Friday, September 29, 2006

Normally I am Abnormal

What is normal? Do we poll the populace, and the most answers wins? If more people have brown hair as compared to red or black or gray or blond or white or none, did “Brown” just become normal? Or is the fact there is variety what should be considered “normal”?

Can we reach a number, where the vast majority of a group contains a characteristic, and must constitute “normal”? If a person is born with 11 fingers, is the fact that 99% of humanity has 10 fingers make the 1% abnormal?

Please understand that “abnormal” is not necessarily bad. If the engine on my car belches black smoke, or if I sneeze blood, my mind recognizes, “Hey that is different” and the deviation from the norm is an indicator that attention is needed. We are constantly on the search for what we think is normal, looking for something out of the normal to draw our attention.

If our child is not speaking as well as other children his age, we focus our attention in that regard. If, however, our child is doing fine, we accept normality as a sign of fitness. As long as our world is progressing in a manner of what we perceive as “normal” we passively allow it to continue in the thought that “normal” means “correct.”

How do I determine what is normal? If everyone else says it, do we have the objectivity to realize that perhaps we could be wrong?

What if you woke up one day, and everyone referred to the color “red” as “gork”? You know what red is. You have always called it “red.” Yet those around you are “As Gork as a Beet.” Or “Stop on a gork light.” Or “Roses are gork.” This would be scary. Do you wonder whether there is an elaborate joke being played on you? Or have you suffered some mental trauma that has effected how you think?

On occasion, I have interacted with people suffering from mental delusions. As I see them fervently believe that the government is monitoring people through teeth fillings, and the dentists are in a giant governmental conspiracy, I wonder—how do you explain that they are abnormal? They are convinced that we are blind fools, and they have woken up in a world where “red” is called “gork” and it is actually “red.” If only the other people could see!

Or on a more tragic note, in the bar fire on Rhode Island where 100 people were killed, many people died that did not have to. Because they followed the crowd that all headed to the front door. What they saw was “normal” was the mass exodus heading in one direction only. I remember reading how many entrances were virtually unused. Because people were following what they thought was “normal” and going in a different direction than the crowd was considered abnormal. And therefore incorrect.

How much of the practice of theism is people thinking, saying, doing and feeling what they perceive as “normal”?

One of the last services I attended, the pastor was talking about temptations, and how we need to commit to avoiding them. He had props for four temptations. I don’t remember what they were, but probably something along the lines of sex, wealth, power and pleasure. At the end of the service, he did a rare “call.” There was no pressure, of course. (And if you believe that, I have a bridge to sell ya!)

He offered to go through the four temptations, and ask that if the person committed working with Christ to flee that temptation, they quietly stand up in their seat. No pressure. First he talked about sex. (Oh. We all have our eyes closed, but nobody does, of course.) Maybe 2% of the audience stands up. Then the pastor says wealth. Now maybe 25% of the audience stands up.

At this point I could script it. Power—40% of the people stand up. (Are there really that many that are tempted by power? Or was it the moment?) At the end, pleasure, the entire rest of the audience, ‘cept little ol’ me, stands up.

My daughter asked me later why I didn’t stand. I asked her, “Do you always do something just because everyone else does? Are you really going to commit, or do you think most people will have forgotten that commitment by the time they unlock their car in the parking lot?”

She admitted that most, including her, would never follow through. “So you just stood up because everyone else was?” She did what she thought was “normal.” To not stand up would be abnormal. Even though it was more likely the truth.

How many other occasions is something ascribed to God, just because the person considers that “normal”? Christians thank God for getting better, getting good parking spots, getting good weather, getting good jobs, getting a raise, getting a child and getting ahead. Is God really controlling the weather patterns over an entire hemisphere of a planet, just so the sun would come out promptly at 2 p.m. on Saturday in time for a football game?

Yet this is what is considered “normal.” In the discussion with theism, I am often told of people having “God Experiences.” Events, or emotions or thoughts that were overwhelming or unique and left the person with the firm conviction that God was involved.

Guess what? We all have those. Standing on beach, watching the sunset, with my children splashing in and out of the water, running back and forth to the campfire, I have a feeling of such peace, wonderment, and happiness, that I truly think that life could not possibly ever get better. That is normal. Before, I would have ascribed that to a “God Experience.” Again, within my circle, and within my beliefs, that would have been “normal.” Now, it would be odd to have the thought of God popping into my head.

In talking with theists, I keep to the forefront of my mind, that to them, the existence of God is “normal.” The idea that such a creature could not exist or that a person could not be convinced of its existence is so “abnormal” as to be unthinkable. I may as well be saying, “The way to safety is to swim to deeper water.” Every part of our being says swim to shallow water. It would be abnormal to swim to deeper water. It is the same with theism. When I say “There is no God” I may as well be saying, “Swim deeper to save yourself.” To a theist, it simply does not compute. It is not normal.

I get it. I really do. But can the theist return the favor? Can you actually believe that it is “normal” for me to not think about God? That I am not angry, I am not rejecting, I am not trumping, I am not “pre-disposed” or “pre-supposed” to there not being a God. That when things go well, or things go sour, in neither situation I am looking for a God?

And no, I do not find theism “abnormal.” Quite the contrary. I find it normal to have a variety of beliefs. It is very human to have differing opinions as to politics, reading material, movies and interests. It is very human to have differing learning skills, and differing teaching methods, and different ways to communicate. We have different levels of proof, different concepts that we find persuasive, and different means of obtaining that information.

When I started this off, I mentioned different hair colors. No one says that a certain hair color is “normal.” Variety is expected and embraced as “normal.” Can we do the same with theistic beliefs? Can we understand that each of us believes differently, and that difference is “normal”? Or must we all have the same God and the same hair color to be normal?

Thursday, September 21, 2006

I don't know

Remember those standardized tests, like the ACT or SAT, or the State tests we took? The No. 2 Pencil? Those four or five ovals that had to be “filled in completely.”? Regardless of the test instructions, or what level of knowledge you had—one thing was certain: If you were running out of time, start filling in boxes. We knew that a blank was a certain incorrect response, but 6 “C’s” in a row could get us one or two more points.

We were taught from a very early age that “Blank answers = wrong answers” so never have a blank answer. “I don’t know” was always unacceptable.

Yeah, we knew that the Capital of Montana was most certainly not “Kentucky” but that is the only thing we could think of. So, we find ourselves putting answers that we knew were almost certainly incorrect. But anything is better than a blank slate.

We grow into it. Imagine having a horrible pain, and after the Doctor sees you and does the diagnostic tests, to hear, “We don’t know.” That is not comforting. We want answers. We want to hear some specific disease with (hopefully) some specific cure.

Time and again, my clients insist on knowing what will happen. Being in a system comprised of people, I often must claim: “I don’t know.” “But what are the odds?” is the follow-up question. Anything, ANYTHING is better than a blank unknown.

We do not want to hear “I don’t know” from our mechanic, our plumber, our accountant, our baby-sitter or our counselor. People do not want an “I don’t know.” That is an unacceptable answer. We have questions, we demand solutions. I once went on a vacation with such a person. It was exhausting.

“What are we doing tomorrow?”
“Not sure. Haven’t thought about it.”
“Well, what time are we having breakfast/”
“Mmm…when we get up.”

“What time will that be?”
“I don’t know, I was planning on sleeping in to the point even my dreams are trying to wake me up.”
“So who is making breakfast?”

Arggg. I find the same propensity in theism. Although it employs the “God is mysterious” enough as it is, even the idea of God is some sort of fill-in-the-blank.

Sure, I do not know how abiogenesis occurred. When asked the question, I must frankly state, “I don’t know.” That does not make it any worse than the theist that trumpets, “A-ha! I have an answer—God did it!” Big deal. You didn’t leave it blank. Neither did the fellow who claimed Kentucky is the capital of Montana. Does not make it any more correct.

And when I start to inspect this God, used to so conveniently fill in this blank, I start to uncover more blanks. Some the theist insists on filling (when they don’t really know the answer) others even they must leave blank.

Recently we were discussing a Greek word. It was a word Paul completely made up—a first use. What does it mean? The best answer (since Koine Greek is a dead language, and we are uncertain as to the use of this word, what the writer intended and what the reader perceived) is “I don’t know.” It may be followed by, “It could possibly mean ___” but it should be prefaced with “I don’t know.”

But a Christian doesn’t want to say that. This is “God’s Inspired Word.” The only written communication from God to humans. “I don’t know” is not helpful in one’s relationship with God. Therefore, better to dogmatically hold a position, rather than utter the words, “I don’t know.”

Is it that bad we do not know the author of Matthew, Mark, Luke or John? Is “I don’t know” in this regard so dangerous, that we must hold on, with both hands, our teeth and one foot, to the traditional authorship claims? Yet when it comes to Hebrews, “I don’t know” becomes perfectly acceptable.

Or worse, when it comes to relating with each other, many people do not know when to shut up and say, “I don’t know.” Oh, they may start off with that, but it is too often followed with “Perhaps God….” And then the knife comes out. It looks like this in the Sunday School class:

“Why is God putting me through this hard time?
”I don’t know. Perhaps…” [here it comes] “…you have unresolved sin in your life?”
“…perhaps God is teaching you patience?”
“…perhaps the Devil is tempting you?”
“…perhaps you need to trust God more?”

Just once it would have been a relief to hear, “You know. I haven’t got a flipping clue as to why God would allow that. I know I sure wouldn’t if I was God.”

But no theist dares say that.

One of the greatest releases of deconverting was the ability to say, “I don’t know.” I don’t know who wrote what books in the Bible. I don’t know how time could start. (I have read on it—still don’t know.) I do not know why some people get cancer at age 28, and some children get better genes than others. I do not know why one of my children is good at soccer, another at drama, and another at being a unique personality.

I have become comfortable with turning in my paper, and numerous blanks left blank. I can say, “I do not know the answer. I am happy with what I do know; I do not need to have every blank filled in, just to claim I have the blanks filled in.”

I am happy to learn. I like to fill in what was previously a blank. But I find more and more, I am just as happy to say, “I know more what could be in that blank—but that does not mean I am ready to fill it in yet.”

Sunday, September 10, 2006

The more things change, the more they stay the same

I remember very well my first continuing education class. Looking back on my education, I had attended elementary school, high school, college and graduate school. I had received my final diploma. But in a profession, in order to keep up with the changing times, we take occasional classes.

Within the first minutes of this continuing education class, a gentleman who was easily 20 years my senior raised his hand to ask a question. “Isn’t it true,” he starts and then launches into a long drawn-out question that really wasn’t a question but more a demonstration of the depth of his knowledge in the area.

My first thought was, “I can’t believe it! I thought I had left you long ago. We had one of you in high school. One of you in college. One of you in Law school. And just when I thought I could finally escape this nonsense, there you are again!

As I looked around this class of maybe 40, and we spent the next eight hours together, I realized they were all there. Every one of them. Sure they had big impressive degrees now—doctorates—but nothing changed.

The take-furious-notes-on-everything-said, and in the process killing numerous trees person was there. Did they ever look at those notes again? I mean seriously, it might be shorter to tape the thing and hear it over and over and over…

The wacky-question guy. You know. The one that starts off with “What if…” and then provides a hypothetical that could not possibly happen unless the earth turned upside down, but there it is.

The sit-in-front-girl. Yeah, the one that immersed themselves in the course, talked to the teacher afterwards, and acted as if they were obtaining the cure for cancer.

The read-another-book-in-class person. The doodler. The tapping-pencil-drummer-wannabe. The sleeper. The duck-out-early guy. (*cough, cough……me*)

I honestly think if we spent another day together we would have separated into jocks, nerds, druggies and cool kids.

I have become involved in my children’s soccer programs. And as I work within these programs, I start to recognize the same personalities, and the same situations as my former Churches.

I missed the socialization and interaction of church. If you look back at my blog, it was one of the first things I blogged about. Being human, I have sought out other areas in which to socialize. And I see realize that there is no difference in the humans involved. I see the same me when being involved in church as being a soccer dad.

If you attend church, you know the person who actively takes charge and runs numerous programs. They are in charge of VBS. They often are in charge of the kid’s programs, or Adult Sunday school. Rarely are they the actual Chairman of the Board, or even the Chairperson of the committee. They leave those titles for others. They are there to get things done.

Our soccer association staged a tournament, inviting other soccer associations to come along. The person that got things done was not the Head of the association. At best at the manager level. But everyone that wanted to know what was going on, or what to do went to her. Even the head of the association.

There is the person that has to have things organized. Everything alphabetical. The “1997 taxes” in the “1997” folder. There is the person that never has a title, never has a specific responsibility, but faithfully is there from early in the morning to late at night, working constantly, whether folding papers, picking up garbage, directing traffic—whatever.

And, unfortunately, there are equally the others. The parents that are never involved, never do anything, but complain about how everything that is being done is being done incorrectly. HA! Admit it! As soon as I said that, a name popped into your mind. Maybe at church, maybe at school, at work or some other activity. Always there, aren’t they?

Or the persons that simply are never, ever are involved and are so inactive that complaining is too much. Oh, you know they exist, because their children magically appear at the start of the program, and disappear at the end. And you could swear you once saw the back of their head in the mini-van as they left the parking lot.

Or the person that develops a pet project, and we absolutely MUST drop everything else in our lives and become fully immersed in this project, as it is SO important. But if you have a request, they are far, far too busy.

The person always late, the person always early, the person that shows up every week for two straight months in a row, begging to be involved, and then disappears until next year. The person you can always count on to substitute teach, and therefore is always substitute teaching. The benefactor. The busy-body. The Butcher, the Baker, the Candle-stick maker.

As I looked about the various persons (call me “the person-who-labels-others”) there is no difference in a group of soccer parents and a church. None. Oh, the topic is different, to be sure, but substitute “Jesus” for “soccer” and I think the conversations and personalities are interchangeable.

“It seems Jesus/Soccer has fulfilled my life.”
“My Sunday/Saturday revolved around Jesus/Soccer.”
“Are you coming to the Game/Church?”
“Want to do something after soccer/Church?”
“Jesus/Soccer has focused my child’s attention.”

See how neat that works? While we don’t pray to soccer, we hope just as earnestly that our kid can score. We do cheer louder than church allows!

I have noticed, and talked before on how little changes in the morals between a believer and a non-believer. Equally, I see no change in personalities. Is there anything different, anything divine about a Church? Should there be?

Should we have the complaining and grumbling in churches? I would think that asking for workers would mean that each time churches would have to turn people away. In a church, with persons touched by divinity, we should hear, “I am sorry, but we don’t need any more people. Maybe next time you can help,” rather than what I so often heard: “Gulp. Uh…I hate ask you…I know you just did this last week and all…but no one else can…” (read “will”) “Is it possible for you to help out just this one more time? I promise that next week we will have someone…”

We have all sorts of arguments about theism. Philosophic, scientific, emotional, and rationale. While it may not be convincing to others, one of the strongest reasons I see no God, is that I see no divine touch.

If I placed you in a continuing legal education class, a parent-teacher association, or a church, and turned down the volume on the speaker—could you tell the difference? Could you say, “There is something different about the people in that last group.” Or, like me, do you pick out the same persons with different names and different faces. But the same persons.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

So Your Friend is Deconverting...

Recently I have observed various conversations regarding deconvert’s relationships with friends, and I thought a primer for the friends would be helpful.

O.K. Your friend has come to you with the announcement that he is atheist, or agnostic, or deist; in some way has become convinced the God you two shared is non-existent. Is not reality. What do you do?

Bail out.

Yes, I know it sounds harsh, abrupt and a violation of some code, but let’s face it—he changed the rules, not you. Hey, if he came to you and said he always wanted to be a woman and was having a sex-change operation next week, he wouldn’t expect the relationship to stay the same, true? Of if you informed him that you were moving to Antarctica to study ice flow for the next four years, he would not expect the relationship continue as is, right?

In life—things change. And relationships may change or even end with those changes. God is a large…no, HUGE part of your life. You pray, and study every day. You go to church. Your friends and family all center on your beliefs. If he does not want to be part of it, that is his choice. He cannot expect YOU to all of a sudden drop everything you know is true, simply because he is having “issues.”

Remember that time when you went out looking for dates, and that one girl said she would never date a football player, and you both laughed and laughed since the place was full of football players? You are sure she was a great person, and may be off married to a dancer or artist somewhere, but she was simply in the wrong crowd. You know he is a great guy, but just like that he is in the wrong crowd. “Birds of a feather…” and all that. Better for him to go find some atheist or agnostic buddies.

You just don’t have as much in common any more. What are you going to do Saturday night? Is he going to come to Small Group with you? Not hardly. Or Sunday lunch. Hard to discuss the sermon, or what is happening at church if he is not even there, right?

And how can you discuss anything spiritually with him? How God is impacting your life, or how prayer was answered? He thinks it is all baloney, now! You might even be offended, if he raises an eyebrow when you mention how God gave great weather for Sunday’s…er…Saturday’s church golf outing. What kind of relationship is that?

No, best for both of you to end it here. No need to send a letter, or note explaining your position. When you don’t return his calls, and stop inviting him over for your annual July 4th picnic, you can be sure he will get the message. Besides, you are certain by then he has all his agnostic buddies to hang around and enjoy life here. Because for a non-believer Earth is the best they will ever get, but for a believer, Earth is the worst they will ever get. Nuts, he doesn’t even understand THAT anymore.

Bail out. Be done with it. Not your fault, but what is done is done. He made his bed, he can lie in it.

What are you still reading for?

The primer is done.

I am quite serious, that this is the best way for these friendships to go.


You want more. Right? You want something more hopeful, more helpful, more life-giving rather than “end it.” Well, you can try and continue it, but that takes hard work. Maybe some of the hardest work in a friendship. Maybe more than you want to commit.

All right. I will give some insight, but I warn you—probably better to end the primer right here than read on.

Commit one meeting a week with your friend (Hey, I said it would not be easy.)

Deconverting is a mixed-up feeling. He does not know whether he feels like a widower on a cruise ship of honeymooners or a honeymooner on a cruise ship of widowers. Part of it is a feeling of presenting harsh reality to a group of happy-go-lucky believers, and partly a feeling of a whole new world of reality to a miserable group of dejected followers. He wants to share new information, yet not be overt offensive.

Mostly likely he did not deconvert through face-to-face discussion, but rather through on-line discussion, or reading, or internal reflection. Now he wants to actually talk to a real, live person about some of the thoughts and feelings of what he went through.

You see, most of his friends will opt to bail out. The community which he grew up in, the one he is most familiar with, chooses to have nothing to do with him. Worse, they have damned him to a state of apostasy, and would force him to keep his new ideas to himself.

He has no one to actually talk about what has happened.

Before, as his life progressed, he could share some things with one person, others with another, and have various friends interacting with him on various levels. That is now gone. To even have one friend once a week, actually desire to talk with him would be a real treat.

It would not be easy. There would be things you do not want to hear, and words that would not be pleasant. There are concepts and ideas that are foreign to you and you cannot wrap your hands about even contemplating them. Neither could he one year ago, and now he embraces them.

Humans are social creatures. Deconverts are no different. He will first look for interaction with what he is familiar—his current set of friends. You very likely will be the only one that reciprocates.

Forget judgmental talk

How much water can you fit in a one-gallon bucket? No matter how much you pour and pour, the most you can fit is one gallon. After that, all the pouring in the world makes no difference—no more water is going to fit.

After interacting with theists on-line, your friend the deconvert has certain buckets that are full. You saying it again will make no difference. The following buckets are full:

“You really know there is a God.”
“You hate answering to authority, so you hate God.”
“You want to be God.”
“The wisdom of the world is foolishness.”
“You were never saved in the first place.”

Frankly, deconverts have heard those phrases time and time (and time) again. He knows you think it. He knows that it these are truths that are so grounded in your being they make “2 + 2 = 4” possibly more inaccurate. But he doesn’t need to hear it again.

Interestingly, you can still get the point across, but in the form of a question, rather than an accusation. Instead of saying, “You really know there is a God” you could say, “When you were a Christian, you thought Romans 1 was divinely inspired. As you know, it indicates that all humans know there is a God. How did you deal with that?”

You may not like the answer. But it comes across so much nicer in question form, rather than indictment form.

He knows you cannot fathom the concept that another person can believe, to the very core of their being, there is no God. He knows that you must question his sincerity in saying that. But rather than blurt it out, keep it to yourself. If he calls himself a former Christian, there is not a single ounce of harm to agree.

Yes, you have a duty to speak truth. Yes, you will choke on the words that state he was a Christian. But do you really want to argue “truth” with someone that you are convinced is lying to themselves? What is the gain? Let it go.

Stow the assertions; ask questions instead.

You may have to study

If you are really interested in empathizing to some degree as to what he went through, you may have to pick up a book and read. It will not be a book you would normally choose.

Deconverts become deconverts through study. They have read numerous books, and articles, and forums, and blogs, and have analyzed as best they can, 1000’s of pages of documents. It is a compliment to acknowledge that study with at least reading one measly book.

Ask for a recommendation from your friend for one (1) book. Explain that you have no interest in deconverting, but, because they are your friend, you are interested in what they are interested in. Read the book, take notes, and point out to your friend everywhere it was wrong, or did not resonant with you.

For your friend, this will do two things. First, it will demonstrate your interest and the fact you actually read it. Second it will give him an opportunity to show you there is not always one side to every story.

Give it time

Surprisingly, you will find that he did not change as much as you expected. He still likes the same food. He still laughs at the same jokes, plays the same tricks, and tells the same stupid stories. He may even still go to church.

He will not announce he has become a homosexual swinger, due to the release of a theistic moral system. He will not ask you to join him in bank robberies, murder sprees and village pillaging, due to this new moral ideal.

You may also find that he becomes less and less interested in discussing theism, as the hours you have spent were just enough of a release valve, which he can vent elsewhere. Eventually he will remember that he wants you, too, as a friend, and you may not want to talk about evolution every single time you meet.

And while your relationship will be different, no doubt, on many levels it can be much deeper. You might even, someday, tell others that you have an atheist, agnostic or deist for a friend when it is not a prayer request!