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A public conversation about our worlds.

  • Monday: Morgan J. Locke
  • Tuesday: Madeleine E. Robins
  • Wednesday: Maureen F. McHugh
  • Thursday: Bradley Denton
  • Friday: Steven Gould
  • Saturday: Caroline Spector
  • Sunday: Rory Harper

Brain Activity



Losing My Religion and Finding Comfort

February 24th, 2008 by Rory Harper

Religious belief has always been a painful subject for me, sometimes quite literally. I like to think that my beliefs are grounded in rationality, but the end of my belief in a present and attentive deity ended abruptly and for entirely emotional reasons.

When I was eleven years old, I was helping my Dad lay down stripes in a parking lot, a fun and profitable side-business that he maintained for many years. We were in downtown Houston, and I have a clear snapshot memory of this.

I was standing at the edge of the parking lot when a lost baby bird wandered out into the street. I had taken a couple of steps to retrieve it, when a car flashed by, and there was suddenly only a messy brown splatter where a second before had been an innocent infant life.

At that exact moment I decided that, if there was a God, and he actively made the universe run, the way I had been told he did, he wasn’t a guy I wanted to hang out with. I can still remember how I thought that, if God had a purpose for that brief life and death, I didn’t want to fathom it. Maybe it was to test my belief in an infinitely-powerful and infinitely-loving being. If so, I failed the test.

I already understood that things die. It wasn’t the first time that I’d seen that. But the utter callous meaninglessness of this particular tiny death also killed the Christian God for me, because He was all about meaning. It was an instant conversion to an unpleasant Existentialism.

I mentioned my apostasy to a couple of people at West University Elementary in the following days, and got beaten up a couple of times by small gangs of pre-adolescent boys as a reward.

As I got older, I continued to be surrounded by hard and soft Christianity, and some occasional Judaism. I couldn’t respond to the emotional appeals, and any attempts at logical argument in favor of the existence of an involved God simply fell apart under even the most cursory examination. I did try to follow the reasoning presented to me, because it would be important if there was an underlying purpose to everything.

But the arguments always boiled down, sooner or later to: My religion must be true, even though wrong-headed people interpret the details differently than I do, because our Holy Book says it’s true. And our Holy Book is unquestionably the word of God, so it must be true. Completely circular logic.

So, let’s continue to talk about emotion rather than logic. Many people find comfort in their religious belief. They make what is commonly called the Leap of Faith, and then they get to turn their attention to predicting which football team is going to win the Superbowl this year. It helps them cope with the on-going struggle that inevitably leads to the end of Superbowl predictions.

Me, I just deal with the struggle and the darkness as best I can — which isn’t always graceful or attractive. I can’t and won’t make the Leap of Faith, not because I’m too damn smart (though I am indeed too damn smart), but because it feels cowardly and dishonest. I decline to adopt a deep belief simply in order to be comforted. My universe is an uncaring, unmanageable enormity.

My mother tried to do some religion with me and my sister, briefly. Here’s my memory of it:

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We attended only sporadically, for reasons I don’t know. Those were some hard years. I was nine or ten years old. We were in a Baptist church in Tyler, and the pastor read out a list of the names of the kids whose families hadn’t attended for awhile. I happily marched down the aisle to the front, to accept from him a couple of small ‘welcome back’ gifts. A decade later, I took that memory out and examined it, and realized how deeply, publicly, he humiliated my Mom. I despise the sonofabitch for his cynical manipulativeness. Maybe we went back more times; I don’t remember. I hope we didn’t.

In any Christian church, I feel completely creeped out. It’s a pure and consistent emotional response. There’s something very bad-wrong happening in those buildings, that hurts peoples lives and minds. I know lots of churches do good in many ways, but my emotional reaction is that it’s all built on lies, so is not to be trusted.

Oddly, I’ve always felt warm and embraced in Jewish temples. I’m comfortable when surrounded by the old men in the beanies, and smile when the kids are running up and down the aisles in the midst of ceremony. The music is mournful and uplifting. Jews don’t believe in hell. Instead of the faux presence of an oppressive God who demands adoration and punishes for eternity when he doesn’t get the right kind of love in the right amount, I instead feel the weight of hundreds of generations of a people who have, despite the mountains regularly dropped upon their heads, continued to endure as individuals and as a community.

It’s an emotional reaction, not a rational one, and I haven’t been in a temple for many years, so that reaction might be different now that the culture wars have hardened me.

I hang out with a lot of neopagans, as often as possible. As a group, they feel like family to me. They have diverse beliefs, some being traditional Wiccans, with the Gardnerians being jokingly referred to as the pagan equivalent of the Catholic church. The Alexandrian Wiccans are looser and more prone to eclecticism.

I know Asatru, heathens who believe in the old Norse gods. She Who Is Awesome and her fiancé, Jesse, are Asatru, for instance. Much of their belief system centers around courageously doing the honorable thing, regardless of consequences, and taking care of family and tribe. I like this a lot, as it means that they’ve invited Grandpa-me to live in a shed out behind the house and help take care of the kids, in return for which I’ll not have to eat dog food when the Social Security runs out.

Many neopagans have constructed belief systems that make sense to them, and may not have a name for them.

Regardless of diversity, most neopagans that I’ve encountered experience a spiritual connection with the presence and rhythms of the earth and the skies. They celebrate a lot of cyclical events, such as the changes in the seasons, and the stages of life.

They tend to be highly nurturing people, and a significant percentage of the ones I know work in health-care. Most are politically liberal and deviate from a lot of social norms, with all that implies.

They typically like to dress up in colorful costuming, and they like to take off the costumes when the weather’s good, especially while dancing around the bonfire. In a significant departure from most mainstream religions in the western world, most neopagans reject the idea that sexuality and sensuality are sinful things. As a matter of fact, they tend to reject the whole concept of sin. Most have senses of humor that could be politely described as ‘extremely bawdy’.

Generally, their values and behaviors feel strongly resonant with mine, and I’m most relaxed and serene when enfolded by this community. As with many deviant sub-cultures, they’re pretty open and accepting, though there’s no tolerance for emotional or physical violence, and I’ve seen quick rejection of a couple of guys who thought that hanging out with them uninhibited hot pagan babes was mostly a quick way to get laid.

From what I’ve seen, pagan communities are usually matriarchal in nature, and I have a strong positive emotional response to that, too. I guess that means I’m a sexist….

A lot of neopagans are solitary practitioners of their path, not organized in covens. Many take their religion very seriously, and one of the harshest accusations you can make about a neopagan is that they’re ‘fluffy’. There are no ‘Pagan Police’, though, so you can’t get excommunicated for fluffyness.

 

Spiritual nuances aside, how could I fail to be emotionally attracted to a spectrum of beliefs that shares at least one underlying principle: “Hey, it must be time to celebrate something!”

I’m still not moved to believe in a deity or deities, but, as I’ve written before, I do have this on-going thing happening with trees. In that sense, I’m a solitary practitioner, and I do find comfort there.

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Let’s be honest — Nobody has all that much respect for religious beliefs that differ from theirs. We pretend that we do, but we don’t.

The best we can hope for is to be left alone to try to find our own paths, and helped along them when we ask for help.

Evangelism feels really wrong to me. I’ve been evangelized mostly by Christians of various stripes, because that’s who I’ve mostly encountered. I’ve never been evangelized by a single neopagan, incidentally, though most are delighted to explain their beliefs in detail if asked about them.

Aggressive religiosity of any kind makes me want to leave the room. I avert from the arrogance of someone who thinks their little slice of faith is Ultimate Truth. And am especially revulsed by the ones who are willing to stuff it down your throat sideways if need be. I’m horrified by everything I’ve ever read or seen regarding the religious wars being fought around the world today.

I don’t think there is any end to this in sight. I keep wishing we were better as a species. But we aren’t. Religious beliefs draw us together with the relatively small group of others who believe as we do. And, horribly too often, severs us from recognizing the humanity of those who believe differently than we do.

Writing this post has stirred up thoughts and feelings in me that are far from certain or finished. I certainly don’t have any tidy universal answers to anything at all.

My little bit of small-t truth is this: We’re all locked alone inside our heads, which is awful and terrifying. The only thing that makes this endurable is that we can feel. We can feel the pain and joy of others, not only of our lonely selves. We can connect emotionally.

We can comfort each other, and, sometimes, allow others close enough to comfort us. And that’s enough meaning for me.

Perhaps I’ve made my own Leap of Faith, without any logic whatsoever behind it.

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Posted in Personal History, Rachael is Awesome, Religion, Rory | 25 Comments »

25 Responses

  1. James Hollaman Says:

    i lost my religion after getting kicked out of the church for not wearing a suit. It was then i relized i had no religious beliefs. I was asked if i was agnostic, and i said no. To me that would still have to have a belief behind it… so i’m just a human being.

  2. Valna Says:

    “We can comfort each other, and, sometimes, allow others close enough to comfort us. And that’s enough meaning for me.”

    Rory…
    Well said, Mr. Harper.
    Beltaine is just around the corner, and I’m pretty sure there is a celebration planned.
    Don’t you owe me a hug?
    lol

  3. Rory Harper Says:

    I always owe you a hug, Valna. And you always owe me one…. :)

  4. Casey Hamilton Says:

    Amen, my brother. And I’ll hug you any time, Rory :)

  5. Becca Says:

    Lovely sentiments, in so many ways insightful. While we may never answer the questions, I applaud you for asking them, and for rejecting the same things that I have…. namely, that some uptight cornhole in a bad polyester suit has figured out the answers to life the universe and everything. No one with a finite life deserves an eternity of anything, no matter how good or bad they’ve been. And no single human deserves to tell other single humans what The Answers are.
    Have I mentioned lately I’m your biggest fan? Except I won’t smash your ankles with mallets.

  6. Morgan J. Locke Says:

    Dark, Harper. And really good.

  7. Rory Harper Says:

    James — If you knew you were supposed to wear the suit, maybe you were working up to leaving on your own? Which is hard…

    We did a Yule party this year with a Speakeasy theme. John came dressed as a successful 20′s-era gangster, in a very nice suit. I was shocked; I’d never seen him in a suit. I thought about kicking him out of the pagan community for it, but I was afraid he might have his boys rub me out if I tried…

    Becca — Yeah, the whole Hell thing is perhaps what I find most offensive about a lot of beliefs.

    I was getting mildly proselytized by a guy a couple of months ago, and we parsed out who was going to Heaven and who wasn’t. He had a pretty fundamentalist belief system, eventually conceded that about 95% of the human race wasn’t going to make the cut. Justified it with scripture that that ‘the way is narrow’.

    Too narrow for me…. His Heaven’s gonna be damned empty, and I can’t imagine a sane parent that would do something like that to ANY of his children, much less the vast majority of them.

  8. James Hollaman Says:

    i didn’t know I was to wear a suit. I was a teen age kid and wore the same things i wore to church that I had always done. Clean pair of jeans, and a plain t-shirt. when we was leaving the sunday night sermon one evening the head of the church pulled me over and said, look don’t come back till you buy a suit. never went back.

  9. Sean Craven Says:

    (For some reason you Brainiacs have posted a mess of things that I feel obliged to comment on this morning. I guess it’s the waiting-for-the-bus phenomenon.)

    Rory, this really hit a chord with me. My own path has been quite different.

    One of my first three memories is that of walking out of church on a Sunday morning and realizing that when someone answered a sincere question by telling me that I needed to have faith, that meant that there wasn’t a good answer for my question. Which meant that I didn’t have to believe in that nonsense at all — that I could just give them a quarter every Sunday and then stop going to church when I was old enough. I still can physically recall the sense of relief that swept over me. I was three.

    But as the years went by I became more and more concerned by the fact that people I loved and respected really believed in all that nonsense. I tried to find some way of buying into it but the more I studied religion and mythology the crazier it seemed. This really bothered me; the fact that people I loved were genuinely concerned for the fate of my soul based on my ability to pledge fealty to pathetically obvious lies wound up leading me to avoid communication with people I truly care for.

    This is an ongoing issue for me; my relatives on my father’s side of the family are deep into spooky jeebus stuff — they buy into the notion of the rapture and so on. This hurts, you know?

    I’m not going to pretend that religious or spiritual practices can enhance one’s life. Following 9/11 I did a lot of reading on modern Islam. One of the sources that I found was fascinating — an imam’s sex advice column. His advice was based on the notion that the various strictures that faith places on behavior are intended to enhance the quality of life rather than deny it. It made me think of Robert Frost’s comment on poetry, the one where he said that if you ain’t playing with a net then it ain’t tennis.

    But in the end it’s the fact that religion obliges you to embrace lies, to make really scary delusional thinking the core of your life.

    At the end of the day, no matter what society says, the guy at the bus stop with a bottle of white port who talks about Jesus is on the same level of insanity as the nicely dressed people in church who are talking about the same.

    I can respect people of faith. I can respect their need for their faith. But I have absolutely no respect at all for faith itself. And I angrily resent being judged negatively for choosing to side with sanity.

  10. Steven Gould Says:

    I don’t care what people believe but I care how they behave. Sometimes their beliefs directly result in awful behavior.

    But except for that too-long guitar solo that one time…you’ve always behaved like someone I want in my life.

  11. Morgan J. Locke Says:

    …and, you know, those times you get bagged and squish squirrels against your forehead and shout, Wooooo! I hate those times. Especially the “woooo” part, which hurts my ears. But otherwise, you’re just plain fab.

  12. Bill Bottorff Says:

    Rory, I think we live in a very strange universe. And we are just at the beginning of understanding it. Steve has got me to thinking about time and the more I try to visualize time to more I come to a problem of describing it. Or shoudl d I say of scribing it, since I am writing about a 3 dimensional physical world that exists as an interface between the future and the past. At first I thought about NOW as a 3 dimensional place of transition the way that the 2 dimensional surface of water lies between the air and the ocean. Now I think about the NOW interface as the only point in time in which matter exists. The only past that exists lies in us and in all that we see and in the earth upon which we stand. Every atom that exists today came to this point through all of the NOW’s that got us to this point. The multiple universes of Hugh Everett exist in the future and narrow down to the one that we experience in the NOW. We know, we believe, we expect and ultimately we act. The act is all that is recorded in the past record of the NOW. We experience the effect of our act in the future NOW after the act. All we can do is choose where to stand. Over here, over there, wherever. Your little birdie chose to stand in the wrong place. She erased herself from the gene pool. All of our ancestors stood in the right place. (at least until they procreated) Listening for a voice that gives hints about where to stand could be a valuable skill to be passed down to survivors. Is there a voice beyond the Realm of Time?
    What do you think? Is there a story here?

  13. Rory Harper Says:

    Steve and Morgan — Mock me if you will, but the guitar solos and the drunken squirrel-squishing are all deeply-significant religious rituals for me. Which you apparently have no respect for. Cthulhu will punish you for that….

    James — Required to dress up for Jesus… What a bizarre concept. It’s probably mandated somewhere in that asshole minister’s Book…

    Casey — Yeah, I always figured the world would be a better place if the First Commandment that Moses brought down from the mountain had been ‘Thou Shalt Hug Each Other a Lot.’

    Bill — My best hope about the nature of the space-time continuum is that it’s an eternal intertwined matrix. That time is a ‘place’, as it were, and in that place the loved ones I’ve lost are still alive and that I’m always getting to hang out with them Somewhen.

    Sean — You’re talking about a lot of the crux intent of my post. I’ve seen sites and other writing talking about people rejecting religious indoctrination because of the intellectual dishonesty it so often involves. Not so much do people talk about the emotional component.

    I settled my intellectual conflicts on the subject long ago.

    I still struggle with the emotional components, the fear and rejection and isolation and sorrow for myself and others that comes with that awakening.

    The only mainstream religious tradition that I’m aware of that doesn’t have a history of using dogma as justification for hurting and killing is Buddhism. There may be others, but I don’t know about them. It makes me suspect that they’re onto something good.

    Of course, I’m not an expert on Buddhism, so I could be wrong.

    Neopagans don’t do violence as a group, either. Mostly too concerned with partying and the naked boobies.

    Any religious tradition that promotes frequent wild (consensual) monkey-sex has better things to offer than violence.

    Of course, much of neopaganism is very young. And EXTREMELY disorganized. Maybe in fifty or a hundred years, they’ll be invading selected parts of the planet to wipe out those one-godded heretics…

  14. neen Says:

    I loved this and agree with most of it. But I say everyone, reread “The Lazy Man’s Guide to Enlightenment” by Thaddeus Golas

  15. neen Says:

    Some things never go out of style

  16. neen Says:

    No offense to anyone, I just found this web site, cause I was looking for anything about Steven Gould. I thought he was terrific the fist time I read his book “Jumper” when it came out and tried to tell e1 about it. No one had heard of him. Yet no one had heard of Obama either when I tried to tell them about him. Its a new world. lol

  17. Morgan J. Locke Says:

    No worries, neen. We’re glad to have you here.

  18. neen Says:

    Ty morgan, Found this site stimulating. (not to be confused with antogonistic) It made me feel better than I have in a long time.

  19. neen Says:

    You dont want to know what color the car was that I went to the store in was so I will make this short.
    I did not grow up with stereo type religion. I had free rein, but i was surrounded by christianity. I think that paradigm is about to die.
    People have found more comfort in their friends than they have in their religion.
    We have proven world wide that our religion gives us strength, our will to go on.
    But how do you explain all the good people in the world (like my gramma) that had no religion but tried to be the best that they could be?
    Where would anyone’s God put them?
    It makes no sense.
    I am agnostic, not because I dont know what to believe in, but because I have not seen everything yet.

  20. James Hollaman Says:

    “James — Required to dress up for Jesus… What a bizarre concept. It’s probably mandated somewhere in that asshole minister’s Book…”

    yeah at that point in time i had read the bible a few times and had not read the dress code part….

  21. Raven Daegmorgan Says:

    Beautiful post, Rory.

    Similar has happened to me over the years, though I still believe in something “out there”…I just don’t know what that is, or if it is anything at all. Regardless, you’ve inspired this:

    A man sets out on a journey on an infinite plain. He chooses to head northwards and spends his life walking towards the mountains he can see in the distance. On his way, he passes through forests and over deep blue rivers and across rocky valleys. By the end of his life, this is what the world looks like to him.

    Had he gone south, and spent his life walking towards the ocean he can see in the distance, passing through deserts and over broad river canyons and across fertile scrub-plain, by the end of his life, that is what the world looks like to him.

    Such is any journey towards God.

    Such is life.

    And also, when two men appear and claim to have reached and come down from the mountains to show the man the way, but each argues the other is a bandit and robber waiting to misguide and slay the man, how does the man choose between them?

    This is the wrong question. The man should ask instead how anyone could cross an infinite plain?

  22. Rachael Says:

    We’re not promising anything here about dog food…

  23. Rory Harper Says:

    Damn. When you talked me into signing the contract without reading it, you told me there was a no-dog-food clause. Rotten child.

    *Love*

    Raven — Glad you liked the post! And — I never was any good at this, but was that a parable or a koan? Or is there there even a paganic word for it?

  24. Michael Shannon Says:

    Very insightful post, Rory. I’m not sure you can really say that Buddhism has never been used as justification for killing – if you look at the history of Bhutan, Tibet and Mongolia (all Buddhist kingdoms), you find plenty of wars, at least some of which were probably religiously motivated. Still, overall it’s a very peaceful philosophy.

    I’ve recently been to a couple of Hindu ceremonies at Barsana Dham (goregeous temple out near Driftwood) with a friend, and found the experience very enjoyable. Lots of very rhythmic chanting, drums and music, and they serve lunch to everyone after the service. Of course, it may help that I don’t speak Hindi, so I any preaching was completely lost on me…

    I’d have to say that these days, I’m closest to a pantheist, when I feel the need of some belief. I completely relate to your reaction to being in a Christian church – I recently had to go back to the Catholic church I grew up in, and it really made me uncomfortable – I couldn’t say why, at the time, but I think you captured it well.

  25. Raven Daegmorgan Says:

    Technically, it’s a parable; but the non-rational imagery also makes it a koan. So I guess it’s both.

    I don’t honestly know. I just know I like to discuss and think in metaphor because it often both makes situations more easily understood and strips them of many assumptions while retaining, if not highlighting, their complexity. Deceptive simplicity.

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