Woods eternal


A poem I wrote four years ago, towards the end of my process of deconversion.

The road leads through the woods
Concrete and lazy and placid
To the city and its thousand saintly sleepers.
But for me is the undergrowth
Where the roots are gnarled and deep
Where the wind howls and the owls weep
In hollows dark as night
Where the trees reach for the stars
And, failing, fling their shadows upon my brow.
A sparrow speaks of a clearing nearby
But since when do birds speak in tongues?
Eli, eli, lama sabachthani.
Better wild and free and lost in woods eternal
Than bound to gilded rites and creeds of stone.

Giving Your Child to the Devil?

This morning I came across an article in the Huffington Post which suggested that the current brand of American evangelicalism may be “sociopathic”. That may well be true, but I am not going to address that issue. What caught my attention was a blog post that the article referred to, which is entitled Giving Your Child to the Devil (yes, seriously). Written by special needs teacher and evangelical Christian Kim Higginbothams, the post explains that she and her husband have decided to cut all ties with their son because he has “chosen a life of sin”. She doesn’t mention what the “sin” but I’m sure you can guess… Yes… He’s gay.  On top of that, she apparently posted the article online on the day of his wedding. Smooth. 
Now, I don’t know about you, but I would expect more compassion and sensitivity from a special needs teacher. And yet her attitude is characteristic of the rampant homophobia of evangelical Christianity. It also points to a deeper, more fundamental problem with Christian theology : the Bible’s teachings about human relationships.

Here is an extract from Kim’s post:

Our contact with our son is now limited to attempts at restoration. We have no fellowship. We used to share holidays, regular phone calls and texts, family events, etc. but now, all that is gone. Our son has completely turned his back on everything he ever believed. He has no respect for the Lord or His church. He has chosen a life of sin rather than the hope of salvation. And because of his rebellion against God, we as parents must make a choice. Do we overlook his practice of sin and maintain our relationship, or do we withdraw ourselves from him as the Lord instructs?

The choice that Kim makes is, of course, the latter. This is far from uncommon in the evangelical world. I know several people who are estranged from other family members because they have come out as gay or even because they vocally support LGBTQ rights. How can parents be so uncaring? How can they inflict such pain to their child, and to themselves? The answer to these two questions is – as always in evangelical Christianity – “because the Bible says so”.

To explain her decision, Kim Higginbothams refers to a verse from Matthew 10:37-38, which is attributed to Jesus. To provide some context, I’ll quote the preceding verses too:

34 ‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.

35 For I have come to set a man against his father,

and a daughter against her mother,

and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;

36 and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.

37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38 and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.

In this (in)famous passage, Jesus is basically demanding unflinching, unreserved and unquestioning obedience from his disciples. Now, some may point to the fact that such use of language is hyperbolic. That may be true, but it doesn’t make those words any less problematic from an ethical point of view. Indeed, it raises the following questions:

Should anybody love a deity more than their own children? And should they be made to feel guilty (“not worthy of me”) if they don’t? 

What kind of influence does such violent language have on parenting practices in already dysfunctional or authoritarian families?

More fundamentally, is a deity which claims to have come to harm rather than heal family relationships worthy of worship?

Kim Higginbothams doesn’t stop there. She quotes a number of others verses, and in particular a verse from an especially  unpleasant passage in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians:

you are to hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.

Basically that means that bad things should happen to him so that he repents and comes back to the fold. Here Paul is admonishing the church of Corinth because of reports “that there is sexual immorality among you” (in fact, a guy turns out to be sleeping with his mother-in-law). A few sentences later he adds:

I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister who is sexually immoral or greedy, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber. Do not even eat with such a one.

It turns out that Christians are only allowed to “eat with sinners” as long as they’re not Christians. If Christians do something which the Bible (or the church) considers immoral, then their co-religionists are not even supposed to eat with them. While cutting off all ties with anyone (including your child) who doesn’t abide by the group’s 2,000 year old views on sexuality may seem extreme (and it is!), it is standard, orthodox Bible teaching. Hopefully, most Christians don’t take those verses too seriously, at least when it comes to their own children. Hopefully, compassion will prevail in most similar situations. But that highlights even more the following  problems:

Are the biblical teachings on human relationships — and parenting* —  really that moral?

Are they morally superior to the secular humanist emphasis on compassion and empathy for all people?

If the Bible teaches that love for its deity and conformity to outdated sexual ethics trumps love for your very own children, how can it claim to have the moral high ground ?

It’s an honest question. I have yet to hear a compelling answer. 

Kim’s post made me very angry at first, because she is perpetuating an unkind, unloving ideology. But after reading the following part, I felt really sad:

Perhaps I am writing this is for myself more than for those who are reading. I have not seen my son in nearly two and a half years now and there are days that the pain is just as fresh as ever. Until now, I have kept this pain inside and shared with only a couple of my closest friends. I am not sure that a day has gone by that I have not shed tears. Sometimes it is a single tear and other days are gut wrenching cries of despair. I have pulled into my driveway with tears blinding my eyes, only to find myself literally screaming and wailing in grief. I’m devastated by our loss; his loss.

Her pain is very real.

What is so sad, is that — from a secular humanist or skeptical point of view — her pain is caused by her belief in something that isn’t real: a jealous deity and the words it supposedly inspired.

So yes, we should do everything we can to oppose these harmful, misguided ideas about human nature, human relationships and parenting.

We should care for the people who are at the receiving end of such horrible actions and stand up for their rights.

But we should also show compassion to those who hold such views because, ultimately, they are harming their own lives and relationships.

How? By showing them that secular values and progressive parenting can lead to a happier and more ethical life than traditional teachings about human relationships.

*How often, in sermons or in Christian books, have I heard/seen appeals to Proverbs 13:24:

Those who spare the rod hate their children, but those who love them are diligent to discipline them.



Burnt boats

We burnt our boats at sundown.

Plumes still shrouded patches of the sky at midnight,

rising like newly born nebulae. 

When the waves had swallowed up the last of the embers, 

we made our way up the dunes, 
barefoot, fingers grazing, eyes ablaze.

A (secular) sense of wonder

Earlier this week, on one of the few real Spring days we’ve had so far this year, I decided to go to a nearby park. With my ongoing PhD, I rarely have the time to read fiction, so I was looking forward to sit on the grass and start Daphné du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel. But I ended up reading only a few pages. Nature was simply begging for my attention. Instead of reading, I looked around me, taking everything in. The daisies flecking the grass. The birds chirping in the bushes. The soft soil under my fingertips. The clear, cloudless sky. The warmth of the sun on my cheeks.

I was enjoying nature for nature’s sake.

This may not seem to be a great achievement. Yet for me, it’s one of the many freedoms I’ve discovered since I began living a secular life. In the Christian, Evangelical worldview I was brought up with, you’re taught to see nature as a pointer towards something greater: a theistic, creator God. According to the Bible, nature is part of divine general revelation. In other words, simply by observing nature, everyone knows deep down that God exists. Therefore people who don’t have any belief in a god are “wicked”, “without excuse” and condemned to hell*. I’m not going to address this assumption here because counter-apologetics is not the purpose of this blog (if you’re interested in seeing it debunked, have a look here). The point is, in the religious (or at least the theistic) worldview, nature is not something to be enjoyed for its own sakeIn fact, pleasure of any kind is always linked to the glory of God, unless it’s considered “sinful” (I’ll blog about pleasure sometime soon).

In a secular worldview, nature is not god, or a sign of god’s presence. It is not under divine control, nor is it the creation of a god. It’s just nature. That doesn’t mean that it’s not special. It’s beautiful, fascinating and at times frightening — but in its own right. This leads me to the following points:

Nature doesn’t point to a God, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t be awestruck by it. Whether its because we’ve witnessed stunning scenery or because we’re humbled by the scale of the universe, we’ve all experienced moments of wonder.

Nature isn’t a gift from God, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t be grateful for it. And cherish it, and strive to protect those parts of it which are within our influence. It is, after all, the only thing that supports human life. If humans don’t take care of it, there’s nobody else to do it. And remember, gratitude is a secular value. There doesn’t have to be a “to” for you to be “thankful for“.

Nature wasn’t created by God, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t feel connected to it. In fact I feel more connected to the rest of nature than ever before because I know that it wasn’t created for me, and that nothing about me makes me intrinsically any more special than any of the other animals that live on this planet (sorry Adam and Eve!). Those birds whose chirps I was listening to in the park? We share 65% of our DNA with them (well, technically, it’s with chickens). Hell, we’re even deeply connected to non-living matter. As astronomer Carl Sagan famously stated, “the cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star stuff” (carbon, nitrogen and oxygen). We share the same atoms as stars. We are, quite literally, stardust.

So yes, for the secular humanist, nature is just nature. And that’s awesome enough as it is! So let’s cultivate a sense of wonder towards nature. Marvel at it. Explore it. Treasure it.

*It’s no surprise that proponents of creationism / Intelligent Design deny the reality of evolutionary biology: it removes the need for a first cause. 

A New Passport

Today my new passport arrived. Golden letters glimmered on the burgundy cover, its decorated pages pristine. I opened it like a child who had just received a birthday gift.

After adding my signature under my picture, and chuckling at the bemused expression on my face, I decided to destroy my old passport. Its cover was stained, its pages creased. Ten years of travelling between the country where I was born and the one where I’ve grown up had taken their toll.

As I cut up its pages, I smiled and tried to remember where I was and who I was ten years ago, when I first received it. Then it suddenly hit me.

I’ve spent the past decade deconstructing — and ultimately discarding — my religious beliefs. During ten years of intense studying, thinking, debating, even praying, the narrative that once seemed to hold my life together slowly unravelled.

Leaving behind the comfort and security of beliefs instilled from childhood is difficult. It was largely a negative process, in the sense that I had to reevaluate everything that I believed in. Some things I gave up with a sigh of relief. Others, I let go of reluctantly, like a child desperately trying to hold on to the teddy bear which was given to it at birth.

The journey was extremely taxing. It brought anger, resentment, sadness, and at times, despair. It’s not easy to recover from a lost sense of identity, from the shattering of your sense of reality, and from the grief over a dead god. In the process, some close relationships were lost — others were irrevocably damaged. When you deconvert, there’s no going back. You enter the unknown. You cross over into the twilight zone.

The process of deconstruction will continue, probably for the rest of my life. But after ten years, it’s time for something new. Becoming “free from” is just the first step. Now I’ve started a new chapter, one where I’m learning to be “free to: free to quench my thirst for knowledge about the universe and everything it contains, to become a more compassionate and empathetic person, to enjoy what this one and only life has to offer.

I’m holding my brand new passport. Its pages are empty, waiting to be stamped with new destinations, filled with new experiences. As I thumb through the clean pages, I feel slightly apprehensive, but at the same time I’ve never been as excited about life. A new adventure awaits.