Tag Archives: Relationships

Let’s Stop Judging Motives

Last summer, I wrote two posts about the importance of using sound method when trying to find the truth. Especially when we “just know,” we must assume our minds are infected with unknown cognitive biases, and do everything we can to identify them and root them out.

I’ve been thinking that the same applies to our relationships with people. We so often jump to conclusions about people’s motives without adequate evidence.

Often, our assessment of others’ motives has more to do with us than with them. If someone is doing something we would never do, we tend to ascribe the motive that we would need in order to do that thing.

Is someone a political liberal? He must hate America … because I love America and I would have to hate everything I stand for in order to take his position.

Is someone a fiscal conservative? She must not care about the poor …  because I care about the poor and I think government programs are the best way to help them.

Has someone walked away from a long-standing commitment to faith? He must be in rebellion against God … because I could never give up my faith except as an act of rebellion.

Has someone chosen to remain with her faith in spite of significant doubts? She must be unwilling to face the truth … because I faced it and came to a different conclusion.

So here’s one of my New Year’s resolutions. I resolve to be skeptical of my ability to read other people’s motives. I want to apply the same evidence-based thinking in that area that we should apply everywhere else.

31 Days – Tango

We’ve spent most of our 31 Days of Wonder in geekdom. Let’s cut loose and enjoy some tango!

Argentine Tango beautifully captures the essence of romance — maybe life’s greatest wonder. It is usually improvised but even when choreographed you can see the give-and-take, mystery and sensuality of the dance between the sexes.


I think these last two are improvised, which is pretty amazing.


Marriage Is Not the Government’s Business

President Obama’s recent endorsement of same-sex marriage
has gotten people talking. I am late to the party, so maybe I can toss in a question that few people are asking.

Why should anyone need the government’s permission to marry?

The whole thing smacks of feudal times, when serfs needed their lord’s approval to marry. Today, we have freedom. Shouldn’t we be free to make a basic commitment to each other without the government’s say-so? We don’t need the government’s permission to commit ourselves to a particular god; why should it decide which interpersonal commitments are up to snuff?

Let’s get government out of the marriage business.

Wherever government now relies on marriage to determine something, let it use a civil contract. And I’m not talking about civil unions. What I have in mind is much more fine-grained. There could be contracts to establish a household for tax purposes, inheritance contracts, living will contracts, contracts to raise adopted children together, and so on. In each case, the restrictions on who could execute the contracts would be based on the relevant factors for that type of contract, not on the religiously charged concept of marriage.

If you talk with those on the Religious Right, who style themselves as the most ardent defenders of marriage, it’s clear that for them marriage is a religious institution, and their faith makes it especially hard for them to accept the idea of same-sex marriage. But can we not see that even in the context of faith, marriage means different things to different people?

Our country is supposed to allow everyone to practice their faith (or lack of faith). How do we have freedom of religion when we prohibit Muslims from following their custom of polygamy? And have we forgotten that the founders of the Judeo-Christian tradition were polygamous as well? (Yes, Abraham, Moses and many of the other patriarchs had multiple wives.) Finally, does anyone else see irony in the fact that the Republican platform of 2012 will almost certainly include a “one-man-one-woman” plank, and standing squarely on that plank will be … a Mormon?

Did you know that the Bible nowhere defines what it takes to be married? Certainly heterosexuality is assumed, but it’s remarkable how little the Bible actually says about the mechanics of getting married. There is no particular ceremony to follow, and no particular vow to take. And it isn’t until the New Testament that monogamy is unambiguously held up as the ideal. More to the point of this post, no government is invested with the authority to “declare you husband and wife.”

How have we Americans, of all people, ended up with a government that arrogates the right to define marriage not only according to one particular religion’s definition of it, but a late-arriving definition at that?

The first amendment  to our constitution expressly tells government to stay out of the religion business, but we have taken a long time to realize the full implications of that wisely drawn boundary.

  • The first prayer of the Continental Congress (admittedly predating the First Amendment) closes with, “All this we ask in the name and through the merits of Jesus Christ, Thy Son and our Savior.” Recent prayers  are generally less sectarian.
  • The history of blasphemy laws  in the United States may surprise you. As late as 1977, Pennsylvania used its law to prosecute a man who named his business I Choose Hell Productions, LLC. My own state’s general statues still threaten jail time for those who “reproach Jesus Christ.” Yet, one by one, we are realizing that these laws are unconstitutional.
  • It wasn’t until the 1960’s that many people thought twice about things like prayer and devotional Bible reading in schools. Now most Bible advocates realize that a time of silent reflection is probably the most that our constitution will allow.

We have gradually realized that the government does not belong in the prayer business, nor should it police blasphemy. Isn’t it time to realize that it should get out of the marriage business, too?

Let’s go back to the traditional practice of marriages that are covenants between free people – people chosen by each other, not by the government.

Those who want religion to be part of their marriage can enroll a religious leader to conduct a ceremony; those who don’t can pledge their commitment in front of friends or all by themselves. Most marriages will still be between one man and one woman, but a minority will not.

If it’s important for some groups of people to maintain a distinction between their brand of marriage and others, they could copyright a design for special rings.

Wait. That would be kind of like where we are today. Well, I’ve gotta go. One of my kids is asking me to read The Sneetches.

Umbrella of Protection?

At first he merely offered a hand to help us in or out of the van, and laid his other hand on our backs as we entered or exited. Then he would hold open a door and touch each of our backs as we walked through; this seemed fine the first time, but I wasn’t sure why it was necessary to touch both of our backs with full open hand every single time we walked through a door of any kind. If there was bench seating, his thigh was closely pressed against mine or the other girl’s. He would take and hold my or her hand as we walked to and from buildings. Without asking or announcing, he stroked my hair. If he was sitting opposite me in the van I would often look up to find him gazing at me, and then he would nudge my foot with his. I would smile nervously, pull my foot back, and look back down at my papers. If he was seated next to me in the van he would rest his hand on my forearm or reach over to hold my hand. I learned to hold my papers in whichever hand was closest to him.

Is that creepy or what? To explain, I must go back 40 years, to one of the formative experiences of my youth.

In high school, I attended Bill Gothard‘s Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts, since renamed the Basic Seminar. You can visit that link to learn the seven main points. Many of them are excellent, but today I want to bark about the second one, which is to get under the “umbrella of protection” that God-given authorities provide:

Under each umbrella of protection, God sets in place the leadership of His choice, just as He placed Moses in leadership under the “umbrella” over Israel. So, under each umbrella of protection, God raises up and establishes the human leadership to represent Him before the people. These leaders become our human umbrellas, accountable to God for the stewardship of their responsibilities.

I was an insecure teenager trying to get his life together, and that message was very appealing. It was hard enough to negotiate the difficult interactions with my peers; I was only too glad to relinquish to God my sometimes-difficult dealings with authority figures. God had appointed them and if I were to follow their lead, he would take care of me.

I should have seen disaster coming right about here:

[God] provided leadership through Moses. When the people murmured again Moses, they were actually murmuring against God.

Once we equate an earthly authority with God, the fallible human starts to realize they he can get away with anything. The Catholic sex-abuse scandal may come to mind, but the Catholic church is not the only authoritarian power-structure that has problems, as we will see.

It’s amazing how we can lose sight of the old truism that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Our hope is not in authority and submission, but in accountability and mutual, earned respect.

That even goes for relationships with parents, teachers, employers and the law. That’s the genius of democracy. In countries where the law is accountable to the people it governs, there is generally lower crime and better governance. Not to mention more happiness.

So what about the sexually harassed 17-year-old girl at the beginning of this post? Her story would break my heart under any circumstance, but as a former Gothard devotee I feel an extra pang as I tell you where her ordeal took place. She was an employee at Bill Gothard’s headquarters and the man to whom she refers was none other than Bill Gothard himself.

Her story is but one among many reported on a Christian Website called RecoveringGrace. Most of the stories are from people who were abused in families that tried to live by Bill Gothard’s authoritarian, patriarchal principles and often under his control. (“Control,” you ask? Gothard has a home-schooling curriculum that comes with many, many strings. For example, the husband in one family we knew was not allowed to wear a beard, as a condition of using Gothard’s curriculum.) Other stories recount inappropriate conduct by Gothard himself. The common theme is that a hierarchical, authority-oriented culture is a breeding ground for abuse.

By the way, I learned about all this when reading a blog post which also reported that the director of another Christian ministry recently committed suicide while being investigated for the sexual abuse of a 10-year-0ld girl. That ministry, Voice of the Martyrs, was important enough to me at one time that I included them in my will.

*Sigh* doesn’t begin to cover it.

The Honesty Revolution

The Internet is famously full of rants and falsehoods but in the next 20 or 30 years it will foster a revolution in personal honesty. In fact, the revolution has already begun.

Why not be honest? There is no need to pretend. All the secrets are out and all the stigmas are gone. Intimacy is in our grasp and we can take it without fear.

The Secrets Are Out

The Internet has taught us that we’re all flawed. If a politician lies or even exaggerates, sites like Politifact will expose the falsehood. If priests abuse children, it can no longer be covered up; within a few years a Google search for Catholic Church scandal will yield over 11 million hits. Nor are the problems of the common man hidden: Google personal problem forums and you’ll have over 312 million places where you may discover that many people struggle with the same issues you do — even people from sub-cultures that present themselves as having all the answers.

The Internet even reaches into the past. Anyone who is curious can discover the grave flaws of the founders of her religion, the actual behavior of people in the supposedly good old days, the dubious history of his holy texts. Nothing is secret anymore.

The Stigmas Are Gone

It’s no wonder that stigmas have fallen. It turns out that every scandalous thought and behavior has always been with us, and now we all know it. If you assert otherwise, anyone with an Internet connection will laugh at you.

Fading, too, are the stigmas of mental illness, physical handicaps and serious disease. College students now get lectures about STDs as part of freshman orientation and we can now say plainly that someone died of cancer rather than “after a long illness.”

We no longer keep secrets nor maintain pretense because we don’t have to.

The New Intimacy

The new generation knows this and routinely discloses to the world what their grandparents would have hesitated to whisper in private, and what their more remote ancestors would not have mentioned at all on pain of death. People post once-unmentionable details of their lives on Facebook. Bloggers like me try to attract an audience for arguments that once would have literally gotten us burned at the stake.

People want intimacy, and this is the new intimacy: sharing our lives with neither shame nor fear.

The Internet makes intimacy easy by offering a certain feeling of anonymity. You key your thoughts or secrets into a machine, whence they fly off to “the cloud.” Time, distance, technology and layers of abstraction separate disclosure from the discovery.

Warp Speed

Some folks wish certain topics would return to the realm of the unmentionable, and certain institutions would again be sacrosanct. This is misguided. Secrecy is the mother of hypocrisy and gratuitous shame; sanctity the father of corruption.

Now that we know each other’s secrets, now that it’s clear to everyone that We are not better than They, we can drop all pretense and take up honesty and compassion. What a welcome change!

Information has now reached warp speed: it is bending the values of society. That’s an exhilarating twist that can bring joy to all of us.

Why Do Atheists Care About Other People?

If you’re just joining me, I’ve been responding to my Christian friends who ask, “Why would someone who doesn’t believe in God care?” I have suggested why I would care about anything at all and about right and wrong. This time, I’ll explore the reasons a non-believer has for caring about other people.

The prior posts actually apply to this question as well. First, humans are social animals, so caring for others is literally in our DNA. Second, even an unbeliever can observe that what goes around comes around.

I have only one thing to add, and once again the Bible provides a germane quotation: “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). The Message translation renders it, “You’re far happier giving than getting.” And it’s true. We feel good when we help others. We feel bad when we’re selfish.

Atheists may be without God, but they are not stupid. Even an atheist is smart enough to do what feels good.

This has been a short post, so let me jump right to the next subject: Why Do Atheists Care About Religion?

Beauty on Its Own Terms

Beautiful and Spectacular (sawdevcin / Flickr)

I walked for over 2 hours today, mostly with my head pointed to the sky. I couldn’t take my eyes off the leaves.

It has actually been a dull autumn here in Massachusetts. Most of the leaves are going directly from green to brown, and the flaming red colors are almost absent. We are left with the more subdued hues.

Beautiful and Subtle (Nat Nunn / Flickr)

Yet, I was amazed at how beautiful they all are when taken on their own terms. I would look at some leaves against the sky and if I initially thought the colors were dull I would look a little longer until I entered into the spirit of that particular color combination. When I saw it for what it was rather than wanting it to be something else, it was gorgeous.

Better yet, it offered a mood I had not been seeking. I came across a large, fallen branch whose leathery leaves had turned a dark, reddish brown. The branch itself was a dark grey. It was dead. Boring, right? So I thought … until I had looked at it long enough to realize that the colors were right out of Edgar Allan Poe. When I received them as they were, they were just as exciting as the yellows and reds you see on New England postcards.

I was feeling good about my aesthetic appreciation when I realized: Why don’t I feel this way about people?

What’s to keep me from appreciating each person on his or her own terms, rather than expecting them to be someone else? If someone has a personality quirk that could be irritating, why not appreciate that little tile in the fascinating human mosaic for what it is? Why not marvel at the miracle of sentient, human life in all its forms?

I’ll be working on that….