Monthly Archives: March 2013

Coming Out

Since the conception of this blog, I have kept my identity private. The primary reason for this choice was self-preservation; as a soon-to-be college graduate, I worried that publicly outing myself as an atheist could be detrimental in my job search. Most of my family and friends know that I’m a nonbeliever, but I worried that, based on the common discrimination against atheists, future employers may be wary of hiring an outspoken atheist such as myself.

Then something occurred to me: Why would I want to work for someone who cares that I don’t believe in gods? I hope to commit my working life to advancing causes in which I believe and promoting freedom throughout the world – there’s no way I would work for someone who wishes to stifle those goals.

I once had another blog in which I voiced similar opinions and displayed my name proudly. As the prospect of job searching loomed ever nearer, I eventually quit that blog in favor of creating this one for which I would blog anonymously. My first blog actually created a slightly tumultuous environment for me locally, where religious leaders got to know me and engaged in confrontation. Stepping away from it all and writing privately gave me a chance to focus on studying a little more intensely; but as I have narrowed my focus on what I want to make of my life, I have also found freedom in expressing who I am uninhibited.

Therefore, without any more delay, this is who I am (with the help of the Freedom From Religion Foundation):

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If you are ready to come out as a nonbeliever (and I now realize the power of pride), I would encourage you to visit the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s website and create your own billboard.

Thanks for reading, and it’s a pleasure to meet you.

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Why the arguments for gay marriage ARE persuasive

The words upon which we place emphasis are important, aren’t they? An article by the same title appeared in the Gospel Coalition blogs today, and it was anything but supportive of marriage equality. Pastor Kevin DeYoung attempted to break down the arguments for gay marriage in his post; here I will return the favor.

With two landmark gay marriage cases before the Supreme Court we are already seeing a flurry of articles, posts, tweets, and status updates about the triumph it will be when America finally embraces equality for all and allows homosexuals to love each other.

First of all, homosexuals already love each other. No laws will change that. Gay people are already dating, having sex, celebrating Valentine’s Day, supporting each other, and more. Don’t presume that anything can affect their ability to love.

These tweets and posts and articles perfectly capture the reason why the arguments for gay marriage have become so persuasive so fast. Given the assumptions and patterns of thinking our culture has embraced in the last fifty years, the case for gay marriage is relatively easy to make and the case against it makes increasingly little sense.

Well, you’re off to an OK start. Your position makes zero sense, but let’s not quarrel over these details.

I don’t think the arguments or gay marriage are biblically faithfully, logically persuasive, or good for human flourishing in the long run, but they are almost impossible to overcome with most Americans, especially in younger generations.

Whether or not gay marriage adheres to biblical principals is inconsequential in a legal debate in the United States. If there are logical or humanitarian argument against gay marriage, let’s hear it (but I’m not going to hold my breath). That last sentence just makes me proud of my generation.

By and large, people don’t support gay marriage because they’ve done a lot of reading and soul searching, just like people didn’t oppose it on high flying intellectual grounds either. For a long time, homosexuality seemed weird or gross.

…and most people arguing against it still find it that way.

Now it seems normal. More than that, it fits in perfectly with the dominant themes and narratives shared in our culture. Gay marriage is the logical conclusion to a long argument, which means convincing people it’s a bad idea requires overturning some of our most cherished values and most powerful ideologies.

Stop! Quit while you’re ahead! If DeYoung ended it right here, his article would kind of make sense.

Think of all the ways gay marriage fits in with our cultural mood and assumptions.

Here we go…

1. It’s about progress. Linking the pro-gay agenda with civil rights and women’s rights was very intentional, and it was a masterstroke. To be against gay marriage, therefore, is to be against enlightenment and progress. It puts you on the “wrong side of history.” Of course, most people forget that lots of discarded ideas were once hailed as the inevitable march of progress. Just look at Communism or eugenics or phrenology or the Volt. But people aren’t interested in the complexities of history. We only know we don’t want to be like the nincompoops who thought the sun revolved around the earth and that slavery was okay.

You hear that gays? This isn’t about equal rights – like it was with civil rights and women’s rights – this is just another bad idea like Communism and eugenics! This is about where DeYoung becomes a senseless blowhard. DeYoung is the one not paying attention to the complexities of history – he’s equating gay marriage to these things without evaluating the arguments for any of them. Civil rights and Communism were both considered instruments of progress and change – take the time to explore why one was accepted and the other rejected.

2. It’s about love. When gay marriage is presented as nothing but the open embrace of human love, it’s hard to mount a defense. Who could possibly be against love? But hidden in this simple reasoning is the cultural assumption that sexual intercourse is necessarily the highest, and perhaps the only truly fulfilling, expression of love.

Again, DeYoung makes the baffling assumption that gay people aren’t already engaged in loving each other and having sex. It’s as though he believes that by banning gay marriage we can somehow deter gay people from having sex.

It’s assumed that love is always self-affirming and never self-denying. It’s assumed that our loves never require redirection. Most damagingly, our culture (largely because of heterosexual sins) has come to understand marriage as nothing but the state sanctioning of romantic love. The propagation and rearing of children do not come into play. The role in incentivizing socially beneficial behavior is not in the public eye. People think of marriage as nothing more than the commitment (of whatever duration) which romantic couples make to each other.

Not to mention the legal benefits of being married. Not to mention the symbolism of making that commitment to another person. Not to mention the pursuit of happiness to which all Americans are supposedly entitled. Furthermore, the rearing of children does come into play, and making the argument that having gay parents harms a child is a very difficult position indeed. When it comes to “incentivizing socially beneficial behavior,” we’re going to need more information. On the surface this little phrase sounds nice; but if it means “promoting strictly Christian ideals,” I won’t concede them to be socially beneficial.

3. It’s about rights. It’s not by accident the movement is called the gay rights movement. And I don’t deny that many gays and lesbians feel their fundamental human rights are at stake in the controversy over marriage. But the lofty talk of rights blurs an important distinction. Do consenting adults have the right to enter a contract of their choosing? It depends. Businesses don’t have a right to contract for collusion. Adults don’t have a right to enter into a contract that harms the public good. And even if you think these examples are beside the point, the fact remains that no law prohibits homosexuals (or any two adults) from making promises to each other, from holding a ceremony, from entering into a covenant with each other. The question is whether the government should bestow upon that contract the name of marriage with all the rights and privileges thereto.

Let me summarize DeYoung’s argument in a clearer, more concise manner: “Proponents of marriage have framed their argument as one about rights. Here are some false comparisons to throw you off the scent. Even though those equivalencies don’t make any sense, we still have to question whether gay people should have rights. So, I guess it is about rights.” People are actually buying this crap?

4. It’s about equality. Recently, I saw a prominent Christian blogger tweet that she was for gay marriage because part of loving our neighbor is desiring they get equal justice under the law. Few words in the American lexicon elicit such broad support as “equality.” No one wants to be for unequal treatment under the law. But the issue before the Supreme Court is not equality, but whether two laws–one voted in by the people of California and the other approved by our democratically elected officials–should be struck down.

Here’s the thing: It is about equality. You see, Prop 8 and DOMA unfairly target one group of people, in much the same way laws once discriminated against black people. The law was voted into existence and approved by democratically elected officials, and the point of the Supreme Court is to determine whether or not it is constitutional. They do that all the time – in fact, that’s their job.

Equal treatment under the law means the law is applied the same to everyone. Gay marriage proponents desire to change the law so that marriage becomes something entirely different.

If I’m not mistaken, this is the Michele Bachmann argument for gay marriage bans: gay people can get married as long as it’s to a person of the opposite sex, so it’s a fair law. If the law were reversed, and heterosexual and homosexual people were both banned from marrying people of the opposite sex, would it make sense?

Surveys often pose the question “Should it be legal or illegal for gay and lesbian couples to marry?” That makes it sound like we are criminalizing people for commitments they make. The real issue, however, is whether the state has a vested interest in sanctioning, promoting, and privileging certain relational arrangements. Is it unjust for the state not to recognize as marriage your group of four friends, close cousins, or an office suite just because they want their commitments to be called marriage?

On a long enough time scale, all arguments against gay marriage revert to incest, polygamy or bestiality (or in the weird case of DeYoung, office suites). He really likes this tactic of making comparisons to things that share no real commonalities to marriage equality and then acting like his point is obvious. When considering such things as gay marriage, incest, polygamy, bestiality, marrying office suites (seriously, WTF?), we need to consider the intricacies and details of each. It is irresponsible to simply group them all together.

5. It’s about tolerance. Increasingly, those who oppose gay marriage are not just considered wrong or mistaken or even benighted. They are anti-gay haters. As one minister put it, gay marriage will eventually triumph because love is stronger than hate. Another headline rang out that “discrimination is on trial” as the Supreme Court hears arguments on Proposition 8 and DOMA. The stark contrast is clear: either you support gay marriage or you are a bigot and a hater. It’s not wonder young people are tacking hard to left on this issue. They don’t want to be insensitive, close-minded, or intolerant. The notion that thoughtful, sincere, well-meaning, compassionate people might oppose gay marriage is a fleeting thought.

I’m sure that there are plenty of thoughtful, sincere, well-meaning, compassionate people who oppose gay marriage. But opposing gay marriage is not thoughtful, well-meaning, or compassionate. (I don’t doubt that it’s sincere.) Nothing about denying people equal rights screams compassion. Relying on an antiquated book is not thoughtful. It is because your arguments lack these necessary qualities that you are losing support; not because you lack them.

So what can be done? The momentum, the media, the slogans, the meta-stories all seem to be on the other side. Now what?

For starters, churches and pastors and Christian parents can prepare their families both intellectually and psychologically for the opposition that is sure to come. Conservative Christians have more kids; make sure they know what the Bible says and know how to think.

That last line should make you cringe. Make sure kids “know how to think”? How about empowering kids to think for themselves?

We should also remember that the church’s mission in life is not to defeat gay marriage. While too many Christians have already retreated, there may be others who reckon that everything hangs in the balance on this one issue. Let’s keep preaching, persevering, pursuing joy, and praying for conversions. Christians should care about the issue, and then carry on.

It is curious how they fixate though, is it not?

And if we are interested in being persuasive outside of our own churches, we’ll have to do several things better.

1) We need to go back several steps in each argument. We’ll never get a hearing on this issue, or a dozen others issues, unless we trace out the assumptions behind the assumptions behind the arguments behind the conclusions.

2) We need more courage. The days of social acceptability for evangelicals, let alone privilege, are fading fast in many parts of the country. If we aren’t prepared to be counter-cultural we aren’t ready to be Christians. And we need courage not to just say what the Bible says, but to dare say what almost no one will say–that gay sex is unnatural and harmful to the body, that abandoning gender distinctions will be catastrophic for our society and for children, and that monogamy and exclusivity is often understood differently in the gay community.

If DeYoung’s argument hasn’t made your skin crawl yet, this ought to do it. Be counter-cultural, spew the vitriol of the Bible, by all means preach your nastiness from a mountain top – but don’t expect it to appeal to an increasingly enlightened culture.

3) We need more creativity. Statements and petitions and manifestos have their place, but what we really need is more than words and documents. We need artists and journalists and movie makers and story tellers and spoken word artists and comedians and actors and rappers and musicians who are galvanized by the truth to sing and speak and share in such a way that makes sin look strange and righteousness look normal.

Nothing cooler than homophobic Christian rock.

4) We need a both-and approach. In the months ahead I imagine we’ll see Christians wrestle with whether the best way forward is to form new arguments that appeal to people where they’re at, or whether we simply need to keep preaching the truth and trust God to give some people the ears to hear. I’m convinced we need to do both. Let’s keep preaching, teaching, and laboring for faithful churches. Let’s be fruitful and multiply. Let’s train our kids in the way they should go. Let’s keep sharing the good news and praying for revival. And let’s also find ways to make the truth plausible in a lost world. Not only the truth about marriage, but the truth about life and sex and creation and beauty and family and freedom and a hundred other things humans tend to forget on this side of Adam. The cultural assumptions in our day are not on our side, but if the last 50 years has shown us anything, it’s that those assumptions can change more quickly than we think.

I agree: keep up the circle-jerk and innovate new ways to lose relevancy among those to whom you wish to appeal. I look forward to watching your voice become quieter and quieter by your own devices.

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Mormonism: A Product of Its Environment

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Dum-dum-dum-dum-dum
Image credit: Comedy Central

Describing the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as behind the times would be to generously euphemize the dark history of the Mormon Church. The church’s constant struggle against progress is futile, as indicated by its constantly changing doctrine:

The two biggest additions to the new edition of Mormon scripture can be found in the book of Doctrine and Covenants, says Givens, a professor of literature and religion at the University of Richmond, and they deal specifically with the church’s original ban on black priesthood ordination and polygamy.

Givens says Joseph Smith himself ordained black members of the church to the priesthood. But after Smith’s death, beginning in the late 1840s, Brigham Young apparently charted a new direction in terms, and began what became known as “the ban,” under which people of African-American ancestry were not permitted to hold the priesthood or to participate in temple ordinances.

“That was a policy that remained in place until 1978. It’s really the albatross around the neck of the church, and it was for many, many years,” says Givens, co-author of The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life.

I think that this new introduction to the revelation ending the priesthood ban is a major step forward in many ways because it acknowledges that the practice may have originated — it seems to me, this is how I’m reading it anyhow — as a matter of error or cultural and historical conditioning rather than as the will of God,” he says. “And that’s a fairly significant statement for the Church to make.

The changes also deal with polygamy. A new introduction included in Doctrine and Covenants, Givens says, declares that “monogamy is God’s standard for marriage unless he declares otherwise.

“I think that one could read that almost as an inversion of many Mormons’ historical understanding of plural marriage,” Givens says.

Givens says he believes these additions to Mormon scripture show signs of a more modern Mormon Church.

“In many ways, what we’re seeing with these changes is the privileging of history over theology in some ways,” he says. “It’s a kind of acknowledgement that the Mormon Church is rooted in a past that is replete with historical claims. And it’s a magnificent thing for a church to allow professional historians to have a lead role in the way that scripture is presented and its story is told.”

As is mentioned in this article, it took until 1978 for God to “reveal” to the Mormons that black men were eligible for priesthood (women and transgendered individuals are still quite out of the question). It is also worth noting that the church’s stance on black people prior to 1978 is not part of the usual curriculum for Mormon children, and many older members maintain the old church racism. Matt Dillahunty once spoke of Mormonism and Scientology as the stupidest religions – and how can anyone disagree with him, when these asinine revelations are perpetuated by the church and accepted by its followers? It’s quite apparent that no god ever had a say in such a sloppy religion.

Like most religions, Mormonism is a reactionary virus of an institution, never taking the lead in social progress but instead succumbing when cultural pressures become too great. Fortunately for the secular-minded of us, the church is trapped in a beautiful catch-22: by altering the church’s theology based on societal norms, the church reveals itself as man-made and not God-inspired; however, if the church elects to maintain its antiquated beliefs, it gets left behind as society as a whole progresses towards enlightenment.

When it comes to the extinction of Mormonism, it’s a question of “when” rather than “if.”

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Frank Turner Isn’t a Subtle Atheist

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Frank Turner
Image credit: Wikipedia Commons

It’s not a secret that many musicians have given up on religion. From the outwardly atheist band, Bad Religion, to Bjork, plenty of prominent artists have confessed their lack of belief. Others, such as Macklemore and Green Day, include lyrics in their songs that condemn the actions or beliefs of the religious.

Yesterday, Denver alternative-rock radio station 93.3 hosted its annual “Kegs & Eggs” St. Patrick’s Day celebration, which features an early-morning rock concert and – you guessed it – beer and eggs. Among the artists performing at this year’s event was Frank Turner, whose song “If Ever I Stray” has earned him rapidly increasing popularity in the past few months.

I wasn’t able to attend the live event, but 93.3 aired the concert live on its station. Turner performed a song that I had never heard, “Glory Hallelujah.”

Brothers and sisters, have you heard the news?
The storm has lifted and there’s nothing to lose,
So swap your confirmation for your dancing shoes,
Because there never was no God.
Step out of the darkness and onto the streets,
Forget about the fast, let’s have a carnival feast,
Raise up your lowered head to hear the liberation beat,
Because there never was no God.

There is no God,
So clap your hands together,
There is no God,
No heaven and no hell.
There is no God,
We’re all in this together,
There is no God,
So ring that victory bell.

No cowering in the dark before these overbearing priests,
Not waiting until we die until we restitute the meek,
No blaming all our failings on imaginary beasts,
Because there never was no God.
No fighting over land your distant fathers told you of,
Not spilling blood for those who have never spread a drop of blood,
No finger pointing justified by fairies up above,
Because there never was no God.

There is no God,
So clap your hands together,
There is no God,
No heaven and no hell.
There is no God,
We’re all in this together,
There is no God,
So ring that victory bell.

And I know you’re scared of dieing man and I am too,
But just pretending it’s not happening isn’t gonna see us through,
So just accept that there’s an end game and we haven’t got much time,
And then in the here and now we can try and do things right.
Forget about the crazy things that people have believed,
And think of wondrous things that normal people have achieved,
‘Cos I’ve known beauty in the stillness of cathedrals in the day,
I sang Glory Hallelujah! Won’t you wash my sins away?
But now I’m singing my refrain and this is what I say,
I say there never was no God.

There is no God,
So clap your hands together,
There is no God,
No heaven and no hell.
There is no God,
We’re all in this together,
There is no God,
So ring that victory bell.

It’s nice to see atheism nonchalantly becoming part of pop culture. Turner’s song is an uplifting anthem for nonbelievers. Here’s hoping it resonates with those who felt they were alone in their atheism.

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I’d never seen one in real life

Before Sunday, I had only heard of sermons explicitly preaching strict rules regarding sexuality and marriage. I had seen YouTube videos, and I had heard stories of people affected by these sermons; but I had never actually witnessed one myself.

That all changed on Sunday. I was invited to attend a church service in town by a reader of this blog. I originally had planned to attend three weeks ago, but an emergency made that visit impossible, and last Sunday was my next available date. Funnily, the person who invited me thought I might just be pulling her leg all along.

Nonetheless, I showed up at the evangelical church at 11 a.m. on Sunday, found my host, and sat in the pews. After the obligatory worship music (how I loathe worship music), the sermon began.

The lesson of the day was the second installment of a two-part series on marriage, and it focused primarily on Hebrews 13:4, which reads:

4 Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.

Pastor Jason McConahy also invoked 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, which reads:

9 Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men 10 nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.

As you can imagine, the service was really about guilt. How the topic of sex is muddled by guilt. How we all feel guilty about our past sexual sin. McConahy adamantly reminded us that sex was to be regarded as positive and beautiful, but the real message was clear: if you stray outside of the Bible’s restrictive views on sexual morality, you should feel guilty.

After the service, my host asked me what I thought. I tried to explain that I base my morality not on the words of an antiquated book but on shared values, considerations of harmed, and learned norms; and that therefore I strongly disagreed with the message preached. We discussed these ideas and more – why believing in the Big Bang Theory is not equivalent to believing in God; how I distinguish between atheism and agnosticism; the absurdity of the cosmological argument; even a debate in which I participated last year (apparently a debater on my side committed an “argument fallacy” when he equated belief in gods to belief in magic). I wasn’t surprised by her questions, and I don’t believe that she was really very interested in my answers.

What I did notice was a strong disconnect when it came to the burden of proof. I let her lead the conversation where she wanted it to go, making sure to challenge her point-by-point, but my host constantly demanded that I provide evidence for my lack of belief. No matter how many times I highlighted holes in her belief system, it was obvious that she wanted me to prove to her that her god didn’t exist – an obviously impossible task.

I used to attend church services weekly as a non-believer. The reason why I stopped was pure boredom above everything else. Most church services are remarkably similar to each other – rarely does a pastor introduce anything new. Repetitive close-mindedness is burdensome, and this service was a harsh reminder of just that.

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