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Living the Life of Reason

To live more rationally.

It’s not really a New Year’s Resolution, but something that has been on my mind a lot lately. What does it mean to live the life of Reason? Yea, I capitalized it, though that seems a bit archaic and, well, 18th century. I am not a woman of faith, but of reason. Truth is I never put much store by faith. I will accept something tentatively without evidence or reason for a while, but if evidence is not forthcoming I will eventually drop it and move on to something else. With a mindset like that, it is only natural that I rejected religion and am now an atheist.

I was raised to accept things by faith. It is easy. Lazy even. When I was a child I naturally believed what the authority figures told me, whether they ware teachers, parents, or the evening news. Questioning did not come naturally to me, at least not until what I was being told felt bad or contradicted what I wished to be true. What I thought should be true. I would accept things on faith. When I prayed and I felt good and felt forgiven it was proof to me that the prayer was effective and that the God I prayed to was real. But as I got older this “proof” became less and less effective, as it was not backed up by anything else that I did not recognize as my own internal state.

I still feel the influence of these teaching of faith, and I face daily the temptation to believe things based on how I feel at the moment. That can be maddening at times, since I have some crazy mood swings. There are days when I am energized and want to take on the world, and there are other days when the world is black and I wish I could just sleep and never wake up. Of course, I have never actually tried to prevent myself from waking up, because I always have Reason to tell me that I am in a depressed state and the world will look brighter tomorrow. Reason is the beam of light at the end of the tunnel.

My decision making is still largely based on how I feel in the moment. My tendency is to gather information and analyze up to a certain point, then I get overwhelmed by the information and the work and end up just deciding based on how I feel. This method has actually served me well in many decisions. It saves time and effort. In some cases though, I need more information, and more analysis. Should I change careers? Would I be happier and more satisfied doing something else? What about going back to college? I’ve found this in my professional life too…making assumptions about what feels reasonable can come back and bite you later. It HAS come back and bit me.

To me, living the life of Reason means more than merely rejecting superstition. That is now the easy part, second nature (though it was not easy at first!). It’s time to move on now, and keep applying Reason to all my other beliefs. Beliefs about myself. About politics, environmentalism, finances, everything. About morality, ethics, human rights, feminism, daily living. Assume nothing. Question everything.

So, as part of my New Year reflections, I am pondering what it means to live the Life of Reason.

What it means:

  • Pausing to think though my actions, rather than just being compelled by the feeling of the moment.
  • Riding out mood swings with a sense of sanity.
  • Being more in control of myself.
  • Pausing to question and check up on claims before believing them and sharing them on Facebook.
  • Always learning more.
  • Having the courage to scratch the surface of my core beliefs without fear of falling into a void (or going to hell, whether in the metaphorical or literal sense).

What it does not mean:

  • Requiring absolute certainty before making a decision. That way leads to paralysis.
  • Rejecting emotion. Emotion is important, and necessary for decision making. Logic is important, but without emotion and compelling reasons to act it is blind and lame.
  • Being an insufferable know-it-all.

I’ll probably think of more things that living the life of Reason means over the next few days, but this is a start.

Reasonable Living and Intentional Community

Why do people go to church?

Of course, since my background is Christian I will write in “church” terms, but the same applies to the people who meet together in any type of religion, whether Nazarene, Catholic, Mormon or Hindu or Muslim or anything else. The same principles apply regardless of the specific beliefs.

We’ve all heard many times over that humans are social beings. We need each other and we need some sort of rule set and cultural framework to structure our lives. We like to “hang out” with people who think the way we do, for better or worse. It has been my observation that churches and other such organizations exist not out of the commands or needs of any God or gods but rather to fit the needs for human beings for belonging and social structure. After all, what do a large part of church activities have to do with theology? What do basketball courts, walking tracks and youth trips to amusement parks have to do with religion? They are attractions, side benefits to membership (or potential membership) that are used to draw people in with the hopes that they will join and stay and buy into the theology.

Unfortunately, the community benefits of churches and religious organizations come at a serious cost to those who do not buy into the theological baggage that comes with it. Constant messages saying that you are a sinner, that you should believe. The idea that you are incomplete and sick and doomed to failure unless you can believe something no matter how absurd and impossible. Being around people who tell you these things, implicitly or explicitly, can wear one down incredibly even if you are certain you are right. And the believers in a church environment usually don’t get it. Even if they sincerely love and accept you as an atheist, their insistence that “God loves you anyway” and “you are still welcome here” amounts to nothing more than a massive (and massively absurd) guilt trip. It’s not that we think we are too dirty and “sinful” to be accepted by your God. It’s that we really don’t think your God is real at all.

So what is a community-craving atheist to do? Some people are thick-skinned and nonconformist enough to put up with the negative messages about non-belief from the religious with no problem. But the rest us need the sort of community that churches and religious organizations have monopolized for so long.

In order to meet this need, one of the more recent offerings of the Louisville Atheists and Freethinkers group is a weekly Sunday morning small group meeting called Reasonable Living. It was founded and is lead by a former Baptist minister, and we (half-jokingly) refer to the meetings as our “secular Sunday School.” We have been meeting for the past few months, and on some weeks we have almost outgrown our meeting area. In the meetings, the topics of discussion are ideas like how do we balance societal responsibility with personal responsibility, what is the role of an individual in society, how we deal with life and death issues. Studies have usually been modeled around a book, and for the past several weeks we have been studying “Living without God: New Directions for Atheists, Agnostics, Secularists, and the Undecided.” It’s a great opportunity to discuss some interesting topics and sharpen your own thinking. If you are in the Louisville area and are interested in discussing the secular life, come and join us!

(Cross-posted at LouisvilleAtheists.com)

Thoughts on Ramadan

This is a slightly unusual topic for me, since I don’t usually write about Islam. However a couple of things have brought Ramadan to my attention this year and it is on my mind.

First of all, it came up in a team meeting at work a few days ago. We were discussing the goings on at work, which has been particularly hectic lately. My manager made a bit of a side-note request that we be a bit patient with her since Ramadan just started. I was slightly taken aback at first, but then was just like “oh, ok.” This was the first time, ever, I had every heard any mention of religion from her, even though I did know from previous discussion that she comes from a pretty large and traditional family from Egypt. It was an odd revelation in the middle of a work meeting, but it’s an interesting thing to know nonetheless. And then, after that, are interactions became totally religion-free once again.

What brought it to my attention just as I was coming home today was a story on NPR about Ramadan in connection with the fact that much of the United States is having a terrible record-breaking heat wave. The disturbing bit about this being that Muslims are apparently not supposed to eat or drink anything while the sun is up. The main question being discussed was about Muslims who are working outside in 100 degree heat during the day, but are not supposed to drink anything? That just sounds dangerous to me. I would think surely there are exceptions to the rule for people who work in such occupations. :-/

My other thought is that Ramadan makes Lent look like nothing. If course the whole idea of following either such religious restriction seems odd to me. Why make yourself physically miserable it you don’t really need to? I would like to know, what motivates people to do things like this?

Here is the link to the NPR story: Heat Wave Tests Muslims During Ramadan

“Spiritual growth”?

My atheism became known while I will still living with my parents, a couple of years before I increased my independence by moving out. More than once during this period, Mom sent me notes though email or left on my bed to scold, guilt, console, or apparently say anything that she thought might cause me to accept Jesus once again and renounce my disbelief. (It appears to me that this was her motive, at least.) Once, when she realized I was not going to church anywhere anymore (though I had been going various places on my own from time to time, seeking what I could consider a believable faith) she stated in a letter that as long as I lived at home I was required to go to church somewhere (anywhere!). This was part of a larger requirement that I seek what she referred to as “spiritual growth.” I went to the closet church I could find that looked decent, though I saw the things I found unbelievable in Christian faith as much there as anywhere else I went. I stopped going after a few weeks, and the topic was not brought pushed at home again. I don’t think much in the way of spiritual growth was achieved in this way.

On the other hand I think I have achieved more in real “spiritual growth” as an atheist than I did in all my years as a Christian. I have experienced the type of growth that I think I never could have truly achieved within an evangelical Christian context.  I have learned to trust my reasoning abilities, to always strive to learn new things, and to change my beliefs to be ever more consistent with my new learnings. I’m much more likely to think out an issue, come to my conclusion, and trust in that conclusion even against popular opinion until someone rationally convinces me otherwise. The fear of doubt and reliance on authority was instilled in me by the Christian notion that salvation depends on unquestioning belief* and obedience to God. I knew even when I was still a believer that (the wrong kind of?) knowledge and self-confidence could be dangerous to belief and would undercut the authority of those that have set themselves up as speaker for God.

I’ve made it my goal to grow in confidence, willingness to stand out and speak my mind. Willingness to be different. And I have gone though enough cycles of being absolutely convinced of something only to have my mind changed by new information later that I’ve grown in tolerance of the disagreements I have with others over religion and other contentious topics. No matter how convinced you are that you are right, there is always a possibility that your view might change in the future**. Everyone molds their worldview on the experiences and information they have had in their lifetimes, and remembering this is inspiration for humility and compassion for others. I am still working on growing in that area.

*The tradition that I was raised in was somewhat lenient on what was allowed to be questioned, such as the nature of Hell, or whether or not God created everything in literally 6 days. However if you doubted that it was historically accurate that Jesus existed or rose from the dead, or that he was literally both God and man, or that the Holy Spirit was real, your soul was in danger. I was taught directly that you can be as good as person as you could possibly be, but if you don’t believe in Jesus you don’t go to Heaven (and there is only one other alternative.)

**If this gives anyone the idea that I might convert back to Christianity, be sure you know that the amount of evidence that it would take to convince me would be on par with what it would take to convince me that the sun revolves around the earth after all. Possible perhaps, but not very likely.

Ghosts of Christmas Past

I used to have a Christmas tree ornament that I would hold and ponder at this time of the year. I no longer have it, and I’m not sure if I threw it away, or just left it in some dusty corner of my childhood home. It looked very much like this.

(Image from http://www.booksofthebible.com/p3140.html)

That’s right. A thick, long iron nail (maybe pewter, in this case). The whole point is that back when I was a Christian I saw Christmas mainly as a foreshadowing of the death and resurrection of Jesus. The nail was to remind me of death and sin and blood in the midst of all the cheer and warmth and celebration of Christmas. I would hold it and ponder my sinfulness and complicity in the killing of Jesus (nevermind that the event, if it is not only mythology, happened thousands of years before I was born.) What sweet thoughts.

I used to think that these dreary thoughts were profound and edifying. Now I’m just horrified by the very idea that I ever thought that way. Christmas is a season of hope, though now for me it is about the hope that light and warmth will come again even though it is now so cold and dark. The lights on the houses remind that light is not gone from the world, even if our hemisphere tilted away from the sun’s rays for the time being. This need for hope in dark times is, I think, the root of all the winter holidays. The sun, and our longing for it, is the reason for the season.

Observations of an atheist abortion clinic escort…

I hadn’t been in a couple of months, but yesterday I decided to get up early to escort at the clinic. Thursday was the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, so the issue of choice and personal freedom was on my mind. After not being there for a while the scene was especially eery, or maybe that was the fog from the river. It’s easy to forget about the gauntlet these women are forced to run in order to go to the doctor. Continue reading

Meaningful rather than Spiritual

I’ve been reading a book called “The Atheist’s Way: Living Well without Gods” by Eric Maisel. I recommend this book to anyone who has considered him or herself to be a ‘spiritual atheist,’ because I have found a concept in this book that has changed my mind about how atheists should address ideas of ‘spirituality. Continue reading

Where does joy come from?

Once when I was in Sunday School the teacher told us that the difference between happiness and joy was that happiness depends on your circumstances but joy comes from God. I was not the only one in the class to question that analysis. It looked to me as just an example of a word game, namely changing the definition of a word to fit one’s own preconceptions. This also was right about that time that I decided that going to Sunday School was a total waste of my time.

But that does leave the question, what is joy, and where does it come from? Continue reading

Yoga and Skepticism

I’ve said in a previous post that there is some tension present in being an atheist and a yogi. I think it’s more to the point to say there is tension between being a skeptic and a yogi. While in general the teachers whose classes I frequent usually stick with pretty non-controversial claims about the benefits of yoga, every now and then I hear things that make me smirk and squirm a little inside. Stuff like this (not exact quotes):

  • We’re going to have a relaxed class today because it’s near the new moon. Our energy levels are lowest during the new moon.
  • Anything about chakras.
  • Anything about Kundalini.
  • Anything about Ayurveda.
  • Claims that any of the above must be real and good because it’s been practiced for 1000′s of years.

I’ve tolerated this stuff for the most part, and have even gone along with it for the sake of experimentation. I have found that, in general, these things have not been core to the classes. The chakra talk I can deal with as being symbolic for different areas and characteristics of the body. No problem. Same with Kundalini. The alternative medicine stuff does set me a bit on edge though. Especially when I read about things like this: http://whatstheharm.net/ayurvedicmedicine.html. Maybe I’ll ask my teacher about that. Were all these people just doing it wrong?

I’m into the holistic aspect of yoga, and this is why it’s been the only exercise program I’ve stuck with regularly going on two years now. I’m not in it “just for the workout,” it’s also about the mental and emotional benefit as well. I’m all for the non-rational–I don’t have to reason everything out and understand how everything works in order to accept it. What I can’t accept is the irrational.  What if some of these things being practiced as part of yoga can actually be harmful?

Who am I?

When I was a teenager I used to think a lot about the question “Who am I?” Lots of descriptive words would pop into my mind: daughter, student, reader, Christian…the list could go on. But the more I thought about these words the more I realized that they do not say a thing about who I am. They only describe different aspects of me. I read during my exploration of Buddhism that the thing we know of as “I” disappears when you look for it and that indicated that it is does not really exist. This is consistent with my own experience.  

However, I still feel some need to identify myself, and my list has changed quite a lot since I was a teen. You will probably note that I listed “Christian” as one of my identity words. Yea, “Christian” was a huge part of my identity and for a time in my life my life practically revolved around that piece. If you asked me who I was when I was a teen, that is likely one of the first words I would think of after my name. A lot has changed since then.

I’m aware that lots of atheists out there do not consider “atheist” to be a large part of their identity. And it’s probably fair to say a lot of Christians do not consider it to be a huge identity issue either. I’m sure that the reason it is for me is the huge importance religion has always had to my sense of self. When I eventually found the teachings to be Christianity to be out of sync with what I knew of the world, I went through a major identity crisis. I was at a bit of a loss on how to act in certain circumstances–like how to react to parents and family members who still strongly identified with Christianity. (From stories I’ve read from other atheists with Christian parents this is a very, very common issue.) Since I’d always been taught that morality comes from God, I had to completely rework my understanding of morality. It was no longer about obedience to a higher power, but about human wellbeing and happiness (a great improvement, since obedience is a very poor and childish basis for morality). One example of major change in my thinking is that I could no longer find any good reason whatsoever why gay people should not be allowed to marry. I am still of the opinion that the reason that Christians are so strongly opposed to homosexuals is that one of the very, very few issues that the Bible seems unambiguous about. Actual unambiguous direction from the Bible? That is something you don’t see every day.

 I strongly identify as an atheist. But having come to the conclusion that it’s not healthy to identify only as one thing (especially something that is just saying what I don’t believe), I’ve branched out into other areas of interest as well. Yoga, of course—though that does at time create some tension with the atheist label. I am also a nature lover, and love camping and kayaking. I’m interested in improving my communication and public speaking skills so I’ve signed up with Toastmasters International. My first meeting as a member is this coming Monday.

Identity is a complex thing. Atheism is only a starting point, and part of a realization that you are responsible for creating your own self –according to what kind of person you want to be.  And not waiting around for a god to “reveal his will for your life.” It’s a start.