Family vs. the world (How buzzwords can kill thoughtfulness)

family

Words are incredibly powerful. Even small nuances and phrases can unconsciously influence the way someone acts or thinks.

One of the recent refrains heard by religious establishments these days is some form or another of “Families are being threatened by the world.”

Us vs. Them

Without even realizing it, by using the phrase “the world” one sets themselves apart from everyone else – thereby absolving themselves of their own involvement in the world’s issues, while simultaneously propping up the idea that if everyone just did what they did it would fix everything.

This also reinforces the belief that it is unnecessary – and even counterproductive or dangerous – to let others live differently in the way that is best for them, to reach across the aisle, or to think outside the box to help tackle and solve the world’s problems.

Nevermind the fact that there are people the world over who have had families or relationships strained and complicated due to a religious dynamic (whether it be lack of religion, losing religion, or finding religion).

Family: Isn’t it about time?

That’s not to say that religions don’t have some great ideas about keeping families and community strong. Notions of togetherness such as family dinner, a day of rest from work and investing in family members are fantastic and necessary.

But even those are only good if they’re practiced, yet…

…too many people wait outside temple doors during a family member’s wedding simply because of a difference of belief.

…Sundays, a day of rest and family togetherness, are often one of the busiest days of the week – splitting up families for hours on end as they attend to different meetings and church duties. Weekdays are often a mad scramble between work/school and church activities and responsibilities with serious family time often getting pushed to the side or discarded.

…too many people have disowned or shamed family members who walk a less religious path for their own health – or have tried to coerce them into a religious way of life rather than loving them and encouraging them on the path that makes them happy.

…couples who would make great parents and want to start families, and could help alleviate the overcrowding in foster care and adoption systems, are unable to do so because they can’t legally marry or adopt children.

Us and Us

There are a lot of things that threaten families and we’re all to blame for the state of the world today. And while religion certainly holds some good ideas about how to run a family, it’s going to take a world full of different ideas, compassion and fearlessness to find solutions to the world’s problems. We can’t separate ourselves or close ourselves off in fear or prejudice.

Bullying, suicide and animalism: A matter of control

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We aren’t just animals anymore. We can reason and understand. And, usually, we are no longer a slave to our urges.

Yet, when it comes to bullying our animal roots gets used as an excuse. “Bullying happens, people need to stand up for themselves. They need to speak up and put their foot down. It’s how, we as animals, are.”

Animals and us

Except it’s not. Animals flee. Animals can be submissive and meek. Not all animals are fighters. And when an animal that isn’t fit to fight goes up against an animal that is, the result is usually getting maimed or killed. And no matter how much physical training someone partakes in, there will always be those at a disadvantage. And that’s not including those with emotional or mental “shortcomings.” And no matter how much therapy, or how many drugs, some people will never be the outgoing, aggressive, confident type.

And even if that weren’t the case, even if people could train to their peak performance, do away with all physical limitations and psyche themselves into being aggressive, animalistic human beings, why would we want that?

Thanks to technology and science, we no longer conform to a “survival of the fittest” mold. We are beyond it. So why would we confine ourselves to such a basic, outdated way of living?

Suicide machine

What’s truly heartbreaking, and what truly shows some people have no idea of the breadth of human makeup and complexity of the human brain, is when people blame a bullying victim for their own suicide, writing it off as a simple choice the victim had to make and one they made poorly. This is justified by admitting that they, too, have thought about killing themselves before.

Indeed, who hasn’t? But there is a gigantic leap from thinking to doing. Someone who actually tries to go through with the act is wired fundamentally different than those who merely think about it:

The … person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing.

The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise.

 Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be or you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains constant. the variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors.

 It’s not desiring the fall; it’s the terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’ can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.

— David Foster Wallace

Suicide is the ultimate engagement of the flight response. Someone who attempts suicide often isn’t thinking in any sort of rational context, they are running on instinct — the same instinct that makes you remove your hand from a hot stove without even thinking about it.

Levels of instinct

“Flight or fight” is one of the absolute basic instincts we as human beings have — and one of the hardest to overcome. At one extreme we have suicidal people and at the other extreme we have people who kill their tormentors. Neither of these are acceptable outcomes.

I’ve been on both sides of the bully equation. I’ve been a bully and I’ve been the bullied, desperate for escape. I know it’s possible to overcome bullying tendencies. I also know that it’s possible to overcome suicidal tendencies and that things get better. But what I’ve discovered is that it is a lot easier to control bullying tendencies than it is to control the basic flight or fight response.

We’re not animals anymore, but there are still some things our brains have convinced us we need to run from or fight. I hope that eventually one of those things will not be our fellow man.

Elder Ronald Poelman: LDS Church is a guide to enlightenment, not the end goal

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With the LDS Church’s General Conference this weekend, I wanted to take a minute to discuss one of the most illuminating General Conference talks I have ever had the pleasure of hearing. Spoken by Elder Ronald E. Poelman of the First Quorum of the Seventy, it covers the difference between the Gospel and the LDS Church, how tradition and cultural norms can be misconstrued as gospel principles, and the extreme importance of free agency and questioning. Even though it is from 1984, it resonates even more today.

Both the gospel of Jesus Christ and the Church of Jesus Christ are true and divine. However, there is a distinction between them which is significant … Failure to distinguish between the two …. may lead to confusion and misplaced priorities with unrealistic and therefore failed expectations. This in turn may result in diminished benefits and blessings and, in extreme instances, even disaffections.

The Gospel and the LDS Church are two distinct things with two distinct purposes. Elder Poelman states that while the Gospel is an unchanging guide binding us to God, the Church is a delivery system meant to distribute the Gospel. However, misplaced priorities and understanding about the two can lead to devastating consequences: diminished blessings and even disaffection. What kind of misunderstandings? Well…

Traditions, customs and practices may even be regarded by some as eternal gospel principles. … Those who do not conform to these cultural standards may mistakenly be regarded as unorthodox or even unworthy. … It is important, therefore, to know the difference between eternal gospel principles which are unchanging, universally applicable and cultural norms which may vary with time and circumstance.

Cultural norms are not Gospel and the traditional way the Church has functioned does not necessarily mean that is the way it is meant to function in perpetuity. Indeed, it is not enough to simply obey church rules. They must be questioned.

Every church member has … the need and obligation to obtain (a personal witness regarding gospel principles and Church practices) by exercising his free agency … Without such assurance, one may feel confused and perhaps even burdened by what may appear to be simply institutional requirements of the Church. Indeed, it is not enough that we obey the commandments and counsel of Church leaders.

An unhealthy focus on institutional requirements or cultural norms, especially without questioning and receiving a witness that such things are necessary, can become a burden for those in the church — as well as the church itself. Those who do pray and receive a witness that things should be done differently are also an integral part of the church.

When we understand the difference between the gospel and the Church and the appropriate function of each in our daily lives, we are much more likely to do the right things for the right reasons. Institutional discipline is replaced by self discipline. Supervision is replaced by righteous initiative and a sense of divine accountability.

As we question the Church and receive Gospel wisdom from Church leaders, institutional discipline is replaced by self discipline. The need to be supervised by the Church also wanes as our own sense of accountability to God and our fellow brethren here on Earth grows. Indeed:

As individually and collectively we increase our knowledge, acceptance, and application of gospel principles, we become less dependent on Church programs. Our lives become gospel centered.


See part 1 of Elder Poelman’s talk here and part 2 here.

Live and let live: Religion, atheism, and being caught in-between

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Religion has been a part of human life in some form or another for at least 4,000 years. It has provided support for communities, given people a common cause to group around, and been a source of charity and service.

Yet, for those who do not belong to a religion or believe in a God, it has often been a source of pain and suffering. And certainly there have been a number of atrocities committed in the name of God.

The discord between these two groups, I think, doesn’t just stem from a fundamental communication problem, but a fundamental difference in the way both are wired.

A brain hardwired for God

Even 4,000 years later, it’s true that religion continues to be beneficial to humanity. Charity, social support during times of crisis, and a sense of purpose are just a few of the ways religion enriches the lives of many today. There are even indications that humans are hardwired for religion.

So it’s understandable when religious people get angry when Atheists attack their convictions with statements like “Your church isn’t true” or “God is a lie” and retreat into their trenches, often destroying all hope for fruitful and progressive discussion.

But make no mistake, there are certainly things that need to be discussed. While people should be able to believe what they want I firmly believe they must square those beliefs with facts. And the fact of the matter is that religion has also contributed to some truly gut-wrenching things in our modern day: rape culture, suicides and homelessness (especially among gay youth), mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression, and more.

The ways that religious denominations contribute to these and other pressing issues deserve criticism and discussion. And religious people need to understand that criticisms are not a personal attack, or even necessarily an attack on their church.

I’d be happy to see religion flourish more, but I want to see it happen while lessening the damage and hurt it unintentionally contributes to for both faithful and non-faithful people.

But while some of the problem is communication, the other problem is simply how differently we are wired — which never appears to be taken into account on either side.

While religious people may be hardwired for faith, non-believers are just as likely to be hardwired differently. Just as the idea that someone who attends church is an unintelligent sheep is grossly inaccurate, the idea that someone who doesn’t want to go to church is evil or amoral is flat-out wrong and can be incredibly damaging.

In religion, but not of religion

When I was young, church taught me about the golden rule, being thy brother’s keeper, turning the other cheek and judging not lest ye be judged. I feel that I learned some of my most cherished ideas about humanity and life from church.

But even when I was young, I felt oddly out of place in church settings. The older I got the more my anxiety in church settings grew. I felt constantly on guard — that I could not be myself. I was constantly wearing a mask and it was suffocating me. I began to drift away from the church. My family, many of my peers, and my church leaders were understandably upset by this development. After all, my very soul was at stake.

Church leaders handed me responsibility after responsibility, trying to give me a sense of purpose and place within the church. Unfortunately, these responsibilities only compounded the stress I already felt from church and, truthfully, pushed me farther away.

The more I stressed out, the more I found myself thinking, “Is this what God would really want from me? Isn’t church supposed to be a place of serenity and happiness rather than protocol, stress and anguish?”

My parents tried to prod me to attend services. When gentle pokes didn’t work, I was given ultimatums. When those just pushed me away further, they tried gifts and niceties.

The disapproval about my drifting from friends and family was palpable and created a vicious cycle. I could not be at peace in church — and it appeared I could not be at peace outside of church either. The stress of the paradox furthered the anxiety, depression, guilt and anger issues I had been experiencing in church for years. I had already been self-mutilating throughout the latter half of my high school years as a form of self-medication. Shortly after high school I turned to drugs and alcohol to cope.

Up until this point I had tried to maintain some sort of church presence, even if it was a limited one, partly to placate my family and partly because I felt it was what I was supposed to do. However, I soon realized I could not live a double-life. I finally made it clear that I didn’t want or plan to continue attending church.

Immediately, there was an incredible weight lifted from my shoulders. I didn’t feel like I had to hide myself anymore. It was like finally breathing after spending 19+ years suffocating.

Technically, it was a great first step toward sobriety and a healthy life.

However, I still felt a lot of guilt over who I was because of my upbringing. It would be several more years before I’d begin to heal the remaining emotional scars with therapy and finally stop using alcohol and drugs, becoming truly okay with the person I am.

Live and let live

I know my family and friends always wanted what was best for me. The things they did came from a place of love, but ultimately also of ignorance about who I was. They were so worried about my soul that they didn’t understand the way they were damaging me.

I often wonder how differently my life would have been if I had been nurtured to be myself, simply be a good person, and make the most of whatever it is I do believe in. Would I have ever turned to drugs or alcohol? Would I be further along in my career?

Religion can be an incredible force for good and, I believe, even necessary for some people. But just as it may be hardwired into some people, I think there are others who are simply not wired for religion. I hope someday people on both sides will understand to “live and let live” and embrace those who live differently and have found their own way to truth, happiness and health.

The Religion Test: Homosexuality vs. environmentalism and charity

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There is a lot of talk these days about how homosexuality, transsexuality, gender roles, and the like are leading us on a road to ruin. Apocalyptic predictions are full of omens of increasing disasters — earthquakes, hurricanes, floods and famine.

And I can absolutely see all of that happening. But not for the reasons you may think.

Wailing and gnashing of teeth

It’s no secret that our society is in turmoil — fighting about who can marry who, women’s roles, etc. And it’s seriously holding us back. We’re putting so much energy, money, and time into these fronts when it could be used to help solve world hunger, cure cancer, clean up our own planet and propel us toward other planets. We are destroying ourselves with our preoccupation for the way others choose to live — suffocating our ability to question, learn and innovate.

It’s the 21st century and we’re still dabbling in medieval dogma. We’ve put men on the moon, but we can’t deal with two men in the bedroom. So yes, I can see how, if we don’t move past this, these things could absolutely cause the collapse of our society. But I think it will be because of the people who spent their time and energy oppressing others rather than working with them to tackle truly important issues. Issues like taking care of our people and planet.

Fracking and brimstone

Interestingly enough, there are several biblical passages that address the environment. Among them:

I brought you into a fertile land to eat its fruit and rich produce. But you came and defiled my land and made my inheritance detestable.

Jeremiah 2

The consequences of such defiling and careless regard are truly terrible:

The earth dries up and withers, the world languishes and withers, the exalted of the earth languish. The earth is defiled by its people; they have disobeyed the laws, violated the statutes and broken the everlasting covenant. Therefore a curse consumes the earth; its people must bear their guilt. Therefore earth’s inhabitants are burned up, and very few are left.

Isaiah 24

It sounds dire, but it’s pretty much what scientists have been telling us will be the result if we don’t start getting serious about reducing pollution, cleaning up our environment, reducing our dependence on fossil fuels, and being wary of fracking and drilling.

Similarly, there are multiple passages about helping those in need.

If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be. … For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’

Deuteronomy 15

Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.

Ezekiel 16

Sodom is often cited as being destroyed because of homosexuality. Yet, this verse seems to indicate that it was destroyed because its people were rich yet cold-hearted, neglecting those around them who needed the most help.

Even from a non-religious standpoint, it’s clear to see how neglecting parts of our society could lead to a decline. A healthy society requires a healthy and contributing populace — not a populace trying to just scrape by.

The religion test

“Question after question I’m stumped. The paradox: Is God racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic? Or is God testing to see if I am?”

I’ve often wondered, if God is out there and if this life is a test, is religion part of the instruction manual, or part of the test?

Perhaps once we have increased our love for each other, once we have returned Earth to a pristine condition, once we have mastered a deeper understanding of the universe through science … perhaps that is when God will return. Because that is when we will truly be ready.

Even if that doesn’t turn out to be the case, we’ll be in a much better place than we were before.

Neil deGrasse Tyson, America’s golden age, and science’s place in religion

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I recently got the chance to attend a lecture presented by Neil deGrasse Tyson — a rock star in the science world and well known even among those without an inclination toward science.

The lecture dug into some of the most depressing traits of humanity, but also some of the most empowering and uplifting.

Humanity’s highs and lows

Among the most depressing things Tyson discussed was our current state of affairs, especially here in America — a state many former civilizations found themselves in before disappearing off the map.

Failing infrastructure, a lack of dreaming and imagination, and an increasingly cold shoulder to the scientific pursuit that opens so many doors for us. We’ve lost our curiosity and creativity and no longer seem to foster an enthusiasm for questioning and wondering. As we create, question and wonder less, solutions to current problems remain just out of reach as our society and infrastructure collapses around us.

However, at the same time we’ve accomplished so much with so little. Tyson mentioned that we understand about 4% of the universe: Matter. The remaining 96% of the universe is made up of dark energy and dark matter, things we’re just barely beginning to wonder at and grasp for.

With that 4% knowledge we have cultivated our entire planet. We have tamed beasts and land and even the atom itself. We’ve reached into space and our work has reached beyond the solar system. Imagine what we could do if we keep questioning and wondering and learning!

Golden ages going and gone

Tyson mentioned the golden era of Islam in a clear parallel to America today. The golden age of Islam gave us some of the most important tools we use today. It gave us algebra, our numeral system, the concept of zero. It mapped the stars and gave us advancements in biology and medicine. In all, it lasted for about 300 hundred years before collapsing around 1260 A.D.

Tyson attributed the collapse of this golden age not so much to a Mongol invasion, but to a fundamental shift in the way people in the Middle East thought. Toward the end of the golden age, rules and credos took the place of questions and curiosity. The ability to openly discuss, criticize, refine, toss out, endorse, and applaud different ideas and ways of thinking fell to one way of thinking and one way to do things. The will to science was replaced by the expectation to obey.

Today, the Middle East is known more for extremism, terrorists, bloodshed, and strict Sharia law than for being a world superpower or hub of innovation and creation. What will the United States be known for in 750 years?

Religion and Science

Almost every religion believes that this life is a test to prepare us for something — whether it be our next life, Heaven, God or something else. If that’s true, I think a major component of our preparation is getting left out at the pulpit: science.

In the Bible there is a parable about a master and three servants. In the parable, a master gives one servant five bags of silver, another servant two bags of silver, and his final servant one bag of silver.

The man with five bags earns five more. When the master sees this he is pleased saying “You have been faithful in handling this small amount, so now I will give you many more responsibilities. Let’s celebrate together!”

The man with two bags of silver earns two more. The master has similar praise for this servant.

The final servant takes his bag and buries it from fear of losing the money. The master scolds him saying “You wicked and lazy servant! … To those who use well what they are given, even more will be given, and they will have an abundance. But from those who do nothing, even what little they have will be taken away. Now throw this useless servant into outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Indeed, as we have learned and gained more through science our responsibilities have exponentially grown. Look at the incredible responsibility needed for the atomic bomb, the true epitome of our scientific knowledge to date. As our technology has increased to give us the internal combustion engine and supercomputers, our responsibilities to not pollute the planet and help others have also increased.

As long as we have taken what we we have and continued to ask questions and learn more we have been provided with an abundance. This country has been a superpower because of our science and curiosity.

If we decide to neglect what we have and do nothing with it, another country will become the new world superpower. Infrastructure continues to crumble and people are fighting about marriage instead of working together to figure out what dark matter is, question the universe, or envision the next great discovery.

The weeping and gnashing of teeth has already started, but there’s still time to reverse it.

Why I won’t be picketing Fred Phelps funeral

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Fred Phelps, the founder of the Westboro Baptist Church, is dead.

Almost the first question out of people’s mouths has been “I wonder if people will picket his funeral.” And understandably so. The Westboro Baptist Church has become infamous for picketing the funerals of soldiers and victims of disasters, among others.

Adding fuel to an already raging fire is their proclamation that gay people are to blame: Disasters, war and death are the Godly consequences of America’s tolerance of gay people.

With such rhetoric and disrespect for the dead, who wouldn’t be first in line to give the Westboro Baptist Church a taste of their own medicine?

I feel sympathy for members of the Phelps family who have renounced the church and were forbidden by church leaders from seeing their father one last time before he passed away.

For those still within the church though, there’s something to keep in mind: Picketers are exactly what the Westboro Baptist Church expects. They live in a world where they are the good guys — the only good guys. The world is wicked and, being wicked, lashes out at God’s chosen people, especially in their most vulnerable moments.

For the Westboro Baptist Church, having protesters picket Fred Phelps funeral would be vindication: proof of their righteousness.

Imagine how chilling it would be if no one showed up and none of their expectations or beliefs were validated? No noise. No confrontation. Just silence and an empty cemetery.

If we can prove we are the better people and not relegate ourselves to the level that Phelps and his church did so many times, then in the end the church and Phelps die alone, ultimately forgotten and not worth a second breath.