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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Appreciations are the Way (My Personal Tao)


Marriage, Fidelity, and on Buddhism
Yes, it is an eclectic series of topics. I was asked a few questions by the Christian author of the blog Wide as the Waters. Obviously I felt they were good questions, so without further delay, here are the questions:

What is your opinion of Christian morality regarding sexual fidelity both before and after marriage?

What about it’s constraints concerning homosexuality? I am just curious how your views of those issues track with those of other atheists.

Also, regarding your wife’s Buddhism, do you think Buddhism presents an accurate view of human nature and reality? Why?

Just as a preface, I’d like to remind my readers that I like to think that I have a unique insight to both the Christian position and secular position with regard to these questions. This month I turned 31 years old, and it marks the one year anniversary of my deconversion from Christianity. Now, with respect to the questions, I am going to come right out and say it, atheism has nothing to say on these subjects as it is not a belief system in and of itself. Rather, I find that atheism is the end product of critical thinking, free inquiry, scientific reasoning, and a healthy skepticism. Yet that does not mean my atheism cannot be informed by other appreciations (which I’ll get to momentarily).

Bygone Times: God wants your sons and daughters—not your vegetables!
First, I will begin by making a short statement about homosexuality. When it comes to being a homosexual I am fairly ignorant. I do not know what it is like to be a homosexual anymore than I know what it is truly like to be a woman. Likewise, I do not know what it means to be a black man or an Eskimo, or any other race or gender. Of course, I know many homosexuals, and this year I have learned a lot about it from a gay friend who helped clear up some misconceptions I had. At any rate, what we need to realize that homosexuality is not the way a person chooses to act or behave, but rather, it is how they are made. It’s genetic, it’s natural, and the more comfortable you are with that fact the less likely you will be to make the mistake that homosexuality is anything but an alternative—and prevalent—biological condition. If you can’t accept the fact that homosexuality is a natural condition, then it’s up to you to explain why the past fifty years of genetic research is wrong and you are right.

When it comes to Christianity, however, I firmly feel that the Christian policy with regard to homosexuality is just as ill-conceived as the Christian policy of what to do to Jews who pick up sticks on a Saturday. It appears the Biblical attitude toward homosexuals stems from a Bronze aged mentality. This primitive mentality is consistently being reflected in scripture as well as Christian thought. But it is this archaic thinking, in fact, for why the morality of the Bible is not compatible with today’s evolved moral concerns.

If the Bible is to be considered a moral source, let alone a moral authority, it has to do better than representing the blinkered thinking of goat herders. The God of the Bible, both OT and NT, demands blood sacrifice. This reeks of a primitive, nomadic, goat herding era when blood sacrifice dominated the thinking and acted as a covenant between men and God (i.e., a spurious supernatural claim at best). Purity and cleansing rituals were part of the desert lifestyle, and this finds its way into the religious rites and rituals of early Judaism. If the Christian God was all knowing, however, he would have saw fit to teach his people how to set up agricultural farms, with fully functioning irrigation aqueducts, and so forth. After all, the technology did exist back then. Herod the great made great use of aquifers and aqueducts when he built Caesarea. But no, instead of sacrificing a bushel of carrots, asparagus, and a healthy courgette to the God of the Hebrews, goats were slaughtered and occasionally virgin maidens, just for good measure.


Needless to say, the meat eating culture of a pre-agricultural era requires extensive kosher rules. After all, eating meat gone bad would make one deathly ill. If you’ve ever had a bout of food poisoning, then you’ll know exactly what I mean (believe me when I say it’s not fun). Much of these cleansing rituals were therefore built into the sandy desert lifestyle by necessity, not only because of larger hygienic and dietary health concerns, but also because of the limitations of such a lifestyle. Likewise, families had to be large because so many died out due to illness, starvation, etc. Food needed to be safe for consumption, because if not it could mean your own death—since a fever ridden bout of food poisoning on the desert trail—with no water—would surely be the end of you. Bodies needed to be as clean as possible, because the spread of a flu bug in close knit tribal groups would spread so rapidly that it could threaten to wipe out the entire lot. One haphazard sneeze, and God’s chosen people could have vanished off the face of the Earth.

So when we talk about morality, we need to distinguish between the pre-modern moral concerns of a Bronze age and the moral concerns of a modern age like our own. A simple question will illustrate better my point: Are we to believe that the God of the entire universe and all creation just, as a happy coincidence, supported the primitive cleansing rituals of his chosen people? Or is it more likely that these rituals appear to be inbuilt into the religion because the people themselves devised methods and ways which helped them cope with the harsh conditions of a difficult time in human history? I bring this up only because this is the very mentality we are dealing with when it comes to questions about marriage, sexuality, and the like. Therefore it is important to keep these considerations in mind.

For these reasons, and many more like them, I believe anything the Bible says about homosexuality (and sexuality in general) is antiquated. Most of the notions contained in the cleansing rituals and rights of the early Hebrews are simply defunct. We know how to procure pork safely now, and so there is no longer any dietary reason why Muslims or Jews, or anyone for that matter, ought to abstain from consuming pork, except, that it was written down as an authoritative bit of scriptural law. This insight, however, gives explanation for why there are still religious people who believe homosexuality is a “sin.” Because it is written in their holy books as an authoritative law which must not be transgressed—and thus you get Westboro Baptist nut jobs clinging to an outmoded Bronze aged mentality, with a defunct morality, as they attempt to bring it kicking and screaming into the 21st century. More specifically though, you get moderate Christians thinking homosexuality is a sickness, or form of disease, spurred on by a sinful lifestyle rather than what it really is—a natural born condition—a fact of life.

Personally, I think such an observation is just too evident to miss, but many Christians, or Christian off-shoots like Mormonism, continue to demonize the homosexual (e.g., Prop 8). My question is this: If your God could be wrong about the “sin” of eating pork, what makes you so sure he’s not wrong about homosexuality too? 


It is sort of like the religious who defend circumcision, denying that it is the mutilation of small children’s genitals, because it has since proved to have medically supported hygienic benefits (e.g., it’s easier to keep clean. Although, I guarantee, any medical professional today will simply tell you there is no noticeable benefits to circumcision and will remind you that it’s “highly controversial”). They may even try to pass off this rather lame fact as a sign of God’s wisdom shining through the pages of two thousand year old scripture, but that’s just absurd. Anyone who has read the Bible knows that circumcision was part of a larger blood sacrifice ritual, based on the Jewish law of ‘mitzvah aseh, a sort of marker used for delineating those who shared the covenant with the Hebrew God, the tribe of Abraham (Gen. 17:10), from those who didn’t. It was a way to identify God’s chosen few.

Let’s not kid ourselves, originally this blood ritual had nothing to do with the medical benefits of personal hygiene—especially since the traditional method of circumcision was for the rabbi to bite off the pre-cut foreskin of the penis with his teeth—there is nothing hygienic about it. It’s all about the blood and the religious belief that it would set you right with God. That’s a superstitious basis for a horribly barbaric, and disgusting, act. Not to mention that it is a barbaric custom in violation of Human Rights—so much so that Sweden felt compelled to outlaw circumcision in 2001.

What sane person would then turn around and say, well all that may be true, those things like blood sacrifice and what not are outdated, but the part about homosexuality still rings true. No, I’m afraid the Bible, and Christians in general, are wrong about homosexuality being a moral disease.

That said, not all Christians view homosexuality as a disease. Indeed, there are even gay and lesbian churches today, and there are even lesbian ministers! Now if you feel this is an abomination, and a disgrace to your faith, then I would suggest you put down your bibles and start reading some biology books instead—because until you do the only thing you’re going to prove is your own appalling ignorance. My advice to Christians is to simply ignore the parts of the Bible which condemn homosexuality just as you continue to ignore the parts of the Bible which condemn eating pork. They are equally non-issues when considered from the vantage point of today’s modern understanding of the world.


Marriage and Fidelity
Now that I have brought your attention to the outmoded mentality driving certain moral injunctions within the Bible, I can come back to the question about marriage and fidelity.

What is your opinion of Christian morality regarding sexual fidelity both before and after marriage?

Before I share my thoughts on this, we need to settle on some definitions, as to add clarity to thought. First of all, fidelity is: faithfulness to a person, cause, or belief, demonstrated by continuing loyalty and support. (Oxford Dictionary of English, 2005)

Also, I should caution against mistaking fidelity for some kind of purity myth, because it is not about chastity. In fact, purity myths and virgin fetishes, something common to religious thinking and practice, are often harmful to society—especially to women.

Furthermore, we should be careful not to confuse fidelity with the tradition of monogamy. Monogamy stands for: the practice [or habit] of marrying and being married to one person at a time. (Oxford Dictionary of English, 2005)

Traditional marriage was not meant as a means of happiness. In the Biblical sense, marriage was a means to an end. Women were viewed as chattel, property of the man, to be sold and bartered with. This enterprise ensured that the household would remain strong, and marrying women off to wealthier men, or men of higher class, was a way to ensure the overall family's economic stability and continued existence. Hence women were chattel, dowries were bartered, organized marriages were planned, and bargains were struck.

When it comes to Christian marriage and secular non-Christian marriage, we need to realize there is relatively little difference in terms of traditional practice. China had dowries the same as Jews did. Women, regardless of where they were born, were the unlucky heirs to a patriarchal tradition. I need not remind you of the Biblical passages which enslave a defiled woman to her rapist (Deuteronomy 22:28-29), claim her value is equal to that of only fifty pieces of silver, or give husbands and fathers the right to murder a woman for being raped against her will (Deuteronomy 22:23-24). The God of the OT allowed his people to keep women as sex slaves (Exodus 21:7-11) and on occasion even commanded the rape of women (Zechariah 14:1-2). Yet it is no simple task to divorce the God of old biblical authority from the God of new biblical authority. Jesus did not put a stop to the end of slavery, nor did he amend his Father’s immoral, sexist, and misogynistic laws regarding women. Even so, Jesus did preach a form of monogamy.

I’ll come back to the subject of monogamy shortly, but first I should point out that Christianity has a long sordid history with oppressing women and suppressing women’s rights. Annie Laurie Gaylor, feminist crusader and founder of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, reminds us:

The various Christian churches fought tooth and nail against the advancement of women, opposing everything from women’s right to speak in public, to the use of anesthesia in childbirth (since the bible says women must suffer in childbirth) and woman’s suffrage. Today the most organized and formidable opponent of women’s social, economic and sexual rights remains organized religion. (Annie Laurie Gaylor, Nontract #10, “Why Women Need Freedom From Religion,” Available online.)

Nowadays, Islam gets more blame for its oppressive policies against women, but Christianity is not without blame. A 2009 study at Baylor University showed that Women are still made the sexual targets of male clergy and of faith leaders in general. Perhaps more controversial still, according to a 2008 Barna report, Christians have higher divorce rates than atheists and other non-believing secularists. All this seems to suggest that we should perhaps take it with a grain of salt whenever a Christian starts talking about the “sanctity of marriage.” Apparently, it’s anything but.

Monogamy, it seems, goes against our biological conditioning. In fact, many cultures do not practice monogamy but, instead, practice polygamy (e.g., Muslim Arabs, certain African tribes such as the Sudanese and Ethiopians, Egyptians, and early Mormon frontiers folk of America, and some cultures even practice polyamory). Christianity adheres to the concept that God made woman for man, thus creating Eve from Adam’s rib (although this is not without controversy either). Marriage later gets conditioned into a symbolic sacrament, a representation of being married in Christ, as taught by early church fathers such as Augustine (who condemned polygamy). Augustine noted that although fornication was permissible among the ancient fathers, it was no longer permissible in his day, and he viewed monogamy as a more covenant-friendly practice (i.e., marriage between one man and one woman helped to fulfill God’s commandment to his people to be fruitful and multiply).

One of Christianity’s biggest experiments in trying to curb the human biological urge to mate with multiple partners has been an abstinence only policy—but a 2008 study in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management found that there was no significant impact of abstinence only policies on teen sexual activity. Additionally, a similar report by the U.S. Mathematica Policy Research showed that abstinence only policies are not only an abysmal failure—but it also found that youth in these programs were no more likely to have unprotected sex. None-the-less, Christian organizations such as Focus on the Family continue to push abstinence only problems—and continue to put their children at risk by doing so.


Contrary to the conservative opinions that abstinence only education prevents sexual promiscuity, which it doesn’t, it seems that the opposite is true. Healthy and mature sex positive education does improve our sexual understanding and views sex in a positive light, thus reducing the guilt—related to the heavily stigmatized religious premarital “sex is sin” myth which runs unchecked in Christianity—thus allowing for healthier, more responsible, sexual relationships.

Coming back to marriage, we cannot deny that sexual attraction plays a large part our desire to get married (as sexual selection is part of our biological existence). Our emotional love is mostly predicated on our mutual compatibility and physical attraction to another person—basic brain chemistry times biology. In modern times, however, our deeper affections (i.e., romantic love) also seem to play a large role in the reasons people give for desiring to marry.

Marriage is, by today’s standards, an expression of one’s love for another. If two people in love want to use the custom of marriage as a symbol of union, exclusivity, or fidelity—then this is an expression which should not be denied them. To deny anyone the right to marry is basically to deny them the right to love who they will how they will—and such would be criminal. We cannot dictate who people should love or by what standard—yet religion seeks to try and do just this.

My conclusion is that marriage is merely a social construct, a social construct which is indistinguishable from other forms of relationships in terms of what each values. After all, most Americans don’t actually practice monogamy, but a form of monogamy called serial-monogamy. What this means is that they practice multiple short-term relationships, marry a lover, maintain a monogamous lifestyle for a time, and then divorce and do it again. Sometimes this is not by plan or design, sometimes divorce is necessary (e.g., battered wives escaping abusive husbands is one example of many which spring to mind). Many of my evangelical Christian cousins, even my own Christian mother, who are all extremely conservative (unlike me) have all been divorced more than twice and are on their second and third marriages, respectably. The 37% divorce rate among mainstream Christians, as the above Barna poll showed, suggests that over a quarter of Christians in America may also practice serial-monogamy rather than traditional monogamy.

When it comes to relationship models, I personally do not see any moral distinction between one social construct and another, whether it polygamy, polyandry, polyamory, monogamy and so forth, they are merely variant relationship models based within the same ethical playing field. This is not a controversial statement, mind you. None-the-less those who are more conservative will be inclined to disagree—but that’s to be expected as that’s the very definition of conservatism—disagreeing to proposed changes and alternative lifestyles and or worldviews. Regardless of what model you practice, it has been my experience that most successful adult relationships are predicated on fidelity and loyalty, communication and negotiation, trust, honesty, dignity, gender equality, non-possessiveness, mutual support, sharing domestic burdens and so on (you may be surprised to learn that these are the values within polyamory, not monogamy, although some of the values are overlapping).

For me there is no more romantic an ideal than true love, fidelity involves the promise, or personal pledge, that you will be loyal only to one, and one, person—basically it is the promise to maintain this true love. In fact, it is such a compelling notion primarily because we all desire it. We all want to be loved. I suspect we all want to be the object of somebody else’s undying love. Not only is the sheer concept emotionally satisfying, it is also an attempt to actualize an ideal.

Once you find your dream partner, your perfect match, and you both fall madly in love—fidelity is a promise you make to each other. It is a noble and beautiful, heartwarming, sentiment. It is such a powerful sentiment, so powerful in fact, that it sets the stage for every romance and drama which has ever been acted out—it is about the one true love. It is why Romeo and Juliet defied the social norms, went against tradition, and rebelled against the rules of their parents. It is the reason Helen ran away with Paris. It is the reason Tristan and Iseult risked it all to be together. It is the reason Harry met Sally. True love. Powerful stuff.

But is such an ideal even possible to achieve given our limitations and the human propensity to err? Probably not, but that doesn’t make the ideal any less meaningful.

The bottom line is this: marriage is only allotted the meaning we supply to it. But then again, marriage is not for everyone. There is nothing in the rule book which says we are all destined to end up with our perfect mate. Most will never be so lucky. As the Journey song says: “some were born to win, others to lose, and, some were born to sing the blues.”

As a romantic, I cannot help but be proud to commit myself fully to my wife—I for one believe in the ideal—I believe true love, whether or not it is within reach, is an ideal worth striving for. Marriage for me, then, is a way to express my fidelity to the most wonderful woman I have ever known. Although I speak only for myself, I for one agree with the English poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, “'Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”


Other Worldviews: On Buddhism
The question was:

Do you think Buddhism presents an accurate view of human nature and reality? Why?

In short, yes and no. There are different types of Buddhism just as there are different types of Christianity. While I do not believe in the supernatural claims of reincarnation, I do think that Buddhism teaches a practical methodology for addressing specific real world concerns, like why do we suffer and how to alleviate the suffering. I could go on and on about Buddhism, but like any belief system, I believe in taking the best parts, or what I call appreciations, and leaving the defunct and useless parts behind. Whether it is a religion or a political policy, I think we can always improve our understanding, and in turn, we must amend outmoded beliefs or defective practices and policies if we want to improve things.

What I like about Buddhism, is that it isn’t afraid to adapt itself with modernity. Christianity is much like Buddhism in this regard. Christianity has a unique ability to adapt itself to various worldviews in various cultures at various times. The difference is that I do not find the Christian teachings all that practical—certainly not all that much more beneficial than any other world philosophy—that is to say I don’t buy into any one ancient form of wisdom. To me they are all valid. Whether or not they are all applicable is a different matter entirely.

Christianity has other problematic elements which confound its practicality as well. The entire concept of sin is extremely problematic. The entire claim hinges on proving certain metaphysical assumptions, involving an archaic fable with a talking snake, and even then the entire concept of sin is not well defined. The Bible even fails to demarcate sin with any accuracy. For example, the Bible says not to kill others, that murder is a sin, it’s even God’s first commandment! But in the next instance in the next few verses God is commanding you to kill those who do not obey the Sabbath. So go figure.

Buddhism is less confusing—certainly less conflicting. There’s no pesky deity to get in the way of its teachings or confound your moral sense as with the Christian God. Buddhism gives you the four noble truths and the noble eight fold path and a certain amount of freedom to interpret the reality you observe without having to resort to making metaphysical assumptions. It allows a clarity which is not distorted by the desire to appease any god, but rather, gain a better understanding of the world and the human condition.

In his book What the Buddha Taught, Walpola Rahula states, "Buddhism recognizes that humans have a measure of freedom of moral choice, and Buddhist practice has essentially to do with acquiring the freedom to choose as one ought to choose with truth: that is of acquiring a freedom from the passions and desires that impel us to distraction and poor decisions."

I could say a lot more on Buddhism, but perhaps I’ll save it for another time.

Appreciations are the Way (My Personal Tao)
Apostasy is just another way of saying I am no longer be a believer chained to any particular religious creed, even so, this doesn’t mean I can’t borrow the best bits from various faiths, ideologies, and other belief systems and apply them to my own life accordingly. In fact, I believe this may be the best, most reasonable, way to gradually improve my life—literally by taking the best appreciations and using the best philosophies I can find and utilizing them perchance creating a better model of living without the defects (i.e., outmoded and/or blinkered bits) of inferior belief systems and ideologies. 

In a way, I’m creating new forms of morality by testing already proved forms of moral values and ethical guidelines. I mean, isn’t this what Christians do when they cherry-pick from the Bible? Yes, it’s the very same thing. It's moral relativism. The only difference is my moral relativism is not limited to the confines of just one book (a conflicted book at that). I have an entire realm of ideologies and philosophies to choose from—that is to say—I have an unlimited supply of appreciations I can select from and then apply to my life. It’s a work in progress, involves researching and making educated decisions, involves some trial and error, involves revision, adaptation, evolution, but I’m glad to report that it’s been working splendidly so far.


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