Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Big Atheism Post

I was raised Buddhist in what is arguably the most liberal city in the Western Hemisphere: San Francisco. My parents were both raised Christian: my dad was Lutheran and my mom was mainstream Protestant. Both rejected their faiths and converted to Japanese Buddhism before I and my sibling were born.

Japanese Buddhism is weird. Buddhism is all about the illusion of reality. What I was taught to believe, however, was not that reality is an illusion, but that we are our own personal god, and life is about being the very best god that you can be. Along with that is the other stuff typically associated with Buddhism: reincarnation, living a good life, being the change that you want to see in the world. We did a kind of focused meditation/chanting/prayer that was developed and meant to be a way to channel your energy into something positive. Energy and karma were really big focuses of our belief. Negative energy was bad karma. The universe was almost perceived as a living breathing entity that provided energy that we could use. As a sort of thanks, energy was supposed to be put back into the universe in the form of kindness and good deeds.

I never really took it very seriously. As a kid I thought it was a game. I was always encouraged to chant more, but I think my parents remembered how forcefully Christianity was pushed on them and they shied away from being too strong about it.

That isn't to say that I didn't participate in activities. I sure did. I was in the choir, the orchestra, and the hip-hop group. I got to meet the head of the organization ( but it wasn't the first time. I met him in utero, about 3 months before I was born) and he was a very lovely gentleman. His wife was so sweet and supportive.

But like any organization that has a strong central leadership and draws on ancient traditions, it had its flaws. It was terribly sexist and ageist. It was very difficult for a young woman who was growing up faster than her peers to be stuck with people that she couldn't relate to. My sister was learning to play trumpet, and she wanted to play in the jazz band. But she was female, so she couldn't. And she couldn't play in the fife and drum corps, because she played trumpet. People were supposed to report to senior members for 'guidance'. I think my mom strongly disliked the organized proselytizing that was required of people. I was told some incredibly demeaning things about my gender when I was very young. It was about then that I made the decision never to involve myself with anything that told me I was inferior because of my gender.

Combine this with a deep seated suspicion and dislike for organized religion that my father had inculcated in me at a very young age. I remember walking into the kitchen and watching him watch the news of the pope going to some 3rd world country and telling everyone there to 'be fruitful and multiply.' My father was sickened by the abuses of religion, and still is.

Fast forward. The year is 2005. The place is Fresno, the California Bible Belt. I was sitting in a Philosophy of Religion class taught by a gay ex-seminary student (who'd been kicked out for being gay) being lectured on the glories of god by a couple of rather frightening fundamentalists. I was the only Buddhist in the class. There were 3 Jewish kids, a Mormon, and the rest were Catholic or Evangelical.

I am a scientist. I require empirical, reproducible evidence for knowing what I know. The fundamentalist chap was demanding to know why I believed in reincarnation if I required evidence for everything. I sat there and a slow smile spread over my face. I look at him and said "You know, I don't know why." He thought he had triumphed and pushed his case, trying to make the final case for his religion. I didn't know it at the time, but I had simply taken the last step necessary to reject all religion.

Let me tell you, there were some rather scary people in that class. They pulled out all of the creationist canards and threw them at me. I was asked to read a book called "The Case for Christ." I stopped 50 pages in because I couldn't continue to read such utterly fallacious and vapid material. They threw the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics at me (really? Lame) and said they could see micro but not macro evolution. I got asked the "Why are there monkeys?" question so many times I lost count.

The great thing about that class was that my professor encouraged discussion but never let me feel (or get) ganged up on. It was easy to do. I was outnumbered by about 23 to 1. But he called the 3 most vocal fundamentalists out if they got too outrageous in their claims with his flawless memory and grasp of scripture.

I happily and comfortably eschewed religion. I am a little uncomfortable around the overtly religious. I spent several years never really making the final push to atheism until everything I knew about science and my demands for evidence crystallized into something that made a great deal of sense to me. I spent a lot of time watching Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens videos. I was needlessly self-righteous and proselytized until I realized that I was being horrendously hypocritical.

I do not think that science and religion are compatible. In my opinion, it involves a rather serious cognitive disconnect to believe something that has no evidence and then demand evidence for something else. I think that while religion and science are two different ways of knowing the world, science is the one actually grounded in reality, in the here and now. And my primary problem with religion is that it is used as an excuse to do harmful things. The bottom line for me is that if it is harmful, if it removes or denies rights, and if I am forced to behave or live in a certain way because of the legislation of someone else's morality, then I am not okay with it. Evolution should be taught in science class because it is science.Creationism, if it is taught, should be taught in philosophy class because it is not science.

I have friends that are religious or spiritual. My husband is a little spiritual, though he mostly agrees with me on religion. I bear no ill will to people who are religious, but I will defend my views and ask pointed questions when it is brought up. I don't think that religious views are all that worthy of respect, but I will respect the person that holds them. Everyone deserves respect, but if you have silly ideas I will point out that they are silly or that I disagree, and I will try to be extremely clear when I explain why.

I try to live my life in the very best way that I know how: with compassion, integrity, and a dedication to reality. I have a lot of love to give: to my husband, my family, my friends, to nature and the natural world. I try very hard to be a moral, ethical person.

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