Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Morality & Spiritual Atheism

--by Mike Adams

It was the late fall of 1998 and I was seeing disturbing coverage of tragic and vile events in another state. I became aware of a sensation advancing from my abdomen at an alarming rate infiltrating every outpost of my nervous system imbuing me with a ferocity that I truly feared. News reports drifted from the television across the room inundating my senses, leaving me in a deluge of deep shame for humanity. I understood on a personal level for perhaps the first time in my adult life how one could without compunction, deny the humanity of another, ontologically, relegating them to the category of barely human refuse...a waste of food and oxygen. I was seeing detailed reports of how Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson had picked up Matthew Shepard at the Fireside Lounge in Laramie, Wyoming. I learned how they had tortured Matthew, tied him to the bumper of their vehicle, dragged him behind the vehicle on a dirt road, tied him to a wooden fence and left him there to die alone. This was disturbing enough on its own, but I was unprepared for the vile disgust I felt for Rev. Fred Phelps and his followers, who arrived at Matthew Sheppard's funeral with signs and banners declaring, "Matt Shepard rots in Hell", "AIDS Kills Fags Dead" and "God Hates Fags".

The intensity of my ire was concerning, I had been sober for only three years and in AA, we learn to deal with resentment immediately, so I began asking my ambiguous higher power for relief from my anger...for some measure of serenity. During the previous three years, my relationship with a Higher Power, my spiritual life and my continued sobriety had been paramount in my life, indeed my precarious grip on sobriety and possibly on life absolutely depended on my spiritual wellbeing. For three years, I had taken regular moral inventories, directly amended the harms I had caused and constantly engaged in a search to enlarge my spiritual life. The result of those actions was a sense of worth and of spiritual strength.

I could, therefor, not understand how people claiming to serve God could act in a vile, hateful and callous manner like Phelps and his followers. The very basis of my spiritual practice strictly precluded me from similar actions. I couldn't even afford to entertain extreme emotions of disgust towards Phelps or Matthew's killers. For me that kind of disgust verges on hatred, which can undermine the kind spiritual strength that I had developed. My understanding of God's will for humanity had me strenuously participate in service to others, I worked to increase my compassion and to carry my good news to any who needed and wanted it
Under the circumstances, I wanted to make a difference, but I couldn't imagine what to do about Matthew Sheppard. I couldn't imagine what would allow me to comfort his friends and family or to seek justice on his behalf. Having no ideas for direct action, I resolved to work for the realization of a world, where no one would be subjected to the callous and evil treatment that Matthew had endured.

Around this time, I received word that a friend of mine was sick and that hospice had been called. A few years earlier, I had taken a job as a caregiver for mentally and physically disabled adults in a group home. Despite limitations imposed by their varied disabilities, the residents were like everyone else, in that they could be simultaneously inspiring and irritating, gentle and vindictive, in short ordinary people, whom I grew to love over the course of a few years. I had started a new line of work but when I heard that my favorite resident, a quadriplegic man had suffered a resurgence of cancer, that it was inoperable and he wouldn't be with us much longer, I rearranged my schedule to ensure that I could visit him regularly during the last weeks of his life. One night, after he slipped into a coma, I sat at his bedside with two other people and as John took his last breath, I held his hand. I reflected that despite his having suffered much in life, he had been fortunate to be surrounded by people who loved him as he walked that last length of life's path. It was a privilege to be there as the last glimmer of his human life flickered and extinguished. The power of that moment is inexorable, the surprise was how it reminded me of Dennis Sheppard's words to McKinney and Henderson at their sentencing trial in court:

By the end of the beating, his body was just trying to survive. You left him out there by himself, but he wasn't alone. There were his lifelong friends with him—friends that he had grown up with. You're probably wondering who these friends were. First, he had the beautiful night sky with the same stars and moon that we used to look at through a telescope. Then, he had the daylight and the sun to shine on him one more time—one more cool, wonderful autumn day in Wyoming. His last day alive in Wyoming. His last day alive in the state that he always proudly called home. And through it all he was breathing in for the last time the smell of Wyoming sagebrush and the scent of pine trees from the snowy range. He heard the wind—the ever-present Wyoming wind—for the last time. He had one more friend with him. One he grew to know through his time in Sunday school and as an acolyte at St. Mark's in Casper as well as through his visits to St. Matthew's in Laramie. He had God.

I feel better knowing he wasn't alone.

Sometimes through tragedy, people find grace. We can never be sure exactly where it comes from, but those moments of grace are what interest me today. They may be found in the face of overwhelming tragedy, in the tender good night ritual a parent has with a young child or the incredible charity that follows a natural disaster. Whatever the source, there is a deep reservoir of peace and generosity inside most people and when that reservoir runs free, it can inspire all who are touched to acts of generosity, compassion and grace. Some attribute this bent toward unconditional love to the shapeless hand of God inspiring the human will, others suggest that we access a sort of universal consciousness or over soul but the explanation which makes most sense to me is that human grace and compassion our an integral part of our genetic coding. That when our ancestors faced extinction roughly one hundred thousand years ago, they were forced to pull together and make communal organizations in a way that had never been done before.

Our ancestors then developed the ability to make long term plans, which would unfold over the course of several years, they developed complex communication and abstract thought. They learned to place greater importance on communal welfare than individual ambition. Those who served selfish ambition were likely ostracized and unable to procreate. After several generations, humanity's ancestors had developed a genetic predisposition towards social cohesion, giving genesis to our modern notion of morality.

On it's most basic level, that morality resonates deeply with most people and many of us yearn for a world where human relations are ruled by basic moral values which preclude killing, stealing, lying and which encourage charity and community spirit. In my experience, fundamental moral values are necessary for a vibrant spiritual life. It is true that among varied religious theologies, there are numerous disputes about specific articles of morality, for example many religions denounce homosexuality as evil, while others, like ours believe discrimination is the actual sin.

Omitting theological controversies, there are spiritual and moral principles common to most beliefs, which can, if nourished, blossom into a vibrant sense of spiritual wellbeing. My spiritual exploration began in 1995, with my joining AA, since then, I have attended several churches or retreats, studied and debated various theologies and philosophies and I have visited numerous locations thought to be holy or powerful. I experienced an unexpected twist in 2008, when my wife's cousin, who is also sober, asked if I had heard about the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster or "FSM". Since I hadn't, she sent me a web link and a note saying she thought I would find FSM entertaining. I read Bobby Henderson's open letter to the Kansas City School Board, which opens by applauding the school board's decision to split science class time in half. One half dedicated the theory of evolution, the other half used to teach intelligent design. Henderson indicates this is a good start but points out that there may be numerous intelligent design theories, and asks that equal class time be given to the theory that a Flying Spaghetti Monster, who controls both matter and time created the universe. Henderson creatively employs creationist arguments to support his FSM theory and ultimately claims that "Flying Spaghetti Monsterism" must be taught by someone wearing pirate regalia. Henderson provides a chart illustrating an inverse relationship between the population of pirates and global temperatures over the past 200 years, proving FSM's anger at the decline in pirate populations and demonstrating FSM's preference for pirates above others.

After reading Henderson's letter, I quickly joined online FSM forums, where I found FSM "followers" or "Pastafarians" to be intelligent, witty and refreshing. Periodically, an evangelizing Christian would join an FSM forum looking for Christian converts at which point, they would be engaged in lively and amusing debates. If the missionary persisted, Pastafarians would gently chide them, resulting in occasional complaints, which Pastafarians would respond to by asking what they expected when they sought Christian converts on a forum of atheists who claim membership a religion called "Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster" and who often post in Pirate Dialect?

The Pastafarian's disarming wit and indisputable logic converted me, I rejected the notion of a supreme being, particularly one which is interested in humanity. My loss of faith in God was disquieting, I worried about my sobriety, about my spiritual condition and about my morality. I tried for a short while to regain faith and forget the argument that if there had been any supreme being who wanted us to live a certain way, it would have left very clear and unmistakable instructions, leaving us no doubt and no basis for argument, controversy or misunderstanding. But without those divine instructions, I could no longer believe in God. My concern was that without God, morality lacks any basis in universal divine wisdom and it seemed that morality must therefor, be entirely subjective.

To my relief, as time continued her relentless march, I never lost my moral values. To the contrary, I realized that with no universal reward or justice, the choices we make about how to live, how to treat each other and how we care for this planet are of greater importance now than I had previously thought. Without God...when there is only us, with our genetic predisposition towards morality, with the suffering we experience, with the suffering we cause and with the suffering we are willing to tolerate, we become the sole source of evil. We are the masterminds, perpetrators and teachers of ill deed...We also have the power to end evil.

So while grace may indeed be something we plug into, I don't believe we plug into any ethereal over soul or receive any divine inspiration. Rather, I think we recognize and embrace an innate, genetic inclination towards moral behavior. We access a fundamental building block, which links us not only to the whole of humanity, but to all life on this planet. Our genetic code contains a wondrous history, chronicling life on this planet, linking us to the evolutionary miracle that continues to unfold. Our very building blocks are a tether to the interdependent web of existence. Far from endangering my spiritual quest or moral life, atheism illustrated to me the immediate necessity of living well. It made paramount the effort to create a just and compassionate world, to employ spiritual principles, to try my best to do right by my fellow travelers as I traverse the labyrinth of life's path.

I can no longer afford to be mollified by any promise that someday marriage equality will be realized, that it is inevitable and that now isn't the right time to push...there are too many loving souls who's rights are being denied right now, whose short, and precious lives are in a sense being sacrificed to quiet the chorus of bigotry.

I can no longer relax with complete contentment knowing that the sphere of my relations and loved ones are cared for, when I know that millions in my extended human family are being forced into economic, sexual or religious slavery. That they are chained to drudgery and made to cede a significant measure of their one fragile and precarious life to serve the remorseless avarice of others.

Faced with what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called the fierce urgency of now, I can not be truly at peace when I know that throngs of brothers and sisters, parents and grandparents, children and infants live in terror every day. That they are ravaged with the invisible emotional scars of wars and conflicts that they never invited and over which they have no control.

We all have one delicate, precarious and precious life. We get to decide how we will use that life, what we will serve with that life, who we will touch with that life. This congregation's mission statement ends with the words "Living our seven principles, we bring justice and compassion to our congregation, to our community, to our world. We are a beacon of Hope!"

That is a mighty declaration! It is inspiring and worthy of our efforts. Let us stand together, journey together and work together in service of animating that mission with breath and soul. Let us be that beacon of hope lighting the way...creating a world, where Matthew Shepard could have lived a long and happy life, meeting his end in the same manner as my friend in the group home, surrounded by loved ones and embraced by community. Let us stand strong on our values in the face of dissent and hold high the shining torches of our Unitarian and Universalist legacies. Let us do this for ourselves and for our posterity. Let us have courage, strength and wisdom! Let us be kind yet firm. Let it be so!

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Tara's Credo Statement

I asked my wife to post this piece, which she wrote...I hope you enjoy it!
What follows is the credo statement I have worked up today after participating in Building Your Own Theology, a class offered at our church (Unitarian Church of Los Alamos) where we explored our beliefs about ethics, reality, human nature and the sacred, plumbing our religious history for what we have learned, rejected, what we choose to keep, where we are now.
The credo is supposed to be a statement of my beliefs about the nature of humanity, Ultimate Reality/God, the relationship between these and then the ethics and necessities this lends to my life.

I believe that to be human is to constantly encounter Paradox.
The consciousness that I have developed as I gained the ability to produce language tells me that I am separate and whole unto myself, with unique thoughts, perspectives and traits. In fact, my individuality is what makes me who I am—the uniquely valued wife of my husband, daughter of my parents, mother to my three boys. Yet, at the same time, I am just one iteration of an evolving Universe fully beyond my understanding. My bones, skin and brain are particles of stardust that have existed since the moment Existence ever was, and will take another form after me, time and time again. I will someday exist as matter that no one will recognize, in memories of others that tell only part or half the truth of my story. No matter who I am or was at the end of my days, one day I will surely be part of everything, something unrecognizable.
As part of the fundamental toolbox of my humanity, I can create ideals of justice and compassion out of the thin air of imagination and declaration. I can nurture, heal, transform, give meaning, lend comfort. And, inescapably, I will hurt, self-deceive, and participate in systems that bring death and suffering to fellow humans, fellow animals. My instinct to personally survive, to garner resources, to bring the world as it is into accordance with the world as I need to see it, sometimes wins out over the possibility of Beauty or Compassion or Wisdom, no matter how dear I hold these ideals. I think that we are unwise when we place unwarranted faith in human nature to be anything other than as it is, but I find in the compassion and understanding that I can have for that nature, a peace with the world and a way to practice love.
I think human beings create a concept of God to allow them to connect in some way with that part of themselves that is an expression of what is possible and beautiful, that part of ourselves in which we can quietly find peace and acceptance, that part of our DNA that reacts with love and recognition to all other living things. I do not think that there is a God that is sentient, in any sense larger than that the concept encompasses the sentience of those creatures who happen to have it. I do not think that there exists a God that has a plan of any kind, that the Universe is travelling in a predictable direction, or that inherent fairness from a source larger than humanity will win the day. While thinking these things may lend comfort to me, and has in the past, I find that wrestling with the task that a masterless Universe presents me with makes me a better person, a person who cannot just sigh to myself in the face of suffering that “God simply has a plan that we don’t understand” and turn away, but am called upon to lend a hand or face the consequences of my inaction.
The ethical creed that arises for me out of my understanding of humanity and Ultimate Reality makes it necessary for me to question everything, to be wary of any and all absolutes that I am offered. I can offer Wisdom in the form of my unique point of view, and so I try to. I can bring Compassion and so I actively strive to bring compassion to my relations with other people and creatures. I can create reality with the words I speak and so I conduct myself with Integrity to whatever extent I can muster. In a world that can prove no absolute truth of any kind, where our understandings of the machinations of nature are a moving target, where absolute ethics exist only in the form of societal agreements fortified by the imperative that we survive as social creatures, I still find Beauty to be everywhere and human beings most beautiful of all. I see this as the unconditional love that a family has for all of its members. The world and human beings are deeply flawed and imperfect and I love them because they are mine and I live with them. I know no better way to live here than to love the world, just as it is, as it seems, as it spins out its meaningless, gorgeous threads that make up the tapestry of history, and in which we all find our own pattern there to see.
I will end with the thoughts of Ysaye Barnwell of Sweet Honey in the Rock, who has written in her beautiful song, “We Are”:
For each child that’s born a
“A morning star rises
And sings to the universe
Who we are.

We are our grandmother’s prayers.
We are our grandfather’s dreamings.
We are the breath of our ancestors.
We are the spirit of God.

We are Mothers of Courage
Fathers of time
Daughters of dust
Sons of great vision.
We are
Sisters of Mercy
Brothers of love
Lovers of life and
The builders of nations.
We are
Seekers of truth
Keepers of faith
Makers of peace and
The wisdom of ages.”