Today’s entry in our ongoing series of guest contributors comes from Bryan Brown, a NonProphet Status reader and undergraduate senior at the University of Rochester. Bryan writes about his journey as a secular humanist and how his understanding of religion has changed over time. Without furter ado, take it away Bryan!

dr houseI wasn’t always the sweet and sensitive secular humanist I am today. I used to see the world through very blunt scientific truths. During my personal journey, I have learned how atheism alone does not define a person’s way of viewing — or being a part of — the world in which he or she lives.

A pivotal time in my adolescence was the winter of my sophomore year of high school, during which I went through a bout of depression. In hindsight, it was probably caused in part by lack of sunlight, my first AP class, and raging hormones.

I kept encountering questions of “why” — questions about my source of motivation — and found my lack of faith to be a bump in the road. How could I justify putting so much energy into something that had no concrete, apparent meaning?

And so one cold afternoon in February, I sat down and created a Word document, titling it simply as “The Philosophy.”  My goal was to justify life’s meaning, scientifically and rationally, without the use of religion. What I produced was a six-page document that, at the time, seemed satiating. I supported my arguments with scientific principles (within the limitations of my high school curriculum, of course); in a way you could compare it to the Three Laws found in Asimov’s I, Robot collection. What I really did was use deductive reasoning to rationalize an end to my depression.

At the time I felt more confident than ever about my beliefs.  I hoped that by aligning my actions with this self-made mould of rationality, I could approach any life problem — academics, friendships, girlfriends — without flaw.

Looking back, I now realize what “The Philosophy” really was. Believing that I had a potent understanding of my universe made me feel powerful and in-control. However, in many social situations, my methods proved unsuccessful. It had become my defense mechanism — my excuse to not regard myself as an emotional human. What initially appeared to be the elegant simplicity of “The Philosophy” ultimately proved to be a blunt instrument. It could easily encourage behavior that was insensitive and self-serving, putting my rationalized life goals above all else.

I think I was afraid that relying on emotional responses was as faith-based as relying on a deity, and therefore reckless. I found myself identifying with a certain archetype of personality found in T.V. and literature; I felt that I was channeling Dr. House from House, Bones from Bones, and even Dr. Manhattan from The Watchmen.

My education at the University of Rochester helped balance all of that out, both in and out of the classroom. When I learned about Freud’s concept of id and ego, it helped me reconceptualize my thoughts on prioritizing conscious reasoning over subconscious urges. My study of anthropology taught me about attention to detail, as well as the exercise of treating one’s own culture as an alien one; it was all that talk about being truly “ethnographic.” I even took a religion course, which helped me analyze religions in an anthropological and non-judgmental way.

Meanwhile, I went through a smattering of social and romantic relationships of all shapes and sizes. Declaring love for somebody scared me for some time; it seemed like a leap of blind faith that was only meant for the religious. My “Philosophy” attempted to define love as something that occurred “when a single stimulus or source becomes associated — consciously and subconsciously — with powerful, positive, simultaneous combinations of synergistically acting viscerogenic and psychogenic responses.”

But in the end it was my actual life experiences that reshaped my secular beliefs, and therefore my entire psychological way of being, into a new and different person. And so during my junior year, as I sat in the on-campus Starbucks among all the caffeine addicts and intellectuals, I felt compelled to open a new Word document.

I poured my thoughts onto the page, combining old truths with my new wisdom, which helped make the whole thing more, well, human-friendly. One of the most important epiphanies I have had is that no matter how much we rationalize the workings of the universe, at the end of our pondering we must reintegrate our ideas into our human culture and experience them.

Would a sunset be less beautiful just because you understood the physics behind its colors? I’d venture that for some this makes the sunset even more intriguing! As for emotions, feelings and the subconscious, they have a place, too. Even if you don’t believe in a soul, and you recognize that all of your emotions are just cocktails of electrochemical signals within your body, you can still appreciate their function in your life. I believe Carl Jung tackles this subject nicely in his work The Shadow, in which he says that the parts of our subconscious that we are sometimes ashamed of must be embraced and transcended, rather than defeated.

Finally, I changed the way I look at religion, as well as atheism. Anthropologically, it is easy to agree that religion, for many people, serves several functions that are integral for a social human world. These include community, tradition, guidance, emotional support, motivation, social activities, networking, and meaning. When I think about it this way, it is easy for me to look “ethnographically” at the religious, and see the ways in which the peaceful theists, especially those engaged in interfaith discourse, can get along fine and do plenty of good in the world.

Meanwhile, I realized that what I want to see most from the secular population is proof that we too can provide community, support and values for one other, rather than spend all of our time criticizing the religions of the world. And so it is from my personal journey and these realizations that I am not only a self-declared atheist; I also have a reason to live, love, and be part of something bigger than myself.

bryan brownBryan Brown is an undergraduate senior at the University of Rochester. As a member of the Rochester Early Medical Scholars Program, he will continue on to the U of R School of Medicine next year. Outside of the classroom, Bryan is also a passionate mandolinist, saxophonist, performer, and composer. While he was raised in a Jewish home, Bryan has been a self-declared atheist for years and has more recently taken a greater interest in secular humanist ideals.

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Today’s post in our series of guest contributors is by Vladimir Chituc, President of the Secular Student Alliance at Yale. Like previous guest contributors Lucy Gubbins and Heidi Anderson, Vladimir wrestles with the issue of how atheists, agnostics, humanists, skeptics and the like should approach religion and the religious, and how the larger movement might work toward establishing some shared goals. Without further ado:

divideAs a relative newcomer to the broader skeptic and humanist movement, I’ll admit that I was somewhat at a loss when Chris first approached me to write a guest post. Though I spend eleven months of every year in the implicitly secular and liberal North East, an area with an underlying atmosphere suggestive of religion and atheism as private affairs that publicly hold little importance, I was raised in a conservative and devout small town where I’ve been able to catch a small glimpse of religion’s ills so well documented and addressed by my more vocal and aggressive superiors in our movement.

I find this internal disparity even more jarring when interacting with my religious classmates that have proven to be consistently liberal, accepting of contrary viewpoints, and just generally wonderful people. So as an ardent skeptic and atheist, I find this leaves me in a somewhat interesting position in the supposed “accommodationist” vs. “confrontationist” dispute.

Where can I side on a debate so stereotypically framed as a conflict between skeptical rationality and pragmatic cooperation when I strongly value both? Do I promote rationality and consequently alienate potential local allies, or do I work to build bridges while spurning those who legitimately address religion’s ills elsewhere?

I’d like to think that these two values — skepticism and cooperation — are not intrinsically at odds. So while I, like some others, am in the process of forging my own interfaith ties and promoting rationality within my own group, I try to keep the following points in mind. I hope to share these with the humble hope that some others may find in them some relevance.

There is no set of consistent values that intrinsically unite the non-religious movement. If we are only brought together by a belief that we don’t share, should a disagreement on our values or how to implement them surprise us at all? Some of us are going to be really interested in interacting and cooperating with those of faith, while others of us are going to find the idea inane and counterproductive.

Instead of calling each other insufferable morons or atheist fundamentalists, we might consider valuing the unique perspectives we all bring to the table. My group runs that gamut from ardent anti-theists to proponents of an abstract deism perhaps recognizable only by Spinoza, and yet somehow we get past these differences and find our conversations so much more interesting despite a unifying philosophy.

We should take deep pride in the diversity of thought and opinion that is the hallmark of a freethinking group, and not expect a completely unified position. In an open marketplace of ideas, competition and disagreement should be seen as a source of value and innovation, not as a source of bitter conflict.

Bridge-building is awesome, but we should start with each other. If we can recognize the importance of reaching out to those of faith, then we can surely recognize the importance of reaching out to our disagreeing non-religious peers as well. We so easily see the tribal in-group/out-group mentality that leads to much of the bigotry that we condemn in religion and other groups, yet it’s becoming increasingly common on both sides of the accommodation/confrontation debate to turn a blind-eye and practice that exact same thing.

When we marginalize an entire group of people simply as an “other,” we commit the egregious error of attributing the worst stereotypes of a group to the individuals of that group. P.Z. Myers becomes a monster that would punch a well-intentioned grandmother for saying “God bless you” following a sneeze, and atheists interested in interfaith work are painted as only seeking the approval of the religious while abandoning their atheist peers.

I think it’s important to acknowledge that we’re on the same side and have many of the same goals, and, though we may disagree on some finer points, we certainly both play an important role. It might behoove us to see each other as allies with different but overlapping values, while rejecting any divisive language that serves no other purpose but to alienate each other.

We’re already a small enough group as it is; do we want to make ourselves even smaller? So it might be best to follow Chris’ lead, reach out to each other, and…

Focus on the values that we do share. I know I started this piece by saying that there are no values that intrinsically unite anyone in non-belief, but I’m not contradicting myself; by being a non-believer there are no values that you must have. But I think there are still some values that most, if not all of us, can agree on — even if just pragmatically.

Though the non-religious movement may tend to branch out in different directions at its extremities, there remains a core of shared values that can be focused on. If we can find common ground with the religious, we can definitely find common ground with each other.

Can we all agree that a society based on secularism, not theocracy, is the best kind of society, and that no one should have any kind of belief forced on them? Can we all agree on the importance of science education and free thought, while denouncing compulsory adherence to preferential and localized dogma?

I realize that I’m not an expert or an authority so I don’t have these answers, but I think this is a job that the leaders of our movement can work together on. Because if we talk to each other and find this common ground, then while we are in the process of drawing out this picture of our values with their own relative hues of importance, we can subdivide ourselves further based on whatever weight we choose to give any one in particular, be it skepticism, cooperation, or something else entirely.

If we all know how we fit into the broader non-religious picture, then we can work toward our own values while keeping in line with those that we share. So long as we all can work toward forwarding and promoting these common values, I don’t think any of us can say that anyone else is doing it wrong.

VladVladimir Chituc is a junior at Yale University and the President of the Secular Student Alliance at Yale. A self-identified skeptic, atheist, and secular humanist, he’s currently majoring in psychology and studying philosophy in order to better understand religious thought and its origins.

Today’s guest post, a response to NonProphet Status’ final report on the 2010 American Atheist Convention, comes from Andrew Fogle, a D.C.-based cultural, social, and sexual interloper presently studying philosophy and religion at American University. He is a regular columnist for the alternative queer blog The New Gay, and can be reached at andrewf@thenewgay.net

andrewThe by-now infamous conclusion of Edwin Kagin’s 2010 AAC address on blasphemy elicited more than a few interesting responses from more than a few interesting people. Chris Stedman, seated in the audience, fought a pitched internal moral battle before deciding to do the virtuously pluralist thing and hear out a perspective he didn’t agree with, however distastefully it was presented (whether or not this makes for “cowardice” seems to depend on what value a person places on sincere efforts of mutual understanding over and above the recorded sound of his or her own voice.) Sayira Khokar was nearly brought to tears by the footage posted on skepticsresource.com, recounting in her guest piece the disquieting resonance between her memories of post-9/11 Islamophobia and the behavior of the guffawing, self-satisifed (and – did anyone else notice this? – almost exclusively white) crowd gathered for the occasion of North America’s premier atheist conference.

On seeing the YouTube video of Burkagate, I had another reaction:

“Mary, Please,” I said to myself, borrowing a phrase from the famed word-hoard of my people. “I’ve seen 300 pound Latino men in Diana Ross costumes pull off more convincing altos than these girls.”

Much (and maybe too much) virtual ink has been spilled over the “Back in Their Burkas Again” fiasco, a performance which in its comedic subtlety and technical execution seemed closer to an unorthodox PTA holiday program than an SNL skit. To the thoughtful charges already explored on this blog I would add – probably unexpectedly – one more: the American Atheist Convention is guilty of sponsoring bad theological drag. Terrible theological drag. The kind of poorly-conceived, overblown ecclesiastical cross-dressing that would be booed off the stage at any respected queer cabaret on the East Coast (more welcome would be the queen who called herself “Pope RuPaul II.”)

A religious or secular commitment – like a job, a gender, an ethnicity, or a sexual orientation – isn’t a part of us in the same inert and self-contained way that, say, hardness and grayness are part of a rock, or bad cover design and overpricedness are part of a Christopher Hitchens book. We aren’t the kind of beings who simply “are”: free consciousness means that we have to “play at” the roles we assume, however natural or objective they might seem. This “play” is rarely light-hearted, to be sure – the soldier at war is doing something importantly different from the little boy having fun with Cowboys and Indians, and the work of trying to build and hold on to a sense of self that is always doomed to fail is the most frustrating, burdensome, humiliating, and for all of that, important things that human beings get up to.

Recognizing this fact, and being able to laugh at ourselves because of it, is an important part of staving off insanity for modern people. Gay people have always been good at recognizing this, because we’ve always been especially modern and especially close to insanity. Drag as a cultural institution is the highest expression of this sensibility: a gritty, sassy, localized art form that suspends and subverts the categories and hierarchies that less interesting, more powerful people use to keep us (and others) down. For hours on weekend nights, on gin-and-sweat-streaked stages in every city in this country, the systems of class, race, gender, and sexuality that keep American injustice humming are dissolved in nebulae of glitter and laser lights. Fur, vinyl, and essentialism are slipped off seductively and cast aside until audiences are confronted with the naked and jarring truth that everything we ever call ourselves isn’t given freely by God or natural selection; it is actively affirmed or denied by us in the kinds of shows we put on for ourselves and other people, every minute of every day.

Good drag doesn’t mock particular identities (e.g. “woman,” “neo-disco pop star,” “Sarah Palin.”) Good drag makes tragicomic light of the very structure of identification itself, poking fun at the ceaseless and exhausting cycle of adopting names and roles from the world around us with which we can never, try as we may, fully coincide. “Back in Their Burkas Again” failed to attempt anything like this, treating the category “theocratically oppressed Arab women” like a geographer might treat the category “mountains”: as one more inert fact to be catalogued and manipulated (in this case for the sake of entertainment.) So long as such women are viewed to have stable, self-contained identities opposed to the stable, self-contained identities of enlightened Western atheists, attempts at dialogue will always collapse into self-perpetuating shouting matches. The AAC organizers could have put together something more sophisticated, something that acknowledged the inevitably ambiguous and performative aspects of fundamentalism, something that recognized the institution of the hijab as a massively complicated and irreducibly self-contradictory human phenomenon which always contains at its core of radical freedom the germ of its own self-transcendence, or something that, at the very least, involved strobe lights and Whitney Houston songs. They didn’t, opting instead for a cowardly and un-self-critical caricature of a lived tradition they didn’t bother to try to understand.

In the words of Liza Minnelli – the only woman other than the Virgin Mary to whom I’ve offered petitionary prayer – “Life is a Cabaret, old chum / It’s only a Cabaret.” In the 21st century, when the kinds of traditions and certainties that used to bind people to stable, directed senses of self are shattered daily like so many martini glasses under leather high-heels, the insight has never been more relevant. We, all of us – gay and straight, religious and secular – are better off embracing the terrifying responsibility of the radically free, self-directed performativity that makes us who we are and nothing more, rejecting the bad-faith securities of an all-powerful god on the one hand and an all-encompassing materialist determinism on the other. It is in this affirmative movement, and not in the resentment of blasphemy, that the prospects for a more decent world seem most bright.

roger-ebertEsquire has a moving piece on Chicago luminary Roger Ebert. In it, he discusses his battle with cancer and muses on his impending death. It contains this spectacular bit:

I know it is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear, he writes in a journal entry titled “Go Gently into That Good Night.” I hope to be spared as much pain as possible on the approach path. I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state. What I am grateful for is the gift of intelligence, and for life, love, wonder, and laughter. You can’t say it wasn’t interesting. My lifetime’s memories are what I have brought home from the trip. I will require them for eternity no more than that little souvenir of the Eiffel Tower I brought home from Paris.

This was the first time I had heard anything of Ebert’s philosophies on death and dying, but it is not the first time he has written on them. After coming across the Esquire piece I did some research and found that he’s actually been quite prolific on the subject. In a blog published in April of last year, Ebert discussed his views on religion and God, speaking from what is, to me, a clearly Secular Humanistic perspective. Yet in the blog Ebert articulated his challenge with identifying as such (though in the following selection he does claim to be a Secular Humanist):

Did I start calling myself an agnostic or an atheist? No, and I still don’t. I avoid that because I don’t want to provide a category for people to apply to me. I would not want my convictions reduced to a word. Chaz, who has a firm faith, leaves me to my beliefs. “But you know you’re one or the other,” she says. “I have never told you that,” I say. “Maybe not in so many words, but you are,” she says.

But I persist in believing I am not. During in all the endless discussions on several threads of this blog about evolution, intelligent design, God and the afterworld, now numbering altogether around 3,500 comments, I have never said, although readers have freely informed me I am an atheist, an agnostic, or at the very least a secular humanist–which I am. If I were to say I don’t believe God exists, that wouldn’t mean I believe God doesn’t exist. Nor does it I don’t know, which implies that I could know.

Ebert’s perspective resonates strongly with my own life experience. Our camp — home to Secular Humanists, Atheists, Agnostics, Freethinkers and many more — is a disjointed and ambiguous one. I decided to plant my stakes in Secular Humanism. One tent over there is someone who holds a worldview that echoes my own but who calls herself an Atheist, which I do not. And this trouble with terminology is not just limited to our little patch of earth — across the lake, there are people who call themselves Christians but see things pretty much the same way I do. And so it goes.

Some of us elect to cast our allegiance to a particular label. I resisted doing so for a long time until I decided that it made sense for me. Ebert continues to resist and, while I applaud him for doing so, I will also claim him as “one of us.” My reasons for doing so may be selfish, but something tells me he might not actually mind all that much. Label the man what you will; his writings are well worth reading and we are lucky to have him contributing to our canon.

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