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Broken Image

The belief that we were made in God’s image is almost universal in Christianity. It’s so foundational, that many Christians construct their view of ethics, style of relating to others, and entire sense of self around this concept. However, in what manner we’ve been patterned after God, or what existing as his “Image Bearer” exactly means, is often debated. Some Christians assume a physical, or at least symbolic, celebration of masculinity (more properly, maleness) is what God copied into our world, and use this to construct patriarchal systems of political and family life(1). Others focus on the creation story and the human capacity for creativity(2), discarding any gender-specific interpretations of God’s intention. The debate fascinates me, but for more than theological reasons. Despite the importance of a coherent theology, I can’t help but approach this from the perspective of a survivor. The image I have of God has been an embattled subject for my entire life. Some would call it a battle for my soul. Others would call it a battle for ideological purity and social control in Evangelical sub-culture. I don’t know what I would call it. But I do know it’s a battle I haven’t escaped from unscathed.

I think it started when I was six. I’d accompanied my father to a youth camp he was speaking at. I don’t remember why I was the only one who went with him, but I do remember being excited to fly on an airplane and that it was the day I read my first comic book(4). At the campground, a little boy I was playing with started talking about his little brother. He’d died as an infant a short time before, and this boy told me calmly that it made him sad because his little brother hadn’t had a chance to accept Christ, so he was in hell. I cried. I told him that wasn’t how it worked. I said children weren’t old enough to understand, so God wouldn’t send them to hell, because he was merciful and fair. This was unquestionable. What I was describing is what evangelicals (and others) often refer to as the “Age of Accountability”, meaning that sin must be something that is enacted by a free moral agent, and children didn’t have the necessary psychological or personal development to be this. Later, my father preached a sermon where he described a dream he’d had as a child. In his dream, his his family had been accepted into heaven, but he hadn’t. It’s one of the few times I’ve seen my father cry. This sermon frightened more than anything had before, but not because of the description of hell. It hadn’t occurred to me before that my father was frightened of anything, or that his own salvation was something he had ever doubted, especially as a child. I realized that his conception of God and salvation was more complicated than the one I had, and a tiny crack began to form in the image that I carried with me.

Several years later, at a different camp I attended, a different boy was sexually assaulted by his peers. The boy was sent home. I never heard any of the counselors describe the event as a sexual assault(5). It was wrong, but the perpetrators were only children, after all; They couldn’t have really known what they were doing. At that same camp, I saw young girls berated by a female counselor for their choice of clothing. The dress code was strict, and if girls broke it, even slightly, they were subjected to an anger and suspicion usually reserved for acts of violence. I and my peers were told that girls needed to “be responsible”, and “protect your brothers in Christ”. I knew at the time that this wasn’t fair, but it was clear to me that the woman who said and did these things reflected her own image of God with a brilliant and consistent accuracy. I also know it wasn’t an image I liked looking at.

As a teenager, I confided in a person that I trusted that I’d been feeling depressed for a long time, and I was concerned I might need professional help. This person told me that if I turned the matter over to God, he would make me happy. It didn’t work. No matter how faithfully I prayed, studied the word, or participated in church, my symptoms persisted. I wasn’t angry at God for this; by this time, I’d begun to understand that God could look differently to different people and that was normal. But I was angry at the people who saw my depression as a lack of faith. It was brought up on occasion as proof that my heart wasn’t in my activities, that I was “going through the motions”. They knew this, because God was a God of healing, and I was still in pain. God expected more of me than succumbing to my illness, so they reflected that expectation.

It didn’t happen all at once, but this conflict is what finally shattered the last vestige of similarity between the God I was shown as a child to the God I had grown to believe in. I didn’t want to reflect an image of a being who demanded I not have any problems while also condemning me for existing. I didn’t want to look at people and expect to be disappointed by them, while calling it love. This didn’t look merciful or fair to me. Admitting that I was not what I was raised to be, even to myself, had a price. I had to admit that there would be a permanent rift between myself and people I cared deeply for. I had to face that the community I was raised in no longer felt like mine. I lost the sense of unified purpose and understanding that had been present in nearly every social interaction I’d had since birth. I also had to start rebuilding a large part of myself, and for a long time, I had to do it alone.

In retrospect, I’m very glad for what I went through. I’m very glad that I had to struggle to put an image of God together from my earliest experiences. Because it hasn’t gotten any easier as an adult. I still find people who, in their attempts to reflect the image of God, impose their own image onto him. I know that I do this as well. I still have to regularly peel back my most deeply held beliefs and assumptions about what part of me is made in God’s image, if any, and it still hurts. It still has a price, and it always will. What’s changed for me, is that I’ve stopped seeing this as a failing of mine, and instead see it as a responsibility. Faith should be a struggle. Claims about absolute morality should be deeply questioned. Assertions that the will of God is known by a lone group or person should be met with the gravest skepticism. Conflict should not be shunned. The alternative substituting the gaps in our image of God with ourselves; and experience has taught me that there is nothing more dangerous or painful than that.

 

 

(1): Douglas W. Philips is a good example of this.

(2): Check out Dorothy L. Sayers and “The Mind of The Maker”.

(3): I think the Incredible Hulk was fighting Captain America, although i forget why. Anyone who can find this piece of my childhood gets Jedi hugs.

(4): I only discussed this with people peripherally involved with the incident.  I don’t know how the boy’s family or friends reacted.

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So…What Now?

This will likely be my last post for Skeptic Freethought, at least for the foreseeable future. The past four months have seen considerable changes in my life, especially with regards to my mental health. Over the past few months, I’ve started taking medication for my depression issues for the first time in my life, and I’ve adjusted to it enough to know that I’m responding well. This was a major step for me on several levels. I’ve known I needed medication for a long time, but until recently I’ve not had access to it. Doing this has allowed me to move forward in my overall treatment plan, and take more charge of my life, which is wonderful. It’s also a decision I know I couldn’t have made, at least calmly, several years ago, due to fears of stigma. I’ve reached a place where I feel much more equipped to make informed choices about my health, and a lot less concerned about public perception. But the biggest reason this is a change for me, is that it removes a huge obstacle I’ve had in my life for a long time.

As I’ve mentioned before, my issues started when I was pretty young. For years, I was torn between wanting to get better and the fear that treatment would change me. I got stuck in a loop where I didn’t like who I was, but I hated the thought of something outside of me impacting how I felt. A lot of this was simple immaturity, since no one is 100% self-determined; But a significant portion was caused by the awareness that my symptoms were providing a lot of fog, and I was scared of what I’d find when and if the fog lifted. I was scared that I might like myself even less when the curtain was pulled back, and that I’d be stuck with whatever was there.

I know now that this fear if very common to clinical depression; I knew that before, but knowing didn’t really make the fear go away. Now, I’ve been on medication for a while, I’ve responded positively, and my symptoms are diminishing at a reasonable rate. What I’ve found to my complete and utter surprise is that I might actually be ok. I may even be more than ok. For years, I’ve been bracing myself for a crisis that has, so far, failed to materialize.

A part of me is relieved to the point of tears by this, and I’ve already gathered a much clearer picture of how my symptoms effect my perception of myself; which I can use in the future. However, another part of me is confused about what I do next. It didn’t occur to me that I’d have the option of actually moving forward with my life, at least not this quickly. I’m still not sure what healthy me looks like completely, or what this person will do with the energy they usually expend on surviving. Luckily for me, other changes have been happening as well:

My family is growing. New career opportunities are opening up. I’m discovering skills I didn’t know I had. New people have fallen into my life with delightful regularity. I’ve become more involved with my community. I may be leaving the country next year on a grand adventure. I’ve been published multiple times now. In short, I’m finding that one big change in my life isn’t the end of anything. I suspected this pre-medication, but I couldn’t quite believe it. The only downside is that all the change, while positive, is overwhelming. I need to spend time processing what I want my life to look like in the future, and I’m going to take some time off from writing to do that. As confusing as the whole process is, for the first time in my life I don’t mind not knowing what to do.

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Ideology, Culture, and Old Habits

In my previous post, I discussed briefly how the evangelical focus on conversion experiences can cause problems for post-evangelicals when they try to join other groups.  An additional difficulty with this transition is that so much of evangelicalism is based on persuasion.  People who grow up in this culture are taught from a young age that a major part of their faith entails persuading others to join it.  Often, the ability, or at least attempt, to perform this type of persuasion is used as a litmus test of one’s spiritual health or sincerity.  Apart from the psychological effect of being in a group that has a singular goal and polices commitment to that goal, this also causes people in this culture to build their idea of social responsibility and even affection around the need to convert others to their way of thinking.

The harm and frustration this creates is obvious, and is part of the reason evangelicals have developed a reputation for being opportunistic in the wake of tragedies.  To the world at large, an evangelical that promotes their faith to those in pain is preying on a vulnerable moment for the sake of their own agenda.  To the evangelical, he/she is providing the best support and encouragement they know how, as well as what they see as a solution to literally any problem.

The two definitions of this behavior are not mutually exclusive, and I don’t mean to imply that intentions matter more than the effect of actions.  They don’t.  However, even for someone like me, who no longer identifies as evangelical, and is vocal about their criticisms of its issues, that habit is still difficult to break.  The reflexive tendency to try to “help” people by changing their minds (apart from being self-righteous), is reinforced so much that the reflex remains even after the reasons for it evaporate.

For me, I often still feel that pull to argue or defend the church, even though my actual opinion of it has changed dramatically.  I still sometimes feel a twinge of anxiety when I hear criticism about conservative Christianity, even though I’m now a liberal-leaning Christian Humanist. Despite my beliefs being very different than what I was raised with, it’s still work to keep myself from leaping into debates about religion just because they’re happening, and to remind myself that the world won’t end if I don’t change everyone’s mind.

Transitions away from religion, even if it’s to a different form of it, hold more challenges than changing conscious opinions of ideology.  Each Religion, sect, and denomination has a culture built around it, and that culture contains habits and modes of relating to others that are often unconscious for both the individual and the group.  Changing those things, even becoming aware of them, is a long and arduous process, sometimes longer and harder than the change of faith itself.  I’m of the opinion now that it isn’t possible to do this alone, and I was very fortunate during my own time of change to be in the company of people who’d made that journey before.

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Survey Results

As promised, here is a brief discussion of the survey I posted last week. I’d like to be clear that this is not an academic study. It is at best, practice. The results should not be taken as accurate demographic information, or as an argument for or against the validity of any views described in the survey. The intention of the survey is to create a model for a future project. To that purpose, I’m examining it below as if it is a “real” study. When I created it, my intention was to examine the relationship between social support and personal beliefs. The idea was to compare responses to the question: “Do you hold the same Religious/Ideological/Ethical views you were raised with?” to responses about family and social life. I had several theories about what the trends would look like, depending on where the majority of responses fell in the first question. The options were:

1:Yes, I do

2: Mostly. I don’t agree totally with my parent’s/guardian’s views, but the general core is the same

3: Somewhat. I still hold some essential principals of my upbringing, but the details are very different.

4: No, I’ve discarded/never practiced my parent’s/guardian’s beliefs.

5: I wasn’t taught what to believe. My parents/guardians let me figure things out for myself

 

Theory:

The majority of responders chose option 4. My theory for this option was that the majority responders would have been raised with moderate social support, but also to have experienced moderate pressure to conform to their family’s ideals. The assumption behind this was that social support fosters confidence, while pressure to conform leads to anxiety. I also assumed that only minimal or extreme anxiety in this area would lead to conformity, while moderate anxiety would prompt the person to seek out a more welcoming environment. I speculated that in order to leave behind the ideology of their upbringing, people would need to have enough confidence in themselves to explore, but also enough anxiety to make them feel uncomfortable in their current circle.

 

Method:

Since I have little experience in data analysis, I opted for a brief survey, 10 questions, and made each cover fairly broad generalizations. I tried to balance this out by providing “other” options on some of the more complex questions, and allow responders to provide additional information. I distributed it purely in social networking sites: facebook, Google plus, and reddit. For reddit, I scattered it over several sub-forums, but focused specifically on Atheism and Christian theism. My intention was to present the survey in an informal setting, partially because I don’t yet have all the resources for a full, academic study, and partially because I wanted this potentially sensitive issue packaged in a non-threatening way.

 

Results:

Out of 100 responses, 61% stated that they either never practiced, or had left the ideology of their childhood. 63% reported that they were at least affiliated with the ideological majority during childhood.

Community:

83% reported experiencing no discrimination at all during childhood, with 15% percent reporting any discrimination, and only 2% facing it on a daily basis. However, 36% reported facing occasional discrimination as an adult, with 5% reporting it as a constant issue. Only 23% percent reported never experiencing discrimination as an adult.

Family:

32% reported that personal beliefs were not a serious issue at home, with only 6% reporting that they could not even be discussed with civility. 41% reported speaking to their immediate family almost every day, with only 1% reporting not speaking to their family ever.

Friends:

37% reported spending time with friends a couple of times a week, and 25% for almost every day. A significant minority, 12%, reported being “not very social”. 40% reported that they gravitate towards friends who share their views, but it wasn’t a requirement. 29% stated that they have a diverse group of friends, and 27% reported that it what their friends believe isn’t an issue. Only 2%, respectively, reported that they seek out friends with different views, or that shared views were essential for friendship.

Present Beliefs & daily Life:

In response to the question: “How interdependent are your religious/ethical and social views?” 31% reported that they didn’t equate religion and ethics, while 18% reported that they saw their religious and social views as logical extensions of each other. 50% reported that they feel the most relaxed at home by themselves. 21% reported being most relaxed with family, and 16% with their circle of friends. Only 1% reported as having a difficult time relaxing. A significant minority, 7%, selected “Other”, filling in their own responses.

 

Interpretation:

The responses were not nearly as polarized as I expected. I assumed I would find higher reports of discrimination as a child, lower as an adult, and somewhat lower percentages of community acceptance of family views. I expected that the majority of responders would spend more time with friends than family, and that a strong majority would report having a diverse group of friends. Also, while certain responses possibly indicate a level of social anxiety, such as where they feel relaxed, I expected the disparity (9%) between a preference for being alone, and speaking to family every day, to be much greater.

Essentially, these results indicate that anxiety about personal beliefs are not as simple as I thought, and that anxiety does not always manifest in an expected form.

 

Problems:

The two major problems with this survey are sample size, and distribution. 100 responses is not nearly enough to form a reliable interpretation of such a complicated issue; I also mainly distributed this Survey in places where religion is a hotly debated topic; this likely skewed the small amount of data I was able to gather. Additionally, the responses show several oversights in the questions. For example: while I asked about frequency of communication with family, and how sensitive the issue of beliefs were to them, I didn’t ask the obvious question of how well the individual got along with their family in general. I believe I made several mistakes of this type.

For the future, I think this Survey needs to be at least three times as long. I also think I need better resources for analyzing data, ideally a program like SPSS. I also would need to distribute it nationally, with set quotas for each region, and safeguards against interference. For a study on that scale, I would realistically need a team of colleagues to help with the design of the survey, data gathering, and analysis of the results. In the meantime, I welcome any other input about the survey, or the methods I used for it. My general goal, other than putting together a good study, is learning how to do reliable research for myself. I’d appreciate any feedback from my readers or fellow writers.

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Survey on Religion, Politics, and Social Support

I’ve made a short survey in attempt to do research on a subject that has always fascinated me: The relationship between social support and individual beliefs. The survey itself is only 10 questions, not nearly as complete as I’d like it to be. This is a sort of practice run for a much bigger project I’d like to do on the subject. I’ll post the link below, and if I get at least one hundred responses, I’ll write a brief report on what I expected to find and what I actually did find. I know that’s not a good enough sample size for such a complex issue, but I’m hoping that I can work out some bugs in the model for the bigger project I’m planning, and get some practice in analyzing data.

For anyone that takes it, I’d love to hear your comments on the survey; what is and isn’t working, or things I’ve overlooked. I’d also appreciate any textbook or other resource material suggestions on surveys and statistic analysis.

The survey itself can be found here: http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/PRND9L3

 

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Allow Me to Introduce Myself II: Why I don’t Debate Atheists

The debate over the existence of God is one I’ve grown up around. My parents are evangelical ministers, and from an early age I was taught that God’s existence was an all-important issue. It’s one I took very seriously. I participated in a competitive bible study program for 15 years; I read everything C.S. Lewis wrote, (believing that’s where theology began and ended), and I watched theological debates with fascination. As embarrassing as it is to admit, I thought of myself as some sort of budding apologist; the next generation’s theologian.

Fast forward to the present, and my perspective has completely reversed. I not only haven’t won any formal theological debates, I refuse to participate in them. It’s not that I’ve lost interest in the issue, far from it. It’s not that I got my butt kicked in a debate, I haven’t. What’s changed is that while I’m happy to discus my religious views, I now believe it is ethically wrong for me to formally defend of them. There are three reasons for this, which I’ll describe as concisely as possible:

1: The older I’ve become, the more I’ve realized that I don’t especially like debating. It doesn’t feel quite right to me if I try to prove that I’m right and someone else is wrong. I’ve found that it’s much more productive, and easier to be respectful, with discussion and inquiry. I usually learn more this way, and make useful contacts, instead of burning bridges.

2: I don’t have the knowledge base or the skill required by an apologist. My degree is in Creative Writing. I work very hard at what I do, and I believe that it shows in my work. However, devoting my time to writing means that I haven’t devoted it to theology. I haven’t spent the time researching, practicing, and developing the skills needed for apologetics. I know that there are plenty of people out there who don’t let such minor concerns stop them, but I’m a bit of a perfectionist, and I don’t like doing a sloppy job.

3: The previous two reasons are not exactly ethical problems, and far from insurmountable. I could get over my personal distaste for debates. I could work hard, and correct the gaps in my knowledge if I tried. However, what I can’t change is the history of the Christian church. There are many atrocities in our past, but very few we’ve properly taken responsibility for. Any debate, in order to be useful, must be an open and honest one. It will be impossible to have such a debate over the existence of the Christian God, or even just the moral validity of the church, until there is a much more formal and complete acknowledgment of our past. It must be admitted that religion doesn’t equate to morality. That belief in God doesn’t cure you of being human, or make you more human than anyone else. It must be admitted that intentions don’t justify actions, and that the countless incidents of torture, murder, and persecution sanctioned by the church were nothing other than torture, murder, and persecution. The church can’t defend itself until it stops defending itself.

Until this happens, I can’t enter into any debate on the subject without starting from a false position. That is why I consider it a matter of conscience to refrain from any formal defense of my beliefs. It’s why I won’t be debating anyone on this blog, publically or privately. However, I have no ethical impediments to open discussion; and as long as I’m spending as much time listening as speaking, I’ll be happy to participate.

 

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Allow Me to Introduce Myself

I’d like to say from the start that I think labels are stupid. They are a best simplistic, a shorthand we use to save ourselves time. At worst, they are things we fling at people to keep them at a distance. This is especially true in the way different groups use the same label. Growing up, the label “Christian” had a very specific collection of associations for me, just as labels like “Atheist”, “Skeptic”, or “Agnostic” also had their own associations. If I encountered someone who didn’t associate the same meanings to them, well, they just didn’t understand things as much as I did. A childish outlook, true, but a difficult one to move past.

I’m not going to bore you with my own personal journey, not in this post, at least. It suffices to say that things changed, and I changed with them. CFI had a great deal to do with that, and although it isn’t the whole story, I can certainly say I wouldn’t be writing this now without the friends I made there. That brings me to why I am here. Why am I writing on a site geared towards a skeptical community, as opposed to a more “Religious” one?

First, there’s the matter of human rights. The Atheist and Skeptic communities are deeply involved in our nation’s struggle over personal freedoms and cultural conflicts. The dedication and passion they’ve shown for social justice is inspiring, and that’s something I want to be a part of. Second, given the pluralistic society we live in, and the variety of ideologies we all hold, it’s necessary to create a safe place to discuss them. Not only to discuss the conflicts between them, or offer criticism when it’s needed, but also to identify common ground, common goals, and what we all have to learn from each other.

I know that “What we all have to learn from each other” is a loaded phrase. Especially coming from a member of group that doesn’t have a reputation for admitting it’s faults. So to be clear: I do not consider myself a teacher, moral or otherwise. I will not be using this blog to tell people what they should believe, think, or feel. What I will do, is participate in the ongoing discussion about human rights, and offer my own perspective on issues I have personal experience in. I also look forward to hearing the perspective of my fellow writers, and readers, so that I can overcome my own preconceived ideas and assumptions.

 

As a starting point, here are my current labels. They aren’t definitions, but an introduction; the only time labels are actually useful:

Christian Humanist, Writer, Gamer, Whovian, Nerd, Politically Unaffiliated, Mystery Buff, and Knitter.

 

Next Week: Allow Me to Introduce Myself II: Why I Don’t Debate Atheists