[guest post] Sorry, You Don’t Own Marriage

My friend Seth, who’s becoming somewhat of a regular around here, returns with some observations about the same-sex marriage “debate” (if you could call it that).

I don’t know how many of you reading this right now have read any other of my limited contributions to the blogosphere, but if you have, you’ll know that I’ve been hopelessly indoctrinated into the gay agenda. So, unrepentant heathen that I am, you can imagine my reaction when this little gem of a quote from the debate over the Illinois same-sex marriage bill floated across my news feed:

“It is not a civil right, and marriage was created by God and not be modified by anybody except God.” (Source: Equality Illinois, corrected for grammar and punctuation because GAH)

Naturally this kicked the snark center of my brain into full gear. Gay people can’t get married because the Christian God holds the patent on marriage? Who else does this affect? Are all those poor Hindu couples technically unmarried because they didn’t go through the proper (i.e. Christian) procedure? What about me? I’m a Buddhist and an agnostic, does that mean that the children I father are doomed to be bastards born out of wedlock? What about my cousin, who just went up to a county courthouse and signed a paper with her fiancee—does that have the Divine Stamp of Approval?

That’s when a legitimate thought broke through the sarcasm. What about my cousin? She’s married in the (for lack of a better phrase) bare-bones legal sense, with no religious ceremonies or oversight. But she’s still married. I dare anybody to try and challenge that. They’d get laughed out of court.

And that’s what this is all about, because whoever supplied the above quote was wrong, wrong, wrong.

Certainly, marriage can be closely associated with religion: see every fictional depiction of it ever, which almost always involves it taking place in a church unless there’s a particular reason for it not to. But in this day and age, marriage is not controlled by religion. If it were, the entire institution would be an unmanageable clusterfuck—look at the sheer amount of religions we have in this country, and how many different interpretations of marriage they present. Rather, marriage is a way of legally acknowledging that two people have decided to live cooperatively, and to make that arrangement more convenient for them. Like my cousin, all you really have to do to be married is to sign a paper saying that you are; everything else is window dressing to make you feel like you’re square with your god and your family.

So marriage actually has nothing to do with religion as far as the law is concerned, and this is the law we’re talking about here, being, you know, legislation. And for a polyreligious country like ours, the law has an obligation to apply in equal measures to all citizens regardless of the proscriptions of any one particular religion. In other words: yes, the bible does say that homosexuality is a sin. No, that doesn’t give you the legal right to keep them from marrying, any more than you have the legal right to burn a priest’s daughter for being unchaste (Leviticus 21:9) or execute an adulterer or a child who curses their parents (Leviticus 20:9-10).

Your religion says gay marriage isn’t okay? Fine. Don’t let them get married in your church. That’s your religion’s domain and therefore your prerogative. But when it comes to the legal right to sign that piece of paper? Nobody gets to touch that, not you, not the Jews, not the Hindus, not the Pagans, and not us Buddhists. If you still want to claim that your God has exclusive rights to marriage, then you’d better get cracking on a bill that keeps us nonbelievers off of his turf. Go ahead. See how it goes.

Seth Wenger is a senior neuroscience major at Earlham College and a practicing Buddhist. He can usually be found on Facebook, snarking about life, current events, and politics.

Why You Should Talk To Your Kids About Death

I’ve been reading Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great because, having been an atheist for a long time and through no particular effort of my own or anyone else’s, it’s important for me to understand what the arguments against religion actually are. (Well, and also, that book is hilarious.)

Reading Hitchens’ description and critique of Pascal’s Wager brought back some memories from my childhood, and I realized that as a kid, I actually used a sort of Pascal’s Wager without knowing what it was or how notorious it is.

In a nutshell, Pascal’s Wager states that it’s “better safe than sorry” to believe in god. If you believe in god but he turns out not to exist, you’ve (supposedly) lost nothing*. But if you don’t believe in god and he turns out to exist, then you get to burn in hell for all eternity. Yay!

For a significant amount of my childhood–I don’t remember when it started or ended–I did believe in god. I don’t know exactly why, except that I thought it was part of being Jewish. In addition, I was terrified of hell, of my parents dying and going to hell–in short, of what would happen to me if I didn’t believe.

Here’s the interesting thing, though: my parents never taught me about hell. I did not attend a religious school or Sunday school (until much later, and even then we only discussed Jewish history and ethics). My parents did nothing to encourage my religious beliefs, though they did encourage my ethnic Jewish identity. I attended the occasional prayer service, but the rabbis were more concerned with making jokes and encouraging friendships than teaching us to fear the torment of hell.

Rather, my view of hell and my resulting fear of it probably came from the Christian culture in which I grew up. As I did with Christmas, I kind of passively absorbed all the stuff I heard about hell from classmates, friends, and pop culture. I was also always interested in art and literature, which are both brimming with biblical allusions. A large chunk of my knowledge of Christianity comes from them. I accepted all the propaganda about “Judeochristian ethics” or “Abrahamic traditions” and assumed that the Christian and Jewish views of death and the afterlife must be identical.

Ultimately I discarded all religious or “spiritual” conceptions of the afterlife (and I’ve run through many) and decided that when you die your consciousness dies too. But I guess I’ll see when I get there.

As others have already pointed out, the idea that atheists have nothing worthwhile to contribute about death is insulting and false. Yes, everything we say about it is based on the premise that there is no life after death, so if that concept is completely reprehensible to you, I suppose you don’t have much of a reason to listen to us.

Otherwise, though, I agree with Susan Jacoby that atheists should speak out about their views, including their views on death. Greta Christina has already done so beautifully. But I will take it one step further and say that parents should help their children understand and deal with death rather than trying to shield them from that reality.

You should talk to your kids about death because if you don’t, they’ll learn about it anyway. Maybe they’ll be lucky and learn something helpful and reassuring, but more likely they’ll pick up whatever poisonous and disempowering ideology their surrounding culture supplies to them.

This doesn’t just apply to atheists, by the way. I know plenty of religious people whose parents told them that they don’t believe in hell, which I believe is the ethical thing to do. If an adult wishes to attend religious services and be informed that they will suffer forever after death if they fail to follow a certain set of rules, that’s their choice. But teaching that to a child is cruel.

I’ll be honest–I don’t know how to talk to kids about death. I’m not (yet) a parent, and I won’t condescend to you by providing concrete child-rearing advice. But I think this is worth thinking deeply about and I’ll keep doing so. This is a post about “why”; someone else will have to supply the “how,” if they haven’t already.

I do know, both from my personal experience and my research, that shielding children from dangerous or “scary” ideas and realities–death, drugs, sex, illness–doesn’t work. They learn anyway. And, chances are, they’ll learn from similarly misinformed and probably insensitive peers, or from television, or other sources that aren’t going to be nearly as compassionate and experienced as their parents hopefully are.

So talk to your kids about death.

~~~

*I will include a caveat that, in my opinion, Pascal was wrong that you’d lose nothing by believing in a god that turns out not to exist. What you lose is the ability to create your own life, relationships, and moral code as you see fit. That, I think, is a pretty big loss.

Christmas From The Outside

Just some personal reflections on Christmas from an outsider.

It is impossible to be a person living in the United States, of any ethnicity, religious affiliation, or national origin, and not understand the meaning and significance of Christmas.

It’s a religious observance. It’s a sparkling monument to consumerism. It’s a celebration of family, of charity, of miracles, of food, of childhood, of living ethically–depending on who you ask. It is the only holiday I’ve ever heard of that has an entire genre of music dedicated to it, that requires over a month of preparation via that music playing in every public space, hours of shopping, and decorations covering trees, roofs, walls, doors, countertops, bathrooms.

Growing up as an immigrant and a secular Jew in a particularly Christian and conservative part of the Midwest, I grasped all of this so early on that I don’t even remember learning it.

It’s bizarre and a bit unsettling, having such a detailed understanding of a set of traditions, beliefs, and principles that I have never participated in. With absolutely no effort, I learned about jingle bells, advent calendars, stockings, Santa Claus, coal, elves, milk and cookies, chimneys, Christmas Mass, eggnog, nativity scenes, reindeer, holly, mistletoe, and more. It’s not like I ever had to ask a Christian friend about their observances or attend one on my own. I just absorbed all this information passively by virtue of living in the United States.

This, to me, is part of what it means to live in a Christian country. Christianity is the default here, which is how I came to be so knowledgeable about its traditions while few of the people I meet know anything about my traditions.

This isn’t in itself a “bad” thing. If you live in the places I’m from, you’ll experience the same thing. It’s impossible to live in Russia without understanding what New Year’s Eve means to us. It’s impossible to live in Israel without knowing exactly how we observe Shabbat, Purim, Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot, Yom Kippur, Tisha B’Av, Yom Ha’atzmaut, Chanukah, and many others that you probably haven’t even heard of.

The truth is, though, that I have to understand Christmas. If I didn’t, it’d be kind of weird, don’t you think? Friends would tell me they can’t leave the house and go do something on the 25th and I’d wonder why. We’d be asked to sing Christmas songs in class and I wouldn’t know any of the words. When asked what I did for Christmas, I’d say that I sat around at home and read a book rather than understanding that I’m supposed to say that I spent it with my family.

I have to understand Christmas in order to interact with people normally at this time of year. But they never have to understand the things my family and I do for holidays in order to interact normally with me. It’s standard for people to ask me why I’m shopping for “New Year’s presents,” or why Chanukah lasts eight days.

My little brother’s teacher once asked someone from our family to come to their class and give a presentation about Chanukah, so I showed up with a menorah and a bunch of dreidls and gelt, explained the history of the holiday to the class, and showed them how to play the game. It was fun and they seemed to have a good time, and it occurred to me that nobody ever had to give me a presentation about Christmas.

Some of my earliest memories of living in the United States have to do with Christmas. I remember singing Christmas songs in school in kindergarten. At first I was jealous, naturally, of the other kids. I’d pass by my neighbors’ houses and see the glowing Christmas trees through their living room windows. Although in Russian culture we have “New Year’s trees” (or novogodniye yolki, I guess you would say), my parents abandoned that tradition. I think they realized that people would pass by on the street and assume that we celebrate Christmas just like everyone else. The fact that a decorated evergreen tree could have any other significance probably doesn’t occur to many people.

Anyway, I grew up and stopped feeling jealous, instead growing proud of my own holidays, traditions, and language. But it stings sometimes to have our observances roped into this amorphous Holiday Season when, in fact, the similarities end with the fact that our holidays happen at the same time of year. Chanukah is nothing like Christmas, and neither is New Year’s Eve (except for the fact that the Soviets stole some of those traditions from Christmas).

These days it has become politically correct to acknowledge non-Christian wintertime holidays as part of the Holiday Season. Grocery stores now carry dreidls, gelt, and menorahs; people celebrate winter solstice; kids in school sing a song about Chanukah in addition to all those Christmas songs. Kwanzaa, a holiday observed by the African American community that the majority of Americans might not have otherwise heard of, is often given an obligatory shout-out. “Happy holidays” is often considered more appropriate to say instead of “Merry Christmas” if you do not know which holiday(s) someone observes.

It’s nice that people are finally recognizing that not all Americans celebrate Christmas–and, hell, not all of us are even Americans. But nevertheless it feels like, in a strange way, we’re still being asked to conform by participating in The Holiday Season even if we don’t have such a thing. (In fact, the Jewish version of the “holiday season” are the High Holidays in the fall.)

Despite these well-intentioned concessions, it’s still quite clear that Christmas reigns supreme among wintertime holidays. It feels weird knowing so much about something that has never been part of my life and never will.

Why Homosexuality is Not Analogous to Murder

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is clearly very worried about the pervasive immorality that’s taking over America these days. First gay sex will become okay, then murder.

Yes, he really said that. “If we cannot have moral feelings against homosexuality, can we have it against murder? Can we have it against other things?”

Here’s the context: Scalia was speaking at Princeton University and a student asked him about his decision to dissent in the landmark ruling of Lawrence v. Texas, which struck down that state’s ban on sodomy as unconstitutional. Scalia believes that the Supreme Court has no place in this “culture war” and that the activists who wanted to overturn anti-sodomy laws were advocating a “homosexual agenda” (his words, not mine).

When asked about this decision, Scalia used a slippery slope fallacy to suggest that if we can’t have “moral feelings” about homosexuality, then we can’t have them about murder, either.

Yes, yes, I get it. He’s not really saying that homosexuality is like murder. He’s making an analogy. But it’s a terrifically bad one.

Scalia, like many people who enthusiastically infuse their political opinions with religion, seems to think that murder is morally wrong cuz god said so–and, therefore, so is homosexuality. He seems not to realize that most people nowadays think that murder is wrong not because they’ll go to hell for it but because an innocent person is being deprived of their life. 

Who is being hurt by someone having gay sex? Who is being hurt by a same-sex couple getting married and living out their lives together? Who is being hurt when kids are discouraged from (and disciplined for) bullying a classmate for being gay?

Honestly, I think this is why religious conservatives started spouting all that stuff about gay people “converting” children to homosexuality. This is the reason for all those initiatives there used to be to ban openly gay people from teaching in public schools, and the reason why, even today, organizations like the Florida Family Association accuse Office Depot of turning kids gay by selling products saying things like “Be Yourself.”

Even though there is no evidence for the theory that homosexuality is some sort of infectious disease, religious conservatives insist that it is, because that allows them to claim that it actually harms people. And that makes the morality argument a very different one.

I’m also shocked that Scalia (and so many other people) really don’t see any difference at all between having “moral feelings” and legislating those moral feelings upon the rest of the country. These are probably the same people who go around wailing about “Christian persecution” because, guess what? You have the right to say and believe whatever you want, but that doesn’t mean you have the right to force others to live by it. Making sure you don’t have the latter right doesn’t mean you’re somehow being discriminated against.

In short, yes, you can have “moral feelings” about homosexuality. And murder. And whatever else you want. We just don’t have to live by your moral feelings.

I’ll grant that when someone says something like, “I don’t care if the gays can get married or not but I still think homosexuality is Bad/Unnatural/Gross/Sinful/Wrong,” I will argue with them. I still think they’re wrong. But I care a lot less about these people than about the ones who do care whether or not same-sex couples can get married, and especially the ones who by some twisted logic claim that there is anything at all acceptable about laws banning sodomy.

And, of course, in these debates, someone who thinks they’re really smart always shows up and asks things like, “But aren’t you legislating your morality upon others by saying that they can’t legislate their morality upon others?”

No; this is asinine. The default in a free, just society should be having rights rather than not having rights. So if you’re going to take away someone’s right to do something, you’d better have a damn good reason.

So why can we ban murder but not gay sex?

Well, even if homosexuality were wrong, it would still be wrong in a completely different way than murder. If homosexuality is wrong, it’s wrong because we (or god) just don’t like it. Murder is wrong because it infringes on the rights of others to live.

And, really, if we’re going to base our legal system on religious scripture, I’m still waiting for the laws banning gossiping, lying, speaking ill of one’s parents, working on Sundays, and refusing to love thy neighbor.

Sarah Silverman and Mandatory Childbearing

Sarah Silverman in “Let My People Vote.”

A few weeks ago, a certain Rabbi Rosenblatt that I’d never heard of before wrote an open letter to Jewish comedian Sarah Silverman, criticizing her for…her political beliefs? Her comedic style? Her fashion sense?

Nope, for her decision not to have children. Which apparently means that she’s not “really” Jewish, which means that she shouldn’t be using Jewish terminology in her comedy, as she did in her video, “Let My People Vote.”

You will soon turn 42 and your destiny, as you stated, will not include children. You blame it on your depression, saying you don’t want to pass it on to another generation.

I find that confusing, coming from someone as perceptive as you are in dissecting flawed arguments. Surely you appreciate being alive and surely, if the wonder of your womb were afflicted with your weaknesses and blessed with your strengths, it would be happy to be alive, too.

I am not surprised that Rosenblatt finds this confusing, and I wouldn’t hesitate to guess that he’s never been depressed. Unless you have, you don’t really understand what it’s like, and why someone might not wish to inflict that on their children. No doubt the wonder of Silverman’s womb would indeed be happy to be alive. But it’s not like her unconceived children can regret the fact that she chose not to have them, can they?

You said you wouldn’t get married until gay people can. Now they can. And you still haven’t married. I think, Sarah, that marriage and childrearing are not in the cards for you because you can’t focus on building life when you spend your days and nights tearing it down.

This is such a childish thing to say. “OHHH, but you said you wouldn’t get married till gay people could, and now they can! Why haven’t you gotten married, then? Huh? HUH?!”

One thing to note is that Rosenblatt is completely and predictably ignorant about the state of same-sex marriage rights. You would be forgiven for assuming that because Rosenblatt is Jewish, he lives in New York, which recently legalized same-sex marriage. Actually, though, he’s from Texas. Not only does Texas ban same-sex marriage in its constitution, but it even had anti-sodomy laws on the books less than a decade ago. Oops.

Not only does Rosenblatt not understand basic legal reality, but he also, apparently doesn’t understand English. Silverman did not say, “Once gay people can get married, I’ll get married too.” What she actually said was this:

Not only would I not get married until everyone can, I kind of am starting to get appalled by anybody who would get married in this day and age. Anyone who considers themselves for equal rights, to get married right now seems very odd to me.

In other words, legalization of same-sex marriage is a necessary condition for Silverman to get married, but it is not a sufficient one.

Rosenblatt continues on his Quixotic quest to produce the stupidest open letter ever written:

You have made a career making public that which is private, making crude that which is intimate, making sensual that which is spiritual. You have experienced what traditional Judaism taught long ago: when you make sex a public thing it loses its potency. When the whisper is replaced with a shout there is no magic to speak about. And, in my opinion, Sarah, that is why you have had trouble forging a permanent relationship – the most basic desire of the feminine soul.

Oh, that ludicrous idea that sex is something to be kept Sacred and Secret and Intimate or else it stops being awesome. I saw this myth trotted out during the Northwestern fucksaw controversy of 2011, and here it is again. I’ll address it in detail some other time, but for now, let me just say this: it’s false.

So wrapped up is Rosenblatt in his medieval conception of “the feminine soul” that he never realizes that women who don’t want children do exist, and that childless (or childfree) women are not necessarily so because they have “trouble forging a permanent relationship.” Or because there’s anything else wrong with them, for that matter.

And I totally get that it can be very difficult to imagine that something you hold very, very dear isn’t really important to someone else, especially when it comes to life choices. Personally, I don’t really understand people who want to spend their lives doing stuff with money on computers rather than being therapists, but I’m sure that it’s not because of some terrible flaw in their character.

Judaism celebrates the monogamous, intimate relationship with a spouse as the prototype of the intimate relationship with God. Marriage, in Judaism, is holy. Family, in Judaism, is celebrated. But for you, nothing is holy; in your world, nothing is permanent. Your ideology is secular. Your culture may be Jewish, but your mind is not.

 

I think you have latched on to politics because you are searching for something to build. There is only so much pulling down one can do without feeling utterly destructive. You want to fight for a value so you take your belief – secularism – and promote it. As an Orthodox rabbi, I disagree with just about everything you say, but respect your right to say it. All I ask, respectfully, is that you not use traditional Jewish terminology in your efforts. Because doing so is a lie.

So there’s his whole thought process. Silverman isn’t married, doesn’t have/want children, and talks about sex, so therefore she’s not “really” Jewish, and therefore, she can’t use “traditional Jewish terminology.”

Ironically, the use of traditional Jewish terminology that Rosenblatt takes issue with isn’t even part of a comedy routine, and doesn’t even involve that nasty sex stuff he’s so upset by. The “Let My People Vote” video exposes Republican attempts to restrict voting rights by requiring photo IDs and shows how certain groups of people may effectively be disenfranchised by them. The only objection Rosenblatt could possibly have with the video is that it uses the word “fuck” prodigiously, in which case he should probably get over himself.

Rosenblatt ends his self-righteous and myopic letter like so:

I pray that you channel your drive and direct your passion to something positive, something that will make you a better and more positive person, something that will allow you to touch eternity and truly impact the world forever. I pray that you pursue marriage and, if you are so blessed, raise children.

 

Marriage and children will change the way you see the world. It will allow you to appreciate the stability that Judaism, the religion of your ancestors, espouses. And it will allow you to understand and appreciate the traditional lifestyle’s peace, security, and respect for human dignity – things you have spent your life, so far, undermining.

Don’t get me wrong, marriage and children can be great things. I personally look forward to both. But to pretend that they are more “positive” than political action and that they “impact the world forever” is naive and narrow-minded.

Here’s an uncomfortable truth: nobody but you, your friends, and your family (and apparently Rabbi Rosenblatt) really cares about your marriage and your children. If you’re going to get married and have kids, do it because you want to and because it’s meaningful for you, not because you want to make a mark on the world.

For that, you’ll need to actually leave your house and do something.

If Your God Condones Forced Pregnancy, Get a New God

[Content note: sexual assault]

I mean, I realize it’s not that simple, but could you at least consider it?

Richard Mourdock, a Republican senate candidate from Indiana, thinks we should be praising the Lord if we get pregnant from rape:

The only exception I have to have an abortion is in the case of the life of the mother. I struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize life is that gift from God. I think that even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.

Then of course the outcry began and Mourdock tried to apologize:

I said life is precious. I believe life is precious. I believe rape is a brutal act. It is something that I abhor. That anyone could come away with any meaning other than what I just said is regrettable, and for that I apologize.

What he seems to be saying is that rape itself is abhorrent, but the pregnancy that may result from it is not. This is puzzling. The two processes are not completely disjointed from each other. Pregnancy is a response that most female-bodied people are capable of having to sexual intercourse. If rape is awful, how can pregnancy resulting from rape be a gift?

And on that note, Dictionary.com defines gift as such: “something given voluntarily without payment in return, as to show favor toward someone, honor an occasion, or make a gesture of assistance.”

If the way your god honors, shows favor, or gives assistance to women who have survived a traumatic and possibly violent crime is by forcing them to carry an unwanted baby and then raise that child for 18 years, you need to find yourself a new god.

Oh, and if your politician supports forcing these religious beliefs on all Americans, you need to find yourself a new politician.

But incidentally, Mourdock has not only failed at being a decent human being and at understanding the U.S. Constitution. He has also, according to at least one writer, failed at interpreting his own religion. A Chicago Theological Seminary professor writes:

Rape is sin by the perpetrator and God does not cause sin. Conception following rape is a tragedy, not part of “God’s will.” The capacity for tragedy to occur in human life, and indeed in what we call “natural evil” like earthquakes, is a result of what Christians call “the fall” from perfection as described in Genesis.

When you make God the author of conception following rape, you make God the author of sin. This is a huge theological error, and one that Christian theologians have rejected since the first centuries of the faith.

Not being a Christian (much less a theologian) myself, I can’t necessarily vouch for this interpretation, but it certainly makes more sense to me than Mourdock’s.

What this suggests to me is that Mourdock, and others like him, aren’t actually interpreting their religious beliefs objectively and then coming to the conclusion that abortion is still wrong even after rape. Rather, they are reinterpreting the religion post hoc so that it supports their desired conclusion–that abortion is wrong no matter what.

Of course, religious beliefs should have exactly nothing to do with public policy, and I don’t understand how this is still up for debate. However, the fact that these politicians aren’t even expressing genuine religious ideas, but rather manipulating religion to make it seem like it supports their twisted morality, somehow pisses me off even more. Surely (whines the atheist) this is not what religion is about?

The thing about gifts is, they can be politely declined or flat-out refused or returned to the store or given to someone else. If god has so kindly offered you the “gift” of a pregnancy following a rape, you should be within your rights not to accept the gift.

A gift that is forced on someone without their consent is, by definition, not a gift at all.

Faith is not a Mental Illness

I’ve been seeing a disturbing tendency among atheists to compare religious belief to mental illness. Sometimes this comparison is made explicit, as in this article. Other times, however, the comparison is more implicit–for instance, when words like “crazy” and “delusional” are used to describe religious people or their beliefs (hi Dawkins).

These comparisons are inaccurate and offensive to both religious people and people with mental illnesses.

First of all, being religious is a choice. Being mentally ill is not. While it’s a bit arguable whether or not faith itself is a choice–I certainly can’t make myself believe in god, but perhaps others can–the existence and success of religious proselytism proves that choice is at least part of the equation. Only a completely ignorant person, on the other hand, would attempt to proselytize mental health (although it obviously does happen).

Regardless of whether or not you can choose to believe in god, you definitely get to choose whether and to what extent you observe a religion (unless you’re a child, but that’s different). People with schizophrenia don’t get to choose which hallucinations they have and how often. People with OCD don’t get to choose their compulsions. People with phobias don’t get to choose which phobias they have or how they manifest themselves.

Second, suggesting that religious people are mentally ill is sanctimonious and offensive. It insinuates that they are incapable of consciously and purposefully choosing to be religious, and that their religious beliefs are just as meaningless as a symptom of mental illness. It reminds me of when I used to bring up concerns with friends who would respond, “Oh, that’s not such a big deal, you just feel that way ’cause you’re depressed.”

As I mentioned, being religious is a choice. For most people, it’s a choice made with one’s own best interests in mind. Comparing that to a schizophrenic delusion is a wee bit condescending.

(Of course, delusions that are religious in nature do exist. Some people with schizophrenia believe that they are possessed by religious spirits of some kind, that they have spoken to god, or that they are the messiah. However, this is vastly different from the way most religious folks experience their faith, and is obviously a symptom of mental illness.)

Although I’m an atheist who kinda sorta wishes religion didn’t exist, the fact is that it does, and I refuse to believe that all of the billions of religious people in the world are just mentally ill. No, they’re onto something. It’s just not something that I’m interested in myself.

Finally, these comparisons trivialize the suffering that people with mental illnesses experience. The distinction between mental health and mental illness is not that mentally healthy people do not believe in supernatural things and mentally ill people do. The difference is that (most) mental illnesses interfere with the person’s functioning and make them feel, well, bad.

Religion, for all its flaws, often does the opposite–it provides people with community, teaches them to behave morally and charitably, and helps them cope with illness, death, and other challenges in life. (A caveat: I’m talking about religion at its best, not at its worst, and these same effects can be found elsewhere.)

So when you imply that the definition of mental illness is believing in things without evidence, you miss a lot about what it’s like to be mentally ill. Namely, you ignore the emotional pain, cognitive distortions, thwarted goals, ruined relationships, physical fatigue, and all the other things that are part of the experience of mental illness.

There are many interesting, intelligent, and non-offensive ways for atheists to argue against destructive religious ideas (for instance, here’s an example I read today). Calling religious people mentally ill is not one of those ways. Let’s put that kind of useless rhetoric back on the shelf where it belongs.

[guest post] The Dharma of Depression

My friend Seth, who has guest-posted here before (read it, it’s awesome), returns to talk about depression and Buddhism.

Note: The following is a transcript of a speech given at the weekly College Meeting for Worship at Earlham College.

Good afternoon, and thank you all for coming. It means a lot to me that people have come to hear me talk about this.

For my entire adult life, and most of my adolescence, I have struggled with depression.

Sorry to drop the heavy stuff on you right away, but this must be understood if anything is to come of the rest of my talk.

In many ways, I have been very lucky. I have never had to take medication; I know people who have. I know people who would not be with us today if they hadn’t had medication. I know people who are no longer with us. I have attended memorials for those people in this very meeting house.

Depression is a terrible, terrible disease.

Other diseases ravage your body; depression ravages your mind. It tears away at you will, your hope, at everything that makes you, you.

Let me be clear about this: depression is not sadness. 24/7 sadness would be incredibly obvious to everybody around you. But depression is much more insidious than that, and in my experience, it often takes your friends and loved ones by surprise when it crops up.

So what is depression, then?

Well, I obviously can’t speak for everybody, but here’s my experience:

Depression is being trapped in a slow, steady downward spiral of negative thoughts. Depression is thinking that the biggest mistake you made all day was getting out of bed. Depression is the feeling that you’re slowly falling to pieces, and the inability to pick yourself back up and put yourself back together. Depression is the irrational yet inescapable idea that your life means nothing to anybody, and that nothing would change if you just suddenly vanished from off the face of the earth.

The worst thing about depression, though, is that it devours the very resource that is necessary to fight it: your willpower. Sure, maybe you know that you should try talking about it to a friend you trust, or make an appointment to see a councilor, and that might help. But how in the world are you going to do that when you’re lucky just to have the ability to pry yourself out of bed in the morning?

All this is very important to understand. Partly for my story, because this is what I mean when I say that I was depressed. But also because you may well meet somebody suffering from depression in the future, or maybe you already know somebody who is. It will help both of you if you have at least some idea of what they’re going through.

But back to my question, because for far too many people, it isn’t rhetorical. How do you fight something that destroys your ability to fight?

Like the experience of depression, the key to overcoming it is different for each individual person. For me, the key was faith, which is why I’m here talking to you all today.

It may surprise some of those here that know me when I say that I consider myself a deeply religious person. Part of that is probably because I’m not extremely outspoken about my religious beliefs, and when I do talk about them I tend to frame them as a general philosophy about the world rather than a spiritual belief. Part of that is probably a cultural tendency to assume that “religious” means Christian, or at least Abrahamic, which I am neither. Nor is the religion I wound up devoting myself to the same one I was brought up with. Nevertheless, I consider myself religious because my personal philosophy and sense of morality are, if not directly taken from my religion’s teachings, very much in sync with them.

Allow me to explain.

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