Monday, May 27, 2013

What is this thing you call "community?"

What is the difference between a community and a club?  What brings people together in relationship and strengthens feelings of togetherness and solidarity? Is that an ethical goal to strive for? Is there not a risk of group-think and an inhibition of individual, critical thought, once people are part of a group they care about? Will the introduction of ritual and symbolism - the tools of religion, of nationalism hinder our ability to see the world and this movement for what it really is, perhaps at a time when we need to be able to be most critical?

This movement is growing, and it's growing faster and faster.  We have a whole generation of young nontheists and secular humanists coming of age in American Society.  Do they need a place to participate in those like themselves?  Do we need a sense of family within this movement?  With home will we celebrate births and mourn deaths?  How will we mark the coming of age and celebrate unions between loved ones and their families?  From what base of support will we engage in civic action and advocate for positive social and political change?  Do we not need to replace the community of religion with a community of secularists who are engaged in doing good?  Who are engaged in exploring what it is to do good?  People who are actively a thoughtful and contemplate if around the concept of ethics must be able to explore those topics with one another if they are to do more than enhance their academic understanding.

I want to have people, I want to celebrate life with my people.  Who are my people?  My first answer to that question is simple.  All beings on this earth capable of joy and suffering.  I include them in my global community.  But the second answer is narrower but no less important.  My people are those who are, like me, engaged in the work of improving this world, this country, this society, this state, this town, this neighborhood - and are engaging in that work through the lenses of reason and compassion.

It doesn't mean that everybody in my advocacy community, my local family, must agree with me that we need to eliminate sex and gender from a our legal and social definitions around what makes a valid family, a valid person.  To be in my community you do not have to see social progress the same way I do, but you must be willing to engage in what solutions there me or may not be in the framework of secular and reasoned compassion.

Is this a threat to the individuality and the critical thinking that we so treasure? I don't believe it has to be.  I believe that we can embrace of those as central tenants of a community.  I believe that we can have symbolism and ritual that reinforces our connection to one another, but also reinforces our unending commitment to empirical truth and the rejection of dogmatic thinking.

I want to be able light a candle in remembrance or as a symbol of invitation and welcoming. That does not mean that I believe the candle to have some supernatural impact.  I can even light it while saying "this act if, done collectively in a group, is influencing us in a way that encourages us to think and act together. Let us be mindful to only participate in those community actions that which we agree with, personally, individually, reasonably. Let us never judge or marginalize those among us that choose not to participate. That very act of choice and freethought is the one thing we as a community must always cherish, otherwise we cannot call ourselves freethinkers."

Perhaps the key is to include, in the ritual, the celebration of dissent from the practice? Perhaps the key is in the ritual itself.  The few times I went to a Unitarian Universalist (UU) congregation I observed two rituals.  One that I liked and one that I didn't.  The one that I liked was a sharing of joys and sorrows.  Individual members of the congregation were invited to stand before the group and share something from their week that impacted them.  It was a way to seek and receive support and to feel part of a loving and caring community but eight was specifically focused on the individual.  On their thoughts, their observations, their experience.  The ritual I did not like was when the congregation stood as a whole and recited a creed together.  It was a chant.  It was groupthink.  I had no objections to the words in the creed.  There was no discussion of god.  There were great lines about social justice and advocacy for those that need it.  As a creed it was one that I could support wholeheartedly but the minute the group stood and recited it by rote with one another - my skin crawled.  Perhaps these are examples of rituals that are designed to accomplish different things.  My community has embraced a practice similar to the sharing of joys and sorrows. We do this at the opening of each of our ethics discussions. It has been, at times, silly and at other times extremely powerful. I think ritual and symbolism do have a place in this movement as long as we are thoughtful and deliberate to preserve the critical celebration of skepticism.

What do you think?  Do you think ritual and symbolism have a place in secular communities?  If so, what should those look like?  If not, why not?

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Well done Rep. Juan Mendez, Serah Blain and the Secular Coalition for Arizona!

We have an Atheist Representative in the Arizona State legislature, we have national coverage from USA Today, Salon, and Huffington Post but if you want the best coverage you have to go to The Friendly Atheist with the inside scoop. Much more attention is sure to come as more outlets pick it up.  

None of this would have been possible if it hadn’t been for the wonderful, tireless work of SerahBlain and the Secular Coalition for Arizona.

The horrible hold that the religious right have had on our state government, lead mostly by the Center forArizona Policy (the AZ branch of Focus on the Family) is losing its grip, slowly but surely. They are on the defensive and they are going to lose. Antiquated, and minority opinions about what we should legislate about regarding sex, marriage, women’s healthcare, religious ‘liberty’, and every other bigoted, predatory, privileged and religiously motivated stand is going to lose footing as reason and compassion gain footing in Arizona and in the country once again.

Serah spoke about this work eloquently in front of the capital building at the Unite Against the War on Women Rally last summer She and her coalition are getting it done!

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Culture crippled by religion – Failing to respond to sex crimes and other horrors

Trigger Warning: This post discusses issues around abductions, sexual abuse and sexual trauma.

I have not been a victim of violent assault. I am not a victim of prolonged physical, sexual abuse. I have never been abducted or held captive for extended periods of time. I am not writing from a position of authority or experience. BUT I have known and cared about some people that have experienced these things and I know how hard it can be for them to self-advocate at all let alone publicly around issues associated with that kind of trauma. So maybe I am one of the last people that should be writing about this, however, I don’t see many others doing it so I’m going to give it a shot.

This last week has been a rough one for the empathetic idealists among us, and more so for those that have been the victims of abductions, victims of sexual and physical abuse and trauma- in particular for those that have endured prolonged captivity and abuse. First there was the exploitation of Elizabeth Smart in an article that appeared to celebrate her. It wasn’t a traumatic discussion it was a good one but it re-surfaced some hard issues. After the Smart article stirred things up, it was followed closely by media frenzy around the recovery of the three abduction victims in Ohio – complete with horrific details paraded in front of the tragedy-hungry and blissfully ignorant public, and of course no trigger warnings anywhere,

Report after report highlighted how the recovered women will need privacy (while filming them in front of their homes as they walk through swarming crowds) and they will need therapy. What therapy? What is there for these women to help them cope with 10 years of abusive captivity? Very little. PTSD is finally getting some serious attention and acceptance in our social awareness – in large part due to the undeniable impact of wars on our soldiers. Consequently the mental health industry is finally giving PTSD more serious attention, but what these women are going to be dealing with is something deeper and more profound. It’s called Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or C-PTSD. There are no real treatments for this. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) still hasn’t added it to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) - but I'm adding several links later. We are failing these victims and we are failing to do even a small amount of what we could be to protect the next potential victims from the next sexual predators. Why? Why haven’t we made more progress in the prevention of these tragedies? Why haven’t we developed better treatments for those that face a life, after?How could we when we can’t even talk about it- at least not in a productive way. 
The media hounds the victims while quoting their requests for privacy? Where are the statistics and the analysis how people come to be predators? Where are the hotlines and the recovery programs?  Why do we hear so little about what can be done to prevent these things from happening? We seem content to assume that these things just happen and you can’t predict where/when. Why aren’t we teaching our kids, hell, ourselves about the who/what/why/how of these events? What are we trying to protect ourselves from? As usual it’s reality. We don’t like the reality – but here’s some reality:

There are very few good statistics on this. The department of justice report that produced the statics that seem to be the only ones that you can find is from the late 90’s!  Seriously? We haven’t been tracking this stuff better than that? But let’s work with what we’ve got.

 - 115 children (17 and younger – there are no statistics that I can find anywhere on adult abductions) were ‘stereotypically’ kidnapped in one year. By ‘stereotypical kidnapping’ they mean “the particular type of nonfamily abduction that receives the most media attention and involves a stranger or slight acquaintance who detains the child overnight, transports the child at least 50 miles, holds the child for ransom, abducts the child with intent to keep the child permanently, or kills the child.” About half of these children were sexually abused and many of them for extended periods of time, and about 40% of them were killed.

That’s rare, truly, but it’s not as rare as I would have thought considering I only can think of a dozen or so off the top of my head that I have known of in my lifetime. I’m 36 meaning that it is likely that some 4,000 such abductions have probably happened while I’ve been alive, and that’s assuming we have good estimates on this which is doubtful.

Here’s another from that same report:  

A much large number of children, about 58,000, were taken that year for shorter periods of time, mostly by people they knew but not relatives. In those cases, nearly half were sexually assaulted; fewer than 1% were killed. Nearly two-thirds were girls, mostly teens. These are shorter experiences but once again sexual abuse occurred in about half the instances.

These are relatively rare events, we think, but they aren’t as rare as most Americans would like to believe and there are more than a million survivors of these types of abductions and abuse living and trying to cope with the aftermath today. Sadly there aren’t as many survivors as there should be, suicide is a very common occurrence among those dealing with PTSD and even more so for those dealing with C-PTSD. 

So… where does that leave us? I’m not a fear monger. I’m not trying to scare anyone. I just want us to face squarely the reality of the situation we are dealing with. I don’t know about you but as far as I’m concerned, these are startling numbers – to know that some 30,000 children are being abducted, held and sexually abused every year – the simple weight of that suffering is overwhelming – and this is just in the United States!

Why? What has prevented us from addressing this better? Why hasn’t the per-capita numbers improved significantly over the years? How can we begin to deal with it if we can’t even talk about it?

Let’s start with the perpetrators. The paradigm we seem to have is that these ‘rare’ events are the result of a very few aberrations of humanity. That these predators are so far removed from the ‘norm’ and uncommon that there is nothing to do but teach our kids not to accept candy from strangers and hope for the best. How can we dismiss the fact that these predators are a part of the spectrum of humanity? Why do we refuse to consider them as such – we don’t like to, we aren’t like that, sure. It’s uncomfortable to consider them as ‘one of us’ but that doesn’t make it any less so. I don’t think that discomfort is the real core of the problem, however. I think the real blame lies at the paradigm we have had over the centuries about the ‘souls’ of mankind. That’s right –I’m pointing, once again, at religion. I can't lay this totally at the steps of our nation's churches but our 'natural' tendency to categorize and dismiss 'others' is fully capitalized on and feed on it, perpetuate it, encourage it. We have only just now started to really face the fact that we are biological machines. We ARE our bodies, the stuff of our ‘self’ is our brains and our hormones but the pervasive sense of ‘spirit’ makes this a difficult truth to accept. Couple that with dogma about ‘good’ and ‘evil’ mix in the ‘being made in God’s image’ bit and you have a very large population that still has a really hard time dealing with the idea that this is a medical, biological phenomena that can be studied, understood, probably screened for and treated. Imagine preventative medical screenings to find these sicknesses and treat or at least defend against them! These predators only are able to do what they do in the shadows our society creates for them. We don’t what to think of them as our neighbors, our family, but they are and we need to be willing to talk about it frankly, scientifically and rationally – if we are going to make any progress about fixing it.

Secondly – the survivors. We need to get serious about researching and understanding the mechanisms of trauma, of re-trauma and find some real treatments. The outlook for someone with PTSD is a hard one, for someone with C-PTSD it is rather bleak, indeed. There are some resources, but they are few and far between – I link some below. We have a long way to go and it’s not praying or the healing power of Jesus that’s going to do it. We need to invest in mental health science and we need to accept these people, mostly women, as the real and human people that they are. We need medicines that can interrupt the adrenaline/trauma experience without wiping out a person’s ability to react to the world. We need behavior therapy that doesn’t involve re-traumatizing the patients. We can do better. One thing we can do right now is to start making trigger warnings at least as important to us as warnings about ‘foul’ language or the harmless, healthy discussions of sexuality that we are hyper-attentive to. If we are going to discuss the details of an abuse case in the news – let’s not re-traumatize millions of people unnecessarily. Trigger warnings on the screen would be easy as a news ticker or a channel logo.

Finally – the rest of us.  We need to accept the reality of the spectrum of human sexuality without taboo and disdain. We HAVE to be able to talk about it. We HAVE to have comprehensive sexual education. We MUST bring sexuality out of the social shadows and into the open air. We have to be able to see our sexuality for what it is, a force that can be wonderful and it can also be scary but either way it …is….powerful and a central driving force in almost everyone’s life. The more clear and reasonable we can be when we talk to our children (and each other) about it, the better we will all be – the faster we will be able to move into an era where we can heal all bullshit that comes from having a religiously motivated fear and disgust of the topic - all the damage that the idea of ‘normal’ has done to us and our children. 

If we keep treating this like someone else's problem the solution will remain as invisible as they have been. 

links to C-PTSD reserach:

links to online resources groups/help for C-PTSD:


Friday, November 2, 2012

Reconstructed and delusional thought histories

I don’t know why I assume that everyone has had an experience of marveling at the peculiarly of where they are, who they are, and what they perceive their lives to be. I have had dozens of them. A sense of surprise and wonder around a momentary awareness of my world – a world built, decision by decision, by me but still almost foreign and strange. “How did I get to be here, doing this?” I assume everyone has had a similar experience entirely without any good justification for that assumption.

“I’m a nice guy, a good guy.”
“I’m a flawed but moral person, a disciple of Christ.”
“I want to be ethical.”
“I want to be an ethical advocate for informed compassion.”

I have thought of it in different ways over the years. I don’t know where this need comes from. If I am honest, it’s as much about being able to feel good about me as it is about empathy and compassion for others but, just as honestly, I feel that is shifting more and more to the space of real altruism.

This need has pushed and pulled me through different worlds and spheres in my life. Pushed and pulled against other urges and desires. The tempest of life – influences, desires, ideas spinning around us clutching at our ‘hearts’, minds, hungers. We are tossed and drawn, gently and violently, imperceptibly, joyfully, painfully from one understanding to another. We learn and we unlearn. We grow and we regress. Through it all, if we are thoughtful, we hope that we are making some sort of progress – whatever that can possibly mean.

As a boy I wanted to be nice and gentle and caring to the only people in this world that mattered to me, women, and I was. I was gentle and caring but insincere and inauthentic. I wanted their attraction and affection and eventually I learned how to get it. I sincerely wanted to be good to them, but I didn’t learn how to be sincere with them and so I hurt people and I hated myself and fled from myself and my world to the Navy.

I fled myself and went spiritually adrift. It wasn’t long before I found a fix for myself, in the form of a good woman and a world of simple moral absolutes. I took refuge on that island for a long, long time. Taking the calmness of the lagoon as all I needed. I wasn’t living; I was protected from living, from navigating the tempest that is life furiously churning just beyond the breakwaters made of religious dogma. Once I realized that, and I realized there was deep suffering that I was ignoring and contributing to by being on that island, I had to leave, and I had to leave alone.

I built a raft with sticks of my own budding ideas and twigs from Hitchens and Harris and I bound it all together with intellectual curiosity. My tiny sail was fashioned from offended sensibilities. Then I headed out, back into the storm, and waves. I think that I will make similar mistakes as those that sent me into the arms of the Navy and of religion but I am self aware in a way I never have been. I am world-aware in a way that I never have been. I have maps. I am adding to my vessel, slowly, and I hope that I will eventually find a good rudder, maybe even an anchor but for now I am content to know that I am sailing.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Moving forward...


How’ve you been?

Yes, yes. It’s been a long time, I know. What have I been up to? Well…..

- I got divorced. I did post, once, right after that so I guess I don’t need to mention that but it seemed like the appropriate place to start.
- I became an atheist activist. 
- I started a freethinkers group, the Flagstaff Freethinkers
- I started volunteering with the Secular Coalition forArizona as their Community Outreach and Development Director
- I started dating the only professional, state-level secular lobbyist in the country
- I commenced to lose myself in volunteering – both for the coalition and elsewhere, being a single dad half-time, developing the Flagstaff Freethinkers – 150 members and growing,  as well as other nontheist communities throughout the state, going to conferences all over the country, building a relationship – oh yeah, and keeping that day job thing going.

Who cares, right? Yeah.. I know – I’m just giving the background.

So what have I really been doing?

What I have been doing is evolving my ideas around what this movement is, what I think it should be and what, if any, role I should play in it. Even more fundamentally I have been learning. I have been developing, expanding my concept of ethics and compassion. I have learned about the work of Greg Epstein and the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard. I have learned about Ethical Culture. I have learned about the Unitarian Universalists. I have had some hard lessons, I have had knapsack thoroughly unpacked with Sikivu Hutchinson. I have seen the amazing efforts of diplomats in the disheartening fight for secularism in my theocratic state of Arizona. I have broken bread with Dawkins but it was the conversation with Sean Faircloth that I remember most from that night. I stood in the rain at the Reason Rally but it was the march to the hill at the Secular Coalition for America’s lobby day that made the trip to D.C. valuable to me.

I was content for a long time, mostly because I needed it as part of my process, to pick religious dogmas and cultures and cannons and ‘moralities’ to pieces. I had an axe to grind and believe you me I still do! I also am ready for more than that. I need more than that. I want to do more than point out the problems, I am not here to champion atheism, really what I want is to participate in efforts towards solutions.

I need community. I need social justice. I need to do something productive and positive. I need to participate in active compassion. So that’s what I will be working on, and writing about much of the way moving forward – building community, finding purpose in service and social justice and the way all of that is motivated by a purely secular worldview. It’s not all going to be secular community activism, Engineers Without Boarders, Humanist schools in Uganda. I still have a lot to vent about. There is at least as much JTEberhard left in me as there is Chris Stedman so I will probably be a little “bi-polar” between my firebrand and my diplomat but that is who I am right now.

I wish I had been writing about this personal process along the way. I would like to have been more conscious and attentive to it for one thing but I would also like to have documented it and shared it with you good people, well… person. The next post will be a short discussion of my thoughts looking back at it from where I am now.