Sunday, February 27, 2011

Magic Behind Closed Doors

Yesterday I was privileged to attend a Parenting Beyond Belief workshop presented by Dale McGowan—2008 Harvard Humanist of the Year, executive director of Foundation Beyond Belief, and author of secular humanist parenting books (Raising Freethinkers & Parenting Beyond Belief)—and hosted by Center for Inquiry-Michigan (CFI-MI). In addition to making a number of meaningful connections with other secular humanist parents and thinkers, I also left with nearly a dozen inspirations for new blog posts. One such inspiration relates to the following nearly verbatim quote from Dale McGowan:

If you don’t talk about it [to your children], it’s magic…

McGowan’s point was to express the mystery and intrigue that parentally censored or avoided topics can capture and convoke for children. A child growing up in a secular family, not knowing or understanding what happens behind closed church doors, whose parents treat the topic of religion and religious literacy as a taboo, is at a higher risk for “teen epiphany” in her adolescent identity diffusion years. Lacking religious literacy, she is confronted by a peer religionist who presents a message of certainty, teleology, and community centered on a given set of dogmas. Already inclined to differentiate her identity from her parents, she grasps on to this message, thinking, “Surely this is what I have been missing, this is the purpose I was made for…” And, unfortunately, as McGowan points out, “teen epiphany” conversions are the most likely to land a person into fundamentalist and hence dangerous categories of religious identity. This adolescent’s secular parents who may or may not be engaged, principled secularists are suddenly taken aback by their daughter’s fundamentalist conversion and ask, “How can this be? We never encouraged or even discussed religion as a family.”

Example from my Personal Life

During my adolescent years I had a number of “teen epiphanies.” I won’t focus on each one, but one of significance was my introduction to Pentecostalism—the largely Evangelical movement that is notably characterized by glossolalia (“speaking in tongues”) and focus on the “sign gifts” (see I Corinthians 12ff). This particular epiphany is noteworthy for me as it marked my first step away from my familial religious identity and was precipitated by a wonderment of the magic behind closed doors.

Before my encounter I knew that Pentecostals “spoke in tongues” and participated in supernaturally-inspired activities, but I never saw these at work, I only knew of them through hearsay. In turn, I sustained a particular fascination with “speaking in tongues” and with what I perceived to be a special connection, a unique closeness to God that fomented one’s being “carried in the Spirit” to perform such supernatural activities as glossolalia, etc. Though I never saw behind the closed doors, I constructed a highly-idealized mental image of what occurred there only I was a spectator and not a participant to the “magic.”

When I was fifteen I was confronted by a religionist whose father was a Pentecostal-Charismatic pastor. We talked about the “baptism by the Spirit” with “speaking in tongues” as its outward sign for nearly two hours. Alone in a cabin in the North Woods of Wisconsin, he prayed over me both with glossolalia and in English. The sound of his glossolalia captivated me. He then told me to “speak out in faith, let the Holy Spirit form your words, let go of your tongue.” I spoke out in faith and with a rush of adrenaline, which I “knew” was the Holy Spirit, I was overwhelmed with a sense of transcendence. The words or sounds I spoke, however, were not English or any language that I knew. I was “speaking in tongues”—the shaman had cast his spell, and I swooned under the influence of his magic.

Years later, though while still a Christian, I learned that glossolalia could be explained without any reference to the supernatural—it was a naturalistic phenomenon. I spent several years in the Pentecostal denomination the Assemblies of God before my doubts about glossalia got the best of me. But, had it not been for the spell of Pentecostalism cast onto a young and empty mind, I would never have succumbed. I do not fault my parents or anyone for this time in my life, but I know that the magic behind closed doors, the doors of Pentecostal churches, made my draw much stronger and my stay much longer.

Religious Literacy for My Children

Religious literacy—awareness of other peoples’ faith systems—is critically important for anyone desiring to understand the world and human cultures. It is also important as a means to fostering independence of thought and autonomy of decision in children raised by freethinking parents while also allowing them to avoid the ignorant pitfalls of “teen epiphany.”

I currently have little control over my oldest three children’s religious literacy (or lack thereof). They are being indoctrinated in a fundamentalist school and in a fundamentalist church. When I see them they ask me questions about evolution, homosexuality and gay marriage, morality, and God. I know their minds are probing beyond the corridors of backwaters fundamentalism into the verdant intellectual waters beyond. With my youngest religious literacy will be little challenge. His parents are well informed in various religious traditions, we discuss religion frequently in the home, and we attend a liberal church (if it can be called this) that intentionally promotes religious literacy in various traditions.

Friday, February 4, 2011

"Ever Learning - Never Able to Come to a Knowledge of the Truth"

Recently, a fundamentalist Christian replied on his Facebook wall to my statement that human morality can be understood better when viewed under the influence of mammalian socio-biological evolution and apart from God. He replied with the following:
Peter, Peter...ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the
truth. Professing yourself to be wise, you became a fool...being darkened in
your understanding, alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance
that is in you, because of the hardening of your heart; who having become
callous gave yourself up to lust, to work all uncleanness with greediness.

In this reply the writer does not provide a meaningful treatment of my assertions; instead, he strings together a slew of Pauline allusions to damn me for being who I am. There is a specific reference in this post that I would like to work with. This reference is II Timothy 3:7, which reads:
Ever learning, and never able to come to a knowledge of the truth.

The language and highly developed ecclesiastical organization of the Pastoral Epistles, of which II Timothy is a representative book, betray their non-Pauline authorship. Nevertheless, for ease of reference, I will refer to II Timothy’s author as Paul. When Paul describes the ungodly as “…ever learning” but unable to arrive at “a knowledge of the truth,” he is referring to truth as local truth—his limited, irreproducible grasp of the furthermost extremity of the Universes’ hem as subjectively appropriated for sectarian benefit. To paraphrase, Paul is saying, “They keep learning but are unable to arrive at my conclusions, which are what really matter anyways.” The they, in this paraphrase, are those with other sectarian conclusions that differ from his.

Local Truth Systems

Local truth systems are the highly-localized, irreproducible, invite-only ways of thinking and knowing that characterize non-scientific epistemologies. For example, Christian local truth systems are irreproducible without the arbitrary words of a blood-thirsty, homophobic, jealously-insecure, misogynic tribal god who used to go by the name of Yahweh before his followers universalized him into ineffability. Add to the words of the tribal numen the subjective cultural baggage with which Christians so often eisegetically load the Bible, and you end up with an idiotic hodge-podge of bias, rage, and arbitrariness all attributed the aforementioned monstrosity Yahweh.

How, for example, would one arrive at a knowledge of vicarious atonement, the sinfulness of pork, or the perversion of same-gender love and marriage if the local truth system called Christianity did not assert it? How would one arrive at the conclusion of seven-day creation or the Noahic flood if there was no Bible? The answers to these questions should be clearly negative—these conclusions are irreproducible.

Escaping Local Truth Systems

Though fraught with human failings, science is the best way of knowing that humanity has devised. Regardless of one’s cultural moorings, unhindered science is universal. The scientist in India, the scientist in China, the scientist in Turkey, the scientist in Argentina, and the scientist in Canada can all collaborate using a universally accepted rubric of empiricism, peer review, and reproducibility. With no prior commitments other than the assumption that the natural world maintains functional integrity, scientific learning advances. It finds no seven-day creation, it finds no Flood, it finds no Adam and Eve…it is not limited in its outcomes by local truth systems.

My accuser, in throwing this verse at me, notes that I have moved beyond him in learning to embrace the world of what can be known outside of the tribal horizons of local truth systems.