CAFE NOIR » Tales of an atheist, anarchist, wannabe filmmaker of sorts, and father of three lovable little beasties

A letter from my sister

heather-jeff-smallOver the last few months I’ve received private feedback about this blog from various friends, family members, and acquaintances. Some of it positive, but most of it critical. And I don’t mind critical feedback; in fact I welcome it so long as it’s productive and respectful, which most of it has been.

But in the positive feedback category is a recent letter from my sister Heather. She invited me to share her letter publicly, and I’m all too happy to oblige. As she mentions in her letter, she and I don’t see completely eye to eye on some of these issues. But she’s got some excellent insights to share, and furthermore I’m happy to offer whatever small platform I have so that she can publicly voice her own story–so that she can pursue a life of greater integrity. Without further ado:

A letter from my sister:

Dear Jeff,

When you first launched your blog, I felt worried. I thought that maybe you shouldn’t be doing this, because many of our family members and friends would be hurt. But I’ve changed my mind, and I’d like to share why. If you’d like to post this on your blog, I would appreciate the opportunity to voice my support publicly.

Before I wondered–about your blog and about whether I should publicly respond to it–“What’s the point? It’s highly unlikely to change anyone’s mind, and it’s also highly likely that loved ones will be hurt.” But now I think the point is integrity, by which I mean consistency of actions and words with beliefs. I think that every decision we make, no matter how little or big, is a vote for the kind of world we want to live in. I want to live in a world in which we can be honest about beliefs that are important to us and still stay in connection with the people we love.

By saying, “Maybe you shouldn’t be doing this,” I was casting a vote for a world in which fear of others’ reactions dictates our lives. I was asking you to sacrifice your own integrity, which in turn meant I was sacrificing mine as well. So I speak up now solely for the purpose of my own integrity. It’s not my job to change anyone’s mind, and in fact I highly doubt I will. If I can offer some support to you for your blogging then that will be a bonus. But even if by speaking up I don’t affect (what I imagine must be) your sense of isolation (that’s how I would feel, at least, doing what you’re doing), the experience of being honest about what I think for the sake of my own integrity will still be its own satisfying result.

Can I live with integrity and still stay in connection with the people I love? Do I have to give up part of myself–by deferring to others and not living in accordance with my own beliefs–to keep the relationship? Or do I have to lose the relationship to live with integrity? It’s a risk.

I want to respond for the same reason I left the CLC [note: that is, the small conservative church network in which we were raised]. It was, in some ways, easier to remain a member. Why bother making a public separation, especially when I lived nowhere near a CLC church anyway? Well, so that my husband and I could live our lives according to our own beliefs. I didn’t try to talk anyone else into leaving the CLC or convince them they were wrong in their beliefs. That was never the point. The point was integrity.

Detour: I’ve been diagnosed with PTSD, due in large part to my war experiences. I was suicidally depressed for several years, even. I tried several types of therapy and medication, and it only got worse. It was not until my most recent therapist encouraged me to confront my fears of speaking out that I started to come alive again. Why wouldn’t I speak out, when for 10 years my silence was tearing me apart? For the same reason I stayed in the CLC so long–fear of other people’s reactions. Fear of losing my identity as one of the “good guys” and of losing my acceptance in social circles in which that identity is important–even critical–to full acceptance. Over the last year I’ve really realized how much of my life is lived out of fear about other people’s feelings.

But is it true? Do we cause each other’s feelings? Is your blog causing me or anyone else to feel anything? If I felt worried or disturbed at first, I can recognize that doesn’t define your blog as “disturbing.” Disturbing is a subjective judgment I assign to something that I feel disturbed about. “I felt disturbed” is more accurate. Even more factual would be to report what I experienced that I sensed as “disturbed.” I felt a tightness in my stomach and limbs, an increase in heart rate, and a sense of wanting to hide. I told myself that this was going to cause other people’s pain (I made predictions about it, engaged in mind reading, and placed responsibility for those people’s feelings on the blog rather than on their own interpretations of it). In this case “disturbed” was a combination of uncomfortable body sensations and a story I told myself about your blog, which may or may not have been true.

I’m not saying it’s wrong to assign meaning to anything; our brains are wired for that in order to promote our own survival and welfare. But I do want to explain the way in which I’ve become more aware of the difference between something that happens, on the one hand, and the meaning I assign to it and the experience I have of it, on the other hand. Maybe this dissecting of language around interpretations of events seems nit-picky, but I’m fascinated by how we use language to deny responsibility for our experiences. If I recognize that only I am responsible for how I experience things that happen, I can then change those things I don’t like which are within my power to change. I can ask myself why I’m having this particular response, and often that will unearth some area where I’m mistaking my own assumptions for facts.

To apply this to your February 18th post “For those worried that I’m headed to hell…” in particular: how I experience that is largely–maybe even solely–my own interpretation. Was it your intent to mock, hurt, insult, or threaten? If so, I did not pick up on that at all. Quite the opposite; I read this post as an attempt to address the elephant in the room. Facts: my brother is writing a blog in which he explains his reasons for coming to an atheist conclusion; loved ones know and he’s addressing that great fear of hell. Interpretation: that seems compassionate to me. That’s my take on it; I can’t read your mind. At the very least, I see it as a vote on your part to discuss those fears of hell openly. I suspect that this is a topic which can’t be discussed without someone feeling bad. But if I feel bad, the question is whether I’ll blame my feelings on your post or whether I’ll scrutinize my own interpretations instead.

I do think it’s important to try to be skillful in the way we say things, in an attempt to minimize potential hurt. I appreciate that you didn’t say, for example, “People who believe in hell are stupid and not worth talking to.” But even if you had said that, your readers would still have a choice about whether to feel bad about that. I think you did a good job of challenging those beliefs in a respectful way. Is there any way to say, “I’m an atheist and I’d like to address your fears that I am going to hell,” which will be well received? I doubt it. Is there any way to try to address someone’s fears of hell without challenging that belief itself? I can’t think of any.

As to the question of hell, it’s true that part of why I can take a less concerned approach is because I’m not worried that you’re going to hell. I have spent most of my life tormented by the idea of hell, to the point that I was afraid to sleep as a child. I’ve doubted that a loving God and eternal conscious torment could be compatible since I was about 18, but for so many years I tried to force myself to affirm it anyway, because doubting hell seemed to require doubting the inerrancy of the Bible. I’ve repented of my doubt in agony, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief,” more times than I can count. For so many long painful years (my depression hasn’t all been about war; the theme has been extreme and painful cognitive dissonance in areas of identity which are very important to me), I tried to force myself to believe anyway. If I doubted, there must be something wrong with me. Finally admitting that I do not believe in hell has brought me tremendous relief, even joy. (And if I don’t believe in inerrancy, where does that leave me belief wise? I’m not sure. As you said, there are many conclusions to come to short of atheism.) So I can recognize that it’s not your blog itself which causes anyone’s pain or fear, but the belief in hell which causes the pain and fear. The belief may or may not be true; I think it is not, so I am free of fear or pain for your sake.

Belief in hell has a powerful built-in deterrent to giving any consideration to what someone else might have to say. Because theirs isn’t just another opinion, but a lie from Satan which, if I allow myself to consider it, could lead me down the road to damnation. This creates a tail biting snake of sorts: what I believe is not only true but is also essential to being saved from hell. Therefore, any idea that challenges my beliefs carries the threat of damnation and should be avoided and fought against. So if what I believe is actually inaccurate, I’ll never allow myself to even consider that evidence. I’ll insist on treating anything that could help me come to that realization as a threat to avoid or fight against. This doesn’t mean hell couldn’t be possible; only that believing in it creates a situation in which differing ideas (and the people who voice them) are threats and must not be entertained. Five hundred years ago you might have been killed for what you are saying, even by the reforming fathers of Protestant denominations. Isn’t it better to kill heretics than to let their views contaminate others? Or so the thinking goes.

Another factor which strongly influences our beliefs is brain chemistry. We experience a challenge to our beliefs with the same physiological response as we experience a literal threat to our lives. Such a challenge activates our sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) response, in the same way as if the proverbial tiger were chasing us. When the challenge is resolved, either by fighting it off (often just with ad hominem attacks) or by avoiding it, our body soothes us with opiate-like neurotransmitters which have powerful pleasure inducing/pain killing effects to address the trauma. (The trauma in this case being that someone has disagreed with me.)

It feels like a survival situation, and in a way, it is. If that belief is a core part of my identity–as religious beliefs often are–then I’ll be more likely to have a stronger sympathetic nervous system reaction to a “threat” and a stronger release of neurotransmitters when I fend it off. It’s common to seek out others who agree with us, in order to reinforce our beliefs by giving us these neurotransmitter highs; we can even get addicted to the pleasure chemicals our body releases when our beliefs are reinforced. I’m not trying to say that truth boils down to feelings fueled by neurotransmitters, but rather to point out that this is one more factor which powerfully clouds the lenses through which we view reality. And I do believe there is truth to be found, but I also acknowledge that we humans always interpret reality through foggy lenses of culture, environment, sensory input, reason, emotions, etc; that we are sensing, feeling, interpreting creatures with an imperfect ability to discern truth.

All this is to say that this belief in hell becomes extremely difficult to consider critically. Like you, I too would like people to think critically about hell, even as I acknowledge that the likelihood of that happening is low. In my own case, what finally allowed me to genuinely, thoughtfully consider opposing views on the topic (as well as to consider the objections of my own conscience) was the realization that if something is true, then no evidence should be able to overturn it. That opened me to a willingness to follow the evidence wherever it leads.

If I say I’m standing up for God’s truth, I have to admit–if I’m honest–that if you and I consider the same evidence and I come to believe in God and you do not, then what I’m really standing up for is my own interpretation of the evidence. I don’t really know for sure that I’m standing up for God, all I know for sure is that I’m standing up for what I believe. I’m preferring one fallible human conclusion (my own) to another (yours). If I also believe that “only a fool says in his heart ‘there is no God,’” then I have divine backing for not having to take anything an atheist says seriously. I see your post as asking us to consider the possibility that you are not a fool–that you came to your beliefs through honest seeking.

But God does perfectly know reality and reveals it through the Holy Spirit and the Bible, right? Well, how do I KNOW this is the Spirit of God? A devout girl I used to go to church with had a sudden, inexplicable (to me at least) conversion to Mormonism. She claimed the Holy Spirit came to her in a dream and told her the book of Mormon is true. I asked whether it might have been just a dream, or maybe a demon trying to trick her, because the Bible says Satan can masquerade as an angel of light. No, she insisted, this was from God. She pointed out that if we can mistake Satan for the Holy Spirit then it’s possible that mainstream Christianity could be the lie. This exposed my own circular arguments: I know that this is the Holy Spirit, because the Bible says so and the Bible is the Word of God. How do I know the Bible is the Word of God? Because the Holy Spirit led me to faith through the Bible. So any argument I could come up with basically boiled down to, “My ability to discern the Spirit is better than yours.” That is, that my ability to interpret reality was better than hers–even though we were using the same methods to come to our respective beliefs. Talking to her did not change my religious views, but it did challenge me to recognize that a lot of my faith relies on my own ability to correctly discern the voice of God.

I’ve heard many sermons about Abraham’s great faith in God, that he was willing to sacrifice his son. I think he had a great deal of faith in his own ability to correctly discern the voice of God. If I thought God was ordering me to kill my child, I would not do it. Here’s why: How could I know FOR SURE that God was telling me to do this? I would assume that I was mistaken. That I was hallucinating. That it might be an evil being trying to deceive me. No matter how convincing the message, vision, etc, I would not do it. Because I could not know for sure that it was God, I would submit to being locked in a psych ward before I would agree to kill my child, even if it meant I was risking being punished for disobeying. My point being: we put a lot of faith in our own ability to discern what is true.

In Kenneth W. Daniels’ book, “Why I Believed: Reflections of a Former Missionary,” he describes his own painful wrestling with his faith. In Chapter 4, “Why I Hesitated to Examine My Faith Critically,” he details why it was difficult for him to even consider his own doubts, a key factor being his trust in his own ability to discern truth through the voice of the Holy Spirit. He describes his agony over trying to hold on to his faith, his great fear of losing it, and begging God to lead him to truth. (For anyone wrestling with doubt or who has loved ones who are, I highly recommend this book as a starting place for more compassionate understanding.)

Of course I do think it’s perfectly fair to prefer my own conclusions (don’t we all? How would we function otherwise?), but at the very least I want to be honest that that is what I’m doing. That seems to me to be the only way to have conversations about these topics in which we can genuinely consider each other’s points of view: if we can both acknowledge that we are starting with a preference for our own opinions, opinions which could possibly be wrong. If I can at least admit that I can’t know for sure what is true, then I’m better able to consider another person’s differing opinion without feeling threatened. I can consider their evidence and choose whether or not to amend my own view.

All of this is to say that I now see your blog very differently, and I have very different feelings about it. I see it now as a form of non-violent resistance. You are not telling anyone to shut up about what they believe. You ARE resisting the pressure to shut up about what you believe. It’s been my experience that our culture of origin pretty strongly resists entertaining different opinions (unless these opinions are offered in the context of submitting them to correction), and so I have a lot of respect for your choice to live with integrity and for the courage I imagine it must have taken for you to make that choice.

I long to live with greater integrity myself. I also want to apologize for the reasons I haven’t commented on your blog before. There were posts that I was interested in discussing, and started to respond to, but did not because I was afraid of joining you out on your limb. Or on a neighboring limb at least. I’ve often thought it was brave of you to be the (often lone) dissenting voice, but I also wondered why bother. But now I can answer this question myself. The act of speaking up is part of what it means to me to live with integrity–which is deeply satisfying in and of itself, whether or not others are willing to allow themselves to be influenced.

While I do disagree with some of your conclusions, I think the questions you ask are very worth wrestling with (of course I think that; they are questions I wrestle with too). Should I ask you to live your life in a cage so that I can feel better? The last lines of a poem that I love ask, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” (“The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver). What I want for you is what I want for myself as well: to live this one short, wild, and precious life with integrity; to live it to the fullest. And when I think about your blog in this context, my anxiety melts away to be replaced with gratitude, admiration, and even excitement that you have found the courage to be honest.


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  • Daniel Wilcox 8.2.16 at 8:30 pm

    Such a deep, reflective letter from your sister! It’s wonderful that she and you can be so honest with each other. She made a bunch of insightful points.

    I must admit, however, I don’t understand where your sister wrote, “it’s not your blog itself which causes anyone’s pain or fear, but the belief in hell which causes the pain and fear.”

    In contrast, for me, such a fear of Hell didn’t exist. I didn’t believe in the creeds, etc. yet I didn’t worry about Hell for myself or others. Maybe because I was a liberal Christian, not a Calvinist?
    Rather it was the determinism of Calvinists–and now of Atheists–that causes me pain and fear.

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