Why Pride Matters (to me)

It's inevitable this month - somewhere on the internet, some asshat sitting anonymously behind a screen posts a comment on a Pride photograph or video - asking why Pride is necessary, telling us that they don't need to see that shit, telling us that they don't care that we're gay, just go do what you want in private, there's no straight Pride, so why do you need it, etc.

It's inevitable that this thoughtless antipathy angers me.

Why do I need Pride?

Because I was not exposed to a world where my sexuality was a positive thing until I was well past my developmental years. I still resent that I could not be a young teenager exploring my sexuality in the same way that everyone else was - that I didn't get my first kiss until I was 30. That I didn't come out until I was 29. That I didn't know it was ok to be the way I was.

Because I don't remember the last time I ever spoke to a straight person who was afraid to show public affection to their significant other because it might lead to verbal harassment. Might lead to getting the shit kicked out of you. Might lead to you & your partner getting murdered. 

Because we need a place where we don't have to hide. Being imprisoned in yourself is draining. It's demoralizing. It's what leads people to kill themselves.

Why do I need Pride? Because I need other people to have a better life than I have. 

And you shitting on it means you want suffering for others.

Fuck you.

A Reading from the First Defiance of John

I went to my parents’ house for Easter. This is the home I grew up in. The home I fled six years ago after coming out as gay & atheist. As I’ve noted in the past, going back to this house is often an anxious occasion for me. This was no different. And this visit raised some familiar issues - specifically church attendance. But not mine - one of my cousin’s.

My cousins are 21-year-old fraternal twins. They both attend Penn State University in State College, Pennsylvania. They’ve both been raised Catholic. I was there for their Baptism and Confirmation. I was already an atheist during their confirmation, but I was not out at that time. I attended because my uncle asked, and I had no good excuse not to go.

These two young men are two of the kindest, most thoughtful, and helpful young people I’ve ever known. They’re both incredibly different, though. They both strongly resemble one parent each. Let’s call them Luke and John (not their real names).

Luke is like his mother. He’s a talker, funny, kind, laid back, empathetic. John is actually more like his grandfather than his father, but they definitely have many similar qualities - quiet, stern, serious. And when there is something to say, it is not softened or wrapped in platitudes - it is the blunt, simple truth.

As so often happens on occasions such as Easter, it usually ends up with myself, my parents, and my aunt and uncle sitting around the kitchen table, chatting on whatever subject rears its head. The subject is rarely, if ever, the occasion being celebrated - Easter and Christmas are almost always about the food, and maybe some talk about old family traditions of the past. Thanksgiving includes an opening prayer, but then it’s on to the meal (ironic that the decidedly less religious of the three holidays gets the most attention to its actual purpose).

Some time into the conversation, my uncle relates a story of when my cousins were home during a recent break. My aunt, uncle, and Luke had all gotten into the car to go to church one Sunday morning. My uncle asked Luke where John was. Luke said that John had decided not to come.

This is where the story turns familiarly dark for most atheists who grew up religiously. My uncle’s solution was less than subtle. As he relates it, he went upstairs to John’s room, and told him that, as long as he was living under his roof, he would attend church, or he would lose that roof, the car, and financial support for attending Penn State.

John is attending Penn State for engineering - it is an unforgiving program which will leave John with remarkably better future prospects than most college graduates. There is always demand for engineers. And although the workload and classes were a struggle at first, he has turned it around. John has remarkable potential.

John’s father, however, would see that potential destroyed if his son doesn’t want to attend mass. John did the practical thing - got up and attended church with the rest of them. He later attributed his desire not to attend mass to the church’s constant begging for money (more on this point later).

I don’t like to confront these kinds of things with family members, especially when my own parents are around. So I sat quietly for a bit as the conversation moved forward, and started centering around blame. My aunt first blamed college classes he might be attending. I can’t say I attended many engineering or math classes at college - in fact, no engineering and maybe four math classes graced my transcript. But I did start out in computer science, and such disciplines have similar approaches. There is simply too much complicated stuff to cover in 15 weeks that there is no time for religion or philosophy in either an engineering or computer science classroom. I can guarantee that any professor, confronted by such questions in those kinds of classes, would brush them off as a distraction from the subject matter. There would be no desire to examine such questions - simply outright dismissal.

There are, of course, general education classes that are required, too. I’m not sure exactly how many of these classes they’re still attending. Luke and John are nearing the end of their college years - at this point, most of those credits are under a student’s belt. In my own experience, I saved one gen ed requirement for later, just to break up the course load with something a little different. Even so, contrary to the popular conservative Christian perception of universities, there are not very many classes or professors out there willing to outright demand that their students disbelieve. Some philosophy, history, and literature courses can introduce students to new ideas, but in my personal experience, no professor is going to force specific ideas on students. If John’s mind was changed by something, it was through simple exposure - not the demands of a professor or specific course work.

My mother essentially supported this and dismissed the class theory outright. She attributed it to “that age.” How at that age, most “kids” (her word, not mine) think they know everything. I spoke up at this point, and quickly shattered that theory, by pointing out that, through the entirety of my college experience, I did, in fact, attend mass. At “that age,” I had not dismissed the notion of the church. I even pointed out that I attended mass early in the morning, and then spent the rest of my Sunday morning and some afternoon attending other churches where my friends went.

My mother related her time in college and dealing with church attendance, which is a story I’ve heard often. She was raised in the Byzantine Catholic tradition, which is notably different from the Roman Catholic tradition in style and practice. The Byzantine mass is quite different from the Roman mass. It is closer to Greek & Russian Orthodox traditions, but is still under the jurisdiction of the Pope. So when the college town she lived in only had a Roman Catholic church, the shock of the change in practices was disappointing, and downright depressing, to her. When she was at her college, she never attended mass, but it was not due to a falling out with the church - it was from a lack of familiar, comforting experience. She continued to attend any time she was home with her family.

My uncle then related his time living in New York as a young man. Where he lived, the closest Byzantine church was an hour away. He said he attended it a few times while living there, but usually opted for the closer Roman Catholic church.

The conversation started to die down a bit around this particular subject, but I had considered what I wanted to say by this point, so before the subject changed, I interjected with some ideas of my own.

I advised my uncle that, in the future, when John and Luke come home for the summer, just prepare to go to church, and ask John if he wants to go. If he says no, just let him stay home, but continue to ask him each week. Don’t threaten him, and don’t push. Just ask once, and accept the answer. Any further pushing could lead to resentment.

My father asserted that the matter was already decided from my uncle’s initial response. I am not at all surprised by his support of that idea, and am certain that, if I was not financially independent, my father would have similarly threatened homelessness and financial ruin.

After his time in New York, my uncle moved back in with his parents for a time for some financial safety, while he prepared to move on to a new life back where he had grown up. He would, apparently, make a habit of staying out very late at night, and end up not attending church because of how late he was out. He told me how his parents similarly threatened him, and that he started attending church regularly while living with them. He credited this for his continued attendance to this day.

By this point, I didn’t really have the strength to continue the discussion in front of my own parents. Upon reflection, I felt I should have stopped by my aunt and uncle’s house afterwards and just tried to tell them my story, alone, without my parents interfering. By the time I thought of this, though, I was more than halfway through my drive home, and couldn’t justify turning back. So, I decided instead to write this continuation and response to their reaction.

Let’s start with John. John made a move of extraordinary courage - a defiance of the religion he grew up with. It’s not something I could do at his age. Especially when I saw what happened to my sister when she left the Catholic church - a perspective that John lacked, so perhaps less surprising an act for him than for me. I was also partially driven by a misguided desire to be the less troublesome child in comparison to my sister.

John’s reason - that the church talks about money too much - is a familiar one. So familiar, and cliche, that I struggle to completely accept it as the only reason. It’s a comfortable means by which to dismiss the church, one that many can empathize with, because the church does, in fact, talk about money to a gratuitous extent. But my doubts stem from something else.

The town where they, and incidentally I, grew up is close to a city, but remarkably sheltered. It is populated mostly by people who never leave home, let alone the state or country. Exposure to new ideas is low. State College, PA, however, is very much a different experience. Penn State is not just a college for people who grew up in sheltered portions of a rust belt state. It attracts all kinds, from other regions, states, and countries. Even the small university I attended attracted quite a few international students. Simply attending such a school can expose you to a vast number of new ideas and perspectives. An approach to this in curriculum alone is not required. My first semester landed me with a practicing Hindu roommate. My last semester I shared a student apartment with a Muslim, who was an amazing roommate and a fast friend. If this can happen in the small school I attended, it can certainly happen at Penn State.

John is also living in a world with a remarkable conduit for discovery of new ideas - the internet. Even in all my time at my university, and exposure to new ideas, I remained a theist for years afterwards. Later on, however, the internet, and people I met on there, helped me along more than I could have expected. And the internet is quite easily available to them, even more so than it was to me. The internet was slower, smaller, less defined, and largely unrealized when I was in college. Today, it is a machine for quickly disseminating information. And for a questioning young adult, it is an avalanche of life-changing perspective.

I don’t believe that John is only bothered by the petitions for money. I believe that this is the easy, relatable cover. My theory is that his troubles with the Catholic church go deeper - into full disbelief. This is not based on knowledge. I am entirely inferring that this is the case based on his current surroundings, current technology, and the flexibility that affords him.

Ultimately, this brings me back to my uncle. When I counseled more restraint in trying to get John to go to church, and he told me about living with his parents, and their requirements, I warned him that the aggressive, threatening approach was quite likely to make John resent him, and the church. My uncle’s response was that he never resented his parents for their approach to him, but I think this misses key differences in the situations.

For one, my uncle stated that he would stay out late at night and be too tired the next day to go to church. This is quite different than someone being well-rested and free to attend church, and choosing not to (even if they were ultimately forced to, like John). Additionally, this is after my uncle’s time living and working in New York for a while, where he admitted to occasionally traveling fifty miles one way to attend a Byzantine church, and otherwise attending a closer Roman Catholic church. Maybe my uncle thinks he would have fallen out of the habit had his parents not forced him to go, but traveling such a long distance is something you could never convince someone who did not want to attend church to do.

The church is losing John. It may even be losing Luke, but he might be too worried about making his parents happy to let it show.

One final grotesque note - when my uncle told how he threatened John, and how John decided to go to church after that, there was, somehow, pride on his face. Congratulations, I guess? Your son chose to spend an hour in a boring ceremony over homelessness and financial ruin. The extent to which religious delusions fuck up a normally reasonable mind into thinking such despicable cruelty is somehow justified will never cease to surprise me. And taking pride in such acts is something we should never strive to understand.

The Nonexistent Atheist Problem of Who to Thank

Some atheists struggle with certain things when they leave their faith. How do we cope with death? How do we adjust to not having the answers (even if the ones we had before were wrong)? How do I figure out morality?

Of course, there are those of us who don't really have a problem with any of these (personally, the thing that I suffered the most from losing, at first, by leaving behind my faith, was the concept of an afterlife). One that seems to plague many atheists is, who to be grateful to?

It often floats to the surface around Thanksgiving, when many of us (who are still on good terms with their religious families) end up wondering, if they're thanking someone, don't I have someone to be grateful to, too?

The simple answer is: yes. You absolutely do. It's simply not a god.

Generations ago, your ancestors figured out farming. They figured out how to grow crops. How to pick the crops that best survived before there were pesticides. How to irrigate their crops so they could grow in otherwise inhospitable conditions. How to make sure their fields were fertile enough to grow crops consistently. They figured out how to keep and raise livestock. Agriculture has changed dramatically since then, but many of these basic principles still apply and have provided the basis for the systems and methods we use today. Be thankful for, and to, them.

Add some modern engineering, and we have a system that went from the majority of the population working to feed itself to an extremely small minority of it feeding the vast majority. Yet another reason to be thankful - you're not required to be a farmer, hunter, or forager, in order to survive. Be thankful for that, and be thankful for the few who still do.

Be thankful to the truck manufacturers and drivers who make it possible take those products from the fields to wholesalers, to supermarkets. Be thankful for the employees who stock the shelves, check out your purchases, put things in bags, and keep your experience shopping as simple as walking in, finding what you want, paying for it, and going home.

Be thankful for your employer, who finds enough value in what you do to pay you for it. Or, be thankful for the people who pay their taxes and provide you with the social welfare that keeps you fed. 

I think you get where I'm going - there are thousands of people only a few steps away from you who have done something that helps you. That they are paid to do those things doesn't diminish the work they've done, or its effect on you. What matters is that those effects, and those people, are real, and can appreciate being thanked - which makes giving thanks all the more important and meaningful. When you give thanks to a god, you subvert and ignore all of those steps in between. Instead, you just assume some cosmic being was looking out for you in the same way he looks out for small birds (fun fact: birds have lots of offspring - many of which don't survive. That cosmic being isn't very good at looking out for them). 

And if you're thinking about this on Thanksgiving day, you should remember that the closest branches of the tree of people to thank are probably sitting right there at the table with you - the ones who are hosting you, who prepared the food, and wanted to spend time with you. 

Be sure to thank them, too.

I apologize in advance for the headline. As my introduction points out, many new atheists have difficulty in acclimating to a life without faith. The wording of the headline is not meant to mock this difficulty.

 

 

Using Words

TRIGGER WARNING: This post uses language that could be considered offensive or harmful. 

 

I am a fan of linguistics. I take great pleasure in pointing out to people that words like "fuck" or "shit" are little more than vibrations disturbing the air between their source and our ears. That the existence of an object, like a tree, has absolutely no inherent logical connection to being "tree-like" that mandates that word be used to describe it. That language is an organic thing, constantly changing, and our current definitions, grammar, spelling, and usage standards are arbitrary. Invented to make language more universal and easily understood, to be sure, but entirely arbitrary.

I am also a fan of parody and satire. While parody is generally amusing, satire can be funny, but it doesn't have to be. Its real goal is to provoke thought. Some of the most biting and harsh written satire I've seen doesn't even approach humor. And parody and satire are especially revered, because they are used to either poke at the things we hold most sacred, or perhaps to reconsider those things we most revile.

But we are not arbitrary beings. My familiarity with complex neurology is limited, but from what I understand, we are the sum total of our experiences. Each moment that we consider what to say, how to react, what to do, and how we treat others is driven by our past experiences. To invoke Sam Harris, thoughts arise from an entirely unknown place in our minds, on their own. Much of how we're driven and react comes from places we don't understand or consciously process. 

I may be making a presumption on this, but I am fairly certain that the Columbine school shootings are well known internationally. Perhaps one of the details that escapes common knowledge, however, is that someone pulled the fire alarm in the building amidst the shootings, and it was blaring the entire time that students and staff were trying to escape, or find shelter, during the rampage. The school cafeteria was also one of the main areas where the most violence happened. After the shooting, the school was renovated so that the cafeteria was no longer accessible, and the fire alarm sound was changed.

Why would they do these things? Couldn't the students and staff separate that location and a simple noise from the threat of two armed teenagers intent on killing people? Perhaps they could. But out of respect for those who might be horribly reminded of the events of that day, they made these simple changes, and for some, a world of difference.

Today, on Twitter, a notable atheist tweeter used the word "faggot" in a parodical tweet. Someone pointed out that this tweeter should perhaps avoid "hate speech." My own position was similar, in that the word "faggot," regardless of context, is like the Columbine fire alarm. Sounding in a void, it is nothing more than a noise. For people who weren't in the building that day, if they'd never heard the alarm, even knowing the story behind it, they would certainly not be affected by it in even remotely the same way as a student who had been cowering under her desk during the ordeal.

For people who know the dictionary definition of the word "faggot," they understand how it can be used as a weapon against gays. But they don't understand precisely what it's like to be on the receiving end, and have it be accompanied by years of mental torment by their peers, by a society that indicts people who have homosexual attractions, by religions who condemn them as abominations, and by people who just generally hate what they don't understand. 

Often, things like using hate speech, or rape jokes, etc. are held up as the pinnacle of free speech, under the sacred protection of freedom of expression. I adore freedom of expression. It allows me to write on this blog. It allows me to discuss things. To share my opinions in a greater social context, with audiences who may or may not need to hear them. Discussion is the life-giving soil that grows thought and change. When I opposed this tweeter's use of the word "faggot," both he and his followers took the common stance of, "context is everything, freedom of expression is supreme," and "it must be awful to be offended by everything all the time."

But the truth is, I never mentioned being offended. "Faggot" has been used against me many times in the past, and I'm happy to say, it seems to be a word that I hear less and less. But for some, the word carries the same kind of traumatic weight those Columbine fire alarms did. It doesn't matter if they're in an office building which happened to buy the same fire alarm system that Columbine had, and the alarms go off. Their minds will automatically go to that place. I only wanted to begin a discussion on why that word is problematic. 

Instead, I got reductionist arguments as to why I shouldn't use words like "triggers" because that was the name of their dead dog and it upset them. First and foremost, if someone I knew asked me to do that, then yes, I would completely respect that request, and I don't see why it would be unreasonable. But even so, I agree that we should not be forced to police our speech when it comes to such things, as just attempting to communicate would become an exercise in absurdity. 

Among the responses I got in other tweets from the many other people who joined in the conversation was that I was "choosing to be offended." Often, an argument that both atheists and gay people have to constantly face down is the "choice" we're making, either to not believe in a god, or to be gay. I don't choose my attractions, nor did I choose not to believe in a god. Those who have been traumatized, abused, and ostracized, perhaps even beaten and battered, for being the person they are, and form a connection to that trauma and that word can't choose to un-live those experiences.

Convince me that context inherently overrides trauma, and excuses your poor choice of words, and I will believe that such things are harmless when used correctly. For now, I am sorry for the people who follow this atheist tweeter who can't separate the harm associated with that word from his parody. I asked that he be considerate and empathize with people who couldn't. It's not a matter of making or treating every word in the English language as a potential psychological minefield. It's a matter of recognizing a word used as a weapon of oppression and hate for what it is, and how context might make no difference for some. That was, apparently, too much to ask, and too oppressive of his freedom of expression. But freedom of expression is not freedom from responsibility.

Creating Something Different

You'll notice I haven't posted in a while. There are a number of reasons for that. And I have been working on a few posts, here and there, in the intervening months.

But today, I'm just not satisfied. I can write any number of posts that say things many other, and better, thinkers, skeptics, and atheists have said already. Perhaps the chorus is enhanced by my voice, but I think it more likely that the chorus is already so large, the addition of one voice makes very little noticeable difference.

So, what is next? I don't know. I'm rethinking my mission statement and what it means. I may change it. I need a new focus in my writing, and I need time to think about it.

I'll probably finish my currently most complete post soon, and move on from there.

Fr. Barron Doesn't Get Atheists

The most difficult part of being an out atheist usually comes from the response others have to you. The obvious example is the survey that shows a majority of Americans distrust atheists as much as they distrust rapists. The results of that survey are another topic of discussion entirely, but it clearly demonstrates that society overall has some pretty gross misconceptions about what atheism is and isn't, and those misconceptions drive responses towards us.

As I noted in earlier blog posts, my coming out, both as gay and an atheist, was not particularly well-received by my parents. About a month after coming out, my father emailed me a link to a video by one Father Robert Barron, a leader in Catholic evangelical and apologetic efforts. I watched the video carefully and wrote a fairly scathing response and rebuttal to the whole thing, but ultimately opted not to send my response at all. Any response that I would have wanted to send with honesty would have been taken poorly, and may have even done further damage to our relationship, and any response that was dishonest would have been... Well, dishonest, and thus, pointless. Either approach would only worsen a situation that was already fairly tender. I'm sure my silence was probably treated as acquiescence to the brilliance of Fr. Barron, but there's very little I could have done about it at the time.

Because my sister and I are on Twitter, at some point, my dad decided to make his own Twitter account. It has gone unnoticed until recently, because my dad obviously does not tweet very much, but at the end of October, he tweeted this article. Not explicitly to me, mind you, but considering he has three followers, (my sister, myself, and some spam social media account), there's no doubt that it was intended for me.

So, even though my response to the video went unpublished, this time, I feel compelled to respond to this article. Let's begin with Fr. Barron's opening remarks.

The most signal contribution of David Bentley Hart's The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, and Bliss is to clarify that serious theists and atheists, though they debate frequently concerning the reality of God, are hardly ever using the word "God" in the same way. This fundamental equivocation contributes massively to the pointlessness and meanness of most of these discussions.

I will assume, for the sake of simplicity, that by "serious theists and atheists," Fr. Barron means those individuals that are educated, and experienced, in the nuances and mechanics of debate. The first time any theist says "god," the atheists' first question should always be, "Which one?" In any serious debate, establishing definitions is key, for the simple purpose of ensuring that the two parties are not talking past each other on the issues being raised, by one side or the other arguing for or against the wrong definition. Mind you, casual conversations on the subject are always going to commit some level of equivocation, because most people sitting down for lunch who happen to talk about a "god" in one way or another are probably going to leave unspoken, unshared assumptions hanging in the air between them. But ideally, in any situation where the debate is "serious," these equivocations should be exposed as soon as possible. By beginning this way, Fr. Barron is committing an equivocation of his own, by asserting that the atheists who debate the existence of "god" approach it from any other angle than the one they are presented by the theist they are debating. That's not always what happens, and those debates that dispense with this at first usually correct course eventually.

It is not so much that Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins disagree with Thomas Aquinas on the existence of God; it is that neither Hitchens nor Dawkins has any real grasp of what Aquinas even means when he speaks of God.

Some brief research shows that both Dawkins and Hitchens address Aquinas in some of their written works, but I've not studied these, so I can't comment on them. I'll leave this passage with a skeptical, "Sure, whatever. (though I doubt it)"

To a person, the new atheists hold that God is some being in the world, the maximum instance, if you want, of the category of "being." 

Once again, this is categorically untrue. This amounts to atheists making a claim about a "god," which is not what we do. We don't make claims about what a "god" is or isn't, theists do. The only thing atheists do is address the claims being made. It seems to me that Fr. Barron should address this article, not to atheists who "don't get god," but to theists.

But this is precisely what Aquinas and serious thinkers in all of the great theistic traditions hold that God is not. Thomas explicitly states that God is not in any genus, including that most generic genus of all, namely being. He is not one thing or individual -- however supreme -- among many. Rather, God is, in Aquinas's pithy Latin phrase, esse ipsum subsistens, the sheer act of being itself.

This is familiar phrasing from Fr. Barron. In the video my father sent me, Fr. Barron used several different nonsense expressions of "god is _____ itself," comprising a list of truth, goodness, justice, and now, in this article, being. I could say my pinky is truth, goodness, justice, and being, itself, and those statements would contain as much meaning. How do you empirically prove some invisible force is the sum total of truth, goodness, justice, and being?  

Truth is as simple as what can be empirically observed, tested, and reproduced consistently, and it's not true that I could ever run a reproducible test that would show some greater unseen force contains the wholeness of truth.  

God is not goodness itself. It makes theology more pallatable to think of good things in the context of a god, but like George Carlin used to say about football players, no one ever talks about god when bad things happen. A runningback who may have lost his team the game never goes on camera and says, "The good lord tripped me up behind the line of scrimmage." If god is goodness itself, it leaves him out of everything that therefore follows. Or it doesn't, and we truly misinterpret exactly what goodness is. What is more comforting, that there is a god who considers suffering and the loss of life in such a way as we see in this world as good, or the lack of existence of some agency which directs those events? I would champion the latter.  

In the same way, god is not justice itself. Justice is even more intangible and harder to pin down than goodness or morality. Justice ebbs and flows with society at large. You can't find any one society throughout history that truly adheres to its laws in the original form and spirit in which they were written. And if we're talking about the justice of, for example, the Christian god, those people who are ostensibly good people for their entire lives but say, "God doesn't exist," and unrepentant child rapists will suffer the same eternal fate. That's not a justice I would want. And what kind of all-powerful being stands by and says, "Don't do these horrible things or you'll suffer for eternity," but stands by and allows them to happen in the first place?

Being... This is the most nonsensical of them all. How do you quantify "being" as some kind of act? The pair of shoes on my floor are not actively being anything. What is your god "being?" The universe? Existence overall? Why make the claim that your god is those things? How can you demonstrate this, and what is your reasoning for this conclusion?

It might be helpful here to distinguish God from the gods. For the ancient Greeks and Romans, for example, the gods were exalted, immortal, and especially powerful versions of ordinary human beings. They were, if you will, quantitatively but not qualitatively different from regular people. They were impressive denizens of the natural world, but they were not, strictly speaking, supernatural. But God is not a supreme item within the universe or alongside of it; rather, God is the sheer ocean of being from whose fullness the universe in its entirety exists.

Addressing the first part, I'm not sure if Fr. Barron is entirely familiar with the god of the old testament. Yahweh is rather indistinguishable from most Greek and Roman gods in his personality, demeanor and prerogative. And the claim that the Greek and Roman gods were not supernatural is more than a bit disingenuous. And let's not forget that his own church teaches that his god is three persons in one god: a father, a son, and a spirit. More importantly, we're meant to believe that the "son" portion was, at one point, a living, breathing human being, who was meant to experience existence as we mundane humans do.  

Taking the second bit, let's set aside, for the time being, that I've already twice addressed that when atheists debate theists, they're approaching from the definition of a "god" that they're given from the theists. At this point, we can shift to Fr. Barron making claims about his god and move from there. That said, I can only really repeat the questions I left at the end of the paragraph before this quote. 

It is absolutely right to say that the advance of the modern physical sciences has eliminated the gods. Having explored the depths of the oceans and the tops of the mountains and even the skies that surround the planet, we have not encountered any of these supreme beings. Furthermore, the myriad natural causes, uncovered by physics, chemistry, biology, etc. are more than sufficient to explain any of the phenomena within the natural realm. But the physical sciences, no matter how advanced they might become, can never eliminate God, for God is not a being within the natural order. Instead, he is the reason why there is that nexus of conditioned causes that we call nature -- at all.

Believe it or not, I mostly agree with Fr. Barron on this paragraph - up until the last sentence. We actually have very little knowledge of the depths of the oceans, and even less about what exists in our own solar system, other star systems and the exoplanets we have observed, let alone those we haven't. There's a tremendous amount of uncertainty about what we'll discover out there. And it is provably beyond our capacity to ever fully eliminate a god's existence as a possibility, scientifically. You can't prove a negative in that way. You won't find any atheist who will disagree with that assertion at all. But Fr. Barron jumps to a dubious claim, that there is something called the "natural order" over which his god dominates.

Fr. Barron commits a classic theist fallacy with this, but in a new way. Normally, I would call this a "god of the gaps" assertion, that something which is thus far unexplained, a gap in our knowledge, gets filled in with god, because no other explanation exists. Fr. Barron forces open a new gap, the "act of being," and shoves his god in, to make a place for him outside of logical or empirical scrutiny. Which of course is simply the familiar, old fallacy of special pleading. Since Fr. Barron's next few paragraphs essentially expound upon exactly how special his pleading is, and the gaps his god fills, (including some Olympic-worthy logical gymnastics to reach some kind of conclusion that existence requires some kind of being to be existence itself...?!) I'll leave them off, and proceed further in the article.

I fully realize, of course, that the vast majority of religious believers wouldn't say that their faith in God is a function of this sort of philosophical demonstration. Nevertheless, they are intuiting what the argument makes explicit.

I am including this to note two things. One: I'm amused that Fr. Barron acknowledges exactly what I've already said: that his article should actually be titled "Theists Don't Get God." As I said, atheists are addressing the claims made by theists. We don't make claims about what a god(s) is. Two: this exposes his initial premise, that atheists and theists are hardly ever talking about the same thing when it comes to a god, as a pretty blatant lie, if he's trying to convince the reader that his amorphous definition of his god is the one being discussed all the time.

I often tease the critics of religion who take pride in the rigor of their rationalism. I tell them that, though they are willing to ask and answer all sorts of questions about reality, they become radically uncurious, irrational even, just when the most interesting question of all is posed: why is there something rather than nothing? Why should the universe exist at all?

With this paragraph, Fr. Barron resorts to misrepresentation and, perhaps, downright dishonesty. I don't know of any atheist who has ever been in a serious debate who wouldn't have an answer to this question. The simplest, and only truly rational answer, is, "I don't know." I also don't know of any atheist serious enough to be interested in debate who is not curious about the answer to that question. What is purely irrational is to state that something that cannot be observed and tested exists.  

Fr. Barron puts forth an idea of his god that is indistinguishable from nonexistence, and not only that, but claims it is the reason for existence. He blames atheists for not getting his god, but ignores that atheists are addressing claims, not making them. If Fr. Barron is as familiar with debates around theism and atheism as he seems to be, the only conclusion that I can draw is that I am not the intended audience for this article, because he knows that people like me will see through it in all the right spots. This article's dishonesty is intended for believers, and ignorant nonbelievers.

 

 

It Gets Better

A great deal of what inspired me to start writing this blog was not simply my mission statement, but the fact that I'm enjoying activism, both the active, out-there, and intellectual aspects.  It has occurred to me more than once that I might like to seek out a career in such activism and awareness campaigns.  In the meantime, however, I am seeking alternative routes to do more than the bare minimum (e.g. HRC stickers on my car, and donations).

The year I came out, I missed National Coming Out Day by about three days when I first came out to someone.  I had not even been aware of it as an event, to be honest.  The following year, I sent a letter to some people whom I hadn't come out to, and learned about Spirit Day without being prepared for it, unfortunately.   

I still have family members remaining whom I could come out to, but I haven't.  Some are more relevant than others, simply by virtue of how often I see them, or how close I am to them.  This year, I did not send any letters, though I could have, and probably should have, especially since the most basic level of activism and awareness starts with the people you know.   

I spent Spirit Day at my office, which has a rather casual dress policy (most people come dressed in jeans and t-shirts), wearing a purple dress shirt, dress pants, and dress shoes.  The purpose was not just to wear purple, but to draw attention to my more formal appearance, and get people to ask why I was dressed up.  A simple mechanism for raising awareness about the cause of Spirit Day, and it worked.

The idea occurred to me to make an It Gets Better video between National Coming Out Day and Spirit Day.  Since I have a friend who has some expertise in Russian, I enlisted his help to translate the subtitles for my video into Russian.  LGBT Russian citizens are being oppressed more now than they have been in recent years.  Their rights are being violated not only by their government, but by other Russians taking it upon themselves to ridicule, abuse, and torture LGBT members of their society.   I do not use the word "torture" lightly, or inaccurately.  If a Russian can watch my video and draw even some small hope from it, it has served its purpose.

Making forays into new forms of activism is something that I continue to do, and it's probably the most important aspect to growing understanding, both for the LGBT and Atheist causes.  There's a lot of misinformation, misunderstanding, and plain old ignorance out there.  The simplest cure is getting to know others, and them getting to know you.

Beyond this preamble, I will let my video speak for itself on the subject of, "It Gets Better."

You don't have to Take my Word for it - Introduction

My mission statement is simple: represent the gay, atheist position, and provide atheist-focused writing for other gay atheists who want to be understood in the context of the person they are, rather than having to work around a theistic message.

I am not alone in attempting to formulate this kind of dialogue.  Two prominent speakers on the subject are Dan Savage and John Corvino.  Despite a commitment to reason and logic, their approaches sit at opposite ends of the spectrum.  Savage uses as much diplomacy as suits his needs, and disregards it the rest of the time in favor of strongly-worded, brutal honesty, which pulls no punches.  Corvino regards the subject as an opportunity for conversation, is noted for having debated with the most extreme of anti-homosexual bigots with civility, and uses diplomacy as a strength of his presentation. 

I find there are times when I feel like raising hell at the world like Dan Savage, however, some people need the gentler hand of John Corvino's approach.  But I can't intelligently speak on either subject without a genuine personal understanding of the matters at hand.  I can draw lessons from their overall presentations, but effective arguments come from comprehension, not imitation. 

To that end, I have been doing a lot of reading.  Most of it is gay-focused.  A lot of it is atheist-focused.  But I am doing my best to stick with history, science, and contemporary commentary.  There are exceptions; I enjoy a good fictional novel, or the occasional biography, but my goal with reading is to increase my understanding.  So, I have decided to create this regular feature.  You don't have to Take my Word for it will appear at least once a month, and cover something I have read recently which has broadened my horizons in some way.  Incidentally, I reserve the right to post something that I simply enjoyed for what it was.

 

Merle Miller was a distinguished writer who, aside from writing his own novels, worked as an editor for Harper's and Time Magazine.  After a particularly egregious and discriminatory article by Joseph Epstein appeared in Harper's in 1970, Miller felt compelled to respond.  The result was an article published in New York Times Magazine in 1971, titled "What It Means to Be a Homosexual," and was reissued, extended, with a Foreword by Dan Savage, and Afterword by Charles Kaiser, in a Penguin Classics book. 

There are few perspectives as valuable as one in its historical context told by someone contemporary to that history.  I am not so confident in my knowledge of gay culture and history that I was in any way dismissive of this book prior to reading it, but the degree to which I was discomfited by reading his words, imagining his experiences, was surprising to me.  Many of the positions of either indifference or outright hostility towards gays are not news to me.  The extent to which they pervaded society in his era, however, was a bit dizzying to contemplate.  Things have changed.  Corporations and churches loudly and proudly send representatives to march in Gay Pride parades across the United States alongside the individuals and LGBT rights groups.  The national dialogue is open, controversial, and louder than it ever has been before.  People are coming out younger, and safely, in places where we never could have imagined.  And state-level gay marriage rights are popping up in spurts around the country, bolstered now by Supreme Court rulings that struck down some of the most discriminatory parts of federal public policy. 

To present the world we live in now as ideal is, of course, absurd.  We still have plenty of hearts and minds to win.  Plenty of battlegrounds on which to fight.  Plenty of broken and wounded people to heal.  But we must approach our cause with the memory and knowledge of a time when things were worse, lest we forget the progress that has been made, and become complacent.  We are more widely accepted now.  There is much good to be said about that fact.  But that same Supreme Court demonstrated the greatest hazard of complacency by the majority: mistaking progress for victory.  With the act of invalidating much of the Voting Rights Act on the false premise that racism is somehow no longer a hardship to be endured in America, a great deal of work has been undone, and can be seen in voter suppression laws now making headway in many states.  The moment the majority feels they have done their due and paid the proper respect to us is the moment we can lose progress and have to fight old fights all over again.  Merle Miller's words are here to tap you on the shoulder and remind you of how it once was, and how it can be again, if our vigilance falters.

One final note on this book: Sometimes, readers regard the Foreword and Afterword of a book as optional reading.  I highly suggest you read them this time around.

 

The Book: On Being Different: What It Means to Be a Homosexual

Dan Savage is an advice columnist in The Stranger, Seattle's premier alternative weekly newspaper.

Charles Kaiser is a journalist and author.

Joseph Epstein's piece: Homo/Hetero: The Struggle for Sexual Identity

I'm Not Really Out

It's August 16, 2013, and I'm driving.  The highway I'm on will take me to the home of my childhood, and most of my adulthood; the home of my parents.  Like many of my generation, after college, I returned to my parents' home, and stayed for a while.  In my case, though, I got comfortable.  I had enough income to be financially independent.  But I remained in that house.   Even now, two years after moving out, I still feel mixed feelings about returning.  I'm nervous enough that I can feel my pulse through my neck.

It's November 14, 2011.  I'm in the kitchen of that house, returning a dirty dish or looking for a snack.  My parents had been away for the weekend, visiting my sister on the other side of the state.  My father asks if I had attended church while they were away.  I say no.  The first domino falls.

That evening, I came out to them. They were the last in this particular chain of people I was coming out to. But I had planned on waiting a bit, until I was fully prepared to move. That afternoon, a PFLAG-recommended book I intended to present to them had come in from Amazon. I had actually just started reading it when my mother came down to the basement (yes, I lived in my parents' basement) and started questioning why I hadn't gone to church. This would ultimately lead to a much bigger fight over my rejection of Catholicism and theism in general. As it turns out, my coming out as gay overshadowed my coming out as an atheist, until about a week later. But that's a story for another time.

It's October 15, 2011.  About to roll over to October 16.  I'm at a Holiday Inn, in Westlake, Ohio, in a large banquet hall, filled with people my age, mostly men, but unified in one thing: games.  We all love games.  Video games, card games, board games.  Well, two things.  We are all members of the same online gaming forum, which is why we're gathered here.  Most of us had just met each other in person the day before, even if we'd been acquainted through this forum for years prior.  The man I had worked with all year to help make this happen is sitting next to me, while I play a fighting game on an old Sega Genesis.  Beer had been consumed.  I had just won a match, and was ready to be done, when my friend hands off the controller to one of the few women present, with some kind of teasing remark.  I brush off the offer of a new opponent and stand up, off to grab another beer.  Surprised at my complete failure to recognize an opportunity to flirt, my friend pulls me aside.  

"Don't take this the wrong way, but... Are you... Heterosexual?"

"No." 

That's it, I thought.  I was out.  To one person, but I was out.

The weeks that followed, between that coming out and my parents, included coming out to the online gaming forum, where I received the strongest outpouring of support I could have hoped for, two cousins, and an aunt and uncle.  I was testing the waters.  Stumbling over awkward language (using the phrase "I am a homosexual" is NOT the best way to come out). Gauging reactions, and my own capacity to deal with them.  Ultimately, though, I knew none of them were the same as telling my parents.  

It's November 20, 2011.  I am coming back from a weekend of liberation and celebration.  I had found myself among friends in Columbus, Ohio, going to my first gay bar, then to Cincinnati, to see the musical Wicked.  Going back was an agonizing three hour drive, thinking of returning to an awkward home, with distraught parents, struggling to understand a son they thought they knew.  When I pulled up to the house, though, I proceeded as though nothing had really changed. 

In the month prior, I had been quietly working on moving out.  Friends in Akron, Ohio had recently rented a house.  There was room for me.  I was throwing things away that I didn't want to bother moving, and packing everything else.  But this evening, I wasn't quite ready to start moving out.  That didn't really matter.  My mother began talking with me, asking me the typical questions you'd expect from a shocked, in-denial parent about their gay child.  It was at this point that things exploded, and the question of my atheism came to the fore.  I left the house that night, to stay in a hotel.  I stayed there for the next three days, returned home for an awkward Thanksgiving, and moved out on Black Friday.  

That was it, right?  I was out, now.  Independent again for the first time since college.  No scrutiny, no self-imposed obligation to attend mass to keep the family in peace, no denial of who I was.  The people I cared about knew, and I was done coming out.  Right?

It's August 17, 2013.   I'm wearing two rainbow-colored bracelets, in the middle of a family reunion, with people who I mostly don't really know, and I struggle to remember their names.  These people aren't that important, right?  They don't need to know.

"What's going on in your life these days?" 

"Hey, Michael, haven't seen you for years! What's new?" 

 "We need to get you a wife!"

There are people here who know, but nobody talks about it.  Not even me.  Mostly, I've actively chosen when and where to be out, but it's here that I truly realize, I'm not really  out.  Maybe they don't need to know, but I need them to know.

I'm in a complicated closet. The list of people I'm out to has grown steadily.  But after I worked to tear down the closet I was familiar with, I started building a new one.  One that I had voluntarily constructed.  My first closet formed around me, and I barely noticed.  I denied it was even there.  I'm watching myself build this one, and it's worse than before, by far.

It started with my mother's request that I not tell a few specific family members.  My great aunt, in her 90's, whom she insisted wouldn't understand.  An uncle on my father's side, who is also my godfather.  Why I listened, I'm not sure, but I did.  I let their discomfort become mine.  

A gay friend of mine who has been out for more than a decade helped me through a lot of things shortly after coming out myself.  More than a year ago, he warned me against this.  The only way that I can change someone's comfort level with my homosexuality is to show that I am comfortable with it.   

This doesn't mean shouting from the rooftops, or making every introduction, "Hi, I'm Michael, I'm gay."  It means not being afraid to correct someone when they say, "We need to get you a wife!" with, "You mean husband."  It means not holding back when your family members are swapping funny stories about weird sleepwalking occurrences when you have one to share about your former boyfriend.  It means that you shouldn't avoid talking about the cute Québécois guy you met recently as the motivation for starting to learn French.  It means that when you're at a family reunion and someone proposes a simple icebreaker, to share five things about yourself that the rest of the family doesn't know so they get to know you better, you don't grab your car keys and run.  Whatever the other four things are, on my turn, without a doubt, one of them should be to say, "I am gay."

Hello.

I am gay.  I am an atheist.   I live in the United States.

Together, these things make for an interesting cocktail of situations.  The United States is a majority Christian nation.  Every nation is a majority heterosexual nation.  As it stands, though, there are probably more gay Christians in this country than gay non-Christians.

I am not here to convert gay Christians away from their faith.  I am here to represent the gay, atheist position.   

I have been out publicly as gay for more than two years now.  At 29, I came out late in comparison to some, early in comparison to others.  My personal story will gradually become exposed as this blog grows, and I tackle the subjects I wish to address one-by-one.  But to put it simply, I didn't have a private gay life before that, either.  I was not willing to admit my sexuality to myself.   

I did, however, topple the religious house of cards I had been raised in well in advance of coming out to myself.  I would say it was instrumental in finally coming out that I also be an atheist.   

I have found a great deal of support from many sources; friends, family, acquaintances, and coworkers.   The one place where support is troublesome is from my parents.

I have heard many positions on how to deal with this.  They range from, "just live your life as you are and let them learn that this is who you are," to, "your presence in their life is your only leverage, and you should use it."  

Before bridges are burned, I'd rather make an effort to convey understanding.  But finding compelling, gay, atheist literature is difficult.  So much of what I find has the right tone, and the right message, and suddenly, the Christian god is thrown right in the middle of it.   How am I going to help my parents understand me with source material that doesn't represent me?

So, this blog has two purposes.  One, stop looking for other people to be my voice.  Two, represent the gay, atheist position, and provide atheist-focused writing for other gay atheists who want to be understood in the context of the person they are, rather than having to work around a theistic message.

I hope you'll stick around.