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Amused Muse

Inspiring dissent and debate and the love of dissonance

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Location: Surreality, Have Fun Will Travel, Past Midnight before a Workday

Master's Degree holder, telecommuting from the hot tub, proud Darwinian Dawkobot, and pirate librarian belly-dancer bohemian secret agent scribe on a mission to rescue bloggers from the wholesome clutches of the pious backstabbing girl fridays of the world.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Atheism, Virginia Tech, and Meaning

UPDATED: I just had to tell some moron over at to quit visiting my profile with ugly, obviously fake photos (one of them being Phil Specter! Is that some kind of threat?) uploaded to his profile - and no bio, no info, no message, nothing. That's why the photo of me in costume got taken down over there, too. What charm. You'd think people would grow up.
The perpetrator of the Virginia Tech shootings was bullied, or at least he claimed to be. And because I also was bullied, severely bullied, all through school in that small town that I hated so much, I paid attention to what this kid had to say for himself with the thought that perhaps I, if anyone, could understand why he did what he did. And you know what?

I don’t get this kid at all. I can’t understand why he reacted as he did. I have no idea what made him tick. Because it never occurred to me to blow away my classmates!

Never. Not once. Not one time did I even think of it! And you know, in a way I’m surprised by that, because looking back at what absolute shits some of my classmates were, and the horrible things they did (enabled by some of the teachers, who were abusive and should not have been teaching) you’d think I would have at least thought of it, fantasized about it! I don’t mean to be flip about this, but when I realized this about myself I had a “duh” moment, but only for a moment, because, of course, I’m glad, too. In fact, I’m proud that it never occurred to me. No matter what happened I never even once entertained the idea!

Oh, I thought of other forms of revenge: finally growing up to be pretty (I think I managed that well enough); going to college (like most social misfits in high school I had a blast in college); becoming a famous writer (well, nix that for now); becoming an actress (I had a few triumphs); becoming a belly dancer (done!); and making a fashion statement at my twenty year high school reunion. Well, I did it—I took a deep breath and went—and the bullies didn’t show. Go figure. And by then, I was having too much fun to care, anyway. A lot of my other classmates were really quite nice—I just didn’t know them that well in high school, where social class and the income level of one’s parents created a sort of apartheid amongst the kids, an apartheid that doesn’t exist for us now that we are adults making our own way. So, let the past go. Actually, once I went to my reunion, I found that I could forgive the bullies because I realized that they were probably just as disliked by my other classmates as by me.

So I don’t get this Cho Seung-Hui character. He strikes me as a bully himself, not a victim of bullying. He strikes me as an insular, aggressive, self-pitying, self-absorbed, and inordinately selfish human being. Mentally ill, definitely, but a victim? Frankly, I just don’t know about that. I can’t identify with him; his motives are opaque to me. I identify with the victims that he attacked, not with him at all.

There must have been something deep inside of him that allowed him to do what he did; and there must be something deep inside of me that would never allow it in a million years. I don’t know why that’s so, but I do know that it is so. When I was in school and going through that peer pressure and that intimidation, I tended to take my anger out on myself rather than on others, and I don't know why. And I don't know why Cho Seung-Hui took his anger out on others, rather than himself.

Which is why, once again, I don’t understand the anger, the naked menacing hatred, that I see from the folks at Uncommon Descent. Here is UD commentator Denyse O'Leary at her blog:

Since I am here anyway, here is some advice for Christians troubled in faith: Stay away from all Darwinists of whatever type, whether they claim to be Christians, "from a Christian background," or "from a fundamentalist background." Do not concern yourself at present about the age of the Earth. You are immortal; the Earth is not.


"Stay away from her. She's not one of us." Boy, does that sound familiar! What is this, junior high school?

Perhaps I have not lived up to the adage, “Nothing human is alien to me,” certainly not in Cho Seung-Hui’s case, but never have I told anyone to shun other people because of their religion, beliefs, creed, or conscience. We need to talk to each other, if we are going to get along with each other. True, Denyse O’Leary is my least favorite person at UD, but I really don’t hate her and I’ve tried very hard to see her point of view. She'll never give me credit for it, but I have tried.

The problem is, what she says pushes my emotional buttons because it sounds so much like everything that my nasty classmates, or that the few horrid teachers that I had, said to me, and for no reason that I could see. "Stay away from her." "Why can't you be like the other children?"

Yes, I admit I wasn't very good at "being like the other children." The real tragedy is, the other children were. The other children tried very hard to "be like the other children." That's how the girl voted most likely to succeed ended up at my high school reunion telling me that she "could never" go to Europe by herself, as I had. What crap. Anyone can do anything that they want. If a social disaster like me can handle Europe, she could. But she had learned to be "like the other children."

The problem is, Denyse, this kind of language makes me feel exactly as I felt when I was small, and being pressured by peers to “not be so smart” in class or raise my hand with the answer, to quit my piano lessons or to sneak cigarettes, to dress differently, act differently, and be somebody else than who I was. I know you don't intend, Denyse, to sound like the kind of person who would lead others into temptation, but paradoxically that is exactly what you're doing with your exhortation of Christian purity. You make "darwinists" sound like horrible people, just as my peers and some of my teachers made me sound like some kind of freak, and I wasn’t that much trouble—I never did drugs, I didn't smoke, I was on the honor roll all the time, I never got pregnant like so many of the girls around me did. I had dreams and goals and was determined to fulfill them, and yet even some of my teachers encouraged the kids in their ridicule of me—and as I look back on it now, these were the teachers whose classrooms were constantly in disarray, just like your thinking, Denyse.

And now here’s you, Denyse O’Leary, at your blog, telling your audience that it’s okay to believe whatever you want about the age of the earth, as long as you don’t associate with the people who use the methodology that gave us the actual age of the earth, along with the germ theory of disease, the laws of heredity, countless numbers of cures, and the discovery of DNA. I don’t get it. Here’s WinglesS at Uncommon Descent, saying that atheists have no sense of purpose in life and are not charitable. Well, perhaps I don’t have a million dollars to donate, but I do try to give 100% of myself to everything that I do, and while I have worked some pretty hard and low-paying jobs I have managed to avoid doing any morally unsavory ones. I live without a car; I put my money where my mouth is, even though that entails a lot of sacrifice, being car-free in a city like Minneapolis. I volunteer my time to many charitable efforts, and I just do it—it makes me feel good, without having an explicit reason that I can rattle off to you in so many words. I don’t need to form “atheist charities” when I’m willing to contribute to charities both religious and secular, as long as they help all people—why duplicate efforts? Why form another administration and pool of employees to be paid from charitable contributions that could go to existing organizations?

And as for purpose, for life’s meaning—hey Denyse, WinglesS, Levi, and the rest of you at UD, you remind me of the people who were down on me for wanting good grades, for having goals, for being a basically well-behaved kid, people who were angry at me for no reason that I could see, and you would ask me to “prove” that I have a sense of meaning in life? I'm beginning to wonder if you have a sense of purpose yourselves. All I want to do in life is write, dance, learn, and explore, and make some kind of contribution to humanity, and yet you have identified me and people like me as some kind of dangerous enemy, and you are talking about “meaninglessness”?

Jonathan Wells, the Moonie and HIV denialist is okay by you, but anyone who is not a religious believer, or who is yet accepts evolution the way he or she accepts mathematics and physics, is evil, no matter what contributions they make to science or social justice, and is to be shunned, and you ask me about life not making sense? It is your thinking that does not make sense.

I’ve thought about your question a lot, Levi. Unfortunately, or fortunately, I don’t have an answer that will ever satisfy you, because I have decided that I have no concept of meaninglessness. Not at all. None. It’s a word that you guys use; I never use it. I don’t know what it means. I don’t know what meaninglessness feels like. I don’t understand it, any more than I understand blowing someone away with a gun.

No matter what happened to me, no matter how bad it got for me, I have never felt that my life was without purpose. I don’t know why, but it’s true. Perhaps if I understood what you mean by “meaninglessness,” of life “having no purpose,” then I could understand you better.

And then I would also understand Cho Seung-Hui better.

And suddenly, that idea frightens me—because I think that could have been his problem. He could have had this same sense of "meaninglessness" that you apparently do, whereas I do not.

Maybe you need to consider the idea that the charges you level against “darwinists” are actually faults that you have found within yourself?

And Denyse, here's a Bible verse that I think you've forgotten, a verse I think you need to reacquaint yourself with, from Ecclesiastes 1:4 - "A generation goes and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. "

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Anonymous Anonymous said...


Thank you for the great post. It was heartwarming and heartwrenching and tearjerking. I'm sure it will evoke strong memories for many of your readers.

I got a little long-winded but I wanted to address some of the folks you mention over at UD by offering some "advice for Christians troubled in faith" that is distinct from O'Leary's. If the length is a problem, please feel free to delete it.

The self-described "victims" of bullying like the VT shooter are very much like the many Christians who harbor woe-is-me persecution complexes that are imposed and nurtured by their quite insular culture. The victim mindset, which heaps fuel on the us-versus-them fire, helps to keep their group unified: we gotta hang tight, close ranks; they're all out to get us. It keeps the cash flowing into the hands of the clergy if the group is tight knit.

I would like to add a few thoughts to Denyse O'Leary's "advice for Christians troubled in faith": take your good conscience, take your desire to live a compassionate life while bettering mankind's lot, take your money and walk away from religious faith. Here, are a few thoughts about making the break with religion.

>>> If you choose to pursue faith outside religion, make it meaningful by keeping it personal. If there exists a cosmic teacher, then its personal one-on-one instruction will be far more satisfying than will the lecture hall experience with hundreds in attendance.

>>> Always remember that a minister is a human being. His or her special significance to you is simply that you accept their interpretation of some written words. Notice that their are lots of other ministers who read the same words and arrive at quite different interpretations. If you keep it personal, you and you alone will decide if the words are to be words of love and compassion or words of hatred, injustice, or vengefulness. Notice that over the course of centuries of Christianity, the number of distinct sects has gone from just a handful to well over twenty thousand, meaning there is nothing even close to a consensus about what any part of Christianity means, so your own interpretive skills are every bit as valid as anyone else's. Remember also, that, should you choose, you, just like anyone else, can simply make up your own faith, as thousands of others have before you.

>>> If you choose to abandon faith, as millions of Americans are doing every year - in fact, "non-believer" is the fastest growing self-identified religious position in the US, then embrace that choice as an act of self-declared freedom. Free will becomes yours with this choice, and now you can accept responsibility for your own actions. You stand independent from any crowd, except that of humankind. There is much irony in religious people suggesting that people all have free will while claiming that all people should think and believe exactly alike.

>>> Make decisions for your life based on real-world input, not, I repeat, not, the screwy dictates of someone who is not you and does not live your life. Don't ever place the responsibility for your moral decision-making in the hands of someone else. No one else is you, no one else can decide your morality. If you want to play cards, play cards; if you want to have a beer or two, do so; if you want to want to enjoy sex with a consenting partner, make it your decision, not an echo of an authoritarian dictate to unthinking minions. Decide for yourself. It's useful to note that church doctrines against potentially costly vices like drinking and gambling have as their principle justification their ability to adversely affect church cash flow, not in any divine dictate. Live your life; decide for yourself.

>>> Don't supply money to religious groups which are using it for political lobbying, advertising and other marketing, paying off pedophile and rapist lawsuits, paying huge mortgages, interest, insurances, minister salaries, maintaining lawns, buildings, parking lots and playgrounds, and often advocating for the vilification of your fellow man, and the intentional dissemination of ignorance. If you feel financial gift-giving is an important and significant way to contribute to the betterment of mankind, and, if you decide for yourself to do it, then, consciously seek out persons, groups or organizations who will use your heartfelt gift in a manner consistent with your ideals, needs, wants, hopes and desires. Directly helping an elderly neighbor with prescription costs, puts all of the money to work for that purpose; it allows you to see the money doing its work, not simply being told that it's out in some possibly non-existent mission; and, it does these things without subsidizing the pastor's car, summer home, or his brother's church-underwritten tile job.

>>> And, don't give money you can't afford. Church members in the US are ceaselessly pummeled with sayings like "God will give back ten-fold," even though any casual observer can see that it's only true for clergy. In the US, church donations can be reasonably considered as a self-imposed additional tax on the poor, indeed, one more way to keep poor people poor.

Kristine, you alluded to peer pressure applied by people like O'Leary, and I think that it's important to notice that they, meaning the religious, actually encourage, maybe even demand, their members to give in to peer pressure. The ideal church member as far as I can tell is one who is sufficiently gullible that they can be swayed from the pulpit to support their clergyman's favorite cause, group, or political candidate. The flock is a most appropriate metaphor for churchgoers, with the minister herding them to a fleecing.

Regarding meaningfulness, Kristine, to me the Christian approach to it is that one size fits all. In fact, everyone, again, through that ever reliable peer pressure, is supposed to define their own purpose in life as the abstraction "to serve the lord." To me that says since they all have the same purpose, none of them has a purpose. Despite what they say, anyone who considers themselves to have a "purpose driven life," to borrow from Rick Warren's book title, is a person who has nosed around their own little corner of the world, found some things they love and given themselves up to them. Just as you embrace your writing, dance, learning, exploring, and striving to make some kind of contribution to humanity.

Simple observation shows us that for all the blather and drivel in which they shroud purpose and meaning, the religious, especially Christians, are less well-prepared to handle the woes life tosses at them than are non-believers: Christians commit violent crimes at much higher rates than do non-believers, including murder, spouse abuse and child abuse; Christians have much higher rates of drug and alcohol abuse than do non-believers; Christians have higher rates of unwed pregnancies, abortions, and divorce. Clearly, their one-size-fits-all purpose and meaning does not translate to higher quality of life or the betterment of mankind, except in their own clouded thoughts. Ironically, if the Christian God's "chosen people" are those who have a positive impact on society, then God's chosen people are the non-believers.

The concept of meaning is simply another one of those notions that Christians feel they can wield in the battle of us-versus-them: if you don't accept what we say is supposed to be your meaning, then you don't have a meaning; if, by peer pressure, you can't be forced to be exactly like us then you have no meaning. It's part of the delusion in Dawkins' "The God Delusion."

Kristine, I'm sorry for going on at such length. I'm disgusted by the attitudes of religious people who want to demean, debase, or, perhaps even destroy those who think differently from themselves, including many of their Christian co-religionists. Their unjustified sense of superiority flies in the face of their numerous verifiable inferiorities. They are undoubtedly deluded.

May 05, 2007 5:23 PM  
Blogger breakerslion said...

Well said. As a male member of the species who happened to also be picked-upon by alpha apes attempting to "put me in my place", perhaps I can shed some light on things. It is rare for the kicked and beaten male not to have murderous ideation. If thoughts could kill, the bullies of this world would be a smoking pile of ashes before they reached the sixth grade. Most of us realize that the reality is not the same as the fantasy, and the act would make us the same as our tormentors. Still, it can be satisfying to imagine someone getting what we think they "deserve".

Those that take it to Cho's level almost invariably lash out at random, blaming "all of you... whatevers". This is the Victim Mentality, coupled with unmitigated mental illness. We are talking here of a person who, like most of us, has been victimized, but then obsesses over it. This person sinks so far into feelings of persecution that they no longer take any responsibility for their own destiny, blaming everyone and everything around them instead. They believe that they live in some sort of giant conspiracy against their success. Their delusional bubble has a lot of help in its formation by the self-esteem killing world around them. A politically questionable example of this is the number of people in the world today that are stigmatized by slavery, yet are generations removed from the iron collar, or the perpetrators thereof. The effects have become a cultural heritage, with far more pernicious roots and resultant actions and reactions than most people are willing to think about. Racism is still very real, but it is a current that flows in all directions. Another example of this is the way that ignorant foreigners are better tolerated in Japan than knowledgeable ones who are perceived more as cultural non-conformists. The trick is, not to take ownership of the disdain that another individual is projecting, no matter what the attribution. You and I, and a few others I can think of, obviously learned this lesson while we were young.

May 05, 2007 5:30 PM  
Blogger breakerslion said...

Damn russ, nice manefesto! I hope I see this elsewhere and often. If you ask me, it all boils down to theatrics and anti-individualism in the end. Gotta protect that cash flow at all costs!

May 05, 2007 5:40 PM  
Blogger Kristine said...

Thank you, Russ and Breakerlion, and Russ I don't think your comment is too long at all. What you said is valuable and I thank you for it.

It's hard for me to admit to being vulnerable, but what happened happened and it's always going to shape my life, even if I wish I could just forget it all. I think what brought it up was how I was attacked at Uncommon Descent when I was truly trying to be respectful, and then Denyse coming out with her nihilistic "warning."

It made me uncomfortable, too, when some people would toss out, "Oh, Dembski was picked on in high school, and that's why he is how he is." And now there's all this, "We have to be afraid of the bullied now, just in case they turn out to be psychopathic killers!" Look, thousands of kids are bullied each year, a few of them turn out to be pschopathic killers. Most of us get outta Dodge and becoming normal adults, but with the added burden of knowing that our hometown is mostly not proud of us.

I had a highly public conniption a few years ago when some old gaffer from my town published a highly racist diatribe against Somalis and Latinos in the paper, and I let loose on the faults of North St. Paul, how I as an honor student was treated and why I left, and I got e-mails from people saying, "I went to a football high school too, and THANK YOU!" How sad that Americans don't celebrate the achievements of we geeks. Holy crap, this nation can't subsist on football.

This is why I hate that "survival of the fittest" bullshit. Darwin hated it but he felt he had to include it in his fifth edition of Origin of Species because it caught on. Social Darwinism caught on, and it's bullshit too. Bullying is a form of social Darwinism and nobody talks about how it is enabled by the teachers in our schools, in order to "toughen up" the weak kids in a sink-or-swim mentality. The fact that picking on other people is the supreme form of weakness is never addressed. From what I have seen, the kids who are bullied are the emotionally strong, good-hearted, capable kids who become compassionate, well-adjusted adults.

Now our nation is freaking out about quiet, shy bullying victims, and making them victims all over again, kicking them out of the Marines for a short story and shit. I can't fucking stand it.

*Whew* Okay, now about Denyse O'Leary.

What can I say? I grew up with people like Duane Gish, who doesn't know that I exist. I have a connection to these people because they figured so largely in my life, even though I didn't believe a word of what they said, because other people around me did. And now here's Denyse, Dembski, DaveScott, the commentators at UD, and I have some kind of connection to them, too, despite (or because of ) this ongoing argument, and here they would deny all connections to anyone not "pure." Another generation of creationists, hating the "darwinists" who nevertheless feel a connection with their opponents because that's what happens. The things they say feel like bullying, and ironically just as I spent more time analyzing and caring about what the bully thought than the bully did about me, I'm spending more time analyzing and caring about them than they'll ever acknowledge.

I feel like I'm watching someone go crazy, and I feel some sense of responsibility about that, but none of them are going to listen to me. How do you tell someone who wants to believe that they're beset upon by "darwinist storm troopers" that you really do care about what's going on with them? That you don't hate them, when they want to believe that you do?

I don't need Denyse to give up her religion, just to adopt one that's emotionally healthy, at least. I'm sick of the level of panic and animosity in this country regarding religion. It's not healthy. But how do you tell someone that they're not acting like a role model when they think that they are? Everything you say and do is going to be wrong, because you're one of "them."

What's being "one of them" all about? Observing life? Studying biology? Seeing what really happens in nature, instead of what we would like to believe happens? Seeing that randomness in nature results in new creatures? For pity's sake, is this what all the alarmist language from UD is about?

I don't understand! I don't get it! What's the fear about? Why are they trying to whip up fears about "darwinists" that is only going to result in something that can't be good?

It was a shock to me to realize that if I understood Denyse and the rest of the gang, I'd understand the Virginia Tech shooter. But the more I think about it, that's not such a shock. I'm not accusing Denyse of being capable of violence, but I am accusing her of being capable of dehumanizing her opponents.

May 05, 2007 7:33 PM  
Blogger Kristine said...

Those that take it to Cho's level almost invariably lash out at random, blaming "all of you... whatevers". This is the Victim Mentality, coupled with unmitigated mental illness.

Right. "All of you rich kids with your cognac and cigars [oh please, what a cliche!]...all you darwinists with your random mutation and natural selection." I mean, yes, it's the same. And look at the people at UD - they're all different - I have different feelings about different people there. They're individuals; I know that. I wouldn't be much of a writer if I caricatured people and told others to "say away from" them.

Simple observation shows us that for all the blather and drivel in which they shroud purpose and meaning, the religious, especially Christians, are less well-prepared to handle the woes life tosses at them than are non-believers... Clearly, their one-size-fits-all purpose and meaning does not translate to higher quality of life or the betterment of mankind, except in their own clouded thoughts. Ironically, if the Christian God's "chosen people" are those who have a positive impact on society, then God's chosen people are the non-believers.

My thoughts exactly.

Sometimes I think that in being an atheist I am more spiritual than religious people! But unfortunately, the word "spiritual" has been so over-used that it means next to nothing now. Sometimes I'll say something that I thought of and someone will reply, "That's very Buddhist," or "How Taoist of you." John and I had a long discussion about whether or not Buddhism was really a religion and if it was ever supposed to be one. I don't know the answer, but I do believe that Taoism should not be a religion.

So many times I have not had the heart to tell people I knew who were trying to "save" me, "But you're the one who needs rescuing from others all the time, and I don't want to be like you." I don't know how to say that without sounding mean. But if they're emotionally disorganized, and they're in trouble a lot and having new dramas all the time, why do they have the right to "straighten out" my life, especially if they come to me for advice so much? (I don't know how I end up in relationships like this over and over again.) I'm this well-adjusted person in their eyes, doing well, and suddenly I need "saving" and rescuing and being told what to do? How does that work? How can I be okay in all areas except for this one?

Still, it can be satisfying to imagine someone getting what we think they "deserve".

I never longed for that, I honestly didn't. I wanted something more like the ending of Fellini's "8 1/2" with everyone dancing in a circle holding hands.

May 05, 2007 8:24 PM  

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