Friday, November 11, 2016

Conspiracy/Religion

The recent death of Jack Chick just once again reminded me how intertwined religion and conspiracy theories have been for me.  As I grew up pastors changed, congregations changed, denominations changed but there was always a conspiracy theory in there somewhere.  When it wasn't scheming papists secretly being behind every terrible world event it was the New World Order or the New Age movement or the Communists or the Anti-Christ (although if you were raised with Chick tracts & Crusader Comics - as I was - you'd know those were actually all the same thing really).  I don't think it was just me though, if you look into it, there's a strong collaboration between religious belief and belief in conspiracy theories.

Now I'm guessing this is the part where an imaginary smug Atheist would jump in and comment that this is true because religious people are gullible and dumb and well practiced in believing unproven, unbelievable bullshit so OF COURSE they'd be easily duped!  Well hold your horses imaginary commenter because that doesn't quite explain the whole picture.  It's not just the religious who get into this, conspiracy theories also have a large following among some very smart, well educated, non-religious people.  That includes Atheists.  Remember Zeitgeist a couple of years back?

So instead of going for the low hanging fruit of "people be stupid" I'd like to offer my own explanation.  Conspiracies share a lot of DNA with religion so it's not very surprising that they go together so well.  They both help to fulfill an important human need and it's better to admit that than to try and pretend otherwise.  Let me show you:

Here is a religious idea:
The world is a scary place. It's important to know though that God is in control.  However chaotic things may look, always remember that He has a plan.  If we know this plan we don't need to be afraid.  If we worship God and pray to Him then we gain the power to fight back against the forces of darkness.  This is how we take back power and regain control.

Here is a conspiracy theorist idea:
The world is a scary place. It's important to know though that The Elites are in control.  However chaotic things may look, always remember that THEY have a plan.  If we know this plan we don't need to be afraid.  If we look for the clues and learn the right phrases then we gain the power to fight back against the forces of darkness.  This is how we take back power and regain control.

That's what I meant by similar DNA.  No one would deny that the world can be terrifying.  However, something that is terrifying but going according to a bigger plan is less terrifying than something that is terrifying and completely chaotic*.  As long as there is a plan and a reason then the possibility for control exists.  If there are rules then you can learn to be safe by learning them.

So I get why conspiracy theories are so tempting.  But having lived in that world for so long, there are some good reasons to stay away from them.  Conspiracy theories are toxic to the human mind.  I don't listen to them for fun, I avoid them as much as possible these days.  See the thing you have to understand is that they are seductive.  They make some good points, or at least they seem to.  They appeal to all the bad wiring in our brains to connect dots and trace patterns that do not actually exist.  We are naturally wired to take all the random events of our lives and weave them into a coherent narrative with us as the protagonist.  Conspiracy theories take that to a far grander scale.  They weave all the random events of world history and weave them into a grand adventure with despicable villains and then invite you to be the noble hero in that story.   They exploit every logical fallacy in the book but we don't mind (or notice) because they allow us to do the thing we like most: they let us make sense of things.  It taps into our primal needs - the need to feel special, the need to feel smart, the need for control - as well as our worst impulses - distrust of our fellow man, hatred of the other, the different, the foreign and of course, the need to feel superior to others.  It makes us feel like we are good people, fighting a good fight while in truth making us worse people**.  It inspires us to casual cruelty, callousness and smugness but prevents us from recognizing it***.  It makes us feel smarter while actively making us dumber.  Because it's not just that conspiracy theories offer simple answers to complex issues.  No, conspiracy theories denies that complex issues exist in the first place.  It's all simple black and white.  Us vs THEM.  I cannot abide this.

I would much rather make peace with the terror of chaos.  I prefer to admit that I don't know and I don't understand.  Some things will always defy our need for easy answers and while that's scary it is still reality and reality is where I want to live.  No matter what the cost.




*Think of the scariest horror movies you've ever seen.  They were the ones where the monster had no rhyme or reason weren't they?  The ones where the monster is powerful but works according to very specific rules just aren't that scary.
**Just look up all the bile sent to the grieving parents of the Sandy Hook Shooting after that got turned into a conspiracy.  Those people all thought of themselves as good people while sending the most vile messages to the parents of murdered children.
***You're not smug! You're just wide awake to the TRUTH of how the world works! Unlike those sheeple!

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Alea iacta est

So that happened.

I don't really know what to say about the US election result.  I mean I used to follow American politics as entertainment, mostly because I don't care much for sports and local politics is pretty much just about seeing by how much of a margin the ruling party will win by.  I don't think I realized how much I cared about this result until it happened. I have not felt OK since the results came out yesterday.  I know it makes no sense, because I'm not American and I don't even live close but I feel like something was taken away from me.  That's the best way I can describe it but I'm not sure I can explain it yet.  I don't think any election has effected me this way for as long as I can remember.

Maybe it's not so much that Trump won, I think this election was more than that.  I feel like this election was a referendum on what kind of a country America is and what kind of people her citizens are.

Does the truth matter?
Do facts and evidence count for anything anymore?
Is it wrong to be cruel, to be a bully?
Can we believe women?
Can we believe in women?
Is sexual assault a big deal?
Should people at least try to not be awful to one another?

And the answer was just a resounding NO across the board*.  This was a referendum on decency and decency lost.  I didn't think it would hit me this hard but it makes me really sad.  Maybe I shouldn't have but I expected America to be better than that.  Maybe that was my mistake.  And I get that it was only half the country but half is WAY TOO MUCH for that to be OK.  I love America so much.  I love the country, I love the people.  The friends I have there are some of the best people I know and when I think of America it is with fondness. Always.  But now I have a sad hollow feeling I can't seem to shake.

Best I can describe this feeling? This election was like finding out your favourite teacher is a pedophile.





*And that doesn't even touch on all the uncomfortable things it implies about race relations, LGBTQ rights, 1st amendment rights, etc.  But I leave that to more competent bloggers with smarter things to say.



Tuesday, October 18, 2016

"Jesus Is Tested in the Wilderness" (Evangelicals For Trump Edition)

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.  After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.  The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”
Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple.  “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:
“‘He will command his angels concerning you,
    and they will lift you up in their hands,
    so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”
 Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.  “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”
Jesus said to him, “Hold on. So you're saying that you'll give me the one thing I want most of all and all I need to do to get it is to compromise all the values I proclaimed so strongly up until now?
The devil answered, “Seriously? I mean YES! Of course! After all I'm very well known for always telling the truth and never making outrageous promises I have no intention of keeping! I always keep up my end of a bargain, ask anyone I've ever done business with!
 Jesus pensively mused, “Well on the one hand I've always insisted that even the slightest hint of compromise is completely unacceptable... On the other hand, I get the one thing I care about most so it won't matter much right?”
The devil answered excitedly, “Exactly! I will probably definitely maybe give you the thing you want most and all it will cost you is the moral high ground for, well, ever. Fantastic deal, none better, when it comes to the art of the deal, I pretty much wrote the book!”
 Then Jesus exclaimed “It's a deal!”
Then the devil departed and said, “Well that was easier than I thought...


Saturday, October 8, 2016

Why Evangelical Support for Donald Trump Makes Total Sense

The fact that Donald Trump became the presidential nominee of a major party is baffling to people all over the world but somehow even more baffling to Christian folk all over (US included) is his support amongst Evangelical Christians.  I mean here you have the literal incarnation of the bad guy in every one of Jesus' parables and he doesn't just have their support, he has their enthusiastic support!  While on the one hand he can't seem to stop doing wrong, to them he can do no wrong!  I think I can clear that up though.  To a lifelong student of White Western Evangelical Christianity this really shouldn't be all that baffling.  When you think about it, it makes utter and complete sense.

But that's only if anyone is still around to see 2024...


See, in Donald Trump Evangelicals have someone they can treat the way they've been treating God all their lives, so of course they're going to worship him.  Think about it, he says one thing and then later says the complete opposite.  As his followers they then insist that doesn't count and that what he really meant was because and also there's no contradiction here, all these alleged contradictions are just being exaggerated by his enemies who hate him and want to distract from all the good he's doing!  See? They can treat Trump the way they've been treating the Bible their whole lives.  In a way, they've been training for the Trump candidacy since Sunday School!

That's why it doesn't matter how many terrible things Trump says.  You can quote him all you like, you'll have more luck trying to convince Evangelicals to cancel the rib cookoff by quoting Leviticus.  
Or rather, you'll have exactly the same amount of luck.  For exactly the same reasons.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Won't somebody think of The Troops?

So here's something that always goes over really well, a foreigner wants to discuss something Americans hold dear.  Very dear. THE MOST DEAR in fact.  That's right, I want to talk about The Troops.

You love The Troops.  I know this because you keep telling me.  I'm half a world away and yet somehow you find a way to tell me constantly.  Lately, I've been hearing it more than usual because some NFL guys haven't been standing for the National Anthem and apparently that is a real slap in the face to The Troops.  America, I hope you know I love you lots, but we need to talk.  There is something very very weird about the way you talk about your troops.

So what do I know about loving The Troops you ask? (J/K, I know you didn't say that, you obviously yelled that.  The Troops get y'all very worked up.  Everyone knows this. EVERYONE.)  Well, actually I know quite a bit about loving The Troops.  More than you think.  More than you'll ever know.  See unlike you I grew up in the early 80's in Apartheid Era South Africa.  This may or may not mean anything to you, depending on what movies you have or haven't watched so let me explain.  If you - like me - were a white person from a small town in South Africa during the 80's your life had one purpose: To save the country from the coming onslaught of the black, communist hordes.  Growing up, we loved the troops.  My favourite T-shirt had a soldier on it and said "Fight Terrorism" (Full disclosure, I had no idea what that meant, I just knew Terrorism = Communism = Evil).  We had colouring books in kindergarden featuring the troops.  There were pop songs on TV about supporting the troops.  We held concerts for the troops.  We all wanted to be the troops, which was lucky because that wasn't optional.  Back then all dudes had to report for 2 years of mandatory service after high school.  So we cared about The Troops because we had to.  My dad was The Troops. My brothers were The Troops.  I was going to be The Troops one day and if I managed to not die or step on a land mine*, then so would my children.  Didn't stop there! Come High School, every Wednesday all the dudes had to dress up in military browns (yes that's our military colours, get over it) and learn things like marching, shooting and bomb detection.  No, I wasn't in a military school, this was every school.  Then there was the camps where we had to go into the wild, learn survival and camouflage and how to clean automatic rifles and the like.  So just trust me when I say I know a thing or two about revering The Troops, and over here that went way above and beyond wearing flag pins and saying "thank you for your service!" when you saw guys in uniform.


That's just half of it.  Look I know how proud you are of your flag and national anthem but full disclosure, you were held up as an example to us of people disrespectful to their flag and anthem.  Didn't see that coming, did you?  We felt we were far more respectful because unlike you, we didn't put our flag on cars, or clothing or bikinis.  That flag was sacred, it was treated as sacred as it was hoisted in front of the assembled students each day.  You didn't wear it, it wasn't a decoration, it was our flag.  Similarly, any artist singing the anthem and deciding to "make it their own" by adding 400 extra notes to it would never have worked again.  The was the right way sing Die Stem and then... well no that was it. You did it the right way our you didn't do it at all.

Of course with hindsight being 20/20 and all I'm not saying we were better at patriotism than you are or that we had it figured out and you don't.  After all, we were being prepared to serve as the enforcers of a fascist police state built on the brutal subjugation of all other races so I'm CLEARLY not saying this was a great thing, I'm just saying don't try to lecture me on Loving The Troops, you guys don't have the patent on fervent Nationalism or Military Patriotism.  All I'm saying is, maybe listen to me for 5 minutes, I may know what I'm talking about.

[OK so after thinking about this for a while I decided to put this break in the post.  Up to this point, when I used the word "you" I meant you personally.  You: the individual, intelligent, curious, citizen of America reading this post.  I may or may not know your name but I know the vast majority of my readers are American for some reason.  I appreciate you taking the time to read this whole post, trying to digest what I'm saying and not just looking for that one sentence to yell at me for in the comments.  I know you're not a monolithic entity, I've been to the USA, I loved it.  It's a great big beautiful country filled with a diverse range of truly interesting people, some of whom I'm very lucky to be friends with.  The irony is not lost on me that people from outside the US often criticize the US for not understanding the diverse nature of other nations while treating you as if you were all one big homogeneous community with the exact same ideas, beliefs and ideals!  That's very much what I'm trying to avoid here.  But from here on I'm going to talk to the corporate you, not the individual you.  A lot of what I'm about to say may not apply to you personally but that's not the you I'll be addressing from this point.  The "you" I'm speaking to now are the Talking Heads, the loud voices with the cameras pointed at them who do seem to think they speak for all of you.  They often seem to be of the opinion that you should all be one homogeneous community with the exact same ideas, beliefs and ideals (and that if you disagree with that you should leave the country).   So just keep that in mind and maybe disagree with them first and me second.  ]

The way you talk about The Troops is weird because you don't talk about them like they're people.  You say you love them, but you love them the way you love the Native Americans.  You love the idea of them.  You love the noble imagery.  You're proud to have a couple in your family tree somewhere. You love them as mascots, you invoke them as talismans to give weight to your own opinions.  Sometimes it seems like they're not people to you at all, they're more like crosses you can hold up to ward off dissenters.  Because when the real people - the troops, not The Troops - want something more than thanks you seem to love them a whole lot less.  When their actual imagery doesn't match the noble picture you paint, you pretend they don't exist.  The actual troops are far more than just the square jawed Marines in crisp uniforms saluting the flag.  They're more than the noble dead with the Stars & Stripes draped over their coffins.  They're also the homeless on your streets you wish could just go somewhere else.  They're the crippled and broken desperate for medical care from a broken bureaucratic mess.  And because of all that, they're also the victims of police violence more often than you'd like to think about.  But what right do you use their sacrifice and suffering as a cudgel against others?

I'm not asking you to stop loving your country or to stop having pride in those who serve it.  I'm saying that when you use them like objects instead of as people, then it's weird.  No, not weird, its wrong.  Ask yourself, who do you love? Do you love The Troops - some kind of platonic ideal that just happens to fit your exact concept of patriotism? Or do you love the actual people?  Because the actual people are not props to rest your opinions on, they're human beings from diverse backgrounds and they're not always going to agree with you.  And that should be OK.  As an American that is something you should be OK with**.  It should be OK to want things to be better, and to keep getting better.  Better for the troops and also for the civilians.  Is that really such an unpatriotic thought to you?


Way to alienate the only people who read your shit Eugene...




--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
*Land Mines.  Because conflicts come and go but land mines stick around forever!
**Just going by what you say about yourselves and your ideals here guys.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Learning to Love with Lesbians

I fell into a deep 90s music video hole on Youtube last night and I just had to write down my feelings about something.  I hope I still remember how sentences work, I haven't done this in a while...

So here's a thing about the 90's that you may or may not recall.  If you were an awkward guy, having no luck in finding love, this was a terrible time to listen to the radio (or to go to the movies or to turn on the TV) because it would constantly be re-enforcing your very worst ideas about life.  See, a long time ago even the legendary sex gods The Rolling Stones figured out that "you can't always get what you want" but somewhere during the 90s it was as if pop culture decided to reject that notion completely and got super fucking whiny about it too.  The prevailing message was "if you want a girl, no matter what, you should be able to get the girl.  Yes, even that girl.  Especially that one because YOU want her and therefore you are entitled to her."  How? Well easy, just keep passive-aggressively hanging around her, constantly going on to all who would listen about how stupid women are because they always choose the total asshole and not the obviously superior guy (you) that is hanging around her constantly, (pretending to be) her best friend.  If you just hang around long enough and act nice long enough you will get your chance declare your love completely out of the blue and she'll realize how perfect you are and reward you with all the sex ever.

In case I actually need to point this out, THIS IS TERRIBLE ADVICE TO GIVE TO AWKWARD TEENAGE BOYS!!  Yet it was everywhere.  Every song on the radio, every romcom you took your "friend" to, this was the prevalent message of the time.  And it sucked.  I don't think I even realized how much it sucked until much later when I could take a sober look back and see just how many great friendships I poisoned and how many great relationships I missed out on thanks to these toxic, self pitying - and lets be honest - downright creepy ideas.

As the song famously doesn't say:

"If you're having girl problems I feel bad for you son...
Cause in this current atmosphere you probably have no healthy outlets for your hurt feelings"

Well, there was one exception.  One night the DJ on the local student radio station dared to defy the code of standards & practices and played a beautiful song that happened to have the words "Fuck You" prominently in the chorus.  I listened raptly and immediately loved the song.  Unfortunately I forgot the artist and title almost immediately and this was back in the infancy of the Internet so Yahoo, altavista and ohmygodI'msoveryold.com was no help in tracking down a song you knew next to nothing about.  It was only years later when I tried "lesbian song" + "fuck you" on Google (#StopJudgingMe) and rediscovered Ani DiFranco's Untouchable Face.  This song has been on every device ever since and features prominently in my "Most Played" playlists.  This is the song I wish I had been listening to as a teen instead of those self pitying, incredibly entitled rock songs about love.

Firstly, this is a song that doesn't tell you what to feel, this song already knows what you feel.  The very chorus gives you permission to feel that bittersweet mix of love-anger-hope-frustration-disappointment-despair-warmth-sadness-longing that you feel when you love someone you can't have:
"So fuck you
And your untouchable face
Fuck you
For existing in the first place
And who am I
That I should be vying for your touch
Who am I
Bet you can't even tell me that much"

However, before that point it spends a couple of verses making clear that while it's OK for YOU to feel that way it's not OK to go make the other someone miserable too.  After all if they're happy and you really, truly like them then you should want them to stay happy.

"Think I'm going for a walk now
I feel a little unsteady
I don't want no one to follow me
Except maybe you
I could make you happy, you know
If you weren't already
I could do a lot of things
And I do
Tell you the truth I prefer the worst of you
Too bad you had to have a better half
She's not really my type
But I think you two are forever
And I hate to say it, but you're perfect together"

I love how this song makes it clear that feeling hurt and accepting that you can't have this person are not mutually exclusive processes.  These things can live side by side in the same heart, albeit uncomfortably at times.

I could make you happy, you know
If you weren't already

That one achingly beautiful line is worth more than all the pop culture garbage I absorbed over the years.  In it I find that I'm not bad for loving you and you're not bad for not loving me back.  We both have worth and we both want to be happy and while I may not always be feeling it right now, I'm happy you're happy.  I hope to one day be as happy as you are now.

Anyway you should just go find this song and listen to it if you haven't already, I'm not sure I'm doing it justice here.  Ani is the poet here, not me.  Get it first hand.  I mean look at these lines:

You know I really don't look forward
To seeing you again
You look like a photograph of yourself
Taken from far far away
And I won't know what to do
And I won't know what to say

You know, if I had to explain to an AI what that means I don't think I would have the words.  And yet, AND YET I know EXACTLY what that means because I've felt it.  Deeply.  That.  Exactly that.  Whatever that is.  Willing to bet that if you ever hung out with someone blissfully unaware of how painfully in love you are with them, you know it too.

So... off topic a bit but fuck you to all the homophobes out there insisting that homosexual love is somehow other, alien & perverse.  I don't know that I have much in common with Ani DiFranco but I do know that I have felt every bit of emotion she is expressing here.  There's really no difference, we all love the same.  So in the words of the poet: Fuck you.



Thursday, November 27, 2014

Beyond Dictionary Fundamentalism

Leaving fundamentalism behind can be a tough process.  Getting fundamentalism to stop following your around after you left can be even harder.

This week I was involved in a very rowdy online interfaith discussion on fundamentalism.  Specifically the claim that fundamentalist Atheists are just as difficult to interact with as fundamentalist Christians.  There were a lot of different opinions on that but interesting to me was the fact that a lot of people claimed the question itself made no sense because there's no such thing as a fundamentalist Atheist.  I'm going to be a total hippie here and disregard everything the dictionary has to say about fundamentalism and give you my personal take on what I feel fundamentalism means and why you can apply it to Atheists.

To me a fundamentalist is someone who values their ideas more than people.  Simple as that. A fundamentalist Christian for instance would be someone who feels telling the world how sinful homosexuality is, is more important than their relationships with the gay people in their lives.  They may recognize the hurt this causes amongst their gay friends and relatives but they will stick to their guns nevertheless because the idea matters more to them than those relationships.  To a fundamentalist Christian it's more important that you know you're going to hell than that you be their friend.  In fact they get taught not to be people pleasers but to fear God more than man. Same with atheism. 

If it's more important to you that people around you know exactly how dumb you think faith is than for you to have a good relationship with them, then you're a fundamentalist atheist.  Simple as that.  If ridiculing your friends' faith means more to you than their friendship, then there is no difference between you and fundamentalist believer.

This goes way deeper than just faith and atheism.  This type of thinking can infect everything from the serious to the innocent.  Feeling that you're right about something can be quite a high and sometimes that high turns you into a mean drunk.  But it doesn't have to.  

Not saying you should change your ideas, you can keep them all.  You can be passionate about them, talk about them, discuss them with all who would listen.  Just don't lose sight of one simple truth - people matter.  It is relationships, not ideals, that make life worth living.  In the quest to be right, don't lose sight of that.