Mindfulness at an Ultra, Even When You Don’t Want It

tussey_finishThis year I slated three races to run. The first was a 25K trail run I knew I wasn’t fully prepared for. The next was a trail marathon I used as a practice run. The third was my “A” race, the one at which I wanted to perform well and go for the best time I could over 50 miles. I cramped up at the first race which I attributed to lack of preparation. It was frustrating, but not demoralizing. The second race was healthy and enjoyable mainly because I wasn’t going all that hard. But the last race? That “A” race I had in my sights all year? I cramped up the worst and way earlier that I would ever have expected. I sucked down all the electrolytes and was well hydrated, I wasn’t going all that much faster than my final training run, and I had a 3 week taper leading into it. I had also trained my ass off and followed a program I put together based on plans recommended by more than one coach. Yet I still lost my legs at mile 22 and they never came back. That meant 28 miles of often excruciating pain that made power hiking up even modest climbs difficult and unforgiving. But I’m not here to talk about my body. I’m here to talk about what was happening in my brain.

Managing Self Talk

Anyone who has worked through a mental illness will tell you that self-talk and personal narratives dictate how they feel, what they believe about themselves, and how they behave. The messages from past experiences and internal traumas that loudly whisper, “You aren’t worth this,” “You should stop,” “Who are you to even try,” “You’re so selfish,” “Just give up, that’s what people would expect anyway” never fully go away no matter how healthy you get. The trick is to form a different relationship with those messages so they stop dictating your feelings, beliefs, and behavior. This takes practice and hard work over a long period of time like training the body to endure running for long distances. When the body is healthy and everything seems to feel good and highly functioning, dispelling those messages with affirmations, completing even mundane goals, or bodily movement is at its easiest. But when the body starts to fatigue and pain is inescapable all those practices you have developed to counteract the narratives of depression or anxiety in all of its forms begin to lose their effectiveness. Without those practices, your thoughts are left bare. What then?

Mindfulness has become a Westernized panacea that is as ubiquitous as diets promising you that you can lose weight fast and look like a fitness model in two weeks, or get rich schemes from televangelists promising magic from “miracle” spring water from Russia. Most of the popular mentions of mindfulness are divorced from its roots in meditation practices from Buddhists and romanticize the image of the happy guru blissful in his chubby transcendence. Mindfulness to the popular imagination is more like achieving the state of a happy dog that lives its life in a series of present moments ecstatic to see people, play ball, and sneak scraps from the table. This image of mindfulness misses the mark not only for what it is and how hard it is to practice and to achieve a level of competence doing.

Mindfulness is about understanding the cycle of cause and effect that people are caught in so that we can better understand how to break and change those cycles in which we find ourselves in order to live lives at greater peace with ourselves and with others.

Mindfulness is indeed becoming deeply familiar and intimate with the present. It is a practice that gets you much closer to and curious about everything happening inside the body and outside of it. It is feeling the shirt on your skin, hearing the ringing in your ears you usually don’t notice, listening to the voice that tells you how horrible you are, and leaning in to all of the things that go through your brain of which you are most often completely unaware. Mindfulness is about understanding the cycle of cause and effect that people are caught in so that we can better understand how to break and change those cycles in which we find ourselves in order to live lives at greater peace with ourselves and with others. If you stop everything and become aware of everything going through your brain and everything that you sense in your body, it is overwhelming. Close your eyes and give it a try right now for 30 seconds. There is a lot happening isn’t there? Just like going for a run when you are out of shape is difficult and takes time and consistent effort for your body to adapt, the practice of mindful meditation should be done by setting small goals and adapting over time to where you are able to manage your mind more effectively.

Flipping the Script

So what does this have to do with running an ultramarathon? Mile 30 was the last time I would see any of the runners in the pack I had been in until the finish. Except for relay runners passing me and support vehicles speeding by, I was totally alone with my pain and my thoughts. I am not a meditator. I tried it for a while, but I did not want to get intimate with my thoughts at all. At the time, life was a mess and the idea of making that mess more present and clear was awful. Why would I want to make bad stuff feel worse? I have done work since then to understand my brain, how my thinking works, and how it affects my behavior. But I have not exactly practiced mindfulness at least to the degree that a Buddhist monk would ever have me do. So when my body that I thought I had trained went south, I was left with an untrained brain to work through the mess of thoughts that I simply could not avoid.

As every negative comment ever slung at me going back to when I was probably eight years old raging in my brain, a woman from a relay team pulled up next to me. She said, “I have been trying to catch up to you for a half an hour! You are so strong! You are doing this! You’re strong!” She said it over and over again. I told her I was OK, that I was just working through bad cramps, and that there was nothing I could eat or drink right now that would help. We got to the top of the hill and I said, “I think I can run down this now.” She fell behind me. I never saw her again. I still have no idea who it was. But those words were just enough to feed my brain with something different and positive enough to flip the script a little. It also reminded me to keep practicing gratitude. If I saw someone else struggling, I offered encouragement. I thanked everyone at the aid stations and smiled for them because they had been working for us all day. The best solution to the problems inside my head was to get outside of my head.

But those words were just enough to feed my brain with something different and positive enough to flip the script a little. It also reminded me to keep practicing gratitude. If I saw someone else struggling, I offered encouragement. I thanked everyone at the aid stations and smiled for them because they had been working for us all day. The best solution to the problems inside my head was to get outside of my head.

The first step in mindfulness practice is to accept the thoughts and sensations you are experiencing. The second step is to accept that they are temporary and you are free to let them go whenever you want. The third step is to understand that the longer you hold on to those thoughts and sensations, the greater the risk is that you are going to cause yourself or others to suffer at some point. Sometimes you just need a little push from the outside to let those things go and that comes from either receiving help from others or offering help in any way that you can manage. That’s when the content of your brain starts to change just enough that perceptions and experience slowly and gradually transform.

So what did this race teach me? I not only need to strengthen my body a little bit more, I need to strengthen my brain. Two hypotheses I am going to test for next year: 1) Strengthen the muscles in the hips and knees to get better balance and increased resistance to fatigue; 2) start meditating with a true beginner’s mind and not for some deeper, spiritual purpose, but for stronger and more resilient processing of whatever is happening so I can more effectively let it go.

Writing the Struggle

The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely through the world through manual competence have been known to make a (person) quiet and easy. They seem to relieve (them) of the felt need to offer chattering interpretations of (themselves) to vindicate (their) worth. – Matthew B. Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, p. 15.

For a few years now I have had a major block to writing and academic work. My background and expertise is in religion and the intersection of religious and secular education. I began that work from a place of deep faith in God and on the path first to ministry and then to academic work from that place of faith. I’ve always worked through a so-called “imposter syndrome” where few things I do have left me feeling enough confidence to keep doing them. Academic work and writing, along with other creative endeavors, have the judgment of others acting as so many gateways and obstacles to the standards of success that most people might ascribe to any work. Anyone who has worked through depression or has had any form of dysfunction in their lives always has to work in spite of the chattering of worthlessness pervasive in work that requires the criticism of others to reach an audience. But in the past few years I have had two events that both created a true sense of my self as an impostor and reinforced those chattering interpretations that pounded on me relentlessly throughout my life.

The first event is that I lost my faith. Maybe a more honest way of phrasing this is that I came to accept that I never had very strong faith in the first place. Throughout my Christian life I tried to believe what others had confirmed I should believe. I practiced the traditions and learned how to bracket my cynical and skeptical inclinations in order to experience God through an act of faith. I ironically knew in my rational self that in order to experience God, I had to do so in spite of reason or at least at the limits of what reason could do for me. Belief in God is never won by well crafted arguments and logic regardless of what the tract writers and apologists will preach to you. Faith is a deeply affective surrender to a being that you come to understand is the best hope for your own serenity and the salvation of the wold from all of its worst attributes even as that same being gives life to the best of what humanity and the splendor of nature could possibly offer. But that story ran out of gas for me in the spring of 2015. I could not move forward with my happiness unless I let all of that go. I decided that if the object of faith was real, I would remain open and let it back in when it showed up in such a way that I could no longer deny its fundamental, lifegiving reality. My door is still open, the invitation does not have an expiration, but I am no longer sitting in the ballroom waiting for anyone to show up. And that has brought me a profound sense of relief.

My door is still open, the invitation does not have an expiration, but I am no longer sitting in the ballroom waiting for anyone to show up. And that has brought me a profound sense of relief.

The second event includes the deaths of my mother and step-father. Both were people of deep faith and both had serious physical complications from heart disease and kidney failure for the remaining years of their lives. My mother was especially reliant on the power of prayer. To let her in on the secret that I no longer prayed for anyone and that I honestly never had a very consistent prayer life even in my most religious days wasn’t something I thought was very appropriate especially when she was in and out of the hospital and so very ill much of the time. I left that part of my life unspoken. I know that keeping secrets to protect people never really works out. Just look at sitcoms and superhero shows. Heroes keeping secrets to protect those they love is the wellspring for all conflicts on these shows and no one ever seems to get it. I don’t think it hurt her that I never spoke about my deconversion, but I probably didn’t give her enough credit to believe that she would have been able to take it if I had told her. It’s not a place of guilt for me and I am not sure I would have handled it differently anyway. That’s because of my step-father. He always had advice and a plan for everything. Deep down I think he meant well, but the impact had a reverse effect on me. I don’t think there was a single piece that I had ever written that did not come with it some form of criticism from him that left be feeling low, beaten down, and condescended to. Blog posts, tweets, articles, even random comments on Facebook would often be followed by a critique from him that would sometimes branch off into my step-father arguing with other people who were actually defending my position. The last straw was when he disagreed with the obituary that I wrote for my mother. So I stopped writing. I tried to come back to wait a few times, but it was the same drumbeat and I had enough of it. When those who should support you when you are doing things a little scary create the fear that makes them scary in the first place, even those feelings and resentments that you know you had reconciled long ago find a way to resurrect. In his final two years of life he had chilled out a lot with his trolling, but I just didn’t want to resurrect it again.

When those who should support you when you are doing things a little scary create the fear that makes them scary in the first place, even those feelings and resentments that you know you had reconciled long ago find a way to resurrect.

For the past two months I have been asking myself the question, what should I do now? Now that I have been able to identify the things that had blocked me and those things are physically no longer here, the rest is all in my head. Much like running very long distances, sometimes the only way out of a problem is to keep moving forward with the expectation that you will feel better down the road. Yesterday as I was once again regurgitating these existential questions and it was another morning of “What should I write?” or “I can’t keep working through religion from a place of agnosticism, right?” I applied what I knew about running and what I have done even after I believed my body was done, why not just start writing about the struggle itself? That’s moving forward at at least. Every successful writer I have watched from afar has said precisely this. Sometimes you have to write your way out of a block. It’s not just writing in spite of or through a struggle, but writing the struggle itself. Maybe that’s where I can get a little catharsis, dismiss the imposter, and move forward.

Giving Up on Hope (And Resolutions)

hope

Hope is often a word used to describe a motivating idea of a future condition that people seek in order to improve their present condition. It’s the essence of faith in Christianity; the “substance of things hoped for” (Heb. 1:11). It’s enough to spark and sustain a rebellion against the Empire in the Star Wars movie franchise. A friend of mine recently spoke about how hope is what got her out of jail and on to a different, healthier path in life. Rarely is hope a concept or feeling that is associated with anything negative or toxic.

Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön argues that hope may not exactly be what it seems. Contrary to the evidence that hope is a sustaining force for a healthy life, it can have the reverse effect and create suffering. She proposes that we have the “motivational” quote of “Abandon Hope” on our refrigerators than a doctor’s office slogan pioneering vague feelings to improve as our desires are met. For a Buddhist, this tractor beam of desire pulling us towards what looks like a better future is the root of suffering itself.

Hope and fear come from feeling that we lack something; they come from a sense of poverty. We can’t simply relax with ourselves. We hold on to hope, and hope robs us of the present moment. We feel that someone else knows what’s going on, but that there’s something missing in us, and therefore something is lacking in our world (Chödrön, p. 53).

While hope can be a tremendous motivator in times of adversity, it can also be a weight that anchors a person in a cycle of their own suffering. The things that I hope for and desire might not be healthy for me, or for those around me, and rather than save me from my current circumstances, hope can create another set of circumstances that only make me uncomfortable and the cycle starts over. Hope, desire, expectations – all of these things are generated with emotions rooted in a present moment, on the foundation of a set of memories that might not even be all that accurate, pointing towards a future that might lead me to an even worse condition than I am feeling in the moment. Economists and behavioral psychologists have observed that our memories are colored by our current emotional state and are rarely accurate representations of what actually happened, that our present emotional responses to experience are more often than not irrational bases on which to make decisions that will lead us to sounder well-being, and that as a result our expectations and hopes are distorted and often wrong. All that is to say, while hope can be a strong, positive motivation for change, it may not be a healthy default position for how to live one’s life. At some point a critical and hard engagement with present reality has to take place. In other words, at some point, we have to give up hoping for something different in order to be relaxed about how things are in the present.

I have learned that my own use of hope often gets screwed up in my head with unhealthy expectations of myself and others in a way that is has a demotivating effect on positive change. Instead of being relaxed with the mundanities of life and the sometimes miserable or aversive emotions that run into me often at unexpected moments, hope makes me long for something I can’t possibly have in the moment, and that simply reinforces all of those aversive feelings I hope to be rid of and everything feels so much worse.

The question that I had after approaching the way my mind will twist hope into a source of despair was, How can I move towards a positive change when things just don’t feel right or good? Saying “Fuck it all” and becoming a nihilist curmudgeon sounded even worse! And it would have been.

I remembered something Emmitt Smith once said about his High school coach. They were talking about Smith’s dreams for his future. The coach said, “Write those dreams down. Once you write them down, they become goals you can work for.” What I have learned is that if I am not feeling right with the world, rooting my desire for change in a set of aimless and wandering feelings called “hope” doesn’t land anywhere and reinforces all the stuff that makes me feel horrible. But if I can translate hope into a plan of action, then I have something I can work with to improve those aversive conditions in order to make progress in feeling better. At that point, even if I fail in that plan of action, I at least know I put in a good effort.

There are some things that make you feel horrible you can’t just change. Some people will just not like you even if you try your hardest to get on their good graces; you might just not be able to get enough income to pay off that debt or take that trip in the timeframe you set for yourself; that person might never say “Yes” to going out on that date with you; and you might never win any award for anything you have done regardless of how great you and others think it is. Some of those things rely on the decisions of other people and no one can control another person without being abusive. But we can all try to make those situations better with practical action.

This year, I’m skipping the resolutions. Those are hope loaded dreams that are rarely fulfilled. As with last year, I’m focusing on a few goals and breaking these goals into a few manageable steps. I also will try to understand why it is that I really want these goals. Doing this kind of work means changing my schedule, being uncomfortable as I change my daily patterns, and figuring out a new balance with all the other requirements and obligations I have in life, so I better know why I’m doing it in the first place.

Chödrön, P. (1997). When things fall apart: Heart advice for difficult times. Shambhala: Boston.

Legion and a Correct View Towards Mental Illness

David Haller and Lenny Busker, aka. Amahl Farouk, The Shadow King

David Haller and Lenny Busker, aka. Amahl Farouk, “The Shadow King”

“That’s the trick, the mind-killer; your disease convinces you you don’t have it.” – David Haller

When Legion premiered on FX this February, critics were quick to deride its interpretation of mental illness. Early reviews jumped to conclusions of the show’s “mental health shaming” by trivializing it or using it as a cheap narrative tool to talk about superpowers and comic book absurdities with the fake veneer of something more adult and mature. Perhaps that’s true if you sat through the first couple of episodes and then got so offended that you refused to keep going.

The opening shows David Haller grow up as a troubled teen who later attempts suicide. We then see Haller in a mental hospital produced as a sort of highly medicated prison rife with unhelpful therapy sessions, a montage of pills in cups, and unnervingly dangerous looking or totally comatose patients leading completely unproductive and secluded lives in an environment pulled straight out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest via A Clockwork Orange (and the place is called Clockworks interestingly enough). As the first episode progresses, we learn that David is retelling the experience at Clockworks to a government agent who is investigating the extent of telekinetic powers they believe David has on behalf of something called Division 3. Their goal is to determine the extent of those powers and then to control them, or use them. The first episode ends with an action packed rescue from a group of mutants who are hidden in a retreat called Summerland. We later learn that they are protecting mutants from Division 3. The story is straightforward enough, but what happens inside of David’s head is not. Right when the viewer is convinced of one set of facts about what is real, the next episode opens with another version of something whether it’s the image of a leisure suit clad Jemaine Clement trying to explain some out-of-place philosophy while seated in a giant ice-cube or everyone in Summerland seated in Clockworks in the middle of a therapy session. In every episode we have to start over which is why the early criticisms were so wrong about what was really happening.

Throughout the show, David exhibits symptoms of a schizoaffective disorder. He hears voices, can’t distinguish between reality and mental projections, he’s paranoid, and talks to a series of characters that only he can see. He is ashamed of all of this and believes he is crazy no thanks to Clockworks reinforcing that belief. But we are presented with the idea that he is not insane, and rather has extraordinary mental powers that he has only confused with a mental illness because he can’t control them. Summerland is there to help him understand that he is not insane, but truly very powerful.

The first metaphor for mental illness we are presented with is “you are not sick, but unique and gifted.” This is a well-trodden path in the X-Men comics, the world from which Legion derives. In the comics, David Haller is Professor X’s biological son who he gave away at birth. There, David deals with dissociative identity disorder (split personality) where each of his mental powers takes on a different identity in his head. A major draw for kids to the X-Men is that in the mutant world the thing that makes you feel different or odd is also the thing that makes you special. People will always find a way to exclude. Foucault argued that the age of reason saw the confinement and casting out of the mentally ill or “mad” from society through political and social mechanisms which only lends mental illness a perfect canvas on which to paint the X-Men mythos. Even if having really amazing powers that should astound people can make you an outcast, think of all the little things about you that don’t conform to the world that will cause people to exclude you. The solution: find other oddballs, be yourself, and cherish your uniqueness in the world in a healthy community that respects you.

I get it. If Legion stopped there, it would sanitize mental illness with a nice message for kids struggling to fit in, but would be a weak exploration of the issue for a decidedly grown-up audience. It cleanses mental illness to where it does not really harm us, but makes us stronger. It’s a nice, temporary coping strategy, but it hardly respects the reality that metal illness can kill you if you don’t do something about it.

Thankfully, the story doesn’t stop there. We learn that David didn’t know he was adopted, his sister kept that secret from him, and even if all of his mental illness was just a manifestation of his powers, he still had to work through all of the same issues that any person with schizophrenia would have to work through. He still has issues that he has not worked out and they keep manifesting themselves throughout each episode. And then it goes one level deeper. What we learn is that David’s cohort of imaginary voices – a beagle, a creepy children’s book character, a blob with yellow eyes, a frenetic woman named Lenny Busker who goads him to misbehave – are all manifestations of the thing from which Professor X tried to hide him – the powerful mutant Amahl Farouk also called the “Shadow King.” This being lodged itself into David’s brain when he was a baby in order to siphon off his power until the day when he could overtake David’s whole mind and body. The cause of David’s mental illness symptoms is not something that is naturally part of him – it is a parasite.

Health comes from overcoming the struggle and that means not identifying with one’s mental illness.

This is the grownup moment in how the show deals with mental illness. No responsible psychologist or psychiatrist should ever tell you that to treat a mental illness you should just take drugs and accept it as a part of your identity. They will tell you that you also need to be social and find a community of healthy friends, eat a healthy diet, get some exercise, and sleep among other strategies like meditation or yoga. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) teaches you strategies to mine your brain for those negative messages that you tell yourself and rather than accept them, reverse them and change them through action and practice. It’s like playing table tennis against a champion. You need to learn how to return the ball and reverse its spin in order to keep playing the point. This requires practicing a set of learned skills. It’s difficult. But make no mistake, mental illness is an opponent in your mind and body that you have to work hard to compete against daily in order to be healthy and happy. The struggle with mental illness should always be a temporary event like a runner who struggles with soreness and exhaustion or a scientist who needs to step away from an experiment that keeps failing in order to let it all simmer for a new insight to emerge. Life is never healthy when it is a constant struggle. Health comes from overcoming the struggle and that means not making one’s mental illness the core of one’s identity. Counselors want their patients to get to a point of accepting that they have a mental illness rather than they are identified by their mental illness.

One method of therapy similar to CBT is centered around “self-directed neuroplasticity.” In short, this is grounded in the theory that patterns of thinking and action not only change habits of the mind and body, but literally transform synaptic patterns in the brain. Therapies have been developed around this theory grounded in research at UCLA and the clinical data supports it as a way to think and act your way our of destructive patterns of behavior. Clinicians have used this method to treat patients with even severe OCD issues. What emerges from these therapies is a focus on retraining the brain and body to act in ways counter to their mental illness symptoms in order to produce healthier, happier, and more whole people. No mental illness is permanent in the way that it currently is believed to exist in the brain. Also related is the argument that emotions are not hard-wired in the brain and sit there latently until some external stimulus provokes each of them into being. Rather, a more nuanced theory is that emotions develop as concepts that we learn to associate with certain stimuli. This view, supported by research from Lisa Feldman Barrett of Northeastern University, means that we have far more control over how we feel the world around us and how we make sense out of those feelings. What we believe literally shapes our feelings, relationships, and perceptions of the world. Correcting beliefs that produce unhealthy feelings and behaviors can change much of how we understand mental health conditions even when some of those symptoms benefit from medication.

Those times when I least want to do the things that will make me the most healthy are the most important times to do them.

As someone who has had a mental health diagnosis, I understand that interpreting mental illness as an immovable facet of one’s identity is both alluring and destructive. It’s nice to know that others struggle with it and that you are not alone. But accepting constant struggle as something permanent is a miserable way to live, if we can call that living at all. At the root this is a belief that produces learned helplessness, and it’s not true.

After many years of struggle, I refused to continue to believe that I had to accept my illness as a part of my identity. But I had to change my thinking and my behaviors dramatically in order to reverse the spin. It required patience and discipline to develop a new set of habits. I was playing table tennis with a master of deception and I had to study all of the things that made it powerful. I had to practice new ways to challenge the messages it was tossing at me knowing that early on it would be difficult. But with enough time and practice I would eventually master it. I had a parasite in my brain. It was my Shadow King, my Amahl Farouk, my Lenny Busker. Cunning, deceptive, and powerful with years of practice, I had let it kick my ass. It was only when I accepted that I had something in my brain that made me unhealthy that I learned a set of strategies to make me healthy.

This is why I identify with David Haller’s narrative arc of mental illness. But unlike Haller, I can’t just trick my unfriendly mental resident into leaving. It lives there permanently and even though I know how to lock it away in a tiny little corner where it won’t bother me, once in a while I forget to check the locks on the door and it sneaks out. So I will run, sleep, eat healthy, spend time with healthy people, walk the dog, get some sunlight, clean my living space, etc. This toolbox of strategies that I have found to work are my ways of reversing the spin on the ball and acing the serve almost every time. To be healthy, I need to accept the challenge, play the game, and win. There are many times when I don’t want to play table tennis with this parasite, but I have to do it anyway. Those times when I least want to do the things that will make me the most healthy are the most important times to do them. When I do, I kick its ass and it leaves me alone for a good while. Not accepting a mental illness as a natural part of my identity took patience and discipline to achieve and it was, and still can be, exhausting. But I have tried all of the alternatives and they just don’t work. What I know for sure is that identifying with the very thing that makes me sick is about as unhealthy a strategy I could ever devise. I wouldn’t do this with pneumonia. Why would I ever do it with Bipolar II. Kudos to Legion for getting it right.

A Banner Day for Yoga but Not Satan in School

satanology

Two cases dance on the fence between a protected expression of religion, and a government endorsement of religion. One has to do with a school’s inclusion of yoga practice in the curriculum. The other surrounds controversy that erupted from a fake “Satanology” student club. Both demonstrate how the courts take religious establishment on a case-by-case basis.

Previous cases that have worked through the legality of religious displays on government property by arguing context. In short, it’s fine to display Santa or a nativity if Rudolph, Happy Holidays, or a Menorah is nearby. Display a nativity with “Happy Birthday Jesus” and it won’t be there for long. The Ten Commandments are acceptable as a general moral document on a courthouse. To convey a specific religious idea like God is the source of wisdom for government, again, it’s probably coming down. With that said, if your locality allows religious displays that have religious intent, the real problem comes when you forbid the presence of a competing religious display near it.

The first case asks when the practice of yoga is religious in its context and goals versus when it’s a secular practice adopted by Americans in general. When a California public school was given a grant to teach yoga to its students, conservative Christians challenged it as a religious practice. Those concerned Christian parents lawyered up, and the evangelical Alliance Defending Freedom took up the case. The court decided the case with a peculiar ruling saying that in the case of the class, yoga was not religious secular in nature. However, at the same time, yoga is indeed a religious practice. Light is both particle and wave; General Tso’s chicken is both Chinese food, and yet definitely not Chinese. Like displays of the Ten Commandments on public property, the context matters. Where students were practicing yoga and the purpose of it had nothing to do with its various religious purposes found in numerous traditions. A practice’s historical association with religion does not mean that the practice is inherently religious.

In the second case, an activist requested to post a banner for the “Church of Satanology and Satanic Activism” club along a fence on school grounds. This followed an English teacher at Boca Raton Middle school who erected a 10 foot pentagram display next to a nativity scene in a local park. The reason was not to begin an actual club, but to test the school’s approval of banners for an organization promoting Christianity. The location where the “Satanology” banner was to be placed was a place where churches and synagogues had posted their banners for a fee paid to the district. As soon as Chaz Stevens, an atheist activist, proposed the banner, the school instituted a ban on all banners until further notice. After pressure from the Freedom from Religion Foundation to change the policy permanently, the Palm Beach County School District capitulated. The site for Satanology is part of a campaign by The Religious Liberty Project which “is an advocacy organization dedicated to protecting and promoting freedom of speech and religion, especially the separation of Church and State.” The use of Satan as a polarizing figure to raise awareness on church/state entanglement is not new, but it is a recent strategy by secularists to clarify separation and how it is applied through the 1st Amendment norm.

The issue that connects both of these cases has to do with the ramifications of insisting on the superiority of one religion or group of religions over other faith claims in any context that is a publicly-funded entity. Evangelical legal groups like the Alliance Defending Freedom hide their true intent of reintroducing Christianity as a distinctly superior, American religion behind language of religious freedom. Would they not also seek to defend the equality of other religions’ not-specifically-Christian concerns? The evidence of their case load is an emphatic “no.”

Whenever an activist group insists on the superiority of its religion rooted in whatever jurisprudence that argues for that superiority, it opens up an interpretation of the 1st Amendment as protecting religions through “equal regard” in which religion is not given any particular favored position in these decisions, but it is neither viewed with any disproportionate contempt. As the demographics of society are trending less religious, the idea that religion ought to have some favored status according to the 1st Amendment could fall out of favor. This means that when activists encourage the debate now, they open up their own interests to a deeper secularizing effect in the future. They could allow people to enjoy local favoritism towards the dominant religion while they still can, but outside organizations such as the Freedom from Religion Foundation and Alliance Defending Freedom are on opposing missions to change the ways that the 1st Amendment is interpreted everywhere. So, before that happens small town America, please enjoy your live nativity this Christmas before the giant Baphomet statue comes to peer over your shoulders to judge whether you’ve been bad or good this year.

Reading Religion and American Education

religions_and_american_educationIt’s hard to pinpoint an exact moment when religion and schooling turned from a dance into a WWE match between mortal foes. Most may point to the “Scopes Monkey Trial” where local laws prohibiting the teaching of evolution were publicly questioned. Others may go back a bit further to the Harvard Presidency of Charles Eliot who eliminated compulsory chapel and instituted sweeping curriculum changes that are today observed across universities worldwide. Or, one might go back to the heyday of the Enlightenment itself where reason and observation began to push God out of the way as the necessary agent to understand the world and humanity’s place in it.

Regardless of where you locate the start of this conflict, the disciplines of science and philosophy, educating for professions rather than vocations, and the emergence of a truly public, state-sponsored education system have always created friction with proponents of the old curriculum that put the Bible and Christian devotion at the center of the curriculum. Today the ACLU, Freedom from Religion Foundation, American Humanist Association, Americans United for Separation of Church and State have been central to maintaining a strict interpretation of non-establishment of any kind of religion in public schools against organizations that promote a weakening of that “wall” from groups such as the Alliance Defending Freedom, American Center for Law and JusticeChristian Educators Association International, and other groups like conservative denominations and political action committees. Activism on both side of the issue has been gaining strength and financial resources in the past few decades. The legal rulings have favored those who argue for a stronger interpretation of the 1st Amendment keeping religion and state funded schooling as distinct and unrelated as possible. Yet the conflict persists unabated.

News about this tension pour in daily. Just this week there have been reports of schools whose doctrines are at odds with LGBT student rights. The voucher program promoted by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos may create constitutional problems not only with entanglement of state and religion, but with how religion impacts equal protection regarding admissions policies. Recently, Donald Trump said before the Faith & Freedom Coalition, “Schools should not be a place that drive out faith and religion, but that should welcome faith and religion with wide, open, beautiful arms.” One questions what faith he is talking about and how schools should practice that welcome. It’s a relevant question given his audience of conservative, evangelical Christians. Surely they would not applaud the wide welcome of Hinduism and Islam on equal footing with their own idea of Christianity, would they?

Legal issues abound with these ideas. But at the center of all of this are the students, our kids. What is school here to do for them and for society? What are kids supposed to learn before they get to college? At what point do federal and state funding of not only the public school system, but of the public tertiary education system get entangled? Where do Constitutional amendments start to conflict with each other and what has happened in the courts to sort these complicated issues out?

Part of my “research reboot” this summer is to take a step back, catch up on the latest research, and to sort through some of the older texts with fresh eyes – especially those that I have only read in part while working on my dissertation. The first of these that I am going to work through is Religion & American Education: Rethinking a National Dilemma by Warren A. Nord. It was published in 1995 and while there have been titles since then which I will follow with, none of them go into the depth of this book from the time up until Nord wrote it. Sometimes you have to take a few steps back to put what comes next in context. My goal here is to offer a short post on each chapter in three sections which will sort of be a template for future books I go through.

  • The Gist – The main argument the author is making.
  • The Idea – I want to focus on one interesting idea that might be applicable more generally or might spark a research question.
  • The Relevance – This is the trickier part where I want to find a connection with what is in the text, especially since its older, with something happening today.

This is something I do through the typical research process anyway. I thought, hey, want not put it all here and if it is interesting to someone else, or if there are other ideas out there I have not seen in relation to it, sweet.

More to come.

Secularization is Happening, and Liberals are in Trouble

exit

A narrow definition of secularization goes like this: “First, modernization induces people to lose faith in God and religion. Then, as religion is no longer meaningful, they stop identifying with it” (Hout & Fischer, 2014). In the mid-twentieth century, this was a common understanding of how the world would become less religious.

The evidence has consistently shown the contrary.

Throughout the twentieth century into the twenty-first, the world did not seem to become any less religious, but regions in South America, Africa, and Asia, became more religious leading some sociologists to argue that Europe’s secularization is an “exceptional case.” But this has left the United States something of a puzzle. There are parts of the country that are less religious while parts of it appear to be more religious, and there has been a sense that political alignment maps to this pattern. At the same time it seems that fewer and fewer Americans are enjoining themselves to any particular religion with each new generation.

In a recent paper, Michael Hout and Claude Fischer conclude that both politics and generational succession have real effects on religious preference and have significantly contributed to why fewer and fewer people are identifying with a particular religion. One-in-five people expressed no religious preference in 2012 compared to one-in-fourteen in 1987. They argue that secularization along the definition they use, did not have an observable effect on this trend which helps to account for the rather stable percentage of people who believe in God without doubt (61%) and life after death (81%). In several statistical models, secularization did not hold.

Religious disaffiliation is explained primarily in two ways. The first is that as one moves from a moderate to a more liberal political stance, they become less religious. This is in part because of the marriage between conservative politics and Christianity caused moderates and liberals to distance themselves from religious organizations, hence, the “backlash.” It’s not a reaction to religion per se, but leaving religion because of its perceived association with conservative politics, in general. The second and greater effect is generational succession. Each generation that replaces the previous has been less affiliated with religion in general, especially among liberal households, and the proportion of unchurched is growing. Moreover, those not raised within a religion are less likely to join one in the future. There was far less a change over time in affiliation among political conservatives who tend to enjoin themselves with conservative religion. However, given the decline in membership in the Southern Baptist Convention, we may be seeing the cracks in the conservative foundation as well.

This looks like a double-whammy for liberal and progressive religious organizations. Not only is there a general distaste for religious organizations among those who identify as liberal or progressive in their political, social, and cultural beliefs, there will be an increasing likelihood that they have never grown up in a religion and therefore see it as having little or no value in their lives. If we push this up against other explanations for secularization, it looks bad for progressive, God centered organizations. Religion is but one means of social bonding among many competing choices that happen on the weekday evenings, weekends, and holidays. Youth sports is one draw even though it has seen a recent decline in participation. It is also part of a wider trend of civic disengagement as argued by Robert Putnam.

Reclaiming the political position of the left might be one vehicle to reverse some of these trends. The position of Trump has caused a new vigor among religious liberals and progressives who feel threatened by right-wing policies and even betrayed by Christian evangelicals who overwhelmingly voted for Donald Trump, who is ostensibly the least Christian looking candidate and President in a very long time. Religion used to be an important means to gain social capital in Western and American societies. During presidential campaigns, it has been normal for candidates to enjoin themselves to denominations and traditions because of their influence. Eisenhower joined the Presbyterians for this reason as Trump courted the evangelicals in 2016. We may see a liberal candidate hook up with progressive Christians with the same idea that religion feeds social capital even though the politically progressive have moved away from religion and continue to do so. But even if a reversal of political trend helps galvanize those in religions and attract people to religion, it will not move the downward trend on religious participation all that much. There is still a massive problem with a growing population in the country of people who have never been involved in any religion and are not likely to join one just because it seems to share a few political views and activities with them.

This is why Hout & Fischer’s narrow and linear definition of secularization needs to change. It is true that we have not seen people lose faith and then leave religion. Right now, leaving religion is happening first. Moreover, it might not be just that the modern ideas of reason and scientific progress are enough to dislodge belief in God from young peoples’ worldviews. It might be that with endless war, famine, economic inequality, murder, and oppressive political systems, that any doctrine of God does not come out looking all that loving, powerful, or knowledgeable about human affairs. It could be in the cultural disconnect between ancient texts and societies that look absolutely nothing like them.

Without a regular involvement in a religious community to help make sense of old doctrines and texts utterly alien to the people and events of this world, faith in them will not survive. This is a theological claim made in most Christian traditions where the center of worship is in baptism and communion. These are vehicles to nourish faith and without them, faith dies on the vine. Without these social constructs to nourish faith, we are left with vague spiritualities and temporary communities of interest that rarely gain enough momentum to act as vehicles for lasting spiritual practice. As Hout and Fischer conclude, “Time will tell if personalized religion is sustainable or if belief fades without public profession and community practice.” If this continues to happen, and it looks like it will, what is left to nurture or reinforce the notion of God or spirituality in any shape?