What would it take? pt. 2

Last post I talked about the intellectual points that led me to question my belief in God. I’m fairly certain they wouldn’t have gotten me to where I am now, though, without the emotional changes that took place at the same time. There are so many workarounds for evidence that contradicts something you want to believe: if the evidence is really convincing, you can move into a more liberal, less literalistic interpretation of your faith (something Christendom as a whole has been doing for decades.) There are some compelling emotional reasons to hold on to a faith that you aren’t fully intellectually convinced by.

The first of these reasons is social bonding. When you grow up in a religious family, centered within a religious community, inevitably most of the people dear to you are going to be adherents of that religion. The language and philosophies of that religion are going to be built into your interactions with them. You will inevitably hear criticisms, however mild, directed at non-believers, or outsiders to your particular sect. All your social and tribal instincts will be directing you to stay within the religion, for fear of being outcast.

Or at least that’s how it was for me. In addition to growing up within the church, I was homeschooled, which for me meant that almost my entire social world centered around the church. My parents themselves were on the moderate side compared to many I knew, but my greater “tribe” was entirely Christian. Interestingly, my close friendships growing up were always with non-Christians or casual Christians; it wasn’t until my college days that I developed some strong faith-centric relationships. But those relationships were strong. In college I joined a group of wonderful, smart, fun people, and they became extended family to me. And the love and friendship between us was always tied up with the faith we shared. Is it any wonder I couldn’t bring myself to seriously question this faith? It never even occurred to me as a real possibility.

When I came home from college, I joined a more conservative church than the ones I’d grown up in, a church that matched the doctrines believed in my college-era church. I lived in that community for a full year: took part in a small group, made many friends, dated a man who was everything I was supposed to want in a godly partner. I call that phase of life the “reductio ad absurdum” of my religious ideas. I had gravitated toward the more conservative side partly because it was more intellectually rigorous, but what I found over time was that it was also intellectually narrow. There were questions people just didn’t ask (questions like, “what if my gay best friend is actually doing God’s will, not rejecting it?” — one which lay heavy on my mind at that time), books people didn’t read, areas of thought people didn’t explore. It was drought to my intellectually thirsty mind.

Enter Kurt. When I first had a conversation with Kurt, I felt as if my entire brain had been electrified. In a good way. It was as if huge areas of my mind which I’d been letting die of disuse were zapped into vitality again. I couldn’t get enough… so Kurt and I spent a lot of time together. And so it was that I developed my first friendship with someone who was openly, unapologetically atheist.

Now the conversations Kurt and I had were undoubtedly important in moving me away from belief, but the friendship was just as important. For the first time in my life, leaving my faith would mean moving closer to someone I cared about, not farther away from everyone.

It shouldn’t matter this much. The importance of personal, emotional ties in choosing what to believe is a dirty little secret we keep swept under the rug as much as possible. And my guess is that most of the vocal atheists, today and through history, are by nature less swayed by personal considerations than the mass of humanity is. But the fact is that the need for community and tribal identification is much older and deeper than the need for intellectual satisfaction and exploration. As long as people feel that abandoning their belief will mean losing their tribe, only a very few courageous and independent people will do so.

So there was the gravitational move toward Kurt and away from my church group (toward whom I began to feel some resentment for their role in the stifling of my intellect). Another big push came when my parents converted to Catholicism. Catholicism is different enough from Protestant fundamentalism that it felt as if my parents, too, were leaving the tribe. Suddenly I felt as though the field of acceptable belief was wide open. So I started exploring. For the first time, I measured Biblical accounts against recorded history with a truly impartial eye. That led me very quickly to lose any faith in the literal historicity of the gospels. I decided that, to the extent that the gospel accounts of Jesus were true, they were legend and metaphor, not historical fact. And that was the point that made me face head-on the fact that I was walking away from my tribe. I was accepting doctrines that I’d previously looked on with scorn; while I still at that time considered myself a believer, I knew some very conservative people would not. Finding myself in that place — and seeing with horror how strong a hold the social considerations had on me — was the final step needed to divorce myself from the social bonds that were helping to hold me within Christianity.

Next time: the third and final part… existential cushioning.

What would it take? pt. 1

One of the most interesting questions in the dialogue between atheism and belief is, “What would it take to change your mind?” I like it because it’s a question that either side can ask of the other, and because it’s a question that short-circuits a lot of the defensiveness that so easily springs up around such conversations. If you’re going to make any attempt to answer it, you have to extend your imagination into possibilities that aren’t part of your worldview; whether you’re right or wrong, I think this is usually a healthy exercise.

My esteemed colleague and I are both atheists, fairly newly crossed over from the medium-conservative Christianity we were brought up in. She’s going to answer the “What would it take to change your mind?” question from her current perspective; I’m going to relate what it did take to change my mind from my former one.

First of all, if you’d asked me that question when I was a believer, I wouldn’t have been able to give a clear answer. There are two reasons for this: first, faith is highly praised within a faith system (duh!) and stories of people holding onto their belief in spite of reason and evidence are part of the narrative of virtue; second, I was terrified of the possibility that I might actually, someday, be given a reason not to believe. I remember thinking over the question “What would it take…?” and shying away from possible answers, taking refuge in that “virtue-of-faith” business, because I couldn’t bear the idea of losing my belief in God. Faith was, to me, a cushion against a particular kind of existential dread that I’ve spent my life running from. Letting go of it (it seemed to me at the time) would be like falling off the edge of an abyss.

And that’s an important point, as we continue this conversation. In my own experience, there were three pillars my faith rested on: intellectual persuasion, social bonds, and that existential cushioning I just mentioned. Of these three, only the first is at all susceptible to arguments, evidence, even simple conversation. If my experience was typical — and I suspect that it was — the question “What would it take…?” has answers that have nothing to do with evidence or arguments.

But let’s start with the evidence and arguments: the intellectual persuasion. I have always been a skeptic of a certain degree, which is to say that I trust the scientific method as the best way of obtaining facts about the world. In addition, I seem to have internalized certain principles of elegance and parsimony. So when settling into a position on creation versus evolution, for example, I found any and all “young earth” theories simply laughable. I spent some time in my early teen years reading ultra-conservative “science” that attempted to refute evolution, but as I got older, I contrasted it with the actual science out there, and found it absurd. I was convinced on evolution, and there went any hope of a strictly literalist interpretation of the Bible. I figured some parts of it were meant to be taken literally (the histories of Israel, of Jesus and the early church, and the prescriptions in the epistles) and some were meant to be read on a mythic/allegorical level.

Then came the moral strictures. I never tried to believe in the purely intangible “spirit” that was somehow alive or dead, healthy or sick, without showing any evidence in the life of the person. God’s moral laws, I believed, were there for the nurturing of the whole human: mind, body, and spirit. Someone living according to them would be healthier, more whole, more in harmony with themselves and the world. Growing up, I was surrounded almost entirely by Christians who were following the big social rules: no drinking in excess or sex outside of marriage, along with being a decent, law-abiding citizen. I didn’t have much opportunity to compare different systems of morality to see what results they brought in the lives of their adherents.

Then, in my early 20s, my best friend — who’d always been a far stricter and more rigid Christian moralist than I — broke one of the Big Ones. She came out as gay, and started an open relationship with a woman. She and I were roommates at the time, so I watched her go through the whole journey, and what I saw flatly contradicted what I was supposed to believe. Embracing her love for women, and for this woman in particular, made her healthier, more whole, more in harmony with herself and with the world. Try as I might, I could not view her journey as a fall (and I did try, for several years). It was plainly an elevation.

So I decided that God must not have the rules about sexual morality that Christians have attributed to him. What exactly the rules were, I didn’t know, but it was clearly open for investigation.

Still, there was the matter of faith, right? I had this core, unshakable belief in God. If belief was virtuous and unbelief was sinful, it must be because everybody deep down knew that God was real, and that unbelievers were simply denying this, in their arrogance or lustful greed. I could comfortably believe this until I met Kurt.

I met Kurt at an important psychological moment, which I’ll talk more about in the next post. I connected intellectually with Kurt in a way that I hadn’t connected in years. We talked incessantly, often about religion in general and mine in particular. He did not believe in God. And as we talked, as we spent time together, I found it impossible to believe that he was arrogantly rejecting a God he secretly knew to be real. I knew him, I trusted his intellectual honesty, and I was sure that his unbelief was genuine and sincere. So fell one more piece of the crumbling edifice: I could no longer believe that whatever kind of God existed could justly punish unbelievers simply because of unbelief. Since my belief in God’s justice was stronger than my adherence to any particular doctrine, doctrines about the virtue of faith also fell by the wayside.

This about concludes the intellectual portion of my “What did it take…?” story. Three pieces of evidence (backed up by a number of smaller, more distant examples) against the conservative beliefs I grew up with: science’s persuasive explanation for the natural world; my best friend’s ascent into homosexuality; another dear friend’s noble unbelief. One could object that the last two are scarcely evidence. There’s no objectivity there, much room for human error. It’s true, and I would never hold up those specific examples to persuade someone else. All I can say is, I was close to both these people for a long time, and I struggled mightily before accepting what I saw in them. In the end, I was as sure of my perceptions of them as I am sure that my father loves me. Given a choice between that level of conviction and words on paper, I’m going with the evidence of my eyes and ears and heart any day.

Next time: the social and existential underpinnings of my faith, and how they crumbled.

The Conversation: a beginning

So my sibling and I, after many years of writing and chatting about the subjects that most fascinate us, decided to finally get together and write a blog.

Ginny: So, what do you think this blog should be about?
Lane: Religion, gender, philosophy, and the occasional review.
Ooh! And sex! Can’t forget about sex.
Ginny:  I never do.
Point of order: is it The Brunettes Blog (‘blog’ functioning as a verb) or The Brunettes’ Blog (‘blog’ functioning as a noun)?
Lane:  I like the former.
Ginny:  Me too. Especially since it means we’ll get the occasional grammar-nazi on our cases because they’ve misinterpreted the title. And we can then point them smugly to this very entry.
Lane:  Woot!
Also I think if I were a blog, I’d prefer to think of myself as something people create, rather than something people own.
Ginny:  Oooh… deep.
Lane:  Thank you. I was worried that made no sense at all.
Ginny:  Naw man. I think the way we view things like blogs, novels, and relationships makes a difference. And I definitely prefer all three to be things we create and sustain rather than possess and control.
Lane:  Indeed! I think that applies to most things. Do I own my car, or maintain and use it?
The latter emphasizes my responsibility. And thus is more likely to lead to a long-lasting car.
Ginny:  Interesting. I was going to say the latter decreases your sense of entitlement, keeping you continually in mind that everything you have might be taken from you at any moment.
Lane:  That too.
Ginny:  So… what say we get a short, one-sentence glimpse of your thoughts on the above topics? And mine too, of course.
Lane: Ok
Ginny:  Religion?
Lane:  It’s a social institution that fulfills some useful purposes (community, the passing on of cultural traditions, finding meaning) but does so by passing off superstitious and unverifiable ideas as absolute truth. This is problematic at best, dangerous at worst. I respect people’s right to have religious belief, but I disagree that its a good thing.
Ginny:  As mythology, interesting and fun to play with; as facts-about-the-world, generally in error and often pernicious.
Ginny: Gee, it’s a shame we disagree so strongly.
Lane:  Yeah, how is this ever going to work?
Ginny:  Not that it wouldn’t be fun to share a blog with someone we profoundly disagree with.
Lane: True. I’ll have to do that someday.
Ginny:  Anyway. Gender?
Lane:  An observation that men and women are not identical, which has been warped into frustrating stereotypes and narrow categories. I am not a fan.
Ginny:  Fucking complicated.
Lane:  Haha… Well put.
Ginny:  Philosophy?
Lane:  Chocolate for the curious mind, except without that whole overly-sugary thing. It’s magic chocolate.
Ginny:  Yeah… I was just going to say, “Yum.”
See, this is why a blog title emphasizing our differences would have been misleading.
Lane:  Right. So, last topic: Sex?
Ginny:  Fun. Endlessly fascinating in its cultural and social dynamics. And also fun.
Lane:  Unfairly stigmatized and generally awesome. I hope to have some eventually.

And there you have it: our thoughts in brief on all our favorite topics (well, all our favorite topics that aren’t story-related). We, hope you’ll stick around to see us elaborate, and to join the conversation.

jealousy and insecurity: a beginner’s guide, written by a beginner

Today’s “things even monogamous people can learn from polyamory” is brought to you courtesy of Shaun’s mother, whom we’re visiting this week. He’s been open about being polyamorous for years, and while she doesn’t seem to have any moralistic objections, it makes her anxious. Particularly, she’s convinced that jealousy and insecurity are inevitable, and will cause the downfall of any non-monogamous relationship. Hearing that I went on a couple of dates before our trip, with gentlemen I hope to see again, she asked him, “Aren’t you afraid, if she keeps seeing these guys, she might start to like one of them better than you?” (And now I know where he gets his bluntness.)

So we’re going to talk about jealousy and insecurity.

One of the most common misconceptions in people who are just learning about polyamory is that successful poly folk claim to never jealous. I thought that myself, and I was a little nervous. My jealousy quotient is fairly low, but I have felt it pretty intensely two or three times in my life, so I didn’t know that I’d be able to keep up a “never getting jealous ever” kind of lifestyle. When I did a little deeper reading, though, I found that this wasn’t the expectation. In most of the blogs and forum posts I read, mature people in secure poly relationships acknowledged feeling jealous and insecure from time to time. The difference is in how they treat these emotions.

For some reason, we tend to view jealousy as a fire that needs to be put out. Stop the presses, hold the phones — if someone is feeling jealous, then something is WRONG and everything else in the relationship needs to be on hold until it gets fixed. But jealousy is a feeling, and like any feeling you can choose how you deal with it. You can suppress it and pretend it’s not there, you can attack and blame yourself for feeling it, you can attack and blame the other person for making you feel it, you can succumb to it entirely and let the feeling make all your decisions for you.

Any of those approaches will do damage to you and your relationship. But you can also take a meditative, accepting approach, which goes something like this: Acknowledge what you’re feeling. Acknowledge that it hurts and it sucks. Remind yourself that this feeling does not define your emotional landscape, and that like all feelings it will fade. Promise yourself that when it has faded, and your rational brain is freer, you will assess the reasons behind it and see if there’s something you need to address or adjust.

I recommend this approach for dealing with just about any negative emotion. These feelings, like physical pain, are signs that something is wrong, misaligned, damaged. The difference is, while for many of us our bodies are in good working order most of the time, our emotional and relational centers are pretty well battered before most of us hit puberty. From our parents onward, the people we loved and depended on have failed to give us all the support, the care, the attention we needed from them. We have to think of feelings like jealousy and insecurity the way a veteran thinks of an old injury that still hurts from time to time. There are circumstances that trigger the feeling, but the damage that it springs from was caused long ago, and no amount of frantic questioning, pleas for reassurance, or desperate ultimatums will cure it. It’s a chronic ailment that we simply have to live with, and deal with as best we can.

When not in the grips of the pain, we can take various steps to become healthier and stronger, to quiet that old war wound and make it less sensitive to flare-ups. I’m not an expert in this area, since as I said I suffer from jealousy and insecurity only rarely. But generally I find that things I tell myself rationally, and dwell on contemplatively, eventually make their way into the deeper levels of my psyche. So here are a few rational thoughts around jealousy and insecurity.

1 – Love is not a zero-sum commodity. I think of two people I love very deeply and intensely, and consider how little my love for each of them has to do with my feelings for the other (unless they are close themselves, in which case my feelings for both of them usually enhance each other). They are entirely separate, and they co-exist in my heart without difficulty. Why should it not be the same for my lover and anyone else they love?

2 – I am lovable. Few of us escape childhood and adolescence without the delusion that we are unlovable, that the warmth and care that we feel for other people is never truly extended back toward us. We need to recognize that this is a delusion, and that most of the people around us feel the same way. And when our lovers say “I love you,” we should try to believe them.

3 – I am irreplaceable; I offer things to my lover that no one else can give. This, like the previous one, is a negation of a delusion most of us seem to have. When my lover starts spending time with someone new, I look at all the wonderful qualities she has, and think, “I could never compete with that! Of course he’s going to love her more than me.” When I catch myself doing this I find the best strategy is to remind myself of some wonderful qualities I have that she doesn’t. If need be, I ask my lover to name a few. I don’t ever try to get an exhaustive list, because that tempts me to start comparing lists to see which of us stacks up best overall; the idea is just to give myself a concrete reminder that I bring some things to the table which nobody else does.

4 – If my lover ever does end the relationship, it will be because of inadequacies in this relationship, not the allure of another. This one requires more partner participation than the others. Novelty has its own unique appeal, and I and my lover both need to know how strong this appeal is for us and how far we’re going to indulge it. But if a person desires a long-term, stable relationship, novelty itself is not likely to pull them out of a good one. I need to trust that my lover and I understand our needs and desires, and are continually communicating them. I am responsible for making sure my lover knows how to make me happy, and I need to trust that he is accepting the same responsibility. If all this is happening, there is little need to fear that I will be left for someone else, and if I am, there should be plenty of warning.

None of these considerations are going to help when you’re in the grips of roiling jealousy or insecurity. At those times, you just have to ride it out. But when you’re calm again, meditating on them and doing your best to internalize them (it takes time) can help a lot.