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When the Atheist Went to Church

Small white wooden church at sunset.  Barren trees to the left, traces of snow on the ground,

Once a native, now a stranger. Photo by keeva999 via Flickr. http://bit.ly/1FPtg14

I am presently on vacation in a delightful corner of Pennsylvania, staying with two dear friends, Jason and Allen. Yesterday I joined them at their church, my first Christian service since 2008 and first service of any religion since 2012. I didn’t have to go. I could have stayed home, and my friends wouldn’t have thought anything of it. But my friends are important to me, and I wanted to participate in something that was important to them.

We arrived at St. Paul’s United Church of Christ several minutes before the beginning of the second service, and as we stood about in the foyer, I was hit suddenly with an anxiety attack. Read the rest of this entry

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Friends

I just posted this essay to Facebook. It is largely addressed to certain individuals on my friends list. However, I thought it might be useful to post here as well.

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This is going to take me a long time to write. I’m writing it as a Word document first because I want to get it just perfect before I post it to Facebook. The things that I have to say need to be careful and measured and precise. But in the process, I cannot remove the fire and emotion that is motivating this post in the first place.

I was an evangelical Christian for a long time. I was at church three to four times a week, not counting special events. I studied the Bible and prayed every day. And I talked with everyone I could about becoming a Christian. I had been convinced that the only way they could avoid eternal pain and torment was to become a Christian. I didn’t want anyone to endure that agony; therefore, I wanted everyone to become Christians.

But then two life-changing events happened to me, at about the same time. First was the growing realisation that I was not turning into a heterosexual. I had only been attracted to males all my life, clear back to when I was a preschooler. Never mind that I had a hang-up on Greg Brady when I was three years old—all of this was certainly and undeniably a choice, my church told me, and the only way God would *really* love me (as opposed to just “loving” me the way he “loves” the people he sends to hell) was if I worked my absolute hardest to be attracted to women and not to men at all. But I wasn’t even most concerned about my going to hell. Instead, I was worried about being a “stumbling block.” If you’re not familiar with the term, it basically means that your words and actions can cause someone else not to consider God and God’s true character so they will not choose God and they will end up going to hell. And, remember, I didn’t want anyone to go there.

And so I went to “therapy” to turn into a heterosexual. I put it in quotes because no professional medical organization considers this to be genuine therapy. In fact, they consider it to be dangerous to those who pursue it. Given that, for the entire ten years I was involved in this “therapy,” I was either suicidal because my trying my absolute hardest to please God wasn’t working, or I was in a dead fog with no aspirations in life, since I had to put all other dreams on the backburner until I turned into a heterosexual, I concur with these experts. But after a full decade of figuratively (and sometimes literally) beating my head against the wall, after working my absolute hardest and seeing absolutely no change whatsoever, I realised that maybe this didn’t actually work. More audaciously, I thought that maybe I didn’t need this therapy for God to love me.

I came to this radical conclusion—that God might actually love me without my going to therapy anymore. I assumed I would never date a man, let alone have sex—I still assumed God wasn’t okay with this. I was simply saying that I wasn’t going to turn into a heterosexual, and that God was okay with that. But the church I was going to was not okay with this, and they of course knew exactly what was okay with God. When I asked them if I was welcome to continue with the church, they said that I was always welcome, but, because they loved me, it was their obligation to constantly tell me what a horrible mistake I was making and that I was sending myself and others to hell. I replied that I could not be expected to maintain that kind of unequal relationship. Never mind the fact that there were members of the church who were known to engage in premarital *heterosexual* sex and who were also budding young alcoholics who were in the same positions of leadership in the church I had been barred from for not turning into a heterosexual fast enough or perfectly enough.

The second event wasn’t so much an event as a person. I have always had a difficult time making friends. I grew up in a household with severe abuse and neglect issues which have left me with some social impairment. I’ve fought mightily to overcome these obstacles, but more often my fighting has backfired, my best efforts thwarted as I’ve struggled to fit in. The same was true in college—the school in which I was enrolled when I was attending the aforementioned church. I was always reaching out to make friends with my fellow students, in spite of the fact that, as a nontraditional student in classrooms full of folks fresh from high school, I didn’t fit. It only occurred to me later that I was so desperate to reach out to my classmates because my only other relationships, the ones at my church, were far more strained and abnormal than I could admit at the time.

So when I clicked with a classmate, I rejoiced. I befriended a classmate who was kind and funny and smart—pretty much anything you’d want in a friend. He was also planning on becoming a rabbi.

My church had taught me that I had to reach out to absolutely everyone, and do my absolute best to convert absolutely everyone to Christ so they wouldn’t go to hell. But here was this friend who would never, ever become a Christian. It seemed absurd to try. But it also seemed absurd to abandon our friendship over this one issue. After all, I was taught that the greatest commandment was to love, *not* to convert.

All of these things happened over a decade ago. I have changed so much. I am an out and proud and (sometimes) confident as a gay man. Not only am I no longer a Christian, but I am now an atheist. Yet the echoes of those experiences hit me full force on a regular basis—particularly because I am now on the other side of the equation. I have friends who tell me that I need to turn back to Christ, that they’re not going to give up on me. I have friends who tell me that I can’t possibly be an atheist for no other reason than they can’t understand how it’s possible.

To those friends, I say this: which is the greatest commandment, to love me or to convert me? Will you love me as I want so much to love you, even if I reject your religion out of hand? Or will you consider this a case of “pearls before swine” and move on? I’m always going to be here. But if you can’t respect my request that you not proselytise me, then I’m asking you to leave. You will only be dragged down further in your guilt over your not converting me (trust me, I get it, I was drowning—unnecessarily—in that guilt for the longest time), and we both will only ever be exasperated.

Now I wish to address those who believe we need to ensure that the laws of the land dictate that marriage—a legal contract, I don’t care how you slice it, since the government can recognise a marriage not carried out in a church, and a church can choose not to recognise a marriage the government deems valid—must only be between one man and one woman. The only arguments I have ever seen that even pretend to hold water are Biblical in nature.

Let me explain why a Biblical standard for law in the United States doesn’t work. I will keep coming back again and again to the Golden Rule—to do to others as you would have them do to you—and the Great Commandment that we are to love our neighbour as we love ourselves. This is, as I was taught, the cornerstone of the Christian faith—all the Law “hangs” on the commandment.

First, I get the desire to want to follow God, and to have that desire to inform every decision. But the way you live your life does not of itself form the standard to rule a country. There’s this idea that we are a “Christian nation” and that the laws must conform to Christianity. (More on this later.) I ask, whose Christianity? Methodist? Pentecostal? Lutheran? (And, of course, this gets into the eternal argument of who is “really” a Christian, which I’m not going to engage.) This country was started by folks who wanted the freedom to practise their own understanding of Christianity rather than conform to the Church of England. If you decide that your version of Christianity is the one to form the laws of the United States, then you are doing the exact same thing the Church of England was doing. Never mind the fact that there are a number of Christian denominations (and other religions) who support same-sex marriage rights. You’re denying them the same freedom of religion the Church of England denied the Puritans. Do unto others…

And none of this even touches the subject of other religions. I get the idea that you think that your worldview alone is correct and all other religions are wrong on every level. I used to live deep within that understanding. I get it. But here’s the thing—that standard can’t be used for the governance of an entire country, particularly a country as diverse as the United States. The standards of law must apply to all citizens—even those who do not conform to a particular religion, or any religion. That’s why the law must transcend the tenets of any particular religion. There have been any number of Islamophobes stirring up the false notion that Christians in the United States are somehow being forced to abide by Islamic law. In terms of manufacturing fear, it’s a smart move. Folks don’t want to be forced to conform to a religion they don’t belong to. Bear that in mind when I say: Do unto others…

Speaking of stirring up trouble, there have been a number of organisations and personalities over the past 35 years who have been spreading lies to Christians and threatening them with accusations of being unpatriotic or un-Christian if they dissent. When I was in high school, a gentleman came to my church to teach us our “rights as American Christians.” What he had to say was pretty familiar to us now: that the United States is a Christian nation, that the Founding Fathers were Christians who wrote the Constitution to conform to Christian law, etc.  But one particular statement stuck in my mind. The gentleman declared that Thomas Jefferson had intended his doctrine of separation of church and state to be a “one-directional wall,” by which the state keeps out of the church but not vice versa. And he gave a *quote* from Thomas Jefferson in this regard. But here’s the thing: You can track down this quote as much as you want in vain. Jefferson never said any such thing. The man in my church *lied*.  People are lying about a lot of things. They are lying about the intent of the Founding Fathers. They are lying about the intent of same-sex couples. Do your research. Challenge every notion. Learn the truth. The truth will set you free.

And now I want to pull this discussion back to more personal concerns. I have people who say they are my friends, but who say that they cannot abide by the law allowing me to marry someone on the same basis they would choose to marry someone. I’ve already made all the arguments as to why your religious opinions shouldn’t inform our nation’s laws, and why this actually benefits you. Still, this means nothing to some of you.

This is how I hear it: that this issue exists only in the vacuum of your own theories, and that we must conform to the laws in this vacuum of your theories. But guess what? This is affecting real, flesh-and-blood people. I don’t live in a vacuum. I have a long, complicated story that’s led me to where I am—a story some of you haven’t bothered to ask about or wanted to listen to, telling me that my story is impossible. And I am one of millions of flesh-and-blood people not living in your vacuum.

Now, my mother always taught me to put myself in someone else’s shoes, so I’m going to ask you to do that now. I want you to go back to when you were in junior high, high school, to the first time you fell in love. Now I want you to imagine your parents finding out and kicking you out when you’re 13, 14. I want you to imagine yourself tiny and afraid on the brutal streets.

I want you to imagine going to school and managing to get to class and do homework in spite of constant harassment and threats. (This is *me*, by the way.) I want you to imagine worrying you’ll get beat up or worse on the way out of school every day.

I want you to imagine getting fired from your job because someone saw you out on a date the other night.

I want you to imagine you and your spouse. I want you to imagine going to a restaurant and getting kicked out when you hold hands. I want you to imagine the two of you going on your dream vacation, only to have your reservation rejected because you want to share a room. I want to imagine you having kids, and the school only allowing one of you to pick them up from school. I want you to imagine your kid sick in the hospital, and only one of you allowed to visit. I want you to imagine *yourself* in the hospital, and your spouse not being allowed to visit. I want you to imagine that you die in that hospital, and your relatives swooping in and leaving the spouse you leave behind utterly penniless.

Because of current laws and social norms, everything I’ve said is real life—not theory—for millions of Americans. I’m talking about baseline empathy, the minimum standards I’d hold someone to in terms of basic morality. And if you can sit there and tell me that you’re okay with the fact that millions of human beings equal to yourself go through such ordeals and more, then you have no empathy. Moreover, it means you’re okay for *me* to go through these things, even though you’d say you’re my “friend”. I don’t need you dragging me down in my life. I don’t need to feel like one of my slave ancestors, who has found his freedom, only to have his former master chasing him down at every turn trying to drag him back to the plantation. You say that I do not deserve the same rights and protections under the law as you. You—who say that you’re my friend—thus see me as inferior, whether you care to admit it or not. I can’t see how that can be called a friendship.

If you have the guts to maintain this stance, then you have the guts to defriend me. I want you to. I want my Facebook friends list to be shorter in the next week, because people have read this and can’t assent to the idea that human beings ought to be treated like human beings. The only way I want to see this number stay the same is that you’ve actually bothered to read what I’ve said and have taken it to heart. I left a relationship with a church because it was built on inequality. I’ll leave a relationship with an individual for the same reason. But I have some slight glimmer of hope that folks will take what I’ve said to heart. It’s up to you.

And if you can’t assent to any of this, if you do drop me from your friends list, then my parting words to you are to please raise your children to be loving and kind. If I can’t have hope for you, I can at least have hope for them.

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Read the follow-up to this essay here

Uncensored

Last night I indulged in a carton of Ben & Jerry’s–perhaps not the smartest thing for a man trying to lose weight, but it’s not like an everyday thing.  As I decided on my flavour (“Late Night Snack”, fantastic), I noticed that one new fluffernutter-inspired concoction was rechristened, from “Cluster Fluff” to “What A Cluster”.  This did not surprise me.  The company had recently been pressured by conservative activist group One Million Moms to change the name of their latest flavour, “Schweddy Balls”, inspired by a Saturday Night Live sketch.  However, as of today on the Ben & Jerry’s website, that name remains (though, personally, I think the idea of putting chocolate and rum together sounds kind of disgusting).  Even so, though the company has used salacious flavour names in the past*, they apparently felt compelled to change the name of “Cluster Fluff”.

This censorious behaviour echoed an online conversation I’d had earlier in the day with a good friend in Canada.  He had recommended a website for me to check out, and though I was certain it would include no “graphic” imagery, I figured it would still be blocked on library computers.  I told him such, to his shock and consternation.  After all, this was a library, a purveyor of information to the masses, and a cultural institution which has a long history of standing against censorship.  If Canada doesn’t censor public internet use in this way, surely the United States wouldn’t, either.  I then explained that in the United States, the federal government can reduce a public library’s federal funding if they do not install “nannyware” filters in their computer labs.  (Some American libraries have simply chosen to forego the federal funding, on principle.)  I illustrated this attitude in American culture with the catchphrase of Helen Lovejoy, the pastor’s wife on The Simpsons: “Will somebody please think of the children?!”  My friend replied that people should focus on raising their own children, not other people’s.

I’m undecided on how I feel about his statement.  On one hand, as they say, “It takes a village to raise a child.”  Children grow up, not in the bubble of their parents’ watch, but in society at large, and we fool ourselves if we think our actions have no influence at all on the next generation.  On the other hand, how one chooses to parent, how one chooses the values to inculcate into their children–we consider these sorts of choices as a hallmark of a free society, and, so the argument goes, if someone wants to raise their child more “precociously” than another, then so be it.  And yet, this view is also used to enforce attitudes that really do harm society: “I’m raising my child to stand against homosexuality, and rules that say ‘gay’ students get ‘special protection’ from bullying is undercutting my right to raise my child as I want.”

What I am sure of is that it is absurd to believe one can raise a child in a protective bubble in perpetuity.  There is a difference between, say, giving your twelve-year-old pornography (ignoring the fact that some of the Bible is quite pornographic), and that twelve-year-old discovering it just by being a member of society.  Children are going to find out about the real world no matter how much they protect their children.  It is the job of the parents to first build up values such that their children can handle “the real world” when–not if– they encounter it, and then, to discuss issues in an age-appropriate manner when–not if–they come up.

The challenge comes when a segment of society believes it is (literally) their God-given responsibility to act as God’s mouthpiece in any and all situations, to hand out the judgements and punishments in God’s place.  To this, I can only reply that, in a great many situations–from the woman about to be stoned for adultery, to his many encounters with the Pharisees, Jesus told people to mind their own business when it came to others’ morality, and to focus on their own.

As an aside, just to make my personal statement about censorship, allow me to say that, if you were not aware of what “Cluster Fluff” refers to, it’s a play off the phrase “clusterfuck”, which generally refers to a complex and intractable situation.

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*”The company has had other controversially named flavors as well — Karmel Sutra and Hubby Hubby (in support of gay marriage) — for example. But Schweddy Balls has received much publicity-generating attention.” Read more here.