Thursday, March 12, 2015


My story with religion starts with being raised Christian Science until I was about 8 or 9 years old. Quite the unique faith perspective growing up, and one full of controversy, usually involving tales of children being harmed because of lack of medical intervention. I remember my Mom sneaking me Tylenol here and there..,she had married into it, and I don't think was fully onboard. My father had come from a pretty strong background in CS, enough so that his late mother refused to be treated for cancer and went on prayer alone. She was actually given 6 months to live...but ended up lasting for 2 more years,,,

Christian Science Symbol

I'm still uncertain as to why we fell away from CS, but I pretty much stopped going to church around 10 or so. My parents were never pushy with religion, so it allowed for some wiggle room for other ideas to percolate, especially in high school where I was exposed to many philosophical and religious concepts. Reading books like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Siddhartha and others really set the tone for my open mind. A few of my buddies were really into Young Life, a Christian youth-focused organization, and I went on a few outings. We used to meet with my history teacher Mr. Coppelly (who brought his buddy Howard Zinn to our school to speak one year) at Sherries diner to talk about Jesus, God etc. I vividly recall him saying that he firmly believed there was real, palpable evil in the world...not just of man. This was a person well-versed in teh horrors of humanity, so no small remark by any means. I never fully jived with the message though...too many inconsistencies, superstitions and pushy social pressures to "be saved" would turn me off again and again.  I would also at this time profess the moon might actually be a spaceship full of lizard I was definitely exploring my realm of reality. :)

I retained my agnostic/skeptical focus into college at Oregon State, but didn't really care enough either way to go further for quite awhile. I met my future ex-wife Michelle at age 22, and she happened to be raised LDS, aka Mormonism. I was aware of the LDS faith- often derided by fellow Christians-but wasn't really exposed to much of it directly. From my time spent with her family and hearing stories and bits of her belief systems still intact, I was at times shocked and aghast at the backwards nature of the teachings. I recall many a heated conversations about the existence of God...I had oft raised the issue of "why doesn't he just show himself in the sky to everyone?" Which usually conjured the sticky faith issue, leading to an "agree to disagree" deadlock. Michelle seemed to actually grow more agnostic over our years together, but her upbringing and familiar influence remained quite prevalent in her mind. I often wonder if she just appeased my notions, and withheld her true thoughts. We used to watch Bill Maher together-a notoriously outspoken atheist-and she grew tired of his overly negative ranting...and I tended to agree with her. Still, Maher has often been one of the more popular and stanch advocates for ridiculing religions of all types, so he shares a special place in my secular heart. Many other comedians used their rapier wit to eviscerate fallacious belief systems- among my favorites are Bill Hicks, George Carlin, Ricky Gervais and Louise C.K.

Even during the divorce process(Spring 2012) most of the nearby support groups were faith based, especially one called DivorceCare, using so much God-centric scriptural jargon that it was offensive to my rational sensibilities, despite the facilitator assuring me there was enough sound, non-religious information to help me....just not the right environment. (As an aside, when I worked in teen drug rehab, we used Alcoholics Anonymous as a go to method, and I was appalled at  how faith-based it was...and felt very sorry for those non-believers trying to find solace in this supposed cornerstone of sobriety.)  Not surprisingly, post-divorce she moved to Texas and reinvigorated herself in the Christian community there, professing many of the virtues of a personal relationship with Christ to me-in a very sweet way mind you-but I was too far beyond that.   In fact, I had pretty much resolved myself to never seriously entertain any groundless faith position since about 2004 or so...effectively making me an atheist. I did claim the classic fence-sitting "agnostic" title, mainly due to fear of persecution from that loaded term. You can't turn away from reality and knowledge....once certain epistemological doors are open, they can't be closed...and thank goodness for that!

Fast forward to summer 2012, and I was yearning to connect with more like-minded folks, Luckily, Portland has a sizable secular community and I attended a Center for Inquiry picnic at Laurelhurst Park, where I met several folks, including Professor Peter Boghossian, a philosophy professor at Portland State.  I went on a few more Meetup adventures, like trampoline dodgeball at SkyHighSports(FUN!) and "Life of Brian" movie night at my friend Troy's house....but something wasn't quite synergistic. It might have been just a logistics issue...I lived in Oregon City still, and worked weekend graveyard shifts and had a dog, so I was limited in my ability to zip around to locations. I think also I was a little turned off by the "mainstreamness" of many of the people...and some had the infamous atheist bent of negativity and hostility towards religion that irked me a bit. In fairness, I didn't get to know many of them on a deeper level beyond a few encounters. I also looked into Humanists of Portland, but due to scheduling issues I never made it out to their Sunday meetings. Oh...and I watched Zietgiest. #Mind Blown #Paradigm Shift  #Religious fallacies.

I finally moved to Portland proper in Spring 2013, and that summer met my wonderful Food Not Bombs comrades, and started "taking refuge"(spending time) with Touching Earth Sangha. The sangha(Buddhist spiritual community) has been crucially important in my life the past couple years, not only in exposing me to Buddhist principles, but also their ecological awareness, expressed in veganism, cycling, low-footprint etc. I was always intrigued by Buddhism, but honestly never studied it closely...I used to think it was largely nonsense with reincarnation and mystical woo woo angles. However, my sangha's particular brand of Zen Buddhism practice doesn't put much weight(if any) in the more superstitious concepts and rituals; Tibetan and other schools are more religious in that sense. Zen is more about honing aspects of the present moment through mindfulness and meditation, a very secular friendly technique; an almost proto-psychology via examination of consciousness. Along with some wisdom teachings like the Eight Fold Path, it suggests many virtuous qualities to try out for oneself. We meet every Sunday at Kailash Eco-Village here in SE Portland, sitting at Noon for 30-45min, walking meditation, qigong, dharma talk, Indian Rag and flute music, followed by  a freely sourced vegan feast! We;ve also gone on a few wilderness retreats this past summer to Wy-East(Mt. Hood)-all by bike, the last one hiking around the entire mountain for a week. We are currently working on finding land/space to be a full-time practice community, one that offers retreats and refuge for others, as well as connecting with the larger community in activist endeavors. That's been a sticking point issue of mine for many monastic communities....they provide a role in society, but for me it's too secluded and self-focused for my liking. I feel a strong calling to both cultivate my practice and share it with others, but also to be a true radical Bodhisattva, helping to end the suffering of all beings. Thic Naht Hahn espouses about this concept of engaged Buddhism,  first catalyzed for him during the Vietnam War peace movement. The Buddha said

"Do not go by revelation;
Do not go by tradition;
Do not go by hearsay;
Do not go on the authority of sacred texts;
Do not go on the grounds of pure logic;
Do not go by a view that seems rational;
Do not go by reflecting on mere appearances;
Do not go along with a considered view because you agree with it;
Do not go along on the grounds that the person is competent;
Do not go along because [thinking] 'the recluse is our teacher'.
Kalamas, when you yourselves know: 'These things are unwholesome, these things are blameworthy; these things are censured by the wise; and when undertaken and observed, these things lead to harm and ill, abandon them...
Kalamas, when you know for yourselves: These are wholesome; these things are not blameworthy; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness, having undertaken them, abide in them."

Touching Earth Sangha(TES)

Another enlightening experience came from my most recent romantic relationship. When I first talked to this "loveliest one" -as I endearingly call her- she literally blurted out "I love Jesus!"  My heart sank a little hearing this...but I was so smitten by her, I decided to pursue and explore our spiritually further. Over the months we dated, there were numerous times when we butted heads over these concepts, but we also allowed a space forsolace and respect for our differing views. Ultimately, that along with some other diverging paths, led us to part ways Summer 2014. I felt like I stunted  her spiritual connection by not sharing her love of Jesus, and a deep, personal connection to the mystic. Since being apart romantically, she has grown more into her faith tradition, and is seeking likewise for future partners; just as I am seeking out like minded practitioners of reason, and congruent wisdom teachings. I'm very much excited for her renewed passion, for it brings her sublime joy and peace- I love her so very much!

The most recent development was a re-exploration of my secular principles...partially brought on by my growing commitment to my makes you get really serious about practice, and if you truly are in agreement. Thankfully, as I said before, our style is very supportive of rational behaviors. Another aspect was the general woo-woo of the progressive community...sometimes referred to as "hippie bullsh*t." healing....many things on the pseudo-science skeptical red alert radar, but often lauded by many in my circles. I still prefer a holistic approach to reality, and not just dogmatic science, but some of these beliefs are just downright wonky, and frankly betray the intellect/ They seemingly arise from uneducated ignorance/group think, or perhaps over reliance on anecdotle and personal testiomy that fails to withstands rigorous inquiry.  Lastly, since I share another marginalized and oppresed view in regards to veganism, it's yet another reminder to do my part as an ally for reason. Hopefully, I can be another lighthouse in a sea of foolishness.

So in my backlash against the hippie zeitgeist I am so entrenched in, I started to delve back into the "classics" for insight ; Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, as well as relative newcomer Peter Boghossian. I came across a great series on Youtube called "The Big Question?", a very amicable forum for discourse between secularists and faith-based camps. My mind was like a parched desert, and the injection of all this skeptical logic and dismantling of unnecessary illusion was like a great deluge of relief, rejuvinating dessicated sections of my brain. I've always been enamored with the oratory prowess of Christopher Hitchens, who is infamous for mopping the floor with opponents in debates, but I hadn't spent as much time looking into Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, or the lesser known of the Four Horsman, Daniel Dennet.  Sometimes I get irked by their overly smug nature, but considering they face rampant attacks on not only their sound positions of reason, but ones against their very character, it's understandable if they can come across with a bit of snark. Not to mention the fact that they often  engage in maddening discussions with entirely well-meaning, intelligent and educated people....who also happen to have a grand disconnect when it comes to their faith delusions.   There is telling parallel with "lifting of the veil" in regards to my veganism....once I saw non-vegans from that angle... their behaviors looked absurd and extreme-not mine.So too it goes with the utterly bonkers nature of many in the faith based communities....we are expected to shape our world, political policies and so forth with such a diverse range of irrational positions....?  I found this little gem of a summation in a YouTube comment.

"Christopher Hitchens inspires us to exercise the courage of carefully considered moral conviction. 
Sam Harris leads by example toward a future where we shape morality and society through reason and empathy.

Richard Dawkins, Neill de Grasse Tyson, Lawrence M. Krauss, and many others invite us to share a quest for knowledge, to undertake together our own journey to become our best risen ape.

Richard Feynman showed us that science is the domain of wonder, that joy is created by the quest, that knowledge enhances beauty, that we are all scientists, that it's OK that we don't know all the answers.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali inspires us that we can and must stand up for freedom of thought in the face of adversity, lest we leave the task so difficult for those in our historical wake they'll be swept away by the ever looming threat of fascism

Peter Boghossian helps us learn to shine light on the path toward emancipation, so we may daily help others liberate themselves from the failed epistemology of faith.

Samuel Becket exposes the veil of absurdity in which, as we are very lucky, we have awakened.

Stanley Kubrick gifts us the only sensible mantra: in a universe of darkness we must make our own light.

Our lives are enhanced if we strive to be even a tiny bit more like these people."

 I recently finished Peter Boghosians Manual for Creating Atheists; a rather provocative tool for dispensing reason and "cleansing the faith virus via Street Epistemology" as he puts it. I read about half of this along the Portland waterfront and was a little sheepish in flashing the cover around....lest some faith-filled jogger accost me. His focus on how people come to knowledge really resonates with skirts around the positive trappings of religion like community, family, morals etc, and goes at the errors in thinking that give rise to securing the anchor of faith in the first place. Some may say "why try and take away something that brings comfort to someone?" I do not doubt the supreme importance it holds in billions of people's lives....but we do not live in a bubble...we are connected in interbeing as Thich Naht Hahn says. Ideas inform actions and behaviors; on the wider scale they influence policy, laws and shared norms... look no further than our own right wing fundamentalists, or the current geo-political terror of ISIS, for evidence. This does not discount the great wisdom's and truths contained in many religions...but we can (and should) separate delusion from valuable universal notions. As Boghossian illustrates... people inherently deserve respect; not so their ideas-nothing is off the table for debate. Cultural and moral relativism has eroded our sense of truth, and the ability to exist in objective awareness. Plainly speaking, faith and religion muddy the waters of reality at the very least, and cause irreparable physical and psychological damage in the extreme. If we can "skip" the woo woo nonsense and get at the discernible, essential nature of existence, we will be that much better off.

I also just finished listening to Waking Up by Sam Harris, whereby he expounds upon the wisdom of meditation, but also is wary of the clap trap religious dogma associated with a lot of it. I found it fairly insightful, and think he does a solid job of being balanced in his critique, even coming from his staunch secular framework.


Now, while I generally revere these mavericks in New Atheism for creating a platform for the marginalized secularists like myself, I do think they are a bit short-sighted, and perhaps barking up the wrong tree in a few regards. Peter Boghosian himself drives a car and eats Paleo last I heard....not exactly a holistic approach in my view....and many of his colleagues such as the Four Horsemen seem to be bogged down with mainstream political/religion conflict, rather than offering insight on how to behave. They have their role though...we need advocates to stand up and smash  paradigms so that new ones can emerge. Needless to say, my focus is on cultivating wisdom practices that can fill the void.

This brings us to Humanism and the more positive notions of establishing a secular framework on how one ought to live. There is even a Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard, spearheaded by Greg Epstien, as he espouses on his central point of being good without often strange notion to many religious fundamentalists, who think nonbelievers would devolve into hedonistic barbarity and hellish acts, without the moral edifice of religion.

I take many of the Humanist wisdom practices, and incorporate them into my Zen Buddhist framework; there is much synergy here! Going forward, I plan on championing my secular beliefs as well as connecting with other like-minded practitioners open to this more rational mooring.

“Agnosticism is no excuse for indecision. If anything, it is a catalyst for action; for in shifting concern away from a future life and back to the present, it demands an ethics of empathy rather than a metaphysics of fear and hope.” — Stephen Batchelor, Buddhism Without Beliefs

“Using the supernatural to explain away gaps in our understanding is like using tile grout in brain surgery. Let’s be okay with not knowing… yet.” — The Secular Buddhist

“Mindfulness helps us to not just go through the motions. Instead, we’re fully engaged in the rich and incredibly diverse experience of each moment. We don’t just tell someone we love them out of habit, we put to voice the tremendous depth of that lightness of heart and mind. There’s no need for the supernatural when the natural world holds such wonder.” — TSB

“Years of meditation, studying and reflection have led me to believe that the Buddha Siddhattha Gotama was what I can only call a humanist and skeptic of the first order. He had no time for the religion of his day or the eternally inconclusive debate as to whether or not there is a creator God. His question wasn’t why are we here, but here we are — now what? Clearly, he saw philosophy as a way of life to be put to use, not as an emotional crutch or a merely conceptual structure.” — Stephen Schettini

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