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The Power of Dissent Part 2

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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

References:
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 http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/02/14/110214fa_fact_wright

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The Power of Dissent Part 1

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. Our Prime Directive – to borrow from Star Trek – is to stimulate the development of critical, reasoned, and individual thought in society, to fearlessly pursue the truth regardless of emotional or psychological discomfort, and to contribute to the betterment of society by applying a self-imposed, self-created, and self-directed set of ethical principles or guidelines. In short, despite the way we are portrayed in the media, atheists are less concerned about debunking the god mythology than we are about bringing attention to the unprecedented importance of critical thought in a post-modern society. Contrary to public opinion, most atheists are not interested in whether or not you agree or disagree with some or all of the things we say. We are concerned about HOW you arrived at your conclusion, and whether you applied independent critical reasoning in coming to your conclusion. For most atheists - and I certainly don’t purport to speak for all of us – the answer “because so-and-so said so” or “because this is the way it’s always been” or “everyone knows this to be the truth” ranks among the least credible responses to any question, religious or otherwise, including to that most taboo of questions: “Why do you believe?” As atheists, we are comfortable with the knowledge that there might not be any definite answers to some of life’s greatest questions. We also know that – with respect to some of life’s smaller questions – the answers might be variable, and that they may shift over time, depending on the current state of our scientific understanding of the world. In fact, atheists embrace and welcome this knowledge, because they understand and accept that their lives are self-directed, that their thoughts and opinions are entirely within their own control, that they have the ability to affect positive change in their own lives and in the lives of others, if they choose to do so. A plethora of choices is always at their disposal, and although they know that certain things are right and that certain things are wrong under any given set of circumstances, they also understand that the assignment of such normative values has been accomplished by way of millions of years of human evolution and adaptation, as opposed to the arbitrary declaration of one or many external deities. Atheists appreciate that our existence on this planet may be a completely random, yet spectacular product of biological circumstances that came together to create the perfect environment for human, animal, insect, and plant life to flourish and thrive on this planet. Our minds are open to constantly refined scientific explanations that help us understand the nature of the air we breathe, the water we drink, the chemistry and physical principles that govern our genetic make-up, our movement, our senses, and our ability to communicate with one another. We understand that even well established scientific principles – like all forms of human understanding – are subject to challenge as new discoveries are made on a daily basis, as we continue to feel our way around this earth, learning to adapt to our ever changing environments, using the tools, funding, information, and resources that are at our disposal. Atheists are critical thinkers, first and foremost. We are comfortable thinking “outside the box.” Although many of us have been raised “inside the box,” something within us balks at the limits and constraints that have been imposed upon us. We search hungrily for that rarest of substances called “truth” – without which we feel we cannot breathe, without which we feel quite passionately that our ability to lead authentic lives would be severely compromised. Unlike those who may be repelled or intimidated by the facts that govern our existence on this planet, atheists find comfort in the simple knowledge that there is some truth out there amid the chaos – though this truth, in its most honest and naked form, may be chaos itself. (To be continued…) Image Credit: Istockphoto Image Caption: Independent young woman walking away from the status quo References: 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 http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/02/14/110214fa_fact_wright

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The Power of Dissent Part 3

by Sam Lee

Truly independent and critical thought is a rare and precious thing. For it to flourish, individuals must have access to an environment in which freethinking is not only tolerated, but actively encouraged. Our ideas and thoughts are naturally affected and influenced by the ideas, people, and projects that surround us on a daily basis. They are shaped and stimulated by a wide variety of external events, and as they bump up against other ideas and discussions, they have the power to mutate into something new, different, and altogether revolutionary. In a stagnant intellectual environment, where the same ideas and thoughts are circulated and re-circulated ad nauseum to a whole new generation of children who have been raised to accept rather than question – to defer rather than challenge – to acknowledge rather than dissent, there is little opportunity for freethinking. Individuals may privately question some aspect of a cult or religion, but without the internal strength and courage to express themselves honestly and openly, in defiance of an established order or authority figure, this instinct “to disagree,” to question, to criticize, and to search for the truth - collapses. From an evolutionary point of view, humans are primed for survival, and we are – as a result - always on alert for anything that we believe may challenge or threaten our future as individuals and as a species. In a world that values homogeneity and uniformity of thought above everything else, any deviation from the norm must necessarily be destroyed. Free and independent thinking must be suppressed, or at the very least, discouraged. Difference must be sublimated, or at the very least, not valued. In our schoolyards, classrooms, workspaces, offices, families, and communities, we see evidence of our evolutionary inclination toward uniformity of thought on a daily basis. For those of us who have been raised in an environment in which truly independent and critical thought has been actively discouraged or even suppressed – the likelihood that any kind of freethinking will survive is low at best. As such, it must be recognized that true independence of thought requires considerable moral courage and strength on the part of the individual. It requires the ability to speak one’s mind regardless of the consequences. It requires the courage to navigate a difficult emotional path on one’s own, often without the support of a network of friends and family who are constantly endorsing one’s point of view. And it requires a substantial amount of intellectual conviction and outrage to speak out against the injustices and abuses that have been meted out for centuries in the name of a god, a religion, a political regime, or an ideology. In a progressive, compassionate, post-modern society, dissent must be actively encouraged. Critical thinking, scientific reasoning, and independence of mind and spirit must be valued over homogeneity or uniformity of thought, and environments must be created to ensure that fresh new ideas and solutions can proliferate, even if it means that older antiquated ideologies - religious, political and otherwise - have to be set aside to make this possible. As humans, we find ourselves at a crucial point in our evolutionary history. Although it may be easier to give in while a wide variety of diverse human thought becomes sublimated into a homogeneous blanket ideology, morality, or world view, with few detractors or dissenters - we hold in our hands the opportunity to create a different kind of future for ourselves and for our children. In this alternate future reality, beautiful new original ideas will develop, co-exist, and thrive in pursuit of concrete solutions that will benefit humanity as a whole. Freethinking and all forms of independent, creative enterprise will be encouraged and promoted, and the vestigial ideological remains of our past will crumble into dust, locked away in cavernous long forgotten museums to remind us of our once backward, superstitious ways. Image Credit: Istockphoto Image Caption: Young woman thinking about the future References: 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 http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/02/14/110214fa_fact_wright

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Stripes and Solids

by Jeff Musillo

There is a very small light illuminating the pool table in the basement. Just faintly. Everything feels like it’s moving in slow motion around the pool table. The 6-Ball diamond is already set up. The Poolshark comes into view. He walks by the far end of the table. He’s unruffled. Meditatively tranquil. The Poolshark grabs the cue ball and the pool cue, and prepares himself for a game of 6-Ball. He blows the extra chalk off the cue. This is when we see that there is another person in the basement. He is standing on the right side of the table. It’s almost as if he just popped up out of nowhere. His name is The Opponent. “Hey,” says The Opponent. “Dear God! Geez, you scared me. I didn't even hear you come in,” replies The Poolshark. “Ya. I just got here.” “Well it's perfect timing,” says The Poolshark before moving once more toward the cue ball. “I'm just about to get rolling on a little 6-Ball action.” “Nice,” says The Opponent. “Why don't you join me?” “I'm cool, I'll just watch,” says The Opponent. “You sure?” “Ya. I’ve been working all day.” The Poolshark readjusts the cue ball while The Opponent, who pulls up a bar stool and sits down, continues his explanation. “I'm wiped, man. I just need a little time to relax.” The Poolshark hunches over the table, and eyes up the cue ball. “Well, 6-Ball can be truly relaxing in the long run. And you know what they say, ‘That which relaxes you will eventually enlighten you, and that which enlightens will ultimately grant divine felicity.’” “Who says that?” The Opponent asks in a cynical tone. “Truth tellers.” The Opponent laughs to himself and says, “Honestly man, I'm comfortable right where I'm at. You do your thing.” The Poolshark replies, “Seriously though, 6-Ball is a crucial game to play. Actually, I wouldn't even call it a game at all. That would be insulting. It's a spiritual thing. A spiritual quest. Look, there are so many vital indicators going on with this table, so many signs that show the magnitude of pool. Like - right off the bat, think about all the details of a pool table. This table right here, the dimensions are 9 x 4. You multiply those numbers and you get 36.” The Opponent raises his eyebrows. The Poolshark continues, “Then of course there are four sides to the table and six pockets. You multiply 4 and 6 and you get 24. You add the initial 36 with the 24 and you get 60. Then you have to consider the fact that there are four legs and two cue ball starting points. Four plus two is six. You add that six to the sixty and you get 66.” The Poolshark is using his pool cue to accentuate his points. “Obviously I'm playing 6-Ball, so you attach that 6 to the end of 66 and that gives us… 666. The mark of the Devil.” The Opponent’s eyes widen. The Poolshark doesn’t hesitate. “This shows us the great importance of winning, of trouncing what the table symbolizes, of demolishing Satan.” “Wow,” says The Opponent. “I know. It’s great right? So you’re sure you don't want to play?” “I’m very sure.” “That’s alright,” The Poolshark tells The Opponent. “Even those on the sidelines can expand their minds.” The Poolshark takes a moment. Takes his time to make a last assessment of the diamond. He closes his eyes and whispers, “Show me the way.” The Poolshark breaks the 6-Ball rack, grabs the chalk, and chalks his cue with a smirk on his face. He’s only just begun. It’s time for him to explain the meaning of each pool ball before he sends them to the various pockets. “To decimate the wickedness that this billiard board represents, we must align with the cue and expertly utilize each of the six balls on this demonic table. These pool balls are sacred soldiers, and every time one of these little warriors locates righteousness, finds a home in any of the six pockets, a crushing message is forcibly delivered to all who are heinous. It is indeed a imperative duty - and one of great complexity as well.” The Opponent nods his head. “Fortunately, each of the six balls on this table has its own meaning, individual messages that will guide us to victory and illumination… Now, when beginning 6-Ball, when launching off on a sacred mission, the 1-Ball is not only the most obvious target, it's also amazingly inspirational. No matter what it is in this world that we want to accomplish, our road to triumph needs to start somewhere, and the number one signifies that fantastic origin. It represents the beginning of something new.” The Poolshark looks closely at the 1-Ball. “It also urges us to control ourselves,” he says. “To not be besieged by the entire assignment, to not be overwhelmed by everything, but to realize how wonderful it is to embark on something fresh, and to appreciate the supreme beauty of all newness. Unless, of course, it's the life of a child born out of wedlock. That's just repulsive.” He sets up and takes his shot. The 1-Ball fires into the pocket, as planned. The Poolshark makes his way to the 2-Ball. “For me, the next number is the most demoralizing. It's as if it was manipulated by the impious pool table. You see, the 2-Ball, although it's still our little soldier, it is also the symbol of separation - dreadful disconnection. When I think of the number two, I think of some of the most heartbreaking and fear-provoking scenarios. I think of divorce, I think of someone having to lay their loved one to rest... I think of the old Satanic Split.” The Opponent is stunned by what The Poolshark is suggesting. The Poolshark is undeterred. He continues with his preaching. “The Satanic Split. The horribly well-known diabolic torture technique, the tactic where Lucifer sadistically grabs the ankles of the innocent and barbarically tears them in half like a wishbone, ripping his victim from the groin to the top of his convulsing skull.” The Poolshark looks over to The Opponent, who is visibly disgusted. “The 2-Ball reminds us of our grave need to beat the devil. It reminds us that we must defeat the beast before his monstrousness spreads. And by sinking the 2-Ball, we show our biggest adversary that the total termination of all decency is absolutely unattainable.” The Poolshark shoots the 2-Ball into the pocket with force and says sarcastically, “That was difficult.” He shakes off the inconvenience of the 2-Ball, and moves on to explain the 3-Ball. “Luckily, we have the 3-ball to lift our spirits. It's one of the most magical numbers on the table. It stands for unity. It lets us know that when things come together, life can be truly incredible. Such great magnificence, that number three. The Father, The Son, The Holy Spirit… The Holy Trinity. What more could you ask for?” The Opponent says nothing. The Poolshark continues his speech. “There are so many beautiful things that come in threes,” he says. “So many things that remind us of the Holy Trinity. The three leaves of a shamrock, the three wise men...” “The three parts of an atom,” The Opponent says, cutting off The Poolshark. “What? No! No!” The Poolshark fires back. “I was thinking more along the lines of something that's actually valuable - like the three Monastic Vows. Something like that makes you really cherish the number three and everything that digit represents. It is such a remarkable number. In fact, I've spent many sleepless nights wondering why I don't have three testicles.” The Opponent shakes his head. The Poolshark takes his next shot, sinks the 3-Ball, and moves on to his next target. “The 4-Ball rings an awe-inspiring bell,” he says. “The number four not only reminds me of why I'm here, but also why I am the way I am. We are all the Almighty's design. You see, the number four exemplifies God's creative works, which of course is everything. God has created, is creating, and will continue to create all. Accordingly, all that is not wicked is God. People, places, events. Everything is God. And I'd have to imagine that the Father is happy about that, since he never leaves his people hanging. He is never inattentive. He makes sure He takes care of those who appreciate his creations and genuinely follow his ways.” The Poolshark leans in to take his shot. “God makes sure everything works out.” When the Poolshark says this, he truly believes it. The Poolshark takes his shot on the 4-Ball, but it misses the pocket. At that very moment, The Opponent is texting someone on his cell phone. He is not paying attention to The Poolshark. The Poolshark looks up from his missed shot to check on The Opponent, to make sure he is in fact not paying attention. When he feels confident that The Opponent is distracted, The Poolshark uses his hand to slide the 4-Ball toward the pocket. The Poolshark stares darkly at The Opponent, as he finishes cheating at his own game. The 4-Ball drops into the pocket. “Perfection,” he says. The Opponent looks up from his cell phone. “Well done.” There’s a pause between the two men - a hushed moment in the basement. The Poolshark finally speaks up. “Have you been listening to what I've been saying?” “Not really,” The Opponent replies. “Well you really should, especially when it comes to our next soldier - the one and only 5-Ball.” The Poolshark stares at the 5-Ball. Admires it. “The number five personifies style and grace,” The Poolshark says. “It lets us know that even if we're in the midst of harsh combat, even if we're toe to toe, face to face with the King of Hell, there's no need to lose our elegance. The 5-Ball reminds us that even in the most trying dilemmas, we can still keep a poised head on our shoulders and look good defeating our villainous rival. It's one thing to be victorious, it's another thing to prevail while looking classy. And this is what the number five constantly demonstrates - style.” The Poolshark leans in to take his shot. “Why do you think us Christians high-five each other so often?” The 5-Ball drops in with ease. The Poolshark is incredibly energized. “We did it! We made it to our last ball. Are you excited?” The Opponent says nothing. “Good. We're going to need all the enthusiasm we can get. Although there's nothing else on this demonic table to distract us, we still have to remain alert, as focused as we were at the beginning of our mission. In fact, to close out this Satanic bastard, we have to utilize each and every ounce of our mental and physical strength. Thank God the 6-Ball is here to guide us.” The Poolshark takes a deep breath before he resumes his speech. “The number six is a symbol of masculinity. It stands for the greatness of man. The power of man. It reminds us of how amazing it is to be around the effectiveness of a man, to share courage with a man, to have the solid backing of a man. This can sometimes be the most perplexing ball. Homosexuals take it the wrong way. They think it's a gay thing, but they're wrong. They don't understand the true meaning of man. It's not a sexual thing. It's not barnyard. It's brotherly. It's all about camaraderie. And, in life, that incredible, straight companionship is undoubtedly essential. There's nothing like the support of one, two, or even three of my closest male friends.... That's why I love all 6-Balls. A shadow of a smile flickers over The Opponent’s face. “I think you’re a little confused,” says The Opponent. “What're you talking about? I'm not confused!” The Poolshark responds heatedly, “I'm seeing everything clearly. You're the one who’s confused! It's not my fault you can't see the seriousness of 6-Ball.” The Opponent just grins and shrugs his shoulders. This is highly irritating to The Poolshark. “That's really sad,” The Poolshark tells The Opponent. “Shame on you! I've given you so many life lessons here. I've given you so many reasons why 6-Ball is so important, so many examples of why and how we are all affected by The Creator, and you just sit there and pretend as if you're not touched by the hand of God.” The Opponent finally reacts. “Well, I’m an Atheist.” The Poolshark begins to panic. He clutches his pool cue tightly with both hands. He doesn’t know how to respond. His fear escalates. “Uh, alright,” The Poolshark mumbles. “You don't have to preach about it.” The Poolshark fidgets for a few minutes, and then gets into position. The Poolshark takes his last shot. The cue ball rolls toward the 6-Ball. The cue ball makes contact with the 6-Ball. The 6-Ball moves in the direction of the intended pocket. And then... Well, who the hell knows what happened next? ***** Jeff Musillo is the author of The Ease of Access, which was published by AuthorHouse in December 2013. It is available on hardcover, paperback, and in e-book format, and was published by AuthorHouse in December 2013. The Ease of Access is available for sale on Amazon at the following link: http://goo.gl/yHcLTX To follow Jeff Musillo and The Ease of Access on Facebook, please go to: http://goo.gl/Qr4c2Z ***** Image Credit: istockphoto

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The Friendly Atheist

by Hemant Mehta

Based out of Chicago, Hemant Mehta, author of The Young Atheist’s Survival Guide and the charismatic founder and host of The Friendly Atheist, agreed to talk to us about atheism – from a personal perspective. Hemant started The Friendly Atheist about seven years ago, as part of an experiment that he had personally chosen to undertake: “I had never been to a church service, and it's hard to be a vocal atheist in America when you don't really understand how Christians worship. I wanted that first-hand knowledge. I was open to going to other places of worship, but the eBay ad I put up inviting people to send me to church was won by a Christian – who had the highest bid, of $504 - and that's how this all started. In return, I owed him about fifty church services. He suggested going to ten services at various kinds of churches, as a sort of compromise, which I accepted.” Hemant continued: “So - I visited Christian churches for the first time in my life. I learned that the spectrum of Christians was more diverse than I ever knew. There were liberal Christians! I also learned about the wide variety of church services. They weren’t all boring. Many were like staged productions, and I felt like I was at a concert. Very cool. I can see why some people keep going back for more. Part of that experiment involved blogging about my church-going, and I enjoyed the back-and-forth of blogging. I wanted to keep that going, so I created The Friendly Atheist.” As part of his work for The Friendly Atheist, Hemant creates videos that he posts regularly to YouTube channel, The Atheist Voice: “I make my videos with a local professor who handles the filming and editing. I write the material. We meet about once every week or two. The discussion topics are based on current events, ideas we come up with, or ideas suggested by commenters. So far, the response to The Friendly Atheist has been overwhelmingly positive - with occasional trolls. People appreciate hearing simple, non-confrontational atheist advocacy that they can share with their friends. I hope to bring on additional contributors to my blog soon, and to cover a wider range of topics. I hope it becomes the go-to destination for atheism news and views.” ***** In our interview, Hemant - who openly identifies himself as an atheist - told me that he had a religious upbringing: “I was raised in Jainism. It was not too bad, actually. There were rituals and beliefs I performed that I no longer think had any effect, but I was proud to be a Jain, as any young people would be of their childhood faith. I prayed every night. I had a vegetarian diet. I would recite holy words often. Beyond that, it wasn't too different from my life now. I didn't attend anywhere regularly, but only because there wasn’t a Jain temple near us until I was in high school. By then, I wasn’t religious anymore.” Hemant became an atheist in his freshman year of high school: “I just began questioning religion for the first time in my life, searching for my own answers, and I realized the atheist material I was reading online made a lot of sense. I asked myself questions like ‘How come no one else believed what I believed, if I was so right? Why did my beliefs and Christian beliefs contradict each other?’ I never noticed the differences until then, but once I realized I didn't believe any of it, I quickly became an atheist.” Hemant, who described his worldview as naturalistic, rational, and evidence-based, explained that very few of the people who are close to him are “supportive” of his atheism: “Mostly, we just don’t talk about it because we have other things to discuss. Everyone is accepting of it, though, including my parents. No one I'm close with actively opposes me because of it. I know I’d get very defensive or emotional if I had to debate religion with someone - and with my closest friends, I have so many other reasons to like them and be around them. I know that their religious beliefs, while wrong, aren’t among the most harmful kinds of faith I see, so I’d rather focus on the good instead of argue about the bad.” Hemant doesn’t find it difficult to develop close relationships with individuals who are religious: “I usually like or dislike people for reasons that have little to do with religion. And if I like the person, I’ll get past their religious views.” Hemant acknowledges that it is difficult for atheists to come out to their family and friends, and to society in general: “There are lots of false stereotypes about godless people - that we’re untrustworthy or immoral - and people don’t want to carry that baggage. Sometimes, it seems easier to stay silent. I think if atheists came out, though, it would help change those stereotypes. If you feel safe and comfortable doing it, I think you have an obligation to come out. When people realize their friends and family members are atheists, it’s much harder to think badly of atheists as a whole. It’s easy to demonize what you don't know. I understand why some people choose to remain neutral, but again, if you can come out, you should come out.” ***** After describing the deplorable treatment to which American atheist teenagers Nicole Smalkowski and Jessica Ahlquist had been subjected, Hemant wrote the following in The Young Atheist’s Survival Guide - about the overt and sometimes insidious form of bullying and harassment that atheist teens often face in the United States: “Nicole and Jessica aren’t the only students dealing with problems because of their atheism, and I suspect we’ll hear many more stories like theirs in the coming years as atheism becomes more of a potent force in our society. More atheists will be ostracized, more administrators will try to prevent non-religious students from forming groups, and more religious politicians and organizations will try to push their beliefs onto students in retaliation. Atheists may not always be physically beaten up as many young LGBT students have been, but the social pressure to keep their atheism hidden is very real.” Given the foregoing, it is no wonder that Hemant, who is currently working as a math teacher in a Chicago high school, was inspired to write The Young Atheist’s Survival Guide: “On my website, I had posted so many stories of young atheists overcoming a variety of obstacles and I wanted to share their stories and offer advice on how all of us - parents, teachers, friends, etc. - could help them out.” Hemant told me that he’s received a favorable and encouraging response from his readers: “The feedback to the book has been incredibly positive, from students especially. Mostly, they were thrilled to learn they were not alone and that other atheists have overcome the same obstacles they’re going through now.” For young atheists and their parents, who may be dealing with similar difficulties at school or in society at large, Hemant provides the following advice: “Find a community, whether it’s in person or online. Read as much as you can about atheism and religious beliefs. It’s important to educate yourself as much as possible! And don’t be afraid to have conversations about your beliefs with trusted friends.” ***** Since Hemant is an educator, I asked him about his position regarding religion in schools: “I’m fine with Comparative Religion classes that are taught in an unbiased way. I’m fine with religion taught in the context of history. But beyond that, I don’t think there’s much room for it. I understand why religious groups want to start their own schools, and that’s okay as long as tax dollars don’t pay for it. Unfortunately, many of those schools hire untrained educators, discriminate against LGBT students, and teach bad science, to name just a few of the problems. Evolution is a major component of any science class and must be taught. Science would be incomplete without an understanding of it.” On the issue of atheist schools and atheist assemblies, Hemant had the following to say: “I don’t know how an atheist school would be much different from a good public school. I'm opposed to atheists pushing atheism onto kids, but we ought to be teaching critical thinking everywhere. Sunday Assemblies are fine for people who like those in-person communities, and I support them. I don’t buy the argument that they’re too churchlike. The people who say that clearly have never attended one. It’s especially perfect for people making the transition from Christianity to atheism.” As Hemant is also chair of the board of Foundation Beyond Belief, I asked him to describe the work of the organization: “It’s a charity organization aimed at atheists. We know atheists are good people, but studies have shown that Christians give more to charity. We believe this is because Christians just have a better vessel to give money - through their churches. We just want to provide atheists with a way to give money as a community, and it’s been working fantastically.” For Hemant, atheist advocacy is an important priority in his life: “I support critical thinking and evidence-based reasoning. Those are natural allies of atheism. Atheism is the cold water on people’s delusions. People don’t appreciate that, but I see a lot of value in being the voice of reason. I think we’d live in a better society if people moved away from religion.” Hemant can be contacted at The Friendly Atheist: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ To view Hemant’s videos, please go to: http://www.youtube.com/user/TheAtheistVoice References: Hemant Mehta. The Friendly Atheist’s Survival Guide. Published in 2012. Available for purchase on Amazon: http://goo.gl/kQ88LT ***** Image Credit: Used with Hemant Mehta's permission

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Forgiving The Whale

by David Philip Norris

A friend of mine, Sarah, has recently moved to Vienna for nine months. She’s documenting the journey in her blog, My Life Abroad, in which she’s told her readers that she’ll be gone for “as long as the adventure lasts.” Sarah and I met many years ago when I was directing a musical production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Sarah was playing the role of Viola, a woman who survives a shipwreck and then disguises herself as a man. After the production, Sarah and I kept in touch only sporadically. Two summers ago, I ran into her again at a Minnesota Fringe Festival performance. It was then that I learned that she too had become an atheist. Sarah and I both graduated from Northwestern College (now the University of Northwestern), a Christian liberal arts school in Saint Paul, Minnesota. In addition to our regular course work, we were required to take classes in Bible and Christian theology. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in music composition in 2004 and came out as an atheist in 2011. Whereas my loss of faith could be described as violent and even cataclysmic, Sarah’s was characterized by a general sense of relief and joyful acceptance: “I don’t have to believe this anymore!” she said. Since then, I’ve met with many other Northwestern alums who have taken a path similar to the one Sarah and I have carved out for ourselves. Most of us were raised in fundamentalist Christian homes, and had decided to attend a Christian college to further our education and to learn more about our faith. Like Viola in Twelfth Night, we had experienced the “shipwreck of doubt” that had left us washed up ashore, alone and in an unfamiliar land. Over the past three years, I have been honored to meet with other former fundamentalists and to hear their coming-out stories. We have approached our loss of faith differently, but all of us have found a way to make sense of our lives - without God. ***** Music has played a central role throughout my life. My father is a music professor, and I have been surrounded by music from an early age. I remember my parents playing Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf and Benjamin Britten’s A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra in the car, or on the stereo at home. In high school, I studied works like Johann Joseph Fux’s Gradus ad Parnassum and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s An Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments. From these, I taught myself about music theory and composition. I grew up in rural Kansas. My family and I were heavily involved in the community life of our church. My father served on the elder board, my mother taught Sunday school, and we all helped out at church events. Our congregation had a rich hymn-singing tradition. Once a month, there was a Sunday evening service, during which members called out hymn titles and everyone would sing them together. When we moved to Minnesota in 1993, my family wanted to find a similar church that valued music as a part of worship. We found such a church about ten miles from where we had settled. It would be our spiritual home for the next fourteen years. Before moving to Minnesota, I had been exposed mainly to hymns and to the occasional “modern” song. However, at our new church, the music director was a gifted and knowledgeable pianist and musician, and a skilled leader. When my family first began attending, the choir had almost eighty voices – and they were good ones. In one of our first weeks there, a soprano in the choir sang a gorgeous piece of Classical music, something I’d never encountered before in church music. The orchestra, too, was staffed by incredibly talented volunteer instrumentalists who saw their involvement as an act of worship. 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 www.SarahLysaker.Wordpress.com 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 http://sarahlysaker.wordpress.com/2014/01/14/new-post . 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 http://www.wweek.com/portland/article-19746-hotseat_julia_sweeney.html . ***** 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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