Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Ask Team Ambiguity: Is Christianity Really Pushing Young People Away?

I have this recurring dream. In it, I am in a cozy cafe. I am wearing a shirt that says "Spiritual Atheist." Over in the corner are some smart looking people. They are wearing shirts that say "Humanist" and they look at me with raised eyebrows. Why the choice of verbage, they are wondering. To my left is a woman in flowing skirts. Her shirt is emblazoned "Pagan." Her companion's shirt says simply, "Witch." My closest friends–the ones at my table–are a motley crew. Their shirts say "Catholic," "Christian," "Mormon," "Jew," "Agnostic." Many of them, in a cozy cluster, are labeled as "Unitarian Universalist." Here and there I see "Buddhist." There are more labels here than it is worth devoting key strokes to describe. Everyone has a t-shirt and we are all just drinking coffee–except the Mormons–and talking about our children, our gardens and the weather. Everyone is polite and congenial. Everyone is labeled, and no one says a thing about the labels. We just drink coffee and chat.

This cafe is my life. I love it here. I love the people, but I am driven by the kind of existential angst that would demand that I stand up and start asking questions about Jesus. Everyone else just wants espresso and polite ignorance. I want to have an interfaith group therapy session. I sit on my hands and sip my latte.

I found this article in the Huffington Post Religion section, written by Rui Dai, a student at Duke University. I don't know if it is a good Team Ambiguity article, but I do think it is a good starting place for conversation. I like several things about the article. I like that Dai acknowledges that Christianity can and will survive its evolution toward scientific understanding which it has done time and time again. I like that she questions the existence of an organized anti-religious agenda. I have always felt that if there were such a thing, someone would probably have told me by now, given my associations. I am reminded of Jerry Falwell's denunciation–in the wake of the 9-11 attacks–of pagans, who, among other groups, he blamed for making America vulnerable to attack.

"We aren't even organized enough to get thirteen women together for a circle.," my pagan friend informed me afterward.

Dai's article is smart, articulate and challenging. It even, I suppose, takes my side, if we are taking sides. I am, after all, a Unitarian Universalist atheist liberal. The best articles make me think and this one did. I have some questions to ask about it, some places I want to go. Let's examine the body.

The Left Leg: Is the Christian faith really  any less tolerant than it ever has been? This is an argument not with anything Dai has said specifically, but with where I think some may go with her assertion. People are given to negative superlatives. Every election cycle is the dirtiest we've seen. Racial politics get worse and worse. Sexism doesn't get better, it only hides. Really? As recently as the 18th Century, the church was burning witches at the stake. Go back further and people were stoning adulteress women. How recently were cautions against the miscegenation as serious in tone as the ones against gay marriage now? The continued existence of intolerance doesn't make it as bad as it ever was. In fact, the fact that young people are turned off by the bigotry of certain religious groups that grab the mic is an indication that tolerance is increasing. Our younger generation doesn't want to hear that message anymore. I find that hopeful.

The Right Leg: There is intolerance and there is intolerance. I am going to say the thing that makes me so weird and unpopular with everyone. Secular assholes are just as much assholes as religious assholes. Intolerance doesn't require a religious stamp to be intolerance. Yes, some of the most institutionalized intolerance that currently exists is religious in nature, but you can be a racist, sexist, closed-minded, violent wrong-doer without coming in the door holding a cross or a Koran. (Hitler and Stalin always leap immediately to mind.) In terms of people you may meet in the cafe, the secular jerkwads are the ones who won't listen to anything you have to say, who malign everything done by any person of faith no matter the context and who hope that someday everyone will evolve to be more like them. So, in order to avoid the whole mess Dai describes, you can't become an anti-religionist. You need to just quietly and politely not attend church and avoid religious conversations. By all means, don't go the way of Christopher Hitchens, may he rest in peace.

The Left Arm: Is leaving the answer? I beg your indulgence because I am playing devil's advocate here. I am not a Christian, and I am not currently attending any church whose stated beliefs make me uncomfortable. I cannot say that leaving a church or faith isn't exactly the right thing to do for many people. It likely is in more cases than not. I just want to ask this question: How much change can take place from within a faith as opposed to from without? This is how my husband and I have chosen to approach our own faith. To do this requires that you love your faith and have an investment in it. It also requires that you have a sense of ownership of its beliefs so that when people argue with you, be they other lay people or clergy, you have a sense not of righteousness but of authority. Our own conviction is that our faith needs to be more active and relevant, less provincial, cozy and sure of itself. We often express disagreement in church, but we do it with love. I wonder what might be possible if more young people leaving Christian faiths would stay and bring their commitment to bear on them. I do not claim to know, only wonder.

The Right Arm: The young don't need church as much as espresso and Prozac. When I was in my twenties, I didn't go to church either. Why bother? I participated in various spiritual groups, but my life was more focused on my own exploration of the outer world and my own ideas about it. I tended to push up against any organizational doctrines as a means of testing my wings. We started going back to a UU church, in which Mike and I were both raised, when we had our third child and the older children were...older, old enough to need what I might call moral instruction. They needed community. We needed community. In our thirties, we suddenly liked dressing up and showing up on Sundays to bring our kids to Sunday school and sit in the sermon. I wonder if the seeming mass exodus of twenty-somethings is as significant as Dai thinks it is. I'd be curious to see the statistics on those kids when they're in their thirties.

The Body: Religion almost never seems religious to me. I think we cloak a lot of things in the guise of religion that are nothing more than the nature of being human. Bigotry may have a religious justification, but it doesn't require one and it will persist with or without that rationale. That is why I always argue that fighting over the semantics of fear and hatred is a waste of time and energy. The answer, we always find is love. I don't mean that in a "stick a sign up at a protest" sort of a way. I mean it in an actual, scientifically verifiable kind of a way. We got to know people of other races and care about them, which made the worst forms of bigotry start to disappear from the mainstream. The Cosby Show or Will and Grace gave us fictional African-Americans and fictional gay people that we could get to know. Gay friends, relatives and co-workers refusing to hide and be ashamed have woken us up to the smell of our own hatred, like a cupped hand close to our mouths. Our society is not done with this process, but it is happening.

Freeing ourselves from religion won't save us from being human and subject to other humans. It is part of our nature to form groups. It is also part of that nature to act without thinking, to choose sides, to attack that which seems "other," and to give attention to just the person that is doing the loudest, stupidest-sounding yelling. If we don't line up and form groups around religious lines, we can still do it around politics, child raising, and soft drink preference. And we will.

Everyone's gonna do what they're gonna do. I don't honestly expect that my three sons will attend church while in their twenties. I don't know that I'm invested that they do at all. Here's what I'm invested in: Come into the cafe. Sit down with me and let's talk about what we believe. I'm not out to convert you, and I hope you're not out to convert me. If it ends up getting heated, we can always get another latte and change the subject. I don't want to spend my life at one table with a bunch of people wearing the same t-shirt I'm wearing and I don't want to leave the cafe. So, come on in and pull up a chair.

Now tell me what you think. This is where it gets interesting. Here are the rules for all Team Ambiguity discussions:

  1. Please do not rely solely on the pacifying statement that people just disagree. This is true but obvious. What is interesting is: why? And do these people feel listened to? I don't necessarily mean us; I mean whatever parties are at issue in our discussion.

  2. You have to be respectful of one another and of the opinions or thoughts being discussed, even if you think they are are turkey twaddle. Team Ambiguity is characterized by its ability to step back and consider that we may be wrong. That means the turkey twaddle may be right. 

  3. Please don't hide because you think everyone else is smarter or more articulate than you, or because no one has said yet what you were going to say and you are waiting for them to, so you can say "Yeah, what SHE said!". You are the smartest damn person on the whole blog. We want your comment because yours is the essential comment.

  4. Please realize it's not a fight. Discourse is illuminating. It is what makes people smarter. If we are all following Rule #2, there isn't any fighting. We are just responding with our honest experiences and thoughts and stories. One person adds celery, another adds carrot and soon we have a rich soup of differing flavors.
Bring on the ambiguity!


  1. I have so very, very much to say about all of this and no time. I may have to just link a post. Apologies. The dust bunnies are eating my brains, but I have a lot to add to this particular conversation.

    1. I wish you had more time because I am already greedy for your thoughts. Back to your dust bunnies! I can't wait to see the post or whatever. I thought a great deal of you when writing this. You were next to me at the cafe. I think I yelled "Jesus!" or "Penis!" at you and spilled your coffee.

    2. TL, I just read this article in CNN: Where are the Good Christians? and it made me think of what you said:

  2. I am what I am because I chose, as an adult, this faith. I chose it because I believe, with great faith, the tenets of this religion. When I stand up and say, 'I believe', it's because I do believe. However, I have seen my church (and many others) become overly concerned with what everyone else believes, and less concerned about the manifestation of their faith in their own lives. It bothers me enough that I am having not a crisis of faith, but a crisis of religion. I find myself, more than anything, terribly sad and disappointed. I find myself stuck, not knowing what to do. I'm not going to stop being what I am, because I haven't stopped believing in it. I have, however, stopped believing that the church is working for the good of all mankind. I don't think that answered any of your questions! It is a hot topic at my house right now, and every time I think about it, I want to cry.

    1. You know I don't care if you answer my arbitrary questions! I am sorry you are in pain, Kelly. I had a similar experience, not with church but with my 12 step fellowship, which is probably the story for another day. In the end, I did indeed walk away. I get so discouraged with people, generally, with their finger pointing and blathering. Finger-pointing secular humanists, finger-pointing Christians, finger-pointing Muslims–it all starts to sound the same.

      One time, when I was in this space of disappointment, I realized that this thing I am so repelled by is just what humanity looks like. That is what it is designed to be, more or less, from a survival, reptile brain perspective. Call it faulty wiring or original sin, it's ordinary. The ability to love, to accept, to find common ground–those are creative, extraordinary acts. If I want to see them, I suppose I have to create them, invite their creation and shout it from the rooftops when I see others doing it (or think I do.) When I can remember this, I stop feeling so bitter.

      I don't feel now like this has anything to do with what you said and I'm sorry it was so long. I love you.

    2. Kelly, I can relate to your comments so much it makes me want to cry.

    3. Hey Kelly, I'm so sorry to hear you are hurting. I think very highly of you and hope you'll soon be able to make peace with this difficult situation.

      I don't claim to know what you are dealing with, but your comments made me think of my grandfather, who was a staunch Catholic for his whole life.

      After my adopted Dad died, my mom finally married an atheist in a non-Christian Unitarian Universalist Church. My grandfather refused to attend the service and over the years, he become increasingly condescending towards her.

      I knew he believe he was trying to save her eternal soul, but she believed he never loved her and had adopted her only because the orphanage said if they wanted to adopt (a boy named Nick) they'd have to adopt her too.

      One day, when I lived in San Francisco, he sent me a letter in which he said that my Mom reminded him of Jesus' statement that the sinner ought to be cast into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck. I was a bit pissed off about that for quite some time.

      He spent decades waiting for my mom to apologize to him, and come back to the church. In the mean time, she wrote him off and excluded him from her life. When he died, I was one of the only people who was still speaking to him. Theologically, we were almost polar opposites, but I was on a spiritual path, with AA. I knew him to be a good person (in that he wanted to do good in the world) but he forgot that a spiritual path is a personal thing and we can't dictate another person's path for them.

      I tend to think religion looses track of this basic fact, particularly when it gets a little too big and organized. I think it is natural and I don't think it means the religion has a lack of desire to be a force for good in the world, it has simply forgotten how to accomplish that. Religions, so often seem to move from promoting charity and tolerance to dictating how others should live and advocating for legislation that promotes the religion's specific beliefs.

      I think religions need people like you Kelly, who have a sense of how to be good in the world, they need people who are kind to somehow take the helm. I do not mean to say you should feel obliged to try and steer that vessel, if you don't want to. I walked away from AA in this town after moving from California, because I felt completely ineffective at promoting a culture of service to others. I couldn't take it any more and I simply quit attending meetings. I don't think they miss me at all. :-) It still makes me very sad though, especially, when I remember my first ten years in Marin AA. Sometimes I do start left something of a hole in my emotional life.

    4. Oh, you guys, you are pulling me into this conversation no matter how hard I try to resist. The post, Tara, is, as always thought provoking and articulate. So much on which to comment and, like TL, early Friday morning is not the time to fully respond.... but then I read your comment, Kelly, and I could so relate - and, Mike, holy shit - the parallels to good people involved in religion and trying to dictate other's paths for them - a sad story, indeed and one to which I could intimately relate. I will be back.

    5. Good God, I love you people. Thank you for your thoughtful and kind words. I know there are people of great faith struggling right now, who are being told that they are not practicing their faith the 'right' way. And certain churches wonder why they are losing their parishoners. It is not, as one very self righteous acquaintance suggests, that we are unwilling to submit to the will of God. It is that we are questioning the motives of men who bend doctrine to support their politicsl agenda. It's that we're wondering what place we outsiders (women, homosexuals, liberals, supporters of ecumenism, is that the right word?), have in the body of the church, let alone the hierarchy. my husband and I are actually meeting with a Episcopalian priest (I think you probably have all figured out we're Catholic ;) ), hoping this might be an option in practicing our faith in a more open way, without feeling that we are compromising our personal (nondogmatic) beliefs. We'll see. Thank you providing this topic, and this forum, because I am having such a hard time talking about it, and it is ever so much easier to talk to people in the little box.

    6. I, too, love talking to people in little boxes. I used to go to peep shows, but the women there never wanted to discuss theology, so I started a blog. Seriously, though, Kelly, I'm honored to have you share your thoughts here. This is exactly why I always wanted a little Interfaith Cafe. Exactly. I truly hope that you and your family find you need, Kelly. I know that church is out there. There are so many churches. I am proud of you for not giving up.Any church will be better with you in it.

      Gracie, I hope you will make it back and say more. I find myself anxious for your perspective, which is always a good one.

    7. Hi Kelly, I didn't know that you were Catholic. I had assumed, because you live in the South, that you are Protestant. I was Catholic for the first nine years of my life or so and I continue to be fascinated with the Catholic church.

      Catholic charities are the single largest contributor to AIDS relief in the world. Our church has used a version of the Catholic's creation/evolution curriculum about stardust for our kids.

      A couple of years back, my little boo and I sat down and made an "evolution rosary" where he picked one bead for each major element in Universal evolution and put it on a string. One for the big bang, one for the formation of stars and galaxies, one for the formation of earth, etc... all the way to one for his birth and separate beads for events he remembered as important in his life.

      I have to admit, that while I'm not Christian, I very much miss John Paul. I had a lot of respect for him and I really dislike this new Pope, I feel he is steering the Catholic church in very much the wrong direction and a lot of people are going to get hurt in the process.

      Knowing your are Catholic, I thoroughly understand what you mean by questioning a place for outsiders...particularly in the hierarchy.

      I stand with the Nuns and according to my reading, so do a lot of people , both Catholic and not. That being said, everything I've read about the Episcopalian church indicates it might be a good fit for you. It is very similar to Catholicism, except that women can be ordained as ministers and many Episcopalian churches have not only ordained gay ministers, but also sanctioned gay marriage.

      Here's me sending you best wishes in your quest!

  3. For me, this issue is so bungled up in misconception and misdirection that it's hard to know where to begin. First: the definition of Christian. The Bible defines a Christian as someone who has "put on Christ" - meaning, one who knows and understands His teachings, believes in Him and follows Him. The label "Christian" gets slapped on all kinds of things that it shouldn't. Christianity, as I understand it from the teachings of Christ, is an individual pact with God. A pact that says "I will believe, I will obey, and if I mess up, I will repent and You will forgive." I believe it really is that simple. We don't like words like "obey" but too bad. We all obey different things whether we call it that or not.
    What mystifies me are so-called Christians who disregard the teachings of Christ. It is a basic element of my own faith that if I choose to sport about wearing the name of Christ, I had better make sure I don't make Him look bad. So what would Jesus do? Well, I don't know. I know what He did that was recorded for us. He fed the hungry, he healed the sick. He waded neck deep into the diseased, the impoverished, the demon-possessed, the wicked, the hypocritical, the harlots, the cheats, the liars and He loved them all. He loved them all so much that He died for their sorry selves. He loved the people who executed Him. Having gone through the worst kind of humiliation and torture and pain imaginable, He looked down on the foaming, screaming mob and He said "Forgive them." You know what else He did? He eschewed all political associations. He told slaves to obey their masters. He told people to pay their taxes. He hid from the people who wanted to "take Him by force and make Him king." He explained over and over that His kingdom was not of this world. Nobody understood that. He was crucified because the powerful elite religious leaders of the day thought He was trying to steal their thunder.

  4. In fact, the only people that Jesus was ever angry with, the only people to whom He spoke sharply were the so-called religious leaders of the day. He called them out on their hypocrisy: things like neglecting needy family members so that they could make large, ostentatious public donations; praying on the street corners so everyone could see how pious they were; making the accouterments of their religion showy and resplendent. He called them "whitewashed tombs", "a brood of vipers". So they killed Him. And yet, he begged for forgiveness on their behalf. That is Jesus.
    My understanding of the Bible leads me to believe that notions such as the "Christian political right" are nonsensical. Christianity, in its purest form, is not political. So anyone using Christianity for a political battering ram is not serving Christ, they are serving themselves. It really is that simple for me. Movements can't be "Christian". Parties can't be "Christian". Schools can't be "Christian". Families can't even be "Christian". People can be Christian. And if a person is not even attempting to follow the teachings of Christ, or is not familiar with the teachings of Christ, or denies the teachings of Christ, then they can call themselves whatever they want. By the Bible's definition, they are not a Christian. Terrible things are done in Christ's name and it breaks my heart. It breaks my heart because people confuse the pretenders with the genuine article. So yes, conservatives are driving people away from Christianity by speaking and acting in a way that is unchristian and calling it Christianity. By muddying the waters in mixing politics and religion. By turning churches into corporations and political lobbyists and mouthpieces. By doing all of these things that Jesus abhorred in the 1st century. In essence, the elite religious leaders of today are out to crucify Him all over again.

  5. What does that mean to me? Not much. My relationship with God governs every aspect of my life. The Bible is the standard by which I make decisions because I believe what it says when it says it "contains all things pertaining to life and godliness". It's not something I inherited, it's not something I take lightly, and it's not something I would ever, ever use to justify treating anyone poorly. I don't identify with the people spewing vitriol in God's name any more than I identify as a Buddhist.
    I will behave the same, believe the same regardless of what's legal or not, who's in power or not, who likes me or not. This is hard-won for me. I have not always felt this way. My faith is far too precious to me to turn it into a political tool.

    1. One of the qualities I so respect in you is your integrity, TL. It is people like you and like Jewels that I am thinking of when I posted the other day that I wish I knew Jesus better–a statement that I now realize, coming from me, is very hard not to misinterpret.

      What amazes me is how much I can relate to every single thing you say, all without subscribing to a belief in the divinity of Christ. I grew up hearing less about Jesus than perhaps I should have but a great, great deal about people like Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Harriet Tubman. I know that to compare them to Jesus for a believing Christian may be offensive but for me, they occur as similar. People latch onto "I have a dream" and similar quotes, the practice of non-violence that Ghandi and MLK espoused (which inspire me greatly), but forget that these men challenged the system and their followers to an enormous degree and their views were hugely unpopular and not confined to the topics for which they are best known. What I have learned of Jesus–and my minister preaches on him frequently–would suggest that he was the same. It is an example that never fails to inspire me.

      I also feel the same as you do in that my faith (and I do see my atheism as a faith) is an individual pact with the Universe. It's what I've worked out so that I can live with integrity and purpose. Standing in the presence of the enormous paradox and complexity of life and humanity, I have chosen not to personalize God or see a balancing hand on the scales of justice other than human hands. But I don't believe I am right about this in any provable sense. Faith is never provable. Thinking one can prove or disprove the existence of God to me is silly. First we'd have to drink A LOT of coffee to even get down to the brass tacks of what God we are talking about because more often than not, we don't use the word to mean the same thing. So faith for me is personal and about my own soul. To the extent that I am public about it, it isn't because I want to convert anyone, it's because I want to share my journey and invite other people to share their own, different ones with me.

      Thank you for doing just that.

    2. I think you nailed it when you said "faith is never provable." If you could prove it, you wouldn't need faith, now would you? Love you dearly, Tara.

    3. First, TL, your descriptions of Christianity are spot-on. I loved what you said about it being a pact of 'I will believe, I will obey and if I mess up I will repent and you will forgive'. Christ's gospel is beautiful in its simplicity.

      Second, Tara, I've learned SOOOOO much from you and Mike through these discussions. I was telling my husband about it and he said, 'How is atheism a religion?' and I have to admit, before I'd read what the two of you wrote, I had the same question. But, you explain it so eloquently and I am struck by your conviction and beliefs. It's truly quite inspiring. My brother (the gay one) is an atheist, but I don't think he has the kind of direction that you do because of your beliefs. I wish he did, I think he'd be a lot happier.

      And, I agree that we can't prove faith. When I served as a missionary for our church, I had a hard time when people would ask me how I know, to prove what I say is true. Faith is in your heart, it breathes in your soul. It isn't something to be seen, it can only be felt.

    4. Jewels, I seem to be missing some of the comments on my first look and I didn't see this one of yours til now! I would say that what I would call spiritual atheism is part of my path for me, but I wouldn't characterize it as a religion. Unitarian Universalism is my religion. It just happens to be a religion inside which I can build my own theology. My congregation has members who also attend the Catholic Church, who identify as Jewish or as Buddhist or as Pagan or as Humanist etc., etc. So atheism is my theology, but my values are driven by UUism.

      I think because I was sober in AA (I'm still sober, but not an AA member) I had an experience similar to what many have growing up in a traditional church in some ways. I was taught to believe that I needed to depend on a higher power. And I believe this to be true, after a fashion. So, for me, I need a spiritual context for living, and I have worked to have atheism be a spiritual context rather than an absence of that. Most atheists, in my experience, don't feel the need to do this. For them, ours is simply a rational point of view. I think the rational bit is why I ended up there, but, in finding myself there, I know rationalism by itself isn't going to sustain me. I need to be connected to a purpose, meaning of some kind, beauty, and something to be in integrity with.

      Getting to this was a process for me where I intentionally stayed with a crisis of faith I was having and shaped it to something that would allow me to thrive. It was painful in the process, but it has worked ever since. I expect I may need to do it again. I am the kind of person who outgrows my old ideas every few years. This makes me sound crazy, I think.

      I am inspired by integrity, kindness, love and generosity and I don't care very much what beliefs motivate people to act in these ways–except to be curious. I am just glad that they do. I place my faith in those capacities and in the capacity for human transformation. Because of that,I am deeply inspired by yours and Kelly's and TL's relationship to Christ and I feel so lucky to have writers around me to explain these things to me. It makes my life so much richer. I cannot overstate that.

    5. I grew up in a Mormon-bubble. We lived in Idaho and Arizona, both of which had very predominate LDS communities. Most of my friends from school also attended church with me on Sunday. Now, I live in Utah- the biggest Mormon-bubble of all. It wasn't until I was well into adulthood that I really started learning more about other religions- or faiths. And I love learning about them. I love the fact that we are mostly based on the same philosophy of kindness to one another and striving to become better people. If we (meaning the world as a whole) could look past the differences in our dogma and find the similarities in our beliefs we could all get along much better.

      It's funny, because this goes right back to what we talked about before here on your blog. When we were talking about mothering and how we differ. Why do we have to beat each other up? It's so much better to share our feelings and thoughts and enlighten one another. You take what I have to offer and consider it. I'll do the same with you. It doesn't mean we'll change our own point of view, but our horizons will be expanded by the sharing of something new.

  6. I enjoyed reading your article. I am at a point now here in NYC that I am disgusted with what is "passing" for humanity. I think it is part of why I am torn about where I "fit" in the religious communities. I do the best I can, and would rather everyone treat each other with love and caring to one another and RESPECT each other's beliefs regardless of if you believe them. I hate blanket statements applied to individual relgions and beliefs and try live by not doing that myself. I love the idea of sitting around with coffee/tea and chatting. World would be better for it.

    1. Thank you, Winnie. I'm glad you came by the cafe. Have espresso with me any time.

  7. I've had some time to chew on this and I'm writing my comment before I read anyone else's, so I won't be swayed by their response.
    As the person at the table who is proudly holding her orange juice, I know that my beliefs are sort of sandpaper to many. Our doctrine rubs a raw place on the perspectives of the world, especially those more liberal views. But, I love your discussions, and so I will dive in.

    I thought the article was very interesting. I took a religion class in college (an LDS school) and my teacher was also a scientist. He believed very firmly in evolution and was able to explain it in a way that I understood. And, in a way that did not fly in the face of the things I'd been taught all my life. I think that religion tends to have an evolution of its own. As the world changes and our understanding of it expands, religion, too, must change. I've seen that in my own church where attitudes are softening and tolerance is growing.

    But, and here's the big BUT, the doctrines are the same. Our beliefs are firmly rooted in the Bible and the Book of Mormon. And while we may be more accepting, right and wrong are still just that. I don't judge others by what they do, but I will continue to live my life the way I believe is right.

    As for the youth, I guess it may be true that many of them are leaving Christianity. I don't know. I have the handicap of living in a very Mormon-populated community so my view on that is skewed. I hope my children don't stop going to church-ever. I really do. My boys have been raised to know that we expect them to serve missions when they are 19. We would never force them or be angry if they chose not to, and they know that, too. I like that our young men are encouraged to do this at this age because it's such a vital time for them. It gives them a firm foundation to the beliefs they've been raised with. It helps them at a time when they're learning to be on their own and really make their own decisions.

    I really loved the line- "Gay friends, relatives and co-workers refusing to hide and be ashamed have woken us up to the smell of our own hatred, like a cupped hand close to our mouths." This really happened to me with my brother. I wouldn't say I 'hated' homosexuals, but I had a lot of prejudice against them. I had to take a long look at the why's of that prejudice and the basis for my feelings for my brother. And, what it boiled down to was that he wasn't a different person. I love him and nothing could change that. This opened my eyes wide to the world around me. I think that it really helped me in becoming more like Jesus, as well. He loves us all and he showed that when he lived here. He wasn't ashamed or afraid to associate with those that the world deemed 'untouchable'. He reached out his hand to all. I think that as a follower of Christ that is my duty as well. I try to look past the outer shell that we tend to judge each other with. It isn't easy. But, I hope that others will do that with me as well. It may sound dumb, but one reason I love my internet associations is that I'm accepted. No one sees if my hair is a mess, or my hips are too big, or if my car is a clunker. I'm not judged by the outer but by my thoughts and my heart. That's how Jesus judges me, too. He looks into my soul and He still loves me. That's what I'm striving to do with those I come in contact with in my life.

    You said it before, and I'll repeat it- It's all about the LOVE.

    1. I always look forward to your comments, Jewels. They are not sandpaper to me but velvet. I think what follows is always a tough thing to express, but it goes to some of what you said and I'll give it a shot: I do think I'm right. Obviously, I think I'm right about my God-beliefs. They make sense to me and other people's God-beliefs do not. I have conviction of a sort. So, there's that. Naturally, I would like my kids to share these perspectives with me.

      But I don't think I'm right. I mean, I can step back and see that there is no proof I'm right and that I have felt differently in the past and may feel differently again in the future. Most important, I believe wholeheartedly that the world is a better place when there is diversity of belief. An ecosystem is unhealthy when it is overtaken by an invasive species and as far as the eye can see are rabbits, acacia, ivy. The most beautiful gardens are multi-textured, full of colors, scents and unique beauty. And I think thought is like that. (I'm positing that religion is just a certain, profound kind of thought.)

      If we are all atheists, I think it's as dangerous as a landscape overtaken by mule deer. I think the same of any sect, creed, denomination. The world is better when there is a Jewels, a Sandy, a Tara, a Tangled Lou, a Kelly, a Winnie, a Mike. And we should all stand proud and wear the convictions of our faiths (or lack thereof), as you do, because when we can listen, accept and love, there is no reason to be afraid of one another's colors. You all teach me so much.

    2. Jewels, I've really appreciated your thoughts on these conversations too. I second Tara's response!

      I've been thinking about my spirituality a lot recently along with my sense of morality. I'll weigh in on this further down. But I wanted to say thanks Jewels!

  8. As an atheist with a lot of anthropology in my background, I am always shocked and saddened by other atheists' intolerance. Religion is such a vital part of culture for so many people that it is ridiculous to mock it or to say that it doesn't serve important needs.

    My lack of religion - and spirituality in general - however, is not exactly the same thing as another religion, as some believers argue. I am not a member of the Church of Atheism, nor a Coven of Science or a Synagogue of Secular Humanism.

    My only problems with others' religions are when they begin to legislate on what I see as my (not God-given, obviously!) rights. Well, and when they won't stop proselytizing me or my family, or when they tell my kids they're going to hell.

    1. I agree with you totally, Sandy. I don't conceive of my atheism as a religion. I do conceive of it as a faith, not in the sense of a being a belief without proof but in the sense of being a system of religious belief. I do belong to a religion and that is separate and distinct from my personal theology because UUism allows for each of us to reconcile our own individual belief systems with the world. But there is definitely not a Church of Atheism and atheism itself is not in any way setting itself up to be that.

      And I completely resonate with your second statement. I think freedom of religion means that you are free to believe that prayer is good and necessary, but you are not free to impose a rule of prayer in public places on me or my children. Likewise, all of my children have been told they are going to Hell. I think the parents of the children who told them would have been shocked and upset to learn that this was said, but that is what these kids learned and needed to convey to my kids, not out of meanness but out of genuine horror and concern for their immortal souls. We have taught our kids to politely tell them that they are not going to Hell.

  9. I don't know that I have anything significant to add to this discussion. I was thinking, though, that young people, in general,have less tolerance for hypocrisy than the older generations. What I suspect is that it's the hypocritical attitudes of mainstream religion that turn them away. My late friend, Sherryl, was raised Catholic. What mainly estranged her from the church was her grandmother, a confirmed Catholic, who would attend mass regularly and on the way home devote her conversation to denouncing individual members of the congregation. Not all Catholics behave that way, obviously, but I think Sherryl felt that many Catholics, like her grandmother, saw no contradiction between being Christian and being cruelly judgmental. The important thing was the ticket into heaven and all you had to do to get that was to believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ. You could be a thoroughly rotten human being most of your life and still be granted space in the afterlife.

    I can't say why, as we grow up, we are less put off by blatant hypocrisy. Perhaps on some level we come to understand that human beings are innately inauthentic and that human institutions will always reflect that. I am speaking, of course, in generalities.

    The irony is that the one thing Jesus hated the most was hypocrisy.

    1. I agree with this wholeheartedly. This hypocrisy is so common in many religions and belief systems and it is, indeed, off-putting. We are all, to some degree or another, hypocritical. But there is a vast difference between the blind sort of hypocrisy that denies its existence and an open acknowledgement of it and sincere attempts to overcome it.

      The notions of forgiveness, second chances, failure and trying again - these are all integral parts of Jesus' message. We sometimes (I say this speaking as a Christian) forget that this applies to other people as well as ourselves. We forget the grace that has been shown to us and in so doing, fail to show that same grace to others.

      This comment was incredibly insightful. Thank you.

    2. Mom, you always have something interesting to say, especially on the topic of religion. I wish you'd drop by my Team Ambiguity posts more often.

      Everyone else: My mom wrote a really interesting piece on her experience of growing up Unitarian with a famous minister as a father, which she delivered at our church, and Mike put that up on his blog if anyone is interested. It is a really thought-provoking piece, in light of what we are talking about actually because my mom left the UU church due to a lot of the same complaints we are talking about generally here. I just kind of reflected on this. Here's the link:

  10. Dear TL. You totally nailed it when you said we have to be insightful enough to detect our own hypocrisy and attempt to overcome it. Being a member of some religious denomination does not make you spiritual but you can be spiritual within the context of any of the world's religions or without any affiliation whatsoever. Thanks for your comment.

  11. I'm back
    But not without my typical analysis, confusion, and general insecurities about speaking among such articulate and thoughtful people. You scare me b/c you all know about what you speak -- and me? I am a web of thoughts and words that generally signify nothing.
    But. I'll try anyway b/c I like you guys and I want to be part of some conversation.

    Background: raised in a large, throughly Irish Catholic family - the Church was our framework for everything. The parish provided everything educational , social, intellectual - all wrapped up in one package. Twelve years of Catholic education in a rigorous educational system - actually quite cutthroat and not sympathetic to a kid who did not fit the academic model. And I did fit that model so voila! I survived. The priests in the parish were of the authoritarian scary type. The pastor showed little compassion that I could ever see and his theme was money money money - always a buidling project, always make sacrifices, people.
    As a high schooler, I was reflective and met people within the church / school who did demonstrate compassion and kindness. I felt more connected to things of a spiritual nature even though I did not understand them. As an 8th grader, I won the diocesan Catechism Bee - memorized and could regurgitate 386 chatechism better than any other kid around but didn't understand the essence. They were a bunch of rules and I was pumped to follow the rules. The mysterious concepts didn't make sense: transubstantiation? sure, if you say so. Trinity? Huh? whatever you say. Ascended into heaven body and soul? Really? whatever you say --
    but that focus could not sustain me for the long haul .... went off to college, wrapped all that church stuff up in a box in the back of my head - tied with a yellow ribbon - and let it sit there.
    FYI: I am old enough to remember well the Latin Masses and the rituals assoicated. I will always remember Nov 29, 1964 when English was introduced into the Mass in the American parishes - not that much English - it was just the beginning - but, from my parents' and much of the parish's view, it was going to be all downhill from here. As a high schooler, I had admiration for John XXIII - he really did open the windows. Surprised them all! He was supposed to be a placeholder.

    but, I had no support for that program in college and I started to really say hell no - I can't believe this stuff if I can't understand it. And I am attending a CA public university and I am meeting and fascinating people who might happen to be gay. I am wanting full relationships with men and that includes sex - and NO babies. And I am looking with anger at a church that excludes over half of its membership from any kind of leadership role solely because of their gender. I see MEN in red hats saying , very paternalistically, that they know what is best for everyone. Nope, not buying it.
    Meanwhile, I am still drawn to social justice issues and seeing wonderful people of all faiths and no faiths working to build a better world for everyone.
    I attend grad school at a Jesuit university and avail myself of the many spiritual and educational options - but the same stuff bothers me - the hierarchy in the greater church , and my own inability to understand this stuff about Jesus and GOd -- I see Jesus as a role model and good person, teaching others his way. And I see people in other faiths and daily doing the same thing.
    I want a community. I try.
    Then I move away to an area where, sadly, there is no progressive Catholic community - and I decide I don't need that anyway - but not without first trying to be involved in the local parish - bringing my children to chursch for several years (on my own as their dad, my husband is of no faith though he has no issues with me taking them to church). But then sonny boy starts asking questions that I can not answer and that becomes the breaking point.
    I don't go back. ever.

    to be continued.....

  12. and more - it made me break up my original post.....

    I dont' go back. Ever.

    Now, I listen with some despair. I see so much bad stuff in the world and I envy people like you, TL, who have it nailed. You are a Christaian that gives meaning to your life. I can honestly say that I put compassion and generosity (of spirit and time and money when I can) at the top of my value list. I want to understand why I would again take on the mantle of organized religion but I don't understand. I agree that religion should not be political but it so much seems to be. I love the Nuns on the Bus trip happening this week - but they had to be political to make their point and get for the people what the people need.
    The "Christian right" or the Catholic leadership that dictates how medical people can and should make decisions for other people - the whole abortion and birth control issue - angers the hell out of me. I may be one sided or lack background but I dont' understand why church leadership feels compelled to tell people how they have to live. But I also get that maybe that is their job? or what they perceive is their job? or maybe people want to be told how to live so they dont' have to decide for themselves? except that they are deciding when they buy into a religious community - aren't they?
    Gay rights - so if you believe the bible says no - let that be okay for you. Why must it be the way ii is for everyone?

    So this is mixed up and likely doesn't make sense - I talk from my heart sometimes and not from my intellect - and then I am intimidated by those brilliant among us.

    what do I want here? I want to know what difference does a label make? Why do people want organized religion? I get the community thing but I have done that well enough for me in my own town -- why a religious community? and what difference does it make if Jesus was GOD or if he was a good man who taught people a compassionate way of life?

    Sending without re-reading - probably not good but if I re-read I will feel stupid -- JT

  13. and I don't want to be misunderstood - people of faith are fortunate - but how do you get to be a person of faith? I don't know how to do that? I know there are many compassionate people who are Christians and they take comfort and direction from their faith and they are good people. I need more than a mystery?

    1. Thanks so much for taking the time to type all your thoughts out, Gracie. There is so much of value in your experience and so much that echoes what I have heard other people struggle with. I will be really interested to hear what others have to say.

      I'm not sure if my own perspective is all that much use here, since I am religious in an unusual sense compared to most here. I am, though, a person who could naturally choose to be secular but I have sought a religious community, so maybe that addresses one thing you asked. Why I have done that is because for me there is a kind of attraction to the structure and organization of a church community as well as to the moral authority that the terms "church" and "religion" have in our society. I like the idea of bringing the full weight of those constructs to bear on the problem of doing good. For me, mine is a religion with a history in my family and I also admire its history in the world. I want to associate myself with that. I have been a part of many vibrant communities, but a religious community is different. Not better, just different. I am very glad I'm a part of one.

      For me, I think personally it matters that Jesus was or was not God, just in my own heart and mind, as a matter of integrity. Personally, for myself, I cannot accept articles of belief because it's easier to do so, because I want to, because I'd like to. (I'm not saying others believe for that reason, only that this might be my motivation.) And I don't believe that Jesus is God or that there is a personal, anthropomorphic god of any kind. And I don't want it to be assumed that I need to accept this or certainly not to have it legislated for me to. But, beyond that I think, no it doesn't matter. I feel united by the values I share with people who love Christ and truly try to follow him.

      I think maybe you and I are alike in temperament in some ways. I am not by nature a person of faith. I am a person of intuition and ethics and logic, but not of faith. I require my logical sense of the world to jibe with my intuitive sense and so I have to confine my religious participation to spheres where this is the modus operandi. There are plenty of these and I am lucky I am not left out of religion due to being a creature of rationality. I hope that addresses some of what you are looking for and I hope others will respond, too, especially those with a different experience.

    2. Gracie, I think the thing that resonated most with me here is your question about "how do you get to be a person of faith?" I ponder this often--is that ability to believe hard-wired into some people and not others? Certainly some of it is environmental--how you are raised, but one need look no further than the fact that many children raised in deeply religious homes reject those teachings and that, conversely, some children raised in atheistic or agnostic households eventually embrace religion to see that environment is only one piece of the puzzle.

      Daughter-Only and I were in a discussion the other day about a 30-something coworker of hers who recently converted from Islam (she is Palestinian and was raised primarily in Jordan) to Christianity. She was strongly (and vocally) Muslim and is now just as strongly (and vocally) Christian. Leaving aside the possibility that the coworker is/was spouting beliefs in an attempt to fit in and not out of any sincere belief, my daughter was very confused as to how this woman could see the "falseness" of one religion and not see the "falseness" of all religion. In my daughter's opinion, if the coworker firmly believed in the teachings of Islam at one point and stopped believing in them, it was paradoxical that she would then throw herself just as enthusiastically into the teachings of Christianity. What we came up with was that there is a certain personality for whom belief itself is what is important.

      I think to some degree that applies to all people with strongly held religious beliefs--what they believe is something of an accident of birth and circumstance; that they believe is something programmed into them somehow. I sometimes wish I had that wiring, myself--but I seem to have been born without it.

    3. I like that - I am not naturally a person of faith either. I am intuitive, I have high standards for myself, I am curious. Am I skeptical? I am not sure I would go that far - though I am slow to trust people and slow to reveal myself. Skeptical? that sounds too harsh. It's not that I question anyone else and their beliefs (assuming that their beliefs are not harmful to others). I can't make them mind unless I understand them. I have to be able to explain my beliefs - or at least know that I buy the package 100%. I don't buy all the magic inherent in the Catholic Church, for example, but I do buy the logic and compassion that says we are in this life together so it behooves us to share and help others. Complicated.

    4. Complicated, indeed. I don't know that I would label myself skeptical necessarily either, but I would say I am more moved by things I can see and strongly feel and that's where I might be missing a gene that people who have strong faith in God or another Supreme Being or Force seem to have. I have many close friends who feel they have a strong personal relationship with Jesus--He is a real presence in their lives. I see the results of that presence in mostly positive ways in their lives. I do not doubt their belief, their faith, and sometimes I even admire and envy it, but I do not share it. I don't feel the presence of an intelligent Other in my life--but instead I see the results of human interaction in all its glorious messiness. I feel compelled to try to live up to what's best in myself and to try also to focus on what's best in others--this compulsion feels like a spiritual mandate, though for me, I believe the mandate comes only from within myself.

      At the same time, I do believe in a sort of magic--or at least in something we can't yet capture and explain scientifically--that not only our deeds, but our thoughts and feelings have a real and quantifiable impact within the world. I feel that we each produce a raw and individual energy that can influence others and the world as a whole--and that may survive our bodily deaths in some form. In other words, I believe in something of a soul in each of us. I do not subscribe to any particular religion, but I believe oh-so-strongly that there is a sacred force within us all. I can barely explain it to myself, and have yet to find an existing philosophy that fully explains what the hell I mean. So I guess we're right back to complicated, aren't we? ;)

    5. I so relate to what you articulated, MM. I can follow every piece of what people describe as they emotive experience of their faith in Christ and I can admire it enormously, but my mind cannot go there. It feels as unnatural for me as if I was wearing my shoes backward. And I do also believe in that same kind of magic. I would say not in a "crystal squeezy" kind of way, just in a "duh" kind of way. There is so much more to us than we are able to perceive.

    6. I love those last two lines, Tara. That's EXACTLY what I was trying to say. :)

    7. Gracie, don't know if you're subscribed to follow-up comments or just checking back to see if someone replied here, but be sure to check out Jewel's comments on salvation below, if you haven't already. I think she eloquently explains her position and that of many Christian believers.

  14. Reading through this post and all the comments has been a little like staying up late talking with the best kind of friends at a slumber party until you're kind of groggy and barely coherent, but also buzzing with ideas and gratitude that you've got people to share them with. Please understand that my comments are coming from that sleepy humming place in my brain.

    I grew up in a non-religious household. My father was raised half-assed Baptist--my grandfather loosely identified himself as Baptist but never attended church. My grandmother was raised Catholic, but my grandfather would not permit her to take my father to Catholic services so she settled for irregularly attending Baptist services. My mother was also loosely affiliated with church growing up (Methodist)--attending Sunday school with friends, etc, but not forced to do so by her parents. She fell away from church entirely when she was fourteen and the minister questioned the length of her skirt in front of the entire congregation--she did not believe God cared about fashion choices and that moment became the perfect stand-in for all kinds of misrepresentation and hypocrisy that she saw when she looked at religion in general.

    I do not recall ever entering a church with either (let alone both) of my parents until my youngest sister's wedding in 2002. As kids, my closest-in-age sister and I occasionally attended Vacation Bible School or Sunday School or even regular church services with friends, but God and religion were mostly not on our radar growing up. Both of my parents were big fans of the Don Williams song "I Believe In You" with the lyrics, "I don't believe that Heaven waits for only those who congregate/I like to think of God as love/He's down below, he's up above." I've always kind of thought of those lyrics as representative of the entirety of my parents' religious philosophy.

    The one time that I can remember the subject of God coming up between my parents and my sister and I, the oldest two siblings (of four), it was a fairly disastrous conversation. I was seventeen and my sister sixteen at the time. Though we had never been encouraged, let alone forced, to attend church, when it somehow came out that my sister (at that time) identified herself as an atheist, my father very nearly lost his mind. There was yelling and tears and door-slamming. To my recollection, I was mostly a stunned bystander, as was my mom--though she tried to intercede a few times in hopes of establishing a calmer environment. Two things I clearly remember are my sister saying (in response to my father saying, "If you don't believe in God, what do you believe in?"), "I believe in human beings." And my father screaming, red-faced, "I am telling you I have seen God! Doesn't that mean anything to you?!"

  15. And one other thing I clearly remember from that night is that my sister did not back down. Not one tiny bit. Though there were tears on all sides, she refused to say she believed in something she did not believe in and she continued to argue vehemently for her right to express her own beliefs while at no point attacking or belittling my father's beliefs. Her answer to his shouted (several times) remark about having seen God was to say that she was glad it was a comfort to him at a time when he needed it (Vietnam).

    I no longer remember how the topic came up in the first place--I believe the starting question from my father was, "But you girls believe in God, right?"--maybe motivated by something on TV? I guess it's not really relevant, except in terms of my sister responding to a direct question rather than making a sweeping atheistic pronouncement. I have always admired her ability to withstand my father's emotional outburst in that moment--it is perhaps the one time in my life where I have witnessed a scene in which the word "anguished" does not seem like melodramatic overstatement.

    In contrast, my part of that conversation was to sit with some relief as my sister took the heat, content to get away with the wimpy and evasive: "I'm not sure really what I believe." even though at the time, my beliefs were pretty well lined up with my sister's. Wimpy and evasive succinctly sums up my approach to religious conversation ever since. I have become adept at non-commital answers and well-timed changes of subject. A time-worn favorite of mine is to say "I'm a lot more sure of what I don't believe than what I do." and then not elaborate on any of my beliefs or non-beliefs.

  16. The exception has been with my husband and kids. From the age of ten, my husband was raised Jehovah's Witness. He left the faith shortly before we got together, but retains a real respect for their teachings--as he believes that of all the organized religions, Witnesses follow the Bible the most closely. He does not personally believe the Bible is divinely inspired, but appreciates the Witnesses' attempts to follow it closely rather than to apply convenient and distracting "interpretations" to it.

    We have never attended services of any kind and by the time our oldest was verbal, we had hammered out our approach to religion (or the lack thereof) which was that we would encourage open discussion and exploration and try as little as possible to influence our children's beliefs. Our standard response to specific religious questions has basically been that people have many different beliefs and that we each have to figure those things out for ourselves. When asked about my own beliefs, I have told my children since they were small that I do not believe in the Christian God nor any other Supreme Being, but that I do believe in the power of thoughts and in a kind of prayer. I believe, too in compassion and empathy and tolerance--and I have tried mightily to practice these things, not merely preach them. (I fail miserably on a regular basis--but I try to give myself a little of that compassion, too.)

    Our youngest turned 18 yesterday. Both she and her 22-year-old brother are Facebook official atheists. I admire their courage in announcing their beliefs on the one hand, while cringing at the thought of how many people they may alienate both with their lack of belief and their potential intolerance for the beliefs of others. It is a pretty common topic of conversation between the three of us--that even if you don't agree with the beliefs of others, you should be not only tolerant of their right to express and hold their own beliefs, but also careful not to dismiss a person entirely based upon differing beliefs.

    It is a lesson I have learned incrementally over the years--many of my closest friends and coworkers, acquaintances, etc have deeply held religious beliefs--some of them of the right-wing-fundamentalist intolerant variety. For the longest time, I felt--and to be honest, sometimes still feel--that I couldn't fully be myself with these people and, worse, that it was not worth pursuing a deeper friendship with someone whose world view differs so greatly from my own. While I wholly and fully believe that we have a right to our own beliefs, I had a hard time imagining how much I could have in common with someone who did not believe in evolution, just for one example.

    Both my job in the field of addiction recovery and my online friendships have opened my eyes in so many ways in this regard. I have come into contact with so many people of differing faiths (flavors and degrees) who I have such respect and admiration for--and often a surprising amount in common with. I still am not out there bringing up the topic of religion voluntarily, but I no longer assume that I cannot forge a close friendship with someone of faith. While I still see a person's faith (or lack thereof) as a defining characteristic, I no longer see it as the only one or even the major one in most cases.

  17. Before I (finally) close, I would like to say a bit about conversion--about the "pushy" sorts who try to convince others of their beliefs. While I managed a bookstore in the '90s, one of the employees was deeply religious and I had to speak to her on several occasions about not discussing religion with customers because it was a potentially divisive subject. This woman's beliefs were so deeply ingrained that it had not occurred to her that Christianity could possibly be controversial. During one of these conversations, she said something to me that I have never forgotten and try always to keep in mind when someone is attempting to persuade me or change my point of view. She said, "I feel like if I don't try to save you, your blood is on my hands." She was so sincere and passionate in this belief that a light bulb went on in my head. So even though I still did not subscribe to her belief system, nor believe that I was in need of "saving" (except that we all are, aren't we? so maybe I just didn't and don't believe in that particular route to salvation for myself), I saw her attempts in an entirely different light. She was not self-righteously trying to force me to see her point of view, she was actually trying to save me. She was practicing the best kind of compassion she knew how. And I like to think that is true of the vast majority of Christians who try to reach out to non-believers.

    That said, the concept of religious beliefs--Christian or otherwise--as legislation is terrifying to me and I feel it should be terrifying to Christians as well. If your beliefs can be codified into laws so, too, can any other belief system. It continues to baffle me that most Christians who persist in pursuing religious-based legislation are the same ones who are so deeply appalled at the affects of religious-based governments in the Middle East, for example. The problem is not which religion controls the law, it's that any religion controls the law. Your right to practice your own religion comes from exactly the same place as my right not to practice any religion--to weaken one right is to weaken them both. The concept of separation of church and state, rather than being a threat to our nation is one of the key elements of its success, in my opinion.

    Tara, thank you sharing your own thoughts and beliefs so generously with all of us and for providing a safe place in which to learn about each other's beliefs. One thing I think we can all agree on is that Team Ambiguity totally rocks! ;)

    1. Are we all in need of saving, MM? I don't get that. Saving from what? ourselves?
      Talk to me about salvation - what does that really mean to you?
      I really want to understand that expression. I know the whole thing about Jesus died on the cross to save us - but that is one of those things I don't get. How did his dying do anything for me?
      Maybe that goes back to Tara's comment about god not being anthropomorphized? I don't have a person god. I dont' even know if I have a god -

      I also like your comments about your clerk who wanted to save you - that she believed so strongly in her system that she assumed it worked for everyone and it was her responsibility to save you? Was it also her responsibility to feed the hungry here on earth? I guess I am more focused on the now then on the future - people are hungry now - don't talk to them about "eternal salvation" unless all their needs are met right now.

    2. Hmmm, thanks for putting those questions out there, Gracie, they've really gotten me thinking. When I wrote that I didn't feel I needed saved, a little voice inside me piped up and said, "Don't you, though? Don't we all?" It was something I felt without really thinking about it and then just slapped it in between those parentheses without considering it further. Your questions have helped me to look a little deeper. Here's what I've come up with.

      I guess it's not right for me to speak for everyone, but I do kind of believe that we all (or most of us) really do need "saving" of a sort--and mostly, as you hypothesized, from ourselves. From our darker impulses, partly--from selfishness and envy and greed. But, also, and perhaps even more importantly, we need saved from that empty feeling I think most of us struggle with from time to time--that feeling of a lack of meaning or definition to our lives, a feeling of purposelessness, a view of ourselves as inconsequential.

      I think that sort of salvation comes in all sorts of different packages--family connections, deep friendships, a connection to nature, exercising your creativity in whatever forms it comes to you, random (or better yet organized) acts of kindness bestowed upon others.

      Like you, I am more interested and concerned with our time here, which is the only time I know with any certainty that I will have. I guess, then, I think more in terms of little mundane and miraculous morsels of salvation sprinkled throughout our hours and days and lives than I do in terms of the sweeping eternal soul salvation of the Christian Bible/church. Salvation, to me, is something we are creating for ourselves on a daily basis that enriches our present lives.

      Though I've read in great depth about most of the world's religions, I feel wholly unqualified to speak to where Jesus and his life and death figure into salvation. It is not something that has ever made a lot of rational sense to me--and maybe that's the point. I'm sure there are others in this discussion who could illuminate that for you much more clearly than I could.

      I do agree wholeheartedly that this world would be a better place if there were less preaching and judgment and attempts at saving souls and more focus on caring for people's present bodily needs. It is my understanding that caring for the poor was one of the central tenets of Jesus's teachings. I believe and have personally seen that there are many religious organizations and individuals that are out there--here and abroad--doing what they can to improve the life situations of those in abject poverty. But it is difficult not to notice that there are many organizations and individuals claiming to be Christians that not only fail to help the poor, but actively do the opposite.

      Have you read the Tom Robbins novel Skinny Legs and All? One of the ongoing themes in that book is about the ways the promise of an afterlife adversely affects life in the here and now. It's a book about art and religion and the places where they meet. I cannot recommend it highly enough--if you haven't read it, I hope you will and I hope you'll let me know what you think.

    3. I tend to resonate strongly with you, Masked Mom, that we all need saving. I have never conceived of this in terms of anything I cannot see with my own two eyes. It seems to me that we are plagued by the condition of being human, the conflict of our will to survive individually with our need to exist in communities, and it leaves dark marks on all our souls. Some certainly more visibly than others. And I think, like you, that this salvation can come to us in so many ways. For me, it came first as freedom from the impulse to drink and use drugs. I am still in need of salvation every day. I know this may make some Christians bristle, but please understand that, given my own faith, I am understanding the word in a different but related way than in the traditional Christian sense.

      For me that salvation takes place in service and humility. My highly imperfect practice of these ideals is maybe just enough to save me, day after day, from total consumption by darkness. This sounds terribly bleak, but it is a perspective rooted in the twelve steps. In practice, it's actually pretty lively and engaging–this work of being saved, which, I think, is the work of loving one another.

  18. PS--Holy* Crap! All that looked a lot shorter in the tiny comment box.

    *Pun acknowledged though not entirely intended.

    1. First off–happy birthday to your youngest and happy milestone to you! There is so much in what you said that I could respond to and go on for 1200 words more. What resonated most deeply was your comment about your kids being "Facebook official atheists." My kids are younger, but basically they are like that, too. And I find that, strangely enough, it makes me feel as if I may have done something wrong because they heard me say what I don't believe in, literally, and reconciled that with their own sense of logic, but they saw less evidence of my own private, complicated, hard-to-put-into-sound-bites spirituality. (It is worth pointing out, though, that my eldest declared himself an atheist before anyone else in our family, way back in 4th grade.)

      Now I find that I play devil's advocate with them. Starhawk, a feminist, pagan writer of enormous intelligence has written that when people ask her if she believes in the Goddess, she replies simply: "Do you believe in rocks?" I always try to remember and to struggle through the mud of language to convey to my children that the word "God" can mean a great many things, some of them self-evident. At one time, I chose to say that I believed in God/the Goddess and that this was divinity was something immanent that I could perceive all around me. Later, I felt that, despite all my efforts and intentions, I (and everyone else) were unable to get over what we thought "God" meant, making in my mind a comic book character God that I had to keep rejecting or setting aside over and over. "No, I don't mean THAT God. I mean THIS." Because of that, I concluded that the simplest explanation for everyone was that I was an atheist. Which is like saying that Mount Everest is "tall" or Ireland is "green." It is so inadequate.

      I also really resonate with your last statement about people of faith trying to save our souls. I dislike being on the receiving end of this immensely, as I don't believe in either Heaven or Hell or think of myself as a sinner, but I have learned to appreciate the effort. If you care about me, I suppose, and you believe with all your heart that you have a way to save me, you have to want me not to burn in Hell, right? I have, myself, looked like something of an ass trying to get others to do things that I thought would "save" them, if only in this life.

      As to your last thought, for me I think it all comes down to my deep faith in ambiguity. I believe what I believe. You believe what you believe. But if I can wonder if you might be right and I might be wrong, if I have the door open to change my mind, if I actively WANT to talk to others who feel differently than I do, then I am not going to go crazy trying to shove legislation down your throat or start a holy war or burn you at the stake. Those acts can only be done by the sure. The unsure might want to, but we're going to be too afraid we might be wrong. This is where I want to hang out.

    2. Ambiguity is one of those things that make some people really squirm, but you clearly point out of one of its key benefits. Besides, it's probably unavoidable in any case, so why not embrace it?

      Your comments about conversion reminded me of the episode of Seinfeld in which Elaine discovers that her on-again, off-again boyfriend Puddy is religious and believes she is going to Hell. She doesn't believe in Hell herself but is deeply offended that he isn't trying to save her from it. There are several decent clips/scene compilations from that episode on You Tube. It's hilarious--and somehow weirdly poignant at the same time.

      This has highlights from throughout the episode:

      And this one has the punchline/final resolution:

    3. I'm sitting here trying to decide if I should say something. I am most definitely not an expert on Christianity or even LDS beliefs. But, I will share with you what I believe about 'saving'.

      Jesus dying on the cross is not what did any saving. It was his experience in Gethsemane that did that. There he took upon himself the sins and suffering of every one of us. To me, the 'suffering' part is often overlooked. He literally felt the pains that each of us have or will ever feel. This gives him a unique perspective into our lives. As for atoning for us, he was the only person who could do this, as he was the only one who had lived without sin.

      His death on the cross was important, though. Because he died and was later resurrected, all of us will also be resurrected one day. For me, this is comforting. I have a hard time thinking that this life is it. I want very much to continue living with my family and loved ones after this life is over.

      As one who comes from a religion that actively proselytes, I know that we can be irritating to others. I don't look at it so much as needing to 'save', but that I have a precious gift that I would want others to have as well. I think people have a bit of a misconception about our missionaries. While they do go out to preach the gospel, they are not supposed to be pushy or self-righteous. If they come knocking on your door, you can tell them no. They'll go away. But, tell them nicely. I have many sons who will one day be doing this and I cringe when I think of the people who will rudely slam a door in their faces.

      I have great hopes that my children will learn about other faiths and be accepting of those who have different lifestyles and beliefs. I hope that they will continue in our faith, but would never shut them out if they decided differently.

    4. Jewels, you were exactly who I was referring to above when I told Gracie there were better qualified people to speak to this subject of salvation as it relates to the sacrifices of Christ. I have always been so touched by your explanations of your faith and beliefs. And, as I said, in my gigantic comment, I try to remember that most people who are reaching out are doing so from a place of real generosity and helpfulness. I also have a real respect for people who are willing to reach out like that, whether in an organized mission type sense or just in conversation with friends and family--to act on their beliefs rather than merely talk about them.

      Self-righteous people are annoying in any context, but I have never had any experience with LDS missionaries or Jehovah's Witnesses for that matter who were overly pushy or self-righteous. A polite "no thanks" has always served me just fine when those knocks come at the door.

      I also think a lot of times when I've experienced someone else as judgmental or self-righteously preaching at me, it has at least a little (and sometimes a lot) to do with my own defensiveness and insecurities, which is something else I try to keep in mind. And oftentimes, the conversations that have made me the most uncomfortable come about as a result of the previously mentioned hedging on my part--I think as I become less of a chicken about expressing my own beliefs, those awkward "pushy" conversations are less likely to happen.

    5. Jewels, thanks for jumping back in. I worried that the conversation might end up being one between a group on non-Christians rather than a dialogue between multiple perspectives. So many times, I think people see something in a post or comment and think "Oh that's not right. They misunderstood." or even find things vaguely insulting, without saying so. I always want FIA to be that place where you can say what's on your heart and mind as long as you do so with respect and a willingness to listen. Therefore, I am particularly grateful to you for always piping up and doing just that. This conversation has been so amazingly interesting to me and gone so many places, I am loathe to see it come to its natural end.

      I have also never found any Mormons I met to be either self-righteous or pushy. Mostly, they have not been coming to my door on missions but have been friends and have not tried to convert me in any case, but I have always found them to be respectful. I used to go door to door for the Sierra Club and people were just awful to me, slamming doors in my face, rudely interrupting and insulting me, as if my position asking them to consider my perspective gave them permission to treat me as less than human. I quit after a week and I honestly strive always to be polite to anyone who comes to my door for any reason.

      Just for contrast, I never worry about death or the after-life. It is interesting to me to note this difference in our orientation, and , as always, I find it worthy of consideration. I cannot explain why I care so little about my immortal soul, if I have one, but I never have. I am deeply concerned with this life and feel it deserves my full attention. Therefore, I have always felt disinterested in the idea of salvation, assuming that none of us knows what lies beyond. I can only imagine that if I felt differently than this, my whole perspective on life might be different. That lack of interest in life after death, I suppose, is at the heart of my historic faith tradition, so maybe it was implicitly taught. There is a joke that says "The Universalists believe that God is so great that everyone is saved and the Unitarians believe that they are so great that they don't need saving." It's tongue in cheek, but it's funny because there's truth there.

      Masked Mom, I think you are dead on about your last paragraph. The more open I am and less threatened by the perspective of another–the more I see that hearing their views can't hurt me at all, only make me smarter–the less I feel pushed or antagonized and the stronger my own belief system actually is.

  19. I've been thinking about the topic of faith and spirituality a lot over the past years. I've been paying attention to the change in course of the Catholic church with its new Pope. I've been listening to the growing numbers of Christians who want the public face of Christianity to be represented by their compassion and love rather than the exclusive and moralizing prejudice preached by so many right wing politicians who have dawned minister's attire.

    I've been thinking about my history as a child in the Catholic church and as a developing pre-teen and young adult in the Unitarian Universalist church. I've been thinking about my experience with joining and later leaving AA and my return to the Unitarian Universalist church as an adult and a parent.

    Theologically, my life has been complicated and challenging. I have practiced Zen Buddhism, the Lakota way, Unitarian Universalism, and Catholicism. I have attended Glide Memorial in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco and I have been an evangelizing atheist.

    In the end, I find that what is important to me today is how people act. If someone is going to claim a spiritual path in life, I expect to see them being of service to others. I can support anyone's religious affiliation, provided they are actively doing good in the world and not trying to take my country and turn it into a legal framework for their religion.

    This country, my country, the USA is founded on the notion that All people are created equal and that we are endowed by our creator (in my case this is evolution) with certain unalienable rights. Among those are the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

    So in the end, when the question gets asked of whether same sex marriage should be legal, my answer is read the fu*#ing Declaration of Independance. If someone asks whether Muslims should be allowed to build a mosque in downtown Manhattan, my only concern is if they are following all applicable laws and if so, then the obvious answer is "YES".

    In my country, the one I grew up in, the one I love and the one I'm fighting to preserve, everyone has the right to practice their own religion. The right to fall in love with another human being, the right to share their life with another consenting adult if they so choose.

    In my country, we set ideals for ourselves which soar far above our own meager ability to be good. Our "Founding Fathers" signed that declaration of independence at a time when to do so meant they might swing at the gallows. They wrote in broad and sweeping terms and they set out to create a nation, which would be governed by those who were chosen to govern and represent the common person.

    Our Founding Fathers were not particularly moral, they turned a blind eye towards the institution of slavery, they didn't include women or non-whites in their definition of all who were equal, but they used language which left the door open to those interpretations and over the years, we have struggled to try and live up to the rhetorical ideal that they set out more than two hundred years ago. Like TL, I'm sick of the political process, and not following it too closely this year. I already know who is getting my vote.

    In the end though, what I am left with is that we are as a country making progress and so is most of the world. We are imperfect and in many cases downright horrible as a species, but we are moving towards what I consider to be a spiritual truth, that serving our fellow human beings is what is important.

    I am proud to know all of you and to have such a community in my life.

    Thank you!

    --Mike Adams
    BTW, I did deliver a sermon last year about Atheism as a Spiritual Path:

    1. I, too, am left with the progress we have made. The rest all seems like growing pains to me. Not that those can't hurt quite a bit.

    2. I loved your sermon. You speak so beautifully about our nature and our need to be a community.
      I have to thank you and Tara. Before I 'met' the two of you, I had the idea that atheist meant the absence of spirituality, because I've always connected spirituality to belief in God. I appreciate your openness and willingness to explain your beliefs. Thank you for helping me understand it better. And, also, thank you for your example of acceptance- of anyone and everyone. That is a morality that we all need to embrace.

  20. @Tara, I know exactly what you mean. I find increasingly that I view the world as Howard Zinn, who I heard say in an interview that as a Historian, he is privy to all of the sordid and base things that people do to each other, but he is also aware of the fact that over the course of time, we collectively change, we become better! From my perspective, we continue to reach for impossible ideals, despite ourselves and sometimes we succeed. I love that about humanity.

    @Jewels, thank you so much for your very warm comments. You touched me! I think Tara and I are sort of a club unicorn for atheists though. Most seem to say they have no desire for a spiritual life, though there is a spiritual atheist movement, which is interesting to me.

    I've followed your comments, well and everyone's closely on this thread and I wanted to tell you that I won't be rude to any missionaries, who knock on my door. I'm likely, unless I'm really busy, to invite them in and offer them some water or juice (not coffee I know!) Though I am highly unlikely to convert, that doesn't mean I cant show them hospitality. I also had a job canvasing for California's Universal Health Care initiative in 1992. I quit after a week, maybe two.

    I remember one day, when I was in my late 20s, I was walking to the bus stop after visiting someone in a drug treatment group home. I had been sober for a few years. I had worked the 12 steps with an AA mentor, made amends to people I had harmed and really studied the AA Big Book.

    I had come to believe it was divinely inspired and frequently trotted it out to support my point of view, even when I was disagreeing with non AA members (obnoxious I know).

    Anyway, I was walking to the bus stop, when I encountered two Mormon missionaries, who asked me something like, "do you have a personal relationship with God?" We ended up sitting down in a coffee shop together (they had water) and talking for an hour or more. I frankly told them that I was not going to convert to LDS, but I'd be happy to talk with them, which seemed to make them happy.

    We talked about faith and service and loving our fellow human beings. I talked about AA's philosophy that spirituality is a practical matter, that is has to be accompanied by action and that action should include compassion and service to our fellow human beings. I talked about taking drunk people home, because they said they wanted to stop drinking, but they had no where to live.

    At some point, I smiled and pointed out I too was on a mission, that like my new LDS acquaintances, I was reaching out to people, who were likely to reject what I offered. This seemed to interest them. I said that my focus lay in saving people right here in this life, from the hell and torment of untreated alcoholism, while their mission lay in helping people find salvation for their eternal soul.

    It is the first time I can remember feeling grateful to someone for trying to save my soul. Even though I didn't necessarily believe in an eternal soul and I certainly didn't believe in eternal damnation, I understood that these two missionaries did and they were trying to save me just as I was trying to save the drunk, who staggered into a meeting.

    I thanked them for caring enough to go out in the world and try, despite they way they were undoubtedly treated. We parted ways and I never saw them again. I have thought of them off and on over the years though and I hope that our encounter was as useful and thought provoking for them as it was for me.

    Anyway, thanks Jewels and everyone for participating in this conversation. If you have more to say, please say it. I will keep reading so long as people keep writing!

  21. I keep coming back to read the new comments and though I feel I have absolutely nothing to add, I want you all to know your words have touched my heart. You've turned over thoughts in my mind and questions I've been rolling around in the ol' cranium for a while. Your compassion, and your willingness to discuss, share, and learn is inspiring.

    I love this cafe.


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