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Amused Muse

Inspiring dissent and debate and the love of dissonance

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Our Human Capacity for Self-Transformation

SECOND UPDATE: Reverend Barking Nonsequitor explains it all for you.
UPDATED: Well, this is exactly what I’m talking about, folks!

"Like the Geico Insurance slogan -- so easy a caveman can do it. Letting Jesus take care of our sin problem is so easy a child can do it," said Spaulding.

Religion is television. You read it here first. “So easy a caveman could do it.” And this anti-intellectual crap from a valedictorian!

However, there were some in the audience who said they were uncomfortable during the speech and felt the comments were inappropriate.

Yeah. I’ll bet there were.

There must be something wrong with them! Of course.
The exchange that didn't make it into “Root of All Evil?" - Richard Dawkins interviews Alister McGrath.

At about 28:42 into the interview, Alister McGrath says something that really set me off: “The point I’d want to make would be this, that what Christianity is saying is that there seems to be something wrong with human nature, that we just don’t posses the capacity to transform ourselves, that in some way in order to experience and enter into the redeemed life, something has to be done for us. It’s a question of not having the adequate resources to actually transform ourselves to be saved.”

Well, certainly I don't believe in the necessity of being “saved,” but this answer by McGrath gets to, I think, the crux of the religious mind and to my nonreligious one. I was surprised at my feelings upon hearing McGrath say this. I literally felt pain, and then a great deal of anger. This kind of attitude is a highly personal issue for me, and it brings up a deep-seated resentment which I shall attempt to explain here.

I perceive that all my life I have received similar messages, from many sources, that there was something “wrong” with me: You are not capable. This goal is beyond you, that adventure is too hard for you, you’re just a small town girl from North St. Paul and you will never be one of those people on television or high up in academia (and they’re pointy-headed intellectuals anyway; you don’t want to be like that!). You’re a nice girl. Don’t get too big for your britches. The world is dangerous; it’s no place for you. You’ll get hurt. You can’t handle the big, bad world out there.

Don’t think certain ideas – you’ll get all confused. Don’t ask those questions. We just aren’t supposed to understand some things. Women’s Lib is over with (this was the 1970s) and we’ve got all the rights we’ll ever get – don’t talk about a woman running for President or going into space. That’s just not possible. Don’t talk about science or evolution. What are you, in love with Carl Sagan? (Yes, I was fifteen years old and I was in love with Carl Sagan. Thanks, like any other fifteen-year-old I was horribly embarrassed about it, and even wondered if it was wrong after being teased about it.) What kind of young lady runs around and yelling with the boys after church? Getting all dirty, screaming and yelling? Why can’t you pretend to be a girl for a change? You’ll waste your life talking about outer space all of the time – learn to get interested in normal things. Besides, this isn’t you – we know who you are, and you’re just a little twit from a small town – who do you think you are? You seem to think that you’re some kind of star! Well, you’re just you, so be realistic, and quit being such a dreamer.

It makes me angry. Here I am, doing all these things that nobody taught or even showed me how to do – nobody taught me how to negotiate grad school or how to handle a foreign culture, to go on a trip by myself, or to walk in academic circles, or to work a highly stressful job in a museum – and I’m doing it! I’m not only doing it, but I doing pretty damned well at it. With very few role models, or with none in some cases.

I did transform myself! Goddamnit, I did! I had to. I had a lot of problems in that small town, and I made myself change! And not only that, I am transforming myself all the time. I don’t know how to go to grad school. I had never given a presentation before in my life. Yet the second I walked into class I was expected to become a young professional, and you know what, I did become one – and I’m good at it. Maybe my success so far has had something to do with the fact that I was expected to succeed, that my professors saw no reason for me not to succeed?

If the world had listened exclusively to the warnings of fearful people like Alister McGrath and to the mediocre minds in American small towns, we would never have invented fire, let alone traveled the planet (and into space), made art, or discovered science at all! We do have the capacity to transform ourselves! We are nothing if not capable of self-transformation. And there is nothing “wrong” with me. There is nothing inherently “wrong” with you or me or with human nature. What is up with Alister McGrath? What is up with the people in small town America? Why do they have such a degraded sense of themselves that they need to tell people not to try to improve themselves?

If I saw religion as it is presented to me actually helping people to achieve the kinds of things that I want to achieve, I would change my mind about it. But I don’t see that. I don’t see it solving people’s problems or freeing them of their fears and anxieties. Blue-collar people get blue-collar religious messages to make them stay blue-collar, and upper-class people (like Alister McGrath) get upper-class religious messages to justify their superior status. And increasingly in America, there is less movement between social classes (unless it's people's houses being foreclosed on).

Moreover, people in America are so paranoid and scared of their own shadows that increasingly we are a nation that doesn’t walk anywhere—lock yourself in your car, lock yourself in the office, lock yourself in your house with the television on. Not since people believed in werewolves has a nation become so insular.

I see religion teaching people to sit around and be passive. Great, yet more sitting – just what our obesity-plagued civilization needs. Just more television after all. I’ve worked alongside a lot of African-American women in low-paying jobs and from what I saw religion didn’t do diddly squat for them moving up in the world. They’re exhausted at work. They go to church for hours – several times a week – and then, bleary-eyed and exhausted at work with a mother or sister watching their sick or injured children (because of personal problems with men), they’re practically falling over at work yet talk about how God is “teaching me a lesson” because they can’t pay their electric bill or put enough food on the table. They think they're supposed to be joyful every single second. Well, all I can say is, God never “punished” me that way. Funny that God’s Will toes the line with a racist society (and a classist, sexist, and homophobic one).

Sit in church and listen to stories (or in the big megachurches, watch videos) of other people living their lives, and doing things it’s just assumed that you’ll never do. Because you’re you, but they are them. They are special - prophets and angels. You are sinners – nothing in yourselves. If you’re special, it’s only because Somebody Special made you. All you get to do is vote yea or nay. (But really, with the fear of hell thrown in, it’s not a true choice, is it?)

Do you begin to see my point about how religion was the first form of television? God was the world’s first celebrity.

No wonder Americans don’t believe in evolution! No wonder! When you have been brainwashed to believe that you “lack the capacity for self-transformation,” how in hell can you believe that an amphibian or an ape has great potential? How can you believe that nature itself does? Is it a coincidence that this idea of our personal inability and insufficiency has taken hold at a time in our nation’s history when more people mistakenly believe that IQ is static and strictly inherited, that one’s status in life is determined by one’s parents? (We still give lip-service to the bootstrap idea but surveys show that increasingly, Americans believe status in society is genetically determined.)

And so people invoke God, and show more interest in His supposed hijinks than in living their own lives. I have no problem with what people believe but holy Toledo, today it's walk your dog with Jesus, take a shower with Jesus, go to a megachurch and be surrounded by thousands of people (yeah, that's real personal) all doing the same thing like they belong to some kind of cult. Don't be an individual; don't be yourself. Nature must be acted upon from the outside, right? Just like you, you miserable sinner. Because nature is artificial and so are you. You’re a product, a thing, which suddenly appeared out of thin air like a rabbit out of a hat. “It takes more faith” to believe in the ongoing self-transformation of nature than to blurt out Goddidit, right? Just like it takes more faith to believe that a little girl from a redneck town in Minnesota could associate with “those people” and even be interesting to them, than to believe that she’ll get into some horrible kind of trouble and need to be rescued from her folly.

Well, I think it is evil to tell people that they lack this capacity. What kind of a faith is that? What kind of spirituality is that?

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Blogger RBH said...

On Infidels I described this as "a beautiful rant". And I chose that phrase with deliberate thought. Thanks!

June 04, 2007 12:58 AM  
Blogger Kevin Scott said...

Last week it was a blog post with the "F" word, this week a rant about the belief something outside of ourselves is neccesary for change.

In one way or another I have been watching people attempt change. The only common denominator of those who succeed seems to be motivation.

You accomplished the important things you did because you already had an inner drive to do so. Those who succeed in radical change via religion or tradgedy often find their motivation in the religion or tradgedy.

A great example I think of often is a "Christian" weight loss program some people wanted a church I pastored to sponsor. The premise of the program was to teach people that "just one bite" beyond full was sin. That allowed the program writer to tap into the shame based ego of the average overweight Christian and use that guilt and shame to motivate weight loss.

Yeah, I know, can you believe something so evil?

June 04, 2007 7:48 AM  
Blogger Jorgon Gorgon said...


June 04, 2007 10:10 AM  
Blogger Kristine said...

Look Kevin, I’m hurt, do you understand that?

Here I am, carrying this burden of unnecessary fear all my life – my self-confidence is in the toilet most of the time (you didn’t know that about me, did you?) – and working alongside curators who don’t think twice about hopping on a plane and escorting art pieces to Italy or Greece or Africa. They weren’t raised to be afraid that the sky was going to fall in if they do something outside the sensibilities of suburban America. They have a sense of entitlement and privilege that I don’t understand. Despite the fact that I was one willful little cuss (and I paid for it socially, especially in middle school) I haven’t achieved half of what they have, and they’re a lot younger than me. I feel like time is running out. Why are some people taught that their destiny is to be the movers and shakers in society, and that it’s okay to be eccentric, it’s okay to demand things for oneself, whereas others are taught to “stay in the mainstream” and not to “be selfish,” to be humble, and to get their sole adventure from ear-splitting, migraine-producing movies? Well, surprise, few people I work with are particularly religious.

I feel like I'm in limbo - I feel like a total hillbilly at work (I just hide it real well), whereas other see me as having done "so much with my life." I don't think that I have.

I keep it pretty quiet about myself at work. They don’t read this blog. A few people that I trust, inside and outside my immediate area, know that I’m no trust-fund baby. Even fewer people know that my present income is the most I’ve ever made in my life, whereas most everyone else grouses that they don’t “work here for the money.” Even the people in Facilities are artists in their own right with advanced degrees. I have never before known people who went for what they wanted and didn’t think twice about it. They have no fear at all. It’s nothing to them to travel around the world. It’s nothing to them to casually disagree with some famous person. They think everyone lives like that! I once mentioned to someone I trusted that my ancestors grew up on a farm and I got a shocked look. Before I worked here I never knew anyone whose grandmothers went to college – their grandmothers, for Pete’s sake. (Which helped me to finally understand that stupid, elitist University of Minnesota advertisement.)

Social class is not talked about in America, and it’s not addressed in the church. And that’s why social class is hardening into something that once took place in Britain. Because "we aren't capable of transforming ourselves." Excuse me, when did self-insufficiency become an American idea?

I thought the church was supposed to be about making people equals? Well, that’s not what is happening. America is more segregated and hierarchical than ever. All you have to do is ride the bus to hear people talk about (particularly African-Americans, I’m sorry) fate and destiny, “stay where you are put,” and how getting a “white education” won’t get you anywhere. (Wow, what a wonderful message to young black kids! File that one right next to the “Don’t call the police, and don’t tell the detectives anything, even if a serial killer is living next door.”) Why isn’t the black church addressing these issues? If they did, maybe they wouldn’t have their hands full trying to keep kids from shooting each other. Well, what nobody talks about is that the same taboo against being too smart is very strong in the white community, too! Everything that Bill Cosby said to the black community should be directed right at the white community. The white community has an even greater out of wedlock birth rate, drug use, violence problem, and drop-out rate. But nobody talks about that. How many churches have ever held a sermon about the need to break this taboo against being smart (particularly in science), or to tell its parishoners that they watch way too much television? I would like to see that at least, instead of the church trying to become television and become entertainment, one big music video, in an effort just to fill chairs.

I don't go to church but other people do - is it too much to ask that while they are there, they at least listen to something worth learning?

June 04, 2007 10:31 AM  
Blogger Alethias said...

Your story fascinated me. I grew up as a kid in a lumber town. My dad retired as a mill worker, and it was expected that I would graduate high school and go to work at the local mill and go to my local church, and marry a local girl and stay in that little bitty mill town the rest of my life.

I didn't fit. I wasn't interested in most of the things that my peers were interested in.

I think that's the real similarity in my story and yours; those of us that feel that we don't fit somehow in their lot in life discover self-transformation. Some of us slowly and painfully; I was 42 before I really figured that I didn't have to be the person my family and friends wanted me to be. I 45 now, and have been an atheist/philosophical naturalis/humanist for the last 3 years, and feel that I a m finally at home with who I am.

I enjoyed reading your story, and may you continue your journey of self-transformation!

June 04, 2007 11:13 AM  
Blogger Kevin Scott said...

Wow Kristine,

I reread my post and I think in an effort to make the post shorter (cause I write book-length posts), I didn't make myself clear.

Please understand I have no problem with you, any rant you may write or pretty much anything with you (except your not-so secret crush on RD.)

You are an exceptional person. You have overcome many obstacles in your life and you should be proud of the things you have accomplished.

My point was meant to be in agreement with yours: Change occurs without the need of a Higher Power per se.

The first paragraph of my comment was a half-thought basically saying "I haven't see you write like this before, you must have something really on your mind." Of course if I had written that out rather than trying to send that message telepathically it would have been better.

My rock-n-roll lifestyle of sex, drugs and alcohol seems to have fried a few more of my grey cells. Maybe it’s time for a 12 step…

Sorry if I missed something, or if I offended in any way. Mea culpa.

June 04, 2007 11:48 AM  
Blogger Kristine said...

No problem, Kevin. This outburst is all a complete surprise to me.

So what's wrong with my not-so-secret crush on RD? I have a crush on Hitchens, too. ;-) (I am the queen of crushes but they're all strictly mental.)

You are an exceptional person. You have overcome many obstacles in your life and you should be proud of the things you have accomplished.

Thanks. I just wish that I didn't have to climb over my big obstacle of fear every day. Because I do. And guilt, too. Despite everything I have this nagging sense of guilt that has a lot to do with the "why don't you have kids, two-car garage, etc., etc." messages that an older woman gets. I'm terrified of being called selfish or conceited, which I admit I am.

I don't even think I realized all of this until McGrath blatted that stupid line. That pushed my buttons BIG TIME. Sometimes I'm afraid that people who likewise censor themselves are going to come out with a big dose of anger at me for not doing the same in my life. "Where do you rate" and all that. Then, of course, I'm keeping it all secret in front of the privileged kiddies about not knowing shit about study-abroad programs (because naturally they've all lived abroad). *Sigh*

Limbo, as I said. Someone wrote a book about it. I have it. It was very painful to read.

June 04, 2007 12:36 PM  
Blogger Kristine said...

Thanks Evert, and welcome. I'm glad that you are doing what you want.

I do want to clarify that there were people, in my family and in my community, who believed in me - I also had a pastor who was wonderful - but the rest, geez, they were simply awful.

But eventually I'll shock everyone, even the most supportive, because my ideas are way out there. And then there's the other side, the assumptions from the privileged: "Oh, how many times in South America is this for you?" Um, the first. ;-)

"You've never snorkeled or scuba dived before?"

Um, no. ;-)

As I said, people talk about "pulling yourself up by your bootstraps" all the time, but if you actually do it, there will be those who just assume you were a bank president's kid like all their friends, and others who will act like you're a traitor rejecting American morality. I mean, I haven't kept in touch with any of the girls I graduated from high school with. Not one. They basically live in the same place, some in the same house that they grew up in. We really had little in common, except for the one who went to Greece and became a corporate executive. :-)

June 04, 2007 1:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very well put.

June 04, 2007 1:59 PM  
Blogger Michael Bains said...

Thanks, Muse. I think we're very different people, but I could relate all too well to the pathetically limp expectations folks had. My parents were shocked when I finally went to college at age 24. Hekk! They were just about incredulous when I went to a Tech academy right out of High School.

Still my biggest hurdle is getting over how tied in to their fears and insecurities about me I still am. And I'm 41 YEARS OLD already! Arrrgh!

Excellent "rant", indeed!

June 04, 2007 2:36 PM  
Blogger Kristine said...

I'm sorry to hear that. There's so much out there to see and to do; whatever happened to the idea that anyone can do anything?

June 04, 2007 4:39 PM  
Blogger Forthekids said...

Um...Wow. Kristine, I've gotta be honest here. Your view of religion is sooooo at odds with what I've observed throughout my life.

I have no idea how you conclude that religion is what holds people back from living their lives to the fullest.

Holey moley, I've got to read through that post again. I'm still in shock that someone can blame all the problems they ran across in life on religious thought.

Dang, an overwhelming amount of people are quite religious, and it certainly hasn't held us back from accomplishing the things that we've wanted to achieve in life.

Again, I've gotta say WOW! Amazing that you can have this much pent up anger due to the fact that you perceive religion to be a determinent to society.

How the heck does a person get to the point where they believe that everything they feel should have gone differently during their life was apparently due to a religious upbringing?


June 04, 2007 7:14 PM  
Blogger Kristine said...

Well, I'll attempt an answer to this, in case you're still reading, Ftk, and if you're truly interested. Even if you're not, I'll try to be as honest as I can.

If I had been left alone with Pastors Lundquist and Bussert, and with the theological nerds in my church, I would have been fine. I would have disagreed with them, of course, but all nerds are brothers/sisters deep down and I would have been happier. In fact, maybe I would have actually disclosed to those two pastors the fact that I didn't believe one word of all this stuff. To be perfectly honest, I regret not doing so and I wish I did do that. I really do think I lost an opportunity there. Sometimes I think about tracking down Pastor Bussert and telling her, because she and I talked about so many other things. (Pastor Lundquist died a number of years ago.)

But the fact remains, Ftk, that I had very little in common with most of the people there, and some of them were so fucking mean that when I think of them now I still get mad, even though it's been years later. And the ones who weren't mean just looked at me strangely. I mean, these people still go to church, but they didn't ask any questions in Bible study or confirmation class, and they never showed much interest in religion other than showing up. I don't understand it at all.

I didn't learn anything from my church youth group. Really, the whole thing was a waste of time, and I am not kidding. And the ironic thing is, they were so screwed up! Sex, drugs, petting right in church (I'm not kidding), meaningless relationships, stupid fights about nothing - from what I saw they were wasting their lives and acting crazy. I even got in trouble along with some of them during one of those Lutheran youth group conventions for alcohol when I was just in the same room with those kids without any inkling that the alcohol was there - wow, I didn't have anything in common with these kids! I listened to classical music, and they listened to popular - probably what I learned from them was being exposed to Queen, Rush, and Meatloaf.

The one guy in that group that I had a crush on stayed in that small town and lives with his sister. I mean, umm....uhh...ewwww!

I'm not kidding about how people talked to me. I was just this skinny, shy kid and people sort of wrote me off. And coupled with the bullying, even a few of my teachers told me to forget my ambitions. Fortunately, other teachers talked to me very seriously about how smart they thought I was, how talented, how I deserved to be happy and encouraged me to develop my interests in art, science, and travel, which was outright ridiculed by other adults.

I ask again, Ftk, what is the church doing to address the increasingly rigid class structure in America? What is the church doing to address the fact that it lags several decades (or more) behind science all the time? You can dismiss what I have to say, but - as I stated in my post about bullying - this country is filled with people who walk away from the church and who walk away from their small towns because they don't conform to low expectations. If you don't miss us, then I guess it's not an issue for you. If you simply write off what I have to say here, then it's no different from the very behavior that I've just described and, in fact, it's a confirmation of what I've said.

At least I'm honest. This is me - my real name, my real history, my real thoughts and emotions, out there for you to criticize or for you to sympathize with, whether you agree with me or not. Are you up for some honesty, yourself?

June 04, 2007 9:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You proved the backwoods provincials by whom you were surrounded as a youngster wrong!!!
Ya done good!!!

June 04, 2007 9:58 PM  
Blogger Kristine said...

Gee, thanks. And thanks everybody for your comments. I promise to walk on the sunny side of the sidewalk again soon.

I'm having Galapagos withdrawal. Yeah, that's it. ;-)

Most definitely I should have told one of the pastors I trusted what was going on: "I really don't believe in God, so-and-so Bible class teacher is a bitch, these kids are driving me nuts, nobody's interested in what I'm interested in, I'm just biding my time until I can escape," etc. I really regret not doing that now.

"And I think I'm in love with Carl Sagan - and my English teacher!"

June 04, 2007 10:51 PM  
Blogger Mike Haubrich, FCD said...

This is one of the best articles and rants I have read in a very long time, Kristine!

I can see quite a bit of myself in your situation, especially in the feeling that time is running out.

June 05, 2007 6:45 AM  
Blogger Kristine said...

Thank you very much for visiting. I guess the sense that time is running out is not all that unusual.

June 05, 2007 9:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Namaste. I applaud your anger and your innate sense of wrongness.
I see the world hurtling toward a massive crisis with religious nutcases leading the charge.
"Armaggedon Now!" they seem to say and I know they have the power to make the destruction happen.
What I don't see is many of the younger generation (I'm 61) really doing anything but being angry. I don't see them at anti-war rallies or protests. I find them conspicuously absent at the polls.
I would call your attention to another blog:
...which links religion and violent behavior.

June 05, 2007 12:22 PM  
Blogger DanHalen said...

Your story makes me feel better about my own. Thank you for sharing it. It was only two years ago, at the age of 31 I decided to change myself, and decided I needed to get the education I wanted to have a truly fulfilling life. Your story is just what I needed to read right now, as I was feeling frustrated with the slow rate of progress I am making. I just wanted to take the time to say thank you.

June 07, 2007 12:13 AM  
Blogger Kristine said...

I'm so glad. Thank you. I guess we're all not as alone as we think we are - we're all scared, we all have dreams that don't pan out quite the way we want them to, but one thing for sure, if I were to describe myself as having any kind of faith system, then I'm a surrealist - people are capable of surprises.

I just watched an incredible documentary, "Who the *Bleep* is Jackson Pollack?" and I really felt for this 73-year-old woman driver, hard-drinkin', cussing, creative, stubborn and being jerked around by the art world. SHE is the artist, too - she's so much like Pollack, but the snobs dismiss her. Wow, Americans need to learn more about each other.

June 07, 2007 4:42 PM  
Blogger Kristine said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

June 07, 2007 4:42 PM  
Blogger Kristine said...

We're having a computerfahrt at the library! What I meant to add was that I should have said everybody, not just "Americans." :-)

June 07, 2007 4:45 PM  
Blogger Rev. Barky said...

For a high brow viewpoint regarding Mr. McGrath, please visit my this highly intellectual commentary about the man.

June 08, 2007 1:40 PM  
Blogger Kristine said...

Shimmies you earn - shimmies you get.


June 08, 2007 4:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I loved this!!

You invented what I see as an original concept which I slightly modified to "the ongoing self-transformation of the world" I find that once transformation is involved, the concept of "natural" and "unnatural" blurs and becomes confusing. I think the whole idea of something in nature and something constructed gives us a false and arbitrary division.

This concept is a remarkable and useful name for what I think of as evolution.

I've also noted that life is, in and of itself, the process of change. Even if we hold our breaths and cower in our homes, we will still change. Self-awareness allows us to direct (or stifle as much as we can) that change.

I agree that religion, particularly Christianity is the business of stifling change. It seems to me also that most religious people -- but not all by any means -- are pinned down by their religious entrenchment, supposedly "safe" from "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune".

Congratulations! Not only on your secular achievements but on your spiritual achievements.

For others mostly in agreement with you, you might try this site.

July 09, 2007 3:16 PM  
Blogger Kristine said...

Thank you. I will check it out.

I think religion itself is all about preventing change, fearing change, and calling it "evil." That's how I see it.

July 09, 2007 8:00 PM  

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