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Reader Feedback and Personal Philosophy


EleCivil

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This might be a long one. I'm going to preface this by saying that this is all the opinion of EleCivil, the eccentric weirdo whose advice you probably should not heed for any reason. It in no way represents the views of the site admins, etc. etc. legal stuff.

I recently got an email from someone telling me that they enjoyed my short story, Fistfights with Flashlights - this was a short story that I wrote while in the middle of Leaves and Lunatics, when I was about 18 years old. To be honest, I remember almost nothing about it. It's about 90% autobiography, 10% fictionalized. I wrote it in one quick burst and then submitted it without going back to edit or even re-read it once. I then deleted the file and have never gone back to look at it again. As such, I can't speak for the quality - it was pretty much just an hour of catharsis. I haven't thought about the story in a LONG time, but this email brought it to mind, and I wanted to reflect a bit.

One of the major themes of this short was religion, and how it can mess with one's perceptions of the world. Specifically, it was about how, when I was a kid, I believed in things like demons, possession, and the apocalypse, and how that screwed with my head to the point where I was deathly afraid of the dark, carrying a flashlight with me at all times to scare away any demons that might try to possess me. I used to read the book of Revelations and compare it to current events, searching for signs of the coming rapture and subsequent end of the world, which I was eagerly looking forward to. Yes, I was six years old and my main hobbies were Eschatology and awaiting the end of the world.

But the part that I wouldn't - couldn't - admit to anyone was that I was a skeptic when it came to the existence of God. I felt it, but couldn't even admit it to myself. I didn't think God was real. I didn't think that he sent his son to die for me, and in fact I found the idea of parents sending their children to die for them to be terrifying - if God, the source of all morality, sent his son to be tortured and killed by the bad guys, would my parents do the same to me?

Now, there's some cognitive dissonance there - I fully believed that Satan and his demons existed and were out to get me, but I was skeptical about the existence of a God that wanted to save me - but come on, I was six. And let's face it - it's easier to believe in perfect evil than perfect good. You can SEE perfect evil every day. Perfect good is something far rarer, and there wasn't a lot of it going on around me.

So to summarize my childhood beliefs:

There is a devil who wants to get me.

There are demons who work for him who are roaming the Earth looking for me.

The world is going to end any day now.

God can save me, as long as I believe in him.

I believe in God a little less every day.

Therefore, my only hope is that the world ends or that I die soon, while I still sort of believe in God, so that he won't condemn me to an eternity of torture for not believing in him all the way.

This is what was running through my brain every day, every night. I couldn't turn it off - everything reminded me of it. And keep in mind, this is all before I started thinking that maybe I was gay, and even MORE of an abomination in the eyes of the only entity that could save me. Holy shit, no wonder I attempted suicide as a child.

I still called myself a Christian and told myself that I believed until I was about 17. I wrote Fistfights with Flashlights when I was just starting to admit to myself that I was really an atheist, and that WANTING to believe in something can't make you start believing in it. Making that admission - giving myself permission to admit that I didn't believe in the religion of my parents - was the biggest relief I have ever felt in my life. Why? Because if I didn't believe in God, I didn't need to believe in any of the things that scared me - the devil, demons, hell, and the apocalypse - I didn't have to spend my life waiting for death. I didn't have to seek to end myself to please a God that could never be pleased with me. (This is a theme I revisited in the later chapters of Laika.)

Back to the reader response - the writer of this email wrote that he assumed I was a non-believer, and identified himself as an atheist. This gave me pause - I haven't sat down to really consider my religious beliefs in quite some time. I try to make it a habit to "re-draw my map" - attack my own philosophical and intellectual views with logic to see if they hold up, or if they need to be reconsidered...but I haven't done that with religion in a long time. So, what's the best way to sort out one's beliefs? Stream-of-consciousness writing! Hence, this blog post.

I suppose I am an atheist, in the dictionary definition - I do not believe in any gods, and do not follow any religions. But at the same time, I don't fit in with the "New Atheist" movement that's been gaining traction, lately. I've read the likes of Hitchens and Dawkins, but I don't really agree with their view that, as Hitchens wrote, "Religion poisons everything." If you read my above experience of being driven to self-hatred and suicide by religion, you might be thinking "What the hell, EleCivil?" but hold on.

I don't think religion makes a big difference one way or another in day-to-day life. I tend to see human goodness on a whole as a bell-curve distribution - about 5% of us are completely evil psychopaths, 5% of us are completely good-natured saints, and the other 90% are somewhere in between. And I believe that there are religious people and non-religious people in every segment of that progression.

The religious guy who gives half his income to charity and goes on "missions" to distribute medical supplies in disaster zones? If he wasn't religious, he'd probably be doing the same thing, but in the name of "humanism" or "personal conscience." The atheist who is found with a pile of torsos in his basement, who claims he went on a killing spree "just for kicks"? If he were religious, he'd be doing the same thing, but instead claiming that he killed them in "a glorious cleansing for the Lord!" The religious guy who hates gays because "the bible says it's wrong"? If he were an atheist, he'd still hate gays; he'd just say he hates them "'cause it's gross!"

I don't think religion (or lack thereof) can turn people "good" or "evil" or "open-minded" or "bigoted". I don't think it has that much power. I think we are drawn to our beliefs and come to define them by our innate qualities, not the other way around. There's a saying that if you ask ten preachers to interpret the bible, you'll get twenty different interpretations. Thanks to a blend of archaic language and confirmation bias, we will always see what we want to see in religion. If you read the holy text of your religion and see a call to help your fellow man and live a life of service, then you were probably going to live such a life even if you had never seen the text. Likewise, if you read the holy texts and see a list of people you should dislike, you were already looking for a reason to dislike them.

Or, to put it more simply - Douchebags are gonna be douchebags. Amen.

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I still believe, I think, but I have some major questions for the "big guy" and I'm not too shy about asking or complaining when I pray. Yes, I have doubts. Yes, my life has had some major **** in it. Yes, there's plenty of evidence of bad people doing bad things, of random events doing bad things, and occasional evidence of very good people doing very good things just because, or of good stuff happening for no particularly apparent reason. That, and there have been a couple of "inexplicable occurrences" that, well, I can't explain logically, rationally (duh) and so I don't know. I would like to believe there's a greater good, all encompassing consciousness somehow. I have sometimes wondered if it might be simply...neutral. See, lots of questions. And the questions I had about how being gay fit in (or didn't) with my religious upbringing and beliefs...was my nemesis, my bête noir. When it finally got through to me that the translations and interpretations I'd grown up with were in all probability wrong, while there were other, more valid ones, it helped. Yet here I was, damaged by all that, and by other stuff, trying to heal from it. I guess life is one long, strange trip after all.

That is to say too, who am I to judge a friend for his or her religious beliefs, or lack of them? I came to the conclusion that if God exists, he's at least very different (and way more into options and guidelines than actual rules) than any of us humans thinks. In other words, most likely each and every human has only a very tiny glimpse, that whole three blind men and the elephant thing.

Not to be rude, either, but you know, no one ever said what happened if one of those blind guys happened to be feeling around and got ahold of the elephant's more personal attributes. LOL, for either the elephant or the blind guy, must've been a very disconcerting experience. -- What that really would have to do with religion or anything else, I'm not too sure, but well, it must say something. (Other than that I need to get out more....)

P.S., I think I have the file you'd sent way back in the day, when you'd submitted "Fistfights With Flashlights" to Codey's World. I'll send you what I have.

P.S., Keep bein' you. I think that's pretty awesome.

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Getting off auto-pilot and examining one's life is such a fruitful occupation. Discovering that you live in a different world than that described by religious teachers of any stripe is a hard won triumph of the spirit. I am full of admiration that you managed that feat at seventeen.

I was fortunate to fall in with Buddhists at an early age (they never thought of themselves as any kind of -ists). They encouraged me to cultivate silence in which I could look at and listen to the world, and allowed me to discover that people who are constantly yammering cannot manage self-examination, much less encourage it in others. They were powerless and loving in behavior and word. I will say that one old man who was very helpful to me equated the eschatological crap being taught to young kids in Sunday Schools with child abuse (many Buddhist sects are guilty of the same abuse).

I admire your seriousness in looking at your place in the world from time to time. The world seems a lovelier place with people like you in it.

And alas, sometimes an elephant trunk is just an elephant trunk.

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One can always tell a rational. intelligent person because they use the word, Eschatology, instead of saying, 'the End Times'.

We share a similar moment at our 17th year of age, EleCivil. I had been raised to believe and pray to God etc, as a protestant (Aussie mode). But it became apparent that my praying had not cured my congenital hole in the heart, and so began a series of questioning that accompanied my already established investigation of why I liked other males rather than girls. This strangely led me to trust the surgeons at the local hospital who repaired my heart.

When the cardiac surgeon, a very intelligent, humane and caring man, told me I could go home and expect to live a normal life, I thanked him for using his skills to help me. His demeanour changed, his aloofness melted as he shook me by the hand and thanked me for thanking him. "Most people," he told me, "were too busy thanking, Him up there, " as he pointed to the sky, "instead of me and my team. Thank you."

I later learned he was an atheist, and I would agree with you, Ele, that had he been a believer in a god, he would still have extended my life with his skills as a surgeon. But there is another interesting factor in this man's attitude to his work. He was a heterosexual man with a family, but he had staffed his ward and surgical team with many people who were gay, because they were the ones who would drop everything to attend a medical emergency to help save a life.

From that moment of my surgery, my questioning of the reason for life spiralled towards my firm non-belief in gods.

Yet in those dark days of criminal prosecution for committing homosexual acts, and the pressure to believe, it still took me 5 years to undo all the indoctrination of my childhood. Indeed so-called 'Enlightenment' means, in some sense, to constantly be overcoming the conditioning of one's own culture.

Most important was this extract from a book written by an ex-Anglican minister who had also been influenced by Zen:

“If, the scientists would say, you believe in God, you must do so on purely emotional grounds, without basis in logic or fact. Practically speaking, this may amount to atheism. Theoretically, it is simple agnosticism. For it is the essence of scientific honesty that you do not pretend to know what you do not know, and of the scientific method that you do not employ hypotheses which cannot be tested.” (-Alan Watts, The Wisdom of Insecurity.)

This leaves the honest person in the somewhat precarious position of unsatisfyingly having to admit that he just doesn't know. Neither belief nor non-belief can alleviate the uncertainty of the agnostic, but accepting reality as we experience it, without imposing mindful misinterpretations or myths, brings us close to the physicist Eddington’s idea that, “Something unknown is doing we don’t know what.”

To cut short this long intrusion into your blog, I will sum up with this observation. A religious man is one who seeks to know himself, to know the truth about life, and doesn't let the discovery of 'knowing that he cannot know' from ever stopping him from seeking the answer that is only ever knowable for the moment it exists.

I have to agree with Ben, keep being your awesome self.

And I agree with bi_janus who posted whilst I was writing the above, the world is indeed a lovelier place with you in it. You have brought me much pleasure and contentment with your stories and posts.

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They encouraged me to cultivate silence in which I could look at and listen to the world, and allowed me to discover that people who are constantly yammering cannot manage self-examination, much less encourage it in others.

Silence is a virtue - when you're talking, you can't listen. When you can't listen, you can't learn.

In general, I try to remind myself that there is something I can learn from every person I meet, provided I take the time to do so.

As a wise man once said, "Never miss a good opportunity to shut up."

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Our use of words like Atheism and Agnosticism is based on ancient Greek although it was Thomas Huxley in 1869 who coined the term Agnostic. If we stay true to the original significance of these terms, a theist believes in one or more deity (subdivisions monotheist, polytheist etc) while an atheist believes in no deity at all. A gnostic reckons he knows there is one or more deity - more than belief, his knowledge must come from some mystic revelation. Conversely, an agnostic is not someone who hasn't made his mind up, or who has an open mind, but someone who believes it is not possible to know whether there is a deity out there. He holds that mystic revelation is bunk. Those who haven't made their mind up about deities don't have a label since they aren't aligned with any of these philosophical cabals.

As to where I sit among these various fenced-in compounds, I can only say my perch is a little uncomfortable...

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Conversely, an agnostic is not someone who hasn't made his mind up, or who has an open mind, but someone who believes it is not possible to know whether there is a deity out there. He holds that mystic revelation is bunk.

Indeed - if you wanted to be technical, I would consider myself an agnostic atheist, in that I do not believe it is possible to know whether there is a God, and I currently do not believe in one. (It is equally valid to be an agnostic theist - admitting that there is no way to prove the existance of a God, but believing in one anyway.)

But most people don't understand that, so when asked, I just say "skeptic" because it's shorter. And if they don't understand THAT, I tell them I'm a Discordian.

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