Bourbon Cowboy

The adventures of an urbane bar-hopping transplant to New York.

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Location: New York, New York, United States

I'm a storyteller in the New York area who is a regular on NPR's "This American Life" and at shows around the city. Moved to New York in 2006 and am working on selling a memoir of my years as a greeting card writer, and (as a personal, noncommercial obsession) a nonfiction book called "How to Love God Without Being a Jerk." My agent is Adam Chromy at Artists and Artisans. If you came here after hearing about my book on "This American Life" and Googling my name, the "How to Love God" book itself isn't in print yet, and may not even see print in its current form (I'm focusing on humorous memoir), but here's a sample I've posted in case you're curious anyway: Sample How To Love God Introduction, Pt. 1 of 3. Or just look through the archives for September 18, 2007.) The book you should be expecting is the greeting card book, about which more information is pending. Keep checking back!

Monday, November 19, 2007

How To Love God Excerpt: Objection #3 Answered

I'm back! Took all day yesterday, but it worked. (The scanner's still not working, but when it does, we'll have cartoons up here as well.) In the meantime, here's a sample of what I wrote this weekend. Chapter Three answers objections that certain people will have to my whole analysis before I break it down and enter the middle of the book. I have identified four of the biggest:
1. Your whole premise is flawed, since it analyzes behavior instead of exploring spiritual truth
2. By looking at behavior, you're ignoring Christianity's greatest innovation: the concept of grace
3. When you say you want religion to be "decent," you really just want everyone to agree to your liberal agenda (women's lib, homosexual rights, etc.)
4. You were never really a Christian.

I'll be covering all of these shortly, but here's my answer to Objection #3. Please remember this is a first draft. Comments are encouraged.


3.) “Your view of religion is that you really just want everyone to be liberal and politically correct.”

As I’ve already mentioned, religion and politics tend to go together. Conservative religious people also tend to be conservative politically; the same applies to liberals. And it would be disingenuous of me to pretend I’m not a Democrat. I am. However, saying this reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from G. K. Chesterton. At the end of Orthodoxy he says, “Now, as much as ever, I believe in liberalism. But there was a rosy time of innocence when I believed in liberals.”

I feel you, G. K. As it happens, my own greatest gift as an analyst, to my mind, is my resistance to joining any group. My m.o. is, whenever I join a group, to start looking at it skeptically and making jokes about the group’s odd excesses. (Every group has some.) It happened when I was an evangelical and happens at every atheist meeting I’ve ever been to. So although I am technically registered as a Democrat, you’d be hard-pressed to call me a doctrinaire anything at all, and I can make Democrat jokes with the best of them. [FOOTNOTE: When I was at Hallmark, I wrote a card that read as follows. Outside: “This card is 100% politically correct and is guaranteed not to offend anyone at all!” Inside: “…which is why it’s not funny.”]

Except for this section, this is not a political book, and this is intentional. My only core belief is that if something is true, it ought to be accessible to everyone. The constant of acceleration due to gravity is neither a conservative nor a liberal fact. Liberals and Conservatives both love their children, blah blah blah. So while certain of my ideas are probably considered “liberal,” most of these ideas should be uncontroversial in any democratic society (example: I believe women and men should have equal rights and equal opportunity to succeed), and even the more “liberal” of my opinions are perfectly acceptable to libertarian types, and the only reason social conservatives don’t embrace them is BECAUSE social conservatives are so strongly influenced by religious conservatives.

So, for example, I refuse to believe that the concept of teaching evolution in the public schools is somehow a “liberal” idea; it’s an idea that is ONLY opposed by conservative religious biblical literalists, and so it’s a religious faith affecting a political ideology, not the other way around. Lots of people believe in evolution who also believe in states’ rights and a flat tax. Convincing everyone of the rightness of evolution is my aim because I’m in favor of looking straight at reality; it isn’t my sneaky way of smuggling in universal healthcare.

Ditto for gay rights. I don’t demand that everyone vote like me on this particular topic. But no sensible and informed person can reasonably hold any of the stereotypes of homosexuals that were promulgated in the ’50s and ’60s (it’s a personal choice, they’re constantly recruiting, they’re preying on our children, and they get that way by having distant fathers). The studies just don’t support these premises. So while there may be legitimate (or legitimate-seeming) reasons for denying gays certain rights—I don’t know what they might be, but I assume they exist—to the extent that religious beliefs encourage and reinforce foolish ideas about homosexuality (e.g., it’s a tendency you can be cured of) is exactly the extent to which I think they need correction. That’s all. Your religion shouldn’t prevent you from absorbing observed facts, especially when other people’s lives are at stake. But you make a mistake if you assume I’m just another interfaith guy like most of the others.

In fact, this is just as good a place as any for me to bitch about “interfaith” everything. In theory, because I’m a fan of religion, you might think that I’d be a good candidate for bemused outsiderhood on the fringes of the Unitarian tent, going to ecumenical peace meetings and interfaith dialogues on the roles of women, et cetera. Don’t you believe it. I may be a Democrat, but in my own way I’m very flinty-minded and practical, and as a result I have extremely low hippie tolerance. I love my appliances, I enjoy crappy TV, I don’t have the energy to be in a state of constant aggrievedness, and I know perfectly well that carrying a hemp bag around for my groceries probably won’t save any trees worth mentioning, compared to what could be done by just signing the damn Kyoto treaty. [FOOTNOTE: I’m no expert—no law says I have to be—but I can’t see how we’ll stop the destruction of the rain forests until we solve the problem of poverty in the Amazon, which is what’s fueling the destruction in the first place; I doubt that eco-tourism is a sustainable long-term solution either, but I digress. I can get behind fair trade coffee, foreign aid to needy countries, and legislation to change how we do business. But carrying around a hemp sack is just a pain in the ass for very little payoff. Also, white people shouldn’t wear dreadlocks. What’s up with that?]

Nevertheless, I keep trying. [FOOTNOTE: Although I’m technically an atheist, I have enough sympathy for the spiritual life that I tend to have more in common with Unitarians than I do with atheists. If Unitarian services were just a bunch of nice people standing around eating donuts I’d have very little to complain about.] And every time I go to a Unitarian service or some form of interfaith dialogue, I am appalled by how generally stripped of sinew it is, where one speaker after another quotes Mohammed, then the Buddha, then Jesus, then some Native American shaman, all of whom are being invoked in the defense of some moral idea so obvious (“war is bad,” “we should show mercy to the poor”) that it was barely worth footnoting.

It reminds me of another G.K. Chesterton quote. He said once about comparative religion that its proponents are forever saying, in essence, “Christianity and Buddhism are very similar, especially Buddhism.” By the same token, ecumenists far too often wind up saying, “The beautiful thing about all the world’s religions is that, when they’re boiled down to their spiritual essence, they all vote the Democratic ticket.” Which is not only self-serving, it’s not even true. You could just as easily make a very strong case that all the world’s great religions freak out around homosexuals, treat women as second-class citizens, and have absurd ideas about cosmology. So let’s not get cocky.

While I’m complaining, let me add that traditional interfaith music could induce comas: always something exceedingly mellow and acoustic, swinging from the rinky-dink clunkiness of fin-de-siecle piano hymns, to the loose and endless soporific of the Baha’i reggae jam. Or else it’s typical folk music: tabla this and klezmer that. The whole exercise feels like the religious equivalent of a beige NPR tote bag. I’d be a lot more awake in such services if I knew someone might do a cover of the Clash or Mos Def, or that someone at any second might pick up a hammer and start whaling on a gamelan. That would be cool, at least in part because not everyone would like it. I don’t see how you can have an interesting interfaith service if tolerance is guaranteed ahead of time.

This isn’t unfixable though. The only decent Unitarian service I’ve ever been to gave me hope about this. The sermon topic was materialism. I read the bulletin and thought, “Great. Materialism is bad. We know this.” But what was interesting is that this preacher—an import from Boston, in New York just for the weekend—said at one point, “Buddhists teach that the desire for material things is the beginning of suffering, and that the path to nirvana is through not wanting anything. But the Buddhists are wrong.” Wrong! I perked up. “Desiring things is one of the joys of life,” the pastor went on, “and the trick is how to do it without letting this pleasure turn into a trap for our souls. I’m convinced we can do this without cutting off an entire part of our human nature.” And then he went on to discuss really subtle distinctions between wanting and wanting too much, and how to tell the difference. It was actually interesting. It was thoughtful wisdom, not just polite cross-cultural sub-referencing.

Amen, brother! It has always seemed like a crock to me to talk about learning a little something from all the world’s wisdom without also pointing out which ideas are more or less useless. (I mean, come on. No eating bacon? That’s crazy talk!) And to an extent, the typical left-liberal approach to ecumenism has been guilty of exactly the things that Christian conservatives accuse them of: being so concerned about the unity of all religions that they eliminate all the interesting prickly distinctives that make the collision interesting in the first place. My own ideal of an ecumenical world is a bit like a pick-up basketball game in New York City. We’re going to play together, but we’ll also be telling jokes and throwing elbows. Don’t come if you don’t want to have a good-natured fight for some ground. With any luck, this book will be that sort of better ecumenism.

But I digress.

To make a long answer short: I don’t want people to be more liberal, per se. But I do want peoples’ conservatism, especially as it affects other people, to be based on facts we can all agree on. That just seems like basic democracy. If Mormonism ever became a majority religion in this country, I’d get very angry if the Mormon majority voted against my ability to drink caffeine on the theory that “the angel Moroni said it was wrong.” “But Moroni is invisible and I don’t even believe in him!” I would cry, in a probably vain plea for sympathy. As I see it, democracy should start with a common pool of knowledge, and that if you believe something that’s unproveable and unchangeable, it’s downright anti-American and selfish to vote for public policy on that basis alone. (And most people agree with me: even people who are opposed to homosexuality because of the Bible usually try to convince non-Christian people on some non-Biblical basis: that it’s bad for society or dangerous to children or some other thing that could theoretically be tested; they usually don’t say “The Bible says it and we should be a Jesus-honoring society, even if you’re a Hindu.”) If you think that’s some kind of radical form of liberalism, you should maybe get yourself get checked. I just call it fairness.



Blogger Starting To Learn said...

There are many cities (and a state) where Mormons are the majority and the caffeine still runs free.

11/19/2007 6:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To be pedantic, Buddhism does not teach that the desire for material things is the beginning of suffering. It's a bit more thoroughgoing than that.

Excellent light verse.

11/20/2007 1:32 AM  
Blogger Cowboy Dave Dickerson said...

starting-to-learn, I agree with your statement. The main point I wanted to make is that IF caffeine were banned in such areas, we would all recognize that as being pretty unfair. I'm trying to prevent mainstream evangelicals from doing roughly the same thing. Thanks, though; you reminded me that I need to add a section about my own favorite unfair laws: dry counties where they don't serve alcohol on Sundays. They make less and less sense the more you think about them.

Anonymous, I'm aware that Buddhism is significantly more subtle than that. But I think it's also true (and even provable) that Buddhism, as it is popularly promulgated in this country, really is said to "teach" something as blunt as "desire is bad." But thanks; I'll add a footnote to clarify.

11/20/2007 8:17 AM  

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