How Faitheist is Restoring my Faith in Atheist Writers

Atheism is one of those mindsets that I have had a hard time reading, despite my intention of opening myself up to multiple viewpoints on spirituality and religion. Even more surprising, it’s in spite of my lack of investment in the belief of a deity. I have come to think of myself as largely agnostic, believing in some things because I want to, not because I think they are definitely right, so atheism never struck me as a perspective that would bother me.

Atheists as people are fine for me. I have enjoyed getting to know many and have rarely encountered any whose atheism seemed problematic. They all have, mostly, been along the lines of Chris Stedman. And maybe I’ve just been lucky, but I choose to believe rather that there are more of him than not out there.

But atheist writers…damn if they don’t tend towards the same trends they claim to loathe. I’ve tried reading Richard Dawkins and stopped because I was just too revolted by his prejudice and too thrown off by the logical fallacies he commits in his quest to demonize all things religious.

I’ve made it through other books, like The Atheist’s Way, which were more tolerable and had some great moments, but I was still uncomfortable with how much the slippery slopes, broad generalizations, unbacked assumptions, and disdain for “other” resembled the fundamentalism which I left.

It’s actually kind of…funny, I guess, that the two camps would look at each other as the worst while being so damn similar, but I digress.

More recently, I decided to give it another go. I wanted to have at least one book by an atheist author that I didn’t want to burn along with my theology books from the IFB.

Enter Faitheist.

It’s more of a memoir than anything, and much of it covers the coming out journey of the author. (And full disclosure, I haven’t finished it yet. I have maybe a fourth left to read).

But it’s a beautiful book—perhaps not in spite of being a coming out memoir, but because of it.

Stedman values story-telling and didn’t set out to write a philosophy book, though there’s plenty of philosophy peppered throughout his story. He carefully details his own conversion and deconversion process and the struggles of realizing he’s gay while being part of a tradition that taught that gay is a hell-bent identity.

His loss of faith is poignant, something I can deeply relate to. His search for a reason to keep believing equally so. His subsequent disillusionment and anger towards Christianity is, well, pretty damn familiar.

But what makes this book stand out to me is that he doesn’t stay in that place. He realizes that his hatred of Christianity (and religion, in general) is reliant on stereotypes and caricatures of the worst sides of religion, missing the incredible complexity of belief and meaning-making that exists within any given path. He also recognizes the way that certain sections of the atheist community resemble the close-mindedness of religious zealots.

In other words, he is able to look at what he dislikes about the other and recognize its presence within himself.

His story of atheism is a personal one. He recognizes that it’s right for him right now but that it isn’t necessarily right for others. He recognizes that people who aren’t atheist are able to be good, even intelligent people and that they can have common goals towards which to work.

His goal isn’t to eradicate religion, as Dawkins and that ilk would want, but to work towards eradicating injustice and building bridges of commonality.

Some of the criticism of the book has expressed doubts about whether he’s a “true” atheist and suspicions that he will become religious or spiritual again. Ultimately, I don’t think it matters what he believes down the road. There’s always a chance that each of us will change our minds/beliefs for any number of reasons. But throughout the book, I can see his atheism grow into the atheism of someone who doesn’t need to believe in a God and, thus, doesn’t need to debunk other’s beliefs, which makes me suspect that his atheism has a better chance of being lifelong and genuine if he’s not holding to it in opposition, anger, and fear of religion.

I would love for others to read this book. His journey is one that we can all learn from, regardless of what path we ultimately choose to walk.


The Little Woman that Could

Representation matters.

We hear that phrase tossed around, but how often do we actually think about what it means?

I’ve been wrestling with this concept this week a lot. As a fresh graduate opening my own practice, I’m having to think about my skills and abilities and the risks that I can afford to take in a way that I haven’t ever had to do before.

From an objective standpoint, I’m ready and more than capable. I manage the finances in my personal life and work part time as an assistant to a bookkeeper for a small business. I have that exposure. I’m organized to a fault. I think ahead. I have sought out advice, some freely given, some paid for. I have built a solid financial and practical foundation for myself.

I’m going into a field that is in high demand in my area. Counselors literally can’t keep up with the number of people seeking services. I have a guaranteed flow of clients sooner or later.

I have the necessary skills for my field. I excelled both in my “book learning” as well as the practical application portion of my training. As a student, I was involved in conferences and presentations that most don’t begin to pursue until well into their post-graduate careers, and my supervisors have all predicted that I will do well in my field (and I have to fight with myself to acknowledge that because it feels “arrogant” to write).


Representation matters.

Growing up, I heard my mom downplay her intellectual skills. I watched her choose to work out of the home from financial necessity but never pursuing a career.

I took in the lessons about how women were supposed to be the homemakers and men the breadwinners. I learned that a college education for a woman was more about having an income option to fall back on, but should be something that wouldn’t outshine the husband (the finding of one was also a primary reason for college).

My brother, who struggled in the school things at which I excelled, defensively taunted me about being “book smart” but not “street smart.”

I learned to think of myself as a naïve dreamer who wouldn’t survive out in the world on my own because that’s how he saw me.

I learned to think of myself as incompetent and horribly dependent because that’s how he saw me.

In college, before I left the cult, I was pressured to learn violin pedagogy because, like my mom before me, teaching music to young children out of the home was the best marketable skill I was told I had. Meanwhile, my desire to pursue writing was deemed impractical. When I initially expressed that I didn’t want to get married, people tut-tutted about how I would provide for myself.

Graduate school wasn’t something I saw the women around me pursuing. Careers were things for men.

So now, as I dive into my future, learning to see myself as a professional woman with a career—a self-employed woman, no less—I realize that the strongest image I have of myself when I think about this next step is that of the naïve, incompetent, book-smart not street-smart child who has no hope of making it in the world on her own.

I feel guilty for putting money into setting up a practice (it’s extravagant and impractical!), nervous that I’ll fail miserably (maybe careers really aren’t for people like me!).

I can talk myself into seeing my competencies, preparation, and skill…most of the time. But it takes effort. My default is the image I was taught to see of myself—of women’s potential—as a child.

Which is why I’m determined to push through these doubts and take the chance of trusting the foundation I have laid between my education and my “worldly” experience. I drown out the doubts the way Thomas the Train climbed the hill: “I think I can. I think I can. I think I can.”

Eventually, maybe I’ll see myself in a different light without so much effort.

And I hope that one day another little girl will be able to look around and see a rainbow of examples of women doing the things that I was taught they don’t do. Maybe one day I might be one of the Jenga pieces that topples the limited tower in which girls are kept because I dared to remove myself from that tower.

Representation matters.

Finding the People Who Fuel my Passion

I’ve spent the past week at a couple of conferences. One of the conferences is still underway, so I’m going to keep my post short this week. Both conferences have been wonderfully stimulating, spurring me to rekindle my love for the work (not just professional) I try to do in the world. One of the recurrent themes has been around finding one’s “people” and building strong support networks.

It’s true that it’s important to surround yourself with people who help to keep you fueled and passionate, and at these conferences I certainly felt and feel surrounded by those kinds of people.

But the interesting thing to me is that the people who feel like “my people” aren’t just those who would agree with my values. Rather, the people who make me feel truly stimulated, excited to do my work, and engaged with myself and the world around me are the ones who prompt me to think more deeply about an issue than I had previously thought.

Sometimes that comes through agreement that prefaces a deeper exploration (I call this the “yes, and” response), but sometimes it comes through a disagreement that invites curiosity.

Those are the kinds of people I want to surround myself with.

Not the ones who will pat me on the back about how right I am or stomp their feet in the solidarity of groupthink but the ones who lean into controversy and doubt with the faith that it’s worthwhile to struggle and question and who don’t see disagreement as the end of the discussion but as the beginning of a mutual exploration.

“My people” don’t necessarily think like me; they help me think. It’s an important distinction for me.

Surviving 1984: Unpacking the Language

Okay, I’m returning to Lifton’s criteria for identifying totalism (previous posts can be found here and here) and want to talk about the role of language in totalistic situations. If you’re familiar with my blog or know me, you probably know how much I love language and words. I think language, in some ways, is one of the closest things we have to magic. By taking sounds and stringing them together, we have developed a way of communicating our private thoughts and experiences to others. Wow! Right?

Language is so so so so important to any society. Language, in a sense, grants existence to something. If you have a word for it, you can talk about it, understand yours and other’s experience around it (to an extent if not fully)…and you notice it in the broader world. That’s why language can be important for marginalized people.

Language can be very personal, but it’s also generally shared. Without the sharing of meaning, the sounds make no sense. It’s through the consensus of a group deciding that such-and-such means a certain thing that language is born.

Now, in loading the language, Lifton is talking about the way that a group of people, be it a government, organization, or family, will begin to use language in a specialized manner unique to them. They might have a slightly different connotation for a word from the broader society or they might have specialized words that only exist within their culture.

That alone, is not necessarily indicative of totalistic influence. Every group will have a tendency to have a sort of specialized private language. On a large level, dialects can be seen as a regional example of how a language (like English) can be vastly different in one area like Scotland from how it is in a different area like the midwest of the United States.

However, there are examples of less location-bound groups as well. If you pick up a journal on neurobiology, you’ll instantly see this specialization before your eyes. Unless you are well-versed in the language used, much of the writing may seem incomprehensible to you.

However, if you know the specialized language, that gibberish will turn into something meaningful.

Sometimes specialized language results from the natural evolution of culture, e.g. dialects. Other times, specialized language becomes a kind of shorthand which can convey ideas faster than spelling them out in simpler terms, e.g. scientific terms. The benefit is the swiftness of communication amongst the members of the group; the cost is that outsiders have a harder time understanding.

So, every group does this to an extent. When does it become a problem?

I’d say it relates to the use.

When you pick up a scientific journal, you might see something that seems like gibberish to someone inexperienced in the ideas, but generally the purpose is not to confuse or stunt critical thinking. Rather, it’s an attempt to create an efficient flow of ideas to further the exploration of the topic.

Sometimes though, specialized or loaded language can serve the opposite function—phrases or words can become a means of separating one from outsiders. It can become a way of shutting down conversation, stopping the exchange of information, or halting critical thinking.

That’s when it becomes dangerous.

Sound bites and slogans become the rallying cry of a group but fail to take the idea beyond the surface. The complexity of dialogue is reduced to a single phrase that, rather than encouraging a deeper exploration of an issue, instead serves as a sort of e-break to the discussion.

Once loading the language begins and is accepted as part of a group’s culture, there’s a distinct feeling that continuing the conversation beyond the acceptable phrases and stunted thoughts would be an unthinkable act, one followed quickly by shame (How could you think that?!) or accusations of betrayal (I thought you were one of us!). Questioning becomes anathema because the language suggests that the “truth” is obvious and only the dumbest or most horrible human being would think otherwise.

If this is sounding familiar to a group that you are involved in, what do you do?

Well, part of this is going to tie directly into the milieu control that I wrote about earlier. Loaded language is one way of controlling thoughts and information, so an important antidote is to begin exposing yourself to alternative sources of information.

But you can also begin digging deeper into the language itself. If the group has not entirely wedded itself to the idea of using language as a means of control, it may be possible to dig deeper with others, but you may also find that (like fighting the milieu control) you have to do it somewhat secretly. It’s at least worth testing the waters. Instead of accepting a standard cliché, ask questions. Pay attention to the way that phrases are used. If there’s a consistent pattern in which answers are trite and used to deaden the conversation, that tells you a lot about the role of words and phrases within the group.

Try questioning what an outsider’s perspective might be.

What alternative meanings might someone else have for a phrase or word? Why might they hold that alternative meaning?

If you encountered someone who didn’t share your group’s specialized terms, would you be able to talk them through what you meant…or even have a conversation about the concept without the specialized terms?

If someone doesn’t automatically accept the “truth” encapsulated in your sound bite, are you able to take the conversation deeper and talk about where you both differ in perspective in a reasonable way that doesn’t assume “I’m right; you’re wrong” or pressure the questioner to end up agreeing with you in the end?

If all you can do is return to the original idea, circling around it like a moth at a light, you might not have fully fleshed out the meaning of the concept or your own position within it. More than likely, it’s serving as a security blanket, curbing the doubts or stopping the conversation from proceeding into unstable territory.

If you find that to be the case, expanding your exposure to the concept and different perspectives on that concept might be in order. Very rarely will you encounter a single way of conceptualizing something outside of totalism.

The more blasphemous or unthinkable this seems to the group, the more likely loaded language is being used in a totalistic method. The more that the complexity of human existence is boiled down into absolutes captured within the span of a sentence or two, the more likely the language is being used to deny rather than enhance critical thinking.

However, one who is well-versed in the loaded language also has the opportunity of using it to subvert the control as well. In some ways, if you cannot get out of the totalistic environment, becoming adept at playing a game with the language to undermine the thought-stopping simplicity can be one way of asserting your own individuality and keeping your mind from becoming dulled. (My partner is the one who taught me this strategy. In the cult, he was remarkably adept at using the language in such a way that it questioned the assumptions around doctrine rather than supporting the thought-stopping.)

Of course, that comes with its own risks, for language, as the vehicle for ideas, is a dangerous tool. Totalistic environments cannot afford to lose control of the use of language.

Nevertheless, just as Lifton asserts that the milieu cannot be perfectly controlled to prevent doubts from arising within an individual, I do not think that loaded language can entirely prevent one’s own personal evolution. Language evolves because individuals make changes. We see the power of personal creation whenever someone coins a word.

Without the general acceptance of that word, it will not be adopted into the language of a group, with a shared meaning among the members, which means that a personal unpacking of language requires the courage to truly question the very foundations of one’s beliefs and a willingness to reject the comfort and belonging that comes with participating in loaded language. However, such an approach can transform the inner world of the individual and the relationship of the individual to the outer world.

Once again, if you are interested in reading more about totalistic control, check out Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism by Robert Lifton. George Orwell’s 1984, which inspires the title of this series, is a good example of much of what Lifton talks about. 

A Different Kind of Privilege Conversation

Good morning, lovely readers!

Today I want to talk about something that has been on my mind following a thought-provoking interaction with a friend.

A small group (including me and this friend) were prepping for a thing—the thing is not important in the context of the story aside from the fact that we were working on it together and made our way over to a discussion of privilege in the process.

But not the kind of discussion that you might typically see, where people “confess” which privileges they have and vow to stop using their privileges as though privilege were a sin.

Instead we started imagining that privileges could be purchased through a special, imaginary catalog, exploring which ones we each might choose to have if we could buy anything out of this catalog.

Most of the responses were pretty typical; I didn’t even have to think about mine before blurting out “visibility.” When it came time for my friend to go, he hesitated and pondered for a bit before expressing that this would seem off to some of us because of his being straight, white, and a cisman, but he expressed that the privilege that he really wanted was the sense of connection and belonging to a culture or identity like he saw with some of us.

The answer took me aback, but not because I have come to expect that socially conscious men acknowledge that they have “nothing but privilege” (not necessarily something I support, but a common enough reaction to privilege questions). Rather, it took me aback because of the intense longing I actually felt when he said that.

He pointed out to me something I didn’t even realize I had…which makes sense because you are typically blind to your privilege until you’re made aware of it, right? Right. Suddenly all those times that I had scoffed at people who said “Well when’s international men’s day?” or “We need a straight pride parade”—those times began to take on a different light.

Later, as he and I talked more, I began to realize that there isn’t really a positive identity towards which someone like him could turn.

As a woman, I can turn away from sexist characterizations of myself and draw on the beautiful feminist, body-positive, sex-positive, goddess spirituality that I have come to love. As a bi person, I can connect with the Queer community or specific bi groups where I can openly celebrate my identity, taking pride in my sexual orientation. Hell, I’ve even written posts about it.

I have long thought that it is important for marginalized individuals to find ways of celebrating and loving their marginalized parts so that the whole of their interaction with those parts isn’t just fighting against prejudice or discrimination.

But I literally never thought about people like my friend and how they are expected to disown, distance, or divorce themselves from the identity of oppressor but have no alternative positive version of the identity to seek. All the “pride” groups for privileged identities are associated with vitriolic hatred and intolerance. If someone says they have white pride—the context basically means they are a white supremacist. If someone says they have straight pride—the connotation is that they’re homophobic.

But “pride” in that context is more about the way that it is used to mask intolerance, hatred, and superiority complexes. It’s so far from the definition and connotation of pride used in the context of marginalized identities that it’s barely the same word.

When I express pride in being bi, I definitely don’t mean that I think I’m superior to straight people or that I want to strip them of human rights. When I express pride in my feminine side, I’m not harboring hatred towards men.

I’m not trying to say that we need to reclaim the “pride” word. Rather, I’m thinking more about the possibility for…shall we call it healthy self-esteem and sense of belonging?

I want men to have a positive masculinity to gravitate towards. I want them to have ways of relating to their gender that isn’t rooted in shame (if they’re conscious enough to see women’s issues), neutrality (probably the most positive of what I see available currently), or hypermasculinity and arrogance.

I think it’s necessary, in fact. Because becoming interested in social justice shouldn’t carry the idea that you have to forever be ashamed of who you are and disconnected from a sense of dignity. My friend later expressed to me that he was extremely nervous, and I could see that in other contexts, he might have been raked across the coals without anyone bothering to try to understand where he was coming from.

In another context, I might have been the one laughing about fragile masculinity.

So what am I saying? I know I’ve rambled a lot in this post. I guess the thing that has been weighing on my mind is really that we need to do better at understanding that having privilege doesn’t mean that people don’t have a similar desire to belong and feel good about themselves—that that desire is not bad. It’s just a function of being human. We literally all have it. And social justice is a hobbled movement if we’re asking people to “wake up” but not offering alternatives of ways they can achieve those needs without resorting to harmful power structures.



The Mind and Heart Should Get Married (Not Divorced)

The Western world has an unfortunate habit of splitting things into opposing dichotomies: the mind/body, masculine/feminine, rational/emotional, etc.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the source of wisdom and a similarly ineffective dichotomy between whether people believe that external education or intuition reigns.

In general, I tend to find the favor towards external information residing in the rational camp. Atheists, scientists, and people who value masculine-ish traits often express a value for that which comes from outside oneself. Decisions are made from logical criteria. Knowledge consists of what is testable and provable.

On the other hand, the emotional camp tends to value intuition. This is where I tend to find the spiritual, some types of philosophical/psychological thinkers, and those who value feminine-ish traits expressing appreciation for knowledge coming from within. Decisions are made based on gut instincts. Knowledge consists of introspection and is often individual and ambiguous.

As a typical Gemini, I find myself gravitating to a certain extent to both sides but chafing at the idea of having to choose one. I have come to trust my intuition. I’ve made some of my most important life decisions based on intuitive knowledge. Yet, I see the importance of gathering information, weighing the pros and cons, and seeking evidence.

I don’t necessarily think being a Gemini makes me unique in using both my intuition and my intellect as a source of wisdom. I just think perhaps I’m more likely to recognize that I use both and value both.

In fact, they have to work together to be strongest.

Babette Rothschild was the first person who planted this seed in my head with her book The Body Remembers. At one point, she mentioned that there is evidence to suggest that people can’t think rationally without emotions. The thought struck a deep chord within me.

Fred Kofman writes a fairly simple explanation of how this works over here, explaining that without the emotional undertones, people have a hard time developing enough of a preference or emotional charge to actually make their choices. Looking at the pros and cons, even as a “rational” model of decision-making, is endless and worthless without emotional input.

On a similar level, I would suggest that if a person divorces their own emotions and intuition from the decision-making process, they have no internal compass. Part of the ways that I’ve come to understand how cults work—how they can convince people to do unhealthy, bizarre, or illegal things—comes from the way they divorce the individual from what Robert Lifton deems their “reality testing” abilities through methods such as confusion, emotional manipulation, loading the language, etc (check out his book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism for more information about this).

On the emotional/intuitive end, a similar thing is true. As Kofman points out in the article linked above, strong emotions can overwhelm to the point of losing reason. We’re all probably familiar with a person who has made a horrible decision because of their emotions clouding out their ability to think.

But on a deeper level, it’s important to recognize that intuition is as much experience-based as it is biological or subconscious. Without input from the outside world, the inner world is devoid. An intuitive choice is heavily influenced by experience from the past, knowledge acquired previously, and current input that one may not be entirely conscious of at the moment.

In other words, intuition is only as strong as the experiences and knowledge that have built it up. I can trust my intuition about whether I would be happy and successful in a job (even though the pros/cons list might seem in favor of a different choice) because I’ve had enough previous experience to know what a bad fit feels like and have gathered enough conscious and subconscious information about the current option.

I’ve also taken the time to get to know my intuition and what my pitfalls might be. I know that I’m more likely to trust people I shouldn’t trust if I make a connection with them when I’m tipsy. I know that even well-intentioned people can set off my internal alarm if they touch my arm without permission.

But my intuition is still growing. It grows the more that I exercise it. It grows when I make a mistake and learn through failure. It grows when I gather new intellectual information and practice allowing it to work with my left brain.

I have come to believe that the true key to wisdom is recognizing that both emotions and logic have an important role to play—that gathering external information and testing hypotheses is just as important as listening to your own internal guidance and learning from introspection.

Too much rationality, and you get someone devoid of making a healthy decision because they either can’t gauge their own relationship with the choice or can’t understand the impact it might have on others. The loss of empathy is often also a loss of connection to one’s own emotions.

Too much emotionality, on the other hand, and you get a person buffeted about by whims and impulses of the moment, unable to think long-term, or overwhelmed beyond reason.

It is in the balance of the two that you find wisdom and true knowledge.

The Lessons I Learned: A Graduation Post

This weekend is my graduation weekend. As I look back over the last several years in grad school, I can’t help but be amazed at how much this experience has transformed me. As I celebrate how far I’ve come, I have been thinking about some of the lessons that I’ve learned along the way.

  1. Excellence is not about perfection; rather, it is about wholeheartedness, open-mindedness, creativity, and passion. I couldn’t hold onto my perfectionism and survive the demanding pace of graduate school, but I could throw myself exuberantly into everything I did and work passionately on it while I had the time, letting go when it was “done enough.” The last three years taught me how to dive in deep without drowning in the details, how to create quality work by accepting my own limitations.
  2. Self-care is vital. It’s the fuel to the flame of life, and I have a responsibility to honor my own needs, physically and emotionally. But it’s not a solo effort. It’s a collective one. I need to surround myself with people who also value and honor my wellness and the things required for me to maintain it. A focus on radical self-care is not something I can afford to lose, nor is it something I can carry out on my own.
  3. Success is just as scary, if not more so, than failure sometimes. It take courage to step boldly into possibility, and when I don’t fall flat on my face right off the bat, it takes even more courage to keep stepping into possibility. Sometimes I get frustrated with myself over how scared I can be, but what I fail to realize in those moments is that I keep moving forward despite my fear. I’m learning to respect the courage I find to pursue my dreams.
  4. I am more capable than I think I am. It’s so easy for me to doubt my own abilities—to listen to the doubt of others as well as my own insecurities. I have had to learn how to respect my own limitations, as I mentioned above, but I have also had to learn that I have more to offer than I have previously learned to think I do.
  5. Lastly, grad school has been transformative in helping me learn what it feels like to be part of a healthy organization. All of the skills and knowledge I gained pale in comparison to the experience of building stable attachments with mentors, teachers, and peers within an institution that values autonomy, critical thinking, individuality, and wellness.
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Quote from Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carol