Thursday, November 29, 2012

Of aliens and humans

James Croft occasionally thinks he's an alien among atheists. To some small extent, I can relate. I don't like chocolate, never have, yet I live in a world where so many people love chocolate that the reactions I get when people first learn this about me range from shocked disbelief to disbelieving pity. Sometimes, there's a sense that I've committed some sort of sin by not liking chocolate. I've dealt with this by deciding that loving chocolate is a sign of being an alien, and I am one of the last remaining True Humans alive. Someday, I shall find others of my kind, and we'll rise up to kick the aliens off this planet! It'll make a great movie. In the meantime, I married an alien. Go figure.

Seriously though, I'm not all that surprised that James sometimes feels alienated. While I haven't been to any conventions for atheists or Humanists, my impression of the online community suggests that sometimes individual members will fall into "hyper-skepticism," and try to out-Vulcan each other. More than that though, there's a definite widespread distrust of religious space, religious community, and religious ritual. A lot of that comes from a position that faith -- believing with insufficient evidence, or even against evidence-- is a bad thing. Some of it also comes from the negative experiences that many of us have had with religion, and the negative experiences we see continuing to happen to others. Many of us are angry. I count myself among this angry-at- and distrustful-of-religion group. I'm aware of, and acknowledge, that there are literally millions of religious people who are not using religion to directly make life worse for other people. But I still think religion is broadly harmful to humanity.

James holds with some of that, but not all of it. He told me once that he agrees that "faith has to go," and he absolutely holds Reason to be a primary value. I know he is capable of getting angry at religious groups, and individual religious people. I suspect there's some anger behind his recent post on Scott Lively. But anger isn't his foremost reaction. And as he said in his post:
I’m a choirboy. I grew up going to a religious school (the diffident, non-imposing Church of England sort of religion) and I sung in the school choir for years. I have sung my way through countless masses and services and psalms. I have become familiar, and therefore mostly comfortable with that sort of religious spaces. I love to sing, and so I have lots of positive memories associated with those spaces which have enabled me to do what I love. I haven’t had any significantly bad experiences with religion in my past
Unlike James, I've had bad experiences with religion. Taken individually, most of them are pretty minor. But in aggregate, I'd say my experience with religion ranges from bad to boring. As an example of the bad, the church I grew up with taught (and perhaps still teaches, but I haven't asked) that blasphemy is the one unforgivable sin, and blasphemy is denial of Jesus and God, including atheism. An atheist can never get to heaven, no matter how much they later change their mind and "repent." Now, this didn't actually scare me when I first became an atheist at 12 or 13. It's hard to be scared when you don't believe it. But when I was 14, I tried talking my mother into letting me go to school dances. According to that same church, dancing is a sin. In a moment of desperation, I blurted out that I was an atheist. My mother wailed. She wailed as if I had just died. She pulled the car up to the house, told me to get out, and left to see my grandfather, who was also the church pastor. We never talked about it after she came home, or after. And I avoided talking about my religious views in front of her after that, until just last year.

A little thing, perhaps. There are far, far, far worse stories out there, and in comparison I'd say I got off lucky. But the little things add up.

Moving on to "boring," James said
I’m a drama geek. My parents raised me on theatre, taking me to see plays and musicals very frequently. I spent my teenage years appearing in countless theatrical productions (this is not an exaggeration: my performance CV for my high school and college years is ridiculously long. I wonder how I found time for anything else!). I like to perform, and I have an appreciation for the dramatic – even the melodramatic. I tend to view religious services as pieces of theatre, and I’m attuned to the production values in and of themselves, regardless of theological content. I therefore find religious services interesting as exercises in dramatic production.
Clearly, we have some different experiences of religious services! A typical service at the church I grew up in went as follows: People would sit in the pews. There were three numbers listed on a board, which were the numbers of the songs to sing that day. The organ player would be playing random songs as people sat down, and when she (it was usually my godmother, Louise) started playing the first song on the list, that was the cue for the congregation to open the songbooks and sing. Some sang enthusiastically, but tunelessly. Others sang ok. Some barely sang at all. And some really didn't sing. After the first song, there would be a prayer. Then the congregation would sing the second song. After that, Grandpa or the guest pastor would give a sermon, typically lasting an hour. The congregation would just sit and listen. No call and response, just sitting. The end of the sermon was signaled by the pastor reciting the Benediction, and giving another prayer. Then the congregation sang the third and final song. And that was it. On the first Sunday of the month, there was communion. As the the congregation sang song after song (there was a longer song list that day), people would go up and kneel at the altar, and receive the bread wafer and shot of wine (red, of course) along with a couple of Bible verses ("This is my body . . ."). Once you had your turn at the altar, you could head to the cafeteria. There was usually pot luck.

See? Boring. Mom would poke me if I started snoring during the sermon. As an exercise in dramatic production, um, . . . it wasn't. That's what always comes to mind when I initially think of religious service. That's what I subconsciously consider "normal" church.

I like theater. I love musicals. And I really enjoy melodrama musicals at Mantorville Theater. If you're not familiar, a melodrama is a play that is deliberately melodramatic, has corny jokes, and requires audience participation. The audience is encouraged to cheer for the hero, boo and hiss for the villain, sigh winsomely for the heroine, and laugh long and loud. Maybe someday I can actually have a schedule that would let me be in one of the plays.  But I think I'll always have a hard time with the concept of religious services as dramatic productions. Still, I think I can see how James might see it that way. I'm given to understand that other religious services are not like the ones I grew up with.

And now to the part where I'll admit to some small envy of James. He said
I get swept up in things. I am emotionally very open and allow myself to be emotionally affected by those around me. I cry buckets through movies, can’t help but sing a tuneful song, always find myself tapping my feet to music. I've even found myself waving my hands in the air during religious services! To me, this is perfectly natural – I find it hard not to do it. But I do understand that other people react differently.
 Yes, I do react differently. As I mentioned in my previous post,
Much of my childhood and teen years was spent deliberately suppressing my reactions to negative emotions. I had no true friends, and was the target of much teasing, even bullying. I was angry, depressed, suspicious, suicidal, etc. I tried hiding all of that behind a blank facade and misdirection. It's possible this learned response has carried over into positive emotional experiences as well, despite my efforts to unlearn much of it and be more open about my emotions.
In addition, my first introduction to Reason as a value was via Star Trek, and the character of Mr. Spock. I was a young kid (maybe seven?) when I first saw Star Trek: The Original Series, and I loved his preference for logic and using intellect to solve problems.  I'm a lifelong geek, and in Star Trek: The Next Generation, my favorite character was Data. Do we see a pattern? The painful experiences of my childhood gave a young me plenty of reason to try emulating Mr. Spock's suppression of emotion.

But. But but but. I am not a Vulcan or an android. Somewhere in my teen years (I think--could've been my early twenties) I realized that emotions are part of us, and that they're a good part of us. Suppressing them is (wait for it) illogical. Spock eventually accepts emotions in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and Data gets emotions in Star Trek: Generations. But though I've worked at opening up more, I rarely find myself swept up in things. Sometimes I'd like to be swept up more, but it doesn't happen often.

Things that have swept me up: local performances of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" and "Rocky Horror Picture Show," (wish I had video of the local shows-ah, well); hot candle wax poured on my body (yay! Endorphins!); and visiting Lost River Gorge & Boulder Caves on my honeymoon, because holy shit! CAVES! Do you know how cool those things are??

Things that have made me tear up: "Schindler's List," and songs like "Where've You Been?" by Kathy Mattea

Where am I going with this? I'm reserved. Generally speaking, I'm happy to be reserved. Sometimes, I envy those who, like James, can readily be swept up in their emotions. I typically enjoy it when I'm able to "cut loose," and fully experience the range of human emotion, with tears and laughter and wide, bright eyes and childlike giggles as I crawl through a boulder cave. Yet, when it comes down to it, I would not choose to be like James. I like myself. And I completely agree with him when he says
I don’t think my positive response to these sorts of religious ceremonies and rituals is necessarily problematic, and it certainly doesn't represent any softening of my atheism. But it may carry dangers: I may be less astute to the dangers of communal activity like ritual and ceremony than others simply because I enjoy it, for instance. There’s the opposite potential problem too, though: that one’s dislike for such experiences encourages rejection of them when they might in fact have value.
I do believe there are potential dangers to communal ritual and ceremony, but I also think that my instinctive distrust makes it harder to see the possible value in them, value they probably do have--if done with an eye toward the risks. And while James might be an alien (I bet he likes chocolate, too), if Star Trek taught us anything, it's that the alien perspective can very often be a valuable one!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Talking with James Croft

It's been a while since I did any serious writing, and what gets me back to it? I get to have a dialogue with James Croft, of the blog "Temple of the Future"! This is my initial post in that dialogue. We'll see how it goes. 

Recently, James posted about his gut reactions to four different communities that he visited as part of The Humanist Institute, a leadership training program for the Humanist movement. After I read his post, "Loving and Hating Religion--Some Reflections After Visiting Religious Communities," I realized, as I told James on Facebook
Sometimes, your mind just seems so strange and foreign to me. Your gut level reactions are so different from what I imagine mine would be, that I can't help but wonder how to relate to you. And then I wonder, "am I the odd one?" For example, your description of the BJ group seemed cultish and melodramatic to me, but you don't react like that.
To which he responded
Nathan - perhaps we should find a forum to explore that question. I find it very interesting too. Perhaps there is some answer in our different histories and experiences, or perhaps it's just a difference in brute preference over which we have little control.
A few more exchanges, and here we are.

Let me quote the description of the B'nai Jeshurun Synagogue that I referenced.

Entering this gorgeous old building was like walking into a palpable wall of love. You could feel the positive energy in the air, the sense of excitement for the upcoming Kabbalat Shabbat service. People were hugging, clasping hands and bodies together, staring into each other’s eyes like long-parted lovers. They wanted to be there. 
Our guide – BJ (as it’s called, no joke) asks that visiting groups register before attending and offers a member to guide them through the service – was effusive about the value of the community, explaining its history and values with overflowing enthusiasm. Most striking was when I asked her what role the temple had played in her life: she rocked back on her heels as if I had pushed her, and tears sprang to her eyes almost immediately. “I…I…”, she stammered. “I would love to answer that question. But you’ll have to email me. I can’t…it’s too much.” She so loved her community that to think of it almost knocked her off her feet. That’s serious love. 
The service itself was wonderful: a rich explosion of music (including plenty of nigun(wordless) chant for those who didn't know the words), color, and even dance, as the audience leapt to its feet at one moment to snake around the auditorium, arms linked and feet tapping. It was awesome.
All emphasis comes from James. Rereading that description now, my initial reaction of "cultish and melodramatic" seems only slightly overblown to me, but James clearly loved being there.  Why the difference? When I look at that description, I see more than one thing that I can't seem to relate to. "..palpable wall of love." "positive energy in the air" People getting up close and personal like long lost lovers.   I don't recall ever feeling "positive energy" in the way he describes (maybe when I was going through a New Age phase?), and I've no clue what a wall of love would feel like. I love my wife tremendously, and I love my friends dearly (including ones that actually are former lovers), but I don't know if I've ever wanted to be around a particular group of people so much that I would react as the members of that community reacted. And the guide's reaction of almost being knocked over by a question? I've seen that sort of thing in books, but I don't think I ever believed I'd hear of such a thing in real life! And I can't relate to it, not even in thinking about my wife.

My wife, Michelle, is one of the best people in my life. Being with her continues to be the best experience of my life. She has literally become more attractive to me as the years have gone by (something that sounds silly, but is nonetheless true). Sometimes I find myself just stopping to stare at her, losing track of whatever thought was going through my head. She's brought tons of laughter into my life, and new thoughts and ways of looking at things that continue to enrich my life. But I would never come close to falling over just from a question about how she's affected my life. I do not believe, however, that the guide necessarily loves her community more than I love my wife.

Is it possible that I simply don't have strong reactions to experiences in a way that translates physically? This is certainly possible, I suppose, maybe even likely. Much of my childhood and teen years was spent deliberately suppressing my reactions to negative emotions. I had no true friends, and was the target of much teasing, even bullying. I was angry, depressed, suspicious, suicidal, etc. I tried hiding all of that behind a blank facade and misdirection. It's possible this learned response has carried over into positive emotional experiences as well, despite my efforts to unlearn much of it and be more open about my emotions.

Yet, when I try to imagine the experience of being at the BJ community's service, the word "suffocating" is what comes to mind, rather than any positive emotion just looking for expression. It reminds me of the images of smiling cults that one sees on TV, yes, and it sounds over-the-top, true, but it also sounds like a lot of people and noise pressing in on me, making it hard to breath. Of course, that can probably be chalked up to me not liking crowds.

Maybe James is right, and there's simply a more fundamental, hard-wired difference here. After all, I'm an introvert, while James, I suspect, is an extrovert. Or, perhaps it has something to do with how we think, and not just what we think. I think in words, always have. Other people, like my wife, or Temple Grandin (author of "Thinking in Pictures" and "Animals in Translation") think more in pictures and other sense data. Until I read "Animals in Translation," it didn't even occur to me that other people weren't using words in the privacy of their own head to interpret the world around them. I don't have the book available, or I'd quote the relevant passage. Since then however, I've had multiple conversations with Michelle that have highlighted the differences in our individual experience of thought.

For example, when I think of "Michelle," what comes to mind first and foremost are words--labels and descriptions--like "wife," "lover," "funny" "sexy" "friend" "love" "laughter" "animates the world" "occasionally frustrating" "artist" etc. My understanding of the person and concept "Michelle" is almost entirely in words. Images and non-verbal sounds are in the background, and fuzzy and indistinct (the most prominent of these would be the sound of her laughter, unless I'm horny). When Michelle thinks of me, "Nathan," what comes to mind are sights, sounds, smells, and all these non-verbal, sensory impressions that combine in her mind to mean "Nathan." At one time, we came to the conclusion that our different ways of thinking might be why I like labels, and she hates them. I see labels as descriptive, but with each label only describing a portion of a person, and not always a large portion. She sees labels as limiting and unexpressive of the real person or thing.

So, maybe there's something like that going on with James and I having different reactions. Or maybe there's a difference in our past, such as how we react to emotion, or our experiences with religion, that explains it. Or perhaps something else entirely.