Posts Tagged ‘ religion ’

Prayers for an Atheist

The last act of Christopher Hitchens’ life, his terminal illness, provided Hitchens with perhaps his greatest opportunity to make his case for atheism and against religion. He would face the end happy in his certainty that there was no god, and his very comfort in facing death with no prospect of an afterlife made many of us think and rethink the biggest questions of our existence. Not a bad legacy at all for a man who wanted nothing more than to generate thought. We should all be so lucky.

That Hitchens died slowly also provided believers with a chance to show a spectrum of religious thought. Sadly, a good many made Hitchens’ case for him by hoping or praying that Hitchens’ looming mortality would finally win him over. As he incisively put it:

[I]t seems to me a bit crass to be trying to talk to people about conversion when you know they are ill. The whole idea of hovering over a sick person who is worried and perhaps in discomfort and saying now is the time to reconsider strikes me as opportunist at the very best. 

Hitchens did, however, express appreciation for the many people who told him they were praying for his recovery. He called these gestures “a kindness” and a show of solidarity, but he pointed out he was certain the prayers did no good. On this last point, both Hitchens and his intercessors got it right and wrong at the same time. Indeed, the prayers had no effect on Hitchens’ health, and he died. Moreover, is praying for a given outcome even consistent with faith? Many certainly think so, but I don’t  believe in what I call transactional prayer, in which one asks for something and treats the outcome as a response from god. I’m not making a theological argument, because I’m ignorant of theology, but an argument about what I believe faith and god and prayer are about: love, compassion, wonder, and the ability to feel them. Roger Ebert did a nice job of summing it up for me in his review of Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life:

Some few films evoke the wonderment of life’s experience, and those I consider a form of prayer. Not prayer “to” anyone or anything, but prayer “about” everyone and everything. I believe prayer that makes requests is pointless. What will be, will be. But I value the kind of prayer when you stand at the edge of the sea, or beneath a tree, or smell a flower, or love someone, or do a good thing. Those prayers validate existence and snatch it away from meaningless routine.

I’ll go further: acceptance of “what will be” is a prerequisite for prayer of the kind that Ebert describes. I don’t know if the people who prayed for Hitchens, and who pray for him now, really expected to change the course of his disease. I did not. I left it at compassion, of feeling for him. For those of us who still feel awe, who seek and cherish the ineffable, who seek love and compassion, this approach may help  bring us into communion with our atheist brothers and sisters. As brilliant as Hitchens was, he was never going to win over a person who has felt a greater reality than this one, and no religious person was going to persuade Hitchens of the intangible. So why try, when in the end no one gets the answer until they die? Until we die, the one thing I see common to the major religions and ethical systems is a call to embrace our lack of control over the world, over the future, and in doing so free ourselves to love. To the extent that we can answer that call, atheists and believers could have precious little left to fight over. 


Mazel Tov!

My best friend is getting married, the last holdout among my childhood gang. His mother’s admonishment, “Don’t get married until you’re 30…and then think twice!” definitely stuck with him. But even if he had wanted to get married before now, he couldn’t have, because my best friend, Josh Moss, is gay. Because Josh lives in New York, as of last night, he has the same rights under the law as the rest of us. No better, no worse, certainly not a “special” right. Yes, Josh and his partner Wilson will now be free to share property and make decisions about their lives as the rest of us do, and yes, they’ll be free to screw up and have bad marriages and divorce as the rest of us do. Josh can tell you about the beauty of this most prosaic and yet fundamental of civil rights in his own words, in a beautifully written article on, where he is the editor.

The remarkable victory in New York provided a striking window into where we are as a nation when it comes to respecting the rights of our fellow citizens. On the one hand, we had the increasingly strained and hypocritical complaints from Archbishop Timothy Dolan, who somehow feared that a secular, legal contract was more of a threat to civilization than the nightmare of child abuse in the church allowed by his brothers of the cloth. On the other hand, we had the plain-spoken truth of Republican State Senator Roy McDonald, who reacted to the pressure from Dolan and other social conservatives by saying “Well, f— it, I don’t care what you think. I’m trying to do the right thing.”

For me personally, aside from looking forward to an epic wedding ceremony and reception, I think about what got me past my own, mistaken moral reasoning, many years ago. I was raised to believe that being gay meant you were “disordered,” as the Catholic Church still teaches, or otherwise abnormal. In freshman year of college, when Josh and I were roommates and I didn’t know that he was gay, I glibly came home from a psych 101 class and pronounced to Josh that homosexuality was simply abnormal psychology. That Josh still managed to come out to me a short time later was a testament to his love for me as a friend, and to his moral courage. I spent a day lining up my abstract moral and “scientific” judgment on one side, and the fact that Josh as a gay man was the same person who had been my friend through thick and thin, a person who was so like me that people sometimes mistook us for one another. At the end of that day, the abstract fell away to reality, and I never looked back. People who still cling to the idea of homosexuality being some kind of perversion or disease can only be so lucky as I was. Or, more elegantly, they could just take a look at it, listen to others’ stories, and do the right thing, as Sen. McDonald did.

You know you need to rethink when…

…you purport to represent Jesus but you sound increasingly like the Chinese Communist Party. Seriously. Take a look:

“With this spirit today we rally close around you, successor to (St.) Peter, bishop of Rome, the unfailing rock of the holy church.” –Cardinal Angelo Sodano to Pope Benedict, 5 April 2010

…let us rally closely around the Party Central Committee and work with one heart and one mind in a joint and unyielding effort to advance the cause of building socialism with Chinese characteristics and create a happier life and a better future for us all!” –Chinese President Jiang Zemin, 8 November 2002

Notably, the Vatican is also taking a page out of the CCP style book in claiming unsubstantiated victimhood at the hand of nameless attackers. Just as criticism or disagreement with Beijing policy necessarily “hurts the feelings of the Chinese people,” so questioning the Vatican’s handling of the most vile of crimes is an anti-Catholic “hate” campaign, an organized “vile defamation operation.”

The faithful deserve better than the brittle spin of the Chinese Politburo, but that’s what they are getting. The similarities speak volumes about what’s wrong with the Vatican.

Anita Bryant then, Rick Warren now

Watching “Milk,” the new biography of murdered San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, I was struck by the arguments made in the film by Anita Bryant against gays in the mid-1970s. She and others of her ilk at the time claimed that gays were immoral and thus should be denied their civil rights. In California, this thinking manifested itself as Proposition 6, which called for firing gay public school teachers.  The argument behind the proposition, as John Briggs, the California state senator who led the campaign stated repeatedly, was the demonstrably false argument that gays somehow “recruit” or train children to become homosexual. This claim was at the heart of Bryant’s broader anti-homosexual crusade and the beginning of the modern Christian conservative political movement.

I was struck both because the idea that sexuality is learned is so ridiculous, but also because the evil lie that homosexuality is immoral persists so strongly today. The proof of its persistence is the fact that Rick Warren, pastor of the Saddleback megachurch, can publicly assert views nearly identical to Bryant’s and still be invited to give the invocation at Barack Obama’s inauguration Tuesday. Warren said late last year that allowing gays to marry would be equivalent to allowing “a brother and sister to be together and call that marriage,” or “an older guy marrying a child and calling that a marriage.” This is the same argument Bryant was making in the 1970s–that if we tolerate gays, the next thing you know we’ll have to tolerate bestiality, incest, and pedophilia. It is shocking to have to explain this, but just to be clear, homosexuality is merely a status, a person’s identity. There is nothing immoral about being attracted to a person of the same gender. Bestiality, pedophilia, and incest, on the other hand, are behaviors chosen by (mostly heterosexual) people. A homosexual may act in an immoral manner, just as a heterosexual may, but Warren and Bryant see immorality and criminality in the mere existence of homosexuality. And if Warren indeed is only concerned with avoiding a redefinition of marriage, why not push for civil unions to be allowed for homosexuals? After all, that’s all a civil marriage is anyway. The sanctity of a “5000-year tradition” exists in the church, not the courthouse.

The movie version of Milk’s life and politics highlighted his brilliant insistence that gays come out to the people they knew. My best friend bravely took Milk’s advice just a few years after Milk’s murder, even though I had earlier drawn upon my Psych 101 expertise to confidently tell my friend that homosexuality was “clearly abnormal.” When my friend told me, I spent the whole day trying to reconcile what I thought I knew with the reality that he was the same person he had always been. By the end of the day, I accepted that it just didn’t matter–we were friends and would remain so. He wasn’t a monster or any more or less moral than he had been when I didn’t know he was gay.

We may need another wave of gays coming out to their friends and family, but this time in our churches. We have to demand that our fellow congregants know that the gays among them are sinners, just as we all are, and thus have a place at God’s table.  Rick Warren should be ashamed to pretend to judge any person, gay or straight, for that is God’s job, not his.  And Barack Obama should be ashamed to accommodate Warren’s hate.