Tuesday, September 29

Postcards from Route 66

skepticI turned 66 on 5 April 2015.  The following are some "postcards" -- only a tiny sample:  their name is "Legion", for they are many -- in aphoristic form of a few of the lessons I believe I have learned from that six-plus-decades-and-counting of experience.

o For those of you who still believe in a personal God, some lessons from those dim and dusty times when I did, also ... Don’t waste time trying to discern and follow “God’s will”. God’s will is either obvious – so obvious that you don’t need God to show it to you – or, if it is not obvious, it is unknowable. I spent the better part of my 66 years believing in and trying to discover and do "God’s will", and never experienced any assurance whatsoever that I succeeded. Hay-yull's bay-yulls and Oyster Shay-yulls! What do you think made me a skeptic? (Myself when young did eagerly frequent doctor and saint and heard great argument about it and about, and evermore came out the same door wherein I went. With them the seed of wisdom did I sow; with my own hand labored it to grow, and this is the only harvest that I reap'd:  I came like water and like wind I go.  Into this Universe the "Why" not knowing, nor "Whence" like water, willy-nilly flowing, and out of it, like wind along the Waste, I know not whither, willy-nilly blowing.  -- Omar Khayyam, The Rubaiyyat) For any god worth even respecting, never mind worshipping, the only part of “God’s will” that I am sure of is that people are to be treated with respect, justice, compassion, mercy, and love. But that is obvious, so obvious that I don’t need any god to tell me. (If you really and truly and sincerely do need a god or some holy book to tell you it is wrong to deliberately and intentionally screw people over, and if you cannot figure out that that kind of behavior is wrong from the get-go, indeed, if that principle is not immediately obvious to the point of lapidary clarity, then your problems are far more serious than mere theological mistakes. You suffer, in fact, from a raging socipathy.) On second thought, I guess there is a third alternative beyond “obvious” or “unknowable”: if it is not the Divine plan to treat people that way, then "God’s will" is not worth following – in which case, again, why bother?


o Don’t think too much about whether or not God loves you and accepts you. If God does love / accept you, there is nothing you have to do. If God does not love / accept you, there is nothing you can do. Either way, anything you do is irrelevant. So why bother? God’s attitude toward you, God’s disposition toward you, God’s comportment toward you – these are not things you get to control. Worrying about whether you will be mugged by a terrorist while drinking a frap' at a Starbucks is more productive.

o Don’t allow your life to be co-opted and dominated by a “vision”. That, too, is a distraction, because it diverts you from the reality of the here-and-now, the only reality there is, the only reality there can be. There is a synonym for the word “vision”. That word is “hallucination”. How many people have died of thirst in the desert because they followed a “vision” / “hallucination” of water that was never there, when they might have survived if they had kept simply walking forward? So it is with us and “visions”.

o Regardless of whatever god you believe in, running the universe is that god's business, not yours. Running your life is your business, not the god’s. If God screws up the former task, that is God’s fault, not yours. If you screw up the latter task, that is your fault, not God’s. Don’t get the two confused.


o You cannot save the world. The most you can hope to do is to make life a little more pleasant, a little more secure, a little better for perhaps two or three especially beloved and cherished people. Try to do more than that – especially try to do more than that in response to some “vision” / “hallucination” – and you will succeed, not in making others happier, but in making others more miserable, yourself included. Respect your limitations and the wisdom of MacBeth: “I dare do all that may become a man; who dares do more is none”.

o Feel free to question anything and everything. Whenever someone tells you that something is not to be questioned or must never be questioned, that is conclusive prima facie proof that they have something to hide. No one has a right to know everything – governments and individuals have a legitimate right to protect sensitive information – but everyone has a right to question everything – including the proposition that everything is open to question.

o Jean-Paul Sartre said “Life begins on the far side of despair”.   But what Sartre seemed not to realize, the inference he seemed to fail to draw is this: despair is necessary in order for there to be a “far side”.

o One of the multitude of points that became evident in retrospect only after I "converted" to being a skeptic (and which bothers me now only because it did not bother me before) ... Am I the only one who is bothered, and bothered more the older I get, by figures of speech the Bible uses to describe people of faith in relation to God? People of faith are likened to “sheep” who need a shepherd. They are compared to “fish” who are to be caught. (Question: did you ever meet a fisherman who acted benevolently toward, and in the best interest of, the fish? And I am not just asking that question for the ... halibut ... ) They are called “little children” (e.g., I John’s admonition “Little children, avoid idols”). Becoming as a “little child” is said to be a prerequisite for entry into the Kingdom of Heaven. (Incidentally, this is an anomalously romanticized conception of childhood.  One is reminded of the vision of childhood "trailing clouds of glory" in William Wordsworth's "Ode:  Intimations of Immortality".  Had the Gospel writers -- or, for that matter, Wordsworth -- never encountered child abuse?)  Why is there almost no emphasis, at least within Christianity and least of all in the Gospels, of growing into a mature adult and exercising independence and moral autonomy? (Of course, more enlightened religious people do indeed talk about the values of independence and maturity, but such talk rings hollow when uttered against a rhetorical “background” dominated by tropes that emphasize and idealize perpetual childhood, perpetual dependency, and therefore -- let's speak plainly here, shall we? -- perpetual incompetence.) The prevailing metaphors of fish, sheep, and children certainly make the job easier for those in positions of religious leadership – sheep are easier to lead than cats – but I have reservations about how healthy it is for the rest of us. On the contrary, I would urgently suggest that, instead of getting in touch with their "inner child", more people get in touch with their "inner adult".


o Yes, there are exceptions to the following question. Nevertheless, I will insist that the following is substantially true … Why is it that, by and large and for the most part, religious people -- especially conservative religious people, and to the degree that they are conservative -- are among the most obdurately unmoved by the sheer wonder and beauty of the Universe? Why are they among the least curious? Why do atheists and religious skeptics and “infidels” like Albert Einstein, Carl Sagan, Andrea Ghez, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Stephen Hawking, and Ann Druyan feel no restraint about displaying a kind of childlike rapture about the elegance and mystery of the Universe – which Einstein saw as the wellspring of all science – whereas it is the “good Christian” creationists and intelligent-design people who resort to all manner of bizarrely comical stratagems like a “young earth” and “pre-aged” fossils precisely in order to defend themselves against such experiences of awe? “How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant. God must be even greater than we dreamed!? Instead they say No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.” – Carl Sagan

o The most valuable lesson I ever learned in my life is how not to be afraid to say “I love you”. But the hardest lesson I have ever had to learn is that I cannot afford to care more than God cares. If God is apathetic, I do not possess sufficient emotional capital to be otherwise. I cannot care enough to compensate for God’s indifference.

o There is such a thing as healthy religion. But religion is healthy only as long as, and to the extent that, it “backgrounds” its god  and “foregrounds” human beings and human relationships. Get these priorities reversed, and religion, to the extent that it emphasizes its god, becomes just one more power trip. This becomes doubly true when that god is conceived of as a personal Being possessed of moral passions who wants human beings to conform to those passions, and who is not averse to intervening in human life, individually or collectively, in order to actualize those passions. One does not need much imagination to perceive the danger of this attitude in a world divided into separate camps, many of which are armed with nuclear weapons. Someone with a finger on “The Button” who believes she / he is God’s chosen instrument is someone who, for that precise reason, is desperately dangerous. If God wants to do us a favor, God will rescue us from the depredations of our own prophets.


o If you want an example of what I referred to above as “healthy religion”, run, don’t walk, get the DVD of Steel Magnolias, and watch it. Pay particular attention to the relationships among the 6 women who are the main characters of the movie: Shirley MacLaine, Sally Field, Julia Roberts, Darryl Hannah, Olympia Dukakis, and Dolly Parton. God is seldom mentioned, and is always very much in the background. Darryl Hannah’s character, Annelle DeSoto, has a conspicuous streak of fundamentalist religiosity, but it is never predatory or opportunistic, and is always treated with tolerance and good humor by the other five. (Mostly, Annelle just drops to her knees and spontaneously prays at unexpected times.) Otherwise, the movie is about the 6 women’s love for, commitment to, and unfailing presence with each other, even literally through life and death. In other words, Steel Magnolias is about “healthy religion”: people first, and God a distant, distant, distant, barely visible second.

o Am I the only one who is bothered by the fact that, in all the Bible -- actually, in all the "holy books", but I will stick with the Bible for reasons of familiarity -- in all the Bible, no one ever laughs at anything or any situation for reasons of sheer hilarity and ... well ... fun?

James R. Cowles


    • I approach the issue from my experience with the whole Harvard / Oxford / Seattle Univ / MDiv / PhD debacle from 1986 to 2000 / 2001, when I was absolutely, positively, slam-dunk, by-Gawd CERTAIN that God was “calling” — a word I hate now — me to get my doctorate, then my MDiv, so I could teach, write, etc., etc. Mother Teresa did not have a stronger sense of “call” (please pardon the language). The only result of following that “vision” was well over a decade of clinical depression and … well … that’s about all. (Long story.) Today, my strategy of dealing with a “vision”, assuming I ever have another, is to sit down in a quiet room, reflect carefully on the vision, meditate, think … then run like hell in the opposite direction. (Jonah had the right idea the first time: “gitcher ass to Tarshish”.) I figure nothing can restore “the years the locust has eaten”. But I can inoculate myself against similar future encounters.

      • I know that is how it has worked for you. But for others, it is an entirely different experience, right? One of our dangers is when we universalize our particular experience.

        For myself, I have followed my sense of call and it has led me to what I consider to be a rich and fulfilling sense of life. Auto immune disorders and perimenopause, aside! (If I ever do have a conversation with God, it will be about perimenopause – it should not even be a thing.)

        But, I digress. Regarding call / vision, I am right now imagining a new program for the Youth Chaplaincy Coalition that is amazing and has great potential to transform the lives of hundreds of youth in the state of Washington. Now, I would say that my inspiration came from meditation, prayer, reflection, and the Holy Spirit. Others might have the same vision and say their inspiration came from meditation, prayer, reflection.

        Regardless, it is both a vision and a call into something that is as yet uncreated.

        So, I am thinking that it might be personality based. That some folks are more inclined to be visionary. And that other folks are not. There is also the impact of community upon vision. If vision is not supported or people don’t come around, letting go of vision can be hard or it can be a harmful process. There’s a lot more to this, of course, if we chase the rabbit down the trail of individual vision and communal response!

        • All true … So the way I deal with this is to just say “Well, God loves them folks over there, and me … well … not so much. God respects the gifts / talents / passions of them folks over there, and me … well … not so much … God plays head-games with me and mind-fucks me, but them folks over there … well … not so much”. That’s why, yes, I’m an atheist. But I’m a practical / pragmatic atheist in the sense that, for me and given my “track record” with God, God MIGHT AS WELL not exist, regardless of whether God REALLY exists or not. That’s what I mean when, from time to time, I write “I’ve never had much luck with gods”. That’s why I feel so simpatico with folks like Dennett, Harris, Dawkins, Hitchens, Maher, and Julia Sweeney. To say nothing of Voltaire, Feuerbach, Diderot, Hume, the Huxleys, & Co. Not that there’s anything I can do about it now. There’s not. But I do certainly **** VERY **** much regret ever having had any personal, i.e., more than merely academic, contact with Christianity. And I think I would feel the same about any other monotheism. I have good friends — obviously — who are monotheists. That’s OK. There are lots of people, good people, who NEED monotheistic religion, and who do, as you say, have good personal reasons for believing in a God who loves & respects & refuses to mind-fuck THEM. Yes! Thank Great Cthulhu for the 2 “religion” clauses of the First Amendment. But … that said … all I know is that monotheistic religion has wreaked unmitigated havoc in my life, and that I’d’ve been immeasurably better off if I’d weaned myself away from it in my 30s, at the latest, instead of my 50s. Through the instrumentality “visions” and through “callings”, I was seduced into trying to please The Great Un-Please-Able. At least Un-Please-Able by me. As I travel Route 66, all I can do is try to “redeem the time” I have left.

          • I think that’s all we can do. Redeem the time we have whatever that means for each of us.

            caveat: as long as redeeming that time leads to greater life for all and not to bad things!! 😉

          • Yeah … And that’s where things often get kinda ticklish for me. I’m often in the delicate position of seeing people I respect, people I care about doing stuff that my GUT tells me is bad for them, i.e., in this case engaging in monotheistic religion — even though my HEAD tells me that, for whatever reason (God loves them more than me or whatever) — it’s good for THEM, and having to overrule my heart in the interest of respect & tolerance.

            OTOH over the past several years, there have been cases where I’ve gotten to know someone well enough that they confided in me that they had gradually over time morphed / evolved into atheists or agnostics or skeptics or humanists, but did not feel free, for various reasons, to “out” themselves because they were scared is what the world would be like, what THEY would be like, without God. I’ve been privileged to very gradually “midwife” these folks into a post-theistic life, and they’ve always been gratified to see that they survived. To repeat the Sartre quote: “Life begins on the far side of despair”.

            Between those 2 populations, I sometimes feel I walk a knife edge.

          • That seems like a very special gift, to me.

            But, I’m not sure I’m down with the Sartre quote. I don’t think we need despair to be fully human or fully alive. It sure can teach us some things and I sure have experienced it. And this is probably another topic entirely – But for all those people who can’t see past the despair to life, it is simply too much.

            Wasn’t it Heidegger who posited that we cannot see past our own experience?

  • This is also why Diane and I absolutely NEVER go to church these days. She has much the same reaction as I to monotheistic religion: “Gawrsh … God loves others but not us. Us He just mind-fucks and head-games” — though she would express it more euphoniously & diplomatically. We never feel like we BELONG there any more than a hooker would belong at a Quaker chastity celebration. And that’s true, be the people in the pews beside us ever so friendly and accepting. The issue is God, not the people. We know people from N. Korea. Beautiful, brave people. No problem. It’s Kim Jong-eun who’s the asshole.

  • Yeah … I agree with Heidegger. I’d demur slightly by saying that you can **** ACT **** past your own experience by acting-as-if your experience is other than what it has been. But you can only do that for a finite time, and sooner or later your experience, your real lived experience, will exact vengeance. Sartre would call acting-as-if “bad faith” / mauvaise foi.

    In my case, that “exacting” happened my first summer in STM when I read Blumenthal’s “Facing the Abusing God” & found, in the pages of that book, a precise account of what my experience of God had **** ALWAYS **** been. It was a case of horrified fascination: I couldn’t read it, but couldn’t NOT read it. I’d read 10 pages, put it down, go outside, and beat the sides of the house until my fists were bloody. (Diane was at work.) Then I’d go back inside & read some more. My own acting-as-if was beginning to exact its vengeance. The worst of the depression would come later.

    I fought that knowledge — that I was really just God’s mind-fuck rubber doll — until I finished the goddam MDiv. (I feared the consequences of quitting STM with nothing even more than I feared continuing.) On that day, I went home, took the candle I’d been given when I’d been baptized a Catholic, returned to SU, entered the chapel, and, standing there alone in the silence and stillness, broke the candle in half, laid it on the altar, and walked away. I’ve never been back. We’ve only been to church a handful of times for weddings and funerals of our most intimate friends. I can’t hack the resulting depression.

    Ain’t no fun livin’ in North Korea.

  • Thurneysen

    Good conversation, friendly . . . unusual! To state the obvious, monotheism is not one thing. Organized religion (of monotheistic or polytheistic stripes — with liturgies and gatherings and texts and clergy and probably buildings and schools) creates a castle in the air. Sam Harris is right about that. But not all castles are alike.

    I feel fortunate that the castle I first really chose to be in was the ‘love castle’ (my term for today), as described to me in the pages of UM theologian Albert Outler; the love castle architecture designed by John Wesley’s translation of a Paul Gerhardt hymn — “O grant that nothing in my soul may dwell but thy pure love alone.” UM Hymnal #183. If that was indeed Wesley’s starting point (at least theologically) then one can understand how he came up with the first of his three “general rules” for the Methodists: “do no harm.”

    Switching topics, as Marx observed, in a capitalist economy it is not obvious to many powerful people that other people are to be treated with “respect, justice, compassion, mercy, and love.” Many powerful people in a capitalist economy are fine with “deliberately intentionally” screwing people over. And these can be very bright, educated people from good families. Was just as true in Wesley’s day too.

    How does one learn NOT be a raging sociopath? Marx wondered this. I’m not saying religion is THE essential way . . . not at all. Just saying that LOTs of people end up pretty screwed up in this department, with or without religion.

  • Great thought provoking discussion here. My 3 cents:
    1 cent – Any extreme, including religious fanaticism or devout atheism, is rather “mentally lazy” – tunnel vision that tries to prove/hold onto a singular point of view.

    2 cents – The bible is largely interpreted by humans from a secular/practical/ego view not with “spiritual” meaning. For example to be as children can be looked at as followers, innocents etc or can be looked at as being curious, open to learning and loving (which for me are spiritual values).

    3 cents –
    “It is good to laugh. Laughter is spiritual relaxation.”
    The Baha’i World Faith, Abdu’l-Baha

  • P.S. Mr Cowles, I find your posts wonderfully thought-provoking. BRAVO! I particularly like that you don’t do “sound bites”. However, would like your posts to be a bit shorter and more frequent because you make so MANY good points and observations I become over-whelmed.

    I really do enjoy what you have to say so keep saying it even if my aging brain can’t always keep up the pace.

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