Just Disagree

In these days of heated disagreements online between Facebook friends and distance foes often conversations either end with so much digital huffing and puffing, the rare point of cognitive confluence, and often with the saccharine and amicable appeal to “agree to disagree.”

This appeal comes from several motivations, at least some of which are likely related. One is to end the conversation where it is regardless of any expected outcome. The person offering this alternative might just be too tired or too bored to continue. That is all well and good. With attenuated attention spans and over-committed lives, persisting in online conversations heading nowhere with a stranger feels rarely worth the time and effort.

Another motivation is to end the conversation, but on amicable terms. Each response is a new brick of anxieties placed in a growing wall of alienation from the person with whom you are engaged. To avoid the risk of severing ties you find the one thing that you can agree upon and that is the obvious observation of disagreement itself.

These two competing reasons of relative exhaustion or relational disconnection seem reasonable enough to end a conversation at least on good terms before it dissolves into inevitable blocking. But there is another reason why this happens that is perhaps no less reasonable, but far more damaging.

By saying that you should “agree to disagree” you are saying not only that you wish to end the conversation for the reasons listed above in the short term, but to end it permanently. It is at once an admission that you are unwilling to entertain the possibility that your interlocutor’s position might be more correct than your beliefs are willing to give and a removal of at least one thread of conversation from the relationship you have with the person on the other side. It is a rather weak but clever power move that sets the terms for the relationship and the conversation moving forward.

Rather than remove the agency of the people with whom we disagree by dismissing the conversation altogether, we should be more willing to allow disagreements to exist in the context of our human relationships. It is a way of reaffirming each other’s power to acknowledge another person who has ideas and at least a modicum of competence to communicate those ideas as well as to reaffirm one’s own status as one empowered to raise issues that may be controversial to those who disagree with one’s position.

Simple disagreement is also a path to greater vulnerability with each other. By affirming the disagreement with no qualifications, we are inviting the conversation to continue with the possibility that the positions we hold so dearly will be proven to be wrong at least in part. Simple disagreement invites the possibility of change where dissolving into a false agreement demands resolution where in reality there is none forthcoming.

In an effort to construct conversation that does not demand false resolutions of civility or concede an end of dialogue but rather is brave enough to admit each other’s vulnerability, and demands the possibility of change even if in the distant future, let us simply disagree with one another and allow the conversation to persist.

Don’t you agree?

Why Do People Convert?

This is a question that Ana Marie Cox will be exploring on With Friends Like These over the next few weeks. In the first episode she asked social psychologist Carol Tavris what brings people to the point where conversion is an option. The answer is that we don’t really know because there is a great deal of variability in the conditions for conversion. What we do know is that at some point the person who decides to convert decides that the views or beliefs that they are converting from were for a mistake. Arguments and Twitter shaming doesn’t do the job. Facts won’t convert anyone at all. That’s rare. Somewhere in the circuits of survival instincts and emotional states is where conversion happens.

I have long thought that to convert from a certain belief needs to be prompted by a kind of discomfort if not suffering that makes continuing that belief uncomfortable. This is certainly the case for addicts. Almost invariably an addict has to undergo enough suffering in the act of addiction that it is just no longer worthwhile to pursue the next high. Interventions are designed to reveal the damage that the addict is doing not only to themselves, but also to those who are closest to them. The threat of isolation is what is so powerful to an addict who is suffering that the idea of going through it alone becomes something that is no longer sustainable no matter how strong the obsession to use and so the addict will make the first attempt at getting clean or die.

Conversion is not always accompanied by suffering. It can also be a more manageable dissonance. Often when a person with strong beliefs experiences that dissonance, they will shore up those beliefs and become more recalcitrant. But some will choose to abandon what they believe even at the expense of abandoning their current social connections and individual identities.

Maybe this has to do with conflicting values. As a young, evangelical seminarian I had to work through the conflict of my evangelical beliefs that rejected homosexuality as sin and my insistence on unconditional love for my sister who had recently came out to me. I chose my sister and decided that my beliefs would have to change because she was far more important than what amounted to faithful hypothesizing regarding the will of God.

When I decided to get sober, it was because my kids and family were more important than the chase which I had let consume my life. Sure the damage had been done by that point and my own mistakes had added up, but it was save myself to save my kids or die and never know how their lives would turn out. Being present was more important than being absent, so I got help.

About four years into sobriety I did not feel right. I felt a continual pressure to discern God’s purpose for my life, a purpose I had never clearly understood and always made me feel depressed, useless, and fairly worthless. I decided my happiness and mental health were more valuable than my beliefs in any God so I dumped them literally as I was buying dog food. I have felt better ever since.

For my own history, conversion has happened at the nexus of strong discomfort or dissonance where my values at the time and entrenched beliefs were at conflict. I chose the new path because family, love, and health were my non-negotiables. Maybe bringing people to conversion is as simple as helping them to see where values conflict with each other and helping them to find a path where one set of values overrules the others.

How to Find Your Voice

influential_booksI remember a little, meaningless social media challenge a while ago where people were sharing the top books that “stayed with you” how ever you would interpret that idea. For the curious, this was my list is 2013:

1. The BFG – Roald Dahl
2. George’s Marvelous Medicine – Roald Dahl
3. Waiting for God – Simone Weil
4. The Sickness Unto Death – Soren Kierkegaard
5. Purity and Danger – Mary Douglas
6. The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
7. Oryx and Crake – Margaret Atwood
8. Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
9. The Mountain of Silence – Kyriacos C. Markides
10. An Unquiet Mind – Kay Redfield Jamison

I was more religious then even though the more religious books I listed still “stay” with me to some degree. I was thinking back on this list because a personal goal that aligns with my professional life is to find my intellectual or academic “voice.” For most people with PhD’s this is supposed to be found with the process and completion of the dissertation. That first major contribution to your academic field is like the locomotive you have built to ride through your career. Except after I completed my dissertation, I hopped off the train.

My job supporting faculty teaching and my dissertation work have never seemed to match up in my head. I have degrees and background specifically in Christian theology, a theology to which I no longer subscribe, and my PhD is in higher education leadership, management, and policy where my dissertation focused specifically on evangelical higher education. I am not very comfortable with some of the conclusions in my dissertation today and more importantly, I have lost interest in making a counter claim or studying it further.

Finding a Voice

A personal goal for me this year is to figure out my intellectual “voice.” Part of my problem in finding that voice is not rooted so much in the fact that I lost interest in the particulars of my dissertation research. Maybe I am just ignoring it or minimizing it. I have had this belief that ultimately what goes on in my head is mostly useless, uninteresting, or unimportant. I am currently learning, through some of the writing of Brené Brown, that this belief is most definitely rooted in shame somewhere. I am starting to deconstruct the entire notion of the “impostor syndrome” as a bullshit concept we are learning to use as evidence for self-pity, but it is highly resistant to inoculation so we stay stuck. At least that is evident enough for me. Shame seems like something I can work with. This is why I have a habit of writing a little, reinforcing the belief that it’s all dumb, and then stopping.

Before I want to open the Pandora’s Box of shame I need a starting point to at least get a rough picture of what this voice looks like. That starting point is a sort of recalibration and I used that little, meaningless books challenge above to start it off. What are the books and ideas that not only shaped my intellectual framework and interests in my history, but what are those books and ideas that I seem to use as glasses through which I filter a kind of practical theorization about the world. More than that, how does this material shape the reasons I am doing the work I am still doing today? I did not go to school for faculty development. I didn’t go into any of my formal educational experiences with the idea that the scholarship of teaching and learning was going to be a career path. And yet, here we still are and I can’t imagine myself doing anything else. The question is why?

Collect Your Ideas

I set off to find those books that continued to shape my thinking, beliefs, and approach to my work even when I was not explicitly thinking of them. After I pulled them all off the shelves I started skimming each of them for the idea or ideas that continued to have a sort of force in my thinking about most everything. These are ideas and theories that are like an operating system for my brain. I skimmed each book, reading all of my underlined parts from years ago, paying careful attention to the pages that were still dog-eared, and finding the central idea for each summarized in just a few words or a sentence – one column for the book, one column for the idea.



The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force
Jeffrey M. Schwartz and Shannon Begley
Attention and behavior reshape the neurological mapping of the brain.
Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concept of Pollution and Taboo
Mary Douglas
Change is disruptive dangerous.
The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion
Peter Berger
The process of externalization, objectification, integration, and alienation is critical to understand what shapes human behavior.
Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy
Michael Polanyi
Knowledge is a function of personal commitment.
Simulacra and Simulation
Jean Baudrillard
Cultural symbols drop their referents over time and reality becomes hyperreal.
Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man
Marshall McLuhan
Technology is an externalization of human behavior and values that becomes its own object and is internalized by subsequent generations.
The Evolving Self: Problem and Process in Human Development
Robert Kegan
Intelligence is the outcome of adaptation where the subject becomes an object that is internalized.
The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity: Twelve Lectures
Jürgen Habermas
The lifeworld, the taken-for-granted stock of knowledge, is reproduced through discourse and can also be disrupted through it.

Find the Relationship

I’ve always known these have been important books and ideas for me. They pop up all the time in my writing and thinking through ideas. But I had always operated under two very wrong assumptions:

A) These are all interesting, but basically unrelated.

B) Even though they are all interesting, they are tangential at best to my career or what I should be doing with my life.

The last step was to find out how all of these ideas are connected in my thinking and disprove these assumptions. They have all been in my head to some degree for over 20 years now so the idea that they are not connected is simply false. Refusing to recognize that fact does not make it less true. So what is the connection? What is the interest that is holding all of that stuff together and how is all of that in turn shaping that interest? This isn’t about intellectual consistency. I am not worried about how well these ideas fit together in terms of any disciplinary standard. These scholars were talking about similar things, but from often very different and even contradictory places. I wrote the connection or throughline down as it felt, not as I could argue in an essay.

I’m drawn to teaching and learning because of how adaptations to experienced reality are at the very core of the process. We are asking teachers to introduce stress, disrupt boundaries, coach students to adapt to that change, and then create a different lifeworld over time. I want teachers to understand this process, become intentional agents of it’s development, and to invite the students as co-creators.

It sounds a bit like a mission statement doesn’t it. Maybe it is. Regardless it is the idea that I think now has been holding all of that material together and a central idea that all of that material helped form.

What Does it Mean?

I don’t really know what this means, but this is my intellectual voice and at this point it’s not about whether I want it to be or not. This is what my voice is as a result of about 20 years of thinking and working where the ideas in these particular books continued to come up and don’t seem to want to let me go. But if you are asking the same sort of question, this was a really helpful way to get closer to a picture of what it might mean for myself.

We Need to Teach Our White Kids about White Supremacy

We do not accept Jews, because they reject Christ, and through machinations of their International Banking Cartel, are at the root center of what we call “communism” today.

We do not accept Papists, because they bow to a Roman dictator, in direct violation of the First Commandment and the true American Spirit of Responsible, Individual, Liberty.

We do not accept Turks, Mongols, Tarters, Orientals, Negroes, nor any other person whose native background of culture is foreign to the Anglo-Saxon system of government by responsible FREE, Individual citizens.

If you are a Christian, American Anglo-Saxon who can understand the simple truth of this Philosophy, you belong in the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan of Mississippi. Get your Bible out and pray!

1964 Recruiting leaflet for the Ku Klux Klan

I can remember learning about the plight of black Americans as told by the approved histories written by well-meaning white people. Back in junior high we learned how bad slavery was, that black Americans were forced to use separate (but equal) public facilities, and could not vote after the terms of their theft and purchase were lifted. I remember Rosa Parks on the bus and how horribly she was treated for simply sitting down after a hard day of work. Then came Martin Luther King, Jr. and “I Have a Dream” which was quickly followed by laws written by white people to right the wrongs of their parents who had created and enforced Jim Crow laws and whose grandparents may have even owned a slave or two. The message was pretty clear: white people treated black people badly, but they fixed it! Good white people joined forces with good black people and solved racism. Malcolm X was militant, the Black Panthers were terrorists, and MLK was a “good” black guy who loved Jesus and nonviolence. We’d remember this sanitized history every winter for Black History Month, feel content about fixing the problem, and move forward with our lives as the good guys. In the midst of this self-congratulatory posture we never detected the virus of white supremacy that was still very much alive in our systems.

We would have conversations wondering why there was no White History Month and would question the fairness of policies like “affirmative action.” We had just learned that racism was one race unfairly favoring itself over another race and that our white parents had fixed the racist policies of their parents, so why are black people allowed to unfairly favor their race? To thousands of “well-meaning” and “nice” suburban white kids in the 80s, from what we had just learned from our nice white teachers reading from texts written by nice white scholars, it seemed that angry black people were re-litigating a problem other nice white people fixed and were now being racist themselves. We saw emerge a new fascination with Malcolm X, a romanticization of Africa, and a new holiday called Kwanzaa. None of this made sense with what we had just been taught. Racism was fixed and we were all supposed to be homogeneous and nice Americans. It seemed that racism was being brought back not by white people, but ironically by black people. As Morgan Freeman would later say in a comment that got plenty of traction in white supremacist circles, “Stop talking about it.” Why do we have to relive something that no longer exists? The nice white people heard MLK’s dream and made it happen!

In junior high school, I learned the mechanisms of white supremacy as an aspiring friend of white power skinhead ideology. I was a scared, lonely kid from a dysfunctional home and desperately in need of purpose and meaning. Friends were hard to come by as introverted and different I felt. I found a small group of fellow misfits who listened to heavy music and rooted their identity in the idea that white America fixed racism, built a great society, and the genetically inferior black people, immigrants, and Jews were here to take that from us. My soundtrack became the words of Skrewdriver singing “White power for Britain, before it gets too late” and S.O.D. singing “Speak English or Die.” The natural consequences for failing to assimilate into our nice, white nation were permanent separation. “Find a new place to live” was the mantra. If you can’t assimilate, feel free to carve out a little place of your own to be savages who can’t accept this white, “Judeo-Christian” nation. The USA was meant to be a white, ethno state and others were welcome here as long as they submitted to white authority. The black cities were violent hellscapes for the same reason. They needed to fix their problems and it was time to stop asking white people to bail them out. Maybe Plessy v. Ferguson was right all along. Those black people and savage immigrants who fail to assimilate and submit to civilized, nice white people should find a place to live apart from us.

As a kid in search of identity and meaning I had truly found a place I could live. I learned the intimate and violent mechanisms of white supremacy not in a classroom, but from peers who had caught the disease and were sharing it like junkies with a needle. People and races were categorized by genetics and intelligence. Evolution seemed to show that the darker the skin, the more savage the creature. There were a few, rare exceptions of black people who sounded “white” and there was a rational separation between a black person and a “n***er” rooted in how “white” that person seemed to speak and behave. Like any animal, they could be tamed. Those that were tamed, civilized, and fully assimilated to the white way of life should be grateful that they were a genetic anomaly which escaped the clutches of savagery. Inside this white supremacist bubble, black people only contributed to society what white people had given them and Hitler had the right idea about cleansing the bloodlines even if he was a little crazy in his audacity to commit genocide. I would later come to understand that this was a complex system of purity that separated matter into distinct categories and there was a rationale for disposing of that material which was dirty and infected. Whiteness was the only cure and assimilation through submission was the delivery mechanism.

In the late 1980s when black people through their music and art told a counter-narrative that the “Dream” had been deferred and white America had become complacent if not violently oppressive, it sounded like militants who were causing the problem. Insistent in reclaiming their African ethnicity, it felt like they didn’t appreciate what good white people had done for them and they now wanted to unfairly tip the beautifully balanced scales in their favor. What they called injustice was the real inequality. Maybe it was time for all the white people who at this point had all fixed slavery and racism to reassert their niceness by reminding black people racism was over. They shouldn’t mess it up by asserting un-American, un-Christian ideas. After all, “we” begrudgingly gave them an entire month to celebrate nonviolence and their marches.

It’s easy to see how the narrative of civil rights as it was taught became a carrier of white supremacy. We of the white suburbs never learned its mechanisms and philosophies further than a few simple ideas: Plessy v. Ferguson wasn’t all that great, slavery was really bad, something about the KKK and lynch mobs, and to be grateful all of this stuff had been eradicated from our now unified and content nation. White Generation X grew up with these beliefs and had a childhood shaped by them. White kids became “nice” adults who didn’t recognize white supremacy because they weren’t aware of what it was so they got infected by it in subtle ways. Our schools didn’t vaccinate them out of fear that teaching the subtle mechanisms of white supremacy would somehow transmit the virus. Like any vaccine, you need a little bit of the virus so the body can learn to defend itself against infection. Instead our schools, armed with the history that nice white people ended racism towards nice black people, transmitted the disease itself.

Those nice white kids became carriers of the virus and just needed the right environment to activate it. They needed a tiny stimulus to get these ideas to replicate and spread. Without understanding its symptoms, white kids became white adults who carried and spread the virus to their family, friends, and their own kids. White kids today learn that same history of nice white people and other nice people who live in suburbs and rural places and can’t understand why cities are so violent and so black.


Sally Struthers for Christian Children’s Fund

A cornerstone of white supremacy is a belief that the genetic composition of white people is fundamentally superior. Those genes made them smarter and more civilized. I grew up with that philosophy. When Jimmy “the Greek” Snyder talked about the superiority of the black athlete, it triggered the idea that their physical prowess is why they were such capable slaves. There was something alluring and romantic in white supremacy about the idea that slavery became a means to rescue black people from their unintelligently designed African governments that could only be characterized as savage. Live Aid and USA for Africa were sufficient evidence to see how horrible that place was. Even Little Steven’s protest of Sun City seemed to reflect the horrors of these savages. Apartheid was the symptom of an untamed continent that just needed more nice, civilized white people of superior, European genes who could fix the problems like they did in America. Africa was an untamed land of lions, hyenas, and genetically-deficient people who weren’t smart enough to fix their own problems. The idea that white America and white Europe would have to fix that too, even at the expense of their own wealth, created a narrative of resentment and hostility. But white kids didn’t understand that this same narrative was the scaffolding of white supremacy because they never learned it. It was up to them to tame the wild world they saw on their televisions that beamed images of poor, emaciated, and bloated Ethiopian kids and a tearful Sally Struthers begging for white money to feed them. “Happy birthday,” she said. White suburban kids made jokes about it. It was funny how and sad how African kids didn’t have supermarkets and didn’t have bread or a nice President like Mr. Reagan. Being poor and black was stupid and white America shouldn’t have to pay for it.

Eventually I literally found Jesus and a new group identity in the church leaving behind the strange white fantasies as juvenile relics. I had thought it was just a bunch of dumb kids doing dumb things and seeking out dumb beliefs in a thwarted effort to look cool to peers. That was true, at least for me. The Rodney King verdict, the words from Public Enemy, and the music of Fishbone ended any latent racism that may have lingered in my brain. I joined a gospel choir in college and got intimate with the black church. I invested myself over the following years to listening to and spending time with the people I had at one time absurdly believed to be inferior in every way except for what Jimmy the Greek told me. I was making amends. Those racist ideas seemed to be anachronistic yearnings of an immature and insecure kid that had since been relegated to racist and homophobic messages trapped in men’s bathroom stalls. I would see swastikas and racist epithets scratched above toilet paper dispensers in gas stations as messages some teenaged white boy was sending me from my past hidden behind a curtain of anonymity.

In 2008, when I saw an older white man holding up a Curious George monkey he called “Little Hussein” at a rally for Sarah Palin, I was disgusted. The monkey was there to see “real Americans” as he put it. In one instant, those anonymous messages from bathroom stalls were activated on a public platform that would only get amplified throughout the Obama years finding an apex in Trump. From the language of the “forgotten” people of America, to the “very fine people” who must be among white supremacist Charlottesville protesters, to Steve King’s (Rep, I) questioning of the contributions others have made to the world outside of “Western” people, to the idea that immigrants coming from Mexico are riddled with disease, all are part of a complex of white supremacist language its advocates have used for decades, often in quiet forums no one knew existed or cared about until now. The very notion of a giant wall to keep people out is a staple of the so-called white “ethnonationalist” state. These ideas and the people who spread them have all been given permission to be out in the open like an airborne disease.

Like viruses we thought were long gone until the anti-vax movement gained momentum, this philosophy has been activated as a failure of our education system and of “nice” white people everywhere. It’s not like “just a little bit of smallpox” won’t hurt anyone. Of course it would. It is the same when we repeat racist language and pass it off as meaningless or irrelevant. Couched in the persistent lie that racism was solved, this might make sense. But that narrative is a lie. It’s toxic, dangerous, and has infected our public discourse and behavior to its worst degree perhaps since the 1960’s. Alongside teaching civil rights, we avoid teaching white supremacy, what it is, what it looks like, and how to inoculate ourselves against its spread. Until white people recognize the hot zone of white supremacy in their ranks and teach its features to their children, it will continue to infect the world. Our kids need to be exposed to white supremacy just enough that they can build their own antibodies and join the fight against it. This is how we can help stop its spread.

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 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


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.

Secularization is Happening, and Liberals are in Trouble


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?