Friday, December 30, 2011

Conversions and De-conversions – A godless childhood

The first thing I remember about my childhood in San Ysidro, New Mexico was the unusual people who lived there. True, I met many oddballs, hippies, vagrants and all-around misfits during my parent’s 18 months on the road. We traveled across the western United States, packed into a Volkswagen microbus, from one bizarre hippie commune to another. Sometimes we stayed for a couple of days, others we lingered for months. We lived at one particular state park in northern California for 3 weeks, along with a dozen or so tentbound societal outcasts. Lots of driving, lots of exploring, free love, pot and music. I was out of school, probably illegally, so my mom compensated by teaching me to read, write and understand basic math. I remember many times, sitting in the van, drawing wild animals that I had seen out the window, or indulging in my new obsession with dinosaurs. The huge area that we drove through was filled with geological marvels and fossil museums, and I learned early about those fantastic monsters that once filled the land. I still have crude drawings, buried somewhere in my closet, of ferocious red-eyed tyrannosaurs attacking long-necked brontosaurs. I remember mom teaching me the Theory of Evolution, as she understood it. She told me, for instance, that giraffes evolved from antelopes many thousands of years ago. Generations of antelopes stretched their necks to reach the tender leaves from treetops, each successive generation growing a slightly longer neck, with the final result being our modern giraffe. She also told me that while dinosaurs were long extinct, their modern day ancestors lived on as lizards, alligators and other reptiles. And while mom got the specifics of evolutionary theory wrong, the basic idea that animals somehow changed from one creature to another over spans of millions of years was taught to me at a very early age. Mom’s crude understanding, visiting fossil museums and traveling through desert terrain were all I had to explain the animals and fossils that I saw, and where the dinosaurs went. I do not remember at that early age any conception of our special creation from a deity – only a scientific explanation. It all made perfect sense to me. Here is a dirty secret – even during the years of my most fervent religious convictions, I was always convinced by the theory of evolution. Too many hikes in the desert observing nature, I suppose.

Eventually a life with no income and three children wore my parents down, so we settled on some property owned by my mother’s parents. San Ysidro was a small farming community about 40 miles from my grandparents birthplace, and probably not much bigger. For the next four years, we lived in a tiny adobe house, in the most primitive of conditions. As I already mentioned, the tiny town of Mexican farmers was at that time being overrun with very unusual people. My parents were one of a number of hippies and outcasts who arrived in San Ysidro, and northern New Mexico in general, trying to escape modernity.

I met two children who occupied a half eroded adobe house with their grandfather. I have a vivid memory of them shaving their grandfather’s thick toenails with a pocketknife, while he lay back on a couch talking to my parents. Like so many transients that I met in San Ysidro, they only stayed for a short time before moving on. We met a young cowboy with an older wife and his inherited eight children. I remember they once shared with us all they could on our first Christmas Eve in San Ysidro – some boiled potatoes, Jello, and bear meat that was tougher than shoe leather. They also moved out of town very soon after we met them. I have often wondered about the children I met in San Ysidro, where they now live, and if they could write similar articles about transient life in New Mexico. We often saw drunk Indians from the two neighboring pueblos, Jemez and Zia, and they were commonly seen stumbling or passed out on the road, meeting outside behind the town’s several bars to drink with friends, or even wandering onto our property or even our house! Alcoholism was a terrible problem with the Natives of New Mexico.

Mom enrolled me in the local public school, but my advanced reading and writing skills allowed me to quickly skip a grade. I moved straight from 1st to 3rd grade thanks to my mother’s education. Today, she considers granting the school permission to move me up a grade to be one of her worst parenting decisions. For the next 8 years or so, I was the youngest and smallest kid in my class, and I would later pay for it dearly.

Dad quickly found work as a lumberjack in the mountains. I remember him coming home from work, filthy with sawdust and oil, and sharpening his enormous chainsaws. He also drank more. His abuse and violence continued against mom and me. He frequently got in fights at the bar, and since he hated stupid Indians he would often go to the bar just to drink and look for trouble with them. In those days in northern New Mexico, we never, and I mean never, saw a police officer. San Ysidro was, like Cabezon before it, a relic from the Wild West. I believe the nearest police station was in Bernalillo 25 miles away, and they never ventured into our part of the county. Dad could get away with pretty much anything if he wished, and vigilante justice ruled. I remember one perverse day when dad took me to the bar in the neighboring town of Jemez Springs, got me to puke on two shots of tequila, had me shoot pool with some of his logging buddies, then on the drive home gave me the one and only expression he ever gave of his hopes and dreams for my future. I have heard that most dads are proud of their sons for showing some kind of aptitude and a potential for a successful adult life. After taking me to drink, my dad told me that I shot pool and drank like a man, and he could not wait for me to grow up so we could go out drinking together and beat up Indians. It would be another 30 years before he directed another expression of pride towards his son.

Eventually, mom had to leave dad. I believe they divorced around 1972. He went to live in Jemez Springs with his new girlfriend, and mom was left with no job, no skills and three children to care for in an isolated New Mexico town that offered no opportunity. If she did not live in an adobe house owned by her parents, I don’t know what would have happened. I don’t blame her for being desperate. She got a job at the local trading post/feed store, about a mile down the road. She still did not know how to drive a car, and things were looking kind of grim for us.

In all this time, my life was godless. There was never any talk of religion, God, Jesus, miracles – nothing. I had no conception of any of it.

That would quickly change. More transients moved into San Ysidro. Most were young hippies who longed to drop out from society, but we finally met some who were from Southern California. They were heavily influenced by Chuck Smith’s Christian ministry, and converted to his charismatic brand of Evangelical Christianity. They spoke a bizarre new lingo like ‘Jesus Freaks’, ‘One Way’, ‘Jesus saves’ and ‘Jesus is coming again’. I don’t remember the first time I met these people, or was introduced to their religion, but like so many other transients we met, they seemed to come into town, stay a few days or weeks, then move on.

Another family moved into town, this time from Jamestown, New York. I never knew why they traveled across the United States to settle in little San Ysidro, New Mexico, but like a traveling band of Mormons, they braved the wilderness until they found their Promised Land. The Wagner Family (not their real name) was three generations of Pentecostal Christians who suddenly moved into our tiny town, where there was only one small Catholic church, intent on building a church to their liking. Mom, soon after meeting this family, converted. This young woman, who had rejected her family’s religion and heritage of Catholicism, quickly became a Pentecostal Christian. She became a part of the family. Like I said, she was desperate.

The Wagner family patriarch was a man whom we all called ‘Grandpa Wagner’. Dad loathed him, and called his wife ‘Old Toothless’. He was an old-fashioned hellfire preacher whom I am certain would get along just fine with the likes of Fred Phelps. They moved to San Ysidro with their four grown children and spouses, numerous grandchildren, and even a few members of their Jamestown church. We quickly became friends with all these people. It was in this cult-like religious atmosphere that we lived for the next few years, and it is in this environment that I was first exposed to Christianity.

Mom was desperate, and perhaps she accepted her new family and their religion because of that desperation. Perhaps she did not know at the time, when she married Grandpa Wagner’s oldest son, that she was desperate. Perhaps she really was in love. Perhaps she only thought she was in love. Who knows? All I know is that Michael Wagner (again a pseudonym) was single, had no children, and had the marketable skills necessary to care for three very poor children. Mom was desperate, and she had to do what she had to do. She married into the family of an old traveling preacher, and converted to their religion. In return, she was cared for, and we were fed.

And I learned to Love Jesus.

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Monday, December 19, 2011

Conversions and De-conversions – Dad

As far back as my mother can trace, her ancestry is exclusively from the high-desert farmlands of New Mexico. She is of unmistakable Hispanic heritage. Dad is a typical European mutt. He once made it a mission to trace his ancestry as far back in time as he possibly could – a story that I will come to again later. He found that he was of English, Scottish, Danish and Dutch stock – essentially the northwestern rim of Europe. Dad’s European heritage was certainly a mix of Lutheran and Anglican, but I will never know of what extent that heritage was, or why my dad’s family became impassive towards it. His parents and grandparents never made their religious beliefs known to me, and grandmom only spoke in the vaguest of spiritual generalities. As far as I know, they were thoroughly apathetic towards religious beliefs of any kind. In all my life, I have never seen anybody in dad’s family in a church. That is, until dad converted. But I am again getting ahead of myself.

Grandpa died before I was born, but grandmom is still alive and living in Los Angeles. She remarried a very kind man who I considered my grandfather, just because I never knew my real one, and camping and fishing with my grandparents are some of my most treasured childhood memories. Grandmom was born in 1920, the third child of a Dutch/Scottish couple who drove to Los Angeles from Iowa sometime around 1915. ‘Drove’ seems like such a pedestrian term in our world of interstate highways, but before my great-grandmother died in 1993, she used to tell me stories of being ambushed by wild Indians in Oklahoma during their cross-country trek. I am certain these stories were embellished, but on their arrival to the growing city of Los Angeles, they made a small fortune selling real estate around the growing metropolis. One prized photo in the family album shows my great-grandfather’s company trucks lining an empty road and loaded down with lumber, ready to build. They caught the housing boom in Los Angeles just in time to retire early. They spent the rest of their lives traveling and indulging in one hunting and fishing safari after another.

Somehow, with missing details that I never asked my parents for, the tall, handsome, muscular European man met the tiny, Hispanic woman. The mismatched couple wed and eventually had three children, of which I was the oldest. Dad had a troubled childhood. As big as my dad was, he had an older brother who was even bigger, and apparently had a nasty mean streak. When dad was young, his dad and older brother regularly beat him. I don’t really know what caused the beatings. Dad told me some stories about his dad’s temper exploding after he got in some kind of school trouble, but I suspect these were only lame excuses to justify more beatings. My dad’s father, who died years before I was born, was always somewhat sickly. My grandmom once said that he was born just for the purpose to die. But my uncle, my dad’s older brother, has always struck me as a mean and bitter man. I don’t think he would have needed much of a reason to bully a favorite victim. The beatings must have left severe emotional wounds on my dad’s soul – since the last time I saw him three years ago, he was still telling stories of decades-old abuse. I have always known about the trouble he had with his father and older brother, but he shocked me recently by telling me of his mother, who once punished him by repeatedly shoving his head under water. It is so hard for me to imagine my sweet grandmother, who lives in the fondest memories of my childhood, engaged in such abuse. I don’t know how much in these stories are true, and how much is my dad’s unintended embellishment. Dad has only bothered to tell me a single side of every pitiable story in his difficult life.

As strained as his immediate family relations were, he idolized his adventurous grandparents. My grandmom’s parents spent their real estate earnings on numerous hunting and fishing expeditions. Grandmom’s house was crammed with wildlife trophies, stuffed and mounted deer heads, giant fish and bear rugs. Dad and his cousins sometimes traveled with them on weekend outings, and spent as much time as they could away from the city and exploring the deserts of southern California, hunting game and training carrier pigeons. Dad grew to love the outdoor lifestyle that his grandparents instilled in him, and he became less and less comfortable with the crowded and complicated city environment. Los Angeles was becoming unbearable for him.

Dad worked as a gardener, tending the grounds of Los Angeles’ wealthy. Mom was employed as a telephone operator. Mom was never taught to drive - or taught much anything else for that matter. If she did not make the bus, dad had to drive her to work. I remember once sitting in the car while dad tried to give mom driving lessons. He got angry and frustrated, punched the car interior, and drove home hurling curses and insults the whole way. Knowing my mom as I do now, it is amazing for me to look back at what I remember of her in the late 1960’s. For a woman who rebelled against the religious traditions of her parents, she was unbelievably prone to influence and outside pressures. I remember her once hiding me under the bedroom window while she peeked out at a salesman ringing the doorbell. “Be quiet! That is a robber outside trying to get in!” I did not know at the time that she just too timid to deny a sales pitch.

Dad treated me the way he was treated growing up. He treated me the only way he knew how. I hesitate to write of the physical abuse that dad inflicted on mom or myself, because it does not fit the central theme of these blog articles. But those actions undoubtedly shaped me into the person that I am today. He did it. It happened. I might sprinkle an incident here or there in forthcoming blog entries, but it is not something that I want to spend much time writing about. Strangely, the treatment I got from dad does not seem particularly abnormal to me, but I suppose that is because my childhood is the only childhood I ever knew, and making comparisons with a supposed ideal childhood is arbitrary and impossible. I do not have scars, not physical ones anyway, I did not endure torture, and my dad’s outbursts were usually swift and alcohol induced. I don’t even like the term abuse, since it trivializes those poor children who have endured much worse than me. But in talking to friends over the years, they have expressed the concern that dad would certainly be doing some jail time had he acted the way he did in our 21st century, childcentric, bully-free zone. At the risk of validating Christian apologists who suggest that atheism is the result of a dysfunctional relationship with a father, I will say that I never really knew my father. I still don’t know him. Unlike the relationship I still have with mom, and despite years of trying, I have never been close to dad. He has certainly changed over the years, as we all have, and he will feature prominently in my story in future entries, but I can honestly say that he still remains a mystery to me. His abuse was more psychological than physical. A punch in my face only hurts just so long as I am choking down blood from my nose, but the emotional pain lasts for years. Even decades later, after I had grown and he had matured, even after we both tried our best to learn to love each other, he still intimidated the hell out of me.

In 1969, I was attending Kindergarten in Gardena, California. The school was two blocks from the house and in those days mom let me walk, alone, to school. One of the first memories I have of school is my teacher, Mrs. Michener, telling us youngsters to be quiet so she could listen to the news on the radio. Apparently something important was happening with astronauts who were travelling to the Moon, and Mrs. Michener later told us all about daring astronauts and the marvels of space travel. My introduction to science had thus begun.

For many years, I suspected dad was a Vietnam War draft dodger. Recently, mom assured me that this was not the case. I have always wondered why, in late 1969, my parents sold all their belongings, including the house, packed me, my toddler younger brother, and baby little sister, into a 1963 Volkswagon Microbus, and left Los Angeles. The transition was so sudden it was enough to induce whiplash. One day, we were living comfortably in a nice brick home just outside of Los Angeles, the next, we were on the road, with no income, no destination, no plan, no idea of what would happen next. Mom assures me that dad was not a draft dodger. He just found the city increasingly stifling, and he needed the freedom of the hills that he had learned from the grandparents he so loved. Reckless? Irresponsible? Who can say, but I must say that it was also the climate and changing culture of the time. Dad was letting his hair and beard grow. Mom shed her dress and started wearing pants. Rebellious and experimental music blared from everywhere and expressed the feelings of all young people - Janis Joplin, Canned Heat, Iron Butterfly, and dad’s personal favorite, Bob Dylan. I still remember ‘Somebody to Love’ by Jefferson Airplane, probably the first song chorus I ever learned to sing, playing from the bus radio as we drove north and left our grandparents and all remaining family traditions and ties forever behind.

Little could I have suspected, but at that very moment, just 30 miles to the south of our house in Gardena, down south of Long Beach in neighboring Coast Mesa, a middle-aged Pentacostal preacher named Chuck Smith was shocking the evangelical world by inviting drug addicted hippies into his small church and converting them to Christianity. The Protestant Church, recently home to stiff 1950’s post-war formalism, was suddenly flooded with long-haired Jesus Freaks baptizing in the Pacific Ocean, performing signs and wonders, and creating a hybrid musical form called Christian Rock. This had no immediate effect on me, since at this time in my life, my religiously indifferent family had never introduced me to the concepts of God, Jesus or other Christian paraphernalia. However, these simple but shocking acts, performed in a church not far south of our Gardena home, produced ripples that were to affect our lives for many years to come.


I will continue this story after the Holidays. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to everybody!

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Sunday, December 18, 2011

Conversions and De-conversions – Mom

One thing I notice in many stories of leaving religious Faith is the pain of telling family members of newfound faithlessness. The United States has no state religion, so religious traditions are passed down solely through family ties. Even the most religiously apathetic are raised in some kind of religious tradition cemented through deep roots in the family. Leaving Faith often means painful breaking with unquestioned family traditions. Fortunately, I never had this problem. I had no deep family traditions to concern myself with. My mother’s parents were the most religious of my family, but they did not successfully pass that tradition down through their children. My grandfather, Papa as everybody called him, died well before I left the Faith. I callously insulted my grandmother’s Faith soon after Papa’s death. I had not yet learned that when religious tradition is insulted, the person who holds the tradition is also insulted. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Mama is the sole torchbearer of any religious tradition in my family. She is still alive and well at 95, and still lives with the rest of my mother’s family in north-central New Mexico. I never felt the burden to tell her that I left the Christian Faith, and although there are other religious people in my family, they do not carry the tradition that Mama failed to pass down. I have some family members who are Protestant Evangelicals. Mama and Papa were strict Catholics.

Mama was born in Cabezon, New Mexico in 1916. Cabezon is a ghost town now, although I have visited the collapsing mud-brick homes of that town many times. It was abandoned around 1940 when the Rio Puerco, the sole source of the town’s water, dried up. Coincidentally, this was when the War was beginning to consume the planet, and work was to be found in Los Angeles. So Mama and Papa moved to Los Angeles and Papa found work by joining the Navy. The strict, Catholic, isolated, Wild West town in New Mexico was abandoned for a new life in the city.

‘Wild West’ is not hyperbole when describing Cabezon. To this day, there is a single, 20-mile long dirt road connecting the abandoned town of Cabezon to the nearest paved highway, then from there another 30 miles or so to the nearest small town. Mama never spoke much about what life was like living there when she was young, only that it was nothing but pleasure. I think that kind of talk is all romantic nostalgia. I do know that farming in the deserts of New Mexico at any distance from the Rio Grande is immensely difficult, and water is the precious gold of the rural highlands. I do know that the tiny Rio Puerco created a heavily eroded arroyo just outside of town, and navigating down to the water involves a treacherous hike down soft silt and packed desert dirt. Water had to be hauled up daily from the muddy river, first for cooking and drinking, then for farming and the animals, then, if there was any left, for washing.

Back around 1995, some volunteers refurbished the long abandoned Catholic Church in Cabezon. The graveyard in the back was cleared of brush and tumbleweeds, the old Stations of the Cross were fixed, the pews repainted, the old adobe bricks replastered, and Mass was held there for the first time in about 40 years. I was there during that celebration, and some of the older people from the area, people who remembered living there decades before, came to attend the Mass. I was certain I was related, in some distant and remote way, to most everybody there. Everybody, good Catholics that they were, knew the routine once the Mass started. I could only follow along by watching what everybody else was doing. Mama and Papa did not pass their religious traditions down to their grandchildren, and my cousins and I did not understand the religious celebrations and rituals there that had tied the entire community together. We were just thinking of the enchiladas, beans and red chile that waited to be eaten after Mass was finished.

The community planned to hold Mass in the old Cabezon church four times per year for all the old-timers. Unfortunately this plan did not last long. People who had once lived in Cabezon got older and died, and the younger generations did not remember the old ghost town of their grandparents. Today, the entire town is again melting into piles of mud where adobe bricks once stood, desert scrub again clogs the town cemetery, and the dirt road into town is gated and locked. The recently refurbished Catholic church is the only building in town not in danger of completely eroding again into the surrounding red earth.

I have often wondered why Mama and Papa were not able to pass down their Catholic traditions to their three children. I have never seen my mother, my aunt or my uncle all together in a Catholic church except at Papa’s funeral – and none of them participated in the Mass. Most families that I have witnessed, both here in the Catholic Southwest and in Philippines pass their religious traditions down through their children with seemingly no effort. Why was my family so different? This is one mystery that my mother has never given the complete explanation for, but I suspect, and it is only a suspicion, that it was the culture shock after moving from Cabezon to Los Angeles in 1942. My uncle and aunt, their two oldest children, were born in Cabezon and were raised speaking Spanish. My mom was born in Los Angeles and the Spanish language was dropped after the children entered public school there. During the wartime culture in Los Angeles, American citizenry was the top priority. The Spanish language was dropped when English became the only permissible language. I suspect that the Catholic Faith, while not dropped, was just no longer emphasized.

My mother once told me that she never accepted the Catholic Faith. She just never believed it because it never made sense to her. I think there is something more to this story, just because neither her older sister nor brother ever became devout Catholics, and that coincidence just makes me somewhat suspicious. I will have to ask her about this when I see her next week over Christmas. The three children, my mom and her older brother and sister, were baptized, went through confirmation, occasionally attended confession, and performed all the other expected Catholic rituals. But for some reason her oldest brother, the only one of the siblings to enroll in college, rejected the Catholic faith. Because of the pressure from her parents, mom remained a Catholic in name only. I was baptized as a baby in order for mom to keep peace with Mama and Papa, but that was the last of my sacraments. I never attended catechism, received first communion, or went through confirmation. I had no idea what a Catholic really was until decades later.

My young non-believing mother was still influenced by strict Catholic culture in one small but significant way. Mom married her tall, handsome, and non-Catholic high school sweetheart. Somehow, these two young, mismatched and immature people wed in a non-Catholic ceremony. I was born in Los Angeles, California in 1964. Dad was 19 years old when I was born, and was woefully unprepared for the responsibilities of fatherhood. Mom had certainly forsaken her parents’ religious tradition, but I don’t think dad ever had a tradition to forsake. The first few years of my life were completely and totally devoid of God, Jesus, tradition, ritual or religious character of any kind.

Edit 09 April 2012:
My mom read this article, and as I suspected I got a few details in this story wrong. A few factual errors have been fixed.

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Saturday, December 17, 2011

It is time

When I was in my early 30’s, I picked up a book written by one of my musical heroes, Seeds of Change – the Spiritual Quest of Kerry Livgren. Livgren’s autobiography chronicles his religious and spiritual thinking from his early years as a nominal Christian, to exploring various philosophies while in college, experimenting with Hinduism and Urantia as one of the 1970’s most successful rock musicians, then ultimately to ‘give his life to Jesus’ and leading his own Christian rock band in the 1980’s and beyond. Unlike many popular rock musicians of the 1970’s, Livgren used his music as a vehicle for exploring and questioning his beliefs rather than just grinding out party tunes. I have always enjoyed Livgren’s book, written by a musician and songwriter who helped influence my own adolescent and formative thoughts, but also from an obviously sincere and intelligent person, whose songwriting reflected his own changing and turbulent religious beliefs.

I always remember this book when I hear what Christians call ‘testimonies’ and atheists call ‘de-conversion stories’. Most Christian testimonies that I have heard, usually from those brave enough to answer the pastor’s call for a willing testimony from the congregation, are very similar. “I led a life of rebellion and sin against God. I did drugs. I drank. I cheated on my wife. But then I found a Man, who would take me as I am - a dirty and wretched sinner, and he washed me white as snow!” Most de-conversion stories are also strikingly similar. “I was as devout a Christian as any. I witnessed. I prayed. I read my Bible. But then I found a book by a man that told me I am the measure of all things, convinced me that evolution is true, and that God is a Delusion!” I loved testimonies when I was a Christian, and I love de-conversion stories as an apostate, but in both cases, the stories always seem both too similar and too simple. I guess that is why I have always enjoyed Livgren’s book, even as one who does not agree with his ultimate conclusion. He demonstrates that his conversion did not simply occur, as he relates, in a lonely hotel room while on tour with his band. Rather, his conversion started decades earlier, when he was a child in Kansas staring at a bookshelf and letting his mind wander. Similarly, when I was a more active blogger in the wake of my own de-conversion 4 years ago, people would ask me for my own de-conversion story. I could have simply repeated the pattern that is so often followed in de-conversion stories, and it would have been accurate, but only as a skeleton. I have always felt that, to be honest with myself, I could not repeat the simple ‘de-conversion pattern’. To this day, I have been hesitant to tell my de-conversion story, because I simply cannot pinpoint when my de-conversion actually began. I firmly left the Christian Faith at about the age of 43, yet I can see ‘Seeds of Change’ in my own life beginning before I even professed to be a Christian. Unlike Livgren, who has sadly not updated his autobiography in 20 years, I recognize that my spiritual quest, if I must call it that, has not ended upon my de-conversion. Conversion, De-conversion, call it what you will, has for me been a life-long process, that will likely, I hope, continue for the rest of my life. As I have said before, the story of my de-conversion is necessarily the story of my life. You want my de-conversion story? I have to start at the beginning.

But I think it is time. It is time for that story to be told.

I have been mulling it over for some time. True, nobody has asked me to share my story since I quit writing at But RoseMary has lately been asking probing questions about my past. These are questions that I welcome, but I find I sometimes have trouble piecing together vague and disjointed memories. I have been asking a lot of questions of my unsuspecting mother in the last few months – questions that fill in empty gaps from my youth. I had to ask her about certain things that I had either forgotten, or those strange mysteries that I had always wondered about but never dared ask. As I get older, and events fade further into the past, I feel them begin to slip out of my memory. Names, places, details – many of those are long gone. Most of my memories come from associations with photos taken years earlier – unfortunately my parents never owned a camera when I was young, and the only photos taken during my pre-high school years were taken by my grandparents when they occasionally came to visit. The record of my youth is scant. The other night, RoseMary and I struggled to remember the names of fellow church members who would visit the weekly Bible Studies that we hosted in our home. My fleeting memory, and the mere wisp of thread that holds it in my mind scares me. I feel the need to create a record of some kind to my past. Livgren has a record to his past, left in the legacy of the music and songs he wrote. When asked if he repudiated those old songs that dabble in Hinduism and Urantia, Livgren said absolutely not. They were an honest record of what he was thinking and experiencing at the time they were written. I am almost 48 years old now. I increasingly feel the need to leave that honest record of where I came from, mistakes, simple-mindedness, blunders and all.

It is time for me to write my de-conversion story.

Where to start? I am a physicist by trade, and I am trained as a technical writer. When I write, I usually start with paragraph or section headers and fill in the gaps. I usually start somewhere in the middle, and simultaneously work my way to the beginning and end. I flesh things out as I go, and I nearly always have an end in sight. The abstract and titles are the absolute last things to be set to paper. Blogging, in contrast, has always been somewhat difficult for me. It is a style of writing that I am still not yet comfortable with. And writing my de-conversion story? I tried starting it as I do with my research papers – first outline it with subject headers – or in this case, separate blog titles, then work my out and flesh in the details. Bah! I quickly realized that would never do. I will have to do the terrifying – start at the beginning with no middle or end in sight, and type my way through unknown and uncharted waters. I have nothing pre-written. No outline. No nothing. When I click ‘Publish’, I will have nothing but this intimidating reminder that I am now on record to finish this de-conversion story. Be patient with me, Dear Reader.

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Thursday, December 8, 2011

Gov Rick Perry is Strong

Governor Rick Perry (or as RoseMary calls him, Governor Goodhair) is flailing in the polls. With the Iowa Republican caucus fast approaching, he passes this Hail Mary to his would-be Iowan supporters:

In his latest campaign video, weirdly entitled STRONG:

Looks like the video will not appear in a frame. Try HERE

I'm not ashamed to admit that I'm a Christian, but you don't need to be in the pew every Sunday to know there's something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can't openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school.
As President, I'll end Obama's war on religion. And I'll fight against liberal attacks on our religious heritage.
Faith made America strong. It can make her strong again.
I'm Rick Perry and I approve this message.

Rick Perry, I don’t care if you are a Christian. I don’t care what your religious beliefs are. I know you want me to be at war with you, but I am not. How many times must we go through this? How many times must we point out to sneaky politicians that children can pray in school. Children can openly celebrate Christmas. Obama is not at war with religion. Since 1962, when the US Supreme Court banned school-sponsored prayer, children in United States public schools can privately pray during non-instructional time at school. They can pray during recess. They can pray during lunch. They can pray with groups of friends. They can hold hands around the flagpole during non-instructional time and pray openly and loudly. They can organize extra-curricular groups in which they can pray and read or study the Bible. Private prayer that is engaged in by Public School students, is not only allowed, not only legal, but is protected by our Constitution! These freedoms are not restricted to our nation’s most dominant religion – children may pray to any deity or deities of their choosing. Gov Perry, in contrast to the war you imagine is being waged against you, these laws protect your religious freedoms. They ensure that your children are not subjected to school-sponsored prayer that is not of your particular religious belief or tradition. Gov Perry, you know this.

Since when can children not openly celebrate Christmas? What in the world is Gov Perry talking about? And just how is Obama at war with religion? According to the Charlston City Paper, Obama’s war on religion comes in the form of supporting the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and cutting funds from Catholic charities because “of their stance against abortion”. Perry’s amazing ability to read minds and discern hidden intentions was not discussed.

I should not have to type this. Rick Perry knows he is deceitful. He knows children can pray in school. He knows they can celebrate Christimas. He has been govornor of the state of Texas for over 10 years, and he cannot possibly be that ignorant of the basic laws and freedoms of this country. But his campaign commercials are devoid of content. Instead, they are more of what I wrote about in my last article – emotional buzzwords and phrases. Phrases that enter the public conscience that are vague in their meaning, yet are powerful in their emotional pull: Christian Nation, War on Drugs, Judeo-Christian Values, and School Prayer. Slick politicians like Governor Goodhair know very well what these things mean, yet they decieve their electorate with misleading emotional catch phrases!

Do these politicians want their voting public to remain ignorant? I hate to be so cynical, but if they know they are deceitful in saying things like “Our children are not allowed to pray in school”, and instead do not take the time to explain themselves, it seems to me that they are relying on the public to be ignorant. They have to be ignorant in order believe what Gov Perry is saying. Gov Perry’s statement is so blatantly false to anybody that cares to do any fact-checking, that he has to rely on the base ignorance of his supporters. This makes Gov Perry, not only a liar, but demeaning to his faithful supporters – all in the name of votes.

Why am I discussing this? This is an obvious, plain, and simple observation. I don’t feel like typing articles like this, because they are just too easy. It requires next to no thought and it seems to me that everybody should already know this! Yet we hear constantly bogus pleas to emotion from these characters and people are suckered by them again and again and again and again and . . . . .

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Would Jesus Hate WalMart?

The local Catholic Church here in El Paso is a large purveyor of the politically liberal Social Gospel. While I admire many of their aims and goals, I am critical of much of their rationale, as I have written about before. I warn my friends in this movement that I learned a hard lesson when I left the Christian Faith. I learned that I must not hold on to any Dogmas or Ideologies as matters of unshakable conviction. I am a mere human, and prone to fail as mere flesh will, but I do my best to remember that lesson. I enjoy conversations with friends on controversial topics. My secret to keeping my sanity is that I am not offended if I am shown to be wrong. If I claim not to have Faith in any Dogmas, be they religious, political, social, whatever… I must be willing to change my mind on a position if I am presented with convincing evidence. I remind myself that when I am in a heated discussion, I have to have the attitude whereby I am happy to be shown to be wrong. I rejoice in it! I want people to show me where I am wrong! I have learned that I will never grow as a human, I will never continue on my path to maturity if I am never corrected in my thinking, and if I am not willing to concede when I have been corrected.

But see, there is a problem. I have been burned in my life. When evidence or logical reasoning is not available, people will resort to other tricks to convince me that they are correct. I have learned what those tricks are. Over forty years of Christian belief has given me lots of practice at spotting propaganda. As somebody who very recently left the Christian Faith I spent most of my life subjected to bogus argumentation, illogical reasoning, willful ignorance, and sometimes just good old-fashioned bald-faced lies. I often wonder if a person can more easily discern when they are being subtly manipulated and propagandized by various media if they have de-converted from religious Faith. I never took any college courses in advertisement or subliminal manipulations in those advertisements. I am sure I don’t know everything, but I am also sure that leaving Christianity has given me a good headstart.

My friend R---- is, as I have written about before, a Catholic activist for Social Justice. I understand that Social Justice means many different things. I think most everybody wishes for Social Justice, but the problem is that everybody defines it differently. One aspect of Social Justice advocated by R----, if I understand her correctly, is that every human should receive their ‘Fair Share’ (however that malleable term may be defined), and this involves those of us who are more fortunate, to live a more frugal and generous lifestyle. This also means that Big Business is typically (though not always) greedy and corrupt to the core, and the Biggest business of all is the easiest target of all – WalMart. If ever R---- reads this, I do hope she will correct me if I am misrepresenting her opinions, but I do know that this is a view that is common among those in the Catholic Church who advocate for Social Justice. Poverty is a virtue, and Wealth is a sin.

The other day, R---- forwarded this poster to my email. This poster, courtesy of, demonstrates The Weight of WalMart! Take a gander:

Walmart Infographic


The propaganda behind this poster seems obvious to me. I initially started my critique of the poster by checking the sources listed on the bottom of the poster, but on further reflection, I believe that is irrelevant. I know next to nothing about economic theory, and I do not need to start chasing down and reading source material to see that the flaws in the presentation are right on the surface, and plain for all to see if only we apply a little critical reasoning. Even if every number and figure on this poster is correct (and I will assume they are), this poster is full of the same emotional triggers and dirty tricks used by the best snakeoil salesmen, televangelists, and other greasy hucksters. In saying this, I am not saying this to denigrate R---- or any of her friends in the Social Justice mindset. I rarely view things the same way that R---- does, but I know that her heart is in the right place.

Before I go on, please keep in mind that this poster was forwarded to me by a Christian who advocates the Social Gospel. The makers of the poster,, are not affiliated with the Catholic Church or any other religious organizations that I can tell. My critique is with the poster, but it uses arguments and logic commonly used by the Social Gospel Christian.

Of the 6 major bullet points on the poster (Revenue, Competition, Geography, Manpower, Trade, and Welfare) not a single one makes a direct negative charge against WalMart. Much of the implied negativity is in the pictures and analogies that are used. All negativity is only subtly implied, and never directly stated. This poster works completely and exclusively on the emotional level. The power of the message is from the emotional pull of the caricatures and cartoons. That is must my first red flag, and I have learned that at this point I must begin to be critical!

In the poster, WalMart is caricatured as a slug-like Jabba the Hutt, sitting on and fully engulfing the entire planet under the folds of his sluggish body. WalMart the Hutt’s face is the drowsy and drunken face of a glutton, relaxing for a nap after its fifth serving of Thanksgiving turkey. Underneath we read:

Walmart is more than Earth’s largest retailer. The finances, footprint, and personnel of this behemoth dwarfs entire industries and countries. Walmart’s epic 400+ billion annual revenues eclipse the GDPs of more than 170 countries, and its 2,100,000 employees would form the second largest standing army on the planet.

With the change of just a couple of trigger words, there is nothing negative implied in this paragraph. In fact, much of the text from this entire poster can be used in a pro-marketing presentation inside WalMart headquarters. But the implication is made by the use of the grotesque WalMart cartoons and the choice of negative analogies and comparisons. The first implication is that Big = Bad. Big = Corrupt. Big = Greedy. Big = all-consuming. This is never stated, but it is to be understood. Also, why is the workforce of WalMart compared to a standing army? Why is that comparison chosen if not to draw a negative inference from the largely pacifistic Christian of the Social Gospel.

Let’s look at all six bullet points in this poster:

1) Revenue. Another cartoon shows Jabba the WalMart glutton as he stuffs himself with cash. Are all WalMart executives greedy SOBs? Maybe they are. I have no way of knowing. But that is irrelevant to my critique.

Walmart’s 2010 revenues were bigger than the revenues of America’s largest oil company, largest manufacturer, and largest pharmaceutical company. Even when combined, the revenues of Chevron, General Electric, and Pfizer still total less than Walmart’s. If revenue were Walmart’s national GDP it would be the 25th LARGEST ECONOMY IN THE WORLD.

Again, nothing negative is stated. It is merely implied that Big is Bad. It seems to me that the Social Justice Christian believes our economy to be the same as that of 1st century Palestine. Isn’t one of the flagship Scriptures of the Social Gospel one of the sermons in the Gospel of Luke, as preached by Jesus himself?

Luke 6:20-26
20 And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said, Blessed be ye poor: for yours is the kingdom of God.
21 Blessed are ye that hunger now: for ye shall be filled. Blessed are ye that weep now: for ye shall laugh.
are ye, when men shall hate you, and when they shall separate you from their company, and shall reproach you, and cast out your name as evil, for the Son of man's sake.
23 Rejoice ye in that day, and leap for joy: for, behold, your reward is great in heaven: for in the like manner did their fathers unto the prophets.
24 But woe unto you that are rich! for ye have received your consolation.
25 Woe unto you that are full! for ye shall hunger. Woe unto you that laugh now! for ye shall mourn and weep.

Jesus was assuming an economy of conserved wealth. Capitalism did not yet exist. Wealth, be it in the form of prosperity or poverty, was a conserved property. If somebody like Zacchaeus had money, it was because he swindled it from somebody less clever than he. If Lazarus was poor and allowed dogs to lick his open sores, it was because the Rich Man had the limited money that could have been shared with Lazarus. Only a fixed amount of wealth existed in the world, and there was not yet any means of creating wealth. That is why Jesus told the poor that their day of happiness would one day come. He told them that the rich may be presently rejoicing, but they would soon suffer and their stripped wealth would soon pass to the more virtuous poor. It seems to me that the makers of this poster, and many Social Justice Christians for that matter, believe that we are still living with an economy that Jesus preached about – an economy of limited and conserved wealth. If WalMart is huge, it must be because they are greedier than Chevron. If Chevron is larger than Pfizer, well so much the better for Pfizer – not that 67.8 billion in revenue makes Pfizer any paragon of virtue.

This same false assumption permeates the poster.

2) Competition. WALMART IS EARTH’S LARGEST RETAILER, with 5x the sales of the second largest U.S. retailer Costco, and 10x the sales of the largest online retailer Amazon. Not stopping there, Walmart is also the largest grocer in the United States, with $129 BILLION IN GROCERY SALES ALONE.

Blanket statements that I assume are correct, and are in themselves emotionally neutral. But coupled with a cartoon of Jabba the WalMart stuffing himself into a shopping cart, while terrifying helpless and tiny Costco in his modest shopping basket, and inconsequential, thumb-sized Amazon, strolling by almost unnoticed. Costco and Amazon may be threatened by the terror of WalMart, but if WalMart did not exist, you can bet that Costco would be the Big Business target of the Social Justice Christian – simply because they would be the biggest game in town. Don’t be fooled by the cartoon of diminutive little Amazon; the makers of this poster think they are also too big and threatening.

3) Geography
Lined up side by side, Walmart’s warehouses would COVER ALL OF MANHATTAN’S 880 MILLION SQUARE FEET. 60% of the U.S. population lives within 5 miles of a Walmart. 96% LIVES WITHIN 20 MILES OF ONE.

You know, it occurs to me that I can easily replace the word Walmart with Catholic Church, and after tweaking the numbers a bit to keep it accurate, I could make the same point. In fact, the same holds true for most of this poster. Instead of Jabba the Walmart cartoons, I could Photoshop a silly papal hat on its head, call it Pope Benedict the Hutt, and make absurd comparisons and analogies to demonstrate the size of the world’s largest, most dominant religion, and Christendom’s most pervasive denomination. It would make just as much illogical sense as this poster does.

WALMART’S 2,100.000 EMPLOYESS WOULD FORM THE 2ND LARGEST ACTIVE MILITARY IN THE WORLD, equaling the combined armies of North Korea (1.1 million) and Russia (1 million) Walmart’s 8,000 delivery drivers burn 118 MILLION GALLONS OF FUEL EACH YEAR. Spilled, Walmart’s oil slick would cover an area OVER 1/2 THE SIZE OF BP’S GULF DISASTER, and OVER 4X THE SIZE OF THE EXXON VALDEZ SPILL IN ALASKA.

This is the biggest non-sequitor and illogical leap on the whole poster! Why are WalMart employees compared with a standing army? What makes an army, in particular, the most logical point of comparison? It is because this poster works solely on an illogical and emotional level. WalMart = Armies. Armies = War. War = Bad. Trucks = Oil. Oil = Spills. Spills = Bad. Why not use another comparison? How about - WalMart employees number about 10X the total number of Peace Corps volunteers. WalMart trucks delivered 5X the supplies to post Hurricane New Orleans than the National Guard and 10X more than Salvation Army relief workers. (NOTE – I am making these numbers up for demonstration only) Why not use those or similar comparisons? Because on an emotional level, Peace Corps and Relief Workers = Good. But it is imperative that WalMart be evil. Comparing the number of employees to standing armies and oil spills is about as relevant as comparing them to the number of leaves that fell in my yard last night. FrugalDad, the maker of this poster pulls a similar stunt in another poster in which he compares the aggregated size of Butterball turkeys eaten by gluttonous Americans to the unrelated size of the Tunguska bolide or an atom bomb. These are in no way natural comparisons.

Walmart is the largest U.S. importer of Chinese goods. (15% OF ALL U.S. CHINESE IMPORTS ARE WALMART’S)

Again, this is more of equating size with moral virtue. Like a filler-song on a classic rock album, this lame bullet-point is placed in next to last place. But we finish this thing off with a bang:

If Walmart were a national economy, they would rank 1st in the world for income inequality: CEO MICHAEL DUKE MAKES MORE IN AN HOUR THAN HIS SALES ASSOCIATE WILL IN A YEAR. The Waltons are the 2nd wealthiest family on earth; yet, 20 BILLIONAIRES DONATE MORE THAN THEIR PALTRY 2% CONTRIBUTION.

Under this are more caricatures meant to pull emotional triggers. Jabba the WalMart is a big, pipe-smoking Daddy Warbucks, staring down at the tiny, shriveled, discolored, employee. The calandar is set to December, which I suppose is meant to symbolize (in a clumsy way) Christmas. I think WalMart Warbucks is not handing out any holiday bonuses this year. What a miserly Scrooge!

I have always been baffled by the argument that the Social Justice Christian gives concerning this thing they call ‘income equality’. I confess, I make a very good living. I am one of the lucky ones I guess, and am fortunate to have a well-paying job in this tough economy. I want to understand, but these demands for ‘income equality’ leave me completely dumbfounded. The figure given for a ‘Full-Time Associate’ of WalMart is given as $13,650 per year (or as they state $6.50 per hour). First off, considering the federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, with regional variations, I am mighty skeptical of that figure for a full-time associate. Dividing $13650 by 52 weeks per year and 40 hours per week gives $6.56 – a truly full-time employee who takes no unpaid time off. I am sure I could dig up something closer to the truth if I did some snooping around, but that is all really a rabbit trail for another day. Let us suppose for argument’s sake that this figure is correct. Let us suppose the worst-case scenario: that all 2,100,000 WalMart employees are working at an average of $13,650 per year ($6.50 per hour) and the CEO is hoarding a crooked, greedy and gluttonous salary of $35 million per year ($16827 per hour). In fact, let’s make the scenario even worse by supposing the top 100 WalMart corporate executives all conspire against their exploited employees and each earn $35 million! Let’s make all the 100 top WalMart executives as greedy, evil and corrupt as these cartoons want us to believe. Let us now give in to the demands of the Social Justice Christian, and live in a world of income equality. All 100 top executives miraculously have a change of heart, and decide to work for the entire year salary free, and further, to distribute their earnings to all their employees. What could be more fair, just and equitable? Imagine the entire WalMart board of directors becoming as generous as possible, living off their ill-gotten savings, and passing their continued earning to their underpaid employees. What more could they possibly do? How much more generous could they possibly be? It is the dream of the Jesus himself, the preacher of the sermon on Social Justice, to have the rich become poor and the poor become rich. The problem that the Social Justice Christian never seems to notice, however, is the total number of employees that this CEO salary must be distributed to. The math is easy enough: 35 million dollars CEO salary, multiplied by 100 for his hypothetical evil cronies is 3.5 billion dollars. Divided by 2.1 employees, this comes out to an annual salary increase for each employee of 1667 dollars. If, hypothetically, not just the CEO, but one hundred top WalMart executives earned $35 million annually, and then all one hundred decided to live for one year without any salary, the total benefit to the average WalMart employee would be a salary increase of a paltry 80 cents per hour. The average WalMart employee would still be scraping by at $15,317 annually before taxes! So how exactly is 'income equality' supposed to be beneficial to underpaid WalMart cashiers, shelf stockers and truck drivers?

This is admittedly a very simplistic picture, as it ignores the many adverse corporate effects an unsalaried executive board would have. But, for the life of me, I cannot understand the fixation on ‘income inequality’. We are not living in 1st century Palestine. Jesus is not here to bless the poor and pass woe on the rich. The simple math tells me that it matters little what my boss, or their boss, or anybody higher up on the corporate ladder is earning. In contrast to Jesus’ preaching, their pay has little reflection on my pay. I am not saying there are not genuine abuses, poor and exploited workers, greedy SOB corporate bosses and the like. But this poster, and so many of the Social Justice crowd would have me believe that the solution to our economic problems is a simple matter of income equality. Sorry, I am just not buying it.

My critique of this poster is not a vindication or of Captalism, corporate greed or any of our other economic ills. I am certainly no economic expert, and I am learning, slowly, about how all this works. I also know that this country’s preferred economic system, Capitalism is a human invention, not a dogma to be defended at all costs, and I am well aware of its strengths and weaknesses. With that said, I also think I understand how propaganda works, and I think I know the difference between reasoned and logical argumentation, and presentations designed to manipulate my feelings and emotions. That is where my critique lies. I hope you understand my intentions in writing this critique.