Sunday, 22 July 2012

Soul Mates

I have a confession to make.  I watch The Bachelorette faithfully (don't judge me).  I realize guys aren't *supposed* to like this show, or so I've heard, but it's my guilty pleasure.  I think I enjoy it primarily because I've always had a strong interest in psychology, especially as it relates to the complicated dynamics of interpersonal relationships.  I'm fascinated by the way in which the guys (or girls) interact, in "the house", as they compete to win the heart of the Bachelorette (or Bachelor). It's like watching survival of the fittest in action.

The other thing I find interesting is the way in which The Bachelor/Bachelorette, in this case Emily Maynard, goes about making their decision as to who they will pick in the end.  In nearly every season, the given star of the show comments on how they are falling (or have fallen) in love with more than one person at the same time.  This always seems to come as a total shock to their system, the implication being that there must be something terribly unnatural about having feelings of love for several people simultaneously.  In Emily's case, the cognitive dissonance that results leads her straight into a period of deep confusion, during which time she considers the idea these conflicted feelings may themselves serve as proof that both of her top two guys are in fact wrong for her.  In other words, as the thinking goes, if one candidate is not very clearly better, than each of the others, something just must not be right (because it's not supposed to feel this way).  Sadly, there are others, close to Emily, who encourage this type of thinking, which only ads to her confusion for a time.  She *should* feel much more strongly for the guy she is *supposed* to choose, because that is the one guy she is *meant* to be with...right?


I personally think the widespread belief in soul mates is just another example of agenticity.  Let's think more about this for a moment.  What are the chances that 30 random guys/girls, from all across the country (assumedly chosen by the show's producers), will just so happen to include the given Bachelor/Bachelorette's "soul mate"?  First off, this could only be true if god exists, and involves himself in such things.  He would necessarily need to be guiding the hands of the producer's, as they narrow the field, to be certain that Emily's soul mate makes their final cut.  If there is a god, and he is loving and personal, than it follows logically that he would have one person set aside for each of us to marry (unless, of course, he intends for you to stay single forever).  As mere mortals it becomes our only job, at that point, to find and recognize that special person.  But I think The Bachelorette itself clearly shows the dating process to be much more complex and nuanced than this sort of top down style of reasoning would suggest it to be.  In fact, as I referenced above, the whole scenario is also much more driven by a survival of the fittest type thrust than many would ever care to admit.  (Remember, a significant percentage of the American public doesn't even believe in evolution.  I imagine that some of those same people are fans of the Bachelorette, so of course they aren't going to think of it in these terms.)

As I see it, modern day Internet dating websites, such as eHarmony, would also seem to suggest that god has not chosen one person for each of us to be with.  These sites work, to the extent that they do, because they match people on dozens and dozens and dozens of criteria points. Compatibility is often the end result of this (rather involved) screening process.  It doesn't always work perfectly, of course, but sometimes it does work and that's the point.  Could someone please remind me again how & where it is that god becomes involved in things like The Bachelorette and eHarmony?  If god is indeed trying to help us find our "soul mates", than he would need to be doing an awful lot of micro-managing.

It IS possible to fall in love with more than one person, at the exact same time, and we should expect nothing less when we engineer such bizarre scenarios.  In our culture, it's not considered normal to date 30 people at once (in fact, it's generally frowned upon!), so it's just that we don't often see these dynamics in action.  The truth is there is no one person who is *meant* to be with you or I forever.  I know this all sounds terribly unromantic of me to say.  Please understand that I say it as a guy who is very happily married, and plans to remain so until the day that he dies.  But isn't this more romantic (than believing in the idea of "soul mates") anyway?  I'd much rather marry someone who promises to stick with me, through thick and thin, even when their feelings wax and wane.  You can't "fall out of love", because love is not a feeling to begin's a choice.  I realize that choice is driven by feelings, and I wouldn't have it any other way, but it's still a choice at the end of the day.

We tend not to give ourselves enough credit; Maynard included.  She need not deny, or be in any way embarrassed, about the fact that she fell for more than one guy on the show.  Sometimes there is no *one* right way to go, even in cases where there is a choice that clearly needs to be made.  This is my larger point.  I think we all hope that she will make her choice (as spoilers would indicate that she does) and live happily ever after.  And those people who would have had Emily doubt herself, simply because her love has not been directed at one man exclusively, are very well meaning but misguided.  What Emily needs to do instead is make a rational choice....based on her feelings, yes, but also based on her head.   If she ultimately decides, on her own, that neither of these guys is right for her, than so be it.  Relationships are tough, perhaps especially so when they begin in such a highly manufactured (and overly romanticized) fashion.  I wish her all the best in the future and, come next season of The Bachelor/Bachelorette, I'm sure I'll be sucked in once again.

Monday, 16 July 2012

I Still Like The Bible

I admit the title of this post is somewhat misleading since, the full truth is, I still like *some* of the Bible.  However, when phrased in that more nuanced (and admittedly precise) way, it just doesn't seem to have the same ring to it.

Atheists have nearly made a sport of ragging on the Bible, and I think rightly so, but in this post I will attempt to show the flip side of that same coin.  I want to push back against the understandable misunderstanding, held by some Christians, that atheists hate the Bible and, as such, cast aside everything it says as a matter of atheist principle. This simply isn't true.

It's been some time now since I rejected the hypothesis that the Bible is the "word of God".  In fact, I've written against that idea on numerous occasions already.  One might even say it's been one of my persistent themes on this blog.

But, as I have gained more intellectual distance, from my old beliefs, I have come to realize that there are still some things in the Bible that I very much appreciate.  Let me offer three examples, and these will suffice to make my point...

The Book of Proverbs

I remember my Dad (a pastor) telling me, many years ago, that the book of Proverbs spoke only of likelihoods.  At the time I thought this a little strange, since essentially my Dad was admitting that there are clear statements, found in the Holy Bible, that may seem like promises at first blush (especially to the untrained eye), but really they were never intended to be promises to start with. I mean, when you think about it, a keen sense of observation is all that's needed to write about mere likelihoods.  So, where exactly does Yahweh come into play?  A good illustration of this dynamic is found in Proverbs 22:6, "Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it."  (KJV)  Clearly, this isn't a promise.  One need only look around at all of the children who "depart" from their parents ways.  Many of them do come back, mind you, to something at least resembling their parents ways, so I still think the axiom is worthwhile in a more general sense.

Of course, now that I am older, and much better read, I realize that the book of Proverbs is basic wisdom literature.  Nothing more, nothing less.  As wikipedia states, a proverb itself is "a simple and concrete saying popularly known and repeated, which expresses a truth, based on common sense or the practical experience of humanity".  (In what sense then, is the book of Proverbs "the word of God?") 

With that little misunderstanding out of the way, I must say that, even as an atheist, I still love the book of Proverbs.  Probably my favorite verse comes in Proverbs 15:1, "A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger." (NIV)  As far as wisdom sayings go, this is great stuff.  I can't tell you the number of times I have applied it in everyday life.  For example, at my place of employment, I am the unfortunate one who gets to deal with customer complaints if/when they arise.  It's not an official part of my job description, it's just that my colleagues have figured out that I'm really good at it (lucky me) so I am frequently elected to respond.  Proverbs 15:1 has become indispensable to me, at times like this, and it comes often to my mind.  I've found that, when interacting with an angry person, the absolute worst thing you can do is return anger for anger.  The "secret" to talking someone down, if there is one, is to thank them (sincerely) for their feedback, show that you clearly understand things from their point of view, and then, calmly and rationally, explain where it is that they may be misguided.  Nine times out of ten, when handled in this manner, you can take the wind out of a complainer's sails (and, to my surprise, often even convince them that they were the one in the wrong to begin with).

In other words, "a gentle answer turns away wrath...".  It really does work, and I'm not ashamed to admit that I learned this from the Bible.

1 Corinthians 13 (the "love chapter")

The first thing to note, when talking about 1 Corinthians 13, is that this passage is actually about spiritual gifts, not romantic love (despite its popularity at weddings).

Even still, what a great description of love it is (and love is something that is notoriously hard to capture in words).  Starting at verse 4, "Love is patient, love is kind.  It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs...".  Excellent!

Think of the divorces that might have been avoided, for example, if both husband and wife had lived according to the creed, "keep no record of wrongs".  Or think of the spousal abuse that could be prevented if the perpetrators truly *got* the fact that love "is not easily angered", "is not proud", and "does not dishonor others".

When my kids are old enough to enter into romantic relationships, I can think of no better chapter (in any book) to read to them, than 1 Corinthians 13.

"Love is patient, love is kind", can I hear an atheist "amen"?!?

Jesus and the Woman Taken in Adultery

I still remember how shocked and disappointed I was, to discover that this wonderful story (found in John 8:1-11) does not appear in the original manuscripts of the gospel of John.  Did this event actually happen, while Jesus was on earth, or does it merely represent things that later Christians believe Jesus stood for?  I'm not sure that any of us knows the answer to that question (or that we ever will).

Even still, it's always been one of my very favorite Jesus stories.  Still today, when I am dialoging with Christians about the various problems with the Bible (contradictions, historical inaccuracies, and so on), I find myself quite reticent to use this story as an example of New Testament difficulties.  I don't want them to lose faith in it, I guess, since I personally like the picture of Jesus that it paints.  In other words, if they're going to continue believing in Jesus anyway, these verses represent the sort of Jesus I want them believing in.  "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone".  This is classic stuff, and for good reason.  It is true that I no longer believe in the concept of "sin", per se, but I still acknowledge of course (as do all atheists) that there are pro-social and anti-social behaviors.  I would like to live in the sort of society where we take the log out of our own eye, before attempting to remove the speck from our brother's eye (to use another Biblical reference).

Well as I said, at the beginning, my goal in this post is not to take back anything that I have previously said about the Bible.  I still don't think it's "God's word" or, frankly, that God had anything to do with it at all.  If you believe that he did, the onus of proof rests firmly on you.  This is a point that I have made, and attempted to convincingly demonstrate, numerous times over. But, in my zeal to debunk my old belief system, I would never want to give the impression that I have some sort of hate on for the Bible and/or for God.  It may be that some atheists do feel this way; I certainly can't speak for all of them.  But, even in those cases, I suspect the hate is mostly reserved for what the Bible represents, and how it has been used over the years and still is today (to justify all sorts of bigotry, violence etc.).  This is also something I have written about previously and, if god does exist, than Christians need to grapple with the uncomfortable fact that he himself is partly to blame.  Having said that, contrary to what some might think, it's literally impossible for a thoughtful atheist to hate God.  Since atheists no longer have faith in his very existence, it would be something akin to hating the tooth fairy.  Imaginary beings, in and of themselves, tend not to elicit strong emotion (unless/until other people use them for destructive ends).

The challenge for me, moving forward, will be in passing these good principles along to my children without using the "God said it" shortcut that the Bible provides for Christians.  Some days I'm not sure if I'm up to the challenge (parenting can be a scary endeavor), but I'm going to give it everything I've got.

To the atheists reading this blog, are there other Bible passages that you still like?  What is it about them that you appreciate?