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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 life...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!

12 comments:

  1. Pirate speaking Pastafarians? I love the vast creativity of my fellow man and, I'm with you,I have no tolerance for bully and bigots. Excellent post Michael.

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  2. LOL...pirate speaking pastafarians! I haven't been on the forums in quite a while, but they are some incredibly amusing people. Thanks for your comments Ms. Gene Pool Diva!

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  3. Beeeautiful written, Mr. Adams! Be kind and yet firm!

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  4. Thank you Beachlover! This was one of my favorite sermons. I appreciate your kind words!

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  5. Well played sir, well played. lol. I loved it, quoted it, and its getting shared right now. I especially love your affiliation with the UUC.

    Standing ovation!

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    1. Thanks Morticia4ever! This was one of my first sermons and it was difficult to finish. I worked on it and re-wrote it dozens of times for a year or more prior to getting it "right". I feel the message is so important and it ties into so many problems we face today with bullying and hatred, etc... Thanks Again!

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  6. Thank you for sharing this post. I actually came to find it through you posting it on Dan's blog.

    I love this line you wrote, "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."

    You see I am an advocate for grace. I believe grace is the game changer in life... Unmerited, radical, gorgeous, breath-taking grace changes lives and that it becomes a ripple effect through the lives of those around it.

    I write about grace and love often, it is the heartbeat of most of my writing and this blog from a bit ago came to my mind as I read yours... Just wanted to share: http://wp.me/pLcYj-5r

    Grace & Peace & a deep thank you for your words -

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    1. Thank you for your post lovegraceandhope. I love receiving comments like yours. Well, honestly any comments are great as I'm never sure that anything I say goes anywhere LOL. I'll look forward to viewing the link you shared. Thanks again.

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  7. I think this might be my favorite of your posts that I've read thus far. I was heartsick when Matthew Shepard's story came to light. Angry and indignant, but mostly bereaved. For him. For what he must have felt and how he surely suffered. For humanity. For what that crime--and the reactions that followed--said about the world. For what lives in those men to be capable of committing such an act against another human being. For all of it. It was overwhelming.

    But you're right. We are beacons and we can create a better world. It is, I truly believe, within our power to transform the world to one where injustice, war, homelessness, hatred, and evil simply disappear and all that it takes (as simple and complicated as this is) is for people to stop, quiet, and then listen to and honor the voice within. The one that knows with certainty what is right and operates on nothing more than love and truth.

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    1. Thank you Ms. Word Nerd! This sermon was in the works for a very long time before I completed it. There was a lot to germinate on. I finally finished after seeing a production by Julia Sweeney called, "Letting Go of God":
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bqh53RCkURQ

      Thanks Again!

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  8. The story of that poor kid -- tied to the post, dying, within minutes of his loved ones yet so far away, all alone -- shook me to my core when it happened years ago and it still disturbs me greatly. This kind of viciousness I had seen before, but in war time. It flabbergasted me that people could carry such hatred to have this much disregard to a human life.

    It's when I become conscious of this kind of cruelty that I doubt the existence of God... that He could be so benevolent yet let people die such horrible deaths, that He created so many beautiful things and created these kinds of monsters capable of inflicting this kind of horror. Great post Mike, as usual!

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    1. Thank you Megan! I cried when I first heard about Matthew Shepard. At some point in my spiritual journey, when I was a vague theist, I developed the belief that god is a hands off god. That it is available to us, when we need spiritual strength to survive, but has no direct involvement in how the universe unfurls. I believed that god most certainly did NOT have a plan for me, because if god had a plan for people, some people's plan was to be kidnapped at a young age and forced into a life as a sex slave. This was a god I couldn't accept, so I decided god was a hands off god. Later, I decided I don't really believe in god. I believe there is a power greater than myself, but not so much a higher power, if you catch my drift and certainly nothing that is interested, particularly, in my life. I don't have a problem with theists...not at all, I have been one and reserve the right to be again. What I have a problem with is cruelty and bigotry, etc...

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