Nice, Nice, Very Nice

I have been thinking about the idea that religious people are somehow nicer or more compassionate than non-religious people. This seems to be a prevailing concept in our culture, especially among Christians. But is it true?

This website, which is by a Christian, points out that according to a large variety of measurements of morality, ethics, compassion, etc., Christians fare no better than non-Christians.

In my own life, I have experienced the “not-niceness” of Christian religion. Being a fundamentalist, Evangelical Christian kind of made me an asshole. There were several things about this mindset that did not sit well with my personality at all:

  • As a Christian I was taught that the world was divided into two groups of people: Folks like me who have been saved by the blood of Jesus, and are therefore going to heaven, and other folks who are lost, and are therefore going to Hell.
  • I was also taught that there is one Revealed Truth of the heart of God: The Holy Bible. Other so-called religious books were works of the devil.
  • Even where the Christian teachings were moral, I always complied with a reluctant heart, out of obligation and fear. Thus, I was not very loving and giving, oddly

Now that I am in what I call a “post-Christian” state, I seem to be nicer. At least that is what the folks around me (notably my wife) tell me. One thing I have noticed, especially with respect to my wife, is that my attitude about her dramatically shifted after I let go of the sin thing. Prior to that point, I loved my wife dearly, and wanted to be married to her. But there was something galling about the religious obligation. It was almost like I was doing something that I should do, according to the religious traditions, and that took some of the joy out of doing it.

Don’t get me wrong, I want to be with my wife, and I want her to be with me. But now I basically woo her continuously. I don’t assume that she will stay with me out of religious obligation. It’s a moment-by-moment thing. I actually want her to choose to be with me, continuously. The only way to achieve that is to truly love her, out of my heart, not out of duty. Thus, letting go of the idea of religious duty gave me something more in that very important relationship.

The first two points, though, caused me to have great hubris. When I was a Christian, I was utterly convinced of my own righteousness, and the correctness of my position. I had no doubt at all about that! And that made me completely obnoxious to many people, especially non-Christians. I looked down upon these poor lost souls. I prayed for them, but only in a hope that they would become like me. It never occurred to me that I might have something to learn from them.

Since I let go of religion, I have been having a lot more interesting relationships with random perfect strangers. I seem to be able to relate better. Since I am now equally convinced that I know absolutely nothing, I am more teachable.

Not saying I have arrived here, but I seem to be on the right track.

The Way of Assisi

I have found a way. This way is working for me. Perhaps it can work for you too.

It is the way of Saint Francis of Assisi, one of the Christians whom I most admire. It seems very simple to me now. Strange that I did not see this for so long.

The essence is:~

  • Focus on this present moment. This, after all, all I have.
  • Forgive yourself and everyone in your life. Live in a state of continuous forgiveness. This is harder than it sounds. You cannot fake this one. My good friend Les Floyd is good for this stuff.`
  • Perform many small, simple tasks with a loving heart.
    • Give myself over to taking care of someone other than myself.

    That’s it. This is certainly the way Assisi lived. He washed the lesions of lepers. He supported the poor, but he did so in a very direct way: He did not write a check to an institutional ministry. No. He handed a loaf of bread to a hungry person.

    I have now looked deeply into the eyes of a person who needs my help, and found myself caring about her. This person is my wife. My love for her is palpably strong now. I find myself moved to tears frequently by the power of it. Right now, as I sit in the cariologist’s office, watching my wife’s echo cardiogram, I am struck again by how much I love her, and how connecte I am to her.

    You see, my wife is ill. She has been having some strange symptoms for a long time now, and we are trying to get a handle on it. In the process, I have become responsible for her care. I am with her all the time. I make her food. I get her a pillow.

    This has led to me become her servant. I do this gladly. In the process, I have found this way.

    Right now, my wife is the only person that I love in this manner. But, I can see that this compassionate, active and devoted love could spread to others. My children come to mind.

    More later.


I made an interesting shift today. It started with my Yorkie Diogee. Diogee is now 10. That means, in dog years, Diogee is 70. I realized that Diogee is now older than I am.

Actually, this has been true for a while. However, I did not realize it until today.

You see, I really, really love Diogee. Although he is strange, and a little crazy, he is still a wonderful animal, and I have actually learned a great deal from him spiritually. I honor him as a fellow traveller on this tiny world of ours.

Anyway, I was processing all of this, and I found myself, as usual, balling. Yeah. I cry pretty much all of the time now, including as I write this. I cry for Diogee because I know his time is near, and he is probably closer to the Great Divide than I am. I will grieve for him when he goes, although it will very likely be by my own hand. Not a chore I look forward to, that’s for sure. I will probably be pretty broken up that day. But we will cross that bridge when we come to it.

I petted Diogee for several hours, bathed him, as well as our other Yorkie, Napoleon, all the time crying off an on. It was then that I realized that an important shift had taken place, like I said earlier.

All of the internal work I have been doing recently has been about processing the events of the past. As I have said many times, I have suffered at least as much as any human I have known, and far more than most. At times, I have found myself actually glorying in my own suffering. I had nothing else left, I suppose. Anyway, all of that trauma and all of that pain apparently needed to be released. So I wept. I wept for Debbie. I wept for my brother Jim. I wept for my mother. And, finally, once forgiveness came, I wept for my father. Oh yes, Howard J. Browning. I weep for you as well.

But today, for the first time, I did not weep about the past. Today, I wept for something that is happening right now. I wept for the present.

I am finally, once and for all, emotionally present. I am experiencing what is happening right now, including my own emotions. I am not saying I do not have more to process concerning the past. Far from it. That work is happening and it will continue. But nonetheless, my focus has shifted.

Thanks to many for this. Most of all to my loving and beautiful wife, Elizabeth (most know her as Ruth, but she will recognize this as her new name). Of course, to my family, about whom I now weep daily. And my best friend Ray. May your God be with you, my friend!

More later.


Human compassion is a funny thing. I have tremendous compassion and empathy for folks that I know. Strangers or people who are far away do not touch me in the same way. I do not think I am unusual in this respect.

The “Baby Jessica” phenomenon is a good example of what I am talking about. In 1987, 18 month old Jessica McClure fell down a well in her home’s yard, and was stuck 22 feet below the ground. For 56 hours, the entire world was convulsed with sympathy for this one small, helpless baby girl. The 24-hour media circus, led by then-fledgling cable network CNN, was avidly watched by millions.

How many other innocent babies died during that two day period? Many, I would guess. According to World Hunger, approximately 40,000 people were dying per day from starvation alone in 1992, 5 years after the Baby Jessica events. That number is probably fairly close. Why then did we respond so much to Jessica, and we can turn our faces away from the 40,000 others who are dying as well?

Because we knew her name. Once we heard about Jessica’s plight, she was real to us. Our hearts went out to her. We felt her pain, loneliness, fear and grief when she was lost in that well.

The others are simply nameless, faceless strangers.

It would seem that our capacity for empathy and compassion is limited. Perhaps in the process of evolving as a species we can learn to have compassion and empathy for everyone. But perhaps as well, it is enough for us to simply practice compassion for those in our own lives.


More later.


I have made a discovery. Tears are powerful.

I have been crying a lot lately. I am not sure what to attribute this to, although I am not really complaining. Suffice it to say, I am getting in touch with my emotions. My wife and I sat in our bedroom today and wept together about how much we love each other, and how grateful we are for our marriage. That sort of thing.

I do not just weep tears of joy, though. Sometimes I weep tears of grief, longing, and regret. I have been doing some deep spiritual work, and the pain of that work is often accompanied by tears. My point: I have been around folks a lot lately while I was crying, and frequently communicating with them my deepest thoughts and feelings, including my feelings about religion.

Here is the thing: Tears are powerful. I said that before, I realize, but it bears repeating. What I find in my own life is that if I state a message, no matter what that message is, and I accompany that message with tears, the message will then be believed. And it will be believed powerfully by whoever is receiving it. That is the power of tears.

Your sincerity is never in question if you are crying. It is impossible (at least very difficult) to fake tears, and it never really works anyway. You simply have to be genuine. And if you are genuine, then tears will flow. And when they flow, you will be believed.

I have had personal experience on the receiving end on this one, actually. I have previously told the story on this blog about how my father gave my sister a gun and told her to go home and kill herself. Which she did. Oddly, my father had a rather strange reaction to this event: He wept. Although she had done exactly what he told her to do, he in some twisted way thought that he was giving her a wake up call. So when she actually did commit suicide, then he was devastated with grief, and he wept for days, pretty much 24 hours a day.

In that case, the effect of tears was lost on me. It did not work. I did not receive my father’s message. Although I had no doubt that he was sincere, I was so enraged with him that his message was lost on me. I was not sympathetic to say the least. I was dry eyed and stoic through the entire experience of Debbie’s funeral.

I suppose this is the exception that proves the rule: If you truly hate the person who is crying and want him to die, then, no, tears do not suffice. I did have hatred in my heart for my father at that moment, and later, when I failed him and abandoned him on his deathbed I wrecked my vengeance.

Did it make me feel any better that I made my father’s passing more difficult? Did I benefit in any way? Would it have been so difficult for me to go down to that hospital and sit with him there in those last few moments of his life? (Tears are flowing again.)

But I did not do that. And now I wish I could take back that decision. I wish, more than anything, that I could look into my father’s beautiful flinty blue eyes, those sea captain eyes, and admit that I truly love him, and that he has had a more powerful impact on me (both for good and for bad) than any other single human, with the exception of my loving wife.

More later.

Compassionate or Vicious

I had an interesting lunch today with my Christian friend, Ray. One of the things we discussed was the idea expressed by Karen Armstrong that there is not one form of religion in human history. Instead, there are two. She refers to one of them as “compassionate” religion. For want of a better term, I will call the other form as “vicious” religion.

For compassionate religion, the example she uses is the Second Isaiah (most Christians do not realize that Isaiah was actually written by two different authors, and their works were later combined). Second Isaiah was relatively annoyed with the Jewish authorities (particularly the King of Israel) because they were “oppressing the fatherless and the widow”. In other words, Second Isaiah was opposed to powerful, rich people and supportive of the weak and poor. In a Christian context, I suppose St. Francis of Assisi would come to mind. Certainly, Francis’s life was a blessing to everyone who knew him, from what we can tell given the records we have of his life. He fed and bathed lepers, for example. Francis of Assisi uniformly and tenaciously represented the interests of folks like lepers, widows and orphans, consistent with Second Isaiah. The film “Brother Sun, Sister Moon” is a great recounting of the life of Francis of Assisi, if you are interested.

For the vicious form of religion, Karen Armstrong chooses the OT King Josiah. I found this choice interesting, because in evangelical circles (where I have hung out a lot), King Josiah is typically a pretty popular guy. (I have met Christians who name their children after King Josiah, for example.) For Karen Armstrong, not so much. King Josiah was a murderous despot along the same lines as Stalin, Hitler and Pol Pot. Certainly, King Josiah was a strong proponent of the worship of Yahweh, and promoted this form of religion over all others, including killing the adherents of other religions. Particularly the folks who liked to worship Ba’al, according to Karen Armstrong. (Apparently, she feels that Ba’al was not such a bad guy, for a pagan god, anyway. And was certainly not deserving of all of the bad press he received in the OT, and most definitely not so bad that it would justify the massacre of his followers.) Josiah exemplifies vicious religion because it combined the exercise of state power, tremendous wealth, pomp and circumstance, and the use of violence and intimidation. In Christian terms, I suppose Pope Urban II would come to mind: He was responsible for the address that launched the Crusades. Another excellent choice would be Torquemada, the head of the Spanish Inquisition.

What distinguishes compassionate religion are the following characteristics:

  • Loosely organized, no official leaders and all leadership is through earning respect of followers.
  • Completely selfless, self-sacrificing attitude of both leaders and followers.
  • Opposed to the rich and powerful.
  • Supportive of the sick, imprisoned, poor, and needy

And, of course, vicious religion is the exact opposite:

  • Rigid, military style organizational structure.
  • Primarily oriented around the production of wealth and power.
  • Embracing and embraced by the rich and powerful.
  • Lip service to taking care of the needy, but little actual action or results.

Of course, this is a range, and each form of religion falls on a point on that range. I have been a member of Christian churches that meet both descriptions, to a greater or lesser degree. Certainly, I am looking for a group that is like the first list.

The interesting thing pointed out by Karen Armstrong is that compassionate religion (in all its forms, at least according to her) has been one of the most positive, if not the single most positive, forces in the history of mankind. At the same time, vicious religion (again, in all its forms) has been undoubtedly the single most destructive force in history.

More later.