Category Archives: Personal stories

My mom’s murder wasn’t ‘for a reason’

The Golden State Killer (aka the Original Night Stalker) murdered my mom when I was 14. He murdered 11 other people and committed 50 rapes.

That is all gratuitous suffering. There is no ‘greater good’ that these acts of violence achieved. The direct and indirect victims are worse off, period. The world is worse off, period. It did not happen ‘for a reason’ — at least not, as the phrase always implies, for a reason that could be considered good.

If, against all evidence and logic, there happened to be an all-powerful and all-knowing god who foresaw the crimes of the GSK and was able to prevent them but just opted not to, that god would be as evil as the GSK himself; he would definitely not be worthy of worship or gratitude.

There is no point trying to reconcile the suffering caused by the GSK, or any of the other gratuitous suffering in the world, with belief in a ‘good’ god. What the GSK did is the product of bad genes and maybe bad influences. His actions were not a component of a beautiful divine plan. There is no divine plan. The universe is indifferent. Some people, and apparently some animals, have consciences and strive to do good, but that’s it.

Accepting this reality has been much more comforting for me (no way it could be less comforting!) than believing in a god who is all-knowing, all-powerful, and very cruel but less cruel than he could have been.


What do you say to a grieving atheist?

I went to my first Meetup with the Atheist Community of San Jose last night (what a hip group!). The guest speaker was Rebecca Hensler, founder of a project called Grief Beyond Belief.


Rebecca has founded a “faith-free” online community for people who are grieving over the deaths of people they love. It seems fairly obvious that ‘reassurances’ about God, angels, and heaven cannot give comfort to people who don’t believe in such things. But as Rebecca shared her experiences and insights, it became clear that such expressions can be worse than unhelpful — they can compound a grieving person’s trauma.

Her talk contained a few examples of things that believers had said to ‘comfort’ her about the loss of her son Jude, who had lived only three months. These utterances ranged from lame apologetics (e.g., Jude’s death was God’s way of prompting Rebecca to start a grief support organization) to absurd speculation (e.g., “[My adult daughter who died] is holding Jude in her arms right now.”)

She also identified some expressions that are hurtful to anyone who is grieving — chief among them, “I understand how you feel” (especially when followed by “because my cat died”!).

It was especially valuable to hear anecdotes from her life and from online conversations she had moderated, illustrating how deep and debilitating grief can be. This made it even clearer why religious or superstitious ‘comfort’ affects nonbelievers the way it does.

During Q&A, I asked Rebecca for her thoughts on “gracious and constructive” ways for a secular person to respond to well-intended faith-based statements, such as “She’s in a better place” or “You’ll see him again in heaven.” Her response was enlightening. I will paraphrase:

  • A person dealing with the death of a loved one may feel little compulsion to be gracious, and this is understandable.
  • An important function of Grief Beyond Belief is to keep its members out of situations where that kind of graciousness is necessary.

As Rebecca’s answer sank in, I realized I had been viewing these hypothetical believer-nonbeliever conversations from the perspective of an activist or evangelist. It’s true that any conversation with a person of faith is an opportunity to help him or her on the path to a more reliable epistemology, but who says we have to leap at every opportunity, regardless of our feelings, needs, abilities, and circumstances? Expecting fellow nonbelievers to be perpetual ambassadors, always on duty, at the expense of their own well-being — well, that’s the kind of irrational values system that drove so many of us out of religion in the first place!

One more take-away: In her talk, Rebecca said that people tend to open up when they are asked to give details about the person they lost. That is not surprising, and it helps illuminate why statements — particularly fantasy-based statements, but really any kind — are so unhelpful for people experiencing grief: They are conversation stoppers. “She’s in a better place [and that’s that].” “You’ll see him again in heaven [so stop being sad].” Giving a bereaved person the floor — to talk, to cry, to be silent — seems much more compassionate than delivering a tired sound bite.

I admire Rebecca for starting and running Grief Beyond Belief, and I’m grateful for what I learned from her talk.

Impractical Christianity – Jesus can’t mean *that*

Several years ago, I was at a couples Bible study that my wife and I regularly attended. We were studying Matthew 5:38-42, part of the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus says:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. (NIV)

The question we were pondering was: ‘Does Jesus really expect us to act this way?’ Taken literally, the passage is a mandate to lay oneself open to as much abuse as another person is willing to dispense.

I offered this insight: “Jesus can’t be saying that we have to act this way toward everyone. It would be impractical. We would run out of shirts! I think he’s saying that we have to be willing to yield to another person this way if God asks us to.”

No one challenged me, but someone should have, because my interpretation of the passage rendered it meaningless. I mean, you could replace “yield to another person this way” with any action and it would be equally true for a Christian: “We have to be willing to eat glass fragments and wash them down with sulfuric acid if God asks us to.”

Unfortunately, that kind of watering-down is necessary (but not sufficient!) to reconcile such a passage with common sense. These alleged words of Jesus cannot be followed verbatim. That’s why no one does.

Stuff I used to believe, part 1: Wisdom and how to get it

As a Christian in my 30s, I heard my pastor preach one Sunday on how to receive wisdom.

He quoted James 1:5:

But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him. (NASB)

This is the understanding that I took away with me that day:

  • Wisdom means sound judgment and an ability to make good decisions.
  • If I ask God for wisdom, he’ll make me wise. If I don’t ask, I’ll remain unwise.
  • I won’t be able to make myself wise by learning from experience or developing my critical thinking skills. Only God has the power to make me wise.

Imagine my relief at not having to put any work into it. And image how wise I became once I started praying instead of learning.

A burden for the unsaved

As a Christian, I was generally willing to offend people to try to save them from hell. (Whether I was willing to be offended toward the same end is another matter!)

Now, having seen the light of reason, I’m in the position of wanting to save theists from unnecessary anxiety, toil, pain, and expense in this life.

My motives are as altruistic now as they were before. I continue to love people and want what is best for them.

UU diary, part 4: closing the loop

This follow-up post is long overdue. It’s been almost a year since I attended a delightful pot-luck dinner hosted by a very nice couple who are active members of the Unitarian-Universalist church I tried out in 2012 (and wrote about here, here, and here).

Eventually, most of the dinner guests left, and I was free to talk candidly with the church’s pastor, my hosts, and a few others. I told the pastor I would probably not be attending the UU church regularly. My explanation went something like this:

The UU church seems to be made up of two types: People who ‘still’ have some kind of supernatural belief and people who have lost all supernatural belief. The sermons, songs, and literature use some religious language, but it feels like lip service — like no one really thinks (for example) that a personal god is listening to the prayers that are said there.

It seems clear that people go to UU churches to shed or moderate whatever supernatural beliefs they grew up with, not to maintain supernatural beliefs and certainly not to acquire more of them. So religious terms and symbols seem disingenuous and even counterproductive for the typical UU church member’s journey.

Expanding now on what I said that day:

The UU church seems to use ‘holy stuff’ to draw believers the way Christian churches since the ’70s have been using ‘worldly stuff’ (e.g., religious pop music) to draw in unbelievers. In both cases, the church seems to expect new members to eventually outgrow their affinity for whatever bait drew them in.

Seemingly inclusive statements like “Unitarian Universalism offers diverse and meaningful ways of connecting with the sacred” may not be intentionally misleading, but they are still ambiguous. The word “sacred” has a starkly different meaning for a Baptist than for an atheist; thus, as used, it’s meaningless.

In the services I attended, prayers were addressed to “God of many names.” As an unbeliever, I objected to having a prayer in the first place. And I imagined that theists in the room objected (or should have) to language that left room for “God” to mean abstractions like “moral principles” or “the Cosmos” rather than a personal being like the creator/judge/redeemer of the New Testament. To try to please everyone in such a situation is naive.

I had hoped that the UU environment would be a good place for me, my wife, and my youngest son to explore what we believe and why, but the church’s rituals and artifacts indulge traditional belief in a way that feels condescending, and I found that too distracting.  (No personal gripe with any UU church leaders or members — on the contrary, I found everyone to be very kind.)

Berkeley’s parking racket

This is a parable in real life about the often-misplaced burden of proof concerning the existence of gods.

A few years ago, I got a parking citation notice from the City of Berkeley. It said my car had been parked on a residential street in Berkeley on a Tuesday morning during street sweeping hours. I had never parked my car on any street in Berkeley, ever. Clearly, there had been some kind of mistake.

I contested the citation in writing, saying that my car had never been parked in Berkeley, and further volunteering where it had been at the time the citation was written. My “request” was “denied” on the basis of insufficient evidence. This felt wrong to me, but I couldn’t articulate exactly why.

A short while later, I had an in-person hearing at the city’s offices. I asked my hearing officer, “How do I produce evidence that my car wasn’t in a given place at a given time?”

Missing the rhetorical nature of my question, she said, sympathetically, “Just do the best you can.” She then started suggesting ways that I might be able to show that my car had been somewhere else at the time the citation was written. I explained that I would not be able to recall, let alone prove, where my car had been at the time in question. Sometimes I drove to work; sometimes I parked at my son’s preschool, rode my kick scooter to the BART station, and took the train to work.

Eventually, I got a few preschool parents and staff members to provide written statements to the effect that they were accustomed to seeing my car in the preschool parking lot during work hours. That, apparently, was good enough for the hearing officer, and my citation was dismissed.

Happy ending, right? Wrong. To this day, I regret not insisting on a court hearing. Why? Because the city never met its burden of proof in the first place, and I missed my chance to call attention to that publicly. As I discovered after the dismissal of my citation, the notice had lacked two items of identifying information that the state vehicle code requires to confirm that the citing officer actually saw the vehicle in question.

I allowed a random city to make a random accusation against me with inadequate proof and then shift the burden of proof to me. I jumped through hoops to produce evidence to refute the accusation when I really should have forced the city to show its evidence first.

UU diary, episode 2

The “lecture” I thought I was going to at the UU church turned out to be the last session of a class, several weeks long, on the writings of James Luther Adams (pictured).

The pastor/instructor and the students graciously allowed me to stay and listen as they read their final assignments: essays they wrote in response to essays by Adams.

What a way to get familiar with a group of people: hearing them share their thoughts and feelings about a prominent Unitarian figure and his writings and the UU experience, plus in many cases stories of how they came to be part of this church family.

As I said in e-mail to the pastor, Lucas Hergert, the next day: “Thanks for letting me ‘audit’ the last session of your JLA class. It ended up being the perfect introduction to you and your community. Wow, what a smart, thoughtful, eloquent group.”


Giving UU a try

I recently heard about the Unitarian Universalist community (it feels weird to call it a church) and decided to look into it.

I’m planning to go to a lecture tonight at the UU church in Livermore. Seems like a good way to get a glimpse of the culture and environment.

At first glance, UU seems like:

  • A nice way for a ‘mixed’ couple — for example, a ‘humanist’ married to a ‘cultural Catholic’ — to have a traditional church experience together.
  • A non-threatening way for all family members to get a well-rounded religious education and to work through philosphical exploration and doubt.
  • A positive community to belong to.

I’m also intrigued by the fact that the UU ‘creed’ is a set of values (how we should treat each other, how we look for truth, etc.) rather than a set of beliefs (who made what, who was a virgin when, who killed whom, who rose from what, etc.). I’d rather ‘fellowship’ with people who share my appreciation for honest inquiry than with people who happen to have arrived at the same conclusions I have.

More to follow.

It’s the amount of thought that counts

The conclusion you arrive at is less important than how you got there.

When a believer who never gave it much thought becomes an atheist without giving it much thought, or vice versa, so what?

But that’s not what happened to me. I went from contemplative believer to contemplative atheist.

When I was a believer, I was really into it. I did mental gymnastics over the logic of Christianity because I needed confidence that I was believing the right thing, and I agonized over the moral implications of Christianity because my walk had to match my talk (it didn’t, and I really felt a lot of grief about it).

I did not reach an atheist conclusion arbitrarily or hastily. I coped with a strong cognitive dissonance (between faith and facts, and between ‘Bible morality’ and my real conscience) for about ten years, until it became too stressful. At that point, I started allowing myself to objectively consider all the information I could find, instead of looking for information to support a conclusion I had already chosen. I began following the evidence where it led.

My conclusions say something about me, but how I reached my conclusions says a lot more. I actually have more in common with a contemplative believer than I do with a non-contemplative atheist.