Thursday, May 17, 2007

Feeling a Little Bit Safer

When I was a kid, the word homosexual was not uttered around my house. I asked my mother what a homosexual was once. Her response was, “Where did you learn a word like that?” Later, when I asked my father, he said, “Those are the people who hang out in the bathrooms of the Greyhound Bus Station.” I went into the closet and slammed the door.

At the same time, I picked up a desire to please, probably stemming from being the child of an alcoholic, although I don’t want to lay that kind of responsibility on my father, who was a far more decent man than the two facts I’ve just revealed about him would suggest. In any case, I got it from somewhere.

Two beliefs, one that homosexuality was unspeakable and another that it’s important for people to like you, found their way into my psyche at a young age and formed a nearly deadly cocktail. I nurtured a firm conviction I was an unloveable misformed creature.

Imagine my surprise, when for the very first time at the age of 27 I fell in love with somebody who returned the feelings. All those years of self-loathing gave way to the conviction that I might have been wrong, and life might well be turning around.

And then, as so often happens with immature love, when you are not clear on who you are and where you are going with your feelings, the love affair fell apart.

I nearly fell apart. Because I had built up such an intense self-loathing, the hope of things to come was equally intense. And so was the crash of Stage 3. I became suicidal.

Because I was in San Francisco by this time and help was available, I got through this challenge. “Are you involved with alcohol or drugs or homosexuality?” the clerk at the clinic asked me. “You don’t have to tell me which one.”

Yes, I said, and I began therapy. I had one session with a shrink. “You know what your problem is?” he said to me. “You’re like anybody else who gets depressed – and who doesn’t? – you believe that this time and this place is all there is. You haven’t learned yet that only one thing in life is certain, and that’s change. (There will always be a special place in my heart for Buddhists.) All you have to do is learn to hold on tight and let this thing pass, and you’ll be all right. Life will give you the experience to put this in perspective and you'll see that you're not a bad person.”

At the time I thought the guy was certifiable. Certainly not a serious shrink. Shrinks, I had learned from the movies, sat and let you talk. They didn’t hit you with advice at the very first meeting.

I was in the right place to take his advice in, however. I like to think he sensed that, but I’ll never know. No matter. I escaped some potentially serious consequences. He put me into a group where I soon discovered the world was full of some wretched people indeed, dangerous to themselves and others, and it motivated me to take my “problem” seriously.

I consider that a near-death experience. No different, actually, than feeling the breeze of a bus that missed you by mere inches. I was lucky and for a while there I believed in guardian angels.

There seems to be no telling who is going to ride out such challenges and who is going to succumb. I survived. My friend Merrill succumbed. Merrill never quite got the message that things can change and experience can build the confidence to shed the Falwell influences (in his case, it was the Mormon Church.)

My friend Bill has worked at a suicide prevention center. Others, too, have told me over the years of countless people in agony and their close shaves. Some people never face such challenges and know little or nothing of the darkness than can eat the soul. Others seem to be blessed with the gift of being able to let it all roll off their back. It seems almost random, which people swallow the Jerry Falwell pill of self-loathing, and which spot him as the last man on earth to take seriously.

It’s easy to say we should each take responsibility for our own decisions, that nobody, not the Falwells of the world or anybody else should be blamed for our actions. Unfortunately, that isn’t the way things work. There are lots of people sitting in despair. And no shortage of Falwells, ever ready to provide them with the tools to push them into the abyss.

Suicide is not the whole story. On a daily basis we hear of 3300 American deaths in Iraq and counting, and the death figures strike me as obscene information in the way they mask far greater misery. Just as TV news shows warehouse fires because they are photographable, TV news gives death figures because they carry the greatest shock value. The story that gets buried is of the tens of thousands of men and women with lost limbs and shattered psyches –– to say nothing of the misery of millions of Iraqis forced into refugee camps, Iraqis denied hospital care, Iraqis denied education. The gay suicide figures, similarly, mask the misery that gays still suffer who don’t come with built-in defence mechanisms.

If the religious right actually read their Bible, they might notice that Christ's chief focus was poor people. They might come across the Beatitudes. Instead, they have zeroed in for some strange reason on non-vanilla sexuality as sin. That would be nothing more than silly folly if only they kept it to themselves. Since it's not their style, I suggest we just put up a sign that Christian bigots are not welcome, and maybe scatter a little salt when they show up on your doorstep. Grow a consciousness that bad ideas can do harm. Listen to your bullshit detectors when they wail and leave the church building and never come back.

Unfortunately, it's easier said than done. The world is still filled with vulnerable kids who don’t see the power to be free lies in their hands. They sit teetering on the precipice of self-loathing. And sometimes a Falwell comes along and nudges them over.

Well, now there is one less Falwell. And today, the New York Times carried the story of a shelter in Detroit where throwaway gay kids can feel safe. Note the links to further studies, including the one in the American Journal of Public Health, Vol. 92, No. 5 (May 2002)

That’s two bits of good news, two days in a row.

Sometimes life ain’t too bad.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead

Speak ill of the dead and you come across as a lout.

So be it. Jerry Falwell has passed on to his reward and the world has become a better place. Maybe only for a moment. The king of toxic religion in America is gone, and others will doubtless pop up to replace him, but that hardly means we need to pass up a chance for champagne.

Jerry Falwell worked hard to make life miserable for lots of people, gays in particular, and there will be no shortage of folk looking to dance on his grave. As soon as I’ve said my piece here, I’m out shopping for dancing shoes.

He could not have done the harm he pulled off alone. He needed, and got, lots of enablers. John McCain, I’m thinking of you. Where once you identified Falwell accurately as an “agent of intolerance,” more recently you sold your last ounce of integrity to give a commencement speech at his Bigotry U.

Newt Gingrich, you leading candidate for national adulterer and hypocrite-in-chief, you’re due to follow suit a few days from now. Piss on both of you.

In the end, the case can be made that Falwell was making such an ass of himself that he was actually more providing entertainment than doing harm. He did often come across a character more to be pitied than scorned. He pulled advertisers away from Ellen when she came out as a lesbian, but she went on to ride the blowback to tremendous popularity. His Teletubby incident, where he identified the purple character as gay, became a national joke. He and Pat Robertson together make you think if there is a god he has a fantastic sense of humor.

Those of you forming a club to explain his antics away as cultural conditioning can count me out, however. Lots of people who grow up poor do not become criminals and lots of people who grow up white do not become racists and lots of people who grow up religious don’t hit people with their bibles.

I know he recanted many of his worst “misstatements.” He went on record as being against desegregation, referred to the Civil Rights movement as the “Civil Wrongs Movement,” spoke in favor of the apartheid regime and referred to Desmond Tutu as a phoney, but then changed his mind as the cultural values shifted and as he entered the mainstream where those ideas were unpopular. And we are reminded that forgiveness is divine.

But before you run too far with sympathy for this guy, consider just a couple of other bits of Falwell’s legacy:

• In 1994 he promoted the Clinton Chronicles, a film alleging drug running, murder and other serious crimes by Bill Clinton, later totally discredited. Part of the film included an interview with a silhouetted journalist. Word got out that the journalist was in fact Patrick Matrisciana, the producer of the video. Matrisciana admitted, “That was Jerry (Falwell)'s idea to do that ... He thought that would be dramatic."
• Just after 9/11 he and Pat Robertson blamed the tragedy on “pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians (among others such as the ACLU).” He later apologized, but then nullified the apology by reminding us that Proverbs 14:23 says 'living by God's principles promotes a nation to greatness, violating those principles brings a nation to shame.’
• He spoke out in favor of eliminating public schools in America and turning them over to fundamentalist Christians to run.
• He repeatedly blamed and scapegoated the victims of AIDS for their own disease, long after it became evident that it was a disease of poverty, not homosexuality.
• He stood behind the harsh policy of Israeli clampdowns on Palestinian resistance to occupation, all on the grounds of biblical prophecy.

Good conservatives, when their head is in the right place, are folk who hold tight to the good aspects of culture and society, religion and politics. Falwell was one of the other kind, the kind that starts with the anti-humanist stance and holds on for dear life until forced to change. He died before the tide turned entirely against homophobia, and for that reason I cannot drum up the sympathy others might for this man’s passing.

He’s gone. And I hear the Munchkins singing.

Matrisciana “That was Jerry’s idea…” : ;

Falwell’s 9/11 blame on gays and others:

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Presidential Material

Do you believe…

1. Jesus Christ came to America;
2. He and his father, God, both appeared as two men in the flesh to Joseph Smith in 1820;
3. They then sent the angel Moroni, three years later, with some gold tablets written in “reformed Egyptian” which Joseph Smith translated by looking into his hat, creating the Book of Mormon;
4. On May 15, 1829, John the Baptist conferred the Aaronic Priesthood on Joseph Smith;
5. The Garden of Eden was in Missouri;
6. Adam was actually God;
7. The American Indians are descendants of ancient Hebrews who came across the Pacific in two waves, the first in 2250 B.C., the second in 600 B.C.;
8. They were cursed with black skin because of their evil deeds;
9. God speaks through his prophets, the presidents of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which is the only true church; all other Christian churches are in error and the Book of Mormon was given to correct the errors of the Bible;
10. There are many gods; all men become gods?

If so, you are a Mormon.

Do you believe all the above is a load of hooey, but

11. Christ was born to a virgin who herself was born “immaculately” (i.e., without inheriting the sin of Adam);
12. The Bishop of Rome has the authority to speak for all other Christian bishops, and when he does so “ex cathedra” (i.e., “intending to demand irrevocable assent from all believers”) he must be believed because he is infallible?

Then you are a Roman Catholic.

Do you believe not only are 1-10 a load of hooey, but 11-12, as well, but

13. Jesus Christ walked on water;
14. Jesus Christ brought Lazarus back from the dead;
15. You will some day rise into heaven not merely in the spirit, but in the flesh as well?

Then you are a fundamentalist Christian.

Do you believe that 1-15 are a load of hooey and are you willing to say so publicly?

Then you will never be president of the United States of America.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007


Atheists, in my experience, are colossal bores.

What else could they be, stomping around as they do, passionately trying to prove a negative?

But sometimes atheists are on the side of the angels. I think the current boom in atheism is a response to the crap spread across the land by the born-agains and their campaign to run the world on the principle of erotophobia. Like their counterparts in the Islamic world, the man sitting up in the pilot seat of this juggernaut may talk loftily about the will of God, but where the rubber meets the road it tends to flatten the good, the true, the imaginative, and the just plain terribly interesting. Religion, as it has come to be understood of late, is an ugly thing. It’s not surprising the atheists should now be riding high. Newton’s Third Law of Motion, don’t you know: "For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction."

Some weeks ago I attended a conference which brought a number of Germans over to talk about religion in America. Totally fascinating couple of days. I tend to think of Europe as pretty much beyond religion, but these guys set me straight. The keynote speaker was Karsten Voigt, a leader of the German Social Democrat Party, Coordinator for German-American Relations in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and self-identified Christian. Knows America like de Toqueville knew America.

Voigt made some interesting comparisons. Unlike in France, where a strongly assertive laïcité (secularism) is official policy, Germans have no trouble mixing church and state. On the contrary, they long ago gave the church to the state to run. The result is establishment religion in Germany (and there’s not much of the other kind) is terribly bourgeois. It’s all about being nice. Makes me think of the Lutheran church where I grew up. Nice clean red carpet running down the middle, beautiful polished oak pews, fresh white painted walls and fresh cut flowers. And Bach. Glorious Bach. How could one ever think of going to a church which didn’t feature Bach?

But I digress. Religion, says Voigt, is to Germans, more than anything else, the source of their ethics. It’s about helping people in need, about doing your best to educate your children and care for the sick. It has little or nothing to do with keeping women from having abortions or gay people from forming lifelong unions with the full support of the community. With religion like this, there is nothing to fear, and even people who don’t believe in God are willing to pay their church taxes. You can even have prayer breakfasts. Did you know German political leaders did that?

To German eyes, says Voigt, this demand that religion be kept out of the schools that France calls sacred and America fights endlessly over, is hard to fathom. Cool it, folks. No big deal, the Germans tend to say. Crucifix on the wall in Bavaria? “Just two of us Jews at school,” says Michael Brenner, professor of Jewish history at the University of Munich, “Me and the guy hanging on the cross.”

Ah, yes. So easy to say. In 1968, 64% of American teenagers believed in angels. In 1994 that figure was 76%. One assumes anyone buying into angels is buying into a larger package and it doesn’t take long to realize when George Bush says God guides his actions there are a lot of folk who might want to give him the benefit of the doubt. Is it any wonder the atheists are coming out of the woodwork?

Start with Richard Dawkins. He’s the best one to listen to. Talks like your classic British intellectual. Witty and sharp. I heard him address a small private women’s college in Lynchburg, Virginia (on one of those New York TV stations that bring you gems like this, now on YouTube). A whole bunch of folk from Jerry Falwell’s so-called Liberty University were there to refute his ideas. It was a bloodbath, revealing how unready such poor lambs are to talk with people who have sharpened their skills in a lifetime of debate and critical thinking.

“I have never been so insulted…” says one poor Falwell innocent. “I don’t understand why you should feel insulted,” says Dawkins. “I didn’t insult you. I insulted God.”

America’s most articulate atheist, I think, is probably Sam Harris. He’s got two great reads: The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation.

And then there’s Daniel C. Dennett. His latest is Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.

There’s also this guy David Mills, who has been described as America’s leading atheist. I had not heard of him until recently. Author of the best selling book on atheism in 2005 and 2006, apparently — outselling Dawkins and Dennett and the others. Or so I understand. Can’t imagine why. Mills comes across as a jerk in an hour-long video I watched yesterday of him addressing a group of atheists at Ohio State in Columbus. Dawkins, Harris and Dennett do it with the power of ideas; Mills does it with a baseball bat. You have to pick your atheists carefully.

Bill Moyers, bless his Baptist heart, had his first regular new old program on PBS the other night. (Time to start watching television; Bill Moyers is back!) Three fantastic stories including one interview with Jonathan Miller, who produced A History of Disbelief. It’s not scheduled yet for KQED, but they say it’s coming. The fundies are out in force trying to keep it off, of course.

Miller is my kind of atheist, which is to say not an atheist at all. Unlike so many of us, he was spared religious instruction as a child. (As a shrink told me some years ago, I might have gotten rid of the golden calf of religion, but the mold it came in is still rooted in my soul.) For him it’s more the intellectual question: why do so many people need religion? Which opens the door to all the psychological studies, from Freud’s explanation that religion is an endless father-seeking activity to religion from an evolutionary perspective, such as Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained.

Christopher Hutchins is on one of his seemingly endless book-pushing trips, this time for God is Not Great, which came out just a week ago. I’ve got tickets to hear him debate the dean of Grace Cathedral on the 23rd.

There’s this French philosopher, Michel Onfray, who has apparently got a huge following. Onfray, I understand (haven’t read his Atheist Manifesto yet) is making the argument it’s time to get out of the “God is dead” rut and bring him back to life, so that we might offer a more perfect atheism, one better grounded in reason, “solid and militant.”

OK by me. Whatever gets you through the night. And lest you think I’m making it up that atheism is the fashion of the day, Onfray’s book (it also carries the British title In Defense of Atheism) was chosen "Book of the Year" by the Times Literary Supplement.

This doesn’t begin to tick off all the atheist manifestos popping up everywhere. And I’ve said nothing about some of the more classic ones such as Bertrand Russell’s Why I am not a Christian. And at the moment I’m working my way through Harold Bloom’s Jesus and Yahweh, not so much an atheist pitch as a literary reading of Jewish and Christian writing, with all the brilliance Bloom can muster.

Stephen Prothero, as I mentioned in the last blog, is making the rounds trying to pitch the idea we bring the study of religion back into the schools, if only to keep fresh our cultural references to the Bible stories we once knew. Poor fellow. Just asking for the “where do you get the ‘we,’ white man?" charge.

I asked him what he thought he could accomplish by doing this? Wouldn’t it do more harm than good? He insists it’s already working and that the state can monitor it so that it doesn’t become proselytizing. I’m not worried about that so much. I’d absolutely love to sit in a classroom and engage in religious debate. I just don’t think the religious people can take it. Keep it private and we’ll all make nice. Rub our noses in your walking on water nonsense and it’s chocolate Jesuses till the cows come home.

We were once like the Germans. Our parents taught us it wasn’t nice to say unkind things about other people’s religions. In order to make this work, we all limited religion to the private sphere. With this latest attempt to take America over for the Christian right, religion has entered the public sphere bigtime. It’s no surprise that all these sleeping atheistic dogs have awakened.

Watch it, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, James Dobson. The atheists are coming to bite your ass.

Americans believe in angels:,M1

David Mills’ 10 Reasons America is Approaching a Golden Age of Atheism

Dawkins’ address at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Lynchburg, Virginia: (Part I - the presentation) and (Part II - Q&A)

To get a sense of who Dawkins is, if you’re not up to two hours of him on the Randolph-Macon Woman’s College presentation, try I