I’ve Changed My Mind

Like a lot of opinionated people, I am rumored to never change my mind on anything. But this is actually just a false association. People unthinkingly equate passion with stubbornness. In reality, I’ve quite publicly changed my mind in a number of circumstances. For instance, I have written many times before about having been anti-abortion earlier in my life whereas now I do abortion doula work. I have also very publicly moved through phases of religion and non-religion. For me, there is no shame in being a human being who explores things and sometimes, as would be likely for anyone, changes her mind. I don’t see a contradiction in being a passionate person while also being someone who can be self-reflective and honest.

So, with that said, I’ve changed my mind.

Actually, I changed my mind two years ago but was unsure about how to write about it. I knew I had to write about it at some point not because I’m in any way important but because people were very confused about certain changes in my work. I wasn’t afraid of explaining it, just unsure of how to approach it in a world in which what I’m about to say and, more to the point, the way I think about it, is so foreign. I know that I will probably be misunderstood or thought to be saying something that I’m not, especially because this is a blog post and therefore not going to cover the topic sufficiently but – I need to let go of all that.

So, after having written The Humanist Ceremonies Handbook I can now say that I do not identify as a humanist, as an atheist, or as a nontheist. No, I haven’t become a theist either. I don’t believe that any of those labels have any real meaning behind them. This doesn’t mean that I disavow my book or that I’m “against” any of those things either. It simply means that after years of studying, thinking, and writing, I have now come to the conclusion that the way we think about and conceptualize religion is faulty. More specifically, I realized that western (organized) atheism and humanism rely on the protestant narrative for their definitions, philosophies, and, really, entire worldview. That’s bound to confuse a lot of people so let me explain…

The protestant narrative informs most of the western worldview. It is the narrative that gave us ideas such as that certain religious practices are superstitions, that the reformation was an improvement on matters, and that we are marching confidently toward further enlightenment every single day. We can go nowhere but up! In its desire to separate itself from “backward-looking” superstition it gave us the Enlightenment itself! Rationality! Rational religion! Science! Progress! And it is from the Enlightenment, generally speaking, that the skeptic and atheist and humanist movement was born.

Let’s take a brief moment here to talk about humanism because this is my focus for now. What is it? The truth is, it is a constantly moving target. To be a humanist is to be one who studies the humanities. I am a humanist therefore by the original nineteenth century definition of the word. But somewhere along the way, the word humanism began to take on all kinds of different definitions, just like any word does. Studying the humanities (humankind’s expression of its own experience of existence) became entangled with ideas about human self-sufficiency, our power to affect change for the better (or worse), our responsibility to each other. This had nothing to do with concepts of theism or atheism (which people largely wouldn’t have understood until the seventeenth century at least) and, in fact, many devout Christians have been retroactively proclaimed humanists. Today, according to the American Humanist Association, the term demands nontheism though I can’t seem to find any historical reason for the shift. Up into the present day there are plenty of so-called theists who identify as humanist who have been left out in the cold.

With the humanist movement of the late twentieth century came unchallenged and unquestioned assumptions, definitions and concepts. Religion, a construct so complex that not even scholars of the topic can agree on what it is, was loudly proclaimed to be a negative thing in all its manifestations. Theism and nontheism were carefully delineated and never the twain shall meet.

If you ask a humanist today what they think/believe, they’ll tell you that they are “good without God” and they will say it as though it is a revolutionary concept. And, to be fair, it is for some. Especially here in North America and, in particular, the States, where religion has been so weaponized that to declare oneself a moral being without allegiance to a deity can appear more unusual than in other places in the world. I get it. I used this phrase too. It’s neat and pat and saves a lot of time. And yet, I found myself at a complete loss to describe what this actually meant. To declare oneself good without God is to imply that those that believe in a God are only good because of that fact. And yet, having been religious I knew that the vast majority of religious people did not believe that they were one church service away from raping and pillaging their neighbors.

Another tenet of humanism, if I can call it that, is an allegiance to science. It was one of the most attractive things about humanism for me and I still find it an important construct. But, again, I knew that the vast majority of religious people subscribed to a mostly scientific worldview. I knew plenty of people who were proponents of evolution or who fought climate change and did so as part of their commitment to their religion.

Perhaps the most visible aspect of contemporary humanism is an insistence on atheism or agnosticism. But here again religious people appear to be misunderstood. History is replete with examples of people we might (anachronistically, I’d say) call nontheistic or, at the very least, post-theistic. The thing is, prior to the reformation era, western people would not have understood the idea of having a secular world and a religious world. This compartmentalization came about largely during the enlightenment. People would not have understood concepts such as theism and nontheism but they would have understood that there were many, many different ways of understanding mystery. This is exemplified in the diversity of spiritualities within the pre-reformation Catholic church – everything from folk practices to intellectualized clerical practices.  Huge conversations were happening all over Europe during the so-called “Dark Ages” concerning the nature of God, whether God was a being, whether God was really us. And if you want to say, “yeah, but they were still talking about God, ” I would submit to you that the word God didn’t necessarily mean then what it means to a twenty-first century American. And don’t get me started on how the humanist movement relies entirely on a narrow western idea of theism in the first place.

And all of this comes back to that protestant narrative. I am, of course, generalizing because I’m sure you’re all dead of boredom by now, but it was the reformation that helped usher in a more uniform and “correct” Christianity, one that demanded more stringent categories and railed against the “irrationality” of folk devotions. This attitude is still prominent today in Religious Right circles and it is that attitude that prompted a reactionary American (and, I’d argue, western) humanism, this despite the fact that the Religious Right represents a tiny minority of religious people in America. But don’t feel bad. The Catholic church got all reactionary too. They felt a little sensitive after the reformation and many folk practices (“superstitions” that we wrongly associate with paganism) died out.

The American Humanist Association describes humanism as a philosophy. And yet, I’ve never, in all my years as a humanist, been able to identify the philosophy behind it. “Good without God” is not a philosophy. “Likes science” is not a philosophy. “Sticking it to religious people”(as yes, someone in a very senior leadership position once said to me was the point of humanism) is not a philosophy. It’s late, so I’d better get to the point which is that I’ve decided that humanism, while well-meaning, is simply a reactionary movement born out of the protestant narrative it so desperately wants to critique. How meta.

That said, I don’t repudiate my book. I think it’s a lovely idea to have an option for ceremonies without God language. All the above bitching aside, there are people for whom religion, whatever that is to them, leaves a bad taste in their mouth, and I don’t want those people to feel like they can’t have nice things. I’m particularly proud of having included trans naming ceremonies and other ceremonies for marginalized people. I feel like that is all worthwhile and I feel honored to have worked closely with other celebrants to bring these to the fore. I also don’t regret my time as a humanist. After all, it was seeking to become a more conscientious humanist minister that led me to study theology and, eventually, seek out a PhD program in religious studies. I’m grateful for that.

However, I’ve changed my mind about humanism.

 

 

Quit Saying that Atheists are Just Mad at God

As some of you may know, I spent a good number of years back home in the US being involved in the atheist and humanist movements. I wrote articles, a book, founded groups, and was even a humanist chaplain at one point. I met tons of people this way, some that are still very dear friends to this day. I even met some very lovely people who didn’t think the way I did AT ALL but who were as respectful and curious about me as I was about them.

But because I’m a rather extroverted and outspoken person, I was a bit of a lightening rod for people who were antagonistic to those who had a very different (or no) god concept. And when they saw me becoming upset about, for instance, the state using religious arguments to curtail reproductive freedom or the clergy sex abuse scandal, the question was always, “Why are you so angry all the time?” The follow-up was usually, “You’re just angry at God.”

So, let’s unpack this. Yes. I was angry. I’m still fucking angry. I am SO MAD. And if you aren’t, that probably means you’re white, male, or otherwise super down with imperial religion because trust me, there is a lot to be upset about whether you’re religious or not. And, whether you’re religious or not, the collusion of the church with the state to further oppression can be absolutely rage-inducing (thanks, Constantine).

And that whole thing about “being mad at God”? That’s some bullshit that says way more about you than atheists. If you believe that atheists are angry at a God they don’t even believe exists, it’s because you’re conflating God with your own interests. Because what pissed off atheists are angry about is not the existence of God (which they don’t even believe in, remember?) but rather the public face of religion which, every time, seems to side with abuse and injustice. Personally, I can’t blame atheists for this. How are they supposed to care about things like liberation theology or post-theism, open-theism, and Christian non-theism when all they see is some jerks standing around outside clinics? How are they supposed to know that there are thousands of alternative, intersectional, anti-oppressive Christian theologies with adherents all over the globe when Pope Francis is in the news talking about women being unfit for the priesthood? How are atheists supposed to see us as anything other than complacent assholes when they encounter the deafening silence of many churches to the crisis on the border? Or, even worse, the religious people who are speaking out IN FAVOR of the cruelty happening on the border? What angers atheists is not God. It’s the brutality perpetrated in her name, the domination that you seem to think God calls you to. And personally, I don’t blame them for that.

And we “good Christians” aren’t exempt from the assholery. We need to fiercely interrogate the moral assumptions put out there by conservative Christianity if we want to demonstrate our seriousness about cultural change. For instance, let’s challenge the idea that abortion is a moral wrong that we only tolerate because sometimes it’s best. Let’s challenge the idea that people who cross borders are doing something wrong. Hell, let’s challenge the morality of borders! Instead of working for “prison reform”, let’s abolish the fuck out of prisons altogether and get creative. Instead of “rescuing” sex workers, let’s stop a minute and wonder where the hell we got such idiot ideas about the morality of sex work.

Maybe atheists will stop thinking we’re such dicks if we stop allowing the moral assumptions of the hard right to infect our own discourse and action.

Post-Theism? What the Hell is That?

I got a chance to speak at the Ever Wonder conference in Edmonton, Alberta the first weekend in September. My topic? Post-theism, of course! Below is a transcript of the talk. Let me know what you think.

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I am a post-theistic Anglican with one foot in the humanist world and one in the Christian world. As an author and a theologian, I think of myself as a bridge for those I minister with. I myself am unimportant. What I envision is providing the example of a new way of being, a visible answer to the question, “Do I have only two choices – that of supposed “belief” or “unbelief”?” Popular culture tells us that this is so and that we need to take up arms in either of these ill-defined camps. But that way of thinking is an illusion. It does not describe what a good number of people experience in their spiritual and intellectual lives.

Many people are unaware of the idea of post-theism despite, I believe, being functionally post-theistic. Post-theism is different from popular conceptions of the terms atheism, theism, nontheism, etc. We can quibble about what these words really mean, mainly because we don’t actually have even academic consensus, but broadly speaking, post-theism is a nontheism (in other words a non-belief in a supernatural god) combined with the sense that to even ask the question about whether such a god exists is unimportant and sometimes even distracting. Post-theists can be religious or nonreligious. They come in many varieties from those who plumb the depths of religious traditions, including Christianity, for the wisdom of their ancestors, to those who reject those traditions and God language entirely. I myself am of the first type. I revel in God language, finding in it a rich source of inspiration for the otherwise unnameable fluctuations of the human condition. Though I understand and fully advocate the need to think twice about what we mean when we speak of God, I think most current attempts to abolish God language absolve us of the heavy task of having to examine what God might actually be. Theists don’t have a monopoly on God or God language. Not all gods are omnipotent. Not all gods are supernatural. Not all gods are even beings.

I was raised in a religiously neutral family back in the states. I had an interest in religion but it was rather academic. By the age of 12 I was calling myself an atheist and I held some pretty antitheistic ideas. But something weird happened when I was 21. While I felt I was being intellectually honest in my atheism, it was not enriching or fulfilling me personally. In 2000, I decided that it just might be possible to be a religious atheist and I became, of all things, a Roman Catholic.

I was drawn to the meditative pace of the liturgy, the sense of common humanity that the mass can inspire. But I was also drawn to Catholic social justice teachings, finding there a way to live out my values in a way that “hard” atheism was too broad to encompass. But I hadn’t taken my life as a feminist and reproductive justice activist into account. Well, rather, I had some naïve idea that I would be able to navigate the situation, holding fast to my love of the liturgy as well as my convictions. I also discovered that I had a calling and that it wasn’t to the convent, the only avenue open to me as a Catholic woman. But the final nail in my Catholic coffin was dealing with a family crisis that left religious hypocrisy laid bare before me. I began to see that my thinking about faith, about religion, and, most importantly, about what God means, was so vastly different from those around me that I no longer felt like I was at home in the Church. So, I left.

And in my disappointment, I began again to navigate the choppy waters of antitheism. For those who don’t know what antitheism is, it is an opposition to the idea of gods, any gods. For three years I didn’t see the inherent problem with such a theologically unaware definition, namely that anything can be declared a god and that not all gods fall into the neat categories that some antitheists create for them. I became even more active in the atheist movement, publishing articles, writing blogs, appearing on TV, founding groups, serving on boards. And lest it sound like I’m picking on atheism, let me tell you that I don’t regret this. I think I needed atheism at that moment in my life to help me really think about what it was I believed in. But I was still in the old cycle, vacillating between hand-me-down constructs of “belief” and “unbelief” that I unquestioningly bought into.

During this time, my calling never went away, it just confused me. What was I supposed to do with it? I became a Humanist celebrant and chaplain but it still wasn’t right. Humanism, a belief in the ability of humans to better the world through reason, science, and technology, was, on its own, too vague and too scientistic (not to be confused with scientific) to be of any real use to me. I still had an affinity for Christianity and especially the life of Jesus but I couldn’t seem to make it work with the definition of reality I was being handed. And this was when I thought, “What if we don’t have simply two choices? What if our choices aren’t restricted to supposed belief or unbelief? What if philosophical humanism has a natural home within Christianity? What if I don’t have to police my “God language” because it can still serve a vital function in my faith life?”

I began to explore this question by reading the usual suspects – Paul Tillich, John Shelby Spong, etc. and a new world of possibility opened up to me. I started listening to the Nomad podcast, a show put out by two guys undergoing what they call a “faith deconstruction” and searching for what really matters to them. I began to delve into the history of Christian thought which is replete with references to a nontheistic God and chock full of humanism. And eventually, I found a place for both myself and my calling within the Anglican Church, a church so historically theologically open that the joke is that it is hard to find a Church of England priest who believes in God. In short, I found a context for my humanism. I’m hoping to be ordained a deacon within the church and continue my ministry working for reproductive justice and advocating for the needs of the post-theistic and nontheistic in our local congregations.

I relish my journey, every bit of it. I don’t reject a single moment of it. I’m glad I found new ways of naming God as well as new ways of understanding what the name of God has meant to people throughout history. I’m also glad that I had a cleansing period in which I could reject everything and start again. Because of my time in “hard” atheism, I feel much more grounded in what I believe. I’ve thought hard about it. I’ve studied. I’ve even, dare I say it, prayed about it when I felt like it. Because of this, I no longer feel the need to capture and cage the idea of God.

My journey has prepared me well, I think, for the work that I do now. As I said before, I’m often a bridge for people who are functionally post-theistic but have never heard the term or explored the idea. There are millions of people out there who have religious sensibilities but no language for it since its definition has been claimed by a false theist/atheist dichotomy. Readers of my blog, my articles, people who appear in my ministry work, tend to be those people who are not comfortable either with a “traditional” religious framework or strict secularity. They are the inbetweeners who haven’t yet realized that nothing is wrong with them, that they aren’t ignorant or sinful or lacking in education. I’m happy to provide a living example (as poor as it may be at times!) to show that we never have just two choices. But I also feel I need to say that those who choose one of the two traditional choices – there’s nothing wrong with them either. My way of being is not everyone’s way of being. Both of those two traditional choices provided me with an incredible learning experience, not to mention lots of great friends. Besides, I try not to imagine that I’ve reached the end of my journey. I haven’t come to some great revelation and now all I have to do is dispense wisdom. That’s ridiculous. As my journey has shown, I’ve gone all over the map in search of wisdom and will likely continue to do so. In a way, it’s my job as a theology student! My publishing record also shows the roads I’ve been on. I’ve written everything from theistic to antitheistic and now post theistic content. I’ve got a book coming out on Humanist celebrations from Humanist Press and the book I’m researching now is on post-theism. Later on, I want to write a more traditional lectionary (albeit with some non-traditional elements). So, I’m not done traveling yet, not by any means. Who knows where the future might take my thinking? For the time being, it is important only that I stay in dialog with my fellow humans, that I hear about what is most meaningful to them in their traditions, what has ceased to serve them, and what they envision for their own futures and communities. I’m thankful that this conference exists, that it has given us a chance to begin to spread the good news that there is not just one way of spiritual being.