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!

Friday, February 29, 2008

Podcast Recommendations

This week's This American Life is one of my all-time favorites, on the theme of "Testosterone." If you have a chance and haven't heard it, do yourself a favor. It'll completely change the way you think of testosterone and what it does--and your jaw will drop at least four times as you listen. (The last segment is filler, but the first three are all top-notch.)

And while you're on iTunes, go--immediately--to WNYC's RadioLab, and download their latest episode titled "Laughter." They not only talk very intriguingly about why we laugh and what laughter means, but the episode ends with a flat-out amazing discussion of a "laughter epidemic" that struck Kinshasa in 1962 and affected hundreds of people. RadioLab is the most entertaining science program I've ever come across, and this is a perfect example of the kind of thing they do best: raising weird questions you didn't even know were questions in the first place.

Hooray for Neo-Organisms, I Guess...

Here's a link to an article that, if true, is pretty mind-blowing: a scientist with a good track record is creating "organisms" that convert CO2 into fuel--and, in theory, could eliminate the petroleum industry.

Here's the most interesting part of the article:

[Dr. Venter's] team is using synthetic chromosomes to modify organisms that already exist, not making new life, he said. Organisms already exist that produce octane, but not in amounts needed to be a fuel supply.

"If they could produce things on the scale we need, this would be a methane planet," Venter said. "The scale is what is critical; which is why we need to genetically design them."

The genetics of octane-producing organisms can be tinkered with to increase the amount of CO2 they eat and octane they excrete, according to Venter.

The limiting part of the equation isn't designing an organism, it's the difficulty of extracting high concentrations of CO2 from the air to feed the organisms, the scientist said in answer to a question from Page.

Scientists put "suicide genes" into their living creations so that if they escape the lab, they can be triggered to kill themselves.

The creepy thing about this is that they never really say what "organism" they're modifying. Is it bigger than a breadbox? Are there different kinds? Could you do it to cockroaches? Because I hate those things. And that's not even looking beyond the "suicide genes" sentence. (Is that ethical if it's a living creature? What if they design the organism with minimal sentience? The mind boggles.)

What I'm saying is, the sci-fi novel-and-movie inspired by this piece practically writes itself. In a nod to Shakespeare and Huxley, we could title it That Has Such Creatures In It.


Thursday, February 28, 2008

Two More Teensy Things

I really have to start editing. (The four Benadryl are really putting a brick in my get-up-and-go.) But before I leave, I realized something that might be of interest: This is the 28th, and it marks the last day I have free (i.e., prepaid) unlimited subway rides. After this, it's $10 for 6 rides (unless I want to spring for the monthlong pass). Which means that my money will literally be dwindling every day. I expect a certain amount of panic to set in, which will help my job search immensely.

Also, I just ran across this interesting article in the New York Times that asks, "Can John McCain run for President, since he was born in a foreign country?" The answer seems to be a pretty resounding yes, but it's an occasion for an intriguing history of other candidates who've faced the same problem. And it made me think of something else that isn't addressed in the article: Although it seems that a child born to Americans, even if the Americans are abroad (as in McCain's case), almost certainly has a legal right to run for President, what if you were adopted by Americans but born overseas?

Personally, I think the requirement of being born here is kind of silly. Adoptees, naturalized citizens, anyone who identifies reasonably as an American ought to be able to run for President, or what kind of democracy are we? Why not let Schwarzenegger run if he wants to? America's been good to him; he's not going to sell us out to the Austrians.

There must have been some reason for the Founders to put this in the Constitution at the time--some then-reasonable fear or some closely-followed precedent. I'd check it out, but I've got work to get to.

UPDATE: Oh my god! I just remembered that this is a leap year, so we have a February 29th! I have a whole 'nother day with my Metro Card! Hallelujah!

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Brian McLaren on Worship

Can't seem to remember how to make a pretty YouTube window appear in my blog posts. But I can still cut and paste links! So here's a link to a short, interesting discussion by Brian McLaren about what he calls "The Worship Industry." Many of the things he mentions--like the fact that worship that "works" for people often does so by being dishonestly upbeat--are the same things I have noted (though not yet posted) about why evangelicals have a hard time writing good novels, painting good paintings, and in general producing non-musical art that communicates to people outside of Lewis's and L'Engle's allegories for children. (As I discovered as a young wannabe evangelical writer, the moment you identify a truly good Christian writer--say, Dostoyevsky or Flannery O'Connor or T.S. Eliot or Walker Percy--you quickly realize that they're not exactly evangelical Christians.)

On a style note, I think this short film idea (along with what Rob Bell's doing with NOOMA, though I don't like those as much) is the sort of thing I should be doing for promotion of my book...if only I had a camera, editing skill, and access to a series of public-domain film clips. *Sigh.* I need a damn agent.


...Because the Name 'Placebo' Was Already Taken

Apparently mind-powered medication seen at a posh drug store in Chelsea, around 21st and 8th Avenue.


Gnocchi on Heaven's Door

Last night I was on a second date with a woman I met a few weeks ago. (As you may know, I generally keep my dating life off this blog, so I'm not going to mention her name or what she does or anything, but the fact that this was a second date is important to the story, so just this once I'm caving on my principles.)

We wound up at Porter's, on 7th Avenue and 23rd. It's a nice, roomy space, rather dimly lit, with what was, I guess, an Asian-fusion menu. A perfect place for a little romantic conversation--which we proceeded to have. We ordered an absolutely marvelous red wine. (Negroamaro Salice Salentino--not that I'm an expert, but it was incredibly sweet and unsubtle, which is exactly what I like in a wine; I hate wines that are smarter than me) We'd taken just a few sips when the waiter came around, and I passed, while my date ordered the gnocchi. (Asian waitstaff, Zen decor, gnocchi on the menu; I'm guessing fusion.) More chatting. It's clear we like each other. Things are warming up, and the gnocchi arrives. She offers me some.

"What's gnocchi?" I asked.
She said, "It's just pasta with potatoes in it. Oh, but there's a cream sauce. If you're allergic to milk, that might be bad."

I'm not allergic to milk; I'm merely intolerant of it. As regular readers know, I have a host of foods that don't actually kill me, but that I don't handle very well: corn, soy, garlic, and apples top the list. Milk I can handle in small amounts, just like peanuts and chocolate. The only full-on allergy I'm aware of is almonds, which I haven't actually tested since I went into anaphylactic shock a few Christmases ago. (I've never had enough money or medical coverage to say, "Just to be sure I'm actually allergic to almonds, let me just eat one while sitting in the emergency room.")

I've been nervous around strange food ever since, but I've never actually had an incident that couldn't be chalked up to generalized anxiety. There have even been two occasions where I've actually bitten into almonds I didn't know where there, and spat them out, and suffered no consequences at all except more panic as I fumbled for my Epi-pen and waited for my heartrate to normalize. So I've been at the point of wondering if the original anaphylaxis was some kind of fluke. Maybe it wasn't almonds, but some kind of spider bite or some reaction to the desert in general. All I know is, it happened once, and for as long as I've eaten things since, there's never been another medical incident.

"I can handle a little cream," I said. So I ate the gnocchi. (Technically, I ate a single gnoccho; Merriam-Webster confirms.) And immediately I got a bitter, metallic taste in my mouth, and my lips began to tingle. "Uh-oh," I added.

"Are you okay?" she said.

"Probably," I replied. When I went into anaphylaxis, it felt like a current shot clean up my spine and shoulders, like an electric shudder. That wasn't happening here. But on the other hand...

"My lips are swelling, aren't they?" I said.

"Oh god," she replied.

"Yeah, you know what?" I said, standing with remarkable outward calm. "I'd better get my Epi-pen just in case." And I strode frantically to the coat check, legs all noodly, and retrieved my coat and bags, where I keep my Epi-pen and my Benadryl.

I have found that Benadryl is often handy to allay my worries about anything I've eaten. If I have, say, a Take 5 bar, and I feel a little funny--probably because of the peanut butter and chocolate--I can pop a Benadryl and feel like I'm not going to die. Very handy on long subway rides if you don't want to start clawing at the sides of the train in an attempt to burrow to the surface. So I did some quick calculation: if Nonexistent Panic Attack = 2 Benadryl, Actual Death-Threatening Allergy = 4 Benadryl. Pop pop pop pop. I didn't even use water.

My lips kept swelling and burning and I thought (was it my imagination? It often is) there was also a little bit of swelling in my throat. Ack! So, Epi-pen at the ready, I lurched outside and called over my shoulder, "I need to get to a hospital!" And my date said, "I'll be right there!"

I hailed a cab and waited in the cold, passenger door ajar, while my date collected her things--and, it turns out, settled the bill, which is more conscientious than I'd have been in this situation. And as I waited, I stared at the Epi-pen in my hand. You know you're poor when you actually have to gauge whether or not to use an Epi-pen. "On the one hand, I might be dying," I thought. "On the other hand, these things are like fifty bucks." It's like I actually live out that old Jack Benny routine: "Your money or your life!" "I'm thinking! I'm thinking!" In the end, I put it away.

The nearest hospital, it turns out, was St. Vincent's at 14th and 7th, which I knew about because my friend Ryan wound up there two Thanksgivings ago. So it was only $5 away by cab, including the tip. I covered it, fearing to ask how much my date had just paid for undrunk wine and uneaten food. (The wine, at $8 a glass, was an easy twenty with tip. I bet she'd just thrown down two twenties to be done with it. Oy.) We sped into the ER, and then everything got taken care of. Except, of course, for the bill, which I worry about a great deal, since I'm unemployed and hence uninsured. (Good news, however: unlike my last anaphylaxis, I'm not paying for an ambulance this time. So I saved a good $500 right there.)

The upshot: It wasn't anaphylaxis, but it was (obviously) a severe allergic reaction, albeit not a life-threatening one. (The culprit? Probably pine nuts. I guess "tree nuts" are now my thing to avoid on ingredient labels.) So I still have my virgin Epi-pen, and they pumped me full of a steroid drip and then let me go after two hours. Also, the doctor (whose last name was Marvel!) said, "You took four Benadryl? You're going to be zonked out in, like, twenty minutes. In the future, even if it's actual anaphylaxis, you shouldn't take more than two tablets."

Oddly, though, I didn't feel tired for the entire two hours (my guess: adrenaline). And my new friend actually sat with me the whole time, cracking wise and sharing banter even as she started to get visibly slumberous. Then to top it all off, she called a cab and we CABBED it back from St. Vincent's to Clinton Hill in Brooklyn. (Not a hellishly long way, I guess, but it's more than I would ever normally ask a cab to do, and probably another $20.) Then she called today to make sure I was all right. She sounded happy to hear from me, and we plan to try again at a more non-lethal restaurant.

Anyway, now I know that I really am allergic to tree nuts, and it wasn't all in my head. As for my date, it's hard to know how to repay someone for life-saving AND patience, but I think I'll start with a nice bottle of Negroamaro Salice Salentino...


Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Bar Napkin Cartoon 45


Islamic Reformation At Last!

...Well, the first signs of one, anyway. Turkey is apparently preparing a scholarly brief that looks like it'll review--with an exterminator's wary eye--the collection of hadith, with a view to removing the weeds.

It's hard to overstate how significant this is. For all the lambasting that the Qur'an gets, in actual fact, most of the awful and retrograde bullshit that occurs in Islamic societies--like female genital mutilation, the burqa, etc.--are based on the hadith: the collection of sayings and stories attributed to the prophet Mohammed, and collected after he died. Muslim feminists, especially in the west, routinely call for a return to the Qur'an and an abandonment of the hadith. And historians and Western scholars have long pointed out that the Mohammed that shows up in the hadith often bears little resemblance to the Mohammed of history, who was often derided by his fellow religious leaders for being overly fond of, and constantly caving in to, his wives, and for being too gentle with children.

Having said that, one hadith I'm rather fond of tells that one time when it was raining outside, The Prophet went to get his coat and found a cat sleeping on it. He went out into the rain without his coat rather than disturb the cat's slumber. (I may be recalling the details wrong; the story is in Karen Armstrong's Muhammad.) So not all the hadith are rotten. In fact (as you'll get a sense of) most of them are morally neutral answers to questions of procedure. But the ones that are wicked are truly awful. (By the way, the single most appalling practice of Islamic culture--"honor killings"--are not only not mentioned in the Qur'an, but I'm told they're not even in any of the hadith; they're just poisons picked up from the outside culture.)

I actually picked up a book of hadith (called A Manual of Hadith by Maulana Muhammad Ali), because they're actually pretty hard to find in English, and the official volumes I mostly came across were prohibitively expensive. (The book I have was collected, and contains commentary by, Maulana Muhammad Ali, who is, it should be noted, a member of a Muslim sect called the Ahmaddiyas, who follow a prophet who came AFTER Mohammed, so they're a bit like Muslim Mormons only not as weird.) There are a LOT of hadith--six volumes, minimum, if you're counting only the "strong" traditions (the hadith are divided into strong/authoritative and weak/less authoritative, based on their history of transmission)--and so the one volume I have is a compilation that seems pitched toward American converts, and I don't know enough to assert that these are all strong hadith. But I figure it can't hurt to give a quote or two to give a sense of what it's like to read the book:

"It is reported about Umm Waraqah who had learned the Qur'an by heart that The Prophet commanded her that she should act as imam of the people of her house, and she had a mu'adhdin [muezzin; the one who gives the call the prayer] and she used to act as imam of the people of her house."

"Abu Hurairah reported that the Messenger of Allah said, "When one of you leads the prayer for the people, he should lighten it, for among them is the weak one and the sick one and the old one; and when one of you prays alone, he may lengthen it as he likes."

"Samurah said, the Messenger of Allah commanded us that when we were three one of us [i.e., the one acting as imam] should stand in the front."

And so on. Most of them are very short, and most of them are reports on procedure ("How did The Prophet handle babies crying during Jummah?" etc.). Since there is no information about Mohammed in the Qur'an, the hadith, all read together, form something like the equivalent of the Gospels, and--at the same time--the equivalent of the Talmud.

I'm not saying the Qu'ran is a model of enlightenment. But if Islamic culture could throw off the tradition of the hadith (or at least employ scholarship to take out the bad ones), then there would be room for more liberal democratic readings of the Qu'ran--readings most American Muslims already practice, by the way--and Muslims everywhere would be freer to read the Qur'an the same way that Christians read the Bible and Jews read the Torah: by ignoring the weird, violent stuff and focusing on decency.

I predict a lot of violence over this--fundamentalists don't give up easily--but in the long run this is very good news for the planet.

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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

It's Official: I Am a Regular Contributor to This American Life

I just got word that one of my latest pitches has passed muster and will be run on "This American Life." As silly as it may sound, this changes everything. When I had three credits--one of them an interview segment that I was ancillary to and didn't get paid for--it was hard to think of myself as a "This American Life" contributor, and I always felt a little cheesy and liarly putting it on storytelling bios--and, yes, even on this website. Now I feel like it wasn't a fluke, and this is really happening. Thanks, TAL! You've made me extremely happy! Now for my next plan: teaching a "How to Pitch to This American Life" class at MediaBistro.

Oh--since you'll want to know, the piece that got accepted is a modified, interview-y version of this post from an entire Halloween ago (I'll try not to spoil the ending if you haven't read it). It's been accepted for an upcoming show whose theme is "Mistakes Were Made." And bear in mind that just because a piece has been accepted doesn't mean it won't turn out to be unusable, or that they won't scrap the entire theme. (That happened with another pitch I made; it's sad.) But for now, I assume the show is on, and that's as much as I know.


Bar Napkin Cartoon 44


THAT'S Better!: Another Take on Atheism, Bible-Worship, and Prayer

[Excerpt from an email I wrote a few days ago to an evangelical pen-pal, where I think I was a little more careful in my statements...]

...To a certain extent, I think evangelicals are right when they say (as I said in the chapter I sent you), "If I doubt that miracle [like, say, the parting of the Red Sea], where do I stop?" You really do only have two choices: be obedient to the Bible and believe everything it says, or admit you're just picking and choosing which parts of the Bible to believe, which implies that the Bible is subject to human wisdom. What I see evangelicals doing is an odd third way: picking and choosing without admitting that that's what they're doing, in order to maintain the belief that they really are following the Bible where other Christians aren't. What they're really doing, it seems to me, is applying judgment and human wisdom to judge what to follow and what not to, but trying to impose as little judgment on it as possible. They'll believe things that make certain evangelicals uncomfortable (like women not being allowed to preach, which is always guaranteed a section under "Hard Sayings of the Bible"), but they won't believe anything that's clearly unworkable in our modern culture (like selling everything and giving it to the poor, or really taking Hell seriously enough to warn people constantly about its great and endless danger). They'll claim that this is "what the Bible teaches," but a conservative compromise is still a compromise, not the ideal. It's a mistake to pretend differently.

You say: "From my perspective, your core premise - there is no God - is false on the face of it. I *know* there is a God (just as much as you know there isn't), so anything you say carries very little instructional value to me. ... To me, someone who doesn't believe in God writing about how Christianity works is like someone who can't do basic math teaching advanced calculus. Speaking from an Evangelical perspective that finds God ridiculously obvious, you trying to explain him away to Christians is like trying to explain how 1 + 1 doesn't *really* equal 2 - we've only been taught that by a misguided institution. To me, OF COURSE 1 + 1 = 2 and, just as plainly, there is a God."

But surely you don't think that everything evangelicals do is so radically spiritual that it's completely incomprehensible to anyone else? Evangelicals make common-sense appeals all the time, even to each other: "Premarital sex is bad because it hardens the heart and makes relationships more difficult," they say, not "Premarital sex is bad because God says so and if you aren't religious you'll just never understand." In fact, the spiritual appeal is generally the appeal of last resort, even for Christians. If you're asked why getting drunk is bad, evangelicals will point out the bad effects of alcohol--the real, physical facts--and base their argument's weight on that evidence, as proof that the Bible knows what it's talking about. It's only when they have no particularly good reason for something that they say, "You have to be spiritual to understand it." (The classic example of this, to my mind, is the idea of sex creating a "spiritual bond" so that it's bad to do even if you're both in love, willing to do it, accepting of the consequences, and devoted to each other outside a traditional marriage bond. Since a "spiritual bond" can't be seen, tested, or proven to exist, saying, "sex with someone you love is bad because you're ruining a spiritual bond" is, for all practical purposes, exactly the same thing as saying, "if you're not spiritual, you'll never understand it"--and it is, as any nonChristian will tell you, the weakest argument a Christian has, which is why even Christians try to steer to more practical ground most of the time [STD's, pregnancy, etc.])

Let me take another tack. You say "God exists, and I know it as clearly as 1 + 1 = 2." But of course you don't know it THAT clearly. You know it--deep in your heart, and unshakably--but not because it can be logically, clinically proven. If I'm correct about religious people, I strongly suspect that the main conflict between theists and atheists comes down to two principles:

1.) Most people have a capacity for numinous awe--the mountaintop experience, the loving look into the heart of the universe at night--and most human beings, historically, have tended to find this experience uplifting or renewing, and have tended further to see this experience as coming from a being we call God. Moreover, this "God" is generally perceived as more than something merely greater than us (more than the mountain or the night sky): he (or she) is also a source of goodness and something that grounds our lives in eternal meaning, and this force speaks to us in hundreds of little ways: a seeming coincidence here, a lesson there, an answered prayer or two or twenty. And these little evidences amass into what are effectively "proofs" that God exists: not that you can see him or put him on a slide, but your life's experience speaks to the existence of God in a decades-long string of stories and anecdotes--ways that only really make sense to the eyes of faith.

2.) The world as we actually see it, if we're seeing dispassionately, looks pretty much exactly as we'd expect it to look if there were no God: huge, ancient universe? Check. Bad design of parts of our bodies? Check. Problem of evil/theodicy? Definitely. Prayer working in subtle ambiguous ways but failing to levitate objects or regrow lost limbs? Check. Lack of hard evidence of life after death? Unfortunately so. The evidence for atheism is literally everywhere you look. [FOOTNOTE: The huge ancient universe is important because if God exists, we could live in any kind of universe He wanted, and if we were the point of creation, or one of the points, we could, one assumes, expect a younger universe with us at its center, or near it. But if we evolved by chance, we MUST live in a mind-bogglingly vast universe that's had a lot of time and a lot of room to roll the dice in, and we might be off in a pretty insignificant portion of it...and this is exactly what we see. Any other universe would make atheism practically impossible, and God really WOULD be as obvious as 1 + 1 = 2.]

So what we have is a constant conflict--at least a potential one--between the world we see with our brains, and the word as we feel with our hearts. The theist votes that the heart is correct and makes a thousand good-enough-for-the-moment excuses for the things we see (suffering is the cost of free will; God IS all good and all powerful, but isn't exercising the latter; most of all, God is mysterious and doesn't have to make sense to us); arguments that are really only satisfying to people who feel that this view of the world "makes sense" already (i.e., feels in accord with the way they experience the world daily). But none of the arguments the theist makes is really compelling to anyone who demands a good answer; ask long enough, and theists always wind up pointing out that some things are mysterious and God doesn't explain himself. Which, to the atheist, is essentially saying that theism doesn't make sense.

The atheist votes that the brain is correct--what we see does fit; God doesn't exist--and then explains away the first principle (we instinctively feel that the universe has meaning and that a God exists) usually by suggesting that human beings are inherently hard-wired to find meaning in things, and to feel more comfortable when things have a pattern or a narrative arc to them. If, like many rationalistic people, you're more comfortable when everything is explained, this really does explain everything. But it leaves you without an obvious solution for whether life really does have objective meaning. Oops! This end result is what makes atheism, for most people, essentially unthinkable, and unacceptable as any sort of option. This is an understandable choice. However, I repeat that this is not quite the same thing as 1 + 1 = 2; it's more like "I know God exists because I see God work everywhere, and I find a purely natural explanation deeply distasteful by comparison." Right?

This, by the way, is related to how I finally became an atheist. I've got a longer version of this, but I'll keep it simple: essentially, I was reading a book on the power of prayer, and I read a story where a woman prayed to God for rain, and--because this was a book on the power of prayer--it rained. But it started raining so much that the water was rising and threatening to flood the house, and the woman wrote, "and so, rebuking Satan, I prayed for the rain to stop..." and I stopped short and said, "Wait a minute! So God makes it rain, but Satan makes it rain too much?" On the one hand, this sounds perfectly ridiculous. On the other hand, I could completely understand bringing the same interpretation to that situation. And it struck me then that "I'm praying for x" often meant, "I'm anxious about x, [too much water OR too little, e.g.] over which I have no control, and my prayer is a sort of reponse to this helplessness." As C.S. Lewis points out, we don't pray for eclipses. We don't pray that aspirin will work. Or (if you're me) how some distant cricket team's season is going to play out. We only pray about things we care about, that we can't control, and that might turn out in at least two different ways. We pray about test results, and the safety of those we love, and for guidance in times of confusion.

So I started thinking, "What if all our God talk is really just talk about our own anxieties about things we can't control?" So I started listening to other peoples' religious talk, and found exactly that, plus another thing: God is also often invoked to give something more meaning than mere coincidence, as in "I know God meant for us to run into each other at lunch" or "I know God wants me to work on my anger" (which sounds more meaningful than, "I'd like to not get angry so much"). When I started seeing prayer and God as a habit where a mind that's hungry for meaning sort of imaginatively asserts control over how the unknown is interpreted...well, the more I looked at it, the more God seemed to vanish. Even simple meditation started to look like the response of an organism that was feeling out of balance and needed a moment of relaxed concentration. That was the day I became an atheist. As Laplace said, I had no need for the God hypothesis. (Though of course he said it in French.)


Pissing Against the Wall--Literally

Hilarious You Tube vid of a preacher talking, in all earnestness, about the Bible's teaching about men pissing sitting down. Best quote: when he suddenly raises his voice and swings into "This is what's wrong with America today!" This is definitely material for The Wittenburg Door or possibly Lark News.

(Hat tip to Andrew Sullivan.)

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Monday, February 25, 2008

I wrote this cryptic crossword a few weeks back and then discovered that it was unusable in The Enigma because someone else already had the same idea. Just so the effort isn't wasted, here's my version:


And, as a help, here's the solution:


UPDATE: There seems to be a problem. Sorry about that. When it's fixed, I'll let you know.


What Happens to Superscript Over the Phone

From a LiveScience/Yahoo! article about the new technique of filming electrons in motion:

"'It takes about 150 attoseconds for an electron to circle the nucleus of an atom. An attosecond is 10-18 seconds long, or, expressed in another way: an attosecond is related to a second as a second is related to the age of the universe,' said Johan Mauritsson of Lund University in Sweden."

I assume that's supposed to be 10 to the -18th power. Either that, or the entire universe has only been around for one-tenth, or possibly one-eighteenth, of a second. Catch it before they edit the article!

(Also: We can measure attoseconds! Science is freakin' amazing.)

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Saturday, February 23, 2008

Bar Napkin Cartoon 43


The Briefest of Updates

The atheism section obviously needs more work. I’m thinking about it now, but for now I’m simply removing it from the proposal, since you’re usually supposed to submit one or two sample chapters, and that would have made four. So the proposal will still go out; just not with that section in it.

In the meantime, I'm working on a transcribed version of a story I told on Thursday at Sherry Weaver’s Speakeasy. It's funny, but it's taking some time. So in the meantime I'm probably going to post another cartoon so the entire day isn't postless like yesterday was. Sorry for the holdup.

Friday, February 22, 2008

A Clearer Take On Atheism For Those Joining Recently

I'm setting out today (any moment now!) to finish the Atheism chapter--and I hope, in the process, to substantially improve it. However, in reading the comments on my last post (which I'm still not crazy about and I'm very thankful to everyone who's written in), I realized that one of the problems for first-time readers is that they may not realize that this post is not the first time I've attempted to describe atheism. So the distinction between those who are born atheistic (i.e., without a theistic or conventionally religious drive) and those who later become atheists, the unfair way in which atheists are automatically characterized as "angry," the rather hypersensitive nature of atheism's religious critics, are all addressed in this post from some time ago. I didn't want to repeat myself, so I didn't directly reference it. I see now that I should have.

I'll be away for much of the day. But if you want to read more of what I say about atheism--and something that makes, to my mind, a good deal more sense than yesterday's rough draft--I invite you to go and read it. Thanks!


Now THIS is Snow!

My last foray into shoveling was done on the merest excuse, as a way to make up for my laggardly way with a recycling tote. Today, however, I woke to actual snow. It's hard to describe for a desert rat like me with relatively limited experience with the stuff. But today's snow is the kind of snow that Hollywood has been using in Christmas movies for decades: just heavy enough to fall straight, but much lighter than it looks, silent, gentle, packing together at the merest touch, and so fun to watch that you hardly notice that it's cold. The Platonic ideal of snow. It took a good deal of character not to simply jump into a pile and romp around, to build a snowman or make a snow angel, and I still haven't ruled it out.
But this is where shoveling is actually a pain. Because unlike last time, where I was dealing with a thin layer of slush and sort of pushing it around like peas on a plate, there's actual heft to this, and I had to actually pile it up, one shovelful at a time, and although it didn't weigh much, you do start to notice how little room a single shovel fills up, and how vast an acreage the front of a building can be. I also started worrying that I was overpiling the stuff. What about the poor slob who has to get into their streetside vehicle? They'll practically have to vault over the wall of my little impromptu fort. That, I suppose, is another way New York has of punishing you for the temerity of owning a car.
I'm a little embarrassed to show the work I did, but please bear in mind that it was intended to be a sort of half-assed temporary job. I have four hours to tidy up after the snow stops falling, and the snow was still falling in earnest when I came back inside. So this was just designed, really, to keep the walk tidy enough to not inconvenience my fellow pedestrians, and also--I must admit--to give me an excuse to play in the snow in a responsible and (sadly) snow-destroying manner. Anyway, here's how I left things:

I'm about to take off for a local Starbucks in an attempt to get actual writing done--I never use the wi-fi at Starbucks, so it's the one place I'm certain I can work without being distracted by the Internet. But since I might be gone for a while, I figured I'd better shovel first. That ought to give me four hours plus to work in. More soon.

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Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Trouble With Atheism, Part 1

Here is the first part of the first draft section from How to Love God Without Being a Jerk titled How to Be an Atheist Without Being a Jerk. As always, I welcome comments, because this is a rough draft, and I already feel like some of my accusations may have been intemperate or insufficiently clear. It also feels unusually disorganized. Help!

UPDATE: I'm actually really unhappy with this post, and I'd like to thank Norman, in the comments, for figuring out a few of the more salient things that are wrong with it. My own comments there include a plan for setting this straight. In the meantime, read this post with the equivalent of a clothespin over your nose. (And read the comments.) I'll get to fixing it later, after I've written the rest of it at all.


In a televised debate with pastor Rick “The Purpose-Driven Life” Warren, Sam Harris was asked why some many people have negative impressions of atheism. He laughed and replied, “We have terrible P.R.” and Rick Warren said, simply, “No you don’t.” Warren’s point was clear: why blame bad P.R. when atheists are doing perfectly horribly without any help? In the same way that evangelicals often don’t notice when they’re being dicks, atheists often don’t seem to understand why they’re so widely disliked. I’m an atheist, and I know precisely why people loathe atheists, and I know what we can do about it. That’s what this chapter is about.

To put it most bluntly, atheists are often accused of being immoral because they have quite overtly made a decision that seems a trifle inhuman: they have chosen reason over intuition, reason over emotion, simply by not having faith.

Faith is not rational. I don’t care how often you talk about philosophers like Hegel or scientists like Francis Bacon who were both religious, or talk, as the Catholic church often has, about the importance and value of the God-given faculty of reason. (In one of the great Father Brown mysteries, the priest-sleuth easily identifies a false priest because, he explains, “He attacked reason. That’s bad theology.”) All of this protests too much. The math is simple: if all you have is reason, then religion vanishes almost instantly. Religion is, in some ways, the sort of patch job that we place on our view of the world when reason alone doesn’t seem to answer everything. Or, to put it another way, religion rises when we sort of leap towards our best hunches about the meaning of the world, and reason is the patch job we apply to make sure our asses are covered; we use reason to show that the religious leap, though ultimately non-rational, was at least as sensible as possible.

Of course, to a religious person like the one I was, the entire enterprise seems rational. I prayed, it worked (by my religious definition of “working”), and therefore religion is real. QED. But of course this isn’t so much a logical syllogism as it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Like the woman who says, “I’m going to prove that apples cause cancer!”—and then finds, surprise surprise, exactly the link she was looking for. If we find exactly what we decided to look for anyway, there’s an obvious sequence involved that progresses like a kind of logic. But if you claim it’s purely logical, and motivated only by reason, you’ve missed at least half of the journey. I’ll say it again, because it bears repeating: Faith is not rational. It doesn’t even come asymptotically close to reason. It uses different tools, comes to different conclusions, and has completely different ideas about what counts as proof. What the two have in common is the shape of their stories: I had a problem; I applied faith/reason; I got a solution that I read a certain meaning into. The only thing that’s different between them is everything else.

Atheists know this, and they’ve identified with reason quite heavily. The Infidel Guy closes every show by saying, “In reason!” Robert Price wrote an atheist’s answer to The Purpose-Driven Life that he titled The Reason-Driven Life. The Internet Infidels website calls itself “A drop of reason in a sea of confusion.” The list goes on. The problem with atheists who identify with reason is that they often take the next step and assume that being rational means being smarter, and then they start talking as if they’re all, every one of them, smarter than any priest who ever lived. (As I will explain in my next section, I think some of this tendency often echoes behaviors that date back to when the atheists were in high school.)

When I’ve posted my thoughts about the nonrational nature of faith online, I’ve often been accused of claiming that Christians are stupid. Christopher Hitchens, as we’ve seen, all but asserts the same thing, so some confusion is understandable. So let me clarify: I don’t think Christians are stupid. I think they’re often not rational, but that’s not the same thing. I say “not rational” because calling someone “irrational” is an insult, suggesting caprice, unreliability, overemotionalism…all the things 50’s-era sexists ascribed to women. By saying “not rational” I hope (perhaps vainly) to defang the accusation a little.

Reason isn’t everything, and thank goodness for that. I can hardly imagine anything more depressing than two people getting married for rational reasons. In fact, the really fun stuff of life—love, sex, and art—is best approached through instinct. Obviously, reason undergirds the structure, since a great painting is impossible if the artist is ignorant of the facts about paint, canvas, color, and such. But the actual painting itself is at its best when it’s done with passion, and when the painting itself resists the question, “What does it mean?” Even a painter as logical as M.C. Escher, whose works often look like the working out of a math problem, achieves his best art when his fish transform into birds or the hand escapes from the paper to draw itself. Reason is often at its most beautiful only in the added light of whimsy.

“But wait!” some of you may say. “Isn’t reason—meaning logic, facts, all things calculated and unemotional—the safest way to approach life? Wouldn’t life be better and more stable if we really were rational all the time? And isn’t consigning reason to a second tier just guaranteeing a series of horrible mistakes?” This ignores a rock-bottom fact about life: mistakes are the best way forward.

A friend of mine once made a huge mistake. She dated a pathological liar who, it turned out, was married to a woman in another state (there was a child, too). She feels stupid now, but at the time I don’t think you could have called her stupid; just non-rational. She had incomplete information, and filtered it like an optimist, which is what happy people do. All of her friends helped in this: she hadn’t dated before, and we were all eager to see her make it work, so when she said, “He claims he used to work for the CIA and he can’t talk about his past,” we all said, “He treats you nicely, right? Some people do work for the CIA!” We were so thrilled to see her dating that we couldn’t bear emotionally to be as cynical as we logically (and in hindsight) should have been. The mistake cost her thousands of dollars.

But my friend was smart. She got right back on the horse, as it were, and is now married to a wonderful guy and has a child of her own. Because the lesson is to never let mistakes affect how you act in the world. While it is logical to suggest that anyone might be a pathological liar, it would be too logical—one could say inhuman—to treat everyone as if they were a potential pathological liar. Such a person—one who does background checks on everyone she meets, or who asks questions not because she’s interested in the person but because she’s hoping to trip someone up in an easily verifiable falsehood—would, in the strictest sense of the term, be behaving logically. The problem is not her reasoning; it’s that her reasoning is itself grounded in fear of the improbable. Trust, that healthiest of human instincts, is a religion-shaped leap.

And this is what I feel is the chief problem facing most of the atheists I know and love, including myself: there is a tendency to trust reason too much, and the move from Trusting In Reason Whenever Possible over to the land of Being Deathly Afraid of All Irrationality is as easy as the next off-ramp. It’s a toll road, too: it’ll cost you some small measure of your trust in humanity. So when evangelicals claim, as they often do, that atheists are just as much of fundamentalists as Christians are accused of being, they are wrong in many important ways, but they’re right about the motivations of some of the people they’re accusing. Not all, but definitely some. I see atheistic tribalists at every atheist gathering I go to, and as I watch them rail against anyone who isn’t an extreme rationalist, I remember how I used to feel when I would go to church meetings and hear speakers who never tired of preaching the “hard truths of the gospel,” of preaching things that would “convict” us; who seemed to enjoy dividing the sheep from the goats. In many ways, they are the same asshole, and they’re bad for everyone’s happiness.

It might be wise, then, to remember that for most people, Reason is cold comfort, and the Reason Driven Life, however sure it may be, is less colorful than the Purpose-Driven one: quite intolerably so. The stories of our culture, the movies where we talk to ourselves about our concerns, are one lesson after another about the dangers of too much thinking: of computers that take over the world; of research-minded scientists who let The Thing escape; of brilliant people who are also, alas, colorfully insane. This is perhaps best epitomized in Elwood P. Dowd's (Jimmy Stewart's) statement in the movie Harvey: "My mother used to tell me, ' this world you must be oh so clever, or oh so kind.' I've been clever. I recommend kind."

There's a democratic impulse to this: we can't all be Einstein, but even the dumbest girl on the block can be gentle to a kittycat; anyone can learn to be big-hearted. (Even that mean old Grinch!) And this is why, when the movie The Wizard of Oz is over, people have always cried far more tears for the Scarecrow than the Tin Man. By choosing atheism--by being absolutely sure of it--the atheist is essentially announcing her alliance with the Tin Man. This is an understandable thing for someone to do. But you can't then turn around and be baffled about why you're not more popular.


HTLG: Notes Toward a Caveat

I was distracted for a few hours from the atheism post yesterday because a Christian pen pal of mine (organized via The E-Bay Atheist website; yay Internet!) pointed out a bunch of objections he had toward my characterization of how evangelicals read the Bible. I responded with this note, which I've edited and am thinking of adding to the book:


I think I need to say, up front, that evangelicals misread the Bible--quite uniquely, in the case of the Rapture (which I realize isn't that big a deal to most evangelicals, but it's so weird and so exactly correlated to evangelical belief that it's worth looking closer at)--but that I don't think they're stupid for doing so. I just think that they're sort of in love with the Bible--with a kind of helpless love, if you believe that the Bible is the only source of moral truth--and that this leads them to miss the signs that they're projecting perfection onto an object that isn't nearly as wonderful as they think. Evangelicals, in a sense, love the Bible the way a real Star Trek geek loves the original series: so accustomed to the show's more obvious flaws that they long ago made peace with them and don't even see them now, and uninterested in uncovering reasons to not love the show more. Of course, this analogy breaks down in a few ways if you poke at it. (For one thing, Star Trek fans don't generally think that critics of the show are morally corrupt and deserving of eternal torment.) But this might be a way to at least introduce the idea.

It's bound to be offensive any way I say it, I guess. But I do try to make allowances for different kinds of knowledge. I say in another place, for example (pushing the evangelicalism = love affair meme again), that Brad Pitt "knows" Angelina Jolie in an entirely different way than, say, Angelina Jolie's biographer (i.e., the mainstream Bible scholar) does. And in many ways Brad Pitt's knowledge is "better"--more exciting, more sexy, more immediate and direct, more appealing overall. He knows what it's like to live with her, day in and day out. But this does not give him to right to believe things that are factually untrue, or to accuse the biographer of base motives if she (the biographer) simply tries to keep her report relatively unbiased. And it would be absolutely absurd for Brad Pitt to claim not only that something false is, in fact, true (like, that Angelina Jolie is really a human-angel hybrid, and shares no DNA with Jon Voigt), but that he actually knows what he's talking about better than an independent researcher, because his motives are pure and loving. You can, however, understand why he might want to believe this; any transfer to a cold and unbiased view of things is a lot less exciting, a lot less interesting, and enough disenchantment of this sort might even lead to a breakup.

So I guess what I'm saying (at long last) is that I kind of want evangelicals to admit that they're factually and scholastically "wrong" about many things the Bible says, but that they do this because they're more concerned with passionate devotion to God than they are about detached clinical scholarship. It irks me that evangelicals often claim (because they read the Bible constantly in their very specific manner) to not only be experts on the Bible at exactly the points where they are poorly informed, but to claim that anyone who points out obvious facts--like, that the Garden of Eden story doesn't make very good moral sense--is a traitor or is somehow evil...or is too stupid to read what the Bible "clearly" says. My suspicion, however, is that evangelicals can never be humble about their reading of the scriptures, and can never defer to mainstream scholarship, because they need the Bible to be as plain and essentially reliable as they read it to be. More than a few times, friends of mine have refused to take even simple steps--like taking Genesis 1-2 metaphorically, which would scarcely affect a single sermon that has ever been preached on the topic--not out of logic, but out of fear of undermining the entire structure of their belief system. (The common refrain I hear is, "If I doubt that, where do I stop?")

***[...and another excerpt from an earlier letter]***

It is...manifestly obvious that evangelicals consistently misread the Bible. (I’ll give you a few examples in a moment.) Since I know evangelicals aren’t idiots, I’m trying to show why a scholastically indefensible position might make more sense, and seem more plausible, if you’ve internalized an evangelical view of the world. (This is just humans being human, of course; psychologists have proven that most human beings think they’re more likely to win the lottery than their neighbors are. This is an illogical thing to believe, but you can understand why it would be appealing and widespread, and I don’t fault anybody for believing it, as long as they don’t think it’s provably true, and /or demand that everyone else agree with them.) I would say, in a sense, not that evangelicals are fools, but that many of their presuppositions cause them, understandably, to read the wrong things. (If you read the Bible primarily as a moral guide, you’re going to be less curious about whether it holds together as a historical document, e.g.) But from any other viewpoint, these are unmistakable errors, and it would behoove evangelicals to at least admit that their reading of the Bible has the bias all lovers have for their beloved.

I go into a few examples, further in the chapter, of actual misreadings, which I can summarize here: 1.) a tendency to harmonize two separate stories as if they’re the same story (as in the Nativity, where Matthew has kings and a star, and Luke has shepherds and angels, and we are taught that both happened, but Matthew just ignored the choirs of singing angels, and Luke chose not to mention the slaughter of thousands of children. If evangelicals read a similar disconnect in an Islamic religious text they wouldn’t let it stand for a second; the two genealogies don’t even match); 2.) a tendency to assume that every miracle, no matter how improbable or weird—like Balaam’s ass actually talking—happened exactly as the Bible said, even if (as with Balaam, or in Genesis 1-2) it displays obvious literary elements of myth; 3.) a tendency to believe, in the absence of any evidence at all, that Matthew wrote Matthew, Mark wrote Mark, Luke wrote Luke-Acts, etc. (the original manuscripts have no names attached at all), and that certain obvious late additions to the Bible (like John 8:1-11, which first appears CENTURIES after the canon is created) are nevertheless wholly credible—again, something no evangelical would permit a different religion to believe about their own text, and something no scholar could accept on the strength of the evidence alone; 4.) a widespread belief in The Rapture, which is so absurdly Frankensteined together from unrelated segments of scripture that no self-respecting theologian in all of Christian history taught the Rapture as evangelicals know it until 150 years ago—and then, only in America.

I could go on, but the examples are legion. They’re not convincing (most likely) from an evangelical perspective, but that’s my point: Bible scholars are the ones looking at things straight; it’s the evangelicals who are blinded by love, devotion, and (if you accept the belief in Hell) a little bit of fear to maintain their beliefs and their consistently skewed reading. Yet if you look at this sort of love affair from the outside, you can see the parts of the dynamic that aren’t working. It’s like with any unfortunate relationship: you can’t tell your friend to cut it out and have any hope that they’ll listen. But I hope I can at least explain why the relationship works for the people in it, and why smart, decent people—not idiots, not moral monsters—might find it hard to leave this love behind.


Bar Napkin Cartoon 3 (new repost!)

What a difference a scanner makes! Here's how this cartoon appeared a year and a half ago, when I was a little more low-tech. I only wish I still had all the other napkins I've been doodling on since I came to New York, but this looks like the only one. But I'll definitely re-draw and re-scan now that I have the ability, the second I have some time.

At the moment, though, I'm still writing that atheism post. You'll see.


Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Bar Napkin Cartoon 42

(My first scanned cartoon! I have a scanner now! It actually scans!)


Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Book Update

I just printed out my complete first-draft version of what I hoped would be the final book proposal, and I realize that in order to make it truly stand out in the marketplace, I'll have to include at least one section on the topic that no one else is discussing: what's wrong with atheism, too.

So I'm hoping to write at least one portion of the "How to Be an Atheist Without Being a Jerk" chapter(s) tomorrow, and, with any luck, THAT will be the final straw, and then I can send this damn thing out.

In other news, I think there's a rule of the universe that says, just as you get ready to write an original book, you find out that someone else has already written it. Lately, I've been listening to a podcast called A Christian and an Atheist (it has the back and forth of viewpoints I'm hoping to achieve in my own book), and in one I just listened to today, they brought on a guest named Valerie Tarico...who has written this book, which overtly states that evangelical beliefs get in the way of the actual practice of goodness. In the interview (Show 27, "The Problem of Fundamentalism") she actually makes many of the points I make in my book. Oy!

What gives me hope for my own book is that I suspect I'm a better (or at least a funnier) writer, and if the radio show is anything to go by, I'm pretty sure I'd be a better public speaker. And I think my skeptical take on atheism (coming soon!) sets me a little bit apart from the "new atheist" crowd. So I'm not actually disheartened. But damn! Her points are very smart, quite valuable, and have the added benefit of coming from a practicing psychologist. So here, on the eve of the day that I hoped to send out the proposal, I suddenly realize I have to step up my game.

Anyway, expect a post on atheism tomorrow. Thanks to a conversation I had with my friend Cary, I've decided that I don't need ALL my sample chapters to be complete from beginning to end, and that'll save me a bit of time and trouble.


A Spongebob WHAT?

My friend Joe Cabrera linked to this, and I'm just trying to help more people to see it. The folks at Cartoon Brew have tracked down a truly unfortunate bit of cartoon merchandising. The comments are pretty funny as well.


This Just In: Mr. Tex in Brooklyn!

[Note: this is inside pool of interest only to fellow members of the National Puzzlers League.]

I just got the following email from Mike "Mr. Tex" Reiss:

"Thanks to your noodging, Denise & I are coming to the Crossword Tournament on Friday night (for the reception & team games) and Sunday morning (to watch the finals). Tell your puzzle pals."

I would have forgotten to noodge entirely if it hadn't been for Jon Delfin, so there's plenty of noodging going around. Anyway, consider yourselves told.

Monday, February 18, 2008

HTLG: Chapter 8--How Evangelicals Read the Bible (was Evolution), Part 2 of 3 or 4

I'm almost done with the book proposal! Hooray! But as I close in on its final shape, I've noticed that I really don't have room to include the section on Evolution and How Evangelicals Read the Bible. But it deserves to be seen, particularly by my poor friend Trazom, who felt I cut off the discussion just as it was getting good. So here's part two: an analysis of the two major rules evangelicals use to gauge any particular Bible passage. If things proceed as I imagine, part three will break down into various subrulings, and part four will show how evangelicals tend to apply all these principles, verse by verse, to Genesis 1-2.

The first part of this discussion is way back here. This is part 2.


First, and most obviously, “Bible-believing” Christians, by definition, do not read the Bible the same way they would read any other ancient work. Any sensible person who reads The Bhagavad-Gita knows that they’re not really getting it if they just read it cold. It makes more sense if you understand the history and culture of the time, and if you know which parts are real and which are made-up. The wisest course would be to consult the experts.

But the Bible is presumed to be readable by, and comprehensible to, everybody. The reason for this should be obvious: since human beings are terribly corrupt and self-deceiving, and since even mainstream churches are avoiding the real Gospel, the Bible must be God’s way of talking to us! If it was all that hard to understand, then we can have nothing to rely on, and God wouldn’t do that. So in most cases, the most naïve reading of scripture—its ‘plain sense,’ to use a common phrase—is considered the most correct. Because human beings are selfish, resentful of God’s authority, and seeking at all times to ignore his commands, the ‘plain sense’ is valuable precisely because it has had minimal human interpretation to interfere and mess things up.

“What about translation?” you may ask. “Isn’t translation a form of interpretation?” Yes it is. For that matter, so is editing, and Bible translation is as much a process of cobbling together the best of many variant readings as it is an exercise in transliteration. But evangelicals, like other Christians, don’t have to worry about this very much, because there are a host of evangelical-friendly translations available: most notably the New International Version and (less popular, but still in there swinging) the New American Standard. This is why most evangelicals choose one translation and stick to it monogamously: it’s the translation through which the voice of God has spoken, through which God’s word is meditated on, memorized, put into practice. And since it comes from a reliable source (non-denominational Bible-believers who can be trusted to smooth over the bumps and weirdness), many actual Bible problems that trouble scholars have, for the evangelical, been strangled in the crib by the good work of the International Bible Society.

The two major Bibles that are clearly non-evangelical are the New Jerusalem Bible and the Revised Standard Version. Both of these fail on one of Bible translations’ big shibboleths. Here’s the story: In Matthew 1:23, Jesus is described as being born of a virgin in order to fulfill a prophecy in Isaiah 7:14: “The virgin shall be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel.” The problem is that this is a mistranslation. The actual Hebrew word in Isaiah is “almah,” which means “young woman,” and in the original context it’s clearly referring to the king's (Ahaz’s) naturally pregnant wife, not to a miraculous birth. But the author of Matthew seems to have been reading Isaiah, not in the original Hebrew, but using the Greek Septuagint, which uses the word “parthenos”—which is “virgin” for sure. So by translating the Hebrew correctly, The New Jerusalem and Revised Standard bibles are exposing Matthew’s error and betraying the evangelical cause of biblical unity.

If you go back and read Isaiah 7, you will note also that the prophecy in Isaiah was never intended to be a prophecy about the Messiah in the first place (it’s referring to a siege of Jerusalem that was going on at the time of the original book), and the only reason Jesus is ever referred to as Immanuel is in light of this alleged “prophecy,” which has therefore become self-fulfilling. So this is not a prophecy by any meaningful definition of the term, and only convinces as prophecy to people who read with the eyes of faith, scanning plain text for mysterious allusions that can be justified after the fact. But evangelicals read Matthew far, far more often than they read Isaiah, and they tend to trust that the Bible speaks with one voice and would never imagine that there would be a discrepancy. So the Christian who wanders across Isaiah 7:14 in the original and notices that there isn’t a Messiah in sight isn’t usually bothered for long. “That’s odd,” they will think, “but Matthew says it’s a prophecy, so it must be one in a way that seems strange to us today. We’re at fault for misreading Isaiah’s intention. After all, the Bible doesn’t make important mistakes.” (And of course, Matthew is one of the four gospels, so it’s far more relevant to the believer’s life than whatever event Isaiah is going on about.)

Obviously, however, by reading Isaiah 7:14 the way evangelicals do, the “Bible-believer” is believing one part of the Bible over against another. But for the most part, they haven’t even noticed that that’s what they’re doing. They’re so committed to accepting the reliability of scripture that they don’t even see hiccups, the same way that people in bad relationships can be blind to hundreds of red flags because they’re trying so hard to make it work. We see what we need to see: heads I win, tails don’t count.

This leads to the second important principle evangelicals use to interpret the Bible—and this one is mostly unconscious. That principle is The Bible must say whatever it is we are committed ahead of time to believing is important. This is not quite the same thing as being merely “relevant,” though as we’ll see, that’s part of it. What I’m talking about here are the issues that evangelicals tend to stake out as being self-evident articles of faith. Whatever modern social issue gets Bible-believing Christians the most exercised is often the very point at which they bend the Bible the most aggressively. A minor example, already noted, is the ways in which evangelicals line up behind the Bible and declare that it’s “pro-family”—and in the process ignore almost every dismissive thing Jesus ever said about families.

Back in the 1880s to the 1930s, one of the single biggest issues of Christianity—the greatest moral struggle of the day—was alcohol. Alcohol destroyed homes, corrupted youth, pickled livers, and in general was responsible for every kind of related crime in the world. The Bible, the evangelical reformers said, was obviously against this, and just as clearly advocated for Prohibition: not just abstinence for believers, but a wholesale ban for everyone.

The problem with this is that, although being anti-alcohol made a certain amount of sense as a moral crusade at the time—rapid industrialization had led to poverty, intolerable living conditions, and all the other stressors that lead people to take up the bad kind of drinking—it’s practically impossible to draft the Bible as a soldier in the alcohol wars. Jesus turned water into wine! Paul tells Timothy to “drink a little wine” for his stomach. Most of the Bible—huge, vast swaths of it—says nothing about drinking at all. In fact, in the entire 1000 + pages of the Bible, if you’re looking for official pronouncements on liquor, you really only have two verses to choose from—a proverb that says “Strong wine is a mocker” and the letter that says “your body is a temple for the Holy Spirit” (which in context is about sexual propriety, but the phrase is capable of being drafted into a number of different crusades).

There are also a handful of weird stories from the Old Testament where people get drunk. Noah gets drunk and embarrassingly naked after the ark lands safely, and Lot’s daughters get him drunk so they can have sex with him during a drought of nice Jewish men. But it seems pretty safe to say that none of these verses would ever have been dusted off if the people using the verses weren’t desperately seeking anti-wine talking points. [FOOTNOTE: Both of these stories are actually political-cultural myths: the story of Noah explains why Canaanites are evil and deserve to be enslaved, and the story of Lot’s daughters suggests that the Moabites and Ammonites, who came from this incest, are similarly icky. The stories are not answering, “Is drinking bad?;” they’re answering “Who are we Chosen People allowed to kill and conquer?” But if you need the Bible to say something about a very specific topic, there’s no end to the context you can ignore in the process.]

Today, the big issues are the ones that have been synonymous with the Religious Right since at least the 1980s: abortion, homosexuality, pornography…basically, the evangelical church has moved away from improving other people’s living conditions and towards managing their sex lives (and, in the process, undoing the damage they often say that the libertine 1960s did to our public morality). Where the Bible-believers will go in the future depends, presumably, on what part of society will seem out of kilter to them next.

At any event, the assumption that God’s main lesson is about sexual conservatism—and particularly about the wrongness of abortion and homosexuality—presents almost exactly the same kind of problem: evangelicals who want to criticize either on a biblical basis have a relatively small number of verses to choose among, relative to the overall Bible. But we’ll get to that more later. For now, the important thing to note is that the second interpretive policy evangelicals practice is to preserve anything perceived as essential moral teaching, which usually means emphasizing certain verses more than the Bible itself is inclined to.

Let’s put these first two in short, easy-to-read formats:

1. The Bible must be read as plainly and directly as possible, since scholarly analysis is out of keeping with the relationship to scripture that God intends;

2. The Bible must be read as if it emphasized moral and theological teachings that are in agreement with what evangelicals believe already; the presuppositions about morality that the evangelical assumes the Bible "must" teach for it to make moral sense.

(part 3 to follow ere long.) [Special thanks to That Atheist Guy, who corrected a confusion I had between the words betulah and almah. For a second there, I was no wiser than Matthew.]


Sunday, February 17, 2008

Actual Christian Sex Toys, Sort of

A stray link from an article in The Onion led me, by joyous accident, to discover not one, but two Christian sex toy web businesses. Book 22 ("Intimacy Products for Married Couples") and My Beloved's Garden both get their titles from Song of Solomon (the 22nd book in the Protestant Bible), for the excellent reason that there's almost nothing else in the Bible to quote if you want to combine sex and enjoyment. Although I suppose the typical response from the blue-state lefties like me is supposed to be snarky dismissal ("Christian sex toys! What a stupid contradiction in terms!"), I have to say that I'm actually quite happy to see this. It makes perfect sense--from the Christian standpoint, at least--for Christians to want access to "marital aids" without being exposed to hardcore pornographic images. Why should you be subjected to passing by DVD photos of, say, violent monster blowjobs, if all you want is to walk in and buy a cock ring and a pair of fuzzy handcuffs? There are people out there who want sex to be fun without it being unduly nasty, and these people are ill-served in the current market, precisely because Christians and the sex industry have been enemies for, oh, two thousand years or so. Maybe this can start to break down some of that divide.

The next step--for a guy like I was, anyway--would be for these sites to have a small selection of actual pornographic movies where there was some guarantee that the women were happy and in charge, and that the proceedings would be relatively tame. (When I first started watching porn, one step into my local adult video store was immediately overwhelming; after looking at, and passing over, title after title of gangbangs and assplay and hard BDSM, I remember thinking, "Gee; the people who are into porn must be mostly quite different from me." Either that, or the tamer stuff was always checked out, I guess.) But I'm not counting on this happening any time soon. Still, this is my blog and I can dream.

LATE UPDATE: Forget two. Thanks to this page at The Marriage Bed, I can now report that there are roughly a dozen evangelical Christian sex sites available. Which leads me to re-propound a theory I've held for years: I have predicted, ever since the mid-90s, that the wide availability of Internet porn would have the effect of making the entire nation--not to say the whole world--a little incrementally more comfortable with sex. Because now, instead of having sexual products be that thing you have to sneak down to that one store to get, and where everyone can see you, suddenly everyone can obtain sexual information from the comfort of their home, and in as close to utter privacy as possible. And people who were curious about things that seem unspeakably naughty--commonish stuff like spanking, foot fetishism, or Catholic schoolgirl uniforms--can now try it at home, realize that it's not that bad, and find a slightly expanded language of happiness. Viva la revolution!

Of course, it wouldn't be a Christian site if it weren't concerned with setting down rules for right and wrong behavior, and here The Marriage Bed provides its take: it is, you might say, a little bit provincial and a little bit rock and roll. (And here's its list of what single people can look forward to, which is not a whole hell of a lot.) Still, even these half measures, laughable as some of them seem from my secular standpoint, represent a significant step forward for Christians everywhere, and replacing even a little bit of fear with a little bit of joy is no small thing. Amen.


Saturday, February 16, 2008

Href = Happiness!, or What You Will

As the day of my launching the book approaches (I'm fixing the draft of the proposal even as we speak), I've started looking ahead to the day when, in the name of promoting the book, I also expand my blog outward so that it actually looks halfway nice. To that end, I bought myself a printer/scanner today (it actually works! Soon my cartoons will no more be photographs!), and I started reading a book my brother gave me long ago: Head First HTML with CSS & XHTML. (Thanks, Dan! It's a brilliant work of pedagogy.)

In the meantime, however, thanks to helpful reader Ann Curling, THERE IS NOW A LINK IN MY 'ABOUT ME' SECTION, instead of an address to cut and paste! Thanks so much, Ann! Little by little, I embrace the new millennium.

Savage on Romney: Who's Religiously Intolerant?

Here's an intriguing post by Dan Savage where he points to an article claiming that Romney's campaign was shipwrecked by "religious intolerance." Dan points out, quite rightly, that the religious intolerance of Mormonism came, not from the blue-state left (since Romney won Massachusetts more than once), but from the very red-state religious people who are the ones most likely to complain about religious intolerance. Which helps prove something I said in an earlier post: the liberals in various religious traditions--including, I guess, atheistic secularism--have more in common with each other than religious conservatives have with other religious conservatives. QED.

I should add, however, that the article Dan links to to make this point is written by someone who's pretty clearly not what I'd call a mainstream evangelical, and so what's wrong with Joel is not exemplary of anything wrong with Christians as a whole. I'd hate for anyone to think I was letting this yahoo be anyone's spokesperson.

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Friday, February 15, 2008

HTLG Chapter 4: Objections #1 and #2

With any luck, this completes what I need to write for the book proposal for How to Love God Without Being a Jerk. I'll be assembling it all tomorrow and I'll get a sense of its ultimate shape at that point. I can already sense that I need to define "spirit" a little more clearly in question two. But that's why it's a first draft; so I can get comments. For now...whew! I'm going to celebrate by watching Crime Wave--vintage film noir with the unmatchable Sterling Hayden. Now where did I put that booze and those smoke-stained louvered blinds?...


OBJECTION #1: “You, as an atheist, are in no position to tell religious people about religion.”

There are several reasons someone might say this, and I think they’re all wrong. Let me run down the possibilities.

First, you might say that atheists don’t understand religious people, and therefore have as little right to say anything about religion as the pope (who is a presumably virginal male) has to advise women about sex. That would be a sensible point if the parallel were accurate. But the difference is that, while the pope has never been female or had sex, I used to be religious. If you ask anyone who was raised religious (Madonna will do) it’s obvious that the upbringing never really leaves you; you may live some other way, but you always remember how it felt. You may say I’m speaking from a weak position (that’s the next point), but it’s not like I’ve got no experience and nothing to say. Just the opposite, in fact. I can even speak the language still, though my ability to quote chapter and verse has certainly atrophied.

Second, you might say that an atheist can’t tell religious people about religion because religious people won’t listen. I think this sells religious people short, since they seem to buy all kinds of books, go to all sorts of movies, and consume all sorts of magazines containing articles that don’t represent their world view. You can watch “Friends,” hoping that Ross and Rachel get together, while at the same time wishing the show wasn’t about sex all the time. Conservative Christians do this every day, and this book shouldn’t be unduly jarring. In addition, bear in mind that I left religion—and the evangelical faith in particular—because it didn’t work for me, and it started flying to pieces around me. Surely the survivor of a car crash is, in fact, the best person possible to discuss how the crash happened! (Especially if, afterwards, they spent years like I did, researching, looking at it from all angles and trying to figure out what went wrong.) Surely even people who disagree with my driving can benefit from the point of view inside the car.

Finally, you might say that, as a non-participant, my critique isn’t even relevant. I’m like a European saying, “Those Americans should do something about their tax schedules.” It’s not technically my problem, and so even if I level the critique, who am I to say anything at all? This objection is wrong on two counts. First, of course, as a citizen of this country, I am very much affected by the beliefs of conservative religious people, every time they make it harder to teach science, or erect senseless laws that oppress homosexuals, or make it impossible to buy whiskey on Sunday. Admittedly, it could be worse—just look at the Middle East!—but it’s a definite pain in the ass, and I should be allowed to say something. Second, as an outsider to the tradition, who nevertheless has a past in, and some sympathy toward, that same tradition, I think I offer an unusually clear perspective on the morality play that the actors in the scenes are apt to miss, precisely because I can afford to be dispassionate. I can’t join the cast, but I can tell you how the show is going, and share a few ideas on why. And my critique will be all the more reliable, I think, if I’m not best friends with the director.

OBJECTION #2: “Your whole premise is flawed, since it analyzes behavior instead of exploring spiritual truth”

I hear a lot of references to “spiritual truth,” and I used to throw the term around a lot myself. Of course, it should be obvious that what “spiritual truth” means might vary from person to person, and that calling something “spiritual truth” doesn’t necessarily mean that it actually is spiritual or true. For example, the belief that the earth is 6,000 years old is not a spiritual belief by most measures (since it’s a claim about rocks, not about the nature of intangibles like grace or meaning), and it is quite demonstrably untrue. [FOOTNOTE: If by chance you want to fight me on this claim, just sit tight; we’ve got a whole chapter on science coming up.] And yet I’ve heard people state that this assertion, because it is based on a particular reading of a spiritual book (the Bible; duh), therefore qualifies as a “spiritual truth.” Since I disagree, this is a good example of why we need to define our terms. So how do we know what “spiritual truth” really is?

Most believers in most major religions—at least in the English-speaking world—have two sources of spiritual “knowledge”: what they are told (by their holy book or the nearest religious guide), and what they experience. When I was an evangelical, I believed that homosexuality was a sin because the Bible said so, not because I’d experienced it for myself, nor from witnessing any clear horrors associated with consensual sex. I also knew that if I was in an emotional or spiritual crisis and wanted to feel closer to God, this would be easier to accomplish in a Catholic church than in an evangelical one: Catholic churches tend to feel like holy ground, while evangelical churches tend to feel like office buildings. This was not something I learned from the Bible, of course; I learned it from the experience of trying to pray in both places.

If I wanted to play the materialist card now, I could probably look back and explain the logical, testable reasons that the Catholic church appealed to me more—even while I was afraid of their theology and (what seemed to me) their weird and dangerously unbiblical practices. The somber lighting; the mythic, traditional art; the urge to kneel, or to cross yourself; the candles. All of these things, in different ways, seemed to draw me out of myself and suffuse me with a sort of spiritual virtual reality: here things were old, vast, and timeless—like God himself—and you could, if you wished, get your entire body involved in humble worship. (In the evangelical tradition, we tend to close our eyes and raise up our upturned palms during particularly moving, rapturous songs, but we don’t have any similar posture that’s useful when we’re tired or sad, the way Catholics have with kneeling.)

But trying to explain it scientifically or psychologically is like breaking down love into a series of chemicals, or analyzing humor or art. I’m a lover of wordplay, and every so often I’ll be talking to someone, and they’ll say a word like “chorizo” and I’ll think, “If you add a letter, you get ‘C horizon’ and if you add one more you get ‘chorizont’” [FOOTNOTE: ‘C horizon’ is a scientific term for a particular layer of earth’s soil, and a chorizont is someone who believes the Iliad and the Odyssey were written by two separate authors. Thanks to my friend Trip Payne, who was the first person to point out this word progression to me.] and before you know it, I’ll have missed the whole point of my friend’s Mexican-lunch story. When I do that, I’m being a scientist instead of an experiencer, distracted by details instead of accepting the whole thing.

So if I’m not going to be overly analytical, I’m inclined to say that the first type of belief—reading what the Bible says—is more like actual truth as we normally think of it (facts that just are, no matter what we may think), and the second type of belief is more like spirituality—it’s mysterious, hits us below our radar, and speaks to us in ways that are difficult to express. And if the first thing is truth (broad assertion covering everyone), and the second thing is spirit (personal take on the invisible), then it starts to look like “spiritual truth” might be a contradiction in terms, like “invisible fog” or “depressive optimism.” The closer you are to one descriptor, the further you are from the other.

A third way to think of spiritual truth—and possibly the most common, though it is of course difficult to pin down—is that spiritual truth is the felt experience of the accuracy of God’s commands. This is certainly the way evangelicals generally think of the Christian journey: as a process of learning to conform yourself to God’s (i.e., the Bible’s) precepts and desires; the happy marriage of theory and practice, if you will. For example, actually forgiving someone who has wronged you makes you experience the difficult work of the Biblical call to morality, and it also changes the light by which you view the word “forgiveness” the next time you read the Bible. Your understanding of the Bible expands, and you become more willing to follow what it says, and to claim its underlying wisdom as territory you have explored. You have gained spiritual wisdom, and the content of the wisdom is spiritual truth (which in this case might be something like, “Forgiveness works, ultimately bringing you peace and happiness and a compassion for others, even if it’s difficult, and the person you’re forgiving doesn’t care”).

I mention this whole process in order to point out that the second you have this truth, and can express it in a sentence like the one above, it ceases to be spiritual and becomes an ethical teaching or a moral truth, which you can test just like you can test any other assertion: comparing it to the Golden Rule, asking other people about their experiences, applying thought experiments, and so forth. In cases like this—which I think are most of them—what is meant by “spiritual truth” turns out to mean not “truth that exists on a separate plane from our human reality” but “practical truth derived from religiously-inspired experience.” The practice or experience itself may be spiritual and impossible to quantify or rule on; but the alleged “truth” derived from it is just as susceptible to judgment as anything else human beings claim is right.

And thank goodness! Because if some lunatic claimed that his “spiritual truth” was that Chinese people have shriveled souls and they all need to be whipped thirty times before they can achieve salvation, surely no one hearing this would dream of throwing up their hands and saying, “Well, since it’s spiritual truth, I guess I can have nothing to say about it if I haven’t experienced it.” Wouldn’t you like to have some way of judging that to be wrong? In the above absurd case, we judge by looking at its theories and its effects: hatred of Chinese people is unfair, whipping people is wrong, and how could anyone possibly look at a soul and judge it “shriveled?”; therefore this can’t be a legitimate bit of wisdom. That’s all I aim to do: apply this same principle to beliefs that are more mainstream and, as a result, a little more familiar and invisible to most of us.

Note that some people—Bible-believers, mostly—would be inclined to say in response to my judgment in the previous paragraph, “You can’t just declare something wrong because it’s unfair. What if life is unfair? What if spiritual truth causes a bit of suffering? The real test of spiritual truth is not what we personally think is right, but what the Bible says.” (Conservative Catholics would say something similar, but invoke Church tradition instead of the Bible.) The moment you’ve said this, you’ve stopped talking about anything spiritual the way we normally think of it—the invisible, the numinous, the experiences we have of awe and wonder and everyday grace—and have started conflating “spiritual” with “this thing I read in this book.” I repeat: an assertion about the world or the way we should live that is made in a religious text may be true—you can test it—but it is manifestly not a “spiritual truth,” because it requires no particular spiritual sensitivity to comprehend it. But conservative religious people, whether they rely on texts or on traditions, are so accustomed to treating this text or tradition as divine that they usually aren’t aware that they’re trying to have things both ways. That’s what I’m trying to point out.

I’ll have more to say on this in a later chapter. For now, suffice it to say that “spiritual truth” either has practical consequences that I can talk about (like belief about the importance of everyone getting baptized in a particular way), or it has no possible practical consequences (like believing that God spoke to you, wordlessly and powerfully, when you were given immersion baptism, but that other people can do what they like), in which case it’s not a problem, and not what I’m talking about in this book.

One last point: the irony of the Bible-believer’s claim that the Bible is the sole judge of truth is very hard to sustain, because the Bible-believer has to also be willing to admit that they are able to tell truth from falsehood pretty accurately…and yet every conservative Christian is sectarian enough to believe that other people, throughout history, have gone pretty far astray in their Bible reading…people who probably felt just as sure as the conservative Christian does about their reading, even when—especially on subjects like The Rapture—the evangelical scriptural reading is unusually shoddy and inconsistent. If you are an evangelical, I think I only need to ask one question: are you positive that nothing you believe about how to read the Bible could possibly be wrong, when you don’t even trust your own judgment in moral matters, much less anyone else’s? If your main assurance on this matter is “spiritual”—that is, God himself has assured you of your correctness, through various “proofs” (invisible except to the eyes of faith) throughout a life of earnest pursuit of your religion—then I submit that you have no actual proof that you haven’t been fooling yourself, however much you may want to believe otherwise. You need to test the spirits, humbly. This is how you do it: by their fruits ye shall know them.


Thursday, February 14, 2008

HTLG: Objection #5: "You Were Never Really a Christian"

I've decided I don't yet need to finish the evolution chapter of How to Love God Without Being a Jerk before I send off the book proposal. I do, however, need to finish the chapter about the five big objections. So here's #5. #2 is here. #3 is here. And in the final version, they now wind up being #3 and #4, respectively. I'm going to write #1 and #2 next, and then--after a bit of editing--I hope to send this damn thing off, finally! (And then--sigh--look for a job in real diehard earnest.) So here it is:

Objection #5: “You were never really a Christian.”

This isn’t really an objection so much as a very common accusation, and it comes only from conservative Christians. This is for an obvious reason: my background and bona fides would satisfy anyone who approached the question neutrally. After I converted at age eight, everyone knew I was a Christian, and anyone who knew me then will attest to it; I went to church three times a week; I was a Bible study leader; I majored in religious studies; I practiced apologetics and tried to witness to people and convert them to the faith; and—not insignificantly—I was a virgin until I was 29. Nonreligious people don’t do that. Even religious people rarely have the strength of character to hold out for that ideal.

Suggesting that I was “never really a Christian” is therefore such a seemingly ridiculous assertion that if you knew that I get this accusation a lot, you might think, “I wonder if there’s something more behind that question than the accusers are letting on?” You might wonder if my conservative accusers might have an agenda that involves not paying attention to the facts of my life. And you’d be right.

See it from the perspective of the believer: Christianity is the answer to everything. It is not only the answer; it is, in fact, the only answer in a world that’s simply brimming with lies. The Christian has felt it for themself. [FOOTNOTE: I like this word. Not only is it nicely gender neutral, but it’s going to give uptight grammarians headaches that they richly deserve.] They have searched, found the answer, and have seen nothing to better it. So what am I saying—that there’s something better? Do I think I’m smarter than folks like C. S. Lewis? Anyone (i.e., me) suggesting something so outlandish must either be absolutely evil (why attack a religion that only wants to help people be good?), or (if I seem nice) must not have understood Christianity properly. We have gone back to Rule Number One again: either I’m evil, or I must be an idiot. [NOTE: For newcomers, when I establish the ground rules for this discussion, Rule Number One for both atheists and believers is "If You Dismiss Your Opponent as an Idiot or an Immoral Monster, Then You're Being a Jackass This Very Second."]

If you have felt any temptation to accuse me of this, I would like to point out, as directly but regretfully as I can, that this makes you an unfeeling jerk. And I think I can prove it.

Consider this: pretend that someone you know and love has just gotten a divorce. Anyone who has been through it, or knows someone who has, knows perfectly well that it’s an awful thing to have happen. While it’s fashionable for moralists to decry our age of alleged “quickie divorces,” in actual practice I’ve never known any decent person who got married in earnest good faith to contemplate divorce as anything less than an agonizing last resort—one that leaves real scars. [FOOTNOTE: By “decent,” I mean both morally grounded and halfway sensible. I’m not saying that famous quickie divorcers like Pamela Anderson, Carmen Electra, Mickey Rooney and Elizabeth Taylor are somehow not morally good people. I am, however, suggesting that they lack a normal measure of common sense. Even here, though, I can be nice: it must be hard to know if love is real in a world where you’re not only surrounded by other actors (who are very good at putting on shows), but in a place where you’re surrounded on all sides by an entourage of flunkies, agents, flatterers, and other people who simply lie to you all day long, every single day. In any event, pointing to Larry King and saying, “See! This is a world of quickie divorces!” is missing an important point: Mr. King isn’t like most normal people. So ignoring what I’m saying about normal divorce by invoking Larry King is like objecting to the statement that “most people find bicycle racing difficult” by saying, “That’s not true! Lance Armstrong does it all the time!” Larry King is the Lance Armstrong of divorce. My basic point still stands.]

So your friend is facing a divorce, and she says that she really has tried everything: talking, counseling, patience, understanding. And although a divorce will cause suffering, it’ll cause less pain in the long term than staying together. (I’m asking you to imagine this, but of course, most people hardly need to imagine this; anyone of a particular age has actually had this conversation and can remember what it’s like.) This friend of yours is a relatively recent addition to your social circle, so you weren’t really around for the whole story; you only have her word to go on. But her pain is obvious, and her stories don’t sound particularly far-fetched. What would you say?

The worst possible thing to say would probably be something like, “I bet you don’t understand marriage. In fact, I know for a fact that you’re just being selfish or lazy or ignorant. No one who was really married would ever want out.” At that point, you’ve stopped listening to the person you claim to be friends with, and are standing in judgment over her, and you’re assuming that, in the midst of her suffering, she’s self-deluded and actually lying to you, and you’re making this assessment without actually knowing any of the facts. That’s a textbook description of an asshole. Surely anyone can see that.

I had a very similar experience with evangelicalism. Most people who fall away do it in college--and usually when they enter, long before they graduate. I stuck it out for almost ten more years than that, and it was not an easy path to follow. I was more committed than normal, more religiously sensitive than normal, and I was truly planning on a career where I could change the lives of people for the better. (In that last respect, I haven’t much changed.) It was an agonizing experience—and as you’ll see in a few stories in later chapters, the strain sometimes risked driving me crazy—and anyone who tells me, in essence, “Well, you really just didn’t pray hard enough because you just wanted to be selfish and sinful” is an rank ignoramus of such low character that I confess I often just want to kick them in the teeth, since they obviously won’t listen to reason. Diehards like that are beyond reaching anyway; they’re happy to be assholes, and I urge all of them to put the book down and let it trouble them no longer. [FOOTNOTE: Fortunately, such people are rather few in number, though they seem to run a disproportionate number of radio talk shows.]

I am, however, interested in reaching people who say, “You were never a Christian” not because they really feel they know this, but because they sort of derive it logically because they don’t have any other conceptual options. That person I can talk to.

To a certain type of Christian, the Bible seems obviously good, and evangelical Christians themselves, as people who care deeply about the moral direction of their lives, are obviously (often visibly) more ethical than the non-evangelical people around them (at least by the evangelical standards of not swearing overmuch, not sleeping around, etc.). The evangelical world view also seems, to them, at least 90% compatible with the modern world of science and technology, without any particularly jarring problems that need to be addressed right away. So anyone like me who would write a book like this must be either doing so out of anger (to revenge himself against some Christian leader who behaved in an unchristian manner) or out of genuine wrong-headedness or lack of understanding. Christianity is goodness; saying that Christianity, qua Christianity, could ever be wrong is simply unthinkable. I must be flawed, either in the heart or the head, to have left this life of joyful meaning and salvation.

Happily, I can offer a third alternative. I offer this because I can understand the resistance. To a Christian who is truly devout, the existence of someone who left the church is, to some extent, an actual threat that must be dismissed somehow. After all, if someone tried Christianity and found it wanting, and if this person is sensible and accurate in their assessment, then Christianity really is wanting, and my beliefs are in trouble! That obviously can’t be the case, because I, the Christian, have done the same work and found everything fine! Therefore that apostate guy (me) must be deeply, deeply flawed, even if his book sounds more or less sensible on the surface.

Here’s my third alternative: Although I hope to eventually show that, not Christianity, but certain parts of evangelical Christianity, are in fact flawed and need fixing, in the meantime I have another option for you. Pretend not that I’m an idiot, not that I’m a monster, but that I’m looking too hard at the wrong things. I’m obsessed and I’ve pointed my gaze slightly off plumb. I’m no longer a Christian, you can think, not because I’m evil and I wanted to live the high life, but because I became—for understandable but, say, ultimately trivial reasons—unusually loose in my approach to scripture, and at the same time unusually demanding of the answers to questions about the role of women, the existence of hell, homosexuality, evolution, the problem of evil, and all the other handful of things that are covered in these pages. I like to think that if you can see me as someone who’s trying to get better answers to these questions than evangelicals usually offer, maybe then—even if you think I’m just focusing on the wrong things—my observations, like the observations of many obsessives, might turn out to be sort of understandable, and helpful to the non-obsessives who temporarily adopt the writer’s position. And with that truce called, we can move forward together as I make my first points.