Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

29 June 2012

Anderson for Youngsters

While Wes Anderson's last film, which I loved, was definitely a movie for children, his new film Moonrise Kingdom, is a film that is about children. Moonrise has really got me thinking more about all of Anderson's output as films about childhood.

(This is sort of a duh moment for me, actually. 
Of course they are all films about childhood.)

At any rate, Moonrise has some of the usual suspects in the Wes Anderson universe and some new faces, as well. Bruce Willis is excellent. Edward Norton is better than I've seen him in a long time as an ineffectual and rather depressed boy scout leader, and Tilda Swinton plays it completely straight (and typically intense) as a social services worker who goes by the name "Social Services" for the entirety of the film.

It's a very funny movie, of course, and quirky in the standard (but completely endearing) Wes Anderson way. I enjoyed the whole thing. The film has a kind of omniscient narrator who is in the film and played hilariously by Bob Balaban. It's all charming and quirky and overly clever, but it also – and this is the surprising part – avoids treating childhood in a whimsical or nostalgic way. Anderson's kids are occasionally violent; they are complicated and mysterious, and they make decisions through circuitous trains of thought. One of the things I really loved about the movie is that it treats children neither as miniature adults nor as uncomplicated heroes (I'm thinking particularly of the films of David Yates).

And then there's the music. Music is always noticeable in Anderson's movies, and Moonrise Kingdom is no exception. The film opens with Benjamin Britten's "The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra", and ends with a kind of Young Person's Guide to Alexandre Desplat's Score. Britten recurs and important places in the movie's narrative, as well. Anderson has some of the characters perform in Britten's opera Noye's Fludde, and because the plot is about young love, the two-by-two idea of Noah's Ark resonates nicely, and then... the film also includes its own flood. The whole thing fits together beautifully.

Also: here's a little Moonrise Kingdom commercial...

21 June 2012

Stanley Kubrick Filmography

Well, this is beautiful.

Atheist Stories IV

More atheist stories for your enjoyment. This edition is especially Catholic, I feel.

In my life, I've made a lot of mistakes, and a few were of the religious sort. My parents never pressured me about religion, they were both of them disenchanted with the belief systems they came from. But I have always been very curious, and I have always loved magic. As a kid, I was taken to church by various matriarchs but I never much cared for it. A bit later I wanted to fight vampires, so I went to the Catholic church and asked for holy water and a few pointers. They wouldn't help on either count, but did offer to talk to me about things that were vastly less interesting to a young boy.

So I began to do my own research, and I learned a lot more than all the best ways to kill a vampire properly. I learned about the witch hunts, how the church would torture and rape women for no reason I could understand. To my young Superman-impressed mind, there was no good damn reason at all for any of that sort of thing and it made me angry. Then I read about the Inquisition. The Crusades and the Child Wars. I didn't know much back then, but I knew enough to know those were bad people, and their institution was evil. I swore never to set foot in a church again, and since then I haven't – except during funerals, out of respect for the family of the dead.

But that didn't mean the Church left me alone. Oh, no my dear friend they did not. I had the misfortune of moving to one of the most religious and conservative places in northern California at the ripe old age of 16. I was already full of fire and rage, and it didn't take long for the zealots around me to throw down the gauntlet.

In high school, my best friend was a bisexual Wiccan girl. She left the school I went to and went to another, because the girls in the Christian club would beat her and even set her locker on fire once. There was a girl I liked, and she used to pass me notes. Then she told me to cut my hair and come to church with her. I did once, because I was young and horny. They paraded cripples around and sang about Jesus, then they corned me in a room and tried to scare Christ into me.

I've had girlfriends' parents refuse to let their daughter date me unless I converted. In the Army, I got in trouble for calling one of my sergeants a dickhead because he was making fun of a private who had a twitch. They sent me to the chaplain, and after an hour of conversation, he determined that I was possessed by demons. I laughed and said there was no such thing, to which he replied, No, I've seen them before, even smelled them. I told my Sergeant Major. He laughed and told me to ignore the fucker.

This sort of nonsense continued for most of my life, I seemed to be a magnet for these people. All it did was encourage me to learn more and more about religion, and the affect it had on people and society. I argued and fought with them, and it got me exactly nowhere. During most of this time, I was a practicing Pagan. It taught me a lot, it made me a feminist, and showed me how to break my own perception of reality. But it still lacked sincerity, it still seemed like play pretend and I couldn't suspend my disbelief.

Rationalism is the only tool we have to understand reality, and if one is at all interested in such a thing, rationalism is the best tool to start with. Which means giving up believing in things because you want to, or because it feels good, and being honest with yourself no matter how hard it is. I read Bertrand Russell, Helen Ellerbe, and Christopher Hitchens. I watched videos by thunderf00t, nonstampcollector, and The Athiest Experience. This was a process, and mistakes were made but I learned from them, so I feel good about it.

I would say that I had been agnostic long before I ever admitted it to myself. We used to make jokes: Yeah I'm gonna use that virgin birth story on my dad and see if it flies, things of that nature. I stopped believing in Hell probably during grade school – I never could believe that a God who loved us would create people and then condemn them to burning fires for all eternity, free will aside. It's the argument about the omnipotent, omniscient and all-good God, and I was thinking about it from a very early age. I've always thought that Christian biblical literalists were ludicrous – how they selectively take the quotes they like from the Bible (while ignoring those regarding, say, the eating of pork) and claim that they are divine truths has always seemed ridiculous to me, when even the revered King James version represents several generations of translations from different languages of stories originally passed down by oral tradition. And of course as a Catholic there is a lot of defensiveness about things like the Inquisition, the Crusades, and the Borgias (to say nothing of child molestation). A lot of this early thinking was more about rejecting the non-essential traditions: if the church itself can decide it really doesn't make you a better or worse Christian if you eat meat on Friday, then surely clothing, or even how often you pray isn't determinative.

But then I discovered the discrepancies in the Bible, learned of ancient religious traditions such as associating a miraculous birth to a holy man, and how the early church had huge fights and controversies about critical points of theology that are so basic to the religion, such as the divinity of Jesus. The Divinity of Jesus. Seriously. This was hashed out at the First Council of Nicaea, 325 years after his birth. I read Saint Augustine's writings about how he shopped religions and decided on Christianity, and how as one of the early church fathers he influenced theology. I felt he that he often made arguments to fight what he felt were serious heretical beliefs prevalent at the time, but ended up backing the church into some positions that became hard to reconcile with the entire body of thought. In other words, these guys were making it up as they went along. I then turned to atheist authors such as Bertrand Russell and Richard Dawkins. I read Ayn Rand years ago (and Tolkein too!), so I'm sure there were many other thinkers that influenced me over a period of time.

Even with all this skepticism and study, it was still hard for me to admit to myself that I no longer believed in God although I was having a hard time saying I was truly a Christian. What finally pushed me over the edge was a remark Russell made about how our thoughts consist of electrochemical signals passed between brain cells, so how could they continue to function and allow us sentient awareness after death? My belief in God and an afterlife crumbled to dust. This also meant to me that no religion was correct, not just Catholicism or Christianity. And it left me feeling empty and alone. Belief in God was so deeply ingrained in me and I think I really wanted to believe there is a grand design and someone looking over us. God was always the safety net, and gave me the hope and courage to carry on. Without God I had to take complete responsibility for my life, make informed and reasoned decisions about moral issues, and decide for myself what kind of person to become. I had to be a grown-up. Think about it: God the father, children of God, watch over us and guide us, a list of rules to follow without questioning, being obedient. A lot of people do not want to make decisions and take responsibility for the outcome. They want to be told what to do, handed their pay and go home to watch TV. Taking charge of your own life is scary.

Baruch Spinoza
The best part of religion for me was always the ethical guidance, and I didn't want to throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water. Non-belief in God doesn't equate to immorality and heedlessness, nor does saying you don't believe in God mean the same as admitting you are evil. I think that is a stumbling block to many people struggling to come to terms with realizing they no longer believe in God when they have had a strong religious upbringing. And we have all been talking about losing our Christian faith, but Christianity isn't the only source of ethical teachings by far. Command the good and forbid the evil in all spheres of life - Islamic ethics. Non-violence toward every living thing - Buddhist ethics. All good ideas. Pagan thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Cicero were thinking and talking about ethical and moral issues and what makes a life worth living long before Christianity put its stamp on western thinking. Modern philosophers continue the conversation. There are plenty of moral and ethical traditions that work equally well to give one guidance through the course of ones life - many of them having nothing to do with religion. But we were taught from an early age that it was "Christian" to act such and such a way, implying of course that if you were not Christian, you were bad. Which leads directly to the worst part of religion - the intolerance it breeds.

I now prefer to think of myself as pro-humanist rather than anti-religious. I believe that considering what is best for humankind is a better approach to life and leads to better ethical and moral decisions than  following translated ancient writings directed at a particular culture in a technologically primitive society thousands of years ago. Or perhaps I just don't care to be grouped with strident atheists any more than I care to be grouped with fanatic religious types. And here's a fun list of famous atheists.

If I were to pen my atheist memoirs, I would title the tome Summer Camp. A characteristic trope of the "American Upbringing", camp seems as natural a setting as any for a loss of god. However, I woefully did not participate in this device amongst the bucolic (and most importantly, secular) encampments of Camp Waziyatah in Waterford, Maine (if you were a child still in the late-nineties, you're with me). My parents dutifully boarded me each summer at the acutely sacred campus of St. John's University of Collegeville, Minnesota, enrolling me annually in the National Catholic Youth Choir. We sang, we prayed, we attended catechetical lectures led by Benedictine Brothers of Christ, we sang, and we prayed some more. We participated in mass daily, and a thrilling excursion might include a visit to local churches and cathedrals or a "special talk" with the most reverend Bishop John C. Nienstedt of the sprawling arch diocese of Minneapolis-St. Paul.

The experience was far from hellish. I wasn't just involved, I was engulfed. I felt closer to this god than any other point in my childhood. I felt as though I understood him, the church, and my place in it. My mission and purpose seemed laid before me. The campus was intensely Catholic in its own right. Below the abbey resided a hidden chapel that in the Roman Catholic vernacular is known as a reliquary. This reliquary is one of the most important holdings of Catholic relics in the United States: a hair of St. Therese of Lisieux, the remains of St. Marian’s feet, the entire, decaying body of St. Peregrine the Martyr, and yes, a splinter of the true cross of Jesus Christ, housed in a 24-carat gold monstrance. We only took vespers in the reliquary once, but it had a profound and lasting effect on the group.

Following that pivotal visit, one night after curfew, I awoke to the sound of my roommate and fellow fourteen-year-old choir member, Grant, rustling in the dark. He was far and away the most devout and pious in the choir and had already promised his diocese to fulfill its need for a priest when he turned eighteen. We were all quite impressed and deferred to him on all matters canonical in class (naturally).

So as I said, he was... rustling... and as my eyes grew accustomed to the dark I caught him departing, fully clothed, from our cell. Without a thought, I dressed and, unbeknownst to him, followed. I exited the the dormitory of St. Thomas Aquinas and, peering into the semi-dark of the moon, I found him disappearing already over the far hill that lead to the Abbey. Quickening my pace, barefoot in the balmy summer-eve, I reached the door of the Abbey and upon entrance heard the remaining echo of footsteps on the stone steps to the right of the baptismal font. He was entering the reliquary.

I emerged from the incommodious stairwell and stumbled upon Grant’s body... prostrate in humility before the crystal-encased body of St. Peregrine the Martyr. Breath held instinctively, I stared in disbelief as he muttered the prayers of the Benedictine Night Office. I stood witness for what seemed like hours but was in fact minutes before softly retreating up the steps, silent as the grave of St. Peregrine. Once safely outside the Abbey, I stood still in the half-light of the quad; staring ahead as one in trauma. The world went still.

I thought, I will never be that boy. That boy is lying on the ground in front of a dead man’s body, surrounding by the bones, toenails and hairs of many other dead men and women. He is muttering to no one and I will never be that boy. Christ be damned and his dead corpse as well, wherever it resides.

I did not understand atheism as a concept until much later in my life. But my course shifted that evening in Collegeville. My atheistic conversion was not one of loss, in fact. I gained something quite powerful from Grant. I wanted, desperately wanted, the level of severe devotion he had mustered at such a young age. However, I wanted to devote myself to something alive, something living, something that, like myself that evening in the reliquary, could gain from me in return.

In case you missed them:
Part I.

20 June 2012

A Little Perspective

Aaron: I sometimes think that my so-called type is guys who need me.
George: Fixer-uppers?
Aaron: Sort of. Well, not guys who need fixing or anything, but guys who need someone to believe in them. Guys who don't have a lot of faith in themselves or whatever. I mean, it's such a pattern. I'm starting to think that that's the kind of person I like, you know?
George: Huh.
Aaron: Yeah.
George: Well, I like fake tits and a round ass.
Aaron: Touché.

19 June 2012

Atheist Stories III

The logic for this series of posts is outlined here. I have received a huge response from these, and I would love to share more of your stories, so if you have an atheist story you'd like to share, please send it my way.

Outside the protection of the church, I still couldn't let go of God. Unless one is raised as a skeptic, I think there may be a final personal obstacle we each need to face. For me, in light of my mom's illness, it was the fear of death and being alone. I hoped from the bottom of my heart that I wasn't alone, and I was scared that death could be what the Christians said it was, or worse: we didn't have any idea. As a depressive, I am notorious for jumping to the worst conclusions. It obviously was an emotionally tied response I had to death. People would ask me How could you believe? and I didn't have a very good answer other than to be defensive.

I was an experimenter in college, however. I slept around, and once I realized that there was no invisible bookkeeper balancing the score, I tried quite a few drugs as well. I did many foolish things, and I am very happy I made it out relatively undamaged.

One night when I was home, I ate some shrooms I had received in exchange for purchasing some textbooks for a friend. I wasn't really tripping by any means. I used to go to the side of the house when everyone was asleep to have a cigarette in the cold. I looked up at the night sky, and under my drug-induced mental relaxation, I finally asked myself, So, what if there isn't a god? Would it really be that bad? At first my emotions wanted to stamp out the blasphemous questions because I realized they scared me. But because my imagination was allowing me to expand just a teeny bit, I began to understand it wasn't so black and white. It wasn't God or eternal damnation. It wasn't being part of a body of christ or being totally alone. Drugs (the "right" ones anyway) didn't automatically make people monsters, protected sex didn't make me ashamed, and gay people didn't compromise the moral fabric of our nation. These were all social constructs my parents and church and school had told me. So would rejecting God really make me as miserable as they had said? Would the idea of death just being death really render my life insignificant?

It may not be the best reason for me to have rejected religion. I felt a little weird and alone after my comedown, but I was sticking to my decision. I did not feel comfortable in my new heathen skin until I met up with my friends the next evening. I turned to them in a nice quiet living room and said, Guys, I don't think I believe in God anymore. But I feel like a kid who found out Santa isn't real. They looked at me so relieved. We had become more intimate in our shared beliefs. They gave me hugs and sat with me on the couch and we drank and watched Cat on a Hot Tin Roof together, and I realized that life wasn't less real or important, it had become more so.

I was a hair's breadth away from dating a girl in undergrad until I told her that I was an atheist. We were very compatible and very attracted to one another. We were having lunch at a local Arby's one day and were discussing the possibility of being a couple. Then the subject of faith came up and I told her that I had none. She then proceeded to completely back away. In her words, she couldn't date someone that wouldn't help her raise Christian children. Over the years, we remained close and would talk about how much we wanted each other, but every conversation ended with her saying that my atheist belief was the only reason we couldn't be together.

Now she is dating her boss at a Mexican restaurant. The end.

When I taught in a classroom, I often wore a shirt that said Growing old is mandatory – growing up is optional. With this and other “message shirts” I tried to raise student awareness that their most important asset was the ability to think about their lives and their future. My own youth lacked this sort of encouragement, so I was already in college before I began to question the religious presumptions that were so adamantly held by everyone I had ever known. Two experiences, both from my sophomore year at college, precipitated the most important thinking I was ever to do.

The first was observing a scene unfold in my sociology class. The instructor, a Presbyterian minister, mentioned that there were “seven distinct theologies” in the New Testament. Upon hearing this a sweet young girl on the front row burst into tears. He hastened to reassure her that there was nothing anti-Christian in his claim, and she was mollified only with considerable difficulty. I was shocked – not at his “liberal” views on Christian doctrine, but at how her world fell apart when it was gently nudged. I’ve had a passion for science, for knowledge, for as long as I can remember, and I was no more shocked by his comment than I was when I read of Einstein overturning Newton’s classical physics. That is the difference between the scientific mindset and the orthodox mind set: one is open minded and eager to grow, the other refractory and defensive.

The second experience was from a professor of anthropology who was fond of making comments that put down religious belief. He was the first person in my life whom I knew well enough to respect, but who was openly hostile to the whole notion of religion. There are people, and I was one of them, whose most incisive question about religion is: Which one is true? After this professor, I was able to ask a little deeper: Are any of them true? One of the conceits of theism is that you cannot do ethics, that is lead a good life, without recourse to religion. This intelligent, civilized, honorable man made it possible for me to reconsider this notion. The last barrier to allowing myself to question my fundamental beliefs fell away.

I’d like to say that my life fell into good order at this point, but in fact what followed was tumult. Religion survives, in evolutionary terms, probably because it homogenizes man’s expectations of other men and complements his tendency to organize into hierarchical groups. This is not necessarily a good thing, but it is a stable thing – it resists change. Before the end of that sophomore year, I had abandoned religion, but had no philosophy to replace it. I was navigating difficult waters with no chart, and majoring in philosophy broadened my options rather than helping me toward an adequate replacement for the guidance religion had once provided. At this point I considered myself – no doubt due to much reading of Bertrand Russell – an agnostic.

The best thing about tumult is that it invites you to learn patience, and a workable edifice eventually took shape. This happened about five years later, when I was majoring in physics and reading Ayn Rand. (Philosophy? Physics? Who does this guy think he is? John Galt?) This brilliant thinker, who offends most people and has too many overly zealous advocates, nevertheless created a philosophical structure that was based purely on reason and offers a profound defense of the principles of equal rights and individual freedom. And she was an atheist. Now I have long had and still have a great respect for the agnostics of the world. They have trod an uphill path and have persevered even when most of the world thinks harshly of them. To reach this high peak earns my unqualified esteem. Rand pointed out that all the major conceptions of god were either nonsensical or had zero evidence. Hence she had no more respect for those who claim that god is possible than for those who claim the tooth fairy is possible. I don’t believe in the tooth fairy, or in Santa Claus, or in god; those ideas are, to use simple parlance, silly. So I am an atheist.

The journey that I have capsulized here is not over; I learn new stuff every day. I am always doing what Rand advised: “Check your premises.” I am constantly, joyously, changing and creating. And I will sum up my youth by saying – with apologies to Saint Paul – that like all children, when I was young I was religious; “but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”

17 June 2012

Atheist Stories II

The response to the last Atheist Stories post has been really overwhelming. Many people have emailed me and asked to be included in these posts. So: if you have an atheist testimony you'd like to share, please do so! I'd love to hear from you, and many other readers would to. Three more for this Sunday:

In the U.S., atheists typically don't have to explain why they don't believe in Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, or other minority religions. Yet somehow, Christianity is seen as exceptional. Devout Christians have no problem pointing out that other religions are illogical, but are unable to see the same irrationality in Christianity. So I will focus on how I rejected Christianity.

I grew up in an Episcopalian household, and my parents are very tolerant. They never required me to believe certain beliefs (in fact my Dad didn't really go to church until later in his life). Church was just part of the routine, and I'm not sure I had a well-defined concept of God. At the time, I had a vague notion of God as a mysterious force that controlled the world. I certainly didn't believe that the Bible was the literal truth. I first began to doubt the existence of God in college (must have been all those liberal atheist professors). I suppose it started when I took a philosophy survey course. We would study various philosophers' arguments about the nature of God. One of the arguments I found very persuasive is known as the problem of evil. It takes the following form:
  1. God is omnipotent, omniscient, and all-loving
  2. An omnipotent being has the ability to eliminate evil
  3. An omniscient being knows how to eliminate evil
  4. An all-loving being wants to eliminate evil
  5. Yet evil exists
Therefore God does not exist. I'm not sure that I accepted at the point that God doesn't exist, but it did convince me that my concept of God had to change.

My sophomore year in college, I took a course called Christian Origins. The required reading included the four canonic gospels as well as non-canonic writings of the period. We studied Christianity from a historic perspective. We read the gospels straight through, not in bits and pieces as they are read in churches. It became clear that Jesus is not portrayed in the same way in the different gospels. The biggest differences can be seen in Mark (the earliest canonic gospel) and John (the latest canonic gospel). In Mark, Jesus is portrayed as very human. There are comparatively few supernatural events or miracles in Mark and even the resurrection seems tacked on later as an epilogue. Jesus refers to himself as the Son of Man, not the Son of God. In John, Jesus is almost a superhero. It is very clear how the concept of Jesus grew over time from teacher to messiah, to the Messiah, to the Son of God, and ultimately to God himself.

I enjoyed the class so much, I began taking other religion courses. The fall of my junior year I took a class on early Judaism. As preparation in the summer I read the Old Testament. Again, I read it from beginning to end. Just as Jesus evolves in the gospels, God evolves in the Old Testament. God begins as sort of a family deity, later becoming a tribal god, and then finally the only god. In fact at first, Jews did not believe that Yahweh was the only god, just that Yahweh was the only god worth worshiping. This is known as monism or henotheism. This is what finally made it clear to me that the Judeo-Christian god was no different than other gods and I didn't believe in any of them.

I was a very religious Christian but had left the faith due to inconsistencies with what the church taught and what was actually going on. I had also become a theater major at Cal Poly which opened me up so many different ideas and new ways of thinking. Returning to Christianity was like returning to closed mindedness and ignorance. I just couldn’t. But I didn’t want to deny the possibility that God was real at the risk of eternal damnation. At that point I became an agnostic. It was like sitting on the fence, not willing to explore either side.

I don't need a reason to post a picture of Anderson Cooper.
I officially considered myself an atheist while watching a news clip right after the Hurricane Katrina/broken levees disaster. A reporter, maybe Anderson Cooper, came upon a bloated body face down in the streets of New Orleans, wondered why she didn’t even have the dignity of being covered up, and said something to effect that this has happened in the streets in the U.S. I realized at that moment that I was giving up on God. I know worse things have happened in other parts of the world (genocide, starvation, female circumcision, 9-year old brides, mass rapes, etc) but the U.S. is touted as blessed by God. If that’s how He treats his supposed beloved country and its people, then I’d rather live in a world without Him. That event also changed me politically and awakened my social consciousness.  

What solidified it was stupidly friending a person I knew when I was a born-again Christian. He made comments on my status about his faith, and I told him I was an atheist. He saw it, like most dogmatic believers do, as an opportunity to bring me back to the faith. I told him I didn’t believe because I thought God was a dick and nothing like the Bible or His people claimed. He ended up defriending me the same day. What was actually accomplished was a realization that I call myself an atheist but have no idea how to talk about it. How do you talk about not believing in God? What does that mean to me?

It means that I believe in a natural world. I am lousy at having faith in things with no evidence. I have no absolute proof that God does or does not exist, but in all scenarios I’ve conceived and that have been presented to me, I’m gonna go with a big no on the existence of a non-verifiable supernatural being. It also means that this world is all we have, so we better try to make it better. I hate the way people put religious ideology before human beings. I hate the way it closes people off. I hate the way they make me feel like a slut because I have big boobs and love to fuck men. I’m also genuinely at peace and satisfied with the thought of there being nothing more than this amazing, complex, mysterious and interesting universe and everything it contains. What could God offer that could replace that?

The moment I first stuck my penis in a vagina I thought Someone doesn't want me to do this?! Fuck that guy!

14 June 2012

Atheist Stories

My discussions of Prometheus with friends spurned me to begin to ask more people about their own personal beliefs in atheism. I was going to do a post on how I became an atheist - my Saint Paul conversion story, if you will. But I thought I might also ask some of my friends (I have a fairly large number of atheist friends) how and why they converted to atheism. It turned out to be quite a delightful project, and I will share as many responses as I get. Some of their stories are downright wonderful.

Just as a caveat, I don't intend to convert anyone else to atheism with these posts. An atheism which fashions itself to be about proselytizing or about enforcing (dis)belief on other people is untenable. Instead, you might think about these stories as tales of transformation: changes from one way of life to another that people have found to be beneficial, healthy, and educative.

I got so many responses to my query, that I will have to split my original idea into several posts, but to start, I asked each person why he or she became an atheist and if they had a good "conversion" story. Here are some of the responses...

I grew up in a good, faithful, and devout Baptist household, and so I of course believed in god, prayed every night and before every meal, and went to church three to four times a week. The thing I remember the most about being devout is that I wanted to believe in god. I was always a very empathetic young person, and so I always chafed when judgments were made about people and their behaviors – in my church this usually had to do with young people who had become sexually active: our church would publicly shame these people by forcing them to apologize in front of the entire congregation. It was a ludicrous method of policing behavior that also managed to be arbitrary – why was sex policed (one might ask) rather than the much more widespread sins of gluttony or smoking cigarettes? Why didn't those sinners have to apologize, but the kids who had unprotected sex had to submit to public shaming? (One suspects it was because grown folk wouldn't submit to such indignities, but eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds hadn't grown into adulthood enough to object to such absurd demands.)

I digress. Anyway, I prayed all the time in my private life, trying to be a good god-fearing person and a devout Christian. By the time I got to University, I had decided that I would be extra-devout. I was a youth leader in our local Awana program and even though my church was a good 45 minutes away from my house and school, I would drive in to town even on Wednesday nights to attend our college Bible-study group. I asked a lot of questions. I thought critically about the scriptures. I devoted myself to studying it. I wanted to make it work, if you know what I mean, because I had become skeptical. The Bible rejects same-sex desire, and because I found myself sexually attracted to men, I had to figure out how to make it work. Eventually, though, this became too much and I just had to stop. I left Christianity, deciding that it made my life unhappy and would, if I let it, eventually push me to suicide. I was nineteen or twenty.

I was twenty-three when I became an atheist. I remember my conversion distinctly. I have loved J.R.R. Tolkien since I was a kid, and one day I was sitting around by myself thinking about middle earth (like you do when you are a big fucking nerd like I am). All of a sudden I was struck with a rush of feeling. I really, really wish that Gandalf the Grey were real,. Or if the god of Tolkien's books were real. Seriously. And I thought this because of what a kind and forgiving, what a loving, beautiful god I believed Tolkien to have created. Then, all of a sudden: another rush of feeling. That's how I feel about god in general. It is the same with Gandalf as it is with god. I want him to be real, but no matter how much I wish that there were a god looking over me and taking care of me, there is not one. Believing that god is real is like believing that Gandalf is real: it's a fun fantasy, but it's totally unconnected to reality. I want dragons and unicorns and quidditch and daemons and alethiometers to be real, too. And anyway, knowing that there is no god has left my life much more full than before, when I believed in god. I have come, instead, to believe that my life is my own responsibility. I will not be magically forgiven in the afterlife for the choices I make in my life, and this demands a certain care and ethic in my interactions with others and with the planet. And this care has made my life immeasurably happy.

I'm afraid that my how I became an atheist story isn't really a story, but a series of gradual shifts in how I viewed the universe and religious institutions. These shifts left me in a position where I almost felt forced to conclude, as a matter of logic and/or evidence, to doubt the existence of a deity. Although simply doubting the existence of a deity might have technically made me an agnostic, I have, over time, considered myself an atheist because I think it's more reasonable for a proponent of a deity (be it God, Zeus, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster) to have the burden of proof. To be an agnostic on the matter, in other words, would unreasonably equalize the folklore of a monotheistic patriarch of a god (e.g., Christianity), with the demonstrated geological/cosmological record which is benignly godless.

A few of these shifts that come to mind are: studying pre-Christian history, studying the Bible enough to doubt its alleged infallibility, doubting the divinity or wisdom of my pastors, actually considering whether I thought the moral lessons in the Bible were fair, seriously studying anthropology (my major in college) as well as astronomy, philosophy, and biology, and allowing myself to consider my beliefs without the fear of being a non-believer.

All of these events, scattered throughout high school and my first year of college, left me with the conclusion (based on the evidence) that the existence of a god was not likely.

Dinosaurs were my absolute favorite thing from ages three through ten. It was during those years that I was sure I would grow up to be a paleontologist. I could name every period and which dinosaurs lived in each one. From a very young age I had a deep understanding (for a kid in the single digits) of how long our earth has been around. I even went to summer camps at the natural history museum. That place was my church. So it’s kind of hard to pinpoint exactly when I officially declared myself an atheist. I’m pretty sure I started wearing the badge proudly in high school. Though in retrospect it’s always been that way. Kind of like after realizing I was gay and put some distance between me and my adolescence I can look back and say Oh, now that I’ve had this realization roughly 64% of my life makes a ton more sense. Or something to that effect.

I do remember my very first confrontation with religion. My parents, thankfully, raised me without it. They were both raised Catholic-lite and both stopped going to church pretty quickly. Probably around the time they were able to start driving.  But I had this friend, Adam. He wasn’t a nut or anything. Far from it. I don’t even know how much he believed back then. He tells me now that the only reason he went to church was because his grandma made them all go. But I digress. Adam was my best friend from second grade on. During those years if I wanted to stay over at his house on a Saturday it meant that I would have to go to church with them on Sunday morning. Being that they were Catholic, my parents saw no harm in me learning a little shame and guilt.

I went a few times without incident. Mass was boring as shit, and communion wafers tasted like paper. There did come a day where I could no longer stay silent. Adam and I were in catechism and that day we were discussing Genesis. We had these over simplified picture bibles and the nun (I guess, that detail is fuzzy) was talking about Adam, Eve, and the Garden of Eden. I flipped a page and my eyes bugged out of my head. My hand shot up. The nun looked at me, puzzled. What is a dinosaur doing in the Garden of Eden? They existed millions of years before humans. The whole room went silent. Her expression soured. The earth was created in seven days, and all of God’s creatures roamed the garden. I looked to Adam for support. Nothing. And, mind you, Adam went to all the same summer camps as I did. I looked back up at the nun. Well none of this makes sense to me. She turned her withering glare to my silent compatriot. Adam, you and your guest should go wait in the lobby. Defiantly I walked out with Adam tagging behind me, red faced. When we arrived in the lobby we saw the post-service refreshment stand was brimming with donuts and cookies. We gorged ourselves. Needless to say I didn’t stay there on many more Saturdays. But we did learn our lesson. Defy God, get sweets.

Many Christians do not understand how someone cannot believe in God, any god. I know this because I was one of those Christians. (When I capitalize God I am referring to the Christian God. Old habits die hard.)  The first atheist I met, I met my sophomore year of college. Of course, I ran into people who didn't go to church, or people who weren't religious, but I'd never run into anyone (at least anyone who admitted it) who was raised to believe (or to know) that there was no God. Anywhere. Ever. It blew my mind! It was like she was raised by people who were inadvertently controlled by The Devil. Not that she was evil or worshiped the devil, but in the absence of God there is only The Devil, right?

After talking with her about it, she explained to me that she was a good person, with morals and ethics. And that morals the ethics have nothing to do with believing in a god. For the first time in my life I thought about that. I thought about all the mean things people do (mostly Christians) and how the belief in God hadn't stopped them from being immoral or unethical. This whole time I thought it was the devil that was whispering in their ears and them not having the wherewithal to not listen to the whispering. From then, I began to look at the hypocrisies in the Bible. The "answers" that weren't really answers but ideas and notions that I was doing something wrong to prevent myself from receiving the blessings that as a Christian I felt I was owed. I looked at all the bad things that happen around the world and I thought How can my god let this happen?, How can this merciful being who gave his only begotten son to the world not break out some miracles in this era?, Why had he not done something the heal the problems I was having with my mother, who was literally driving me crazy? How could he not answer my prayers? Did he not see how good of a Christian I was trying to be? Why wouldn't he help me? Why did he wake me up every day, when every night I prayed to not wake up... When I asked my  church mentors these questions (save the last question), they would tell it's a sin to worry, Let Go and Let God. They would tell me He never gives you more than you can bear. Maybe I wasn't asking hard or loud enough. He may not come when you want him, but he is always there right on time. But He never came.

Then one Sunday I was sitting, listening to the sermon, and the new pastor of my church made some comments referring to Prop 22, saying that marriage was "between a man and a woman". That was it, the last straw that broke this camel's back. I got up and left the church and never looked back. This was the real beginning of the end of my one-sided "relationship" with god. I was tired of being in unrequited relationships with men. If my prayers weren't going to be answered then I wasn't going to believe. It was hard. I was used to having a safety net, the idea that somewhere something cared about be and wasn't going to let me fall was fading. It was totally scary. Then I realized that I wasn't afraid of dying. Then I gave up the idea of an afterlife. Then life got easier. I took my destiny into my own hands. I've taken the time to get to know myself, to love myself, to accept myself. As a Christian, that was something that I wasn't allowed to do. Everyone (by everyone I mean my mother) was always telling my how mean, evil, and spiteful I was. I was drowning in self-doubt and self-loathing. The Bible teaches Honor thy parents, but it doesn't teach you what to do if your parent is poison. There are so many gaps, lies and BS in the bible. I was tired of hating myself because of this entity – who has yet to show itself to be real or caring – told these men (1000 years ago) to write a book about it.

I am a good person. I try to be the best I can be for the people around me every day. Saying that I am good person bring tears to my eyes as I write this because for sooo long I thought I was a horrible person. The girl I met in college and I have been friends for more than 10 years; she helped me see the light. She and her family are some of the nicest people that I have ever met, and if being an atheist looks like that, then I am proud to be one. I feel better now that I'm not waiting on an entity to solve or help me with my problems. I feel in control of my life and my destiny. That is a huge help, because before I felt out of control.

13 June 2012

On Faith

I have thought for a long time that belief in a god and belief in extraterrestrial life forms were similar phenomena.

I was obsessed with watching The X-Files as a teenager and one thing that struck me about Mulder's total belief in extraterrestrial life was that it was akin to – in fact, Mulder stressed its identity with – faith considered much more broadly. Mulder had faith that he would see his sister again, that aliens existed, that his conspiracy theories were correct. In any case, a belief in something that no one else believes makes certain demands upon a subject: faith demands a kind of willful labor, where one actively rejects or at any rate suspends the beliefs and convictions of others in order to pursue one's own course.

In many ways, Ridley Scott's Prometheus manages to conflate this belief in aliens and belief in god. For many of the characters in Scott's film, belief in aliens is identical to belief in god because these characters believe that beings who are not human created humanity and somehow communed with humanity until some great fall of some kind when humanity fell out of favor with these creator-aliens.

I have noticed that a number of my friends were disappointed with Prometheus. And there are, I might point out, numerous reasons to be disappointed with it: its cliché plotting, its at times downright awful dialogue, its shallow characterizations, its far-too-numerous but never-surprising plot twists.

But, well, maybe it's because I don't see a lot of relatively well-made movies like this anymore (too much Michael Bay), or maybe it's because Prometheus is much smarter than most movies made in this style – even if you disliked the movie, you will have to admit that the film demands that you do a lot of thinking while you are watching it – or maybe it's because I am fascinated by the enormous (indeed almost overwhelming) amount of rape-imagery in the film, but I rather liked Prometheus. And I mean this in a kind of Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol kind of way. My expectations were not very high, and I found the film enjoyable.

As for all of this talk of aliens and gods and faith. It is here where the film lost me. Forced caesarians performed to remove alien bodies from the abdomens of human women: now that's fascinating. Meditations on the origins of humanity and why our "creator" has abandoned us: no thanks. I know this matters to a lot of people and many are curious about this subject – people spend their lives studying this subject. I sympathize, and anyway people ought to be free to spend their time as they wish. But I honestly don't understand these questions. They don't resonate with me.

So for me, Prometheus stops being smart as soon as we start asking why our creator abandoned us. The important questions for me in the film are: Why does this android want me to gestate an alien life form? Why would this non-human biped go to sleep for thousands of years inside of a ship on a planet far removed from the humans it spawned? How does this bizarre alien life form work to evolve so quickly? What is that black slime in the urns? Why are the urns laid out in weird rows? What's with the giant metallic humanoid face? These questions are interesting to me. Why did daddy stop loving me? is not.

10 June 2012

Reading in Trauma Studies

I've been reading Dominick LaCapra's book Writing History, Writing Trauma for the last couple of days and I am really loving it. It is a simple text that reminds me of something of a mix between Raymond Williams' Marxism and Literature in its obsession with definition and distinction and Jacques Rancière's The Names of History with its vision for how we might best approach historiographic projects.

LaCapra spends a lot of time carefully differentiating between loss and absence and also arguing why such a distinction is important both materially and politically. One of the interesting gestures that the book makes is to equate Freud's notion of melancholia with absence and his idea of mourning with loss. In this way, he notes that when something is absent we cannot properly mourn for it: the thing for which we might mourn – if we could mourn – was never present, and therefore practices of mourning for the absent are doomed to cause repetitive behaviors that never actually deal with absence as such. These repetitive, anomic behaviors Freud has termed melancholia. Mourning, on the other hand, is about dealing with loss and coping (slowly, perhaps, but coping nonetheless) with that loss, and possibly recognizing the lost object as irrecoverable.

So, LaCapra says:

One might further suggest that mourning be seen not simply as individual or quasi-transcendental grieving but as a homeopathic socialization or ritualization of the repetition compulsion that attempts to turn it against the death drive and to counteract compulsiveness – especially the compulsive repetition of traumatic scenes of violence – by re-petitioning in ways that allow for a measure of critical distance, change, resumption of social life, ethical responsibility, and renewal.


Historical losses [LaCapra always means the word loss as historical loss] call for mourning – and possibly for critique and transformative sociopolitical practice. When absence, approximated to loss, becomes the object of mourning, the mourning may (perhaps must) become impossible and turn continually back into endless melancholy.

Let me depart for a moment from the notion of trauma that is LaCapra's true subject. I have been in Virginia for a month now and I have become reacquainted with a man here who pursued me romantically last year. I have been having no small amount of difficulty dealing with this – thinking about having been loved and then thinking about having lost that affection has been sad for me.

I have realized a couple of things, though (I will come back to LaCapra in a moment). First, the man that loved me or at any rate pursued me is not the same man who I see here. On the contrary, what I miss is a phantasy of a man who pursued me: I miss the feelings that he had for me. Those feelings are no longer present and so the man himself is only an approximation. He will always fail at being what I am/was wanting him to be.

The second thing is that I become sad about the idea of being single, and I find myself afraid of always being alone, of never having someone with whom I can share a life. Neither of these fears is related to trauma, to be sure, but what I am doing in my sadness about being single is confusing absence with loss. Experiencing the loss of this man is not the same thing as – and I ought not to take it as either representative or derivative of – the absence I feel at not having someone permanent in my life as a partner.

As LaCapra says – I will paraphrase – when we misrecognize absence for loss, we confound the processes for coping with the experience of absence. We assume that we can deal with what is in fact an existential or transcendental issue with tools more suited to lack or an experience of loss.

Instead, it is important to be clear that what we lose in life is tangentially but not essentially related to our experience of absence or feelings of loneliness. This means that I want to deal with the grief I feel over losing the men I lose in my life in a different way than the way I deal with my real – but impossible to pinpoint because they are originary or linked to subjectivity itself – fears about being truly alone.

As I say, this is not about trauma, and LaCapra's book is manifestly about trauma, but my experiences this summer and my reading of this book have collided in an interesting and, for me, productive way.

07 June 2012

Classic Faye.

I am currently revisiting (read: obsessed with) this photograph of Faye Dunaway. Who is, if you can believe it, on Twitter @RealFayeDunaway.

Dear Lord I love her.

I Disappeared

I have been working nonstop at Endstation Theatre, and so I apologize for not posting.

I have posted several items to the Endstation blog, so if you miss me, you can read some things there.

This post is about what I do at Endstation. (Some of it, anyway.)

These are some miniature history lessons about The Comedy of Errors.

This is a silly recipe I created based on our production of Macbeth.

And these are jokes I've been writing.

I'm sure I'll be back to watching movies and posting thoughts on philosophy in no time, but for now, I'm sorry... I've gotta get to rehearsal.