My wife and I met at church in Ames Iowa. We had seen each other before, but she didn't take interest in me until she saw me taking notes near the front row. Her friends had warned her against meeting guys in bars...advice I actually agree with. She assumed that I must be one of the good ones. What she didn't know is that the church she attended was the third I had visited that week.
Lulu told me when she first came to Ames Iowa she thought she had come to heaven...because the people she met were so kind. One reason for her impression is that Ames has many strong religious communities that help foreign students assimilate. The church where we met did more than just preach. They also helped Lulu furnish her modest apartment, helped teach her English, and connected her with a "Family Group" to support her.
Many of my closest friends are deeply religious. I met most of them in college where I attended every Church, Synagogue, and Mosque within a 20 mile radius of Ames. I sang in the choir at Collegiate Presbyterian, attended Lulu's Family Group and pulled an all nighter at Saint Thomas Aquinas with the Youth Group.
After church I would often climb trees with friends and talk about the meaning of life...Peter, John, Cliff, Naomi, Chris, Heath...you know who you are. I won't call you out in an article on such a sensitive topic, but just want you to know that your influence during these formative years was an incredible gift that keeps giving to this day.
My interest in religion started when I was very young. Mom loved the music at a Baptist Church so we attended despite being the only white family there. I fell asleep every night to her singing songs about god...many were her own compositions. To this day her songs are some of the most beautiful sounds I've ever heard.
Church was boring to me. Children at our local Methodist Church in Winfield Iowa were encouraged to color outlines of Jesus and Noah’s Arc because without crayons we became disruptive to the elderly who enjoyed singing old hymns more than debates on the meaning of scripture. Once my mother grounded me in my room on a Sunday. I was pleased to have missed Church until I remembered that I would also be missing the cookies offered after service, and so I escaped out my window. She caught me, but only after I had succeeded in stuffing myself.
My parents broke up when I was four so after living with my grandparents for a couple years I lived with my Dad. We occasionally attended church but stopped abruptly after 9/11. My Dad was (and still is) a philosopher at heart. He bought me books on Kierkegaard and Plato’s Republic. He asked me questions like, “What’s the difference between Ethics and Laws?”, And “If you could save five peoples lives by killing one person, would you do it?”
To this day I believe my deep interest in the topics of Religion, Philosophy, and Ethics are in large part due to conversations with my Dad. He taught me to ask questions, dig deeper and think critically. He helped me appreciate life's mystery while also grounding my views in facts, data, and science.
My tendency to be lost in deep thoughts made it difficult for me it fit in. The toughest years were 9-13. Kids are cruel, especially to other kids that are not "cool". My questioning and critical mind ran counter to the arbitrary social scoring of junior high school kids. Moving to a new city was hard. Having divorced parents was hard. But lacking a community like a church made it even harder, although I didn’t realize this until years later.
One experience still haunts me. When I was in 3rd grade I was friends with a nerdy kid that wore thick glasses. Everyone picked on him, and I was bullied for being his friend. One day on the playground I was threatened by a group of older boys who told me that if I didn’t join them in taking turns kicking my friend that I would be next. It pains me deeply to admit that I joined them. My friend never spoke to me again, and I don't blame him. I tell this story to my girls so they don't repeat my mistakes. I tell them everyone needs a moral compass. If you don’t have one, you will by guided by those around you.
Philosophy helped me learn to think critically...but it didn't help me find community.
Life got easier in high school and my interest in religion and philosophy exploded. When I was 14 a group of well dressed boys came to my home and handed me a copy of the Book of Mormon. I read a few pages and wasn’t impressed, but I was very impressed by the gentleman that couldn’t have been much older than myself. Their demeanor was so pleasant, their intentions so obviously selfless that I immediately felt a connection.
One of those boys was Austin Smith...a good friend that gave me permission to share his name. He invited me to his Church and I got up at 5:30AM to attend several times. My Dad was curious as to why I was waking up so early...and was a bit concerned when he found out. But he didn't stop me.
At 15 my sister became a born again Christian. I remember that day like it was yesterday. She came home with a smile on her face and asked me if she could clean my room. I asked her why, and she replied that she just wanted to help and knew that I could sometimes be messy. We had not always gotten along, but how could I be mad at anyone that volunteers to clean my room!
At 16 I joined a church in hopes that it would land me a date! I doubt I’m the first male to do this, but it’s still somewhat embarrassing. What amazes me today is that my plan would have worked except for my inability to keep my mouth shut. The girl was a member of a youth group. I happily attended, but quickly grew tired of simply listening to passages so I started asking lots of questions. The leader of the ministry mistook my questions for an interest in helping lead the group and so within a month I was granted the position of “youth minister”.
My promotion played perfectly into my grand plan, but I had a hard time ignoring very good questions from other kids like “why does God let babies die?”, and “What if someone never hears of Jesus and dies, do they go to hell?”. I couldn’t help but think back to all those conversations with Dad. It wasn’t long before the Ministry leadership caught on that I was kindling doubts in the minds of their members and I was kindly asked to leave. This was the first time my interest in Philosophy would undermine my baser impulses...but it would not be the last.
At 17 I became a nerd...obsessing over ideas. So much so that my English teacher picked up on it and put me in a philosophy course a year ahead of my peers. But the class covered many of the same topics my Dad had already covered, so to appease my boredom I got into debates. On one occasion I distinctly remember making one of my Christian classmates cry.
He told me he was both a Christian and believer in evolution. So I asked him, “At what point did your ancestors mutate into having souls?” At first he seemed confused by my question, and so I pointed out that if humans evolved from animals, but only humans have souls, that at some point humans must have evolved to have souls. He sat their quietly as I continued to drive the point...demanding that he either accept that all living things have an ability to reach heaven, or accept that all of his ancestors are dead without a trace, and furthermore, will be wiped from the memories of humanity as soon as our Sun burns out.
Obviously I was acting like an obnoxious jerk. Many people hold beliefs that help them cope with the tremendous challenges that come with being human. Debates helped me cope with all the unanswered questions about life like "Why are we here?" and "Who am I?". Not knowing was hard but proving to myself that no one else knew either helped me overcome my own insecurities.
Discovering myself at Iowa State University was an incredible experience. I learned that I loved to learn...and that applied to everything from my studies to my views on God. While visiting Churches and talking philosophy in the trees I finally started to find peace. A peace that comes with an acceptance of my own mortality and that no one can control the future.
Death is a very useful concept. Even reading the word "Death" makes many people feel uncomfortable, but death is what makes life scarce and scarcity creates value. It’s a paradox that what we cherish the most, time, has meaning in opposite proportion to how much we have. When I think about my own mortality it helps me focus on what’s important.
By accepting that I am going to die ... I find it easier to be a loving husband and father.
By believing that my time is short ... I find it easier to live in the moment.
By giving up control of the future ... I find it easier to stop worrying and just live.
God means many things to many people...and I am not going to pretend to know who or what god is. All I can do is share my view and hope that you share yours so that we can learn together. Here is my understanding...
SimLife is an old computer game developed in 1992. I loved this game. You start with nothing but rocks, volcanoes, and ocean covering the surface of an otherwise (highly pixelated) empty planet. Then life starts to evolve. You get to manipulate the genetics of animals as they appear along with the weather and climate. There was no real goal. It was just cool watching how changing the environment changed the path of evolution. But I eventually got bored of this game because what I really wanted to do was change the source code. I wanted to change the rules of the game.
God, to me, is the creator of RealLife. She wrote the program, but never published the source code. However, that doesn’t really matter because you can actually get a pretty clear picture of it by simply observing the Rules of Life which include:
Paradox: life is a mystery; Don't waste time trying to figure it out.
Humor: Keep a sense of humor, especially about yourself. It is a strength beyond all measure.
Change: Know that nothing stays the same.
Don’t be an a-hole (nuff said)
The first three come from my favorite movie, “Peaceful Warrior”; which conveniently sums up 80% of my life philosophy into one standard length feature film (way more convenient than a thousand page manuscript). I added the fourth rule because my own life experience has taught me that not being an a-hole is key to living a happy life.
Just as I can live this reality I can imagine many others. For example, I can imagine a reality with only 2 elements instead of 118 in the periodic table. That would make life impossible (not to be confused with improbable). Having only two elements would suck. It would suck because no matter how many galaxies there might be in the universe…the fact that all we got in the universe are a bunch of Barium and Iron planets banging into each other would make for a pretty boring reality.
When my mind is clear and my eyes are open the code of this Matrix we call life becomes readable. It becomes more than just “blond, brunette, redhead”… the Rules of Life emerge. The challenge is staying in the moment…paying attention. Talking to God never worked for me. Listening works every time. That is why scientists are proving what Buddhists have known for thousands of years about meditation. We don’t need to search for answers. The Rules of Life are pretty simple. We just need to quiet our minds long enough to remember them.
God talks to us through our life experience. We don’t usually hear her for the same reason we don’t taste the air. We tend to forget about things that haven’t changed. Consequently, we become consumed by the day-to-day and forget to live in the moment. We obsess over goals and fail to appreciate the journey. We try to control the uncontrollable. We fail to accept ourselves for who we are and where we have been, and consequently loose control over where we go.
Parents have a somewhat scary degree of influence over what their children believe. Sumay wrote an article about it called "Lies We Tell Kids". One big theme is the importance of being honest about what we know and what we don't know. Another is that beliefs have consequences.
If a parent tells their kid that the house is on fire ... they will get scared and run out of their house. This is a natural consequence of belief.
Just about any crazy action can be justified as rationale given the right set of beliefs. Here are some examples:
Belief: Santa is real -> Action: Set out cookies for fake person and hope he brings toys.
Belief: Boys have cooties -> Action: Run like crazy every time you see a boy.
These two are fairly innocuous, but what about teaching kids to believe in an all-powerful and all-knowing God that created everything and has a master plan for the future of the universe?
These beliefs suggest a set of rationale actions and inactions as well:
God will protect me from the hurricane so I won't leave home.
God created earth so I don't need to worry about global warming.
God loves Grandma so he won't let her get the Coronavirus
These may sound like extreme actions, but they follow logically from the premise and are actually quite common today. COVID19 is illustrating the consequences. Last week, a group of Iranian worshippers attempted to break into holy shrines and mosques that were closed because of the outbreak. A Pastor in Texas ignored warnings to close his Church today stating that, "It will always be open because there's a need. People need to be loved." He goes on to explain that when people are fearful they need churches to remain open so people have a safe haven.
But anyone paying any attention to the science of pandemics knows that no congregation of people can constitute as a "safe haven" ... and COVID19 doesn't care what Church, Synagogue, or Mosque you attend. The vast majority of my religious friends and family understand this. Many seem to do a good job of separating the spiritual aspects of their faith from real world decisions about whether to avoid churches during an epidemic. But the fact that some adults do not separate the two is a key reason why parents should be very careful about what they teach their children.
One good friend of mine called me up during the Financial Crisis. He was very sad and frustrated by his inability to find a good job. We were both graduating at the end of 2008. I had three job offers in September, but by the end of October they were all rescinded. My wife and I had been staying up late every night drafting and redrafting resumes, filling out applications, and cold calling potential employers. I asked my friend what he had been doing. He said he had filled out a couple applications, but his parents had mostly been encouraging him to pray.
Children are not well equipped to handle the historical context in which many of the historical "holy books" were written. Many parents take these writings literally...and many children follow their lead. That's fine when reading passages about love and forgiveness, but the core tenet of many world religions is a belief that one need accept their god, without evidence, or be doomed to hell. I personally find it hard to build close and trusting relationships with adults that think my sole is doomed, or worse, that I'm dooming my daughters.
Raising kids within such traditions can make for some very awkward family reunions...which is probably why most everyone I know simply avoids the subject. But training children to accept beliefs grounded only in faith can have far reaching consequences for more than just themselves. If we want to live in a healthy society and rebuild the health of our planet we need citizens that respect and appreciate the views of scientists over Soothsayers claiming to know the destiny of our souls and that seem to care more about life after death than global warming and the currently living.
The “good news” is that peace and happiness are achievable without believing in magic. Moreover, it is a skill one can learn just like riding a bike or programming. As we learn to find happiness for ourselves we also learn to share it. Our greater understanding of the wants and needs of others then, more often than not, translates into personal and career success. This is all strong evidence to me that "god is good".