I was working on a post, in reaction to an op-ed I read last weekend, in which I was ranting a bit.
Okay, it was more than a bit. I was probably well into self-righteous smugness. I took a break to catch up on some news, and came across another story that, as I processed it, made me realize that I was being extremely hypocritical in my rant.
I will return to the topic, and try to write something perhaps a bit less sanctimonious, because I think I have something worth saying on the matter. But before I do that, I have to make a confession or two…
I was raised as a redneck, trailer-trash, Bible-thumping Southern Baptist, Yellow Dog Democrat. And while I was definitely a square peg that did not fit into that round hole, I will always have many of those sensibilities informing my gut reactions on everything I encounter since.
In case you aren’t clear on the meaning of all of those terms, a quick summary would be rural, working class (or lower), white, conservative/populist, fundamentalist evangelical protestant. Think people who drive big pick-up trucks with gun racks in the back window while listening to country and gospel music. The Democrat part confuses some people since it doesn’t seem to go with the other parts, and it’s true that most of my relatives who still live back home vote Republican very consistently, now. But until Lyndon Johnson threw his support to the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, the Southern Democratic Party base in the 40s, 50s, and 60s looked a lot like present-day Sarah Palin supporters. And it took many years for some of those Yellow Dog Democrats to drift over.
I’ve written a lot about how being a gay kid made me the odd man out in that culture, but my pro-science temperament caused me at least as many problems as my non-heterosexuality. From an early age my intense curiosity and natural knack for math and logic caused me problems. I was a scriptural skeptic and critic who would pick apart all the logical flaws in Bible stories during Sunday School, for instance. And then, through the latter part of elementary school as I learned enough geology, astronomy, and biology, I started picking apart Creationism, which really worried some of my fellow church-goers.
For most of middle school, high school, and college, I kept trying to thread that needle. Many scientists are religious, and many religious people have no trouble reconciling a 13+ billion-year-old universe with the Old Testament creation story, so I thought I’d be able to do it.
It wasn’t just science that chipped away at my faith. Science fiction and fantasy played their part, as well. Much of it was subtle. I was pretty young when I started getting into the habit of holding many contradictory imaginary worlds in my head at the same time, though some of them were a lot easier to believe than others. And there were times when the adventures of Bilbo Baggins or Nathan Brazil or Ged of Earthsea seemed more plausible than the Prophet Balaam’s unfortunate donkey or Samson’s antics or Ezekiel’s visions.
Other parts were less subtle. For instance, the first Thomas Covenant trilogy made a good argument for why a Universe Creator couldn’t intervene in miraculous ways within the created universe without breaking causality (and with it all the rest of the natural laws). And then there were all the ways that everything from The Time Machine to Dune to The End of Eternity to The Weirdstone of Brisingamen made me think about time, time travel, prophecy, and the nature of free will.
The upshot was that over the course of my childhood I went from a very firm fundamentalist Christian viewpoint to a sort of pan-religious agnosticism with a veneer of Christianity on it by the time I was 19 or 20. Which was when several leaders in my church started trying very hard to convince me to become ordained as a preacher. A sane person would have fled, but I didn’t.
Which gets to what may be the weirdest twist. I considered it, very seriously, and started meeting with one of the associate pastors at our church to discuss the process, and so forth. The reason I was considering it was because at that point I was still struggling mightily with my sexual orientation. Even though I had rejected most of my church’s teachings (though mostly because I thought they were over-simplifications of a deeper truth), I had enough internalized homophobia from growing up with those teachings that I still felt that I needed some kind of redemption from the same sex attraction that would not go away.
In other words, one of the reasons that I had never felt welcome in the church was the same reason that I clung to it as long as I did.
I realized going into the ministry would be a colossally monumental disaster, and backed out before things got too far along.
I drifted into a kind of agnosti-pagan-mystic viewpoint for a while. Then, when I finally came out of the closet to everyone, I went through an atheist phase. Somewhere in there, I found and bought a beautifully illustrated copy of the Tao Te Ching, which I read, but didn’t fully understand. So I sought out books to explain taoism, and I learned that the way I looked at the world had a very taoist bent. The more I studied, the more I realized that I had been taoist all along.
What I love most about taoism is that it’s a philosophy for how one goes about living in and learning about the universe. You don’t have to believe in a god or gods or spirits or the like to be a taoist.
Greg Graffin (the front man for the punk band, Bad Religion, who also holds a PhD in paleontology, and teaches life sciences and paleontology at UCLA) has frequently said that he really dislikes the term “atheist” because it doesn’t describe what you believe, but rather what you don’t believe. He prefers “naturalist” not just because he studies nature, but because he believes:
Naturalism is a belief system. A lot of scientists bristle at that. We all have to believe we can find the truth. Evidence is my guide. I rely on observation, experimentation and verification.”
So, I’m a bit of a taoist and a bit of a naturalist. Long before I read Graffin’s description, I had rejected atheism, not because I started to believe in god—anyone who saw how I reacted in the intensive care unit of the hospital years ago when Ray was dying and someone sent a minister in to pray over him could tell that I at the very least don’t approve of god—but because I don’t disbelieve in the unseen.
I believe and have faith in the faith and love and hope of good people, among other things. And I believe that things like faith, hope, love, justice, compassion, and mercy are real things, just as real as a supernova halfway across the galaxy or a pebble on the beach. To paraphrase from Terry Pratchett, no matter how hard we look, no matter how powerful a microscope we build or how big a particle accelerator we construct, we’ll never find an atom of compassion or a particle of mercy.
But they exist. They are worth putting our trust into. And they are worth fighting for.