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The Power of Dissent Part 2


Recently, I read Lawrence Wright’s incisive and highly provocative essay entitled “The Apostate,” which was originally published in The New Yorker in 2011. Wright’s essay, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in the rise of new religions, takes a look at the practices of the Church of Scientology – and in so doing, forces us to consider the early origins and evolution of all religious or ideological institutions. In his essay, Wright offers evidence that Scientologists may be actively engaged in a calculated and controlled form of ideological inculcation by way of a variety of traditionally disparaged methods, some of which are discussed below, but all of which lend to the creation of an environment in which critical and independent thought fail to thrive. Although the practices of the Church of Scientology have been subject to worldwide ridicule, they do not differ so much from the early historical practices of several now established world religions. When examined together, these practices help us to better understand the workings of many organized religions, ideologies, and world views.

In many cults and religions, whether old or new, dissent is only tolerated in varying degrees, and in some cases, not at all. Dissent may be passively discouraged by established religions, but in cults and in new religions, it may be actively suppressed. Non-believers or those who are critical of the established order may be ostracized in one way or another. At one extreme, dissenters may be tolerated or simply ignored. At the other extreme, defectors or “heretics” may be manipulated, bullied, physically abused, and/or separated from their friends and family. According to Wright, Scientologists engage in a common practice called “disconnection” in which believers are encouraged or forced to suspend communications or contact with friends and family members who don’t believe, or who have otherwise offended the church.

Depending on the religion or cult in question, social pressure – also in varying degrees - may be brought to bear on its members to ensure conformity with acceptable standards of behavior. To minimize dissent, members may be inducted into the religion or cult at an early age by way of an education system that is either funded or supported by the organization itself. All members, children and adults alike, may find themselves immersed in a social environment where most – if not all – of their friends, family members, and co-workers are of the same faith. Because children are often brought up in religious schools and are surrounded by friends and family of the same faith, they are inevitably isolated from any opportunity to exercise dissent. In fact, entering a cult or religion is often done with a parent’s consent, blessing, and even encouragement – and in some cases, by force.

Many religions and cults unite their membership through allegiance to a set of scriptures, an originating tale or creation myth, and/or a sacred text that contains the founding principles of a religion. No matter how ridiculous or illogical the myth, which often involves tales of reincarnation, revival from death, and other supernatural stories, there is a tremendously high incentive to believe that the “sacred text” or originating tale represents the truth, since logic dictates that otherwise, the entire belief system must fall. In many cases, adherents naturally find it easier and more convenient to believe the originating tale or to make any necessary logical or intellectual accommodations – regardless of the fact that the organization itself might make some truly spectacular claims.

In October 1985, former members of the Church of Scientology, as part of two separate actions against the church, filed materials in court that purportedly contained the organization’s secret originating myth. Despite attempts by Scientologists to block access to these materials, the Los Angeles Times obtained a copy and printed a summary, which Wright described as follows:

““A major cause of mankind’s problems began 75 million years ago,” the Times wrote, when the planet Earth, then called Teegeeack, was part of a confederation of ninety planets under the leadership of a despotic ruler named Xenu. “Then, as now, the materials state, the chief problem was overpopulation.” Xenu decided “to take radical measures.” The documents explained that surplus beings were transported to volcanoes on Earth. “The documents state that H-bombs far more powerful than any in existence today were dropped on these volcanoes, destroying the people but freeing their spirits – called thetans – which attached themselves to one another in clusters.” Those spirits were “trapped in a compound of frozen alcohol and glycol,” then “implanted” with the “seed of aberrant behavior.” The Times account concluded, “When people die, these clusters attach to other humans and keep perpetuating themselves.”” (p.55)

Many religions and cults promote and cling to a literal interpretation and application of originating principles or tenets, and may – at their discretion – manipulate these originating principles to their advantage, despite the intentions of the religion’s original founders. Often, adherents do not read or fully grasp the meaning of the original text, believing that others higher up understand things better than they do. In some cases, adherents also display a lack of knowledge regarding the originating principles themselves, in which case they choose to subscribe to another person’s interpretation – a person who is reputed to be smarter, more talented, more credible, more enlightened, more educated, or more “special” than anyone else. Sometimes, this person may be the organization’s charismatic, intelligent, and much loved leader, about whom stories are told of a mythical - and sometimes questionable - past. As such, his ascent to power or popularity takes on legendary proportions. Subsequent generations may invest considerable efforts towards creating a myth around this leader – that he or she is infallible. And they may protect this myth at all costs.

In many cases, and especially at the very beginning of a religious organization’s life, a church’s ideology will contain some legitimately inspiring guiding principles. According to Wright, science fiction writer and Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, for example, said that individuals have a duty to act when they know the truth. (Not a bad principle to live by, since this statement appears to actively encourage dissent.) But like most historical attempts to codify human behavior against a changing backdrop of mores and values, subsequent generations are likely to re-interpret these positive guidelines to serve their own purposes, to say “he didn’t mean to say that dissent should be allowed.”

Members may find that they are drawn to a cult or religious organization after experiencing personal or emotional challenges. After adopting the religion’s guiding principles, they may feel that they have experienced a revelation, or a substantial positive change in their lives. These revelations may take the form of testimonials that are shared within the organization, and that are eventually used to attract new members. When an individual is facing personal challenges of his own and is in a vulnerable state, the organization is quick to offer various forms of support, including affection, friendship, community, and guided therapy, meditation, or course work to help the member on his path towards enlightenment.

In many religions and cults, a path to spiritual enlightenment is offered to its adherents, at the end of which there is the promise of some kind of divination, revelation, or “secret” that will be divulged only to those who have demonstrated a commitment to the organization for an extended period of time. This path to enlightenment, however, requires the investment of considerable time, effort, money, or resources. In the case of the Church of Scientology, Wright informs us that members commonly paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in exchange for course work, “auditing,” and other services – through which, they are told, they will eventually have access to “the bridge to total freedom.” As such, the incentive to believe among members is high. Whereas the path to spiritual enlightenment leads to some form of divination or revelation – usually towards the end of one’s lifetime – exclusion or ex-communication from this path results in some form of eternal suffering, damnation, or spiritual hell – to which most, if not all, non-adherents are doomed.

Although, depending on the maturity of a cult or religion, there are varying levels of tolerance for dissent, in some cases, there is no room for dissent at all. Dissenters and defectors face expulsion from the church for so-called moral transgressions, or for behavior that is in any way critical of the organization. Often, there is a tradition of “confessing,” which requires that adherents disclose their transgressions to another higher placed member of the organization. In the case of the Church of Scientology, despite the leaders’ reassurances that these confessions are confidential, it is tacitly understood that the Church may wield this unspoken power of disclosure over you.

As witnessed in Communist China and in other controlling, absolutist regimes, religious adherents may be required to write “success stories” in which the believer attests to the veracity of the success of the organization’s teachings. These success stories are then read aloud, disseminated, or otherwise published for the benefit of others so that all members have an incentive to celebrate, whether artificially or not, the successes that have been made possible by the religious organization. Despite an adherent’s intuitive belief that “things may not be as they seem,” the incentive to embellish or fabricate to confirm the organization’s version of events is high – since the adherent has invested so heavily in the organization, and since his or her social circle is made up almost exclusively of fellow adherents. The barrier to entry into an organization may be low, but the barrier to exit is very high.

While the organization may say that it values egalitarianism, democracy, freedom, and human rights, its interior structure shows favoritism for the wealthy and successful, with considerable privileges bestowed on those who are obviously more valued than the others, creating a bizarre, yet overt kind of elitism. There is often some kind of hierarchy in the cult or religion, which through many years of devotion and practice, one can ascend. Success usually awaits those who manage to navigate through a list of challenges, trials, and ordeals while adhering to a code of conduct required of all of the organization’s members. Within this membership hierarchy, the lowest ranking members may obtain very little benefit – financial, emotional, or otherwise – from their sacrifice or loyalty, but are told that they are working for the betterment of humanity or in pursuit of some larger purpose. Despite the organization’s claims, its leaders may lead luxurious lifestyles - or its historical leaders may have led luxurious lifestyles in the past - despite legal or moral provisions against inurement.

Successful cults and religions tend to demonstrate impressive marketing skill, especially in their ability to recruit adherents – sometimes even celebrities - who are intelligent, articulate, and ambitious - and who are happy to communicate the religion’s benefits to others by way of testimonials: “When I found God, my whole life changed…” New recruits and long-time adherents come together around a repressive historical event that creates a tight, almost unbreakable emotional and psychological bond among the organization’s membership. Adherents are united by these historical events, raising their voices in a rallying cry against oppression and injustice. Members may feel that they are siding with the marginalized and the oppressed, that they are clearly on the “right” side – despite the presentation of evidence that shows that the organization itself may have, at some point in its own history, participated in the marginalizaton and oppression of others.

In the case of the Church of Scientology, a 1985 court challenge was brought by former member Julie Christofferson-Titchbourne “who argued that the church had falsely claimed that Scientology would improve her intelligence and even her eyesight.” (p.55) This case attracted Scientologists from around the country who “carried banners advocating religious freedom and sang ‘We Shall Overcome.’ Scientology celebrities, including John Travolta showed up; Chick Corea played a concert in a public park.” When a mistrial was declared, this event became “one of the greatest triumphs in Scientology’s history, and the church members who had gone to Portland felt an enduring sense of kinship.” (p.56)

United by a homogeneous set of values, a rallying cry against oppression, a cohesive vocabulary, a common originating myth, a charismatic leader, and a set of policies and practices that have the effect of sublimating, if not suppressing dissent altogether, some cults and religions manage to become self-sustaining organizations that can withstand the test of time. As the organization matures even further, and finds a way to generate funding on its own, it begins to amass wealth. Over time, it may even develop a system that encourages and rewards substantial donations to the cause. With so much amassed wealth, the organization has the ability to suppress the truth and to manipulate the facts to its advantage. If these organizations, for example, engage in civil rights violations or support individuals or organizations that breach the civil rights of others, these are often cloaked or excused based on a purported right to “freedom of religion.”

In addressing basic human needs, many cults and religions have been very successful at providing comforting answers to the larger questions of human existence. They have provided a community or support network to their adherents, as well as sufficient incentives to remain within the organization, and to fundraise on its behalf. They have ensured that their adherents’ children remain faithful to the cause by building religious schools or by inducting members into the religion at an early age. In an effort to survive and prosper, the organization will, in many cases, discredit other faiths and religions, claiming to be the one true religion – and encouraging its members to believe that they are somehow superior to those who do not subscribe to the “right” religion.

Although the organization may be historically riddled with allegations of physical and psychological abuse, and sometimes by stories of grossly disturbing and abusive behavior, it handles these allegations well – often by attacking the credibility of those who attempt to speak up against it. It begins to gain a certain expertise at denying credibility to anything or anyone that is external to the religion or cult itself, or that is critical of the organization’s world view. Members may display a reluctance to seriously consider those who are critical of the church’s practices, and may even be offended by evidence of any kind that questions the organization’s founding principles, thereby creating a propaganda machine that, by necessity, believes and reinforces its own lies.

In the case of cults, the leader’s word becomes increasingly absolute, and followers may begin to display a desire to impress their superiors. The cult leader does not tolerate challenges to his or her authority. Followers are required to be deferential. In an effort to renounce all doubt among its still precarious membership, the organization takes itself very seriously, and is characterized by an inability to laugh at itself – presenting a straight-on, unambiguous, unambivalent world view, in which adherents march triumphantly towards enlightenment and salvation. Defectors may express that they have experienced a phenomenon akin to brainwashing, in which they felt that someone else’s thoughts had been superimposed upon their own. Defectors may even report that they had been subjected to a justice system which applied laws created by the religious institution or cult itself.

In the case of cults and new religions, organizations may derive considerable support from “orders” like “Sea Org,” which – according to Wright’s essay - performs the mundane tasks of keeping the Church of Scientology alive. In this religious order, sexual behavior and marital affairs are regulated to ensure that members are devoted to the cause. Members may be inducted into the order at an early age, with the parent’s consent and encouragement. Given that early inductees are deprived of formal education and training as children, they may not have viable employment options when they reach adulthood. They become dependent on the cult or new religion for all things, including financial and emotional support.

In an effort to ensure dedication and long term loyalty, the Church of Scientology, for example, requires child members of Sea Org to sign “billion year contracts” in what amounts to indentured servitude to the organization. According to Wright, defectors have stated that they were made subject to a practice equivalent to extortion, in which religious course work and benefits that were supposedly provided free of charge to the child inductee were suddenly charged to the inductee when he or she expressed a desire to leave the order. Defectors have attested to the fact that emotional, spiritual, psychological or physical force have been used to reclaim Sea Org members, and that Scientologists resort to a procedure called a “blow drill,” thanks to which former head of security, Gary Morehead, estimated that he and his security team “brought more than a hundred Sea Org members back to the base.” According to Morehead, when emotional, spiritual, or psychological pressure failed to work, “physical force was sometimes used to bring escapees back.” (p.84)

As in many absolutist organizations, defectors have explained that control was brought to bear on the reproductive rights of female members. There also appears to be evidence that cults rely on a finger-pointing system that requires others to turn in dissenters and non-conformists for non-sanctioned behavior, and that encourages its members to make public declarations of error. In the case of the Church of Scientology, individuals who are considered troublemakers are labeled “Potential Trouble Sources” (PTS) or “Suppressive Persons” (SPs), and friends and family members are required to dissociate themselves from such publicly maligned individuals. Anyone critical of the organization is immediately denounced. Dissenters and defectors are discredited. Cult followers may find that their thoughts and behavior are being closely monitored. In the case of the Church of Scientology, it has been reported that an instrument called an “e-meter” – often compared to a polygraph - is used to monitor members’ thoughts and emotions during “auditing” sessions. The cult holds the key to the individual’s salvation, and wields the power of eternal life and death over its members. Any betrayal of the cult is considered treasonous.

(To be continued…)

Image Credit: Istockphoto

Image Caption: The red pawn, representing dissent, takes the queen

Lawrence Wright. “The Apostate.” Published in “The Best American Magazine Writing 2012,” Edited by Sid Holt for the American Society of Magazine Editors. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012. Originally published in The New Yorker in 2011. Retrieved on October 22, 2013 at

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by Sam Lee

I would like to put atheism aside for a moment to discuss something about which many theists and anti-theists would agree. Whether or not we believe in the existence of a god, few of us would disagree that some, if not many, political, religious, business and other organizations have - at some point in their history - proven to be morally corrupt and impervious to external scrutiny. These organizations have reportedly used manipulative tactics to threaten, frighten, and coerce individuals into acknowledgment, conformity, or adherence to a particular faith, philosophy, subculture, or world view. In our desperate attempt to find solutions or comfort in times of existential angst, humans – over the course of history – have happily endorsed what now appear to be questionable ideologies and antiquated myths, religious or otherwise, turning a blind eye to the abuses for which these ideologies and myths are responsible. Atheists are widely criticized for spending so much of their time debating the existence or non-existence of a god, but this is – in large part – a misconception. By and large, atheists are freethinkers who uphold the value of critical thinking and who are primarily concerned about the proliferation of blind faith – in all aspects of life - at the expense of reason, compassion, morality, justice, and human rights. The general public is always quick to draw attention to the endless, entertaining, but often necessary debates that are pitted between believers and non-believers, and use these opportunities to paint atheists as raving proselytizers of a faithless world view. In reality, most atheists are not at war with any particular religion or religious institution, or with any one particular set of beliefs. Rather, our primary objective is to elevate the value of reasoned and critical thought in a pseudo-secular society that has carelessly depreciated the importance of independent thinking across the board, including in our schools, our work establishments, our governments, and in our interpersonal relationships. Our concern stems less from a resentment of existing religious institutions, and more from a deeply held and scientifically based conviction that any homogeneity or uniformity of thought has the potential to transform into an insidious and destructive force in our world community, leading to widespread abuse, cruelty, violence, and war. Atheists are not attempting to convert individuals to their own particular brand of atheism. 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My father, a professional trumpet player, decided to get involved and was soon playing in the orchestra and for offertories. That December, the music ministry put on its annual Christmas concert. The music performed that day rivaled that produced by any professional ensemble. Author and educational adviser Ken Robinson has written: “People often think of amateurs as second-rate, as those who perform well below professional levels.” Looking back to that Christmas concert and to countless other Sunday mornings, there was nothing amateurish or second-rate about those musicians. There was real skill, passion and dedication in their work that I'd seldom heard or encountered elsewhere. I would later join both the choir and orchestra. In that environment, I learned about the pursuit of excellence and about how to work with others. These lessons have followed me throughout my adult life. When I became an atheist, I lost my relationship with the church, and by extension my relationship with the music of the church. In many ways, it felt like a death – an amputation. Some of my fondest memories of my life are of times spent sitting in rehearsals and working with friends to learn and perfect our craft. ***** Last night, I listened to the first movement of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Cantata 191, set to the text “Gloria in excelsis Deo.” As the first few notes sounded, I had a flashback to a similar evening many years ago, when I was a teenager sitting on my bedroom floor with my CD player, listening to this very cantata. It strikes me now that I was probably very different from other teenage boys. Growing up, I checked out every Bach cantata recording in the library, drinking in and immersing myself in the music. I can remember desperately wanting to sing the tenor parts, even as biology was dictating my lot as a baritone. In high school and college, I strained to sing high notes even though doing so often left me hoarse and in pain. Ignoring reality like that left scars in many ways. But the music – the music was glorious. ***** Three years before I became an atheist, I had come out to my friends and family. Telling everyone that I was gay had been a gradual and strategic process. I continued to take part in the church, but I made a point of keeping my public and personal lives separate. I knew that the community wouldn’t have looked favorably on my new identity. But, when I came out as an atheist, I furiously rendered all of those parts of my life that had been Christian. I angrily unfurled my anti-theist flag. I let everyone know in no uncertain terms that religious belief was stupid, ignorant, and harmful. Where I had once admired C.S. Lewis and Jonathan Edwards, I now idolized Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Carl Sagan, and Emma Goldman. As a student, and in the years after graduating from college, I’d written quite a lot of religious music, both on my own and for use in the church. Once the pieces of my post-deconversion life had started to settle, I began throwing out, rewriting, or repurposing some of that music. Most of it consisted of simply erasing or changing titles. In other cases, the process was more involved. I took a choral piece set to a prayer by Teresa of Ávila, a sixteenth-century mystic and nun, and reset it to a text taken from the Carmina Burana, a collection of sometimes bawdy mediaeval poems composed by theology students and disgraced monks. I swore never to devote another note of my music or my writing in the service of the religion that had claimed so many years of my life. I felt like Captain Ahab in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, howling at his nemesis, the white whale: “…to the last I grapple with thee; from Hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.” The music that had once inspired feelings of awe and transcendence now brought up feelings of anger and loathing. The Bach cantatas, Claudio Monteverdi’s Vespers, Igor Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms – music that had once brought me intense joy – were now on the other side of that chasm between my Christian past and my atheist present. In fact, any mention of God, faith, belief, Heaven or Hell turned me into an intellectual berserker, ready to strike down anything that represented the religion that had once oppressed me. In reality, I was a wounded animal, lashing out at everything and everyone. Like Ahab, the white whale had taken something from me, and I was out for blood. ***** I believe it was the writing that finally allowed the healing process to begin. In the fall of 2012, I learned of the Secular Therapist Project. Through it, I found a therapist who I could be sure wouldn't recommend prayer or going to church as a remedy for my problems. My therapist encouraged me to write about my experience. She felt that it would help me make sense of what had happened. As I began to write, painful memories that I’d worked hard to suppress began to surface, but I found that I could now put them into context. As a child, I did not have permission to not believe. As a young man, I did not know that leaving God behind was an option. But I was an adult now, and I could make sense of things. It was a difficult process, but I slowly began to forgive myself. A young atheist woman once asked writer and comedian Julia Sweeney: “What should I tell my mom when she tells me to hold hands and pray before dinner?” Sweeney, well known for her own loss-of-faith story, Letting Go of God, responded: “I would totally do it. I’d become an anthropologist and go, “Oh, the customs of these people! They hold hands and pray to their god!” Humans are social animals, and part of our cohesion is based in ritual.” Although religion had wounded me, I learned to approach it through the lens of a researcher or a social scientist. I put aside my own biases and experience to understand what made religious people tick. Eventually, I found that I could listen to Bach’s Saint Matthew’s Passion again without feeling angry. I realize now that my violent emotional reaction to religion after deconverting was a symptom of the pain and hurt I had experienced. For most of my life, I had suppressed the truth about my sexuality, as well as my doubts about the existence of God. I’d felt justifiably betrayed and abandoned by those I’d trusted and believed. And, like Ahab, I wanted revenge. My therapist helped me to see that I had experienced a profound loss, and that feelings like these were normal. ***** In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Viola is washed ashore after a shipwreck in which she believes her twin brother, Sebastian, has drowned. In truth, her brother has survived and through a comedy of errors, Viola and Sebastian are reunited at the end, both very much changed by their journey. In my youth, I had developed an important relationship to the music I had experienced in church. But now that I find myself on the other side of the chasm, this relationship has changed. When I listen to Bach, I hear an expression of the values and beliefs that were important to the composer himself. The brilliant and late author Douglas Adams put it beautifully: “Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?” I no longer write religious music, not only because I’m an atheist, but because I want to express the values that are most important to me. Values like love, compassion, justice, empathy, honesty, mercy, freedom, and reason. Through my writing, I’ve come to realize that these are values that I’ve always lived by. I remain the same person now that I was when I was young. My twin isn’t drowned after all. ***** In the months and years after my loss of faith, I mourned the years I’d lost trying desperately to believe and to be a good Christian. I’d wasted so much time trying to be “straight.” Unlike many of my friends, I had not sought out a partner with whom to share my life. Now, I worried that I’d missed that and many other opportunities by resisting reality for so long. Gradually, it became clear that I wouldn’t be the person I am today had I not lived through those experiences. Nor would I be as strong. I realized then that I had to make a choice. I could spend my life mourning the shipwreck, or I could celebrate the life of freedom that coming out had allowed me to lead. Like my friend Sarah, I’m in this “for as long as the adventure lasts.” The past, like nature, is amoral. Raging against both is simply a waste of what little time we have to live and love. The white whale’s malevolence was only a projection of my own anger over what has been lost. He has lessons to teach, and if I stop to listen, he can also be my friend. References: My Life Abroad at Adams, D. (1995). The hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy. New York, NY: Del Rey Books. Lysaker, S. (2014, January 14). Frequently asked questions. Retrieved from . Robinson, K. (2009). The element: How finding your passion changes everything. New York, NY: Penguin Books. Spencer, A. (2012, October 10). Hotseat: Julia Sweeney. Retrieved from . ***** Image Credit: Creative Commons, Moby-Dick by Herman Melville Image Description: Illustration of the final chase of Moby-Dick, by I. W. Taber, from Moby-Dick, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1902

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Seeing It For What It Is

by Devon Tracey

Devon Tracey, the outspoken, entertaining, and controversial American creator of the YouTube Channel Atheism-Is-Unstoppable, has agreed to discuss atheism (and anti-theism) with us - but from a more personal point of view. Currently based out of Buenos Aires in Argentina, Devon is a filmmaker, website designer, and world traveler who has lived in Berlin, London, Tokyo, Seoul, Sydney, and Rio de Janeiro. In the following interview, Devon shares his thoughts with us on a wide variety of topics – from his childhood and upbringing, to the importance of coming out as an atheist, to his hopes for an Internet-based revolution fuelled by common sense and reason. ***** “The best way to sum up my childhood is to say that I was raised by an Englishman. Which meant that on the outside, we might say we were Church of England, but in practice, there was never any mention of God or religion whatsoever. It was a total non-factor. My English father much later confessed that he is and was an atheist, which came as no shock to me, considering how bright and filled with wisdom the man is.” “I was sent to a Jewish pre-school, because it was the best one around and was closest to our home, where I was taught Hebrew and studied the Torah and Talmud. Then it was off to Christian elementary school, which was a private school that was located on church property - which meant that every Friday we would go to chapel and sing songs and get peddled a mildly religious soft sell version of indoctrination. The huge crucifix hanging like a massive chandelier over us did seem a bit creepy, but then again, I was only six, and so I hadn’t yet fully grasped the beauty and majesty of human sacrifice - sarcasm alert.” “That was the only time that I ever went to a church, aside from my mother’s funeral. She killed herself when I was five, an event which I believe rapidly sped up my awakening to the realities of life - and more significantly to the realities of death. I was given the normal explanation that mommy was in heaven, etc - but with each passing day, it became apparent to me that I had been lied to. Until they are confronted with it, I feel that a lot of people can sort of skirt the issue of death and the big questions they might have about it. And not as in ‘my distant grandmother died while I was in college,’ but rather as in ‘oh, you’re mother is dead now, enjoy being five.’” “My father remarried a woman who held a wide variety of religious views, from her Mormon family background, to her sort of generic Christian-ness, to her acceptance of any and all things new age-y, including past lives, crystals, psychic connections - to her life long affiliation with the Church of Scientology. She embodied all of it and patched it all together somehow into one big crazy quilt. I suppose being in such close proximity to such outlandish ideas only served to cement me in the certainty that I didn’t want to take part in any of that. Because even as a child I could so readily see that it didn’t make any sense.” “In general, my father and myself had too much more to live for. The arts. Creating. Music. Sports. Afternoon tea. Life itself. There was no need to grovel to invisible people or to create make-believe problems. There was no time for nonsense. In fact, the terms “spiritual” and “philosophical” were of absolutely no significance to me as a child. I was busy being young. Like any young person, I was obviously immortal. In the moment. Why bother with such boring and dense concepts as spirituality?” “I was far more concerned with winning the soccer game, or impressing Rachel Saunders. After that, I was concerned about winning the next soccer game and impressing Jami Hollis. To penetrate the stream of consciousness of my young man mind with issues like philosophy would have been impossible. How does philosophy have anything to do with video games, skateboarding or Ghostbusters? It had nothing to do with these things. Therefore it was utterly irrelevant to me.” ***** Devon is unambiguous and uncategorical in his identification with atheism, and is proud to call himself an atheist: “I know that some people get caught up with the wording and that they’re concerned about being labeled as something that they might not fully identify with - but the bottom line is, I understand that there is no God. I hear many people say, “I don’t believe in a god,” but I think that the word “belief” is just too flimsy and that it can be built upon any assortment of things. So, just like I don’t “believe” in gravity but simply understand it to be something that exists in reality, I also understand that God is something that doesn’t exist in reality. I don’t “believe” that. I understand that this is true.” “I think that it’s a good thing that the word “spiritual” is currently being redefined or reclaimed. It’s sadly become a catch-all phrase which has somehow come to include a wide array of mumbo jumbo, superstition, as well as some well intentioned passion for the sacred nature of life. I know that Sam Harris is trying to rebrand the word and is writing a book on the topic, and I look forward to the day when concerns and issues regarding actual spirituality can be addressed by reasonable people. But until that day, my eyebrows go up whenever I hear someone say “I’m not religious, I’m spiritual.”” ***** When asked to describe his worldview, Devon answered as follows: “This sounds like a question that a reporter would ask George W. Bush, to which he would fumble through some misguided, stutter-filled answer. I could say that I’m a democrat and an American, that I am anti gun, pro abortion, pro animal rights, pro environment, and that I’m an atheist. But politics doesn’t interest me. Sanity does. Common sense does. And at the moment, we have reached a point of crisis when it comes to these two things.” “The lynch pin of this crisis resides in organized religion, which I view as a network of hand me down ignorance that stems from the early, unevolved infancy of our species. The people who were around a few thousand years ago, not to mention a few hundred thousand years ago, were shamelessly clueless as to what was going on around them. Humans are supposed to grow and learn – to stand on the shoulders of giants as we progress through history. Instead, we are holding ourselves back because of the ignorance of our ancestors.” ***** In Devon’s experience, it is difficult to develop close relationships with individuals who are religious: “I have a few friends who have come out of the woodwork to support my vocal position against religion. I know for a fact that many of my friendships have been destroyed because of my decision to be honest. What’s the point of carrying on with a friendship if you have a profound lack of respect for that person’s core beliefs? To me, it represents a task that is way too hard to manage. Not to mention that I believe it’s intellectually dishonest to claim that it is even possible.” “I hear atheists say that “some of my best friends are religious,” and I hear religious people say that “some of my best friends are atheist.” To me, this is a put on, a show that is supposed to impress upon the listener that the person stating it is just a swell, open minded, reasonable, compassionate person. Meanwhile, behind closed doors, both parties are thinking that the other person is either A. going to Hell, or B. absolutely delusional. In my opinion, these are not grounds for a functional relationship.” “The harsh truth about openly stating that you’re an atheist is that you will lose friends and estrange family members – but I would rather do that and be left with people who actually like me for who I am, than try to fabricate a fictional version of myself to cater to what other people “believe.” I think I’ve reached a point in my life where I don’t care what other people think. Like an old person, who has reached an age when he no longer sees any point in lying - or a child who doesn’t yet realize that telling the truth may not always be the socially acceptable thing to do - I seem to have split the difference, and have reached that point in the middle of my life.” “The thing is, it’s not enough to be neutral. To just say, “You have your thing, I have mine.” I have no intention of walking on eggshells and tiptoeing around the fact that most people in society may in fact be completely misguided and misinformed. This isn’t a minor thing. This is not me having an opinion about ice cream flavors, and stating to anyone who will listen that vanilla is superior to chocolate. These are issues that have enormous consequences for our species, life on the planet, our children, and the future of everything.” ***** “I think that atheism should be a universally accepted fact. I agree with Sam Harris when he said that our problem is bigger than religion. It’s a struggle to have reason and good ideas win out over bad ones. In other words, we are in a global struggle against ignorance. Take the gun situation in America, for example. It’s an absolutely preposterous situation, based on a ridiculous interpretation of the Constitution. Does this have anything to do with religion or atheism? No. It has to do with society’s ability to totally detach itself from common sense or reason.” “I would love for the Internet to spark a revolution of common sense and reason that would eclipse the outdated myth worship that has become so commonplace. I am not going to hold my breath and wait for this to happen, but the Internet and more specifically YouTube have begun to set the wheels in motion like never before. If you were to have asked me at any other point in my life whether I could give you the name of an atheist, I would have said “No.” This would have been true all the way until 2009. Outside of myself and maybe one or two of my friends, I would not have been able to name a single atheist.” “For starters, I just didn’t know what people thought. It was taboo to even suggest there was no God, let alone openly talk about it. But more importantly, there were no celebrity atheists, no outspoken best selling authors, nothing. This was a land where I was totally unaware of Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris. This has all radically changed, as you know. And if free thinking people who have any interest in these things have the ability to do Google searches, then I think that our species has some hope for the future. Because the Internet isn’t just about cat videos and porn. Contrary to popular belief, it’s also about collecting the best ideas and holding them up to the light of scrutiny – like in a sort of global peer review.” “And it works in reverse too. It’s not just the best and brightest stating sensible things. It’s about letting the Kirk Cameron’s of the world parade their ridiculous nonsense out on a large stage so that everyone can see it for what it is. It’s not like the kid in the crowd yelling out that the Emperor is wearing no clothes. It’s like having a high resolution, 3D camera filming footage of the Emperor running around stark naked – and then broadcasting the footage out on a live stream to the entire world.” ***** Devon suggests that one of our most basic and primitive instincts – our instinctive desire to please our parents - may be at the core of our fear to come out of the closet: “Atheists don’t come out for all sorts of reasons that are probably apparent to most. Social, political, and economic reasons are plentiful. But by and large, one of the most powerful reasons is that people don’t want to disappoint their parents. We all want nothing more than to have our moms and dads be proud of us. If your parents view you as a heathen demonic spawn who is going to burn in Hell, then this goal hasn’t exactly been achieved. So, I can see that these lingering generational bonds and our deep psychological desire to be in the good graces of our parents might be a major stumbling block for many to come out of the closet.” ***** Devon created his YouTube Channel as a kind of response to Kirk Cameron’s Christian documentary entitled Unstoppable: “The story goes like this. Ever since I was a child, I have always been mesmerized by the sheer madness of what I saw around me. I would watch sermons on TV as a child, with my mouth open in awe as I tried to wrap my head around the fact that these people were real. It was like watching road kill while at the same time seeing a train wreck in slow motion. Riveting.” “For me, a modern day version of this can be seen in the goofy simplistic ramblings of Kirk Cameron. So I did a YouTube search while I was in Korea, and I found a trailer for this Christian movie he made called Unstoppable. Now, it’s difficult to choose the appropriate reaction to this trailer: spontaneous combustion, projectile vomiting, bashing your head against a wall. But for me, as a self-respecting human being, I felt it was essential to make a video that responded to this overt assault on my dignity.” ***** Devon creates his own videos, or re-purposes existing content on the web: “Atheistic mash-ups, you could say. Growing up, I was originally an artist. Drawing was my thing. Then in college I got into animation and majored in animation at UCLA. I told myself that I was going to be a Disney animator. That was my passion. It turned out that I wasn’t as dedicated or as talented with my drawing skills as the rest, so I pivoted to try something else. The Internet thing seemed kind of cool, so I thought there was something I could do there. I became a web designer and a flash animator. Making websites and banner ads for a large list of companies and ad agencies. I created movie sites for the studios, and full ad campaigns for companies like Disney, Pixar, Sony, you name it.” “Finally, I took the step to go into video. I learned After Effects, and got a laptop that was powerful enough to run it, and the rest was a blur of creativity and fun. I would find a mash-up that I liked and create a video for it. I would try to take the people out of one video and composite them into the other so that it seemed like they occupied the same scene. I started a channel, called it Tracey Remix, and since then, my videos have been viewed several millions of times around the world - to my great joy.” “I suppose it was only a matter of time before my passion for speaking up against religion manifested itself in video form. The most gratifying moment for me was when I read in my Facebook feed that Sam Harris was looking for animators or video editors to create visuals for his incredible speech at Notre Dame. I, of course, knew this speech extremely well and jumped at the chance. My girlfriend had read the post as well, and thought that I was tailor made to take it on. And I was. There was no way I wasn’t going to make that video. And when Sam finally tweeted my video - as did Ricky Gervais - my heart sang.” “I had actually met Sam in person the year before at a breakfast joint in Santa Monica. I walked directly over to him, shook his hand, and went into full fanboy mode, thanking him and smiling from ear to ear. We spoke for fifteen minutes about religion, politics, jui jitsu and life in general. It was an extremely gratifying experience to meet and spend some moments with a man that I respect so highly. Unforgettable for me." ***** Devon described the response to his YouTube Channel as overwhelmingly positive: “I get a lot of thank you’s and lol’s, and it makes me feel so good to know that some people enjoy my work. Of course, you get haters and trolls popping up and threatening Hell or spouting off their absurd thoughts, but that comes with the territory of being online. The world is far more crazy than we ever imagined before the advent of YouTube. I get a lot of encouragement and support from people who seem to really appreciate my point of view. If I can make someone laugh, or get a point across, or move someone on an emotional level, that’s a great accomplishment and one that I’m proud of. If someone discovers Sam Harris, or Christopher Hitchens via my channel, or begins to rethink their assumptions about the world, that is great.” “I feel there is a great, if not underestimated, power in standing up and being counted as an atheist and realizing that our numbers are actually pretty enormous and growing all the time.” ***** Image Credit: Illustration by Vilhelm Pederson, 1849, Public Domain, Wikipedia Commons Description: From The Emperor’s New Clothes by Hans Christian Anderson

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Other Side of the World, P3

by David Philip Norris

In the many months we were apart, there were so many times that I’d wanted to share a joke or two with my mother, especially those I knew she’d laugh at. There were times I wanted to show my father the latest musical compositions I’d written. A few months after I broke off contact with them, I received a voicemail from my father informing me that his great-aunt, who had helped raise him and his siblings and who was the closest thing we had known to a grandmother on my father’s side, had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. A month later, my father called again to tell me that she’d died. Then, my mother had sent me an email to ask if I’d wanted updates on my maternal grandmother’s declining mental and physical health. I wrote back to say no. It was a difficult decision, but no-one really seemed like family to me anymore. Updates were painful reminders of what wasn’t. It was genealogy that finally led me to reconnect. I’d been doing research into our family history to see how far back I could trace our lineage. The results were surprising. I learned that one of my distant great-grandfathers, William de Noers, fought in the Battle of Hastings in 1066, and that he had been a steward to William the Conqueror. As I’d looked over my family tree, I had seen hundreds of stories that were lost to time forever, and came to the realization that even though we disagreed - out of the infinitude of possible ancestors and families that could have been - mine was the family I found myself with. Despite our differences, I am who I am because of my family, stronger in some ways because of the life I have experienced with them. That's something worth trying to hold on to. It was this realization and others that finally inspired me to email my mother and to set up a coffee date. Our first meeting went well. I’d always been closer to my mother, and talking to her was easier. ***** Christmas dinner is pleasant and thankfully peaceful. We manage to steer clear of politics and religion, except briefly when my father asks: “So, have you bought health insurance under ‘Obamacare’ yet?” There is a hint of mischief in his voice. “Yes, I did,” I reply, determined not to let this get out of hand. “Despite the problems with the MNSure website, I qualify for MinnesotaCare, so I’ll have health insurance again!” A few months ago this would’ve been impossible, since I don’t make enough at my job to afford employer-sponsored coverage. My family believes that Obamacare is socialism. They’re terrified of the changes. As hard as it is to sit through, I hear so much fear in their voices these days. A few weeks ago, my father and I went to see a play together. Afterward, he told me that he was afraid of the government intruding into our private lives. He expressed worries that with the recent victories in favor of marriage equality, he and other conservative Christians were being marginalized and that Christian beliefs would no longer serve as the foundation of society. There was genuine pain and confusion in his voice, as my father spoke of his concern over the increasing secularization of schools - where children are being taught to “scorn” their parents’ beliefs. He was concerned that he and other Christians would soon be persecuted for their unpopular views. He couldn’t seem to understand how the son he’d raised could have moved so far away from home. I couldn’t understand that this was the man who had raised me. There is a crayon drawing I’d made as a child that my father had hung in his office for years. In it, my father stands on a podium holding a conductor’s baton, and I stand beside him, a smaller version of him, doing the same. Now, as I sit across from him at the dinner table, it’s difficult to see that we’re related. ***** After dinner, we do what we’ve done for as long as I can remember. We gather in the living room to watch holiday movies. There are two that we watch every year without fail: Frank Capra’s 1946 classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, and the 1951 adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol featuring Alastair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge. At one point, in A Wonderful Life, as Lionel Barrymore’s miserly Mr. Potter attempts to lure Jimmy Stewart’s idealistic George Bailey to work for him, I hear my mom turn to my father and whisper: “Isn’t that just like Satan?” ***** I have many wonderful memories of the years growing up with my parents and my sisters. Like any family, we have our disagreements and our differences. We also have many things in common. We share a similar bizarre and cerebral sense of humor. We enjoy old movies and a love for the past. We share a common vocabulary of phrases and memories. But in the past few months, and especially after tonight, I see how different we are - now that I have come out as an atheist. It feels not unlike running into an ex-lover, only to be reminded of the palpable lack of connection that you had once felt when the two of you were a couple. ***** The evening comes to an end as I announce that I need to go home to let the dogs out. I’ve been housesitting for the last couple of weeks while my friends Matt and Jason are in New Zealand on their honeymoon. This past May, the governor of Minnesota signed marriage equality into law, meaning that their marriage is now legally recognized in their home state. They’d married in Toronto several years ago, but they’d renewed their vows this past October and I had had the privilege of playing piano at their ceremony. I was glued to the radio in November of 2012, waiting to hear if voters had rejected a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage in Minnesota. That evening, almost 53% of voters voted “No,” sending a clear message to the rest of the world that not all Minnesotans wanted discrimination written into their state constitution. I’m sure my parents shook their heads that night, grieving for the country that they were slowly losing. My sister is the first to leave. She has to take her big friendly dog home, since it’s past his bedtime, so for a few moments, it’s just my parents and me. As I stand in the doorway to say goodbye, I look at them standing in the living room together. They look so much smaller than I remember, even in recent years. I can’t tell if it’s because they’re shrinking, or whether it’s because I’ve grown taller. ***** Works List: Boyd, G., & Boyd, E. (1994). Letters From a Skeptic. Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books. Capra, F. (Director). (1946). It’s a Wonderful Life [Motion picture]. United States: Republic Pictures Home Video. Hurst, B. (Director). (1951). Scrooge [Motion picture]. United States: VCI Entertainment. Savage, Dan. (2012, April 26). Dan Savage: How Can I Come Out to My Evangelical Family? ***** Image Credit: Istockphoto Image Description: Writer at his desk

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