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.

Holi is here: Respecting the sacredness of other beliefs

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Holi is here.

For those that don’t know, Holi, also known as the Festival of Colors, is a Hindu festival that takes place every spring. While the festival has traditionally been celebrated in places with predominantly Hindu or Indian populations, such as India and Nepal, the festival has become increasingly popular over the years in American and Europe.

Some friends and I had the opportunity last year to participate in a Holi event — an amazing and spiritual experience. The event took place on the grounds at a legitimate Hindu temple. During the festival my friends and I struck up a conversation with some of the Hindus who worked at the temple.

I was dismayed to find out that the event — all about universal love, brotherhood, and happiness — had not been full of much brotherly love or happiness for these Hindus. They had opened up this festival for all to take part in, regardless of differing beliefs, and there were very few rules. One of the few that I noticed were signs placed everywhere telling people not to color the temple.

Even without the Hindus pointing it out, it was clear to see the signs went unheeded. Colorful handprints and splotches covered the temple all over. We learned from the Hindus that it would costs thousands of dollars to wash off the temple after Holi — money not easily obtained. We were also told that people had toppled a statue or two as well. There was talk among the Hindus that the temple might have to be closed off the following year.

I could not help but think how things would play out if these same things had been done  conversely — if the other denominations gathering at Holi had their churches or temples covered with handprints. There would be an outcry if others experienced the same lack of respect and desecration in their own homes or places of worship.

Admittedly, I’m not an expert in Hindu culture and I don’t subscribe to Hindu beliefs. But I am an ardent believer in the golden rule: Treat others as you would want to be treated.

I’ll be attending Holi again this year, and this time I’ll be watching out for those who desecrate the sacredness of the opportunity they’ve been given. If you’re attending Holi I hope you’ll do the same and spread the word: Treat others’ sacred spaces as sacred as your own.

More than a frame of mind: Misconceptions about mental illness

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When I discussed misconceptions about drugs and addiction awhile back I brought up mental illness — which can be a factor in drug use. Recent comments I’ve seen and heard made me start thinking of misconceptions people seem to have about mental illness as well. Misconceptions like…

…it’s all in your head

“Why do you do this to yourself?” “Snap out of it.” “You need to cheer up.” These are common refrains I hear people say to those suffering from mental illness.

While it’s true that mental illness primarily involves the brain, it’s not all in someone’s head.

Mental illness is caused by a variety of factors. Hereditary factors can play a large part in mental illness, running in families and leaving certain people pre-disposed to developing a mental illness. Biological factors — such as brain chemistry, abnormal brain function, and hormones — can also contribute to mental illness. Environmental factors, such as psychological traumas and stress, also have a role.

Where mental illness is present, many of these factors exist intertwined — but the most important thing to remember is that it’s not something that can simply be willed away and it’s not a character flaw.

…all you need is love

Some seem to believe that love, attention, and a helping hand will “fix” someone with a mental illness. Others believe that a person simply needs to learn to love themselves in order to be fixed. Often these people will get disgruntled when their efforts fail to fix the problem — sometimes even complaining to the mentally ill person about the lack of improvement.

Love is certainly helpful to people with mental illness, but it’s not a solution. And people should never negatively disparage a mentally ill person, especially not one dealing with depression or suicidal tendencies. Negative criticism from those that are supposed to care about them most can undo the improvements a mentally ill person has made or make them feel even worse about themselves and their situation.

Instead, people with mental illness should receive positive reinforcement for the progress they’ve made — and those around them should be prepared for years of patient love. But even then, they’re largely only dealing with the symptoms. In most cases, in order to really cure a mental illness professional help is necessary.

…professional help makes everything better

When a mentally ill person starts receiving professional help, whether with medications or therapy, people expect them to miraculously change over a short amount of time.

In truth, it can take years for a person’s mental illness to dissipate. Medications can help level a person out, but generally it also takes quality psychiatric care to get to the root of the mental illness and begin to fix it — a process that can take a very long time. And any new negative experiences can set back the process.

This is why it’s so important for friends and family to be patient with those with mental illness and positively reinforce them, while understanding that a lack of improvement is not a failing of anyone — least of all the mentally ill individual.

…progress is a straight, upward slope

This is perhaps the biggest misconception I see concerning mental illness. Even once a person gets help and is making visible improvements, people expect the progress to be a straight, upward slope with no pitfalls or setbacks.

Climbing out of mental illness is much like climbing a mountain: There are ups and downs, high winds, bad weather, exhaustion and a variety of other factors to deal with. As previously noted, negative experiences can stunt or set back the progress made. And while progress can certainly be rewarding for the mentally ill individual, it can also be physically and mentally exhausting — especially if they’re confronting deep-seated issues for the first time in their life.

A true helping hand

A mentally ill person is not the way they are by choice. It’s something they are constantly battling every second of every day — every moment you aren’t witnessing the symptoms of the mental illness is a victory that person has made over their illness. But the war is long and the illness is tireless. Progress can be made, but setbacks are inevitable.

When such setbacks occur or when the illness gets the best of the individual, make sure you are a bastion of patience and hope rather than negativity and disappointment. That is truly helpful.

Counting votes and votes that count: The caucus system vs. the primary

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There is a battle raging right now all over social media, in the news, and on the streets: The caucus system vs. the primary. I’ve always been a proponent of the primary, and found the caucus system leaving a bad taste in my mouth after what many called “extremist” candidates were propelled into office due to so-called “extremist” citizens using the caucus system to “game” the voting process.

However, I’ve had some second thoughts about my enthusiasm for a primary, and I find myself wondering if the issue I’ve had with the caucus was actually due to any flaw in the system, or more a problem with our society.

The Caucus System

The caucus process is certainly more complicated and involved than a primary. It starts with a precinct meeting, which typically makes up about 1,200 to 1,300 homes (typically your neighborhood). Participation varies depending on whether the caucus is open or closed. In an open caucus, anyone in the precinct can take part. In a closed caucus, only members of the political party that is holding the caucus can take part. In either case, those that can participate are encouraged to do so. At these meetings, constituents discuss the candidates and political issues they feel are important and delegates are chosen to represent and vote for the precinct at the county and state levels. These delegates then relay their precinct’s concerns, questions, and ideas directly to the candidates — creating a dialogue between the constituents and the candidates.

While the process is involved, there are certain advantages to it. It forces political candidates to pay attention to all precincts and interact with their delegates personally — no matter how much money they have or how great their campaign machine is. This also ensures rural areas, as well as metropolitan areas, are heard.

Many people have seen the caucus system as favoring those already in power and extremist political factions — myself included. But I’m starting to feel this is a case of “correlation, not causation” so to speak. The caucus system certainly favors the politically active and knowledgeable — which will of course favor the two aforementioned groups. Extremist factions tend to be very politically active and politicians up for re-election already have a base of activists to draw from.

This, to me, is the biggest failing of the caucus system: Our uneducated, apathetic society. In 2012, only 57% of eligible voters voted — and that’s just to get to a booth and put check marks on a ballot. It’s no wonder the caucus system has been overrun by so-called extremists who actually pay attention and get involved in politics. But that’s not a failing of the system, that’s a failing of the voting public.

Primaries

Like the caucus, a primary can be either open or closed. And that’s pretty much where the similarities between caucuses and primaries end.

Primaries are a lot more simple than the caucus. It’s a straight “one person, one vote” deal — which is, I think, the best way for a candidate to be selected.

Because there is less time required from people in a primary it means everyone can truly take part too. Busy parents, educators, and working-class people who might not have the opportunity to take part in a caucus system can easily take a few minutes to vote in a booth.

But there are some notable downsides to this system as well.

Since there are no precinct meetings or delegates, candidates instead focus on raising money for advertisements to reach constituents, largely scaling back one-on-one or local interaction and focusing on high-population areas. The focus on advertisements and fundraising can also turn primaries into a battle of money, with the candidate who has the most all too often coming out on top.

It also reduces the involvement and political acumen needed from voters. Everyone can vote, but not necessarily everyone should. Too many voters, it seems, vote without comprehensively researching or discussing candidates and public policy.

Education and openness

Regardless of whether we ultimately use a caucus system or primary, the key thing that needs to be emphasized is education and open discussion. Politics needs to become something every citizen takes part in and actively discusses with friends, family, neighbors, and colleagues.

Just as important, we need to be able to openly discuss politics. Too much political discussion devolves into shouting matches or hyperbolic rhetoric.

The American political landscape has become a series of echo chambers. Friends, family and neighbors have stopped discussing politics with those who have a different stance, saving their political thoughts for like-minded individuals. Without proper criticism or a different view on things, there’s no way to refine each other’s viewpoints or truly figure out what makes each other tick.

We need to turn off the vitriol of Fox News and MSNBC and talk plainly, but passionately, about the issues that affect our country, especially with those who think differently than us.