Posts Tagged ‘religion’

Extremism in Religion – How many hoops are there?

Wednesday, September 17th, 2014

This post was written in response to this post by my dear friend Rob DuBois, but extremism in religion and the ‘moderate’ response is a topic that I’ve been thinking about for a while. Rob correctly points out that often the religion is a secondary point, or at least not always the main driving force.

However, I think Rob misses the central point in his argument, that actually, NOBODY and NO single group represents an entire religion.

It is just as true to say that moderate muslims do not represent Islam as it is to say that jihadists do not. It’s also true to say that Southern Baptists are as generally unrepresentative of Christianity as are Episcopalians, Lutherans or indeed, The WBC. It’s true to say that Tibetan buddhists are no more buddhist than Japanese Zen buddhists.

The trap one falls into if debating whether a group or individual practice is ‘true’ to the religion is the ‘No True Scotsman’ fallacy. Once you start to say that someone does not represent the ‘true’ religion, then you simply retreat further into factionalism, and you’ll find that there is no such thing as a ‘true’ believer. If you always find a way to excuse the uncomfortable parts of the religion that you personally (or your group) do not like on the basis that those who do believe those parts are ‘not true believers’, eventually, you must admit that neither you, nor they are the true believer. By claiming that only moderate versions of a religion are correct, one attempts to dismiss the very real problems that exist within religious belief systems, and inadvertently justify extremism in the process.

You (personally or collectively) can’t pretend that the bits of your religion practiced by others who hold up the same book and teacher as guide, are not the ‘real’ religion. If your book says it (no matter whether you want to argue it’s metaphor where it suits you), someone somewhere is going to believe it, and justify the belief on that same sheaf of papers as you justify yours. Therefore, the truth in the argument holds both ways – the extremist will argue that you, as a moderate don’t hold the true belief, and vice-versa. You’re both wrong.

Ultimately, it’s only you who believes the way you do (if you do), and you are no more representative than anyone else. In other words, there are as many religions and forms of a given religion as there are believers. Each person practices slightly differently (and has their own definition of ‘sin’), and everyone has a different interpretation of some part of his religion. This is convenient for religions which allow for ‘personal revelation’ as part of the experience (evangelical Christianity, some forms of buddhism, paganism etc), less so for the more rigid forms (Catholicism, Islam, Orthodox Judaism), but in all cases, the variation exists. This is why there is no monolithic, undivided type of any religion.*

Every major (and minor) religion has sects, factions and denominations. This happens because people disagree (politely or otherwise) about the nature of both God and the practice of his worship. One thinks God prefers slaves to honor their masters, the other thinks that whole slavery bit is not ‘true’ Christianity. Every faction is different – they argue over prophets, over forms of worship, over dress, over sexuality and sexual practice, over the role of women, over property and ownership, over governance, over childbearing and rearing, over marriage rites, over finances, over politics, over whether horses can fly, over which way the place of worship faces, over food consumption rules, over the nature of the afterlife, and over whether God made the whole world in 7 days or rather puked it out of a cosmic snake.

Almost anything you can imagine that people would fight about has been fought about, endlessly and pointlessly in the name of the religion formed on the back of the fight, often with much bloodshed in the process. And it doesn’t matter if you claim that it’s not ‘true to the religion’, if religion is used to justify the action, then the religion is a motivating factor, and absolutely it is part of the problem. Dismissing someone’s belief as wrong does not solve the problem of having that belief in the first place.

Religious belief thereby falls along a spectrum of personal comfort.
If you’re comfortable with being a murdering asshole, or picketing the funerals of suicided veterans with anti-gay slogans, then you’ll find that your religion justifies it just fine.
If you’re more into bake sales, macrame circles and feeding the homeless, then ‘God Bless Ya’ you’re a true believer too. There are African American preachers who preach against homosexuality because “the Bible tells me so” but I’m pretty sure they gloss over the parts where the same Bible also justifies slavery.

Religion has very little to do with God, and the only difference between the ‘major’ religions and sects or cults is the number of people who loosely subscribe (with individual differences in practice) to them, or have been forced to live under their rule. Religions are first and foremost political systems, but they have been personalized by every believer.
Therefore, religions have everything to do with justifying and controlling the lifestyles of a given ‘in group’ – no matter whether who considers those groups moderate or extreme. To the group, they are the true representation of their chosen belief. If it’s the same book, it’s the same religion, but infinitely varied among the population of believers, and it’s all about power over the ‘tribe’.

Consider this situation. What would you call someone who takes a child a few days old, and with a sharp knife (and no anesthetic) cuts away a piece of the child’s genitals? Then, while the child is bleeding the person places the child’s penis in his mouth, sucks it and spits away the blood (occasionally infecting the child with a fatal dose of herpes). In any rational sphere of thought, we would call that person a child abuser – possibly a pedophile and lock him away for life. In orthodox Judaism, they call that a Mohel, and their religion justifies it and the rite continues without any prosecution of its practitioners. You can’t argue that ‘well, that’s not true Judaism’, because the reality is – it is. The more complex a religion is, the more hoops believers will jump through to score ‘God points’. Religions are usually as complex as hell, because complexity obscures reality, therefore your belief is just a matter of how many hoops you believe there are.

As an afterthought, and before the onslaught of accusations of me being an angry, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic atheist start flying, let me make one thing absolutely clear. I don’t care so much what you believe, I care about what you do, and I don’t believe your religion forces you to do anything that you wouldn’t do otherwise as a decent human being, nor do I dismiss all believers as ‘as bad as each other’ because of the actions of a few. The problem is always that you probably don’t agree with me entirely on what being ‘a decent human being’ means, and I doubt I can agree with your definition of God either.

That said, there are those who argue that a world without any religion would be a perfect one, where entirely rational people go about their business without dissent, argument or violence. Poppycock. After all, it’s not where we agree that matters, its where we disagree that counts (and costs).

Having spent a lot of time interacting with both people of faith and unbelievers of all stripes, I have come to realize that conflict and tribalism is simply a part of the human experience. There are ‘moderate’ atheists and there are extremists – although hopefully nobody is having their heads hacked off over it. There are ‘in groups’ and ‘out-groups’ (Atheism+ anyone?). There are liberals, leftists, centrists, libertarians, conservatives, librarians, scientists, artists, pissants, assholes, trolls, idiots, and a whole spectrum variety of wonderful, thoughtful and friendly people.
JUST AS THERE ARE IN ANY SPHERE OF LIFE, INCLUDING BELIEVERS. (And, just because of that it doesn’t mean that atheists are wrong, nor that believers are right.)

From the moment we are born, we start to pull against the constraints that are around us. We say “no” followed by tantrums very early in life – and these are not arguments about whether God wants you to wear green on a Tuesday, but whether you can have candy sprinkles on your breakfast or not. Mom says no, your heart says yes. Then when you grow up and mom can’t stop you, you bloody well have candy sprinkles on your breakfast.

C’est la vie. You can either like it, or you can go form your own damn group with whatever beliefs you like, but you can’t claim a monopoly on the truth, because someone, somewhere will point out that you’re not the true believer.

(* Except perhaps the religion I just formed right now with myself, but I already disagree with parts of it so I’m going to form a breakaway group tomorrow…that founder guy is just an idiot.)

Mental Health: A plea for understanding

Monday, December 9th, 2013

Someone, let’s call her Sally, once said to me: “Andrew, it’s your mind that’s the problem; you think too much”.

I’ve never forgotten that. Not just because it seemed like a really stupid thing to say (who wants to live in ignorance?), but because there was an element of truth in it.

Sally was wrong in her meaning and the context, but the truth is, my mind – more specifically, my brain – is a problem.

It’s not that I think too much – sometimes I try not to think at all. Actually, thinking is very much affected by the functioning of my brain. On a good day, my thoughts will be clear, rational, and likely to do me very little harm. On a bad day, my thoughts will be clear, rational and likely to do me a lot of harm. You see, mental illness is not about how much or how little we think. It is about the conclusions that our brain suggests as a result of the thought processes within it.

Sally’s comment was made publicly in the context of a religious meeting. We’d been discussing our Christian lives, and I happened to say that I often struggled with doubt and feelings of self-loathing. I wasn’t able to consistently believe in a God who cared about me, or the rest of the world, yet wouldn’t help me to deal with the mental health issues I struggled with. I shared it with the aim to try to help others who I was sure might have experienced the same. I went on to say that I choose to believe, as I hope that God will one day help my unbelief.

I had been, since my late teens, taking medication to control severe clinical depression, and any time this was brought up in a church context, someone would inevitably offer to pray about it, or would offer some religiously based advice, but always with the implication that the fault was with me. At times, there would be a suggestion that ‘sin’ in my life was the root cause of the depression, and that if only I would ‘get right with God’, then it would all clear up. Please, bear in mind that I was devout since a young age, I was in a leadership position within my church, I spent more time reading and studying the bible than almost anyone I knew, and I spent a lot of my time being involved with the church and serving however I could.

I was not a ‘nominal’ Christian, I was a fully fledged, born again, bible believing, servant of the Lord. More than that, I desperately wanted to believe, not only to believe, but truly experience God for myself. That I could not only made my life more hellish, and I truly believed the problems were with me, and with me alone. That I could not reconcile my belief with my inner thoughts, desires and experience was beyond awful, and yet all these other Christians seemed to be living wonderful lives of peace, joy and harmony.

Eventually I left the church, not wishing to be a hypocrite. I had to first admit that I simply did not believe, and then act on that disbelief. I couldn’t stay in a leadership position and claim those beliefs. That meant I lost, quite literally, all of my friends. I eventually let my family know too. That, to this day, still causes me stress and grief. Some of my relatives live in a very cloistered bubble of evangelical Christianity, and I (and my siblings) are no longer a part of that world. However, this post is not really about that, maybe another time.

This post is about the stigma of mental illness.

And, there is a lot of stigma attached to mental illness.

I am no longer in the church, and for that I’m grateful. I have since been able to accept many things about myself and have in turn become a more accepting person.

But, I am in a similar environment, ironically.

I am now in a business community, where I am a fairly well respected and known expert and CEO. You might be frowning a bit, what has business to do with the church? (Unless you live in the USA, then you’ll fully understand). In business, particularly in the USA, weakness, vulnerability, and emotion are not seen as strengths. If you meet another business leader at an event, you’re unlikely to hear much negative about him/her or the business. The mantras of business are strength, improvement, growth. Winners only need apply.

But, ask yourself, how likely is it that these very successful people are all having as great a time as they claim?

Dig deeper, you’ll find high rates of stress related illness, alcoholism, obesity and other addictive behaviors. High. Fucking. Rates. Yet, just like those outwardly happy Christians, they’ll all claim to be 100% awesome. The distance between me and the overweight alcoholic in a badly fitting suit is approximately 6 months.

Not being able to show weakness or vulnerability to your colleagues, your employees or your peers in other businesses means that there’s once again an artificial situation in which one must exist. You’ve always got to be a winner. Always be the best. Always be out in front. There are no support structures for CEO’s as such. We’ve got to be the strong decisive ones. All. Fucking. Day. Long.

Except, except for my brain. It just isn’t. Won’t be. Can’t be. IS ONLY BECAUSE I MAKE IT SO. I choose. But, oh, do I struggle to choose. Every. Single. Day. I struggle to choose.

There’s nowhere to turn. You’re the leader, you’re responsible for millions of dollars, and hundreds of employees. Thousands of customers depend on you. Yet, some days, you can’t move, you can’t even manage to eat, it’s just not worth it. You just want to pull the cushions from your sofa and build a pillow fort, and live there forever, with your cat and a tub of ice-cream. And those are the good days.

The bad days…you don’t want to know about the bad days.

And, yet, I choose, because the other choice is, well, nothing. There’s no other choice. You live or you don’t. And, you try to recognize when your brain is screwing you over.

The problem is that it’s your brain. That cold, rational brain that works really well. It’s a convincing little bugger. When it speaks, you listen. That’s what it does, it thinks for you. But, some days, what it thinks is, “You’re worthless. You’re shit. You’re the little piece of detritus that was farted out of the asshole of the universe, and you suck, worse than the suckiest person on earth”. And you believe it. That’s what mental illness does for you.

I do not want your pity, or your condescension, nor do I want your helpful advice on how to be more cheerful. I know my life is great. I really do!

I have so much to be thankful for, I have a great job, a wonderful family, I live in a country that is by and large easy to live in, and I have friends who care deeply for me. Compared to 98% of the world, I’m rich. I travel widely, I eat in fantastic restaurants, I drive nice cars and buy nice clothes. But, today, that means nothing. Nothing will convince me that my great life is worth shit.

On a good day, I will be proud of everything. My ideas will be great, and everyone will love them. The next day, the same idea sucks, even if you tell me it’s great.

It will suck so much I won’t even write it down. I can’t tell you how many times I have destroyed work or abandoned personal projects, because they … just … suck.

Depression is not about being a bit sad sometimes, so that a quick pep-talk and a cup of cocoa can ‘snap you out of it’. It really isn’t.

Depression is an ongoing battle to work out which of the things your brain is desperately trying to convince you of are not going to kill you. I can know rationally that everything is good, I can sit and list those things on a piece of paper. I can sit with a friend and explain how great everything is. My brain will not be convinced. In my mind, there is a raging beast that is able to chew rational thought into small pieces and spit them contemptuously onto the floor, as if to say “There you are, fool, see what your rational thinking is worth”, and I will believe it. I will coldly, and rationally, know, with a force and desperation that is overwhelming, that I am utterly worthless.

I’ll believe it, and sit there and cry into my coffee and be convinced that the great leader I’m supposed to be, who can speak to an audience of hundreds, or stand up and play guitar in front of a crowd is the most hated fucker on the planet, who should just fucking die. And, I’ll hate everything. Nothing will be good enough. Nothing will be right. No-one will be doing a good job. You could offer me the nobel prize for awesomeness and I would think you were an idiot. I’ll just give up. I’ll decide nothing is worth doing. I’ll call people and tell them I quit. I’ll delete files of work. I’ll send weird messages to social networks. I’ll drink myself stupid. All the while, I’ll know I have a great life.

I’m typing this in a hotel room in Singapore. I’ve spent the day hating this place. Resenting the fact that I’m 2 long haul flights away from home, in a country that’s too hot and doesn’t have adequate taxi service.

I’ve spent the day in business meetings meeting people who I’ve needed to convince of my usefulness, and the worth of my company and colleagues. And I did it. I did it fucking well. And then, I came back to my hotel and cried.

I’m typing this fast, because a friend on Twitter (and you should be following @francosoup, because she’s awesome), managed to say the right thing. Because, she just wrote “I hope you’re Ok mate”. And, I wasn’t. I was broken.

I’m not going to edit it. I’m going to post it, because, in the morning, I’d probably just delete it. Or maybe not. Maybe I’ll be proud of it. Who the fuck knows?

I just want you to understand that just as you would go to the doctor if you have bronchitis, or a broken arm, and you would not in the least bit feel embarrassed to do so, that if I have to do the same because my brain is broken, then that should be ok.

If I have to admit that I’m not the strong, together person you thought I was, it doesn’t mean I’m not capable of doing my job. In fact, I’m good at my job because, you know what? I think too much. I think until it’s all thought out. Then I plan for failure, and think some more. And I make sure things can happen, because if you don’t plan for those days when you simply can’t move, you’ll screw everything up.

So yeah, Sally, my mind is my problem, but it’s also my strength. Because, if I can convince myself that today is worth it, then I can do anything today. Anything.

If you know someone with mental health issues, please understand how strong they are to just be out of bed, and just try to be understanding. Just. Be. There.

Ask, “Are you ok mate?”. And don’t judge the answer.

It’s over, it ain’t going any further: marriage in the future is for all.

Monday, January 16th, 2012

If you are still thinking that somehow you can reverse the tide and that ‘marriage’ will go back to being to something that you’re happy to define as between a man and a woman, you’re wrong. You’re out of time. The argument is over. What’s happening now is just the cleaning up. Marriage is for all, and the only future is to watch that freedom to marry spread throughout the free world.
Of course, you might want to cling to your theology – your unchangeable holy books that state that homosexuality is a sin – but you’re wrong there too. Eventually, your religion will catch up, or it will be sidelined.

You see, it’s already happened. Things change, laws and countries move on, and mainstream religion follows.
Decriminalization is now much more widespread than ever,, as is the recognition of civil unions and married rights equivalency laws, so it’s just a matter of time before permission to marry is given.
So much has changed, is changing, and will continue to change. This issue is not going away, and it’s certainly not going to be shouted down by the forces of conservatism or the religious.

Slavery still exists today (actually, some sources say there are more slaves now than at any time in history) but that doesn’t mean that the argument over whether it’s right or wrong isn’t over, and every country now outlaws it. It took hundreds of years for slavery to become completely outlawed (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abolition_of_slavery_timeline). While it was still legal, it was justified by the major religions as being acceptable.

For Christians, the Apostle Paul refers some of his comments to slaves e.g. 1Ephesians 6:5,  Timothy 6:1-2 and Jesus clearly acknowledges slavery (and doesn’t reject it as wrong).
Also for Christians, and for Jews, the ‘Old’ Testament / Torah is full of references to slaves e.g. Leviticus 25:44-46, or this nice one covering the rules for a man selling his daughter as a slave: Exodus 21:7-11
For Muslims, Islamic scripture (both the Koran and the hadiths) is actually very good to slaves, treating them equally as regards to religious freedom, but still recognizing that slavery is acceptable, while encouraging the praiseworthy act of manumission.
However, Islamic states were some of the last to finally outlaw slavery, with Saudi Arabia (1962), Yemen (1962), UAE (1963), Oman (1970) and Mauritania (1981) being the last five countries in the world to allow slavery.

The point of all this is that, eventually, the religious arguments follow the law of the lands. It is unlikely you will find a modern, mainstream Christian leader in America or Europe who would advocate the return of slavery.
You’ll still find pockets of extremism, but then, you still find people who protest abortion clinics…and that too shall pass.

So it will be with the issue of allowing homosexuals to marry. It may take many years, but the argument is already lost, and eventually, your future co-religionists will simply ignore these parts of your holy books, as they do so many other parts today.

There are more and more countries allowing the free right to marry to all citizens, and while there are some bumps in the road (e.g. California flip-flopping on the issue), the tide cannot be turned back. Eventually, all countries will allow it, and then, so will all the major religions. (Of course, some religions already do!).

Conservatives and liberals will move on to arguing about new things (when was the last time you had an argument about slavery?), and everyone else will be able to get on with marrying who they like. The truly anachronistic ideas about homosexual marriage are just like the ideas people used to hold about slavery.

There’s a lot of work still to do, but the main war is over…and to finish the paraphrase of Leonard Cohen in my title …”It’s over, it ain’t going any further, I’ve seen the future, baby, it is marriage.”

Today 16th of January is, in the USA, Martin Luther King day. This incredible speech is a reminder of how that great man inspired change that brought freedom and civil rights to African Americans, who although they had been freed from slavery, still lived under segregation and institutional racism. I share his dream of the day when we are all truly free from injustice, discrimination and the hatred of bigots.

Sometimes change is just not fast enough

Tuesday, October 18th, 2011

Today brings the terribly sad news that, once again, a teenager has taken his own life because of bullying about his sexuality.

http://www.shewired.com/soapbox/2011/10/17/gay-teen-jamie-hubley-commits-suicide

So much has changed in the last 50 years or so; we’ve moved (here in America at least) from a country where slavery was legal and black people were considered sub-human, to a better world where slavery is a receding memory and we can have an African American (in the truest sense of that descriptor) president. That is not to deny that, sadly, racism is still found in some measure.

However, we still have so far to go as a society (globally) in our acceptance of diversity. We need teachers and schools to adopt a positive attitude towards LGBT individuals, and to help them support such young people as Jamie (whose lives are hard enough just with going through their teens). We need to be tougher on bullies, and we need to teach more positively around homosexuality.

But, school reflects society as a whole. Children have all the biases of their parents, in concentrated and unfiltered quantity. Therefore, a big part of the change that is needed is going to have to be the decline of traditional religious attitudes towards homosexuality. Teachers can only do so much, but much more needs to be done in churches, synagogues and mosques around the country (and world), to help to build a more tolerant and accepting environment. Parents need to teach their children that slurs like ‘faggot’ are simply unacceptable, no matter their private beliefs about the subject. Surely if you truly believe in ‘god’s love’ you should teach your children to love others without judgement – lest you be judged yourself?

Of course, I’d rather that nobody felt the need to cling to any religious dogma at all; particularly where it impinges on the freedoms and safety of others; but recognizing that many people of belief are essentially good, and sincerely believe while wishing no ill to others, I have to accept that change will be slow, and that perhaps it can only come from within the belief systems themselves. Most ‘true believers’ will not accept the pleas of an atheist, but perhaps if their pastors/rabbis/imams and other leaders begin to teach a more welcoming religion, one tolerant of the natural diversity in our society, then perhaps there will be hope that we won’t have to see another Jamie.

My sincerest condolences to Jamies friends and family, he was a truly brave young man.