Bennett

I despise hypocrisy. In myself, most of all. (Yes, I admit that I am a hypocrite from time to time, but when I catch myself at it, I am very annoyed, and try very, very hard to root the hypocrisy out of my soul.) Anyway, the most hypocritical person I am aware of, the very Mother of All Hypocrites, would undoubtedly be William Bennett.

I remember Bennett very well. I was a 30-something year old Evangelical Christian during the first Bush presidency, when Bennett was appointed Drug Czar. We were all very impressed with Bennett in my Christian circle. His books were for sale in the bookstore at the mega-church where my wife and I attended. I think I even bought a copy of the Book of Virtues, but when I tried to pile through it, I found it to be too dense and dry for me to absorb. It also seemed very preachy, legalistic and moralistic (no surprise). Anyway, I did not read much of it, but I will certainly admit that for a time, I thought that Bennett was a great guy, and I agreed with his goals and actions.

Eventually, though, the media broke the story, and, like many other Christians, I got the bad news: Bennett had been concealing a sordid side of his life. He frequently travelled to Las Vegas where he engaged in high-stakes gambling. In the process he lost millions of dollars. Eventually, but only after the story broke, a contrite Bennett swore that his family had never been put at risk, that his gambling days were over, etc.

Now, aside from the obvious embarrassment, the truly astounding thing (at least to me) about all of this was that the entire time Bennett was addicted to gambling, he was the chief persecutor of the substance known as cannabis (or marijuana as it is frequently called). Under Bennett’s watch, prosecution of non-violent drug offenders skyrocketed. At it’s peak, Bennett’s Drug War had imprisoned 640,000 black men, about 1 in 4 black men in the US, and more than twice the number of black men in college, during the same time. The vast majority of these were for marijuana, a substance arguably less damaging than alcohol. And certainly not anywhere near as potentially damaging as a severe gambling addiction.

Not that there is any trouble finding hypocrisy in the War on Drugs in this country. Take the Reagans. Nancy Reagan famously coined the term “Just say no.” I remember this stuff as well. I loved Nancy at the time. She looked so proper in her beautiful dress giving her Just Say No Speech.

What I did not know at the time, though, at least according to the tell-all books by the Reagans’ daughter, Patti Davis, Nancy abused prescription drugs the entire time that she was living in the White House.

Like I said, hypocrisy is not hard to find in the so-called War on Drugs.

AND??????

One of my dear old friends submitted a comment to my blog post I Am Not A Sinner which ended with:

AND???

In other words, what happened next? Good question. That’s the purpose of this blog post, to talk about the aftermath of my spiritual tsunami. I described the event itself in my earlier blog post (also annoyingly entitled I am not a Sinner, go figure).

Anyway, as I described earlier, I eventually came to the conclusion that the entire concept of religion is rather preposterous. The idea that the Creator of the universe with all of its wonder has an intimate relationship with me, in which He (She? It?) monitors my very thoughts (including this one!) in real time. I mean, really.

After all, every spiritual experience I have ever had has been completely subjective. Can I really trust my own experience? I knew all too well how thoroughly I am capable of deceiving myself. I therefore decided to chuck the entire question of God as a meaningless, silly question with ultimately no answer at all.

Fundamentally, I finally understood that I am alone in the universe. That life actually has no purpose, meaning or significance. That I am, as the old song says, merely Dust in the Wind.

Now, that sounds depressing. Let me tell you: For me it was incredibly liberating.

An interesting side effect: I became much more humble. I know what you are thinking: There you go bragging about being humble.

No, not really.

You see, I now understand how truly broken I am. And how fundamentally I really know nothing. Nothing at all.

That’s the thing about doubt: Once I understood, I mean really understood at a gut level, that I really don’t know anything for sure, then my faith collapsed, and I became humbled.

Interestingly, faith made me kind of an asshole. I heard a piece on NPR once about a woman who wrote a novel in which the main character was someone she described as:

A white, wealthy, middle aged, conservative, Christian man who thinks he’s good but he’s not.

And why was he not good:

Because he had empathy for people like him, but no one else. People of his gender, race, religion, culture, social status, sexual orientation and political views. God forbid that he would ever talk to or treat a homosexual, feminist, Democrat, or such like a human being.

That was me. For me, faith was a form of hubris: I was completely and totally convinced that I was right, that there was an ultimate truth, and that I could know it. That I had the line on the truth, straight from the mouth of God.

That hubris has collapsed. In the process, I began to do things very differently.

Like a couple of weeks ago, when I was in San Francisco, I found myself sitting down on a park bench with homeless guys, and hanging with them for a while. I had some incredibly sweet conversations with really decent men, who were simply homeless. I have been homeless too. My momentary success, and apparent financial wealth, have simply served as a barrier between me and the homeless. Once I remembered how much we struggled when we were living in Texas during the 80s, I knew: I am not different from them. I am the same. Only our circumstances are different.

The barriers fell away. I became open to people I have never even considered talking to. Like a young, black, homosexual hairdresser from Vallejo who I met on the Muni. We became fast friends, exchanged emails and are still communicating. Before my tsunami, there is no way that I would ever become friends with someone that different from me. No problem now.

And of course there is my most important relationship: My marriage. At first, my wife resisted my spiritual journey. She wanted me to remain a Christian! However, I persisted. Now she constantly tells me that I am, by far, more loving, kind, gentle, compassionate, and sensitive than I have ever been. She would not go back to the old Jeff, that’s for sure!

The key, at least for me, was understanding that there actually is no purpose. That life has no ultimate meaning. That the quest for understanding and significance is another form of delusion. That all we have is this present moment, the very breath that I am taking as I write this.

This moment. Now. There is nothing else.

So, how shall I then live? Optimize the moment. Which for me is simple: Be as loving, empathetic, sensitive, and such as humanly possible. Allow my feelings to express themselves. If I am sad, allow the sadness to wash over me. Understand that it is simply a feeling. Like the weather, it will pass. And then there will be another feeling in that moment. And so on and so forth in a constant progression of moments.

Will I survive in some way when I die? I have no idea. The issue does not bother me though. I suspect that the software just stops running. That won’t be so bad. I certainly won’t be there to care about it.

Ultimately, in a few thousand years at most, I will be utterly forgotten. And then a few billion years after that, the Earth will be destroyed (by the Sun if nothing gets it first). If our species has not escaped from this rock by then, every single thing that every human being has ever known will be lost forever. And that includes me.

Shall I then by any action of mine affect the lifespan of the universe? Shall I somehow change the fate of all mankind? Doubtful.

I can then be free. I am free of religious delusions. I understand now at last who I am and what this life is all about. And that pleases me.

More later.

Transformational Thinking

The Human Consciousness Programm perhaps could be compared to the personality, but the HCP also includes all of the autonomic stuff, like sensory processing. I was playing with this a bit today while walking. I do a 2 mile loop most days with my dog, Diogee. While we were walking, I was playing with my sensory perception functions. Like switching awareness to the visual: Focus on that for a while, and notice how I can focus on different things, and how other things fade into the background when I do so. Similarly, switch my awareness to my hearing, and notice how I can focus my attention on a bird. Or there! That’s Diogee walking beside me. Or the sounds of my own footsteps. Or the sounds of my own breathing. And now switch to the emotional state. Ahhh! I have some anxiety going on. What is that about? OK, I need to pay some bills.

Again, thinking about thinking, as broadly as possible, and especially if I include things like emotions and sensory awareness in the generic term “thinking”. All while engaging the “Watcher”, or unbiased, nonjudgmental observer, as the yoga crowd likes to call it. The part of me that can observe myself.

I was pondering how similar this approach is to Christianity in many ways. For example, while I utterly reject the idea of sin, listening intently to my own thoughts makes me acutely aware of my own dysfunction. I definitely know that I am far from perfect, which is certainly consistent with the idea of sin. Also, the act of reprogramming is very similar to repentance. After all, the Greek word translated as “repent” in the NT literally means to turn down another path, or to change your mind. Repentance never really worked for me very well, though. I have analyzed why it didn’t, and near as I can tell, due to the cultural issues within Christianity, I was focused on the wrong things. Like sex, once again.

I was immediately told after I got saved about how bad sexual lust is, and how I should never, ever masturbate. This from all of my male Christian single friends. I, like the lemming I am, immediately take a solemn oath with my buddy to never masturbate again, ever. Broke that one within 24 hours, with great condemnation. This thing had me balled up for years, during which I made no real progress spiritually. All this negative energy about masturbation and male heterosexual desire, generally.

Eventually, I figure out that all of my male single Christian friends were masturbating just as much as I was, and were all just as condemned. And the message from the pulpit only made it worse! I was actually invited to seminars where I could be set free from masturbation!

Of course, that’s all bollocks. Masturbation is something I should keep private but certainly not condemn myself for. It is a harmless and healthy release, after all. And sexual desire is a great thing overall. I wouldn’t be here without it! So deciding that a basic autonomic response like sexual desire is somehow “sinful” doesn’t help me at all. Although I have no doubt that my male single Christian friends were well-meaning, they were obviously just as deluded as I was, and the culture was keeping them just as immobilized. This example is one of the most glaring, but there were many others.

In order to help me spot things that are broken inside me, I basically set up a watcher to keep track of my emotions and to tell me if I am feeling anything negative, like resentment, sadness, sullenness, loneliness, or fear. Once I spot that, I go after what’s driving it. Generally, given enough time and thought, I can figure it out. Almost always, there is some form of selfishness or greed behind it. Like insecurity over Ruth leaving me. That’s really my selfish little greedy desire to keep her with me. Fear over the impact on my life if she were to leave me, etc. Not wanting to have to endure the pain, discomfort and stress of a break-up. And so forth.

Solution: Understand and accept that Ruth can leave me if she likes. She is perfectly free to do so, and there is nothing that I can do to directly prevent it. I do not own her, regardless of what the Marriage contract might say. Would it be painful if she left me? Definitely. Would I survive? Very likely. Would it make the slightest difference in the lifespan of the universe? None at all. And, after all, I don’t even know if I am going to take my next breath. So how does creating a stressful emotion like insecurity help either me or Ruth? Am I not simply detracting from both our joy, peace and happiness by surrendering to a parasite emotion like insecurity?

And it’s all about stressing about the future, anyway. Which, again, does not exist. Worrying about the future is meaningless. (Not to say that I do not need to be responsible and make plans: I do. That’s different from fear, worry or stress, though.)

How then shall I live? First, by loving Ruth as unselfishly and purely as possible, I will be a person she wants to be with. My insecurity and persistent need to be constantly reassured sure as *&^# won’t do that! Instead, I will cultivate an attitude of quiet, humble confidence. I will aspire to be a person who will lend to her joy, peace and happiness. I will enjoy the present moment that I am spending right now in her presence, and cherish the journey that brought this amazing creature to me.

So, by carefully and methodically listening to my own thoughts, I am trying to become a better person. Inherent in that process, though, is a sense of humility. The more I get inside my head, the more aware I become of my own imperfections and need to be more empathic. How broken and selfish I am. And, hopefully, I make some progress in the quest to become more selfless and empathic in the process. Again, a similarity to taking on the mind of Christ from the Christian perspective.

Of course, there is no end state. This process will keep going on for the rest of my life.

More later.

Evolution

I have discovered evolution. I spent many years when enmired in Evangelical Christianity as a creationist who believed that life began in the Garden of Eden. I now know (if I know anything) that life evolved. I have studied this one extensively, and the evidence for evolution is everywhere, if you look for it. For example, I am now burning my way through The Moral Animal by Robert Wright (the author of The Evolution of God, one of the most transformational books I have ever read). Robert Wright is an evolutionary psychologist. That is, he believes that the phenomenon of human consciousness can be explained in evolutionary terms. I am finding this thesis very convincing.

I had a personal experience which demostrates the role of evolution recently. I take my dogs, Diogee and Napoleon, for a walk almost every day, weather permitting. Typically, we go for a 2 mile walk in the middle of the day, as close to solar noon as possible so that I can be exposed to natural UV light, which is really good for my health. More on this later.

I observe my dog Diogee (actually my wife’s dog, but I digress). Diogee has a behavior which Napoleon does not have: He scratches the ground after he does his business. He does so almost invariably, and he did not have to be taught to do this. He knew how to scratch the day I met him (and he was a very small puppy at that point). At the age of 10 (70 doggie years in other words), he still does this. So where did this behavior come from?

Viewed in terms of evolutionary psychology, it makes perfect sense. This behavior is the expression of a gene which Diogee has and Napoleon does not. At some point in the evolution of the dog (which is actually a wolf), there was some adaptation which caused the animal to bury his / her droppings. Possibly there were prey animals which used the droppings to identify the location of predators. If so, then burying the droppings would be a desirable trait. (In evolutionary terms, “desirable” means that the animal will be more successful at reproducing, and thus expressing this particular gene.)

Eventually, scratching after doing your business no longer had any significant benefit. Certainly, after humans took over the job of deciding how the canine species evolved (an event which happened in the mists of pre-history), the presence of dog droppings did not help prey animals to avoid being eaten. The archeological record is replete with evidence of how devastatingly effective a human hunting party was, when accompanied by a pack of domesticated wolves. All the humans had to do was use the dogs to drive the prey animals into a difficult area, like a swamp or a stand of canes. Once the prey animals were trapped by the dogs in an area which made movement difficult, the humans moved in to finish the prey animal off using spears. In this manner, after the dog was domesticated, humans were able to bring down huge animals like wooly mammoths, elk, moose, and the like.

Anyway, this particular gene was selected by evolution at some point during the development of the wolf. Later it became irrelevant, but it did not harm the ability of the animal to reproduce. Thus, the gene persists at least in some dogs. It is not being selected for anymore, but neither is it being selected against. Thus, Diogee has the trait, but Napoleon does not.

In The Moral Animal, Wright investigates the role of evolution in the development of human sexuality and marital relationships. One phenomenon which is pretty much universal is the so-called “Maddona-Whore Dichotomy”. That is, men tend to sort women into two sets: Those who are appropriate for casual sex and those you marry. The difference is the sexual promiscuity and libido of the woman involved. In terms of long-term relationships, as Wright amply demostrates, men actually prefer women who are relatively non-sexual, and have to be wooed and coaxed into having sex. Why? Simple. Human beings are a type of species referred to as having high “male parental investment” (MPI). Thus, a man is driven by his genes to foster the success of his offspring, and will expend a great deal of effort doing so. This is true in pretty much every human culture in the history of the world.

This is in turn driven by the nature of the human species itself: Our babies are born at a very early stage of  development relative to other primates. Bonobos infants are capable of clinging to their mothers from birth, an essential trait given that bonobos monkees live in the canopies of trees. With humans, the female is typically completely devoted to the care of the infant for at least three to four years after birth. In order for this to be feasible, the father really needs to hang around and provide food, protection, shelter, etc.

In the sexual dynamic, the interests of the female and the male are in conflict: The female’s interest is to attract a male to invest in her offspring. The male’s interest is to avoid having the female mate with any other males, as that would make his investment worthless, in terms of expressing his genes. Thus, the value of virginity in females is a virtually universal human trait. The effect of cheating is different for each gender: For a male, a cheating wife is devastating: He can no longer ensure that the offspring will be his. Hence the extreme response of human males to infedility which can, and does, include violence. Female response to male infedility is very different: What threatens the female is not sexual infidelity. A bit of casual sex can be tolerated, and almost always is in many cultures. The threat to the female is emotional infidelity, because it threatens the male’s continued investment in her offspring. If the male becomes emotionally bonded to another female, he may abandon her for another family. This can, and often does, happen even in very primitive cultures. Hence the classic stereotype of jilted females sitting around commiserating about their unfaithful husbands and concluding that all men are scum.

The difference in libido is dramatic as well: Male humans have an insatiable sexual appetite compared to females. Why? Because for a male the mating opportunity presents another chance to spread those genes! A male human can mate hundreds of times a year, assuming he can get enough females to cooperate. This has actually happened in very polygamous ancient cultures like Judaism where kings like Solomon had so many wives and concubines that he could have sex with a different woman every night of his life, and not repeat for years (and possibly never repeat at all, given the acquisition of new wives and concubines!). On the other hand, a female can only reproduce about once per year (and that’s pretty aggressive), given the huge investment required by the female to bear and rear the child. Thus, once a female has mated once in a year, that’s good enough. She would rather find something to eat or catch a nap. Reproduction is not that important to her, as long as she can find a male to mate with often enough, and that does not need to be very often. The way females ovulate is very telling: Other primates have an explicit form of ovulation so that all males around her will know that she is fertile. Human females have no such cues. In biology, this is referred to as obscure ovulation. This means that the female is able to mate pretty much anytime, neatly fitting into the massive sex drive of the male. Since the male cannot tell if the female is fertile, he happily has sex with her, in the hope (at least in evolutionary terms) that she might be fertile. In the process, the emotional component of sexual love is enhanced, further ensuring the male’s parental investment.

You get the idea. Many of the characteristics which define us as a species can be explained quite well in evolutionary, Darwinian terms. I find this enchanting.

More later.

The Law of God

My friend Ray and I have been having an interesting discussion on the Old Testament law. You see, the Christian gospel relies upon the OT law to establish the standard of sin. The basic elements of the Christian gospel are as follows:

  • God exists, has a personal interest in each of us humans, and also has a standard of behavior which He has prescribed for us, commonly known in the bible as the law (in Greek usually the word logos, and in Hebrew almost universally the word torah).
  • Because of the disobedience of Adam and Eve in violating the law of God, sin entered into mankind, and we fell. Sin is defined as missing the mark, i.e., meaning failing to meet the standard laid down by God, again the OT law.
  • Jesus Christ is the solution to this problem! God the Father decided to sacrifice his own son, Jesus, so that the OT law could be abolished, and we could enter into a relationship with God, free from the constraints of the law.

There you have it. Note that God must meet three requirements in order for this gospel to be true:

  1. He / She must exist. I actually do believe in God most of the time, more on this later.
  2. He / She must be capable of communicating with us humans, and care about our affairs. I refer to this as God being personal. This is not actually as trivial as it sounds. Many intelligent folks (including Thomas Jefferson, for example) have long believed in a God who exists, but is not capable of communicating with us. Christians generally ascribe all sorts of human-style emotions to God. (God is grieved by the state of moral decline in our country, etc.) Other religions frequently consider Christianity to be a form of idolatry for this reason. More on this later. Many physicists believe that if God does exist, He / She would be completely outside of our normal space / time. Thus, the likelihood of something that great having concern for us is not a trivial question, like I said. Nonetheless, Christians do believe generally that God has intimate concern and awareness of our every action, including our thoughts.
  3. He / She must have an opinion about human behavior and morality. I call this God being moral. This one is a big stretch, actually, but if you buy the general idea of God having a standard of behavior for us humans, then you have to deal with the core issue of this post, which is:

Does the law of the Old Testament qualify for something you would regard as divinely prescribed?

And this question is very important to Christianity because, again, the law is the standard which is raised by God in order to define the concept of sin. As Paul pointed out, without the law, there is no awareness of sin. Also, of course, the Old Testament is replete with praise and adulation for the law. (Many examples could be cited, but Psalm 119 pretty much says it all.) Thus, certainly, most conservative Christians would agree that the law as laid down in the Old Testament is the standard of God which defines the concept of sin.

Thus I propose to examine the Old Testament law and determine (at least in my own mind) whether it qualifies as a candidate for a divinely prescribed law. I will begin with the law of rape, which is contained largely in Deuteronomy 22. Here is the basic gist:

If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, he shall pay her father fifty shekels of silver. He must marry the young woman, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives. (Deuteronomy 22:28-29 NIV)

OK, let me get this straight. A man rapes a woman who is a virgin and not engaged. For this he has to pay her father 50 coins and then marry her? In other words, a woman is required to marry her rapist, and live with him for the rest of her life?

No wonder rape is not included in the proscriptions in the 10 commandments. In the Old Testament law, rape is simply not considered to be a very serious crime!

So there you have it. Do you consider this law of rape to be divinely prescribed? Would you live in a society in which this was the law?

As usual, comments are welcome.

Reasonable Christians

I met a reasonable Christian today. It was a bit weird, actually.

My wife wanted to visit a local Anglican church where my Christian friend Ray and his wife attend, and I thought: Sure, why not? So we went. There you have it. I actually set foot in a Christian church today. And I have no doubt that many of the Christians in that room would be offended by the things that I say on this blog (although I would certainly love it if they would read it).

Be that as it may, I was immediately drawn to a young woman when we arrived. You are probably thinking that this was due to my (admittedly) heterosexual nature. But, no, in this case, I was not attracted to this person in that way at all. For one thing, she was dressed in a very traditionally religious manner, which is about as sexually unattractive as it is humanly possible to be. And she had done absolutely nothing to make herself attractive, as that standard is described in our current culture. (Not that I find that necessarily attractive either: More on that later.) It was not that she could not have made herself attractive in our terms, had she tried. She simply did not care to try.

What drew me to this person was her absolute, visible and obvious rebellion against the direction of our modern culture. As soon as I started talking to her, she explained to me about how the Anglican church we were in was “officially a mission of the Anglican Church of Rwanda. You see, the Rwandans decided that America was an evil, secular, and godless place that was in need of evangelizing. So they planted this church.”

I still cannot tell if this statement was dripping with irony or not. If so, she delivered it very well, and very straight. She had me immediately.

I confessed that I was an extreme theological liberal, and told her about a bit of my journey. How I had made a terrible mistake: I decided to read the bible as a work of human literature, and put my faith on the shelf for a while. As a result, my belief systems traumatically collapsed and left me as you see me here: A spiritual wreck. Of course, the irony in my case was more obvious.

Interestingly, she understood. Turns out that she is studying the New Testament at a major university in Israel. (A very interesting place to decide to study the New Testament.) She said she had been through a similar journey. She was, as she put it: “Aware of the difficulties.” That is, she has a place at the conversation because she is at least familiar with the material concerning the origins of Christianity, the bible and the rest, and is not simply deluding herself, as many Christians do. The good news, she said, was: “You can make it through this to a better place.”

I did not get to continue the conversation past that point, although I would like to. Is it possible for a person who does not even believe in Hell, or the concept of sin (as in failing to meet the standard set out by God in His law) to be a Christian in some way? Perhaps it is, so long as it is clear that I am also a Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim. As well as an agnostic, and in times of deep despair, possibly even an atheist.

But the Christian might be the better part of me.

One thing my friend Ray pointed out to was the 10 commandments, as a part of the standard raised by God. Unfortunately, I was not persuaded by that very much. If I had to come up with a set of human laws to live by, I would have created a very different list than these. Especially when you put it in the context of the rest of the Old Testament law. Like the commandment against adultery. I would certainly not condone the form of marriage described in the law of Moses, which was, as I have pointed out frequently, polygamous, blatantly discriminatory against women, and fundamentally a form of slavery. I would have certainly added a commandment against rape. (Want to get your hair raised? Read the laws in the Old Testament on rape.) And I certainly would have added a law encouraging compassion and empathy towards every human, regardless of race, gender, age, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation. Which is obviously missing from the Old Testament law, as it is completely bigoted in favor of the children of Israel, and against the rest of the human race.

So there is the challenge: Can a man like me fit into a community of Christian believers? Not sure. I guess we’ll see.

More later.