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Category Archives: Keeping the Faith or Possibly Not

Grace Commons Loses its Talisman

A random Sunday in October of 2006. I sat at one of my usual haunts, the quirky little brick-and-wood spot addressed at 1741 North Western Avenue in Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood, wondering where the hell World Can’t Wait had trotted off to this time. It was the second time this had happened – I had been given one address by the political group and told they were meeting there that Sunday, and they went someplace else without me.

So I was sitting there, nothing to do, not willing to make the return trip home because I had just dragged myself a half-mile while getting licked by the bitter winds. My health was already getting under the weather. Fortunately, no one seemed in any hurry to shove me out the door. The first person I saw was Nanette; now, I knew Nanette strictly nominally as the friendly hipster artist who was also the acting barista at the Monday jazz shows that flowed into the World Can’t Wait room’s thin walls. I thought I had a fairly accurate read on her through our brief drink and pastry exchanges then. She clearly had to be one of the many people in the building connected with the Near Northwest Arts Council. Had to be. Had that vibe.

“Would you like a cup of tea?” she asked me that day.

“Sure,” I said. I didn’t think I was in any condition to turn down an offer of tea.

Nanette brought me the tea and, as she turned to leave, casually added “Oh, we’re having a prayer service at 5. You’re welcome to come if you like.” I could swear it was an afterthought.

Whatever, though. I wasn’t planning to head out anytime soon, and I had nothing better to do. A prayer service might be good for a few yuks, at any rate. Why the hell not?

Well… My life was changed for good after I left. I couldn’t describe what about the service hit me at the time, and I still can’t. I walked into the service room flying high on some 18 months of declared, anti-religious atheism after getting pissed with two different dogmas. I thought I was done. Instead, that Sunday invitation turned out to be the beginning of a whole different path which I’ve been walking ever since. It was my welcome to a unique spiritual community called Wicker Park Grace, and it quickly became one of my life’s centerpieces. My involvement there made me a better person in a few ways, some of which I’m certain I don’t know about yet.

Anyway, of all the qualities I attached to Nanette the way I saw her then, Presbyterian Minister was among the last on my list. I figured the initial prayer service I attended was some kind of novelty thing; not a weekly meeting. Nanette, though, said she ran services like that every week, and when I returned the next week, Nanette, me, and a handful of other people sat down in a small room. You know what the service was? The small lot of us sitting down, eating dinner, and talking about the various questions and problems we all had about scriptures. I finally got to ask about all the problems I had with the two different religions I had followed in my life to that point, and had used to hammer fundamentalists afterward. It was the first time anyone ever took my questions and comments seriously. The congregation of Wicker Park Grace wasn’t there to crush opposition to religion by insisting that I just believe, or that I wasn’t reading something properly; the earliest form of the church that I knew there was just as confused, angry, and misfit as I was, and just as eager to get to the bottom of the scriptures they were familiar with.

Nanette never tried to stand pat with testimonies and reaffirmations of faith. In fact, she was the one leading us through some questions and into even more questions. For a working class kid raised in a staunch literalist religious atmosphere, this was unheard of, and it was because of this that Nanette managed to do something no other Minister I ever met had managed: She got through to me. She made me think. She challenged everything I thought I knew about religion previously, through both my experience following two different faiths and then turning my back on them both.

The new way I discovered of looking at religion had a remarkable and unexpected effect: It made me appreciate the positive aspects of the religion I was raised practicing again while managing to reinforce my atheism at the same time. I wasn’t the only person at Wicker Park Grace who started to wonder if there could ever be such a beast as a Christian Atheist. Christian Atheism or not, though, all the barriers that mentally kept me from questioning in the past finally broke down, and I began to appreciate the fact that I could be a perfectly flawed human being and still be a halfway decent person.

I had had several Ministers in my past, but Nanette is the one I consider my first real Minister. She managed to find a new life for my weather-worn soul and prevent a third form of unofficial religious dogma from taking hold of it. I learned that I liked asking questions about the big issues of religious faith and upsetting the natural order, and Nanette gave me the first real outlet I had to do that.

Wicker Park Grace grew and eventually moved to a different building, establishing a new form as Grace Commons. But people have this funny way of moving on, and Nanette was eventually installed as the Minister of a whole new congregation. Grace Commons moved yet again soon afterward, its members moved into areas of Chicago more difficult to reach – and sometimes out of Chicago altogether – and everything that Grace Commons established started falling apart. The last time I managed to get to Grace Commons, services had become bi-weekly affairs with attendance on par with the first services I ever attended there. A couple of my friends there remarked to me last year they weren’t sure of Nanette’s ability to be a full-time Minister to two congregations.

That turned out to be a good guess, because Nanette is stepping down, and Grace Commons is losing its talisman. As the Minister of Grace Commons, Nanette installed a core ethos of hospitality and welcomed everyone, regardless of their background, and was beloved for her easy, outgoing, and personable style of teaching. She oversaw Grace Commons as it turned from three people in a coffeehouse to a formalized establishment with a personality of its own. Without her, Grace Commons is taking a congregation-run course, and I can’t say I know what’s in store for it. But I think I can speak for all of the old regulars from Grace Commons when I say: Nanette, we love you.

The Newfound Sexism of Atheism

The Newfound Sexism of Atheism

Recently, one of my favorite websites, Cracked, posted an article about the various problems with the current wave of atheism. Someone posted a link to it in a Facebook group for atheists that I’m a part of, and the bombardment of usual commentary bullshit began. The author of the article, according to commenters, didn’t understand atheism. Or he wasn’t a real atheist. Or he hasn’t read the work and philosophies of the people he wrote the article to take down. Things of that nature.

Unfortunately, this has been a recurring problem I’ve had with atheism ever since I declared my own atheism back in 2005. Atheism is a single belief: There is no god. Yes, it’s really that easy. You don’t believe in any gods, and you’re therefore not bound to any weird rules about dieting and thought crimes or caught going against a moral which is more common sense and human decency than morality. When I started reaching out to other atheists, though, I ran into one of those odd contradictions that we so frequently see in life. Instead of a group of people devoted to rational thought and discussion, many of the atheists I spoke to were devoted to a weird theocracy of their very own. The author of the Cracked article had a point which I’ve now spent ten years trying to make: Atheism has become enslaved to a hardcore ideology. Hell, prominent atheists are even campaigning for atheists to be renamed “Brights,” and in some places, local atheist organizations are offering de-baptism ceremonies. My mind is boggled and I’m wondering if the Center for Inquiry is going to start offering people the opportunity to visit and pray to a random cloud.

I find it pretty damn incredible that a group of people that prides itself on not having to follow silly religious pageantry is unable to spot the hypocrisy in this. And no, I’m not going to mince words or gussy it up into something pretty in order to hand-wave it: Hypocrisy is exactly what it is. The whole thing about living and letting live apparently only applies if you’ve renounced all beliefs. It’s one thing to talk about rationality and reason and science to a religious person with an open mind who asked and is truly interested. Even if this religious person accepts the logic offered by the atheist, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to renounce their god, and personally, I’m okay with that. If the logical outlets are rejected in favor of mocking and joking the belief system away, then you’ve turned into a missionary, and it’s time for you to break out the crusader sword and smallpox blanket, because you’re just a short step away from that.

My biggest concern about atheism, though, is that it now seems to be turning into exactly the kind of thing I predicted ten years ago: An exclusivist Old Boys’ Club. Atheism is more like a religion than ever, thanks to an apparent influx of so-called mens’ rights “activists.” Richard Dawkins, who first seemed like a real rallying figure for atheists upon his publication of The God Delusion in 2008, stated a few years later that some rapes are better than others, claiming that date rape is better than knifepoint rape and writing off people with whom that statement didn’t sit well by telling them to learn how to think, and blaming women for bringing rape onto themselves. Michael Shermer is a rapist – he got a woman drunk to the point of defenselessness and blackout at a religious conference and forced her to have sex. That’s rape, and all Shermer had to offer was an apology on his website. He should be rotting in a jail cell.

Of course, a lot of people are lining up to defend this sexism. After decrying a lot of the world’s oldest religions as sexist by antiquated beliefs and laws because women always seem to get the short end of the stick, there’s seems to be a disturbing number of atheists who are quite happy with women getting the short end of the stick. Atheists are on the downward spiral when it comes to being inclusive towards those without the Y chromosome.

The irony is that atheism has such a storied history that goes hand-in-hand with feminism. One of the original suffragists, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, was famously critical of religion to such a point that she published a book in 1895 called The Woman’s Bible. Although her critique came off as harsh back in those days, they’re now pretty much universally accepted. American Atheists was founded by Madalyn Murray O’Hair, who fought for the separation of church and state. A civil rights campaigner and female atheist from the 19th Century, Ernestine Rose, got her start by rebelling against her arranged marriage when she was 16. Today we have Malala Yousafzai, who took a bullet to the head for wanting to go to school, an event the atheist community points at as evidence of its moral superiority. One of the blogs I’m connected to is called Skepchick, a community of skeptical bloggers who are women – and one, I should probably mention, that formed its own convention after every other convention it tried to attend and report on got a little too fresh with its writers.

You’d think atheists would have some kind of respect for that, but nope! Atheism has two major problems: One is with feminism itself, and the other is with its staunch refusal to acknowledge its problem with feminism. What we have instead are Mens’ Clubbers like Sam Harris offhandedly talking about womens’ problem with atheism comes from its lack of a nurturing worldview, then defending that by engaging in more sexism, then defending that by attempting the “if it’s true, it ain’t sexist” defense. There’s a certain Youtube commentator, The Amazing Atheist, whose nutjob takes on feminists reel in millions of viewers. I’d love to dismiss him as some outlier, but if you misread the statement “millions of viewers,” well, then you should also understand that most videos on Youtube are lucky to get a few hundred, so The Amazing Atheist seems to have quite a bit of pull. Even Penn Jillette is in on the anti-feminism train, although I can’t rule out giving him a pass because Jillette’s whole career revolves around offending people, and he can be seen defending certain rights for women sometimes.

Atheism is starting to reek of the same bullshit that festers in the whole Gamergate movement. Gamergate is widely claimed – pretty much exclusively by its own members, but widely claimed nonetheless – to have started out of concern for ethics in video game journalism. That’s not true. While it probably does have a few people who are legitimately in it because they’ve been burned by bad reporting, Gamergate gets its jollies by mocking and threatening women who had the nerve to enjoy a hobby once thought strictly to be man’s territory. Now we have a sick form of atheism starting to stink of this same sexist philosophy. Atheism is actually performing a worse disservice, in fact, because so many women who are put off by the outpouring of conservative religious beliefs in the superiority of men look for solace in atheism.

Atheists are spending too much time trying to act as though atheism and feminism are two different things. They’re not. A lot of people have bitched that Cracked, as well as other, more respectable journalism and scholarly sources which have also pointed this out, don’t know what they’re talking about. They only wish they didn’t. And if atheism thinks it can win a battle against feminism for my own soul – or whatever passes for a soul in your personal belief system – well, let me put it this way: I’ve been a feminist for 34 years. I’ve been an atheist for ten, and my belief that women are people served as a major impetus for walking away from two religions because their followers failed to justify their scriptural drivel.

Marcus Borg and the Atheist

Marcus Borg and the Atheist

I went atheist in 2005, and in retrospect, it probably shouldn’t have taken that long. After all, I had spent an enormous number of the previous years being told half-truths and outright falsities in two different religions which effectively brainwashed me into thinking the sky god was going to smite my ass the second I had any kind of thought he considered impure. Of course, impure thoughts to my god were more like what popular culture considered impure thoughts to god: No booze, no sex, no swearing, no blasphemy – you know, all the best-known euphemisms for “no fun.” I had also learned in both direct and indirect manners that I had to look down on all the heathens and work hard to show them the great holy light.

Unfortunately for all the ministers I had during that time, I also had an inquisitive personality and had met enough different kinds of people that I learned to overlook their backgrounds. There was no way I would ever be able to do this religion thing both ways, and seeing as how the latest text message from either of my religions had arrived in the Dark Ages, it was god and religion that finally got the boot. Switching religions is a weird experience, and leaving it completely can give a longtime believer the heebie-jeebies. I developed an immediate hate for all religions at first which sent me into a good year-and-a-half-long spat with, for lack of a better term, shock. Religious belief isn’t something you can turn on and off if you were interpreting your teachings the way I was. It was a slow, gradual realization, and by the time I reached my big “Eureka!” moment, I was overcome with anger – anger at myself for being a blind dummy, anger at this god I suddenly didn’t believe in, and anger at the system that had successfully warped me into thinking “can’t sleep; god will eat me” all the damn time. I entered a period where all discussion about religion resulted in my impersonation of a Fox News pundit.

Ten years after the fact, my relationship with god is still irreparably ruined. My relationship with religion, though, began a significant upturn in the last half of 2006. I happened to be invited into a religious community with an open mind and an acceptance of anyone at face value. I gravitated toward them because I could talk or ask questions about religion and not get simple answers. Later, we held book groups, and it was in those groups that I started reading the work of Christian scholar Marcus Borg.

Most of my friends claimed Borg’s most famous books, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time and Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, as their biggest influences. Unfortunately, I still haven’t gotten around to reading either of those, so my first look at a Marcus Borg book was The Heart of Christianity. To put it bluntly, it was a whopper. There was eye-opening, revelatory material on virtually every page. Borg frequently questioned the stuff written in The Bible and invited his readers to look at the old historical context of everything written in it. It was primarily through the writing of Marcus Borg that I started to realize my beef with religion wasn’t exactly religion itself so much as it is the contemporary way of practicing it. It soon dawned on me that I’d had it all wrong – religion was never about easy answers or morally black and white viewpoints, and my big mistake all these years was in trying to interpret it that way.

I later got around to reading more of Borg’s work, like Speaking Christian and The Last Week. They kept right on crushing everything I thought I knew about religion. What I keep interpreting out of Borg’s work are messages contemporary followers of Cowboy Jesus fight like hell to deny: Religion is a dynamic entity that keeps growing and changing with the times. As religion evolves, its followers also evolve for both better and worse. So while both the fundamentalists and progressives are both willing to argue that followers in the past had it wrong, they frequently disagree on the direction in which religion was meant to evolve in. My view on Jesus himself was also radically altered; I ultimately began subscribing to a view of Jesus as a radical rebel who was executed in a gruesome way because he spent his life mouthing off to the wrong social caste. This was a form of Jesus I could actually follow and appreciate.

I started reading books written by other religious scholars as well, the most notable of which is probably Brian McClaren. They all managed to drill into my head a lot of things my younger, more fundamentalist self would have cringed at: Probably the most important thing they had to teach me was that being a good Christian meant doubling down to improve your community rather than your church. I also started to see that being Christian as applied during the Roman Era didn’t mean switching your set of religious beliefs, which meant that anyone who wanted to be Christian within the community was welcome – early Christianity, in fact, was considered just an odd little offshoot of traditional Judaism. In other words, truly old school Christians were able to be anything while still being Christians. Since Christianity was based more around the strength of a community which rejected the Roman caste system, being Christian didn’t require the acceptance of the god/man hybrid today’s Christianity revolves around. In fact, it didn’t really revolve around the acceptance of a god at all.

That makes possible what should be an impossible contradiction: My reconnection with Christianity went hand-in-hand with a fierce reinforcement of my atheism. No, I’m not going to call myself a Christian again, but the work of Marcus Borg has given me a view of religion which is a little like The Doctor’s view of humanity: Extremely frustrating because of what it gets used to justify, but I’m also in awe of its potential for good. Yeah, you might say I’m now completely lost and confused, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing; after all, being lost and confused is frequently the best way to see clearly.

Why I Question

Why I Question

My annual catch-up with Nanette ended up waiting a few days. She had just flown in on a flight from Malibu, and those travel change climate colds don’t wait for anyone. So instead of doing the how-ya-been routine at Grace Commons per normal, we ended up going to one of the local coffee shops a few days later for the latest highlights.

At one point, Nanette asked me if there was a place in my life now that filled the question cavity left in my heart after leaving Grace Commons. There really isn’t, and distance has been the determining factor in my ability to find one. While some people have asked me why I don’t simply attend the Wesleyan place across the street and down a block – thus completely missing the point of what made Grace Commons so important to me, why I went, and my entire fucking belief system – I’ve run into a couple of potentials. One was a dead end because of distance and time. The other, which was located right on the UB campus, was a dead end because it seemed unwilling to tackle a lot of the big issues I have.

During our conversation, Nanette once again presented me with the question many people, herself included, asked me a million times: Why? What is it that makes me, an outspoken disbeliever, attend this odd little church in an attempt to find some sort of spirituality? I gave Nanette my answer. It seemed like a reasonable answer, and at the time, it sounded convincing enough, at least in my own little world. Honestly, though, I can’t remember a single word of the answer I gave. A million times being asked that very question have resulted in about two million different answers, and that doesn’t even include the overlap. Through every iteration of the question and the explanatory statements I always struggled to come up with, I’ve been asking myself that very question. I hate organized religion, so what was the entire point of going into a registered presbyterian church during prime football hours? I would cite the old Catholic guilt theory, but I’ve never been Catholic.

Finally, I think I have the answer. Not one I was forced to improvise on the spur of the moment, but the thought-out, honest reflection that I’m really feeling. Of course, it came to me in the fashion of that perfect insult comeback in that I managed to think of it after our meeting, but here it is.

The first reason is that this world keeps putting the strain on us to pick and choose between either the wonder of knowledge and the wonder of imagination. Grace Commons was able to find a way to offer me both at the same time. I love the solid inarguability of those fun little things that give us greater understanding on the universe – maths and sciences – and am guided in large part by my vast imagination. And let’s face it, some of the stuff written in these holy books is pretty ridiculous. It doesn’t take an evolutionary biologist to see just how much of it was pulled from the air to go with what was thought to be scientific fact back in those days, and back then people believed that when it rained, the sky was obviously crashing to the earth. Yet, it’s my imagination which has been a primary source of comfort, companionship, and imagination for an enormous chunk of my life. I haven’t seen a science yet that has been a divinity killshot, and so I still remain open-minded about the whole god-actually-existing issue. Declaring a more positive form of atheism based on scientific evidence which – while disproving a lot of scriptures – has nothing to do with some all-powerful force that controls everything. Although I’m very skeptical and will ask for harder evidence than Jesus Toast to determine miraculous happenings, I’m still very open-minded about the idea of some supernatural being acting as a giant science puppetmaster. Ruling out the possibility of a deity just because another biological gap was scienced out of the equation would be going against something which, despite only being a part of my imagination, has still been enough to encourage me to better myself and reach for greater heights as a person.

We can call this my Mulder and Scully Node, in order to keep it simple.

The second, more important reason is that religion is a device people frequently use to find comfort and contentment if they’re doing it right. After I discovered Grace Commons, it didn’t take me very long to discover something odd about myself: I like my religious uncertainty. My inner peace comes from my right to ask big, mysterious questions about the nature of gods and religions and have them be taken seriously in lieu of the usual brush-off answers. I love to ask questions in Bible study groups and listen to their various interpretations of what one passage or character means to them. Questioning is my real religion, and I enjoy the uncertainty because it keeps me grounded and always in search of greater knowledge, both religious and scientific. Questioning is, ironically, how I manage to keep my peace and sanity in this odd little world. Some churchgoers pray or meditate or read through their favorite holy books. I ask difficult questions and demand answers beyond having a little faith, reading scriptures more, or the lord working those mysterious ways of his.

As you can imagine, churches that are able to provide me with such an outlet are rare and precious things. Most of them are exclusive worshipers of Cowboy Jesus who, when confronted with the big questions, will give out answers created to bring me closer into commune with the god they created themselves. I’ve never felt marginalized or pressured into conversion there. I was always free to be as critical as I thought was necessary. I felt a connection with the place that I had never had before at church or mosque because many of the others were damaged questioners themselves. Yet, they’ve always been able to challenge my perceptions of the scriptures, and the very idea of religion itself. I once asked Nanette what she saw in The Bible, since she accepted its logic imperfections, translation messes, and blatant plagiarism of other religions. She said, in a nutshell, that she saw a book about human beings and their imperfections and the consequences of their actions.

I once believed self-discipline and everyday prayer were the keys to getting on God’s good side. Now I’ve challenged and exploded everything I was ever taught about The Bible, which is okay since, you know, God doesn’t exist anyway. But there’s a wonderful irony in the fact that, during my misguided youthful attempts at being Mr. Altar Boy, it was only after going atheist and having everything I ever knew about my former religion wiped out by a wrecking ball that I started really thinking about and applying myself in a way reminiscent of the earliest followers of Christ.

If my old confirmation class had been like this, I might not have been scolded by constant parent/minister meetings. And I might have gotten something a lot more out of it than just resentment and contempt toward the Wine and Wafer Club and all those other brainless church traditions.

Six Reasons Your Religious Conversion May Not Work

Six Reasons Your Religious Conversion May Not Work

I originally submitted this to Cracked. They never got back to me, so I’m assuming they didn’t go with it. They have strict rules regarding the subject matter…

Maybe you’re not religious. Or maybe you are. Let’s imagine for now that you are, but something about your religion – besides the wine and wafers – just isn’t sitting right. Maybe your questions about texts haven’t been answered to your satisfaction, or your minister likes the wrong football team, or you have reservations about that part of the service where your heart gets ripped out. Now, imagine you’ve put your soul into the religion market and found a buyer, and are ready to make the conversion to this new faith which corrects everything you hated about your old religion.

I have a little bit of experience doing this. At a point in my lifetime, I leapt from a religion I grew up following to a religion which was more resonant to me. Like most things in life, though, there were a few odd side effects of it which no one told me about, and I didn’t see coming. So before you put on the robe and shave your head, you might want to be aware of the following reasons why the divine light you’re envisioning might be the lamp of an oncoming train.

You’ll Try to Convert Everyone
You know those people who annoy you because they feel the need to tell everyone how awesome their religion is? Not necessarily evangelizing, mind you, but they just want to tell the world how cool it is to be them. When you first switch your religion, that’s you. Basically, you’re going to be that pothead who uses every excuse he can to tell you why pot should be legalized, except this time there isn’t going to be a legion of people who think the same thing. You’ll be trying to pimp your awesome new faith in every conversation you get into, no matter what the topic. Someone discussing who would win, Batman or Teddy Roosevelt? The winner is going to be your new god or prophet of choice. Duh!

While we know your newfound conversion is a real party for you, others aren’t going to share your feelings, and soon after the conversion ceremony – maybe like an hour or so, tops – they’re going to start getting fed up with your blatant attempts to bait them. When they start conveniently forgetting to send you the party invitations, there’s no shortage of heathens to turn to, and you’re suddenly going to be talking the theological talk to clerks, waiters, and that crazy homeless guy who wears his pants on his head. And those people don’t have the social protocols your friends and family have that prevents them from repeatedly punching you in the face screaming “WHERE’S YOUR GOD NOW?”

You don’t need any of them, though, because you’re making plenty of new friends in your brand new congregation! Right?

Your Congregation Expects You to Follow Their Version of Your Religion
Unless your potential new religion practices the ancient art of sadism, the first thing that will strike you upon your conversion is the love-bombing. Across all religions on the planet, this is one aspect that’s pretty universal. Love, peace, respect for life, and all those nice little things that make life worth living outnumber machete slaughter religions by a really, really big ratio. And if the people in your new congregation are any good at practicing the “be nice” messages, they’ll love you before the conversion ceremony. Hell, they’ll love you the second you make your first visit to the worship house as their guest.

The problem with changing your religion, though, is that to everyone who is a frequent visitor at your new religious temple, you’re just the n00b. Since you don’t have the years of practice behind you that most of them do, you don’t know anything. This is going to apply whether you converted after reading every book ever written on your new religion or you simply walked into the religious gathering place looking for directions to the local brothel. Even if your congregation is incorporating ceremonies into its services which clearly go against one of the religion’s main beliefs, you’re always the one who’s wrong.

Your fellow congregants are going to expect you to be on their side of every issue, political or religious, and it doesn’t matter how much evidence they have to support their views. If you have the audacity to even consider an opposing viewpoint, be prepared for a good, long lecture about how wrong the other guys are. It can boil down to one of the little religious differences that splits everyone into sects, or it can be political – one of my most vivid memories from my adopted religion is receiving the mother of all anti-gay rants after having the gall to express my political belief that gays should be treated like human beings.

Of course, this isn’t such a huge problem for converts to mainline religions. If one congregation decides you don’t follow your religion the right way, you just keep going until you find the congregation that thinks you do. It’s a wee bit more problematic for those who convert to less popular or understood religions – like I did – whose followers are well aware of the fact that they are frequently the only game in town. It’s their way or the highway, and if it’s the highway, you could be stuck without anyone to teach you the basic practices and rituals.

You’ll be Presented as The Convert
Whether or not they like you, there’s a reason your fellow congregants want you to sit down and shut up: You make a better spokesperson if you do. If you convert to a non-mainstream faith which is misunderstood and needs to hold occasional getting-to-know-you rallies to show everyone how they don’t actually demand firstborn sacrifice, you’re suddenly slipping into the role of the happy man who saw the light. In layman’s terms, you’re the mascot.

Being a good follower of a religion you weren’t raised practicing puts a real emphasis on that word, “follower.” Around people who don’t know anything about your new religion, you’re the guy who everyone will point to as a sterling example of a believer, because you made a choice to follow your new religion. If you say challenging or confrontational things about aspects of your religion that you haven’t been able to come to terms with, it’s easy for the other congregants to shrug you off. You’re just the brand new convert, after all, and you don’t know everything yet. Or you don’t understand what you know.

In extreme cases – like evangelical religions – you’re basically supposed to act the role of a salesperson. You’re saved now, right? And don’t you want everyone else you know to be able to share in your heavenly bounty? Sure, maybe you really did convert because you decided the promise of a nice afterlife was only available to the guys next door, but I can guarantee no one switches religions because the aspect of bugging the heathens appeals to their sense of morality. Unfortunately, lifelong followers of evangelical religions all seem to think an ex-unbeliever’s lost-soul-found-soul story is a dynamic sales pitch.

You Won’t Learn About the Small Rules Until After Conversion (and you’ll try to adhere to them, and they’ll make you crazy)
You may already know that Hinduism is a major world religion with over 900 million followers, and that Hindus hold cows in very high regard. You might not know that Hindus make a major deal out of getting their ears pierced. They have a big party called Karnavedha where they shove a thorn through someone’s ear and ease the pain by spreading hot butter across it. Taoists seek harmony with nature by taking the occasional aimless walk.

Religions love to dish out reward, punishment, karma, and whathaveyou. They love doing it so much that each one has an endless list of regulations and approved practices for everything from prayer absolution to shoelace tying. There are so many that following them all is impossible, and not all of them are culturally savory – even the strictest members of the congregation put fingers to ears and yell “lalala I can’t hear you!” when you mention the less popular ones. Some of them can’t be followed because new discoveries and thoughts have been made through time. Others have been wiped out because local laws decided they weren’t humane enough. Some actually contradict other laws in the scriptures. But none of that is enough to stop you from trying to follow them all.

This really isn’t your fault. The thing about religious converts is that they tend to be sincere about their practices, at least if they’re not converting for familial reasons. The little rules that tell you how to practice, no matter how strange they sound, are among the things that make your religion a way of life for its followers. More importantly, if a religion is afterlife-based, heaven’s landlords will love you for doing what they like and hate you for doing what they hate, and since you’re bent on them liking you, who are you to argue? It’s exactly why Cat Stevens quit music and didn’t denounce the Ayatollah’s fatwa on Salman Rushdie after becoming a Muslim – it’s possible he just didn’t know any better. If the scriptures say thou shalt suck alcohol through nose straws, you’re not going to think twice about shoving those fast food bendy straws right into your schnozz.

Some of these rules tend to get obsessively minute. They’ll give you commands about thoughts, bathroom behavior, pet ownership, and which side to sleep on. After my conversion, I frequently ate right-handed despite not only being a lefty, but having a deformed right arm which has trouble pulling off certain day-to-day duties. Eventually, there comes a point where you have to trust your god, your universe, or whatever higher power you believe in is forgiving enough to let your reward actions cancel out your sin actions. If they’re not, you’ll be in for an obsessively crazy life as well as an unpleasant afterlife.

People You Know Won’t Get Over Their Stereotypes
Stereotypes, for better and worse, are a fact of life. There are stereotypes for everything – race, body type, kind of sex partner, the list just goes on. So you better believe there are stereotypes to attribute to those of faith! Everyone knows that if you become a Pagan, you have to spend copious amounts of time explaining to your neighbor that you do not, in fact, worship the devil. If you’re a Confucian, you have to tell everyone that you don’t actually worship (or even necessarily believe in) a god. If you turn to Sikhism, it’s time to prepare those lectures about how you’re not a Muslim, and if you’re a Muslim, you have to assure your neighbors that you’re not planning to blow up their houses.

It’s a free country, so you’re free to follow whatever religion you want and tell your peers all the great things about your faith. Then they’ll be free to ignore everything you say and insist to everyone that you’ve joined the religious psycho squad. What about the children?!

Yeah, people in general just aren’t the learning sort. Be prepared to face the evil eye a lot if you’re not involved with a mainstream religion. After all, learning lessons involves going out and, you know, learning and expanding your mind. Who wants to do a silly thing like that when you can just place a person you’ve known and trusted for years into a mental “us against them” compartment under the “them” section?

There are conversion stories written by people who have even been disowned by their own families. I was lucky in that my own family – who raised me practicing a mainstream religion – was really cool about my conversion. My mother even says that it was a learning opportunity for her which she wouldn’t change. The rest of my neighborhood, well, let’s just say they didn’t share that same outlook.

You Won’t Stop Thinking Up New Questions
So okay, you’ve taken the eternal sacred vows of your new religion, and you know the practices now. You’re finding good and decent folk over at the local worshipping hole, and they don’t seem to mind your holdover heathen characteristics. You’re surviving all of the initial conversion waves and everything looks bright as the divine light for a long and productive stay in your new soul home, and possibly its afterlife.

Then one day, as you’re about to step into the artificial lightning machine for a ceremony, you hear a familiar soft whisper: “Psst, hey kiddo, something’s not right about this, and you know it!” That would be the manic raving of your conscience, here to spoil the party again. It’s not very comfortable following this Nikola Tesla religion, which is odd, because it’s the thing that talked you into giving it a shot in the first place.

If you’re converting to a new religion because you had problems with your old one, chances are you started listening to those voices in your head saying your old religion wasn’t working out and that you needed to break up with it. When you set sail toward the religious horizon, you’re doing it to get those voices to shut up. Inner peace or the search for a greater spiritual plane and anything else is basically a side effect to that; will a new religion answer questions about your old religion in an acceptable way? Despite the obvious logic failure in play here, you can’t help it because if you were raised in your old religion, it’s the only guiding philosophy you’re familiar with.

After conversion, everything will be great for awhile. Then people from your new congregation will start showing their human sides, scriptures will be bickered over, and sometimes people will start preaching values which go against what they were saying back when you were just a religion shopper. Scriptures will raise questions not answered to your satisfaction. The minister will be a fan of the wrong hockey team. You’ll have reservations about the part of the service where you stick your hand in a cage with an angry cobra. You’ve now gone full circle, and are right back where you started. Yes, there are plenty of people who find happiness and fulfillment in the religions they converted to, and some religions don’t make such taxing demands. But before you commit your eternity to a brand new religion, be sure you can weather out a few waves of doubt, or you’ll learn that eternity’s timespan is surprisingly limited.

Christmas, Christianity, and Commercialism

Christmas, Christianity, and Commercialism

It’s the most maddening time of the year. Now, don’t get me wrong: I love Christmas. What I can’t stand is this whole Christmas season that leads up to it. It’s really fitting that the popular image of Santa Claus is what we use to symbolize this season. Santa is centuries old, but the jolly fat man dressed in red was popularized by the Coca-Cola corporation, and let’s face it: Christmas is a corporate holiday right down to the very core of its being.

As Jon Stewart said, Christmas has become so large now that it’s engulfing the other holidays, and yet a disturbingly large proportion of people in this country manage to trick themselves into thinking there’s some kind of phantom war on Christmas. Only in America could we possibly get away with this kind of chutzpah. Christmas season even has a kind of official kickstart day of its own now – Black Friday – which comes immediately right after the day we give thanks for the things that go right with our lives. Then we get a solid month and a half of Christmas themes which overrun into November as people physically beat up and trample over each other to grab the hottest new items which some corporations are undoubtedly holding shipments on in order to create a false sense of scarcity.

Then we manage to conjure up the idea that this feeding frenzy is somehow being done in the good name of a man who, if he were around today, never would have been an American. Even if he was born in this country, he probably would have cast off the misnomer of “American.” No matter what the circumstances, it’s extremely difficult for me to imagine Jesus Christ elbowing his way through a line of shoppers in order to grab a new TV and being the first in line of a corporate bait and switch scheme. I CAN, however, imagine Jesus – at least somewhat – buying out a stock of HD television sets and simply giving them away, no questions asked. That vision requires a certain bending of Jesus’s character too, although not nearly as much as Cowboy Jesus does.

Furthermore, Christmas the season has become a kind of go-to attack against the Americans in the country who aren’t Christians, and that’s around 20-25 percent of us at the most wildly liberal estimate. I tend to identify with any one of the various non-religious people in the United States on any given day. Mostly, I call myself either an agnostic or an atheist, depending on how I’m feeling toward religion in general. Those who know me, though, know that I’m incontestably irreligious. I gave up organized religion years ago in a long and bitter fight with my own sense of cognitive dissonance, with my ideals of individual liberty clashing against everything every religious authority in my life had ever told me.

You would think the irony of Christmas commercialism would be a lot more obvious to people claiming to be Christians, but it seems like the people who wear their Christianity on their chests are the ones most oblivious to it. They’ve somehow managed to completely hijack their own holiday while spreading the blame on everyone but them. Which I guess makes sense in its own little way. The current version of Christianity is a religion which is about shifting blame onto someone who didn’t deserve it. Jesus dying for the sins of everyone? Yeah, it’s a pretty idea, but there’s a very sinister undertone to it which liberates its followers of personal responsibility. Believe in Christ and you’re saved no matter what sort of sadistic shit you’re into.

Christianity as introduced was a very radical lifestyle change which had nothing to do with religion. It emphasized the strength of community and the idea that everyone in said community was on equal footing; not equal footing as everyone having a theoretically equal chance to improve their living circumstances, but equal footing as the idea that no one had more power or greater status than another. It’s easy to see why the personal savior version of Christianity caught on – it doesn’t require very much work. Just abstain from – or limit – a few vices and condemn everyone to Hell and you’ve punched your ticket to a heavenly afterlife. Loving your enemies and standing up for the oppressed and forgotten requires a lot of going against human tribalism and accepting the fact that you’ll be defending people polite society would rather forget.

Instead, religion has become a de facto excuse to leave things the way they are. The religion that started as a method of rebelling against the Roman Empire and offering its untouchable low-caste members a way of empowering themselves is now the champion faith of a country which shows a lot of parallels to ancient Rome. And with a growing number of other people also starting to wake up to that fact, Christmas and this alleged war on it have become the rallying cry. People are very literally camping outside of large department stores and beating each other up over artificially-priced stuff a month and a half before Christmas, and yet, there’s a big war against it that no one seems to be waging anywhere I’ve ever lived. The vast majority of the country still claims Christianity as its religion, and most of them don’t even know the Pagan roots of virtually every aspect of our Christmas celebrations, and yet, somehow there’s a war on Christmas. Both the commerce capitol and national capitol of the United States throw fucking tax money at large, prominent, and garish display decorations to Christmas, and there’s somehow a goddamn war!

If you think I’m annoyed, yes, I am, because as an atheist, people keep finding ways to blame me for this war, despite the fact that the 20 million Americans who don’t identify with a religion don’t have any lobbying power. (As opposed to Christians, the only religion-related group that does.)

Yeah, how perfect it is that Christmas is considered the primary holiday.

The Easter Story of an Emergent Agnostic/Atheist

The Easter Story of an Emergent Agnostic/Atheist

The plaster cast felt like a glove, and it was about as tough. If I had molded it into a more grabby shape, I probably could have played hockey in it. I couldn’t help but make fun of the absurdity of a solid, hard plaster cast of my own right arm. It was to be exhibited on an artistic interpretation of the Stations of the Cross, some kind of Jesus-related thing I had never heard of until a couple of weeks previous. Over the preparation for the exhibit, I also helped mold and paint little crosses.

The Stations of the Cross wasn’t a concept I had any kind of attachment to, at all. It sounded like another bit of Christian dogma my pastor had not bothered to teach me about in confirmation class. At least, I didn’t remember being taught anything about it. Considering that I hated confirmation class and had been seething quietly through what I considered an elaborate initiation ritual which would allow me full membership into my church’s wine and wafer club, I was concerned with getting just enough info to pass the final than actually learning anything. Confirmation class was a course I spent two years sitting through, after all, when no one I knew could offer a remotely satisfying answer to the question: WHY am I being denied what is obviously a very important sacrament of Christianity until I listened to my minister’s blah blah blah-ing for two hours every freaking Tuesday for two freaking years? Apparently I had missed a commandment somewhere along the line. Thou shalt have no other gods. Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt take a two-year course to determine thine communion worthiness. Yeah, sounded about right.

Well, my inquisitiveness took its toll. Seven years after my confirmation, I had ditched Christianity entirely for a whole new religion. Three years after that, I ditched religion entirely. One of the instigators of my religious walkout was that everyone was dying for me to be able to perform rituals and recite passages on command, like some kind of dog/parrot genetic mutation. I was – am – an atheist, in large part because of these unbending dogmas I was being taught, and in even larger part because I had a bad habit of asking just where these rituals were written out in the Bible. The people I was questioning had an even worse habit of telling me the church does it that way because the church has ALWAYS done it that way. Grace Commons, my faith community in Chicago, was a breath of fresh air when I stumbled into it because here, at last, was a community which was challenging the very fundamental core of religion. The questioning of old religious tenants didn’t keep them from partaking in some of the rituals, though, so I saw no harm in partaking in the preparation and execution of the Stations..

Grace Commons being Grace Commons, they needed to give the Stations of the Cross an artistic spin. I was game and, truth be told, a little eager to see if I could get away with a little bit of stealth blasphemy. We created 15 stations with our own metaphorical spins on the traditional imagery. In the third station, in which Jesus fell for the first time, we created a drawing of a cross being pushed over by a montage of images of the world’s suffering and injustices, and propped back up with another montage of positive images of things which prop people in times of need. The tenth station, in which Jesus is stripped, was a board covered with red paint and black fabric. The fourth station, where Jesus met his mother, was a hand drawing of Jesus and Mary consoling each other.

I had a grand old time creating the exhibits. While creating the little clay crosses, I was given artistic license to create them however I saw fit, long as they were crosses. So I made a bunch of kooky-looking traditional crosses, some Celtic crosses, and one slab of clay on which I carved the word “CROSS” in large, commanding letters. I painted them however I saw fit, and I also created a weird little mold of my hand. Still, while I was doing these things, it was more out of my enthusiasm for being a creator than out of any attachment I had to Christianity. I had no feelings toward the Stations of the Cross one way or the other. As far as I was concerned, they were just another unwritten faith tenant the church had culled from the air in order to control the masses by promising some extra brownie points with God. My mother was more excited for my participation than I was. The Stations of the Cross had been something she knew while growing up as a Catholic. She was more appreciative of rigid religious observances and routines than I was, even though she’s a bit of a religious upstream swimmer herself.

The big day came, and I walked in fully prepared to make a few observations and maybe crack a few jokes. Basically, I was expecting to be at least mildly underwhelmed. I had never been particularly moved by the religious displays I had seen everywhere growing up, after all. Maybe it was just a result of the fact that everything about the killed-for-my-sins idea seemed was so distant, or that the questions I had surrounding the entire doctrine had wrecked it for me, or that I had been numbed by the imagery, but the common images always left me with a rather blase attitude. Well, my visit to this display felt a lot different. It WAS different, in a few ways. Instead of the redundant imagery of Jesus going through his crucifixion, the imagery in the Grace Commons Stations felt current, relevant. The focus of the Stations were rarely on Jesus, and few of the Stations featured his likeness at all. I saw the first Station (the condemnation of Jesus) with its portrayal of mob violence, and it clicked. My sense of cynicism had departed by the second Station, a painting of a man grieving the loss of his firstborn child, a metaphorical representation of Jesus being given the cross he had to bear.

Each Station was questioning me, and leaving me challenged; challenged about my ideas of injustice and sin; challenged about my role in fighting them; challenged about how I might have been a contributor. Many ideas which I held to be black and white in the past were being stirred up and tinted in grey. My mind searched for answers and coherent thought with each display as I moved along, and I began to withdraw into myself in a way I had done very few times in the past. By the 14th Station, a display of Jesus being placed into the tomb, I felt drained and somewhat broken down. Station 14’s display was that of a ghostly white face, against a white background, with a translucent white shroud covering it, inside of a pitch-black room lit only by a small flashlight which was there only to illuminate a real prayer, written by a Jew during the Holocaust, asking for the captors to be forgiven of their sins.

Station 14 was the point where I finally tore up. I choked up and fell silent and, in dire need of a breather, I returned to the area where the service had taken place. My thought had now overwhelmed me to the point where everything was now blending together and being replaced by a raw, unnamed emotion. As a handful of others slowly filed into the room after me, all I did was sit and watch the candle flames perform their silky tango. It was a half hour before anyone was able to say anything, and it was only once everyone had processed what we just saw that our usual post-service chirpiness started filling the room.

The traditional pictures of the Crucifixion had never affected me. Having seen them since a very early age at which I wasn’t able to understand what they were, I didn’t realize they were supposed to be affecting pictures of a suffering deity, and so I never had any feelings toward them one way or another. And now I was sitting here, with a series of images seemingly disconnected from the event, moved in a way I had never been by anything religious. Of course, it wouldn’t send me running to dunk my head into the baptismal font, but after many years of religious instruction being hotly questioned and abandoned, I couldn’t help but feel like something was finally working.