I was raised in a mainline church, but became an agnostic (de facto atheist) about 1980 (and continue to be agnostic). I had thought you either believed it like the fundamentalists, or religion-lite with the same supernatural god but kinder/gentler somehow, or you didn’t believe it at all. Or maybe switch to a different religion, but with the same choice of fundamentalist/literalist, or somehow kinder/gentler with a little less supernatural. I never realized there were any other choices. And so I rejected church and organized religion. And after about 5+ years of trying to debate/discuss religion with other people, and realizing that I heard all the same weak arguments, and never learned anything new myself, and never persuaded anyone to change their mind, I essentially ignored religion for decades, other than that part which influenced politics.
Starting about 2002-2003, I began to realize that there was a shit storm of epic proportions brewing between the war-mongering, the housing bubble, peak oil production, and all the subsidiary problems these would bring. Since then, I’ve been researching various topics to deal with this storm, from homesteading to spirituality to architecture, and trying to see through the various deceits and unsustainable factors in the American way of life. Attempts to discuss any of this with others led nowhere for the most part, because it required re-thinking their various beliefs, which most are unwilling to do. Which led to researching how and why people think what they do, about politics, about religion, about progress, etc. In short, it is mostly a solitary, often alienating affair.
Along the way, I stumbled across a variety of people along the spiritual dimension, often in surprising places, that didn’t quite fit in the above categories of fundamentalist/religion-lite/atheist, and I wasn’t even aware of their existence. For lack of a better term, I’ll use the phrase mystics and contemplatives as a general category, although there are a host of problems with those terms.
I’d guess that these people are much less that 5% of the population, probably much less than 1%. And I’ve never really found any group that has a majority of them or even a notable minority. Mostly it’s an author here or there (usually long dead). So there’s no group or organization one can join, but if you keep your eye out, you can find them, and realize that there are others that have trod the same path as you, and left a few breadcrumbs for you to find.
Some of the frequent characteristics of these people are:
willingness to discard those aspects of religion that don’t make sense,
interpret religious texts as mythological stories rather than facts
willingness to be critical of both religious organizations and the religious theology
generally have some sort of universalist perspective, open to other religious views
meditation, contemplation, or some other aspect of quietness and solitude to their lives
although they may have had some sort of mystical experience, they don’t emphasize it, or otherwise fall into “spiritual materialism”
And so the rest of this series is not much about me, but about little breadcrumbs related to spirituality from these other authors that I’ve collected over the last decade or so, letting me know that despite the seeming loneliness of my path, there are in fact many others that have gone before. Admittedly, it’s a small tribe that’s willing to forgo conventional thoughts and lives, but for those readers here who have also become disillusioned or alienated with the conventional American life, perhaps some of this will be useful or inspiring or offer hope to you on your own path.
About the format: In general, while I’ll usually offer excerpts to entice you, you should expect to follow the link to read the original article to get the full concept I’m trying to get across. The posts themselves might be relatively short, but the amount of reading at the linked source, if that particular author suits you, will take a longer time. Hence, the posts are broken up into a series of posts, given that you won’t be willing to read large amounts of text at the same time.
And now for the original comment that sparked this series. (i.e., the person to blame for my verbosity!)
On July 26, 2016 anotherami said:
“If it were not for my own personal experiences, I would have rejected God decades ago. Instead, I am left with a form of faith that has no formal theology, no denomination, no organizations or institutions, no pastoral care, no actual fellow believers. In fact, this is one of only 3 blogs I read, or any news source for that matter, that focuses on religion. It is a confusing and often lonely place to be.”
Lots of people, currently and throughout history, are at the same place you are, but they’re spread out, and not concentrated. Deist founding fathers, Voltaire, etc. It will always be that way.
Hitchens and Dawkins and company are great for seeing the bad arguments in Christianity, but they’re combative.
Bruce is great if you are in the inside trying to get out of fundamentalist religion. And he’s also great if you’re on the outside, but want to understand the worldview of fundamentalists to understand how they’re likely to react in various situations. If you understand the internal mental models people are using, they become much more predictable, even in you disagree with their worldview.
Lots of people, currently and throughout history, are at the same place you are, but they’re spread out, and not concentrated. Deist founding fathers, Voltaire, etc. It will always be that way.
Hitchens and Dawkins and company are great for seeing the bad arguments in Christianity, but they’re combative.
Bruce is great if you are in the inside trying to get out of fundamentalist religion. And he’s also great if you’re on the outside, but want to understand the worldview of fundamentalists to understand how they’re likely to react in various situations. If you understand the internal mental models people are using, they become much more predictable, even in you disagree with their worldview.
J. Krishnamurti was chosen at a young age to be the “world teacher” by the Theosophical Society, and given training for years until he was an adult. Three years after he was made head of the organization they created for him, he dissolved it. Here are excerpts from the speech he gave on why:
I maintain that Truth is a pathless land, and you cannot approach it by any path whatsoever, by any religion, by any sect. That is my point of view, and I adhere to that absolutely and unconditionally. Truth, being limitless, unconditioned, unapproachable by any path whatsoever, cannot be organized; nor should any organization be formed to lead or to coerce people along any particular path. If you first understand that, then you will see how impossible it is to organize a belief. A belief is purely an individual matter, and you cannot and must not organize it. If you do, it becomes dead, crystallized; it becomes a creed, a sect, a religion, to be imposed on others. This is what everyone throughout the world is attempting to do. Truth is narrowed down and made a plaything for those who are weak, for those who are only momentarily discontented. Truth cannot be brought down, rather the individual must make the effort to ascend to it. You cannot bring the mountain-top to the valley. If you would attain to the mountain-top you must pass through the valley, climb the steeps, unafraid of the dangerous precipices.
The moment you follow someone you cease to follow Truth. I am not concerned whether you pay attention to what I say or not.
“You will have no following, people will no longer listen to you.” If there are only five people who will listen, who will live, who have their faces turned towards eternity, it will be sufficient. Of what use is it to have thousands who do not understand, who are fully embalmed in prejudice, who do not want the new, but would rather translate the new to suit their own sterile, stagnant selves?
You have listened to me for three years now, without any change taking place except in the few. Now analyze what I am saying, be critical, so that you may understand thoroughly, fundamentally. When you look for an authority to lead you to spirituality, you are bound automatically to build an organization around that authority. By the very creation of that organization, which, you think, will help this authority to lead you to spirituality, you are held in a cage.
God so loved the world that he gave his only son to die… This idea is foundational in Christian belief and something that has troubled me from childhood. I did not understand it and was told in my Fellowship Baptist upbringing that I did not need to understand the deeper matters of God’s Love, only obey without question, only serve the Lord.
Before I could muster two digits in my birthdays, I was taken into the depths of Hell in my dreams and witnessed what was going to happen to me because I was a human and not saved… Oh don’t get me wrong, I believed and I was terrified of what I believed but I had not walked to the front of the church during an altar-call and formally asked Jesus Christ to be my Savior. There is a very specific protocol involved in becoming the right kind of believer and there is no choice of styles or colors. At such a young age, there is only the pressing demand of family and church and of course, nightmares. For me, the nightmares finally tipped the balance and I decided it was time to brave the walk.
As it turned out, on that particular day, my preacher dad decided to focus on the urgency of the call to salvation and that this could very well be the last day of the offer. Tonight could be that night or even within minutes, seconds. God loves us so much that he puts off what we rightly deserve and waits for us to come freely. If you have any memory of what sheer terror was as a child, you are in the right ballpark here. When I look back, this was how freedom was defined in my life. I was free to choose alright. Either I do the walk and talk the talk and reallllly believe it or I am truly fucked. I knew this before I was ten and I chose. This is a poem I wrote about it half a life ago:
Just as I Am
a dozen of us lined up
at the front of the church
because the world
just might end today
and we have all sinned
Romans 3, verse 23
our fisted, hounded hearts
and the preacher
offering one last chance.
Streets paved with gold
Some of us softly weep
awful doubt in ourselves
our Baptist Jesus
and the preacher walking
our line and shaking hands
as if we were grownup
and big enough to deal
with being caught
between heaven and hell
on a Sunday morning
and our walking right
into the arms of it
crying along with the music.
It is not easy for people to understand how devastating it is to a child to know that you have been the cause of the torture and death of the best man to ever be alive and to know that you are the one who is really guilty and will have to burn in a special place of forever-torture because God is great and will not be mocked.
I realized late, in my twenties, that I was truly brainwashed from the womb, that I was trained up and put through the routines just as soldier is and for the same reason: To create a one-track mind that obeys orders unto death. Onward Christian Soldiers marching on to war…
In my twenties, I began to ask ‘why’ a lot and look at issues that plagued me, the father God giving his son, and the example of Abraham and his great legacy blessed by God.
I lived in contradiction; unable to understand why I could not simply let go of doubt and why I began to feel angry with God for Jesus, dying and angry for Isaac; feeling a undercurrent of rage against a father who would give his own son…
I was not close to my father and he was not a man who had friends. He was an island, a preacher who spoke much when in a pulpit but very little any other time. He had no personal life to pass on or share with his children, only the way of Christ a la the Baptist church.
When I began to realize I was truly an unbeliever, I could not bear it and began a fruitless search to find the right church. Later I realized that I could create a Christianity that was my own and agreed with me and that it could be enough.
All the while I was slowly taking myself further from Christianity without ever rejecting Christ, to me the foundation and salvation of the person and the faith.
Before I had children of my own, I left formal belief in Christianity and was able to give myself permission to be full of feelings of all kinds, up and down and all around. I raged against the God of my youth. I told him he was a real prick for what he did to Jesus and that his nonsense with Abraham was just plain child abuse and showed what an asshole he was…. I talked to God for a long time after I was quite convinced that he was never real…. I still talked to him as I always had, as I was taught from early on… I’m in my sixties now and have stopped talking to God but still chatter away at myself. I wonder what I might have been free to be or do had I been loved and supported instead of trained up. I watch my brilliant kids, now almost on their own and both brilliant artists and human beings I admire with full, giving hearts and thoughtful directions. Neither have chosen to believe. I think that perhaps they are what I managed to do, that they are my only way to reach beyond the harm of my childhood and be allowed to be free, to play and freely speak. I trust that I have not let them down because of the harm I have had to carry with me because of religion. I glory in their mortal company.
One thing very clear to me since being a dad, a real dad to my kids, a primary caregiver in some of their earliest years and a dad who learned to let his children lead him. I think Abraham was a sick man and that he responded to voices allowing him to abuse his son. I think the story of God giving his only begotten is long, long mental illness that bipeds are still struggling with since the caves. I rejoice in living and am so thankful for my life and family, for my few dear friends. I do not want to talk of eternal life or death but to live this Saturday till a new dawn. I feel so sad for children who must face what so many of us had to face, the punishment, the loss of innocence, the whole failure of the punishment paradigm.
Each day, I get up and ready myself for work and often I hear old Eliot whispering in my ear, “Let us go then, you and I, when the evening is spread out against the sky…” Let us live. There is no greater purpose, nothing beyond a life lived fully. I can allow my own joy. Really. It was always there with me even in Hell at ten years old, but it took me half my life to say, okay, I choose life… I’m going to feel all of it.
My believing family still pray for me. I asked them to please stop, repeatedly, but they won’t. They do it for my own good, like parents who spank children rather than listen to them, like all of us perhaps who decide what is best for others by listening to our ‘voices.’
I’ve always been somewhat of a pedant when it comes to terminology. Personally, I just think it’s better to know what you’re talking about when you’re pontificating on some cultural or social subject rather than, say, not knowing anything but thinking you’re the bee’s knees simply for having an opinion. I may not be a narcissist, but I certainly am a stickler for using correct terminology.
Often in the pro-life vs. pro-choice abortion debate, the pro-life side will make the hyperbolic claim that “abortion is murder!”
They also like to imply if you support abortion that you are in support of murder. They don’t seem to realize that the pro-choice side isn’t pro-baby killing. We don’t want unnecessary abortions either. But when it comes to the abortion debate, we pro-choicers have understood the fine nuances of the pro-life proposition which they clearly have failed to properly consider.
That’s what I want to examine today. All the nuances that the pro-life side has utterly, and completely, failed to properly consider let alone adequately address. So without further ado, let’s get this show on the road.
PART 1: The LEGAL TROUBLE with the Pro-life Stance
Of course, the short answer is, no, abortion is not murder. In most cases it’s a legal medical procedure. A necessary one even.
In my experience, what the pro-life side is attempting to say, rather poorly, is that they think abortion should be classified as murder.
But this is where things get tricky. Because murder is specifically a legal term with very specific meanings under very well-defined contexts. In fact, the law distinguishes between 1st, 2nd, and 3rd degree murder, understanding there is a scale to consider. Where premeditated murder, manslaughter, and involuntary / accidental manslaughter differentiate is no trivial matter. The law recognizes, rightly so, that there are different forms of taking a human life, and not all of them are equal in terms of culpability or even in punishment.
This is common sense to us, since we all know that a drunk driver accidentally running over some school children crossing the street is different from honestly not seeing a child jump into the street chasing a ball before it’s too late which is even more different still from raging out and mowing down a bunch of children crossing the street in your car.
These are different forms of killing. With different factors that apply. And the law must consider each and every one of the variables at play in order to be unbiased, just, and true. A law that doesn’t do this, well, wouldn’t be a very good law, I think you’ll find.
And that’s why I find is problematic when pro-life people claim “abortion is murder.”
What kind of murder would you like it to be? Just murder isn’t a thing. Not in the eyes of the law. So pro-life supporters have to be more specific.
Although they seem to suggest they want abortion to be classified as a form of murder, I’ve never seen any logical, moral, or philosophical arguments given to make that case. It seems most of the time it is used as a shock-tactic. A bit of hyperbole. It fits with the right wing narrative that demonizes all abortion as evil and equates it with the most heinous crime imaginable, taking another human beings life against their will.
But then, here we have a new problem. If you want to provide legal protections to an unborn fetus, in the same way you provide legal protection to an autonomous adult, you’d have to show their free will has been violated, and then, as you can imagine, this implies you must first prove an unborn fetus has a free will to be violated in the first place. Not an easy task, I can assure you.
You see, as with those who claim abortion is murder, they seem to be confusing legal rights of an autonomous individual with the rights of an unborn fetus, not yet a fully actualized individual, and are making the incorrect assumption that the fetus’s rights deserve broader legal protection, even at the sake of the mother’s rights being restricted.
However, this is problematic for several reasons.
First, in law there is no legal precedent for this strange usurping of an adult’s rights by an unborn fetuses rights since children’s rights are, and always have been, limited by the law until they become legal adults.
At most, a fetus could be granted the same rights as a child, but not being an individual where free will is recognizable, not even being born for that matter, seems to set strict parameters on what kind of rights that unborn fetus could have in a state of law. After all, in order to make a claim that their rights have been violated, they need to face their accuser in a court of law, and this can’t happen. Which is why in pro-life happy states the trick is always to grant the State the right to make the claim on behalf of the unborn fetus.
But this raises ethical concerns on the treatment of women, and by extension their unborn offspring.
For example, in El Salvador, women are frequently jailed for having miscarriages. Because, in their case, powers outside themselves control them through laws and regulations, deciding on behalf of the fetus, what the mother – viewed a property of the state – should be dictated.
Saying that others should make legal claims on behalf of the unborn fetus opens a whole can of worms that have proved to dangerously restrict, even endanger, the well-being of women. In a free and civilized democracy like America, arguing for such restrictions is Draconian.
Yet since 2005, there have been more than 380 cases in the U.S. alone – the so-called land of the free – where pregnant women have been jailed, arrested, and / or tried for crimes against their unborn fetuses.
Being charged for criminal conduct and jailed for a natural miscarriage is like having your house knocked down in an earthquake and being arrested and imprisoned for the destruction of private property. It’s beyond the pale, goes against all reason and common sense, yet there are policies in place which carry out these absurd and inconceivable policies gleefully and without question.
Where a fetus’s rights are has not been clearly defined, such policies always devolve into a legal mess, and the only people who suffer for it are the mothers – the women – whose rights the law conveniently forgets about the moment anti-abortion legislation enters the equation.
Even if you are pro-life, this should force you to give some serious pause and consideration.
And from a theory of law standpoint, this is a very slippery slope. A very slippery slope indeed.
Even though we can all probably agree that a lot more work needs to be done in this area, the clear fact of the matter is, you cannot expect a fetus’s legal rights to outstrip the mother’s when those rights, in point of fact, have not been clearly or concisely defined.
In fact, we probably shouldn’t expect an unborn fetus’s rights to even be comparable to a child’s, but, perhaps, that is a debate is better left up to the legal experts.
My point in all this is essentially this: this legal problem of defining the unborn fetus’s legal standing within society has NEVER been fully or adequately addressed by the pro-life side.
The best they have come up with is to make the woman into property, give the state control over her body and reproductive choices, and punish the mother – because all she is, is chattel after all – when she fails to abide by the reproductive guidelines forced upon her and which do not consider her best interests as a mother or human being.
It’s draconian in the worst sense of the word, I think you’ll find. Yet this is essentially what pro-life proponents call for when they claim “abortion is murder.”So, to make a long question short. Is abortion murder? Not in the legal sense. No. Thank goodness.
But this is only the first trouble area. There’s more to it. So please bear with me as I detail exactly why the pro-life position isn’t a valid position and why it’s so maladroit as a social and political stance with regard to abortion.
PART 2: The MORAL TROUBLE with Pro-Life Stance
The greater problem with the pro-life argument lies not on the legal side of things, but the moral and philosophical side of things.
You may have often heard it said that “abortion is evil.”
Whereas “abortion is murder” is a very specific legal claim, saying that “abortion is evil” is a very specific moral claim.
The way the pro-life side deals with this is to say that life begins at conception, with the added caveat that life is sacred — well, human life, to be specific.
Then there is the other problem of defining life.
Science says one thing. Pro-lifers say another.
Science says biological life has stages.
Science says it takes 2 weeks for fertilization.
This is where pro-lifers say conception begins – but the problem is, the fertilized egg hasn’t even attached to the uterus yet. It is also where most spontaneous abortions occur. 20 out of 100 women in America alone will have a spontaneous abortion / miscarriage before the age of 40.
That’s nearly a quarter of the female populate having to suffer a miscarriage through no fault of their own. This raises the peculiar question of whether or not defining life in this way would hold Mother Nature legally accountable for abortions where anti-abortion laws take effect. It also raises theological problems for right-wing believers who claim to use God as their moral guide, when believing in an all-loving, all-powerful, Supreme Being – since an all-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful God would share culpability in NOT preventing the fertilized eggs abortion when they could have. It would be like a doctor refusing to save a patient when they had all the power to do so. It’s inconceivable, and it suggests that God is either malevolent, i.e. completely evil, or else entirely impotent.
As to be expected though, the pro-life side chooses to ignore these unfavorable consequences and go straight for the throat of people’s moral consciences by claiming killing a hapless child is evil! Well, it’s not even a potential child yet, since the not-even-baby will likely self-abort anyway. And this scientific fact show that defining life as beginning at conception isn’t only problematic, but entirely nonsensical.
Why nonsensical? Because…
Science says it takes 3 weeks for implantation.
Still, not yet a human embryo even. So we have only a potential for human life. A potential is not a certainty. It is a possibility. Which is why defining it as a life is problematic. It’s like me saying that I might possibly go to the gym today, and you saying I’ve already went to the gym today. That doesn’t actually make any sense. And so it doesn’t make any sense to say this fertilized egg which has the potential to become a human fetus is already a human fetus.
The pro-life claim that life begins at conception is simply nonsensical for the above reasons.
But if that wasn’t enough to convince you…
Science says it takes at least 4 weeks for the embryo to officially form.
Now the potential is maximized, since an embryo can turn into a fetus. But the problem is, to come back to this issue, miscarriages. The majority of miscarriages occur within the first 20 weeks of embryonic development. So, even though we have an embryo, unlike Katniss from the Hunger Games, the chances are not in its favor. There is still the 20 in 100 chance that it will spontaneous self-destruct.
If new cars driven off the dealers lot self-destruct 20 out of 100 times, would you feel safe driving a new car off the lot? Probably not. You’d want better security than that. Which is why there are strict manufacturing and safety guidelines for the automotive industry. Yet Mother Nature is much more sloppy, a lot less predictable, and so trying to stronghold mother nature and force it to fit a definition is the wrong way to go about it. What we must do is be mindful that things are never so clear cut and dry. Not where Mother Mature is concerned. Which means are definitions of life have to, at the very least, take this fact into account? The pro-life definition of life does not.
Some pro-life sites, like Abort 73.com, although cataloging many useful abortion statistics, make suspicious claims like “Growth in the womb is a rapid process, all systems are in place by week 8.”
Although this notion that “all systems are in place by week 8” is not entirely accurate. In fact, it’s a half-truth slanted to make the pro-life position seem more scientific than it really is, and by extension more reasonable than it is too.
Thankfully, the science it quite clear on the matter.
By week 8 the human nervous system is only beginning to develop. The neural pathways haven’t even been developed yet, so there’s still no “feeling any pain” since the fetus isn’t well-developed enough to even process pain. This is about the time breathing tubes develop from the throat to the lungs, and the fetus is roughly the size of a kidney bean.
According to Guttmacher Institute, the primary source for all abortion research and policy analysis, it is reported that two-thirds of abortions occur at approximately eight weeks of pregnancy or earlier. This is long before the baby is an actual fully functioning organism. In fact, the tiny kidney bean doesn’t even feel any pain!
Which begs the question, why would anyone give a not yet developed, non-functioning, kidney bean the same legal rights as a well-developed, fully-functioning, form of the fully formed organism?
https://www.guttmacher.org/ Please, don’t mistake my question as being callous. Calling a fetus at 8 weeks a kidney bean is probably more accurate than calling it a human baby. We know human babies breath and feel pain. Human kidney beans do not, or in this case, embryo’s only 8 weeks into its fetal development.
And it’s not like we’ve stripped a kidney bean of its individual rights. First of all, it’s not yet an individual anything. It cannot feel. It cannot think. It is a collection of cells still undergoing development. It’s a potential human being, but not yet anything. This is a distinction many pro-lifers seem to deliberately choose to ignore. By ignoring this point of contention, they can state that abortion is evil because it is taking a human life. But that’s simply not the case. The science doesn’t support their view, because the pro-life view ignores the science.
No less important is the fact that we are not talking about a handicapped individual here. We aren’t stripping somethings rights away which already had rights. We are talking about a stage of development. A stage of development where if the fetus doesn’t go beyond this particular stage it doesn’t becoming anything at all.
Re-read that last sentence again and let that sink in.
And that, basically, is what pro-life supporters want to give full legal rights to. A potential something, but not yet anything, maybe lifeform. Perhaps worse than this is the fact that they want to allow this not yet anything, maybe lifeform to supersede the rights of its host mother. And mothers, as we all know, do have rights.
This kind of reasoning is so muddled, so convoluted, that the best we can do is to say, sorry, but your position is unreasonable and trespasses on the absurd.
But many pro-lifers have bought into the abortions is murder / abortion is evil propaganda hook, line, and sinker. They believe, for whatever reason, that those alarmist anti-abortion videos of doctors ripping out baby fetuses from bloody vaginas with metal tongs, then chopping them up on a silver platter and throwing them into dumpsters is, somehow, an accurate reflection of real life abortion.
It’s pure propaganda. A fiction meant to scare people into thinking abortion is a vile practice that only immoral barbarians would carry out rather than what it really is – a live saving medical procedure carried out by medical professionals in hospitals.
Besides this, in most cases, and abortion requires merely taking a pill before the end of the first trimester. No drama required.
As it turns out, those third trimester abortions you see in videos taken in Mexico, or some such place, are the rarest of the rare.
The Guttmacher Institute states that third trimester abortions are less than 1.3% of the entire populace and are reserved for extremely rare medical conditions where there will be serious complications to the mother, fetus, or both.
And if you don’t think there are valid medical reasons for late-term abortions, chances are you’ve never heard of anencephaly.
Yeah. Anencephaly. Look it up.
At the same time, the Guttmacher Institute reminds us that 91% of all abortions happen in the first trimester, before 11th week of pregnancy, more than 65% occurring before the 8th week of pregnancy. Remember, that’s the time where we have the unfeeling kidney bean not yet anything maybe embryo.
And let’s not forget that spontaneous abortions/miscarriages occur all the way through the 20th week of pregnancy regardless. And that’s the cold hard reality of it.
As for those alarmist videos, they are just that, alarmist propaganda. And that wouldn’t be so bad if such propaganda only duped fools into believing it, but as it happens it can dupe otherwise reasonable people into believing it as well. And that’s dangerous, I think you’ll agree. Dangerous for the very reason that it weaponizes our ignorance and then seeks to use it against us.
When all is said and done, the facts are the facts and are readily available for anyone who wants to educate themselves on the truth of the matter. And the fact remains, second and third trimester abortions are extremely rare. *Extremely* and *rare* being the key words here.
So setting an arbitrary definition for the definition of “life” — one which conveniently aligns precisely with their pre-selected worldview, but which seems to habitually butt heads with the science — is all the pro-life side has to offer us. And I think you’ll agree, that’s simply not good enough to convince anyone that abortion ought to be considered murder or that it’s inherently evil. This is a black and white, overly simplistic view that doesn’t understand the first thing about the complexities and nuances involved in addressing the major ethical concerns permeating this debate.
So we’ve learned two things so far.
The pro-life side’s legal claim of unborn fetuses having rights is nowhere in evidence and needs to be developed into a viable argument before being put into law.
As it is, the pro-life side has offered a non-starter. It’s a poorly thought out position based on political biases and emotional prejudices. It hasn’t considered any of the relevant material, which is why it relies on emotional pleas and alarmist tactics while vilifying the other side’s position, offering only propaganda instead of facts, to try and persuade others of the worthiness of their cause. It’s an ill-informed opinion masquerading as fact. And it’s dangerous.
The pro-life definition of “life” is deeply flawed if not completely nonsensical.
Furthermore, it conflicts with what the science shows to be fact. At the same time the definition being offered deliberately ignores competing definitions and attempts to overrule them by making moral platitudes designed to manipulate people’s emotions into giving up these other well-defined definitions for vague, an nebulous ones which only seek to sow further confusion rather than bring any clarity to the issues at hand.
These are not trivial concerns, mind you. These are serious objections to the pro-life position. Damning, you might even say.
The entire pro-life side of the debate must first overcome these major obstacles and objections in order to become a viable argument. Only once it has been formalized as a real argument can it be worthy of consideration and debate.
Right now, all they have is an opinion. And it is on this lofty opinion that so much anti-abortion legislature hangs. Which is quite frightening to anyone with half a brain. I don’t say this to be divisive. What is shows is that pro-life supporters simply haven’t thought through the issues, have no solutions for the problems, yet want their position to carry the same moral weight. It doesn’t.
On the other hand, the pro-choice side succinctly avoids these same pitfalls and therefore is the sturdier position. It does this because it is offered, not as a fully independent argument, but as a contra-argument to what the pro-choice side offers, or in this case, fails to offer. The pro-choice side, by design, sides with reasonable and just policies based on our current scientific, legal, and moral understanding of what abortion really is. A valid medical procedure. As such, it’s not pushing an agenda in the same way the pro-life side is clearly pushing an agenda. It’s a counter-offer to that agenda, which says that you cannot arbitrarily strip a woman of her civil liberties simply because you have arbitrarily selected and random definition of “life” which you wish to impose on everyone else regardless of the consequences. Hence the pro-choice stance can be viewed as a push-back against the inherent illogicality of the pro-life stance.
PART 3: The PHILOSOPHICAL TROUBLE with the Pro-Life Stance
The pro-life position is plagued with legal problems as well as moral problems. But it is also riddles with practical philosophical problems. That’s just a fancy way of saying, if you were to give it a deeper consideration, the pro-life position is philosophically unsound.
There are two distinct philosophical failings of the pro-life side of the debate.
The first is how one gives autonomy to individual with no identity.
The second problem arises when you give the right to autonomy to two individuals inhabiting the same body and place their identities in opposition thus into conflict.
First, for the sake of argument, let’s concede to the argument and agree that life begins at conception.
We can grant pro-life proponents this much, because even if this is the definition we are using, the bigger moral problems are yet to come. In fact, you might even say the pro-life side still has all their work ahead of them.
In order to explain the problem, I first have to make everyone aware of a philosophical riddle that has baffled philosophers for centuries.
It’s called The Ship of Theseus paradox.
Now, the paradox has been discussed by ancient philosophers such as Heraclitus and Plato, and more recently by heavy weight thinkers like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. The paradox, according to the Greek historian Plutarch, is as such:
The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned from Crete had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their places, in so much that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.
Essentially, the problem asks you to imagine Theseus’s ship. It is uncovered by modern archeologists on some Grecian beach. Unearthing it, they take the ship to a museum and, low and behold, discover some of the ship’s wood planks have rotted away. Subsequently, they replace those planks.
Now, here’s where the philosophical paradox comes into play. After a few years of sitting in the old museum, a few more of the ships planks rot away. Those too get replaced. Another few years crawls by, and another couple of planks get replaced. This continues on for many years until, finally, we come to the last original plank. It too has rotted beyond repair, and therefore gets replaced.
The paradox asks us, at what instant did Theseus’s ship change from one thing to another?
Some would say that it stopped being Theseus’s ship after 50% of the planks were replaced. Others would say it was still Theseus’s ship right up till the last plank was replaced. After that, no longer. But others would argue that it was still Theseus’s original ship even after all the planks were replaced because some of those new planks had been a part of the original at one time and thus carried with them the essence of Theseus’s ship.
Now, there’s not need to wrack your brain. There’s no actual solution to the riddle.
What the paradox is designed to show us is that things have recognizable forms, but these forms change. Because of this changing forms, whether the original or a facsimile, a thing has a kind of identity unto itself whereby we recognize its form as either Theseus’s ship or not Theseus’s ship.
The reason this becomes important in the abortion debate is this. When you define life as beginning at conception, you still haven’t identified when the life is a person. The essence of being a person is quite different from simply being a living thing. Single celled amoebas are living. Nobody rights laws protecting them. A multi-celled bacteria is a living thing. But we recognize it as either a bacteria or not a bacteria. But when you have a human embryo, we know it is a human embryo because it’s not a full-grown child. And then, we know and fetus is not an embryo.
So the problem with defining life at conception is that you’re trying to define one thing as another thing. You’re trying to define the single-celled amoeba as a multi-cellular bacterium, and as we all know – this isn’t possible. It’s nonsense. A thing is a thing is a thing. And that thing cannot be some other thing… until… well, it is. And that’s the Theseus Ship paradox in a nutshell. Or should I say bottle?
Simply put, to say life begins at conception and then giving that embryo legal rights would mean ONLY that embryo has legal rights. Not the fetus. You would have to write a separate law to say that the fetus has legal rights, apart from the embryo, if that’s what you want to say. And, to compound matters, you’d have to write yet one more set of laws to distinguish the rights of a fully living child apart from both a fetus and an embryo.
And this is a basic philosophical consideration which one would need to take into account before writing laws, since something as complex as biology involves changing forms.
Yet the pro-life side would rather not think about it in this detail. Again, probably because they aren’t offering a formal argument for their position. They aren’t offering reasons. They are offering mere opinions and then telling you, often times quite passionately, how they feel about their own opinions.
Well, I hate to be the barer of bad news, but an opinion doesn’t make a valid argument.
Of course, you will recall I mentioned there were two parts to the identity problem.
The second part is more subtle, but also that much more damaging to the pro-life stance.
Even if we grant the pro-life definition of life, and even if we grant them that an unborn fetus is entitled to certain legal protections, what they seems to be forgetting in all of this is… the MOTHER.
As an already fully actualized, autonomous, individual she has legal rights. Thus had legal standing in cases brought against her by her unborn fetus. Which is technically impossible, which, inevitably, explains why pro-lifers always argue for legal involvement in such cases when erecting anti-abortion policies. They NEED to control the mother’s rights, because what they are doing, in this case, is putting the mother’s rights in opposition to the unborn fetus’s rights.
This creates a big moral problem. Because the only way to resolve this issue, in a court of law, is to demote a woman to the status of property.
In the case of abortion, what the pro-life side is seeking to do is say that the unborn fetus resides inside the host mothers, as a tenant resides inside an apartment building, and that the mother cannot unlawfully evict the fetus because the fetus has every right to live there – and has nowhere else to go.
The problem isn’t that a fetus cannot pay its rent, but that the mother has been made into property in order to imbue the unborn fetus with the same legal rights and standing as the woman mother.
I’m sure you can see how making a person into property is not only ill advised but, all things considered, completely amoral. Yet, this is what has to happen when you place an unborn fetus’s legal standing on par with its autonomous mother’s. A conflict of identity which pits individuals against each other in both legal and moral terms – which is a huge philosophical problem.
And, no, saying “life begins at conception” does not solve this problem. It only exasperates it. It presupposes all life is sacred, but for mysterious reasons that aren’t justifiable and only muck up the discussion with unnecessary metaphysical considerations that have no place in the discussion.
Saying abortion equates to the same thing as murder simply isn’t true. It’s not even a logical consequence of “life beginning at conception” because the law does not automatically imbue all forms of life with equal rights, let alone state that preventing a thing from gaining a life is the same thing as taking it. Another reason saying that “abortion is murder” is simply incorrect.
And, finally, stating rather matter-of-fact like that “abortion is evil” is simply a failure of moral reasoning of the highest order. Quite frankly, it is the embarrassing admission that you’re not yet ready to have a sophisticated discussion on the finer, highly complex, aspects of human rights and ethics. It is the happy display of one’s failure to reason through the issues well – and it’s not deserving of any special kind of consideration – at least not until a better argument is made.
The bottom line is this. Right out of the gate the pro-life stance is indefensible. Consequently, it fails to meet the challenge of justifying itself and making a valid case on numerous fronts, including the legal, moral, and the philosophical.
Worse than this stupendous failure, however, is that the pro-life position seeks to jeopardize a mother’s rights, a woman’s civil rights, and places her at the mercy of policy makers who haven’t the first clue as how to address the complicated bio-ethical concerns something like human biology and abortion raise. Meanwhile, the pro-life side continues to defer all responsibility of a rigorous examination of the relevant concerns and continues to deride the pro-choice side and offer only the wailing lamentation that “abortion is murder” and, in their mind, “abortion is evil” even though these claims are nowhere in evidence and are often found to be in opposition of the truth.
Needless to say, a lot of work needs to be done first developing their argument before the pro-life side can carry any relevant weight in civil rights discussion. As it is, it’s not even close to being a valid, let alone viable, argument. At most it’s an opinion which deliberately seeks to fortify itself behind the walls of ignorance. Then asks us to use this ignorance to lash ourselves senselessly with it – because feelings. I think you’ll agree with me that this simply isn’t good enough. Especially when it comes to import hot topic issues like women’s rights and human rights.
Meanwhile, the pro-choice stance doesn’t suffer these same flaws and isn’t in conflict with science or legal theory in the appalling way the pro-life stance clearly is. The pro-choice side honors the woman’s autonomy and doesn’t fall into the same trap of pitting her identity and rights as an individual against those of her unborn fetus’s. And it certainly doesn’t seek to make her into chattel or the property of the state by placing her at the mercy of the courts and ignorant politicians and policy makers who ask her to lash herself with the biting tendrils of their ignorance as well – because feelings.
As a rationalist, I can only see the pro-life position as a non-starter. Indeed, it appears that at this time, the pro-choice position is the only valid position in the whole abortion debate. And that says a lot about why this debate never seems to be able to be resolved. The side that needs to argue their case, the pro-life side, continually fails to do so. Yet relying on the strength of their propaganda alone they have convinced thousands to take their side – because feelings – and despite the fact that it defies all reason to do so. And that’s the sorry state of affairs as they are today, in 2016, I’m sorry to report.
I don’t expect what I will say will change very many minds. But it’s worth noting, that whenever an advocate for pro-life says that “abortion is murder” or that “abortion is evil” they clearly haven’t thought things through. People who understand the finer details and all the nuances of the problem would simply not resort to emotional appeals. They’d approach the problem more thoughtfully and with deep consideration.
At the end of the day, if it were up to me to decide, I would strongly urge pro-life supporters everywhere to stop making moral platitudes and proclamations based on their emotional knee-jerk reactions to some alarmist anti-abortion propaganda videos on the Internet and get to work making their case as solid as they can in order to win the uphill battle of tackling the scientific, legal, and moral problems of their unrefined, ill thought through, largely illogical, and frequently damaging position.
Tristan Vick is a published author who writes both fiction and non-fiction. In 2014 he sold the rights to his zombie novel series BITTEN to Permuted Press and Winlock Press. In addition to this, he also has published the cult hit paranormal detective novel The Scarecrow & Lady Kingston: Rough Justice, also by Winlock Press. His next major novel will be the cyberpunk techno-thriller Robotica, published by Regolith Publications. In addition to his fiction work, Tristan Vick has published numerous books in the area of religious history and philosophy. He co-edited the critically acclaimed book Beyond an Absence of Faith with the philosopher Jonathan M.S. Pearce, which collected the de-conversion stories of religious apostates from a variety of religious faiths including Islam, Christianity, Hindu, and two cult survivors. More recently, Tristan Vick published a critical examination of the work of Christian apologist Randal Rauser and Christian apologetics in general in his book The Swedish Fish, edited by the religious scholar and historian Robert M. Price.
You can learn more about Tristan Vick and his other works by going to his official author blog: www.tristanvick.com
A few days ago, I found myself commenting on Patheos, a part of which I will repeat here. It was about how God chose people — Judas, Jesus, etc. to play the role already laid out for them. Ultimately this makes free will more or less non-existent. The concept of free will combined with God’s complete foresight and knowledge often had puzzled me as a Christian.
If God already knew who would become his children and who wouldn’t, free choice didn’t really exist. Except God (and everyone else) said it did. I never could make sense of it and I so wanted to understand — that’s just how I’m wired — because I loved God and took it very seriously.
And then I wrote the following: “That’s one of the things that hurts, by the way, because questioning children and adults are seen as rebellious or irritating, whereas the questions came from a deep longing to understand and not from a negative or rebellious place at all. It did, however, ultimately show me that there weren’t any good answers to my questions.”
So I thought perhaps I should let it all out and rant for a while about this. I had questions, loads of them, as a child, teen, and adult. I had and still have a thirst for knowledge and I always assumed this to be a good thing. You should use your mind, shouldn’t you? Your reasoning, your God-given gifts?
Therefore, it can hurt a lot when people — parents, teachers or preachers — assume you are just being irritating and annoying for the sake of it; that you’re putting your finger on something to challenge their authority or to make them feel stupid, when all you are doing is trying to really understand and you are very seriously trying to find the truth — stubbornly so.
It doesn’t make for pleasant conversation, that’s for sure.
It does make for confused believers, however. Over the years, I learned that some questions were not allowed, that they were seen as challenging God himself, that I wasn’t supposed to ask them. In the end, I self-censored my questions and stopped myself from asking them out loud. It didn’t meant they had left me though. They had just gone underground.
It also made me disappointed. These authorities were supposed to have the answers and help us, the believers, in finding them. If God had all the answers, shouldn’t his representatives be able to answer? And if neither God, nor his representatives, provided one with any answers, is it really such a surprise people ultimately leave their faith?
You’d think they would at least understand that!
It has taught me that there are different kinds of believers — that some of them are okay with not knowing, with accepting all the unknowns about God; that not knowing doesn’t bother them in the least. That, presumably, they get a lot of other things out of their faith: community, a sense of belonging, meaning etc.
But that there are also believers who do long to know — quite desperately, even. They find their way to God through knowledge and if that method fails, will begin to look at faith and religion differently.
They become the kind of believers who then become what they have been accused of for ages already: rebellious and skeptical.
How were your doubts addressed by (church) authorities or family? Did you feel falsely accused of being rebellious or irritating when asking uncomfortable but honest questions?
“A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.”
Most sources say it came from Maya Angelou; although, oddly, Lou Holtz is often named, and sometimes others. In fact, it came from American poet and children’s book author Joan Walsh Anglund. (TimeQuote Investigator)
I don’t know the context of the quote, so I can’t be sure of the intended point. At face value, though, it’s one of those sayings that could easily become platitudinous. It’s a sword that could be wielded with good effect from both (all?) sides of the line of battle. Some might use it to slash at perceived intellectual elitism. In that capacity it reminds me of a far-less-inspired line thrown about often and sloppily during my Christian upbringing: “They have the arguments, but we have the experience.” Basically, that reduces to approximately, “If it feels good, believe it.” But feelings are notoriously fickle and amorphous, consequently unstable, attesting to little more than the sensations themselves. The reason we live, and live so long, in this modern world is that we’ve finally reached an average level of maturity such that we distrust emotions, doing our best to correct for them when we investigate Important Things. Because Reality can be a harsh environment in which to exist, what makes us feel good often doesn’t accord too well with it. So we find ourselves steering off the path to Truth so we can go out and roll in the more pleasant clover of Feelings.
That said, emotions are fundamental to what it means to be human. We live because we enjoy living. To the degree knowing Truth enhances that enjoyment, Truth is esteemed worth knowing. To the degree it doesn’t — well, delusion feels better. I’m much more sympathetic to that sentiment than my use of the pejorative “delusion” might imply. I mean, if on average life doesn’t feel more good than bad, what’s the point of it? So much the worse for Truth! The bird can’t answer, Why is there something rather than nothing? And still it sings.
Maybe The Ultimate Answer to The Ultimate Question shouldn’t be ultimately important to us, either. And it isn’t. Multiplied billions — down to the very last man, woman, and child — have lived their lives not having that Answer, with most hardly giving it a passing thought. And what better proof of that than the shallow stabs at answers we hear from those most noisily clacking about knowing!
Any creature that doesn’t want to live won’t care enough to do the things necessary to survive. I’d like to avoid anthropomorphizing “want” here. Yes, we humans can reflect on our wants and guess at why we have them in ways no other known creature can. But we would want to live even without the capacity to understand why we do. The amoeba has no clue about why, but let it come under threat and you’ll see how much it “wants” to live. Even the lowly plant, lacking a nervous system, will attempt to repair itself when injured, because it “wants” to live.
But our survival instinct isn’t only an aversion to dying. Overabundantly more, it’s about enjoying living: that joie de vivre, as the French say. If death weren’t about giving up living, we wouldn’t fear it like we do. We like singing that song. We’d rather not stop.
And that song comes naturally, as a biological endowment. I grew up being taught that connection with God is the only path to joy. “Know Jesus, know peace; no Jesus, no peace,” I’d hear a lot. I believed that, because I had been taught nothing else. And yet, over the years, exposure to the windblown grit of reality scoured away at my certainty. Even as I taught others what I had been taught, I doubted it myself — and largely unbeknownst to me! When circumstances at last conspired to thrust my disbelief into my active consciousness, the revelation of it hit me like a thunderbolt: You know, I don’t believe this stuff — and I don’t have to! In a flash I understood how my efforts to convince others had been far more to convince myself. After all, my family and my friends, those with whom I had to get along in life, believed it. I had to believe. And yet, I couldn’t. Oh, the mental tumult I endured in the attempt! It had torn my life to shreds.
The abrupt realization that no one is justly duty bound to do what he can’t do was like the proverbial ten ton weight dropping from my shoulders. No, I didn’t believe, and that was okay. But don’t get the idea that all was sweetness and light, smiley suns and gleaming rainbows thereafter. My life had been founded on the Christian religion. It was the ground on which I had been standing. Though I could now admit I didn’t believe it, I despaired of my footing. At least I had believed it would be good to believe; it had been something to shoot for. I didn’t even have that anymore. Nowadays, when I hear Christians protest that without faith life could have no meaning, no joy, and no peace I understand where they’re coming from. For some time after my “deconversion” it seemed that pronouncement might prove prophetic.
But a funny thing happened. Well, I guess “happened” is too sudden. It stole up on me, over time. Still, it surprised me when one day I woke up to the realization that, little by little, the joy and the peace and the sense of purpose had taken me unawares, as it were. I understood then that these aren’t things given to us by any god. We don’t even need faith, however misplaced, in any god to get them. They’re part of our biological make-up. In the genetic sloshing around of multiplied millennia of reproduction, those who evolved keenest sense of peace, joy, and purpose were the ones who most wanted to live. They were naturally the ones who took the greatest pains to live. They were the ones likeliest to live long enough to pass on their relatively buoyant genes to another generation. Over time, the average levels of peace, joy, and sense of purpose elevated in the general population to where today they’re intrinsic parts of our make-up that will inevitably bubble to the surface unless persistently beaten down by adverse circumstances or the contrary expectations of others.
Now, it’s not equal from person to person. Just like more prominent traits — say, physical features and capacities or intellectual prowess — vary a lot among us, so, too, do our brains’ production of things like dopamine and serotonin. At one end of the bell curve are the perpetually and annoyingly sunny types who can’t give a good excuse for the smiles chiseled into their faces. At the other are the paranoiacs, those for whom a grin might be painfully disfiguring. Most of us lie at some relatively comfortable spot in the middle. I’m probably more on the slope down toward paranoia, myself. I always have been. I was when I most fervently believed and I still am. It’s a fact of life for me. Even so, I’ve found that life brings me lots of joy, and it does now probably as much as it ever has. Nowadays, I can admit I don’t have all the answers to the Big Questions. And yet, somehow, I still want to sing.
Recently my husband and I attended his high school reunion. It was held at a ranch in central Texas and was a weekend-long event. My husband and I were raised in small west Texas towns which are heavily protestant and quite conservative.
There were some 30 attendees, about half of whom were the original classmates. We began to get the idea that we were in a strongly Christian home when we noted several bibles, many more Christian-oriented books, and numerous placards with biblical sayings. When it was time for dinner, the host called us all in to pray before dinner. I lingered out on the porch, hoping to sit it out, but beckoned me, repeating “come on in – we’re going to pray.” He read a bible verse from his mobile phone, then offered up a prayer. This occurred before every meal. For the other meals, I “disappeared” at prayer time.
Our hosts are Church of Christ, and probably some of the others are as well. Some, at least, are Baptist (probably Southern Baptist). Evangelical? I don’t know, but likely. I also do not know what affiliation the others are. One woman told my husband and me that her life is much better now that she has discovered there is no hell, but we were interrupted before we could get any further in that conversation. Later, I heard her professing something about being a Christian. I wanted to get back to her about how not believing in hell is the beginning of a slippery slope at the bottom of which is non-belief in a god, but the opportunity never arose again. I wasn’t completely sure I wanted it to.
During our discussions with several people, they talked mentioned how blessed they are, and I am under the impression we were the only non-believers there. We did not spill the beans, but just listened.
There was no alcohol served at the house – no beer, no wine, no hard liquor. There was no cursing. I suspect that some of the people live that way. There are others who, although they probably are Christians, engage in at least a bit of cursing. One of them is a Vietnam vet who has various ailments which he attributes to his service, but he cannot get the VA to agree with him. I imagine he knows how to cuss up a blue streak. Others probably live the way they did this weekend.
There was a huge amount of white privilege at the reunion, although I suspect at least some of them were not conscious of it. We didn’t comment on it. There was a bumper sticker on a side table which said “Guns Kill People like Spoons Made Rosie O’Donnell Fat.” It took me several readings of that to realize that is it NOT an anti-gun sentiment!
The last morning, the hostess and I were talking about Facebook and she tried to friend me, but on her little phone I couldn’t determine which icon was mine – I change my photo often and couldn’t find mine among the choices. So she told me her FB name and suggested I friend her – hers is unique. After we got home, I pondered long and hard about whether to let her see my FB page, which is full of pro-choice and atheist posts. I wasn’t sure I wanted to let her know that we (my husband is strongly skeptical about the existence of any gods) have “strayed from the fold.” I am quite sure that if these people knew of our lack of faith, they would have spent the entire weekend trying to save us. We left with our secret intact, unwilling to come out to those people with whom my husband had grown up.
Today, I decided not to come out to a young lady today, a lady whom I will never see again. A kid was standing alongside the road today in front of a church waving a sign that said “Free Car Wash.” I opted in. After I surrendered my car for a brief, exterior-only cleaning, I was approached by a college student. I started to give her some money, but she declined. She said they are washing cars for Jesus, and will not accept a tip or donation. She asked if I go to church around here and I told her “no” and left it at that. She did not probe further. We chit-chatted about her small home town in Arkansas, her mission trip here, and her college experience. Then my car was clean. We shook hands and I left.
I wonder why I was unwilling to even mention that I am an atheist, let alone challenge her lightly on her beliefs. After all, I will never see this woman again, nor she me. I wish now that I had risked asking her why her god doesn’t heal amputees. I’m trying, more and more, to come out as an atheist, but it is hard to do in person. I have been out on Facebook for seven or eight years, and to my family for longer than that. I don’t know why I find it so difficult to come out to strangers.
Psychology has always interested me. What makes people tick? That particular question, I find very intriguing. Therefore, I sometimes like reading articles or books about psychology and human behavior. During my de-conversion journey, one book stood out, and it is that book, along with two others that I would like to discuss (only in part) as they relate to the theme of religion and shame. The book is called: Healing the Shame that Binds You, by John Bradshaw. The other two books are 1984 by George Orwell and The True Believer by Eric Hoffer. (That last one I saw mentioned on Bruce’s blog once in the comments. Thanks for bringing it to my attention, as it’s a great read!)
The interesting thing is that, although they’re totally different books, part of what each discusses does overlap — when it comes to religion (or ideology) and shame, that is. There can be thousands of reasons why people believe, but one of them can be to dispel shame. Or to put it another way, to not have to be a person yourself, but to lose yourself and your identity in/to a higher cause, a loftier goal or purpose. I first encountered this idea in Bradshaw’s book and found it very interesting. I felt as if I recognized myself, my father, and so many others in it:
“There is a religious script, which contains the standards of holiness and righteous behavior. These standards dictate how to talk, how to dress, walk and behave in almost every situation. (…) In such a script one is taught how to act loving and righteous. It’s actually more important to act loving and righteous than to be loving and righteous. The feeling of righteousness and acting sanctimoniously are wonderful ways to mood alter toxic shame. They are often ways to interpersonally transfer one’s shame to others.” (Bradshaw 66)
You don’t have to think for yourself because God and the Bible and the church will give you all the rules you need. You don’t have to be a genuine person that way, which means you also cannot fail or be rejected as an actual person. Rejection can be about your faith, for instance, which will only confirm that you walk the right and narrow path.
On the one hand, this script felt really good for me. Bradshaw even calls it religious addiction. It was a sort of guideline in knowing how to live and behave and a also way to be safe, but on the other hand, it felt like I couldn’t be a real person as there was not much space for individuality.
Although he himself is a believer, Bradshaw criticizes religion severely. According to him, original sin, hell and a punitive God are recipes for disaster. One can’t win with original sin, and man is seen as “totally flawed and defective. Of himself he can only sin. Man is shame-based to the core.” (Bradshaw 65) “There is nothing man can do that is of any value. Of himself, man is a worm. Only when God works through him does man become restored to dignity. But it’s never anything that man does of himself.” (Bradshaw 65)
The same idea becomes visible in 1984: “You will be hollow. We shall squeeze you empty, and then we shall fill you with ourselves.” (Orwell 269) In a true totalitarian system with God, or Big Brother, watching over you, you cannot be an individual. You have to be similar to everyone else, and in being so, you find that your identity merges with the ideas of religion or your environment or choice. In 1984 people dress the same, think the same, act the same. There is no shame because there is no individual identity. There is also no autonomy or responsibility because there is no individual identity. The Party carries all that for you.
Winston’s (the main character) shame is in having his own thoughts and feelings; he cannot adapt and follow the rules completely. He follows the rules but it ultimately proves to be impossible because even his thoughts are not his own. He cannot help but rebel and think logically from time to time. “That the choice for mankind lay between freedom and happiness, and that, for the great bulk of mankind, happiness was better,” he realizes too late. (Orwell 275) Complete surrender is the ultimate goal of his torturer, who sees himself as a priest of sorts: “It is intolerable to us that an erroneous thought should exist anywhere in the world.” (Orwell 267) Individual voices are not appreciated: God’s, or the Party’s, or the ideology’s voice has to be the one and only voice that is heard.
In The True Believer various religions and ideologies are discussed, such as Christianity, Islam, Communism and Nazism. The book is about the similarities between them, not in substance or teachings, but in the process/formation of the movements, in their recruitment and how/why they grow. Why do people join these mass movements? What kinds of people join? What does a true believer look like (psychologically)?
Some themes that I’ve already mentioned recur here, such as the loss of responsibilities.
Freedom aggravates at least as much as it alleviates frustration. Freedom of choice places the whole blame of failure on the shoulders of the individual. (…) Unless a man has the talents to make something of himself, freedom is an irksome burden (…) We join a mass movement to escape individual responsibility, or in the words of the ardent young Nazi, ‘to be free from freedom.’ It was not sheer hypocrisy when the rank-and-file Nazis declared themselves not guilty of all the enormities they had committed. They considered themselves cheated and maligned when made to shoulder responsibility for obeying orders. Had they not joined the Nazi movement in order to be free from responsibility? (Hoffer 31)
It is not hard to compare this line of thinking to Christians defending hell or their opposition to, say, same-sex-marriage. These are not their own opinions, after all — it is God’s will. They don’t choose these (harsh) positions themselves, they merely follow God’s lead. They are not responsible, God is.
Related to this, and to shame, is the following: “Faith in a holy cause is to a considerable extent a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves.” (Hoffer 14) ”The less justified a man is in claiming excellence for his own self, the more ready he is to claim all excellence for his nation, his religion, his race or his holy cause.” (Hoffer 14) And this is exactly how the Party members in 1984 behave: they may be nothing (special) themselves but their country and Party are everything, are the Answer, much as Jesus or other religious leaders are the Answer.
Another interesting characteristic of true believers, according to Hoffer, is their hope. True bitter people don’t hope for a better world (any more) but believers do. They may not have necessarily have hope in themselves but they do believe in the hope that their belief, ideology or leader brings. “One of the most potent attractions of a mass movement is its offering of a substitute for individual hope.” (Hoffer 15)
“Mass movements are usually accused of doping their followers with hope of the future while cheating them of the enjoyment of the present. Yet to the frustrated the present is irremediably spoiled.” (Hoffer 15) Whether that hope is a heaven promised by priests and pastors or is an ideological utopia of sorts promised by politicians, it is still to come. It is about the future, not the present. It doesn’t matter that it isn’t here yet: that way the promises can remain promising.
I found it very interesting how three such different books still dealt with similar themes and ideas and how they complemented each other. There is so much to unpack when you leave a religion and begin to see the world and the people in it in a different light, that it is very helpful to encounter new ideas and ways of thinking.
I think my conclusion is that, although religion and ideology can play a huge role in one’s life, we are still people, first and foremost. We are unique human beings who may have ideas in common with lots of other people (and there is nothing wrong with that) but who don’t need to become the embodiment of those ideas. Or as Jesus would say: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27)
Religion and ideology can serve us as ideas, as a way to talk about important issues, but that’s it. They are meant to serve us, not we to serve them. They can be tools or destinations, but when they become an identity, especially a core identity, they can hide and diminish our own unique voices.
It’s good to have glasses with which to view the world, but it is also advisable to change to a different pair every once in a while and see the world in a whole new light.
Thanks for reading and thanks to Bruce for posting this post!
But so much good has been done in the name of religion too.
This is one of the arguments I would quite happily never hear again for the rest of my days. It’s the apparent riposte of choice whenever someone has the temerity to draw attention to the downright formidable list of sins attributable to religions or religious institutions. Beginning from A for Appalling Atrocity, one could easily go through the alphabet many times over in an attempt to produce even a marginally comprehensive report of these misdeeds. Alas, the effort would most likely be come to nothing, for the inevitable reply would merely be “yes, it is true, all that took place, but it also inspired so much good“.
At the risk of appearing forward, I must state this is without a doubt one of the most vacuous and insipid arguments I have ever encountered. Any truth there is to it, is a truth of the most trivial and banal kind, so much so that it bears great resemblance to the infamous claim by McDonald’s that their food is nutritious, since it contains nutrients. Yes, one can say people have been inspired to do good because of their religion, but has that good truly amounted to more in the grand scheme of things, than those vaunted McDonald’s nutrients? Do the few, aged onion slices really make up for the throat-clogging fat and the pink slime? In short, does it, and has it ever, made up for all the misery, suffering and all-round horribleness which can unquestionably be laid at religion’s doorstep? Do good intentions really cancel out abhorrent outcomes? And if McD’s doesn’t get away with appealing to all the good nutrients contained in their products, why should religion be allowed to use this frankly rather outrageous claim to get a free pass?
You know, the fascists did a lot of good things too. They reduced unemployment, they made the infrastructure work, they restored order in society. I’m sure some Stalinists were very kind and loving to their families. The inquisitors and puritans who made it their life mission to hunt down, torture and kill heretics, no doubt had the very best intentions with regard to the future and well-being of all humankind. Many paedophile priests or ministers were reported to be well-liked and appreciated shepherds to their flocks, doing many a good deed and performing many a needed service. An inordinate proportion of men who abuse their partners are known to be very charming and impressionable with everyone else, and such good, dependable men too. Yet, do we excuse these people for the less than stellar aspects of their behaviour, based on “all the good” they have done? No, no, no, no, and all too often yes, respectively. Religion however, does get to hold this permanent get-out-of-jail-free trump card. Why?
Why are Magdalene laundries and Irish reform schools ignored? What about the Catholic Church actively shielding paedophiles? Or lying to poor people in Africa about the efficacy of condoms in prevention of AIDS? The US government at the behest of religious elements instituting a global gag rule on the topic of abortion among all NGO’s receiving their funding? The evangelicals fomenting war(s) in the Middle East in the hopes of bringing about WWIII, the Armageddon and the second coming of Christ? The incalculable and frankly philistine destruction of culture and artifacts perpetrated by missionaries? The active pursuit to keep women forever as not even second class citizens? Denial of Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) and the abject refusal to do anything about it, as it can’t possibly be true, because “God alone is in control of the planet”? Or is this all too abstract perhaps? What about refusing sick people life-saving medical procedures because they would amount to “playing God”? Bullying individual members to give up their autonomy, belongings and anything else the holy people deem offensive to the divinity? Forcing families to completely cut off apostates or those designated as such, at the threat of eternal damnation? Actually physically harming individuals, who dare to step out of line too much? Female genital mutilation (FGM), suttee, honour killings, witch hunts? I could go on, for pages on end. And do not for a moment think this doesn’t happen any more, or that it doesn’t happen in our beloved civilized west. I will be more than happy to point to actual cases. Note, that I have purposefully selected mostly modern examples here. The sheer carnage is by no means limited to history books, I assure you.
Yet all the above is conveniently swept aside with a few small words, “but a lot of good too”. What that amounts to is a brazen claim that all the above and then some doesn’t really matter. It isn’t really that important at all, as it is generously counterweighted by soup kitchens, second hand shops, schools, orphanages, etc. Incidentally, that all too often means soup kitchens where a captive audience is proselytised to, or schools where children are mentally and physically abused. But look at all the good that has been done! Surely that means all the less savoury aspects are worth it in the end? Yes, I am sure that’s an inordinate comfort to those on the receiving end of those less savoury aspects. I ask you, what other institution in the history of humankind, would get such a leeway?
The fascists are rightly denounced today, despite their purportedly accurate train schedules. Sincere belief in the goodness of one’s actions excuses few people, and gratifyingly often a few good qualities aren’t enough to rescue people who are harmful to others from social opprobrium. We are willing to do this, but religion still gets to appeal to its shiny side and wash away all its sins. So what’s the difference?
Perhaps a hint to a possible answer is in the fact, that other people who frequently escape consequences for their behaviour are those in power. Husbands supported by patriarchal structures, sports heroes supported by adoring fans, billionaires supported by their buddies in business, politicians supported by party machines and so on. They couldn’t possibly be held responsible for what they’ve done; after all, they are otherwise so good (or rich, successful, handsome, etc.)! Those in power do not want the proles to get all uppity and attempt to apply the same rules to them as are applied to the proles. Those without power adore and idolise those in power, declaring that their heroes can’t be all bad and should therefore have their transgressions excused. Possibly also hoping against all good sense that the world is just and therefore those people would never get that far, or the institutions would never have survived this long, were their existence not, in the end, mostly a good thing for the rest of the world.
It is well known that history is written by the winners. It would seem to me, that not only has religion been one of the great winners over time, but that it still is writing the history today.
Glenn Beck and the Dixie Chicks have something in common, though neither wants to admit it.
In 2003, Natalie Maines, the lead singer of the Dixie Chicks, said that she was “ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas.” This was said in London, during a concert. Word of this quickly made its way back to the United States and many radio stations pulled The Dixie Chicks from their play lists. Irate people threw away or burned their Dixie Chicks albums.
Maines’ statement resulted in a struggle for the Dixie Chicks, particularly in the country music world, where they were boycotted for several years. They made a video documentary which followed them for three years after the infamous London concert. In the documentary, Maines watched a video of President Bush, in which he said, ”They shouldn’t have their feelings hurt just because some people don’t want to buy their records when they speak out. You know, freedom is a two-way street.” Maines then says, “You’re a dumb fuck.”
Last week, Glenn Beck had a guest on his radio show, Brad Thor, and they were talking about a Donald Trump presidency. Here is the transcript; it is long, to provide context.
THOR: BS, BS. Trump does not compromise. Trump has the ability to hire and fire people, to hire contractors, to fire contractors. People who work for Trump can work for him or stop working for him. If he gets into the White House, we have to deal with him.
And I’ll tell you, one of the best examples I have seen of who Trump really is – I have been mistakenly comparing him to a potential Mussolini. And about a week ago, Foreign Affairs did an amazing article about the Caudillos, the strong men of Latin America. And that is who Trump is. He is a Chavez. He is a Peron.
That is the type of guy he is and I guarantee you, Glenn, that during his presidency, during his reign if you will – he is going to petition the American people to allow a temporary suspension of the Constitution so he can help America get back on its feet again.
He is a danger to America and I got to ask you a question and this is serious and this could ring down incredible heat on me because I’m about to suggest something very bad. It is a hypothetical I am going to ask as a thriller writer.
With the feckless, spineless Congress we have, who will stand in the way of Donald Trump overstepping his constitutional authority as President? If Congress won’t remove him from office, what patriot will step up and do that if, if, he oversteps his mandate as president, his constitutional-granted authority, I should say, as president.
If he oversteps that, how do we get him out of office? And I don’t think there is a legal means available. I think it will be a terrible, terrible position the American people will be in to get Trump out of office because you won’t be able to do it through Congress.
BECK: I would agree with you on that and I don’t think you actually have the voices we’ve been talking about and we’ve been talking about this off-air for a while. I think the voices like ours go away. I don’t think we are allowed – especially if things, and I believe the economy is going to go to crap, even if Jesus was in office. It’s going to naturally reset. It has to.
SiriusXM decided to pull Glenn Beck’s program for the rest of the week and were reviewing his future with the company, saying, “…comments recently made by a guest on the independently produced Glenn Beck Program, in our judgement, may be reasonably construed by some to have been advocating harm against an individual currently running for office, which we cannot and will not condone.” Beck is being classy and calling Matt Drudge, who broke the story, a “despicable lying scumbag.” Now, Beck’s spokespeople are crying foul and saying they are being bullied.
So all of that to say this: both made statements that were considered outrageous. The companies who sell their voices had to make a decision. The decision came down to how much risk were these companies willing to take. Obviously, not much. For The Dixie Chicks, people on the left complained that this was a clear violation of their First Amendment rights. For the people on the Beck right (because the Beck right is different from the normal right, or the Palin right or the Cruz right), they are saying that things were taken out of context and everyone but them is a shill for Obama.
I say to them, grow up. This has nothing to do with protected speech, being persecuted or loving President Obama. This had to do with money. Period. The First Amendment stops the government from telling you what to say, not whether private companies can hire and fire you, based on what you say. Both were able to exercise their First Amendment rights and say what they wanted. The Dixie Chicks, or at least Natalie Maines, never had to apologize for what she said and she isn’t in jail. Beck isn’t being carted away by a shadowy government agency for agreeing with Brad Thor. (Thor is backtracking on his statement, too. He said he was talking about a “hypothetical America under a dictator” and not referring to an assassination.)
Glenn Beck has had many years to say whatever he wanted. He makes outrageous claims and has guests who do the same. Now, he is going to pay the price, just like the Dixie Chicks did. They have been allowed to say whatever they want. They just need to remember that other people can say what they want, too. And, people with speak with their wallets as well as their mouths. As George Bush said, “You know, freedom is a two-way street.”
I regularly correspond with a handful of Evangelical pastors, missionaries, and evangelists who are having doubts about their faith. While some of them have deconverted — albeit secretly — others are caught in no-man’s land — the space between belief and unbelief. As any of these doubters will tell you, I make no effort to convert them to atheism. I am far more concerned with helping them work through their doubts, fears, and questions. Most of all, I want to provide them a safe place to honestly and openly say what’s on their minds. They know that I once was where they are now. They also know that whatever they tell me will be kept in the strictest of confidence.
Earlier today, a man who, up until recently, spent most of his adult life holding revival meetings in Independent Fundamentalist Baptist churches, sent me a text about God and his love for us. I asked him if I could share his text with you, and he said yes.
I Am God and I Love You So Much
I am God. God is love. I love you so much.
I love you so much that I set you up to fail.
I love you so much that I taught a snake how to talk, tempt and deceive.
I love you so much that I created most of you knowing you’d reject me.
I love you so much that I made infinite torture the price of your finite rejection.
I love you so much that I’ll give all who reject me a special body that will never die and never stop feeling ultimate pain.
I love you so much that I’ve made sexuality one of your most intense desires but one of your most forbidden actions.
I love you so much that I’ll let some of you be rich, powerful and comfortable while most will be poor, miserable and weak.
I love you so much that I’ll make my forgiveness and salvation one of the most obscure, secluded, exclusive, elusive, difficult, ancient, senseless, illogical and bizarre, argued, debated, opinionated, sadistic, divisive, repulsive, reject-able, laughable, unverifiable, irrational, emotional, and psychological things ever conceived.
I love you so much that I’ll hurt you if you doubt me.
I love you so much that I’ll hurt you if you trust me.
I love you so much that I’ll hurt you if you stray from me.
I love you so much that I’ll hurt you if you are closer to me than to anyone.
I love you so much that I’ll hurt you if you don’t serve me.
I love you so much that I’ll hurt you if you serve me faithfully.
I love you so much that I’ll make your suffering for ignoring me very real in this life.
I love you so much that I’ll make your rewards for walking with me only real in the next life.
I love you so much that I’ll kill your loved ones, destroy your life, ravage your body and make your best friends think it’s your fault, just to teach the devil a lesson.
I love you so much that I’ll make everything you need to know about me and my love available to you in an ancient, translated, revised, edited, copied, argued, debated, contradictory, violent, terrifying, depressing, ambiguous, bizarre, embarrassing book written by dozens of disagreeing men, spanning thousands of years.
Heaven and hell are big in Evangelical Christianity. One might say larger than life even. As a believer I was told over and over again that I did not have to fear hell. Jesus had saved us all. He had saved me and I was bought and paid for forever. Despite officially being part of a more Arminian background, predestination did figure in our beliefs as well. From our side (humans) we had free will and a choice, but from God’s side it was still predestination. I tried to understand this conundrum but failed to. Since I knew quite a few people in high school who were Calvinists, I figured we actually were quite Arminian, despite these caveats. The Calvinists I knew were not able to decide for themselves: they had to be elected by God and even then they were put through serious tests of faith to determine their worthiness and the truth of their claim.
As I was quite convinced I would go to heaven, I did not fear hell for myself. For other people, however, I did. What I did fear for myself was Judgement Day. It scared the living daylights out of me. The idea of standing before God’s throne and have every sin you’ve ever committed read out, or shown, before you; it was an unbearable thought. In our specific explanation of the Bible, there would be two moments of judgement: Christ’s judgement and God’s judgement. After the Rapture, we Christians would be judged by Christ. This was not to determine if we’d go to heaven or not, however, it was about the number of cities we would reign, based on The Parable of the Ten Minas. We’d be judged for our fruits: for the outcome of our Christian lives. Only after the End Times and perhaps even after the Thousand years of Christ’s reign would the ultimate Final Judgement take place: God’s judgement. This was the moment where it would be determined who went to heaven or to hell. Since we would already be living with Jesus for a long time by then, it would not be clear what the outcome would be for us. We would still have to be judged though, just like everybody else, which was only fair.
For true Christians these two moments were not meant to hurt or humiliate us, instead they were meant to increase our love for Christ even more. If we were faced with all our sins, including the long-forgotten ones, we would understand even better and deeper the love and work of Christ for us. Despite being told this positive spin on the judgement, seeing it as an evaluation rather than as a trial, I couldn’t shake my fear of it. I did not want to be confronted with all my failings and sins. I didn’t care if the one who defended me would also be the one judging me, i.e. Jesus. It was scary and something I feared immensely. I looked forward to being in heaven and living with Christ but this moment would inevitably come as well. What would I see? What sins would be shown? Would other people get to see all my sins too? Would they hate me or mock me for it? The answer to that last one would be no, since heaven is all about happiness and no-one would be bullied there.
Still, the Bible wasn’t all that clear on the specifics so my imagination had room to run wild. Judgement Day featured in my fears both for others and myself. Whatever attempts were made to sugarcoat the whole thing, in the end it was all about sin and heaven and hell. It was about the failure of the human race, about Adam’s fall and, in particular, about all my wrong-doings. I couldn’t lighten up about it. Looking back that makes perfect sense. If you take your religion very seriously, you won’t be able to lighten up about it. If sin features so heavily in your beliefs, judgement over sin will too.
Sometimes I was a little angry at God/Jesus over this. We were saved for ever and ever, but we would still be judged over our past mistakes. Did that mean that we even were fully forgiven? Shouldn’t forgiveness mean that you don’t mention it again? That the burden is completely lifted? Of course, it didn’t mean that and I was wrong to ask. We were not going to hell and we should be (and would have to be) eternally grateful for it. The short, small pain of going through a divine judgement should not have to faze us. However, it did faze me enormously and didn’t help my trust in God either. My questions and longing to understand were met time and time again with even more questions and non-answers. Paradoxes and doublethink are a huge part of Evangelical Christianity and I did not fare well with them. When claims about the One Actual Truth are made, they do not serve any clear purpose and shouldn’t play a role. If the truth is clear and self-evident, it should be just that.
What kind of teachings did you learn about the Judgement? Were there two or one of them and did they intersect with apocalyptic teachings as well?
Thanks for reading and thanks to Bruce for posting this post!
From about age 10 to 17, my family attended Bible Baptist Church. This was the first Fundamentalist, King James-only Baptist church we attended. Up until then, the church we attended had northern roots, so things were quiet, except for the occasional “Amen.” The men in this church were people who shouted “Amen,” “Right on,” and “Preach it.” One man was very loud in his yelling — his name was Jeff.
Jeff was the ultimate manly man among a church full of manly men. Most of the men had military service under their belts and were hunters/fishers. Jeff didn’t have military service, but he was a hunter/fisher and a fire fighter. Jeff played hockey and basketball. There was no option for Jeff except complete victory and domination. There was only one man more macho than Jeff, but he’s not part of this story.
So, Jeff was actually a pretty good guy, on the outside. He was generous and always willing to lend a hand on his days off. When we had summer Bible camps, Jeff would always be there as a counselor/chaperone. I admired Jeff, but my dad couldn’t stand him. Dad wasn’t a competitive person and he found Jeff to be slightly annoying and pretentious. But Jeff was a brother in Christ, so Dad treated him accordingly.
Jeff took over Sunday School for a while. It was just 4 of us teenage boys at the time. He got very serious and spoke to us bluntly about living for Jesus and the perils of adultery and fornication. I clearly remember him talking about how the girls who gave sex away freely were the last ones married. Real men wanted someone who was a virgin and would only want one partner for the rest of their life. This was a shock, because Jeff said the word “sex.” But, I believed what he said, since Jeff was a stud and he had a dutiful wife, big house and a lot of money. Comparing Jeff to my dad (which, I’m ashamed to say, I did), there was no doubt who the real winner was. Looking back, I realize my dad could have torn Jeff in half without breaking a sweat and could have made way more money; but Dad was concerned about living for Jesus at any cost.
So, these words of Jeff’s rang in my head for years, until I was about 19. I was taking my EMT class and I heard about a firefighter and a paramedic having an affair. Imagine my great surprise when I found out it was Jeff. The very same Jeff who explained that a real man only needed one woman, and one who was a virgin at that. I wasn’t quite devastated, but I was puzzled. Why? How?
Now I’m a little wiser and a lot older. I understand how these things work. I do shift work and spend 12 hours at a time with my shift. I see how a relationship could develop. I also know that taking a professional relationship to a personal one is something that can happen easily and must be guarded against. It takes two to have a relationship, so the blame lies equally on Jeff and the other lady. I don’t know what was going on at their house, although I did hear a few things that made it seem as if everything wasn’t tranquil. In the end, though, Jeff screwed around on his wife, breaking a vow and commitment to be faithful. Period.
So, the moral of this story is……All men and women are human and anyone can fall. Even the man who said “sex” in a Sunday School class.