Re-reading Woolman after 20 years

The Journal of John Woolman is online. I guess that makes sense. It’s in the public domain now.

But reading Woolman’s Journal online seems strange to me, since it’s one of those books I turn to now and then when I’m looking for respite from online buzz and bother. His gentle, unpolished reflections — it’s a journal, after all — offer a kind of retreat.

Reading my copy of Woolman’s Journal isn’t just an encounter with this long-gone Quaker saint. I bought the book in my early 20s and read it with pen in hand. Reading it now, then, and encountering the underlining and marginalia I wrote there years ago is sometimes a bit like having a conversation with my younger self. Some of that conversation involves me looking back and thinking, “Good for you, kid,” but just as often it’s an illustration and reminder of the many ways in which my mind has changed and I have changed since then.

If you’re not familiar with Woolman, he was an itinerant Quaker minister who lived from 1720-1772.

The Quakers, as everyone knows, were abolitionists, staunch foes of slavery and advocates of emancipation with pay. From the founding of America up through the Civil War, the Friends were almost synonymous with opposition to slavery.

But that wasn’t always the case.

Go back further, into the earlier half of the 1700s, and you wouldn’t have found this antislavery sentiment as a primary characteristic of Quakers in the colonies. What you would have found, instead, were a great many Friends who owned slaves. Not just in the South, either, but in Pennsylvania and New Jersey and New York — places that we don’t think of as slave states, but which were once colonies where slavery was legal and commonly practiced.

So what brought about this huge transformation among the Friends? What happened to them to change their minds and their attitudes, their practices, their lives, their religion and their world?

John Woolman happened to them.

John Woolman believed slavery was unjust — that it was cruel for those in bondage and corrosive for the bondsman. So he wrote an essay explaining why (“Some considerations on the keeping of Negroes: Recommended to the professors of Christianity of every denomination”). And then, since he was sure that his condemnation of slavery was true, and that the truth of it was compelling, he set out to talk to those who disagreed.

One by one, meetinghouse by meetinghouse, home by home. He would speak to gatherings of Friends, or would arrive for dinner at the home of Quaker slaveowners, and he would talk to them about his “considerations” and concerns with this practice. After the meal, he would pay wages to those slaves who had attended him. And he would invite the slaveowners to liberate their slaves, paying them back wages for their years of service.

Crazy. But even crazier: This worked. Conversation, liberation, transformation. That was Woolman’s method and he continued it, unchanged, throughout his life.

Well, almost unchanged. He eventually switched to traveling on foot out of consideration that the stagecoaches he had been riding in were cruel to the horses.

If you live somewhere on the East Coast of the United States, anywhere in between New York City and Richmond, Va., then you’re probably not far from some old historic Friends Meeting House. John Woolman spoke there. He arrived there on foot and spoke about slavery until he had convinced the Friends who gathered there to condemn the practice and cease participating in it by emancipating their slaves and paying them for their service. And then he left on foot, heading for the next such meeting house or home to have that same conversation again, and again and again.

And that is how John Woolman changed the Friends, and how it came to be that the Friends would help to change America.

That really happened. That is really how it happened.

I find inspiration in the implausible miracle of Woolman’s story because I can relate to this. Not to Woolman himself, so much — he seems to me one of those unapproachable saints, like Francis or Gandhi, someone whose example is almost more daunting that inviting. But I can relate to those Quakers he visited, the Friends whose minds he changed.

My story is in many ways like their story. I have encountered visitors who have challenged me to view the world differently and invited me to change. And thanks to those conversations — many such conversations throughout my life — I did change, and I continue to change, coming both to experience and to participate in the liberation that follows.

And when that is your history — your own personal history — it guides how you approach the world.

I have changed. What does that mean? It means, for one, that change is possible — that we are not doomed to be forever locked into ideas that keep ourselves or others in bondage. If I changed, then others can change too. If they are hostile to the suggestion, well, I was once hostile to it as well. But I am forever grateful to those who patiently steered past that hostility to help me see that change was possible and necessary and good.

I hate to think where I’d be if they had given up on me. So another thing this means is don’t give up. The church ladies like to say that “God loves you just as you are, but loves you too much to let you stay that way.” That was the sort of love I think John Woolman showed toward the Friends with whom he disagreed, and it was the sort of love that was shown to me. And so it is also the sort of love I am obliged to show to others.

Conversation, liberation, transformation. That works. It has an effect on the world that makes the world better. That really happened. And it’s really still happening.

Sadly, I can’t find a readable version of Woolman’s “Considerations” online. But here’s a taste of how it begins:

The general disadvantage which these poor Africans lie under in an enlightened Christian country having filled me with real sadness, and been like undigested matter on my mind, I now think it my duty, through divine aid, to offer some thoughts thereon to the consideration of others.

When we remember that all nations are of one blood; that in this world we are but sojourners; that we are subject to the like afflictions and infirmities of the body, the like disorders and frailties in mind, the like temptations, the same death and the same judgment; and that the All-wise Being is judge and Lord over us all, it seems to raise an idea of a general brotherhood and a disposition easy to be touched with a feeling of each other’s afflictions. But when we forget these things and look chiefly at our outward circumstances, in this and some ages past, constantly retaining in our minds the distinction betwixt us and them with respect to our knowledge and improvement in things divine, natural, and artificial, our breasts being apt to be filled with fond notions of superiority, there is danger of erring in our conduct toward them. …

To consider mankind otherwise than brethren, to think favours are peculiar to one nation and exclude others, plainly supposes a darkness in the understanding. For as God’s love is universal, so where the mind is sufficiently influenced by it, it begets a likeness of itself and the heart is enlarged towards all men. Again, to conclude a people froward, perverse, and worse by nature than others (who ungratefully receive favours and apply them to bad ends), this will excite a behavior toward them unbecoming the excellence of true religion.

  • http://accidental-historian.typepad.com/ Geds

    Selah, Fred.

    Selah.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Matthew-McDonald/610556997 Matthew McDonald

    Ain’t that about accurate.

    Love. Peace. Metallica.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Matthew-McDonald/610556997 Matthew McDonald

    Ain’t that about accurate.

    Love. Peace. Metallica.

  • http://nagamakironin.blogspot.com/ Michael Mock

    Darn it, Fred, quit making me sniffle at work. That’s embarrasin’, that is.

  • Anonymous

    I needed that today. I don’t feel confident that I’m persuasive, but you never really know what effect your actions have down the line. Which is as good a reason to persist as any.

  • Anonymous

    Wow, that’s impressive.

    Thanks for the link and the background, Fred!

  • Gela

    “For as God’s love is universal, so where the mind is sufficiently influenced by it, it begets a likeness of itself and the heart is enlarged towards all men.”

    This is one of the most amazing and wonderful things that could ever be said. I never have heard of John Woolman before, but will be avidly reading through the journal you linked to.

    I posted only a couple of times on the old site, but have been reading for several years and I just wanted to say – I have very often been awed and humbled by the depth and breadth of the love you exhibit. I used to be a knee-jerk Randian conservative… and your blog is one of the major influences that caused me to step back and focus on understanding what I had been espousing. I don’t always agree with you, but I always stop and really think about what you say, and I’m grateful for it.

    This is actually sounding more like a testimonial than anything else, and I’m starting to feel a little silly, so… errrm…. Yeah, shutting up now. :-)

  • Anonymous

    amen

    praise the lord

    he is back

  • http://timothy.green.name/ Timothy (TRiG)

    This world contains so much wonderful stuff, so many amazing people, that I’ve never heard of. Thank you for telling me about one more.

    TRiG.

  • http://sleepykit.net sleepykit

    It’s this kind of humanity, this kind of understanding of the human condition, that awes me. Just reading your description of John Woolman makes me wish I was there just to listen for a while…

  • Richard Hershberger

    I’m nitpicking here, but is it correct to characterize someone as a Quaker “minister”? My understanding is that the Quakers don’t have ordained clergy. So every Quaker (male?) is/is not a minister to the same degree. Perhaps “preacher” would be more accurate, though Quakers don’t (I am given to understand) have sermons as the word is usually understood, so perhaps that isn’t quite right either. This description actually reminds me of Medieval mendicant friars as much as anything.

  • Anonymous

    *heads to amazon*

    This looks like perfect Lenten reading material. Thanks for the heads-up, Fred. Also, what Timothy (TRiG) said.

  • Anonymous

    “Froward” is such a great word. From the sentence structure of that excerpt, it sounds like Woolman has been reading Paul’s Epistles.

  • Froborr

    What TRiG said.

    I’ve been pretty depressed lately, and upset about the sheer amounts of evil in the world. I needed a reminder that most people are actually pretty awesome, and everyone has the potential for awesomeness.

  • http://twitter.com/cereselle cereselle

    Am logging in via Twitter; let’s see how it works…

    From some right-wing Christian blog (will not link, don’t want to give him the hits):

    “We all know at least 15 people that are on welfare who are just milking the system. People who every time they are about to leave welfare they just get knocked up for the 6th time or the drunk who can’t work because he is “too weak” to put the bottle down (well at least until the money runs out then he suddenly finds the inner power to stop drinking). If the Biblical View of Welfare was in place, those that needed help would get more help then they do now & those that the liberal controlled system is enabling to be lazy or addicted, sucking off the middle classes teats would be required to man up. So the Biblical View & the Liberal View are incompatible. ”

    And from the Woolman quote:

    “Again, to conclude a people froward, perverse, and worse by nature than others (who ungratefully receive favours and apply them to bad ends), this will excite a behavior toward them unbecoming the excellence of true religion.”

    All I can say is yep.

  • DoNi

    I believe you are correct that there are not ordained clergy or regular sermons. I think they do have a group of elders who guide each gathering house. I am not sure, but I expect the elders are selected by lot from a group of selected candidates. The lot system is another term for drawing straws.

  • http://accidental-historian.typepad.com/ Geds

    From Cereselle’s (non) link: “We all know at least 15 people that are on welfare who are just milking the system.”

    We do? Really?

    In my nearly three decades on this planet I have known exactly two people who willingly, intentionally, and knowingly took advantage social welfare programs. One was attempting to finish up some classes and couldn’t get a job that paid better than six bucks an hour. The other was trying to re-start her (formerly successful, apparently) art career and her day job wasn’t helping. She was going to lose it, anyway, so she decided it would be best to just take unemployment for a while.

    Terrible people, them…

  • http://accidental-historian.typepad.com/ Geds

    From Cereselle’s (non) link: “We all know at least 15 people that are on welfare who are just milking the system.”

    We do? Really?

    In my nearly three decades on this planet I have known exactly two people who willingly, intentionally, and knowingly took advantage social welfare programs. One was attempting to finish up some classes and couldn’t get a job that paid better than six bucks an hour. The other was trying to re-start her (formerly successful, apparently) art career and her day job wasn’t helping. She was going to lose it, anyway, so she decided it would be best to just take unemployment for a while.

    Terrible people, them…

  • http://style92.livejournal.com/ style 92

    Thank you Fred. This seems like exactly the thing needed to free Christianity from the bonds of Selfishness and Privilege with which it has been imprisoned.

  • http://mistharm.deviantart.com/ JJohnson

    Mr. Woolman has my admiration and thanks – that’s the kind of person I wish I’d known more of in my life.

    That said… I admit I have my doubts that we can have that kind of important conversation today. The noise machine on the right is so powerful, and their echo chamber is so loud, that even if you can, one night, convince a conservative that maybe gay people getting married isn’t a threat to him… by the next night he’s seen something TERRIFYING on Fox News about how gay pedophiles will marry their underage victims. France may at some point be involved in this; either that or Muslims, Communists, and Nazis. Probably all of the above.

    There is a fundamental difference between talking to people who at least share a common language with you; and talking to people for whom Empathy and Justice are dirty words.

    I guess what I’m saying is… I have my doubts that it can happen today.

    I say this, I admit, as someone who grew up in a hyper-conservative house to be a hyper-conservative child and then took a sudden, hard left turn as I grew older. I say this because back then, I could at least have a conversation with someone where I could say “Well, have you thought about how X feels about Y conservative position?” (X being “People affected”) and get the non-Limbaugh listeners to at least give it a little thought.

    Today…that just doesn’t happen. Glenn Beck, O’Reilly, Limbaugh and a host of others have such a firm hold over the conservative psyche that you can’t even quote a mainstream news source for information*. Quoting the New York Times is considered just barely more acceptable than the Communist Manifesto on the right.

    Basically my point is… change won’t come without conversation, and conversation can’t happen when only one side is even bothering with this thing we call ‘reality’. The other side is, apparently, checking the rose bushes for Communofascimuslim infiltrators trying to Sharia-gay-marry their dog. Or something.

    *sigh* Maybe I’m too cynical – I hope I am; but I haven’t seen any evidence that says we really can make any sort of change by talking to people. Maybe I’m just horribly unlucky. I certainly hope so. Essentially – I hope you’re right Fred, I hope that minds can be changed and that people will start to rethink some of their bigoted and outlandish ideas… but I don’t think it will happen.

    Regardless though, it’s a good post; and history is critically important (and too often ignored).

    *And I think most of us realize how painfully lax our media really is. They aren’t liberal, they aren’t exactly conservative (though most are rich enough that their self-interest lies that way financially), they’re just unwilling to cover things by looking for genuine truth. Instead it’s “What’s controversial, let’s talk about that (but never actually fact-check a guest, because that would be rude)?!” and “Oooh, celebrities!” … I has a bitter, let me show you it ;

  • Anonymous

    I know that’s why we have blogs like slacktivist and thats why we have to fight to keep it

  • http://twitter.com/cereselle cereselle

    Froborr, I’ve been feeling the same. Was musing on various applications of love on the way in to work today.

    I lost my faith (or discovered I never really had it) about six years ago, and for the most part I’ve been comfortable with it. But recently, I’ve been missing believing there will one day be ultimate justice, and that in the afterlife, everyone will be happy and wise and loving forever after.

    I want to believe in God. But I don’t. Or can’t. Whatever. What I do believe in is love. Love should be the guiding principle out of which all my acts and goals spring. Love is why I believe in tax-funded social programs, rather than private charity, which does not accomplish the goal of taking care of people who need it. Love is why I believe in gay marriage, because that’s Love personified. Love is why I believe the prison system needs overhauling, because it’s focused on vengeance rather than rehabilitation.

    The question I’m struggling with now is this: what actions can I take in my daily life to spread love? What can I do to increase the good in the world? I’ve tried doing Habitat, but they didn’t need my work, only my money. In fact, most places want my money. If I had enough to give them all, I would, but I’ve been having economic problems for years now. Also, it seems like giving a donation is too easy (if I had the money).

    Hmm. Maybe my contribution should be to find ways to make more money, ensure that I’m financially stable, and have more to give. My needs aren’t extensive (or expensive), and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t suddenly start wanting expensive things just because I had the money.

  • Anonymous

    It depends on what kind of Quakers they are. There are modern ones with ministers–a friend of mine went to Earlham School of Religion, which is a Quaker seminary. I do not know how recent a development that is, but I would expect that at the time of Woolman they would not have had clergy or sermons.

  • http://twitter.com/cereselle cereselle

    Geds, exactly. I know exactly one person who’s ever been on disability, and I was thrilled that she was able to get it. In fact, I thanked her for it, because I told her she was spending my tax dollars wisely, instead of them going to the next defense budget boondoggle.

  • http://style92.livejournal.com/ style 92

    @JJohnson: sigh, I know, that’s a problem. I don’t know how to get over it.

    I always figured it would take something really big to shake people and make them see reality. That sort-of happened at the end of 2008 and helped people vote for Obama. But the right wing noise machine recovered, and decided to fight back by becoming EVEN MORE LOUD AND INSANE.

    Now I don’t know what it will take. I’ve often done as Woolman has with my brother, talked to him about things and tried to help him see a broader canvas. And for a while it works. But then he watches Fox news and all my progress is destroyed.

  • Anonymous

    well cereselle here is jezus his take on what you just sid

    Mark 12:28 And one of the scribes came, and having heard them reasoning together, and perceiving that he had answered them well, asked him, Which is the first commandment of all?
    29 And Jesus answered him, The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord:
    30 And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment.
    31 And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.
    32 And the scribe said unto him, Well, Master, thou hast said the truth: for there is one God; and there is none other but he:
    33 And to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the soul, and with all the strength, and to love his neighbour as himself, is more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.
    34 And when Jesus saw that he answered discreetly, he said unto him, Thou art not far from the kingdom of God. And no man after that durst ask him any question.

  • http://mistharm.deviantart.com/ JJohnson

    cereselle, that’s beautiful. The idea that love should guide our actions is definitely one of the best ways to handle life. It’s also one of the hardest imo, because it’s so very easy to get angry and resentful. (Believe me, I know angry and resentful) Err, point being, I think that what you said there is basically (as my grandpa would say) “Is how it’s ‘posed to be.”

    You’ve also hit so very much on something close to me that I’ve tried to write out before, but never have had quite the guts or language to describe.

    I’ve mentioned before that I’m an atheist; what I haven’t ever quite spit out is that this is… perhaps a more reluctant state than some might guess. My disbelief is fairly recent (about 2 years old I suppose, at a guess); but more specifically it is largely because I simply don’t see it – or rather, realized I never did see it throughout my life and was just putting on a show for the benefit of other people.

    I like the idea of a wise and loving God… but I don’t see it. I don’t see it with my eyes, I can’t feel it with my heart, and I am too bitter and cynical to just believe without some measure of proof. I want to believe in Heaven, or some cosmic measure of Justice, or even virtue at large… but I can’t.

    Of course it doesn’t help for one to have grown up, as I did, with a vicious and angry God always ready to smite for the slightest of things*. I had to rationalize and rationalize and rationalize again and again how I could have a just and loving God out of what I’d been raised in. It got to the point where I’d sort of abandoned traditional Christianity for, I guess I’d call it a ‘college religion’**; and tried to hold to that for a few years before finally, not that terribly long ago finally realizing that no… I didn’t believe.

    The thing is… some people find that kind of thing freeing; and for me it wasn’t. It wasn’t particularly terrifying either, but it did leave a gap. I suppose this might be why I’m so hostile to anti-theism (as opposed to just atheism); because I like the concept of religion, and if nothing else they’re usually pretty interesting stories. Maybe I’m a bad atheist for all that; I don’t know. But it’s true, and it’s something I’ve never been able to spit out before.

    (Apologies for the immense footnotes – if brevity is the soul of wit, I am, sadly, witless.)

    *You’d have to have been through a similar experience to wholly comprehend it. The best explanation I can give is that, as a kid, I was terrified the world would end any minute (my church was big on Revelations and the whole PMD thing); I remember freaking out every time I saw a harvest moon that wasn’t a very light shade of orange, because of the whole ‘Moon red as blood’ thing. (Oddly, eclipses didn’t bother me for the ‘Sun as black as sackcloth’ bit. Not sure why.)

    I think, now that I’m sitting here thinking about it, it was almost like living in a cosmic horror story, with some malevolent entity hovering just out of reach; and only by swearing fealty to it can you avoid ultimate doom. … shit, my church was a Cthulu cult. >.< (This is only a very slight exaggeration in terms of how I actually felt at the time.)

    **This is actually a term used by my Living Religions of the World professor during junior college. It's not just 'religion you got in college'. It's more a term for a faith system one creates – intentionally or inadvertently – to justify one's own actions or make something that doesn't mesh with one's belief, do so. (It's named because he sees it a lot with college age kids.)

    I should add that while he meant it to be slightly derogatory, my 'college religion' was one I really took quite seriously. It took awhile for me to get to this point where I could look back and objectively see what I was actually doing. To give a brief overview, I'd taken the idea of the Christian conception of God, and expanded it to "Well… is God really humanlike enough to ascribe something like gender, or ethnicity, or any other of the distinguishing features we as humans have?" – And I figured no, why would a phenomenally powerful cosmic entity that created a whole universe settle on "Old white dude with a beard." I figured more likely God was well… just God; something not wholly fathomable to humans.

    I also spent a lot of time thinking about religion at large – Bhuddism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, the various neopagan faiths, etc… and came up with the concept that maybe God had more avatars than just Jesus. Maybe different parts of the world needed to hear the good news (which being deific, could not truly be wholly comprehended by humans) in different ways.

    Yes, looking back it's kind of farcical; it's kind of like the whole One World Religion thing from the Left Behind books in some ways. Or maybe slightly more charitably the Orange Catholic Bible from Dune.

  • Lighthill

    If you don’t mind reading scans of very old pamphlets, it seems that Bryn Mawr has an online copy of Woolman’s “Some Considerations” pamphlet: http://triptych.brynmawr.edu/cdm4/document.php?CISOROOT=/HC_QuakSlav&CISOPTR=528 .

  • Anonymous

    “That said… I admit I have my doubts that we can have that kind of important conversation today. The noise machine on the right is so powerful, and their echo chamber is so loud, that even if you can, one night, convince a conservative that maybe gay people getting married isn’t a threat to him… by the next night he’s seen something TERRIFYING on Fox News about how gay pedophiles will marry their underage victims. France may at some point be involved in this; either that or Muslims, Communists, and Nazis. Probably all of the above. ”

    I’m sorry, but I don’t think modern conservatives, for all their nastiness, are worse and more intractable than SLAVEOWNERS.

    I mean, this guy was literally telling slaveowners A) that they had been engaged in a terrible sin against man and God and B) they had to pay them what they were owed. A lot of the reaction on the right is against being called out- “I’m not a Bad Person! Just because I’m opposed to gay rights? Well, here’s fifty BS reasons to justify me not being a bad person.” I’m assuming this reaction would be even more extreme when instead of “merely” denying people civil rights, you had been keeping a people in thrall against their will.

    Even a cursory glance at antebellum writing will reveal that the same, human, justifications were taking place. There are a million pamphlets explaining that “the Negro NEEDS to be enslaved. Just until he’s CIVILIZED, and takes the bone out of his nose and coverts to Christianity. Someday. Not today, but someday.”

    So, yeah, I disagree. Modern right wingers have their problems, but they’re peanuts to actual, living, breathing owners of other human beings. Lets be careful not to blow the modern right out of proportion.

  • Lighthill

    Oh, I posted too soon. Here is a link to even more readable formats of Woolman’s pamphlet, this time from archive.org: http://www.archive.org/details/considerationson00wool

  • http://guy-who-reads.blogspot.com/ Mike Timonin

    You’re about 30 days early for that, aren’t you? It’s only Ash Wednesday, not Easter Sunday.

  • Anonymous

    It’s worth noting why Woolman had to work so hard to convince Christians that slavery was evil. The ubiquity and implicit (at times verging on explicit) endorsement of slavery throughout the Bible made it easy to claim Biblical support for the institution, or at least to dismiss arguments against it as unbibilcal.

    Similarly and apropos of the previous post, one need not work up much of a sweat to find support in the Bible against gender equality.

    Which is not to say as some have on past threads that all this “disproves” the Bible. We have a saying1 in my church that revelation is not closed. That is, the Bible is not the end or totality of what God has to tell us. It’s not the last word, it’s the beginning of the conversation.

    Woolman’s genius (as I read it based on the excerpt above) is that he takes Biblical principles of universal love and universal fellowship and demonstrates that they are incompatible with practices that happened to occur in Biblical times. Principle is the thing. Apply principle critically and you find truths about justice and right living. Those truths are revealed to you. Revelation is not closed.

    This also I think helps in understanding the horrible stuff in the Hebrew Bible, but lest I risk creating a Wall o’ Text, I will stop here.

    1You might call it a tenet of Unitarian Universalism, but when a church doesn’t have a creed it seems incongruous to talk of tenets.

  • http://mistharm.deviantart.com/ JJohnson

    There’s a difference here.

    A war was fought with the slave owners in the end – even Mr. Woolman couldn’t stop that. It wasn’t conversation that broke the yoke of slavery – it was fire and blood; and even then it took 200 years to even begin the process of truly allowing those former slaves descendants to be looked on as human beings by their fellow citizens.

    It took the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans in war, the death of a President and many civil rights leaders and marchers; and even today the legacy of the slave trade remains with us as a lingering racial resentment that the right is soaking in. (And sadly, has small, though more hidden, footholds on the left as well.)

    So no, modern conservatives aren’t as bad as slave owners*; if they were we’d be in terrible, terrible trouble as a country, far worse than we already are.

    However it’s worth remembering that we’re up against a group of people who have a constant and steady stream of propaganda and a self-locking mechanism that prevents anything from ‘outside’ the bubble from getting in, or, if it does get in, from staying there for long.

    It has been my experience that even if you counter every argument a conservative brings tot he table, even if you disprove every ‘fact’ they try to bring up; they usually just walk off, unchanged but now very annoyed with you. Or, as I said before, they seem to catch on… then watch more Fox News and by the next time you see them they’re back to being a Rushbot.

    And I could be wrong. I’d love to be wrong. I deeply want to be wrong.

    About the only thing that’s given me hope lately has been Wisconsin… I am hoping and praying that the people in Wisconsin (and to an extent nationwide) can see the naked greed and vindictiveness of the leadership of their own movement; and that some of the more reasonable people will go “Hey wait a minute, you never said anything about taking away my X” (Where X is a social program, rule or law that conservative took for granted and didn’t even think of it when railing against ‘entitlements’ or ‘greedy unions’ or ‘excessive regulation’.)

    Maybe, with luck, there will be change, but I suspect that if it happens, it will be because young people are more liberal and the conservative crowd is rapidly getting older.

    *Eeyore*

    *Talk about your damning with faint praise. (Okay seriously, even I wouldn’t put them in that category. They’re mostly just misguided and misled with a healthy group of complete jerkasses rounding out the fold.)

  • Anonymous

    JJohnson: No, the idea that “God had more avatars than just Jesus” is not at all farcical. I might agree to a statement like that, depending on the details, especially when I’m trying to have interfaith dialogue with Christians.

  • http://mistharm.deviantart.com/ JJohnson

    That wasn’t what I meant really, I meant the whole scheme of it. The vast overarching me-created idea. I didn’t mean that specific segment of it; I’m absolutely sure there are religions where that’s the belief, and that’s perfectly fine.

    What I meant was essentially trying to build my own religion which, when looking back and seeing what I was actually doing, results in embarrassment.

    I should have phrased it a little better.

  • Anonymous

    JJohnson, why do you say an inability to believe things without evidence makes you “bitter and cynical?” I’m a scientist by profession. For me, refusing to believe things without evidence is a necessary habit of mind in order to do my job. I tend to think of it as the virtue of skepticism.

    Do you think this “gap” and empty-regret-feeling you’re talking about might be related to lost social connections with human people? I think I recall such a feeling for a very short time after my deconversion, but it vanished into my Little Dawkins phase. I don’t really understand a more persistent sense of regret at the loss of the Heaven and Ultimate Justice ideas.

    I’m not saying this to go all REASON LOGIC EVIDENCE REAL TRUE ATHEIST FAP FAP on you, just asking about this sense of regret you talk about. There is no such thing as a “bad atheist;” don’t let anyone ever tell you otherwise.

  • Anonymous

    JJohnson, why do you say an inability to believe things without evidence makes you “bitter and cynical?” I’m a scientist by profession. For me, refusing to believe things without evidence is a necessary habit of mind in order to do my job. I tend to think of it as the virtue of skepticism.

    Do you think this “gap” and empty-regret-feeling you’re talking about might be related to lost social connections with human people? I think I recall such a feeling for a very short time after my deconversion, but it vanished into my Little Dawkins phase. I don’t really understand a more persistent sense of regret at the loss of the Heaven and Ultimate Justice ideas.

    I’m not saying this to go all REASON LOGIC EVIDENCE REAL TRUE ATHEIST FAP FAP on you, just asking about this sense of regret you talk about. There is no such thing as a “bad atheist;” don’t let anyone ever tell you otherwise.

  • http://twitter.com/cereselle cereselle

    Flat, I was thinking of that exact quote on the way in. The voice of my mother in my head* says “But the first commandment is that you love the Lord, and you don’t even believe he exists!” I think my answer to that would have to be, like Puddleglum, that even if God doesn’t exist, I still believe in the second commandment, and it’s by following that that I obey the first. If that makes sense.

    I also thought of 1 Cor. 13:13– “And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.” I may not have faith, but I have hope, and I have love. I have to figure two out of three ain’t bad.

    JJohnson, thank you. I’m glad that struck a chord with you. I did find it freeing, because the things I’d always been afraid of– that the haters were right about homosexuality, that the End Times were coming and we’d all have to run and hide from the people who wanted to kill us, that masturbation could keep me out of heaven, etc.– all that didn’t matter anymore. I was free to take what worked, and toss the rest.

    What I do miss is looking forward to heaven. When I was young, I believed in heaven firmly, because everyone around me told me it was true. Five-plus years ago, a good friend of mine was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer. I spent the next day in shock, staring into the abyss of mortality. And I realized that I didn’t believe in heaven. I didn’t believe in any kind of afterlife at all. And since Jesus was the one who promised heaven, well, by extension I didn’t believe in Jesus. What I’ve read since then regarding the Bible’s writing and compiling has not inclined me towards belief.

    *I can’t be the only one who has a mother voice in the head, can I?

  • Anonymous

    JJohnson: Okeydokey. I’m still busy making my religion up as I go along
    (slight overstatement), and I’m okay with that. But I also went through a
    “college religion” phase, so I understand how you can look back on a
    kludge-in-progress with winces.

  • Anonymous

    JJohnson, I have hugs here for you if you want them.

    I didn’t grow up with religion a major part of my life, so it was of little moment to me when I shed it and realized that I don’t believe. I don’t feel like I’m missing something, and I can just barely begin to understand where you stand.

    But you’re not alone.

  • Prefer to be anon right now

    Today…that just doesn’t happen. Glenn Beck, O’Reilly, Limbaugh and a host of others have such a firm hold over the conservative psyche that you can’t even quote a mainstream news source for information*. Quoting the New York Times is considered just barely more acceptable than the Communist Manifesto on the right.

    I used to be a member of the Straight Dope Message Board, which makes the Slactivist and commenters look like Stormfront* when it comes to open-mindedness. I remember a long-time member responding to a question on whether anyone’s mind was changed regarding gay marriage because of that board. He, a Republican, right-wing conservative, stated that he had indeed changed his mind to be a strong supporter of gay marriage and gay rights, because of his association with that board. It can happen. It does happen. It won’t always happen. But you have to keep trying.

    *Stormfront is a white pride/separatist message board. They’re scarier than most, because they aren’t filled with slack-jawed yokels. Posts are filled with correct spelling and grammar. They don’t even allow racial epithets on the board. (I was hoping when I went to verify their continued existence that I wouldn’t find the site still up, but no such luck).

  • http://mistharm.deviantart.com/ JJohnson

    I guess what I mean is more that, I am bitter and cynical in and of myself, and that has added to and expressed a state where I can no longer believe without evidence.

    The bitterness and cynicism came first, basically. In non-religious things, I’m pretty practical, so needing evidence isn’t really anything new… but before I was willing to at least pretend I could hold that belief.

    When I say ‘pretend’ here, I need to clarify that that doesn’t so much mean I was faking it so much as there was a false-element to it that, until later, in hindsight, I did not realize was false. It’s hard to put into words for someone who hasn’t lived that experience I guess. It’s almost like one day you pulled off your own face, and realized that was just a mask and there’s a different you underneath it. You’ve kind of gotten attached to that mask by this point and are kind of surprised that it wasn’t your actual face.

    Social wise… oddly enough that’s not it. I was never close with most of the people at my church; for a long list of reasons, and unfortunately I’ve always been kind of a loser anyway so I haven’t got many friends. (Any in meatspace these days.) (I may have mentioned before that I’m a hard person to like?)

    No, it’s more complicated than that; and I’m failing utterly to find words for it. It’s just something missing. Purpose, hope, some cosmic sense of rightness. I think for myself it’s hard, maybe because of how I was raised, or maybe for another reason, to accept humanity as the final arbiter of it’s own morality. Ultimately I do, because there’s no one else, but it just feels like there ‘should’ be some sort of objective “Justice” or “Truth” or “Rightness” to the world.

    And there isn’t. I want to be clear at this point that I’m not saying “You can’t be good without God(s)”; it’s much more a personal psychological thing. I guess it’s one of those things where, it would make life so much easier and so much better if there were some infallible source of “The Rules”. But again, there isn’t. Even humans, doing the best we can to be the best to each other, are terribly flawed. It’s… hard to accept I guess.

    Some of it too is the idea of death. I hate it, as a concept, as a fact of existence – some part of me rebels at the very idea of ‘ending’, and a lot of me just thinks it’s flatly unfair. I just can’t accept it on some level, even though I know even if we were able to create some sort of anti-aging serum or something, people would still die all the time from accidents and the like.

    Like I said, this is a ‘me’ problem basically. I can’t really expect anyone else to totally get it because it’s so ingrained into who I am.

    I actually really appreciate the question honestly, so no worries there. It helps me organize my thoughts to have someone ask something like that.

    Anyway I’ve used up far too much space in this thread; I’m sorry about that everyone. I’m just chattery I guess; I don’t like feeling like I’m hogging the conversation and yet I’m absolutely horrible at condensing my thoughts down. Kind of overemotional lately too; I’m going to blame that for poor communication (though a lot of it’s just fatigue). Hope I’m not being too obnoxious.

  • http://twitter.com/cereselle cereselle

    Morilore,

    I don’t really understand a more persistent sense of regret at the loss of the Heaven and Ultimate Justice ideas.

    Really? You don’t see how the prospect of an infinitely wise being saying “YOU WERE WRONG” to those who were unjust, hypocritical, or cruel is a comforting idea, and that its loss would bring regret?

    I mean, I don’t want anyone to go to Hell. Hell, my conservative Christian church in which I was raised was one of the few that never taught the doctrine of Hell. I would just like people like Dick Cheney, Fred Phelps, and the like to realize the suffering they’ve caused on this earth, and to feel the full weight of their shame?

    As for the loss of Heaven, well. I know I’m a lot younger than some people on these boards, but I’m approaching forty, and the realization that I am no longer a Young Person has shaken me. I’m going to grow old. I may end up like my grandmother, who can no longer walk, or write, or knit, or do much of anything besides watch TV. I may end up with chronic pain, with my only goal getting through the next few hours until I can have my next pill and relax in narcotic haze. If I believed in Heaven, that would just be the last bit of time I’d have to suffer through until I received eternal youth and joy. Since I don’t, it’s the end of everything for me. Once I die, I won’t suffer, but that’s not as good as eternal youth and happiness. I will be gone. I don’t want to go.

    Heaven is also a comforting belief when thinking about others. I would be much happier believing that the Iraqis and Afghans that we’ve killed in these wars at least went to a better place, instead of having their lives stolen from them by people acting in my name.

  • Wade

    You can read the ‘Considerations’ in the (freely downloadable) Google Books edition of his journal and essays, here:
    http://books.google.com/books?id=6UQLAAAAIAAJ&pg=PA336&lpg=PA336

    (You had mentioned that you couldn’t find a readable copy online, I hope this suffices.)

  • http://twitter.com/cereselle cereselle

    JJohnson, I don’t think either of us normally takes up a lot of space on Slacktivist, so I think it’s fine if we put forth a few walls o’ text of our own. :) Also, if others want to talk, they’re free to do so.

    As for overemotional… the reason I’m having all these thoughts right now is because of a bad reaction to some psych meds. I had a hypomanic episode, which took a week and a half to come down from, and I’m now mired in anxiety. (Can one be mired in anxiety, as one is in depression? Is that the right term?) Brain chemistry changes tend to make me think about The Big Questions of life, rather than focusing on short-term living. So yeah, uncontrollable emotion is driving me right now. But this is supposed to be a place where we have compassion for and help each other, right? That’s how it’s always seemed to me. So all this talk is me, reaching out for help.

  • http://mistharm.deviantart.com/ JJohnson

    Yeah, it’s not that finding or creating a theology itself is even bad even; it’s just that what I was doing was… well yeah, a kludge. It was, ultimately false, and thus embarrassing I guess. That’s what I was trying to get at I guess, that it lacked a certain real belief, it was more fear of losing my belief in totality forcing me to construct a shelter out of bits and pieces.

    Basically, even if everything I believed during that phase was factually true – the faith itself was false because it wasn’t real on my part. That’s why it’s so embarrassing I guess.

  • Froborr

    To both cereselle and JJohnson:

    I’m also an atheist, but raised in a rather different background than most American atheists, as a secular Jew. My parents taught me a particular interpretation of the Jewish ethical concept of Tikkun Olam (roughly translated, heal the world): Each of us has a duty to envision a better world, and try to turn this world into that world. Anything that makes this world a better place, no matter how small, is a triumph of good over evil.

    There are no guarantees of Ultimate Victory, but every day there are little victories, little proofs that good still exists and is still fighting. I don’t believe there ever will be an Ultimate Triumph of Good over Evil… but every time I buy a banana for the homeless guy outside the grocery store, every time I give my fiancee a surprise backrub, every time I stand publically against a bigot and let his victims know they’re not alone, good wins over evil.

    JJohnson, you should talk to Jason. He is proof that you’re wrong, it is possible to beat the conservative noise machine, one person at a time.

    If every person saved 23 square centimeters every day, we could save the world in a year. That doesn’t sound so bad, does it?

  • Anonymous

    JJohnson: It sounds like that belief-kludge served its intermediary purpose
    for you. You recognizing that and continuing to develop is impressive. You
    can wince about it being bad in retrospect, or about dumb/bad things it
    encouraged you to do, but don’t beat yourself up about it.

    Also, obligatory side-comment: not all religions are defined by or depend
    upon belief. Not aimed at you, JJohnson or anyone, it’s just something that
    gets said so rarely that I like to point it out when the word belief is
    conflated with religion.

  • http://www.blogger.com/home?pli=1 Coleslaw

    *I can’t be the only one who has a mother voice in the head, can I?

    I had my mother’s voice coming out of my mouth all during my son’s teens. I remember saying one Christmas that all I wanted was my own voice back.

  • Anonymous

    cereselle,

    Really? You don’t see how the prospect of an infinitely wise being saying “YOU WERE WRONG” to those who were unjust, hypocritical, or cruel is a comforting idea, and that its loss would bring regret?

    Well, the puzzling thing was the “persistent” part. Of course I kinda felt a little crappy when I realized I didn’t think there was anything up there, but I don’t feel that now.

    As for Heaven and aging – well, I’m young and healthy, so there’s nothing useful for me to say.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X