, it states that I “eschew gender”. (Edit: It used to say that. It doesn’t anymore.) It’s not that I think gender should be abolished. A lot of folks are really quite comfortable with their gender. I’m just still trying to work mine out. The thing that frustrates me the most about gender is how it is assumed that certain body parts imply certain genders. In the Matrix movies, the machine characters are probably supposed to be genderless the same way Transformers are supposedly genderless. Yet inside the Matrix, we see machine programs with very human-like genders and sexualities. Were they coded that way? Or were they, like the humans they locked into the Matrix with them, presented with a choice? Not a choice about being in the Matrix, but a choice about their own gender identity.

I think it would be amazing if human beings had the freedom to choose our own gender identities free from anatomical restrictions and cultural expectations. Our culture reinforces a binary of male/masculine;female/feminine. We’ve been taught these things matter. But penis does not imply male, nor does vagina imply female. Nature itself has always expressed a vast diversity of sex and gender, and now modern medical science has allowed humanity the option of reprogramming our secondary sex characteristics, moving beyond what nature itself allows. We’re like amphibians or fish which can change sex, though not for reproductive purposes, but for social purposes and the reification of our self-identities. Personally I think that’s pretty cool, and I’m glad I’m not the only one.

If there’s more about Transformer gender identity in the upcoming Windblade comics, then I will totally need to read those. I will keep reading David Willis’ comics, and continue to be in awe of his skills. Thanks for creating such fantastic characters! Not just Ultra Car, but all the women in your comics.

Windblade, art by David Willis

Windblade, art by David Willis

Eee! Windblade is a historian, a linguist, a fighter, and so cute!

Religion

Studying Religion

When I tell people that I majored in religious studies at university, they sometimes leap to the conclusion that I must be religious. Why else would someone study religion? “So are you going to go to become a priest?” That was often the first question asked of me by people who didn’t know what religious studies was all about. I would always replied with a nervous laugh and an emphatic “no”. I didn’t grow up religious. My first memory of anything religious was when I was around eight years old and I found myself at a Catholic mass. The experience wound up putting me off organized religion for the rest of my life, though it did leave my young mind wondering what it was about religion that brought so many people to it. That curiosity is what spawned my academic pursuit of religion. If I couldn’t “get” religion in a religious context, then I’d try and understand it in a scholarly context.

It’s more of a convenient umbrella term for a number of different disciplines within the humanities which are collectively used in an effort to rationally understand the origins and practices of ancient and modern religions. It includes disciplines like archaeology, anthropology, philology, history, linguistics, art history, and others. My own university studies included Ancient Greek and Latin, ancient art and architecture, Roman cooking, ancient epic tradition, biblical archaeology, ancient near eastern history, as well as courses specifically on Judaism, Christianity, Vedic traditions, Hinduism, Buddhism (Indian, Chinese, and Japanese), Sikhism, and Jainism. Originally I intended to be a Classics major, but after learning that Classics would have me spending all four years studying Greek and Latin language, I realized I wanted a more diverse education than that. So I pursued religious studies.

What does one do with religious studies? Students in religious studies are as diverse as the general population. In my own classes, I knew deeply religious individuals (including priests and monks), non-practicing religious individuals, and folks like myself who don’t really do religion at all, yet still find it fascinating. Some study religion in order to get closer to their god, while others study religion to better understand humanity and our past. Religion continues to have a tremendous impact on our modern world, and it’s a good idea to have more than just a cursory or superficial understanding of it. Academic religious studies offers an education into the history and development of religious traditions, and can offer us new insights into ourselves and our world.

Religious studies isn’t the same thing as reading and rereading a sacred text. It embraces numerous disciplines, requires critical thinking skills, and makes high demands of research and scholarship. The study of a religion is not limited to those who practice it, or even to those who believe it. Reza Aslan is Muslim and a renown religious scholar of Jesus. I am a nonbeliever, yet probably know more about the Bible and its origins than the average Christian does. (Though not nearly as much as Reza Aslan does. He inspires me to be a better religious scholar.) There is probably no other field of study out there which lets me so many different things, yet still be considered a single field of study. Though I’m currently super busy with what has become my day job drawing comics, I will endeavor to turn the focus of my blog toward religious studies. I want to revisit the Documentary Hypothesis as well as Babylonian mythology in Genesis. Hopefully that will happen before June.

Thanks for sticking with me!

Blog Religion

Trying on Judaism

Have I ever told you about that time in my life when I considered converting to Judaism? A question was posed not long ago on the twitters asking how folks who self-identify as atheist/agnostic/nonreligious/etc arrived at that identification. My path went like this:

no faith at all => potential convert to Judaism => Wicca => general paganism (Discordianism, specifically) => atheism

So you read that correctly. There was a time in my life when I contemplated converting to Judaism. But why Judaism? It’s not a proselytizing religion, as Jews generally become Jewish through matrilineal heritage, not through conversion. I knew more Christians than Jews. If I was looking for community, I could have very easily found it through Christianity but for the small fact that I found Christianity utterly contemptible and did not want any part in it. What little I understood about Judaism made more sense to me than the great deal I knew about Christianity.

I took it upon myself to begin studying the Hebrew Bible and Jewish history and traditions. I kept kosher. I observed the High Holydays. I wasn’t shomer shabbos, though. Nor did I pray. While I understood the rationale behind the traditions, nothing I did really felt like it meant anything for a couple of reasons. First off, I didn’t have anyone else to practice being Jewish with. I was doing all this stuff on my own. In my desire to find a community which I might be welcomed into, I neglected to actually connect with people in the community. This was mostly because of the other reason my Jewish practice didn’t feel like it meant anything: I wasn’t Jewish.

No matter how much I studied the Torah, or Jewish history, philosophy, or theology, the unalterable reality was that I was not Jewish. Ethnically Jewish. My ancestors were not Jews. They were viking pagans, and Irish Catholics, and English Episcopalians, and other assorted northern Europeans. Aside from the coincidence that my mother’s maiden name is Samuel, there’s really nothing at all Jewish about me. I was merely a goy pretending to be Jewish. I’d probably never really be taken seriously as a Jew.

So I quit trying. I still kept a kosher kitchen even if I didn’t keep a kosher diet, and I continued to observe Jewish holidays until as recently as 2009. But I never fully learned the essentials of Judaism, nor did I ever connect with members of the Jewish community. Instead I turned inward, focusing on a connection to nature and became a solitary Wiccan. That lasted about two years when I began to discover that the rituals and dogma of Wicca reminded me too much of Catholicism. So I branched out, discovering Discordianism in a brief passage mentioned in Margot Adler’s book Drawing Down the Moon. Discordians were all about the ancient Greek goddess of discord and strife, Eris, modernizing her as a deity of mirth and silliness. Discordianism allowed me to have something resembling a religion without being bogged down by dogma or theology which shunned intellectual inquiry.

My studies in biblical history and archaeology have taught me much about the development of the Hebrew Bible. These studies along with a graphic novel I’m currently reading called The Rabbi’s Cat by Joann Sfar have been provoking almost nostalgic memories of that time in my life when I studied in solitude in my quest to become a Jew. I don’t consider myself eligible for conversion anymore (as if I ever was), largely because I no longer believe in any sort of deity at all, whether it’s called Eris, or Yahweh, or something else entirely. These nostalgic memories are of a golden age in my life which actually never happened. I was never Jewish. I was never even a serious candidate for conversion. I was just a lost little critter desperately seeking community by trying to be someone I really wasn’t.

But as it turns out, that’s kind of the story of my life.

Blog

What’s the Point of Religious Studies?

On Monday I attended a lecture by journalist and author Nathan Schneider titled “Why the World Needs Religious Studies”. I graduated with a degree in religious studies back in 2009, but one thing I never really gave much thought about was what I planned on doing with such a degree once I graduated from university. The uses for religious studies do seem quite limited. If I were religious, I might consider seminary to become a cleric of some sort. A non-religious alternative would be to continue in school, studying and teaching religion within academia. I can’t really pursue either of those options, because I’m not religious, but also because I’m filthy stinking poor and cannot afford further higher education.

If religious studies is a field limited to only two vocations, priesthood or academia, and I’m unable to pursue either, then where does that leave me? It leaves me blogging and drawing comics about what I studied during my four years at university. When Skeptic Freethought launched back in 2011, I jumped on board right away because I wanted to use it as an outlet to continue researching and writing about religious studies on my own. Blogging about religious scholarship can hardly be considered academic as there is no peer review (unless other bloggers respond to my articles), and I’m not required to write in impenetrable academic language. Blogging about religion in a non-academic and non-religious context is a very hoi polloi thing to do (Eek! Impenetrable academic language!), but I think also a very necessary thing to do.

A lot of folks have absolutely no idea what’s in the Bible (or the Qur’an for that matter), and if they do, they’re often at a loss about the theological and historical context of the texts. Who wrote these books, and for what purpose were they written? Religious texts did not emerge fully formed, presented to the masses by trumpeting angels surrounded by thick mist. These texts are the result of many people over hundreds of years reviewing, analyzing, and writing about their history and their place in the world within the context of their mythology. Consequently, these texts are human documents addressing human needs in a world our ancestors didn’t fully understand. For the Jews, a tiny band of kingdoms sandwiched between great empires, the Bible was a document intended to unite the people, instruct them in proper religious etiquette, and help them contemplate the events unfolding around them and to them.

Whether we like it or not, religion permeates our world. It would benefit us greatly if we sought to understand it, pick it apart to see how it ticks, instead of merely embracing it or bemoaning it. The words in these tomes of the ancients were written to address issues pertinent to those people at the time, but these words continue to be interpreted and reinterpreted to address modern issues. Personally I think it damages humanity’s future to ignore the social, political, and historical context surrounding these ancient texts. It’s not my intent to try and prove or disprove the Bible, merely to contextualize it from a humanistic standpoint. So the focus of my blog will be to look at the Hebrew Bible, (and later the Christian New Testament and Islamic Qur’an), and understand its historical underpinnings so that we can determine whether or not the wisdom of the ancients is still relevant, still useful, in a modern, scientific, pluralistic world.

Blog Queer

Writing About Gender

The other day I saw Janet Mock talking with Stephen Colbert on his show, and he asked her what the most boring part of being transgender was. Her response was “I think the most boring thing is talking to someone about how I’m telling them I identify.” Simply being my gender is more appealing than explaining my gender to others. That being said, let me now explain my gender.

I was assigned the label “male” at my birth because the doctor saw I had an outie and marked the corresponding box on my birth certificates. My parents assumed the doctor’s assessment was accurate and subsequently spent the next 27 years of my life referring to me with masculine pronouns. During my prepubescent years, living as a boy didn’t seem to bother me all that much. I viewed my childhood activities as relatively non-gendered. I played with Lincoln Logs, LEGO, and Tinkertoys. I did a lot of drawing. I rode my bike a lot (once I finally learned how to ride without training wheels). I never thought these were activities specific to boys. In retrospect, the joys I remember of being a child stemmed from the fact that I never once had to think about my sex or my gender. I was just a kid who did stuff.

All that changed with puberty and the realization that my happily androgynous childhood body would soon be disfigured by hormones. My loss of innocence came with the knowledge that, given my hormonal makeup, I would eventually grow up to become a hairy, horny, sweaty, muscular, man, something I emphatically did not want. Biology was going to morph my outer shell into a shape which did not reflect how I viewed myself as a human being, and it was devastating. I slipped into a depression which would last for nearly twenty years.

One of my dilemmas dealing with this growing up was the fact that I had no language for what I was experiencing. I didn’t know what transgender was, or even gender itself for that matter. I was told I was a boy and that boys grow up to become men, and that was that. So I figured that this whole “I wish I was a girl” thing I kept thinking to myself every night was simply a normal stage of development for boys growing up. Middle school, high school, junior college, I passed through the gauntlet of puberty and emerged on the other side a young man still wishing every night that I was a young woman instead.

It wasn’t until the late 1990s when I saw a daytime talk show about transsexuality that I finally had a word which captured what I was going through. I was working at a bookstore at the time, so I was able to order numerous books about sex, gender, and transsexuality in order to educate myself. This was my crash-course in gender studies and women’s studies. This was when I found out about Christine Jorgensen and Brandon Teena, when I read the works of Riki Wilchins, Les Feinberg, Kate Bornstein, Jamison Green, Jenny Boylan, and so many others. I discovered that I wasn’t alone, and that there were many others who also struggled with their assigned birth genders.

I began my own transition the first time in 1998, but stopped after only six months because of uncertainty. Nearly five years later, after a profound epiphany I had at the Oregon Country Fair in July 2002, I would restart my transition with zero doubt and discover a new gender identity for myself which would suit me far better than the one I had been living with for my young adult life. As my body changed, my gender evolved. In my post-transition life, I’ve inhabited probably half a dozen genders. Today if I were to pick one of Facebook’s 50+ gender options for myself, I’d likely waffle between androgynous and “none of the above”.

Now that I’ve done the boring bit of explaining my gender, I can tell you the following: I don’t want to play the gender game because gender is so incredibly boring to me. What is gender, exactly? It comes from a Latin word genus meaning “type, kind, sort, class”. Gender is a category and I support everyone’s right to choose the category they feel is most appropriate for them. As for me, I don’t really want to be a part of any category because categorizing myself into one of 50+ shades of gender, and expressing myself as that gender, is a drain on my mental (and financial) resources. I’d rather be thinking about ancient near eastern history, or bicycling, or comics, than be thinking about what social activities are appropriate for what gender roles. Who cares? If you like cooking, cook. If you like sewing, sew. If you like fixing engines, fix engines. To me, it doesn’t matter what body one has or what clothing one wears. Do your thing as needed so long as it doesn’t fuck up anyone else doing their thing.

Sadly my little non-gender mental utopia doesn’t exist in the real world. Human beings being what they are tend to have some serious major hangups when it comes to sex, sexual identity, and gender identity. A lot of authorities have a lot invested in social hierarchies which rely on rigid classifications for humanity based on anatomical bits which no one ever sees because we generally keep them covered up. Despite 50+ options for gender on Facebook, the world still lives as though there are only two options. And if my only choices for gender are male or female, I’ll have the lasagna.

I don’t write about gender mostly because it irritates me. However, I also don’t write about gender because it’s apparently a sore spot for a handful of self-identified feminists. Now I’ve known about trans-exclusion policies at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival since I began reading books by the transgender authors I mentioned above, and I know that some feminists have spewed some vile stuff about transgender women. It’s feminists like these who make me balk at applying the label “feminist” to myself. (Do I think women should be afforded the same rights and privileges as men? Of course I do. So technically I’m a feminist. It’s just that I have a problem considering myself a part of a group which has members who demonize me and want to erase my existence simply because of the circumstances of my biology and anatomy.) The acronym for such feminists is TERF, trans-exclusionary radical feminist. I’m wary of the word “radical” as it tends to describe oppressive and occasionally violent splinter groups who do not represent the whole, yet tend to be viewed as representative. (It can also be a term used to describe outstanding skateboard moves, but only during the 1980s.) The program director of the LGBT Center at the University of Oregon while I was there was a TERF, and consequently I felt little comfort visiting the LGBT Center. I think during my four years at uni, I went in that room exactly three times.

Some feminists make it really hard for me to want to call myself a feminist. Feminists who argue that trans women are really just men with severe mental problems and/or self-mutilation fetishes definitely inspire from me a heartfelt “fuck you”. Feminists who say that men who become women are simply doing so to inject patriarchy into safe female-only space also elicit a “fuck you” from me. These types of feminists are the reason why I never felt comfortable or safe in what were ostensibly “safe spaces” in the LGBT Center and Women’s Center on campus. TERFs successfully managed to get me to stop writing about gender for a long time, ignoring my experiences and denying my self-identification to the point where I simply stopped talking about them entirely. That was their intent, to shut me up. A silent trans* person isn’t a threat to their interpretation of feminism. So I finally said “fuck that shit” and decided to start writing about gender again.

Gender annoys the fuck out of me because, in a world which assumes there are only two genders, I don’t have the privilege of taking my very nonbinary gender for granted. I always have to think about gender even though I’d rather not have to think about it at all. If your retort to that is “Well maybe you shouldn’t be so gender nonconforming.”, then you are a part of the problem. I want to live in a world like the one Janet Mock alluded to in her interview with Stephen Colbert; a boring world in which we can simply be our gender rather than having to explain it all the time. We’re closer to that world today than we were before, but we still have further to go. So I guess I’ll keep writing about gender in the meantime.

Blog

On Skepticism

Maybe I shouldn’t be admitting this, but my mind has a tendency to trick me into thinking and believing dumb stuff. It’s not my fault, though. It’s the result of cognitive biases that have wormed their way into human headmeats over a few million years of evolution. I see patterns of human faces in random objects and textures. I prefer things I like over things I don’t like, and also tend to think that those things I like are “correct” while the things I don’t like are “incorrect”. And more times than I can count on my fingers and toes have I talked about stuff while having no real experience or education about it.

I like to think I’m smart, yet my brain has tricked me into making dumb decisions over and over and over again. Is there anything I can do to reduce the amount of idiocy I commit due to these cognitive hiccups which result in logical fallacies and personal biases? As a matter of fact, there is. It’s called skepticism, and it’s available any time I face an issue which might dupe my brain into believing bullshit.

A word of warning, though. I encourage everyone to use skepticism, but it does require three things that most humans these days do not seem to have in abundance. The first is patience. Applying skepticism is sort of like going to the gym after a long bout of not exercising. It takes discipline and effort (which are about as appealing to many folks as brussels sprouts). The good news is, like exercise, skepticism gets easier, and more interesting, the more you do it.

With a bit of patience, the next step is to ask questions and collect evidence about ideas or propositions. The view of a mountain from a far-off highway looks different depending on from which direction you see it. Multiple perspectives foster greater understanding of its topography. The same is true for ideas. Opinions are views of an idea, not the idea itself. Opinions don’t count as evidence. To get the most perspective of an idea, one has to read. A lot. From lots of different sources. This is where item one, patience, comes in handy. Reading takes time (well, it takes me time because I’m a pathetically slow reader). Just like what was said in that commercial you saw during Saturday morning cartoons as a kid, the more you know, the greater perspective you’ll have of something.

Finally, to fully exercise skepticism, you have to take all the facts and evidence you’ve learned about an issue and weed out all the nonsense. You need to have a willingness to think heavy thoughts. Not heavy as in morose or depressing, but heavy as in perceptive and discerning. Piecing together an accurate assessment of an idea, free from biases and fallacies, is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle with pieces from lots of other puzzles thrown in to cause confusion. But through resolve, research, and reason, a richer and more accurate topography of an idea or proposition will emerge.

I know what you’re asking. “Who has the time, man?!” With the internet spitting out anecdotal balderdash, the 24-hour news networks spinning out opinionated talking points, and popular culture spewing out insipid distractions, who can be bothered to actually think about stuff? Why think about stuff yourself when you can simply be told what to think so that you can get on with your busy life doing other things. As I said above, skepticism is a lot like going to the gym. Many people make resolutions to do it, but few actually follow through. Skepticism takes effort, and people are lazy. How do we encourage skepticism when it seem so unpalatable to the general populous?

My skill set is in biblical scholarship and drawing comics. Currently I’m writing and drawing a comic about a former monk, and this comic will eventually address issues about science, skepticism, religion, consumerism, and humanity’s relationship with the natural world. (It’s only nine pages in at this point, so there’s a lot to look forward to.) I’m also researching and preparing a blog series on the very human origins of the Bible. Maybe that’s not answering the big questions, but that’s what I’m doing. I’m sure I could do more, though I’m not sure how to go about it. I don’t really consider myself an activist. I’m an artist and a scholar. But I’m disillusioned by the anti-intellectual tack my country seems to be taking, and I want to do something to encourage science, and reason, and thinking, and curiosity. I’ve started by reading more skepticism blogs to get ideas of how other skeptics go about promoting skepticism. I know I can do more, though.

I don’t like it that my brain tricks me into believing dumb stuff. I don’t like to think of myself as gullible or naive. Yet I still totally am. That’s why I pursue skepticism. I want to understand things better. I have an advantage to skepticism because I genuinely enjoy thinking about stuff. I’d rather have my own opinion that I forged out of my own research than have someone else’s opinion that was told to me by a talking head on the television. The nice thing about facts is that you don’t have to believe in them, or keep repeating them over and over, for them to be true. Skepticism can be challenging, but I think it’s also very rewarding. And it doesn’t taste anything like brussels sprouts.

Blog

Sabbatical

A month ago I said I was going to quit writing because I was filled with self-doubt about my skills and my worth. But my friends online convinced me to keep going. Now I have to go on a brief sabbatical because a couple comics projects I’m working on aren’t allowing me the time I need during the day to write the kinds of articles I want to write. At least not in a timely manner anyway (since it takes me so bloody long to compose my thoughts). I’m not stopping. I’m just on pause for a bit until I can get these comics projects worked on. What comics you ask? Well, I’ll tell you…

callindra-page

I’m working on my own new online graphic novel called Callindra: Fair Weather Monk about a former monk who is now wandering the countryside in search of new meaning. I’m also working with Sara Mayhew as an illustration assistant on her manga series Legend of the Ztarr. I have regular deadlines for both books, so those kinda take precedence over my unpaid writing here on my blog.

I still have my biblical archaeology series I want to write, as well as other religion related posts, so I will endeavor to update when I can. In the meantime, definitely check out my ongoing comic at my art site and let me know what you think.

Blog General Travel

Quartzville Road

Yesterday I traveled along Quartzville Road to do some visual research for my webcomic, and also simply to enjoy Oregon. Here are a few photos I took during the trip.