Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Why I Let My Kids Go to Church: An Apostate's Perspective

My parents raised me in a Protestant church. They are both devoutly religious, sometimes even to the point of compromising their own happiness. But then, I guess that just makes them martyrs. And I suppose my reverend mother is thrilled about that. TheLordofDarkness and I do not attend church of course, as we are atheists. But my parents offer to bring our daughter (and son when he is old enough) to Sunday services. And, if she wishes, I permit her to go.

Certainly, I do not wish for my kids to grow up devout Christians. I do not want them to sacrifice their happiness for the sake of piety. And, most of all, I do not want them to develop the superiority complex that seems to come with so many fundamentalist theistic traditions.

However, I believe, the most effective way of preventing my daughter's "salvation" is to pay no attention to it whatsoever. I deliberately show no preference either way. In fact, in some ways, I almost think it is better, at least for now, for her to go to church, given the opportunity. Especially since I don't have to take her, which of course I never would.

Why do I think sending children to church is a good thing?

Truth is self-evident

When thinking of my daughter sitting through liturgy, I remember my own journey through the halls and falls of religion. And it is that journey, my own experiences, which have made me the luminous apostate I am today. A quote my Friedrich Nietzsche is one I have carried close to my atheist heart since the inception of my non-belief: People who comprehend a thing to its very depths rarely stay faithful to it forever. It is the knowledge of the thing which will drive her away from the church in the end.

I have complete faith in the church to reveal itself to my intelligent children in due time. Hypocrisy is never so clear as when you are face-to-face with it. I will, of course, love my children no matter what choices they ultimately make. However, at least when it comes to hypocrisy, an inability to recognize empirical evidence, and a reckless ignorance of the true needs of humanity ... well, the church as never let me down before.

The Allure of the Forbidden

If I learned anything from my parents it's that any time they want me to do something, I want to do the opposite. Even if I don't really want to. Just for spite. So, not letting my kids do something is the only surefire way to guarantee they will do it.

My approach? I keep it cool. It's no big thing. Sure, go to church if you want to. I don't agree with it or believe in it, but you can if you want to. The hardest lesson I've had to learn as a parent is how to make non-compliance a non-event. But once I got that down, well, I just took all the fun out of being stubborn!

Religious education is important

I know, I know ... say it ain't so. Whether or not we agree with it, religion is part of human history. And part of growing is learning from mistakes. Ignorance of history helps no one, and only threatens a repetition of mistakes. We don't avoid teaching our children the horrors of the Holocaust. Why should church history, or Biblical history, be any different?

Knowing about something doesn't make it true. Granted, the church will teach that their truth is the only truth. Unfortunately, for them, the world is getting smaller. Schools aren't allowed to acknowledge Christmas without also teaching Hanukkah and Kwanzaa too. Kids are smarter than most adults give them credit for. And the mere exposure to differing traditions, cultures and points of view reveals the impossibility of "only one" truth. Trust in the hypocrisy of the church. It won't let you down.

There is one criteria I gave my daughter for attending church. She is allowed to believe whatever she wants as long as she is tolerant of the beliefs of others. She asked me why TheLordofDarkenss and I didn't go to church. I very simply explained that we didn't believe in "god" and we didn't agree with the things the church taught. Predictably defiant, she proclaimed that I was wrong. That there was a "god", etc. (She said the same thing when I told her there was no Santa Claus, btw.) And I told her it was fine if she wanted to believe that. But intolerance was not acceptable, and a one-way ticket to sleeping in on Sunday morning.

Everyone is on his or her own journey through life. And I don't put myself in a position to tell others what they should or shouldn't be doing (except in extreme cases), including my children. I will be here for them no matter what paths they choose in life. And if nothing else, I can dispel the myth that atheists are evil, devil worshipers.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Cultural Conditioning: Watching Kids at Play

It’s refreshing to watch children play. For one thing, I am reminded what it was like to be totally free to express myself in every way I could think of, without the fear of being shamed. It is balm to the soul to remember that freedom is still inside of me somewhere. Albeit small and silent.

The other reason I love watching my children express their imaginations, is that it reminds me of the filter my cultural upbringing has instilled in me. The filter through which I view the world. For example, my first encounter with filters was when I realized most people didn't walk around as angry as I was.

When I was younger I was angry all the time. Instead of rose-colored glasses, mine were gray and sometimes black. As a result I was an embittered and impossible child. (Sorry, Mom.) And I thought this was how everyone saw the world. It wasn't until after years of therapy and meds that I discovered, most people can and do enjoy life! How odd.

This is to say, we aren't aware of our filters until they are pointed out to us. Typically, children have had much less exposure to cultural norms and expectations. So they aren't restricted in their play the way adults can be.  As kids become more aware of cultural rituals and rules, it is curious to see how they mix and match the ideas, sometimes following the rules sometimes making up their own. This is the game I play with myself as I watch them, trying to notice my own indoctrination through their obvious lack of it.

Which brings me to an anecdote from our annual family vacation. I am not “out” as poly to my family and many of my friends. My mother is a pastor and I live in a hoity-toity part of the Bible Belt. It’s not fair that my young children should be ostracized for choices they didn't make if it’s within my control. My children are young and do not yet have direct knowledge of my relationships outside the home.

On vacation we’re all sitting around in the living room of a rented space, watching my two children (boy and girl) and my brother’s two kids (also a boy and a girl) play. My daughter (the oldest) decides they should all “get married”. A relatively routine game for children, still navigating the complicated ocean of relationships. What girl didn't plan out her wedding day at least a few hundred times.? (Sigh. Also, cultural conditioning.)

But in the kids’ imaginary game, who’s going to marry whom? Well, we wouldn't want any feelings to be hurt. So, my daughter decides (with absolutely no input from me) that they will all get married together. She will marry both boys, in one ceremony. And her girl cousin will marry both boys in another. (I’m also loving the female patriarch implied here!)

What was incredible to me was how all of the other kids went along with this idea without batting an eye. Makes perfect sense, we all want to live together and be happy, so we’ll get married the way our grown-ups do. Of course the ceremonies were elaborate (and expensive!) And she got to walk her two “men” down the aisle.  Flowers, veils … we spared no expense.

Fortunately for me, no one noticed this social faux pas. Except my husband, who bore holes into me with his eyes from across the room.

Another glaringly obvious “rule” of the game was that only the girls could marry boys. Girls marrying girls, or boys with boys, wasn't suggested. An example of mixing and matching the rules, and also, I think, far too little exposure to gay culture (not by choice, by circumstance).

The "rules" of culture are not always so straight forward. Sometimes you don't even realize what you're doing until you meet someone (usually from a far away land) who does it differently. And, on occasion, cultural "rules" can be a positive thing, like positive peer pressure. But more importantly, it's being aware of the conditioning that makes a difference. This is what allows us to change course, should the time ever come when it's needed. And it allows us to be compassionate and tolerant of others, especially others with different cultural conditioning.

A challenge for all of us: be more aware of your conditioning as we move through our day.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Freedom of Vulnerability

Long ago, on the schoolyard, we learned to hide what others might consider odd. Lest we commit the ultimate sin by letting them see us cry.

Being vulnerable means opening yourself up to ridicule. Knowing they can and they will, yet still wearing it proud. The downside: the horrible shame and humiliation you feel when someone disapproves of your core self. The self you really are, no masks, no deceit, everything completely laid bare.

The upside (and, yes, there is one): when your core self is revealed, with its obvious weaknesses and unattractiveness, and you are accepted anyway. It's the most amazing feeling a human can experience.

And vulnerability in romantic relationships … well, that is an entirely new level of hurt. Is the risk worth the reward?

Only when I finally let myself be truly vulnerable to others was I really free to be myself. I didn't have to fret about being caught with my guard down. What will so-and-so think about my such-and-such? What a breath of fresh air to be really free from ridicule. That's not to say I wasn't or won't be ridiculed. That people won't disagree with me. (I hope they do. What a boring world it would be otherwise!) 

Being disapproved of by others can be painful. We have a built-in evolutionary need to feel accepted by our peers. In order to minimize our hurt we develop defense mechanisms. We (1) avoid relationships as much as possible, (2) adopt a mask, which hides the core self, or (3) build sturdy fences (or sometimes walls) around the relationship making it theoretically impossible to be hurt by one's partner.

What makes ridicule so powerful, so penetrative, is that others illuminate the very things we are trying to hide. That I have a crappy job, I look silly when I dance, I cringe when I hear my father’s voice, or that my body bulges in unattractive ways.

A truly vulnerable person looks at her own weaknesses and opens them up voluntarily. Maybe this is along the same lines as comedians who make fun of themselves? "I'm not fat. I'm fluffy." Who can really make fun of us when we’re already laughing?

Some people feel this sense of vulnerability more than others. And the greater the chance of pain, the more defense mechanisms, fences, walls, and dark, dank dungeons we feel to be necessary.

As a teen, and even in my early adult years, I was terrified of being "revealed" to disapproving eyes. It didn't really matter what my supposed offense might be. The thought of being unacceptable to others, especially peers and potential partners, drove me to hide behind a mask of rigid toughness. Still, somewhere in my private fantasy world, I was looking for that safe relationship where I could reveal myself in totality and be completely accepted.

For many years I was told and believed that I could find this "total acceptance" in a relationship with "god". This of course was little more than my imagination playing with itself. Even grownups can find comfort in imaginary, I guess.

Of course, the answer is always the most obvious and the most complicated. I had to accept myself. I had to ultimately not care what others thought of me, while still caring, lest I be lost to cynicism. I had to know my place, and love my place.

Being vulnerable is the single-most quality that has opened up my life. For the first time I am available. Available, open, and able to confidently address whatever comes my way.

After being married (and mono) for almost ten years, I began a new relationship. It was a whole new experience of vulnerability. Dating in my early twenties was a game of masks (not Thrones, sorry), always being more savvy than the next potential partner. Keeping my secret love of all things nerdy, and my total lack of sexual experience completely hidden.

Even after marrying, it was a long struggle to bring down walls. And I don't think I truly accomplished that until recently, becoming poly, and letting the last hidden piece of myself be revealed. At the time, I didn't know how it would work out. I told my hubby I was in love with someone else (too). And it certainly wasn't a walk in the park for him. But ultimately, he chose to accept me, all of me. And I have never felt so loved by him as I did that day. And every day after …

Being vulnerable in my new relationship was a whole other thing. I'm not a shallow teenager anymore. I like to think that I've matured beyond playing the boyfriend trophy game. This was going to be something really different. Dating as a grown-up ... hmmm ... a post for another day?

For this new relationship, I wanted to be entirely myself, entirely vulnerable, from the start. If I couldn't do that, then the relationship would be a real waste of my time. But it wasn't as easy as I thought. I mean, being completely vulnerable to a new person is scary. Rejection, even if it's only in the form of a blank stare, hurts, especially if it's someone whose opinion means something.

What a lucky dumbfuck I am! TheTotalPackage (his choice of name, btw) turned out to be the most amazing, understanding human being I could have hoped for. But, fuck, it was scary. I must have made a total fool of myself trying not to be so shy and stupid, but also not put a false front.

All those lofty defenses I'd erected early in life were awfully tiring and only got me further away from where I wanted to be. Being loved for the picture of perfection I wish I was just left me feeling dissatisfied in the end.

Here is your own personal invitation to open up your vulnerable self to people. Start by opening up to just one. But make sure it’s really your whole self, no hiding the parts you don't like. See how it feels. Don't let someone's bad mood or lack of tact put you off. It's okay if you get rejected or meet blank stares. It won't kill you, and you are headed toward a lofty goal.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

My "Favorite" Bible Stories: #1 The Good Samaritan

I'd like to begin irregular installments of my "favorite" bible stories and lessons as they were indoctrinated to me in my childhood. As my good friend, a token gay church attendee, B-Gizzle says, "Everyone likes a good story. Right?" The purpose to is see a reverse side to the incredibly asinine teaching found in the holy scripture. But, as with everything else, they will arrive at my leisure or inspiration.

The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-27)

In this backwards parable (a story meant to teach a lesson, but usually doing a piss-poor job of it), a religious "expert" asks Jesus the secret to life eternal. Jews of course don't believe in heaven or the afterlife. This "expert" was referring to literal eternal life, AKA the Fountain of Life. Or, he was being incredibly sarcastic, because Jesus was preaching about heaven and the afterlife. I haven't personally decided which interpretation I like best.

Jesus asks him his personal interpretation of Moses's Law and tells him by following this he will "live". Eternally? Well, he doesn't really say that. Thereby, cryptically, not really answering his question. This is not so bad in itself. It reminds me of the koans used by zen masters, not really answering the student's question directly. The idea is for the student to experience reality/enlightenment for him/herself.

The "expert's" answer to Jesus is a phenomenally G-rated version of Jewish canonical law: love God and love your neighbor. Volumes could be written about the how most of the Old Testament completely contradicts these pious goals. But we'll go with this answer for now. It's his opinion, which he's entitled to. And it was an insightful answer, even if it's incorrect.

Next, the religious "expert" asks: who is my neighbor? I can't help but think Mr. Rogers would agree that a quick reading of the text would lead any (uneducated) person to believe that "neighbor" means "any one who's not you", pisshead! Is it really that difficult? It's like Taco Bell burrito brain surgery (when I wait eons in my car while they surgically construct my fuckin' burrito). But then, Jews have always been sticklers for semantics (no pun intended, but that's still pretty funny).

To explain the very simple concept of loving everyone, Jesus tells the story of The Good Samaritan. Some dude gets raped and pillaged and left by the side of the road. Who's gonna help him? A priest and a pious Jew pass by the troubled soul. Jesus doesn't say why, but I really think he should have. Did they not see him? Did they not have time? Is it like when you pass by the homeless guy, trying not to make eye contact? I think the majority of people can tell the difference between a panhandler and a guy who's just been violently attacked to the point where he can't go somewhere for help on his own.

Back in the day, Samaritans were to Jews what Mexican drug smugglers, pro-lifers, and lesbian sluts are to the Tea Party. That is to say, a dirty excuse for humanity. So, of course, in Jesus's story, the dirty, rotten, cuckold Samaritan is the one to help the severely beaten man. Whom, in his right Jewish mind, probably would have rather died than be saved by the scoundrel. In fact, Jewish law probably dictates that after such an encounter the recovering victim must be cleansed in the mikveh (ritual bath) with the niddahs (menstruating women). At least Jesus didn't have a niddah rescue the stranger. I don't think there are enough mikvehs in the universe to cleanse him from that!

Which one was a neighbor to the helpless man? The Samaritan, obviously. The priest and the religious man were not neighbors. So, back to the original question: who is my neighbor? The Samaritan, again. And, to bring the lesson full circle, in order to gain eternal life, I am to love my neighbor -- the dirty, worthless human being with a heart of gold -- and not the religious hypocrites. I mean, those two assholes weren't neighborly according to Jesus, right? So, whom am I to love (according to the Bible)? Answer: Only whomever loves me.

This Bible story, which supposedly teaches followers to love people who are different from themselves, is really telling us that we only have to love the people who are good to us. More specifically, people who rescue us in our dire need. That takes my love quotient for humanity down quite a bit. It also explains why religious bigots can guiltlessly blow up abortion clinics and slut shame anyone who doesn't fit the mono-ideal. 

Ah, I finally understand!