To get an idea of what it means to apply philosophy to people’s practical problems, I write a Philosophical Advice column answering readers’ questions. If you want to know whether I could help you with your own difficulties, you can get a sample of my thought processes by reading these articles. Many of which are collected here on this page.
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This post is long for three reasons:
(1) I have long experience myself with procrastination and specifically with graduate school induced procrastination, and a ton to say about it.
(2) People who suffer from procrastination I think will be greedy for as much insight and help as they might be able to get.
(3) A nice, 4,000 word article is ideal for procrastinators because it can either give an excuse to spend a lot of time not working or become so much of a chore that just getting back to the work you’re supposed to be doing suddenly seems preferable. Whichever this turns out to be for you: you’re welcome.
You might be the perfect person to answer my quandary, you have been and still are part of the academia, you think in logical, philosophical way and you’re a no-nonsense kind of man.
So here is my problem, I am suffering from severe procrastination. I avoid work and indulge in time wasting activities. I am not focusing on my career and the guilt is eating me. I will mention these problems as follows:
• I have three Incompletes that I need to finish by the mid of August and I still haven’t started them.
• I tell myself that today will be the day when I start making progress but then that today never comes.
• I feel apathetic and numb towards my work.
• I have been to psychologists and psychiatrists but that hasn’t been any help.
As I write to you right now, I want to escape and start doing something else, it feels a little painful. I blame my task avoidance on the depression I have, but I know that it is only an excuse.
What do I need to do. Help?
I hated graduate school. And no small part of why I hated it was because of all the time I spent feeling and living like you describe here. I cannot promise a silver bullet solution that would replace more individual counseling or, additionally, your dealing with any neurologically depressive causes that might be physically hampering you in ways that mere thinking cannot overcome. But I will share what I have learned about this problem and some strategies for overcoming it.
The first thing to stress is that I don’t think that procrastination, at least among high achievers like graduate students, is a product of laziness. When you say you want from me a no-nonsense approach and say that looking at how your depression might be contributing to your procrastination is “excuse” making, I get the impression that your guilt is taking the form of contempt for yourself. The first thing I would recommend doing is stopping being your own harshest critic and taskmaster.
Among high achieving people, procrastination can be strongly motivated by perfectionism. Because you have exacting standards for yourself, you cannot do anything unless it’s perfect. Knowing how unlikely your efforts are to achieve perfect results, or how difficult it is to achieve perfect results every time you go to work, you get overwhelmed and psych out. And when you put a lot of stock in your abilities in a particular area, your identity gets threatened when you are at risk of failing with respect to that part of your life.
Research has shown that children who are told they are smart, rather than merely praised for their hard work when they do well, can be prone to avoiding tasks they might not succeed at. Because their identity is as a “smart” person, the prospect of failure and not feeling smart is a threat to who their very sense of self. So if you understand yourself as a hot shot with respect to the subject you’re dealing with in your graduate studies, starting to struggle can shatter your entire sense of who you are. You feel like, you’re not supposed to struggle with this subject or these kinds of tasks. You’re The Natural. This comes easy to you.
Graduate school is a humbling and difficult period for many in no small part because for the first time people who are used to being standout students in their subject matter are both surrounded by equally competent or even superior peers. And they’re dealing with professors who take for granted that they should be exceptional and who focus much more on their limitations that need improving than doting over what a rare and special flower they are. This is a period in which many high achieving students encounter serious failures and disappointments for the first times in their lives in areas that previously made them feel the most empowered and rewarded and admired. Not only does this put their identity at stake but their entire sense of self-worth.
And so the temptation to freeze is terrible. It is difficult to show your professors your imperfect work. At the graduate level, professors do not have reputations for being gentle or merciful in their criticisms. They often take the attitude that they need to be as unsparing with you as with a peer since that is what you are supposed to be proving yourself to be. They also can be aloof and neglectful in some cases and an insecure graduate student can spend months or years languishing in paralyzing uncertainty, getting little of the necessary feedback to speed up her progress because of a combination of her own perfectionist unwillingness to frequently send material to professors for responses and because of many professors’ habits of replying to graduate students in delayed, indifferent, harsh, and unsupportive ways.
Another thing I experienced that makes the procrastination terribly worse is thatprocrastinating is not resting and it’s usually not having fun. When I am procrastinating I am simultaneously not getting work done and not mentally recuperating and recharging. I am often doing things which are ostensibly fun or which could be relaxing. But emotionally I am suffering. The guilt is horrific. In his e-mail Danny describes numbness and apathy and guilt. This is crippling. At every moment not only do I feel the need to start working and frustration that I’ve been unproductive but I also feel emotionally worn out rather than revived. In my case I have lost years’ worth of potential socializing, isolated alone night after night struggling to motivate myself and making despairingly little progress.
I have told myself I cannot enjoy myself or commit myself to intentionally fun activities while my dissertation is so far behind or while my blog is not yet ahead and guaranteed to post everyday, etc. But since it is extremely hard and unlikely that my mind can work on difficult intellectual matters from the time I wake until the time I sleep, I inevitably wind up most days spending most of my time unproductive. But when it’s all officially blocked off for work and not play, that unproductive time is guilty “wasted” time even when I’m doing what should be enjoyable restful things I deserve to do as a hard working person who deserves enjoyments in life. And since I am locking myself in my room trying to force myself to work, often the fun I’m having is less fun than the kinds of planned activities I might engage in if I concentrated deliberately on making the most of my time available to play every day instead of only diddled and dithered accidentally and incidentally as an avoidance strategy.
Another contributing fear that I wrestle with that causes me procrastination is fear of punishment. I will avoid doing tasks that might involve negative feedback.
And, finally, I find one of the most maddeningly illogical causes of procrastination is uncertainty about where to start when I have multiple tasks which all need to be done. Since I feel the pressure to do each of them all at once, doing any particular one of them feels like it would be avoiding the others (and I can’t avoid any of them) so I wind up paralyzed and doing none of them.
So, what can someone like you, Danny, (someone whose plight hits so close to home I gave you a pseudonym close to my my own name in solidarity) do?
Here are the things I would recommend you start doing immediately.
1. Understand that punishing yourself with negative messages will not help you but only discourage you. Not only do you not need me to provide “no-nonsense” advice that will snap you out of your irresponsibility, you need to stop being your own merciless taskmaster. You need to accept that you are an earnestly well-meaning and talented person who has exceedingly normal psychological problems and deserves the care from yourself and from others that will help you succeed. Forgive yourself.
2. If you’re anything like me you read any biographical narratives of successful people with heightened interest. Notice how many of them took detours in their lives or suffered any number of failures on their way to success. You are younger than you feel and beyond your short term tasks which feel at present like your entire career there are a number of roads that will be open to you in the future. Your failures so far by no means have to destroy your career. With a wide imagination, indomitable determination, and the randomness of circumstances you will have potentially a huge number of paths to happiness available to you in the future. Whether or not you got your assignments done on time this past year or whether you have had the most productive several year stretch of your life recently are not going to be the things that determine your whole life course.
3. Stop thinking about the past. Stop thinking about how much time you have wasted or how much time is lost. This time cannot be regained by fretting about it. It’s gone. Reset your world to today. Do this everyday. You are in a ditch. Focus proactively on steps towards getting out.
4. If your thoughts are obsessing on how much you screwed up, this may be because your mind is trying to make sure that it doesn’t forget what went wrong and keep repeating it. I find my mind can be reassured if I just spend a half hour writing out a narrative of how I got derailed, why it made sense, what I learned, and what my plan to do better is. Just take that half hour once a day if need be and then return your focus to productive steps.
5. When you have multiple tasks you are behind on and crippled with anxiety over, pick one for the day and resolve not to worry about the others that day. Tell yourself that your only task is this one today. And if the task is enormous, make it only a relatively small and manageable section of the overall task. If you plan to solve all your problems in a day you’ll probably get overwhelmed and get nothing done.
6. Figure out when you feel less anxious and most energetic and plan to work for just a half an hour to two hours during that period. For me this is immediately upon waking up in the morning. Anxiety builds for me throughout the day. For others it might be after running or working out when their body is filled with endorphins, their mind feels like it has accomplished something, and their pulse is settling to a calmer rate. For others it might be after spending a day running errands and cleaning the apartment and clearing every other task that might distract the mind, so that it can finally relax and concentrate. Think about when in your day you feel most charged up and mentally freed to get down to work and schedule just a couple hours of work forthat time.
7. Plan your time not working. Once you have scheduled a small window of working each day, be deliberate about the time you’re not working. Is there something you’re itching to do and much more passionate about doing than your work? Once you’ve put in your work time go do that. Don’t feel any guilt about it. The summer before I finished my dissertation in a concentrated way, I spent most of my time creating my blog and writing thousands of words daily for it. I got no less or more done on the dissertation that way but I started feeling really good about myself and excited about life again. And the discipline of writing I developed for myself and the practice I gave myself writing when there was no pressure made it so that my rate of productivity, my creativity, and the quality of my thinking when I returned to the dissertation had all vastly improved. Plus, I found a medium I loved and built something that I could be passionate about and made sense to me to keep working on when I finally finished being a graduate student. Your priority has to be about restoring your sense of fullness in life. You are not just your incompletes. Connecting to hobbies, to friends, to passion projects which feel like escapes rather than pressure, can all revive you.
8. Only once you’ve gotten good at working a half an hour to two hours a day and then letting yourself be free, build up to where you can work more hours. But keep them all concentrated to a set time during the day. And then continue to accept that you cannot work all day. At most work a stable 9-5 schedule if your mind can handle something like that and then mentally consider yourself free for scheduled social activities or a passion project or a romantic partner or whatever it is that you are going to allow yourself. Those periods of rest and those times spent enjoying life with a good conscience are vital to making returning to work bearable.
9. Focus on the long view of your life to get perspective. Fantasize about a wide range of possible things that success might look like for you and learn about the variety of paths you might take to get there. Your present predicament is not by any means the end of the world. It’s a set of tasks to complete and then move on from. And if you don’t do them perfectly, it’s okay, you might find hundreds more chances to succeed in life. The more you focus on just how many options are conceivable in life, the less any given failure will feel like the end of the world.
10. Allow yourself great latitude to brainstorm and experiment freely and often. Tell yourself when you start to work that what you’re about to write is not something you’ll ever show anyone. It’s just for you. And then just write without judging what you’re doing. See if anything exciting happens. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t matter. Some days you don’t succeed. But if you do that every day, some days you’ll hit something amidst a lot of nothing. And that’s all that matters. Not everything you do has to be perfect. Be imperfect and let the kernel of something great appear amidst it. Then just spend a little while shaping what you’ve stumbled on and that’s a successful day.
11. Slow and steady wins the race. If you accumulate day after day each with just a few concentrated hours of work, during days spent mostly in mentally healthy activities unrelated to your work, over time you will be far more successful than spending 24/7 crippled with anxiety and not having any fun either.
12. Make a plan and stick to it. If you can map out very manageable and realisticgoals for each day between today and a finish date, then every time you psych out and want to accomplish everything all at once you can remind yourself to stick to the plan. Sticking to a well charted plan will carry you to the goal steadily. But then don’t let the plan itself become too rigid or a source of extra frustrations. If you’re not feeling like doing today’s task but feel moved to do next Wednesday’s now, just switch the schedule and go with where your motivation is. What’s important is that you’re breaking your tasks down into manageable chunks that can be handled one a day, not necessarily that you’re doing them all in a certain order.
13. When you lose a day or two to psyching out or flaking out, for whatever reason; just accept it, forgive yourself, and don’t increase the pressure on the next day. Mentally beating yourself up will not help. You are not a bad person who needs to be whipped into shape. You’re a good and hardworking person who just isn’t perfect but deserves every chance to succeed. So forget yesterday and focus back on manageable tasks. Don’t try to pile up for the next day two days’ worth of work and don’t start denying yourself the pleasures and activities and relationships that make you happy. Just focus on your daily allotment of work like usual.
14. If possible, connect your work to people outside yourself. If you can collaborate with peers, do so. Get supportive feedback from them and give it to them. If blogging will inspire you by making you feel heard (like it did for me when I was a stuck and lonely graduate student), do that. Don’t make the only people you show your work to your professors whose (often harsh) judgments you will be tempted to overload with significance and psych out about. Get comfortable being imperfect with people whose steady input can be stimulating. Being isolated is terrible for intellectual progress. A regular give and take of ideas with others is encouraging, makes criticism a more regular and less overwhelming and scary part of life, and makes your ideas better.
15. Examine your fears rationally. Don’t be hard on yourself but be as clear minded as possible. Consider meditating even so that you can learn how to examine your emotions while neither judging nor succumbing helplessly to them. And think through every fear. How likely is it to come true? When I used to have panic attacks my first year of graduate school I received advice that for me stops them cold. I was encouraged to lean into the fear and tell myself that the worst would happen. And my mind, no longer trying to fight the fear with the risk of escalating it, just let it go. Maybe it was because I realized that I would be okay even if the worst happened and that was all I needed emotionally to calm down. Or maybe it was because the worst cases were so absurd that trying to believe them (rather than to avoid them) made them hard to accept and they went away. The long term goal is to allow yourself to fear in ways that are rational rather than exaggerated. Use your fear to plot out productive thinking about what you can control. What you cannot control, learn how to accept.
16. Be assertive about your needs with your professors. I have known too many graduate students who have been in toxic relationships with their professors. Sometimes these unresolved issues mean the end of otherwise promising academic careers. You have a right to your professors’ time. If you are psyched out about the prospect of their criticizing you, you can go to them and request that they please let you know first what they see of potential in your work, even if it is only small things. You can ask them for more specific instructions if they are vague. You can ask them for specific tasks or steps to follow or questions to focus on answering. You can seek out advice about your work from other professors if one you’re working with is not providing what you need.
If professors don’t get back to you about your work quickly, you can write them back and hound them. I had a friend who waited something like a year for a reply from his adviser only to find out his adviser either forgot he’d sent him something or missed the e-mail altogether. And my friend felt so hurt and rejected as forgettable that he took even longer to ever send his professor anything again. If they are to succeed, graduate students need to develop senses of entitlement to their professors’ help. Otherwise, many professors will just assume they are “adults” and practically peers academically and so can be ignored and left to figure out everything on their own. Graduate students are still students. They should feel no shame in demanding teaching from those to whom they are charges.
17. Part of your fears may not be of failure so much as of success. Some things I procrastinate I know are obstacles to things I think I want but I might be afraid of having. There may be deep unresolved emotional issues that make you more afraid of getting what you think you want than not having it is.
18. Allow yourself a relatively trivial but obligated task to procrastinate so that working will feel like evading what you’re supposed to be doing. Procrastination is in part motivated by the pressure that you have to do something rather than want to do it. We don’t like to do what feels like it’s forced upon us. If you can find some task you want to do even less than what you have to do and convince yourself you must dothat, then doing what you actually have to do can feel like goofing off. Figure out how to make doing what advances your life feel like “goofing off”.
19. Sometimes we don’t feel like we can get to our official work until we do certain other tedious tasks that are not even work related. Stalling on these priorities that need to be attended to can sometimes get in the way. It may be helpful to just accept this and pay someone to do things like take care of your laundry or clean your room so that these things don’t just add to the pile of responsibilities in your mind.
20. Finally, and most importantly, understand that your life is already happening. You only have a finite number of years in life. Do not waste them thinking your happiness is some time off in the future when you have made it through graduate school or reached financial stability or found a lifelong romantic partner, etc. Your life is happening right now. Resolve to live your life in the well-rounded happy ways that you want today. Do what you imagine being happiest doing today in whatever ways you already can. Of course you have to make some sacrifices for the future. But enjoying life and doing what you find most fulfilling is not a reward scheduled for a decade from now. It is something for your whole life, starting day one.
This column takes the form of an edited down real conversation that I had over instant message with a friend. Though this was not an actual, formal, professional philosophical counseling session, it struck me as a perfect example of a kind of problem that philosophical practitioners are fit to help people with and a demonstration of my personal approach to philosophical practice. My friend gave me his enthusiastic permission to publish our conversation. I gave him full veto-power over the final edit. All edits were of tangents and irrelevant personal information. He suggested no changes to my final draft. His name and his cat’s name have been changed in order to preserve confidentiality. If you are interested in counseling sessions write me with the subject heading “Philosophical Practice”. All sessions are confidential. And it does not matter where you are in the world; philosophical practitioners are not bound by state certification requirements and restrictions, so you and I can meet online.
Vigo: Dan, I know you talk of philosophical counseling, I think perhaps I need some due to the loss of a pet.
Dan: Oh no, who died?
Vigo: My cat, Danger. He got sick and died. I took him to the vet and he was in the kitty hospital for two days and their treatment made him much worse. He somehow had feline leukemia and had a tumor pressing against his trachea. I went down to the vet’s on his last day and petted him for about 4 hours while he purred and stuff, thinking he was coming home. I had to have him euthanized in my arms and I am not sure at all about the ethics of that decision, seeing as how it wasn’t mine to make.
Dan: I see.
Vigo: He had had all his vaccines and tests for feline leukimia. It makes no sense that he got it.
Dan: What do you mean that the decision wasn’t yours to make? The doctors decided for you?
Vigo: No, it was the cat’s decision. Not mine. I don’t kill, Dan. Not at all.
Dan: I see
Vigo: I am a vegetarian and all that. I think animals like that are just like us in most ways. They think and love and dream and are self aware. Animals, at least higher animals, should have the same rights as people. But he couldn’t tell me what he wanted. But he only had maybe another day to live if nature took its course.
Dan: Okay. So had they waited a day they would have absolved you of this responsibility.
Vigo: Yes. But he would have choked to death cause of the tumor.
Vigo: I have asthma. I understand not being able to breathe.
Dan: Right. So there are a number of issues you’ve already raised. Do you mind if I draw them out for a moment?
Vigo: Of course not. I know it is complex and unlike math it has no clear answers.
Dan: Okay, so here are the various issues so far: 1. You feel like participating in any form of euthanasia violated your own opposition to killing in any form. At first it sounds like presumably this means that had you had a human friend who you knew wanted to be euthanized but couldn’t speak for himself, you wouldn’t sign the document that gave final authorization for the doctors to do it because this would interfere with your own conscience against killing.
Vigo: That is certainly an issue.
Dan: 2. But then the issue becomes different, because your concern seems to shift and become about the autonomy of Danger. Because it does matter to you what Danger would have wanted had only Danger been able to communicate. So, it is possible that you would have honored Danger’s wishes had you known Danger would want to die and were he fully informed of his alternatives.
Vigo: Had I known, I would have honored it, of course.
Dan: There are a couple of further issues to get to.
Dan: So the first thing here is that a core part of your identity is that you value other animal lives on a relative par with human lives.
Vigo: Right. I am 52 and that has been a core part since maybe 16. I probably value them more–people are an ecological problem.
Dan: So there are two ways you are adamant to express and reaffirm that right now.
Dan: So, it is important for you to be acting consistently with this identity and these values. And so it is important to you that you not see yourself as someone who said, “this is no big deal, it’s just a cat.”
Vigo: I fasted for 40 days in prison once over food so it is very important.
Dan: Wow. Right. That’s incredible.
Vigo: I would have died insted of eating animal flesh, even something small like gelatin in the ingredients.
Dan: Right, so, yeah. This is a deep part of your values that killing animals is wrong. Now, on the other hand, most likely for you the wrongness of the killing of animals consists of the following considerations (a) it does intrinsic harm to them, (b) it is exploitative of them for selfish, unnecessary purposes, (c) it disrespects their objective value, (d) it is cruel and uncompassionate towards creatures who are like us, and (e) it is wrong to incur pain because pain is an evil, as we know from our own experience of it.
Vigo: Yes on all that.
Vigo: It is also is destroying information in the mathematican definition of information.
Dan: Okay. So there’s an intrinsic good to the development of information complexity in nature, of function in nature.
Vigo: A friend of mine tries to base his theory of ethics on information theory.
Dan: I’m sympathetic insofar as I can imagine what that might mean. Now are there any other factors that go into why killing is usually wrong besides the ones we’ve just listed?
Vigo: It is selfish and self centered.
Vigo: And then you have issues with the meat industry, but that is off topic.
Dan: Okay. You can take a moment to think about it, I don’t want to rush you. Are there any things that really make killing wrong besides the things we’ve just listed?
Vigo: It is axiomatic to me, but those reason seem to cover the need for such an axiom.
Dan: Right. The problem is that two of your axioms are in conflict here. That’s why there’s an ethical dilemma
Vigo: Clarify some.
Dan: The moral axiom against killing is distinguishable from the one against causing pain and there’s also the axiom of respecting autonomous agents.
Vigo: Yes, I am aware of that.
Dan: So that’s where there’s the conflict. So you twice very quickly and strongly indicated a strong sense of duty to respect Danger’s hypothetical wishes, were they discernable.
Vigo: He was crying when i got the vets the day he died. He stopped when i showed up…
Vigo: …and rubbed all over my face and purred.
Dan: But he wasn’t only crying because he missed you.
Vigo: He wanted me is all i could really tell and thought maybe I could help with his illness. He was in terminal pain.
Dan: Yes, I know.
Vigo: But he cried no more after i was there.
Vigo: He did not appear that sick the day i took him. He had been coughing and eating about 1/3 normal is all.
Dan: Do you think that’s evidence he could have lived a pleasurable life?
Vigo: No that is evidence that when they drained fluid from his lungs and gave him the medication they gave him it made things worse. I feel now like he would have lived a bit longer had I not taken him in. But his behavior was normal before I took him. He acted the same and did the same things. He had his daily rituals; you know?
Dan: Do you think it was (a) misdiagnosis or (b) he would have died within weeks but the medical interventions accelerated the death and the pain involved in the death?
Vigo: But regardless I saw the xray and whether I took him in or not he would have died.
Dan: So then it wasn’t misdiagnosis.
Vigo: There was no misdiagnosis.
Dan: Then do you think that medical interventions made his death faster and more painful than it had to be?
Vigo: Yes, the medical treatment accelerated the death and pain. Yes it did.
Dan: Okay. And it made the euthanasia more likely?
Vigo: If he was in pain prior he did not express it or show it.
Dan: Do you think he could have died naturally and without excruciating pain had he not had the treatment?
Vigo: He would have died from not being able to breathe well.
That is not really painful exactly…from my experinces with asthma, not pain like a tooth pain or a cut, etc.
Vigo: It is more like work takes great work to try to breathe.
Vigo: Eventaully you pass out.
Dan: But he still would have only lasted weeks?
Vigo: Yes, at best.
Dan: Now had medical intervention worked, was it plausible that he could have lived much longer?
Vigo: And he wasn’t eating well and losing weight. Yes at first they were talking maybe even years. The fluid in his lungs did not show the tumor. Then in x-rays…
Dan: So that sounds like a gamble that was in Danger’s best interest to me. Even if it cost him a couple weeks you could have been together right now had it worked.
Vigo: You see, they talked of killing him at first x-ray but I wanted to do all I could. Money did not matter.
Dan: Right, so you didn’t abandon Danger. So before you made the choice, did medical intervention seem to be, in terms of risk and reward, in Danger’s best interest?
Vigo: Yes, I know [it was].
Dan: Right. Now when we’re sad we need to be careful because we look for reasons for our sadness, lots of reasons.
Vigo: [The mourning] will last forever I still mourn the lose of other pets and people, though not with this intensity. Intensity fades.
Dan: We often register we’re sad and then the brain tries to figure out why. Yes, the pain will fade with time. The intensity right now is the worst, so you have to remind yourself frequently…
Vigo: It is overwhelming, I cry all the time.
Dan: …that the sadness is because you’re mourning and some of the reasons that are popping into your head, if we can clarify that they’re not rational, they’re not the cause of the mourning. The cause of the mourning is you have lost someone. And that can’t be undone.
Vigo: I understand that i am wanting to blame now blame myself, blame the vet, and so on.
Vigo: Not rational at all.
Dan: And also you want to feel powerful over the situation.
Vigo. I know, yes, I was helpless.
Dan: So you want to feel like there are things you could have done, right? Because feeling helpless is often feeling hopeless. So if you can feel like you had some power then you feel like you do have power.
Vigo: All I could do was pet him and give him those few hours of purring. I chanted my death song while I petted him.
Dan: But the truth is we are helpless to stop the inevitability of death in many cases.
Vigo: I know that.
Dan: And that’s a truth we have to accept without emotionally becoming afraid that we’re powerless overall. So you have to keep those things in mind and remind yourself of them constantly.
Vigo: I have been trying.
Dan: Good. Now, correct me if you do not agree with any of the following things that I think are true:
1. Danger’s only choice was to live a few more weeks or go for medical intervention that could have prolonged his life by years potentially, so you chose to go with the option that prolonged his life and that was consistent with your values and identity and in Danger’s best interest.
2. Danger wound up in more pain and dying faster, and in order to reduce his suffering, they euthanized him. Did they have your explicit permission?
Vigo: Yes, they did I had to give it and sign papers.
Vigo: I agree with those, by the way.
Vigo: At first the treatment helped by the way, for a day or so draining the fluids he could breathe better. Just the next day they filled up more and he was foaming at the mouth when I got there. He stopped foaming after I was there.
Dan: Okay, so sorry. 3. Do you believe that people should have the right to choose to die rather than die painful, unavoidable deaths? That this is most consistent with respecting autonomy and being compassionate in these extreme cases?
Vigo: Yes, I think we have an inborn right to both live and die, regardless of pain or not
Dan: 4. Danger had a right to die NOT because he was less than a human or exploitable or unimportant but because in your view he was a person and just like other people, deserved to be spared unbearable, unremitting, suffering that would have killed him anyway.
Vigo: Yes, I agree with that.
Dan: 5. It is possible Danger would not have wanted to exercise his right to die but there was no way to ask him and it is possible that he could not conceptualize his own death anyway, as this is difficult for even us humans to really conceive.
6. You chose to err on the side of reducing Danger’s agony, knowing that he would be dead within a couple of weeks in either case.
Vigo: Danger may have wanted to die at home where he felt safe.
Vigo: I think cats can understand death as well as humans.
Dan: So, not well?
Vigo: They kill and know what it means to kill. I agree with those two points too.
Dan: Okay. 7. Even though this was an act of killing it does not fit most of the usual sources of wrongness in killing. You did not kill in order to cause him pain but to spare him it, you did not kill to exploit him, you did not kill selfishly, you did not kill for someone’s good other than his own.
Vigo: Yes, that is true.
Dan: 8. There is still the intrinsic loss of a good for Danger, his life, and there is still the intrinsic loss of information. But these were inevitable losses, not ones you introduced into the equation by your actions. They were immanent losses.
Vigo: I know.
Dan: So, it was regrettable Danger didn’t die at home.
Vigo: Yes, it was. It would have been heartbreaking no matter what though.
Dan: But Danger would not remember in either case. And at least in his last moments, you believed he thought he might be going home. So he may have died unaware that he’d never get to go home again.
Vigo: Yes, I am fairly certain that is what he thought, I had come to get him.
Dan: So, as far as he was concerned, he was going home when he died.
Vigo: Yes, I think he passed out from the shot thinking that.
Dan: So you didn’t do anything wrong and the vets didn’t do anything wrong. You didn’t betray your principles. You reconciled them in the most consistent way possible for Danger’s good.
Vigo: Yes rationally I know that. It was such a hard decision to make.
Dan: Okay, of course. It is a hard decision to live with, and mostly because you are in mourning and so everything is going to hurt.
Vigo: Yes, I know. It is hard to do things now, and I have so much work to do. And it is harder when i come home cause Danger was always so happy when i came home.
Dan: Yes, the emptiness is very hard. All I can recommend is to open your eyes to who is around you, and who can be around you.
The world is still full of good people and good things. You have to mourn. There’s no skipping that process. You’ll be worse off emotionally if you try to skip it. But I just encourage you to mourn, to remember logically all the distinctions we clarified and to open your eyes as much as you can to the good around you and available to you.
Vigo: I will.
Dear Dr. Fincke,
I am at a complete loss when it comes to my future in-laws (ahhh…in-law problems). I have identified as an atheist, openly and proudly, since I knew there was a word for what I (didn’t) believe. It doesn’t often come up, but I’m not afraid to talk about it when it does. I don’t appreciate being evangelized, so I don’t try to actively change other people’s minds when it comes to religion. I’m happy to answer questions about atheism and encourage people to think things through for themselves.
I am also a lesbian. Out and proud. Two and a half years ago, I met my current partner. One of the first things I asked her was if she was religious. Her relationship with religion is complicated. Up until her parents discovered she was gay at 15 years old, I would describe her immediate family as moderate Christians. They didn’t really go to church, but they were believers. When they found out, they immediately pulled her out of public school and sent her to a conservative Christian school. They also forced her to cut ties with her friends and quit a promising career in sport. They had an extremely rocky relationship during her last two years of high school as they became more and more involved in the church (I believe they are Foursquare?). Her father was extremely emotionally abusive to her (she has kept a stack of letters he wrote to her during this time that I am too afraid to read). She moved out the day she graduated.
It has only been the last couple of years that she has started to repair her relationship with her family (after 10-ish years with little meaningful interaction). She would say she has a “surface relationship”, she loves them and likes to spend time with them, but I don’t think she trusts them. To me, they seem very conservative, but according to her, they have softened in the last few years. They were not welcoming to previous girlfriends, and her mother was often outright hostile. From almost day 1, they have welcomed me into their home, invited me to family events, and even refer to me as Auntie to their new granddaughter. They know I am an atheist and it has come up a couple of times (the first time was on Christmas day at their home – wheee!).
There is a lot of God in their home and their lives. Grace gets said before every meal. Any good thing is life is attributed to God/Jesus. They openly mock other religions/cultures. They are very involved in missionary work in other countries. I have varying levels of comfort with their displays of faith, but choose to keep my mouth shut since we are in their home. They are kind to me and to us as a couple.
However, I think they rationalize it by convincing themselves we are just roommates (they always introduce me as their daughter’s friend or a friend of the family). I am afraid that soon, the shit will hit the fan. We’re hoping to get married and start a family within the next several months. Their church is very clearly anti-gay, and by extension, anti-gay marriage (we live in Canada though, so it’s legal). I am afraid that when they are confronted with the reality of our relationship, they will no longer be so warm and loving. They openly associate with organizations that are anti-gay and anti-choice (also climate change-denying, purity ring giving, creationist, etc). I don’t trust them. I fully believe that they think if they are just nice to me and keep praying for me, that I will come around eventually (to Christianity? to being straight and leaving their daughter?).
I want to like them and to have a good relationship with them (and for my future children to have a relationship with them), but every time I hear about another organization they are supporting that would like to take away my human rights (as a lesbian or as a woman), or that they are telling everyone to go and see the next big Christian movie (not the one about the flood, the other one) because it’s so good, or that they are taking a course on worldviews (oh wow, I thought, it’s great that they’re getting some other perspectives in their life and being open to it, until I see the textbook…), it feels like a slap in the face. So far, I’ve just been compartmentalizing I think. Separating the mostly loving people that I usually see from the religion and the people they choose to associate with (and especially from the abuse they inflicted on my girlfriend). But I’m just really getting tired of it. It’s one step forward and ten steps back.
I guess the question is: can I trust them? Should I? Is it worth it? My partner is great about it, she doesn’t like hearing all the God stuff all the time, either, but because she is more on the ‘spiritual’/leaning towards agnostic side, she doesn’t get so offended (until I point out how offensive it was). How can I stop myself from automatically assuming that every time they’re nice to me, it’s because they have ulterior motives? And am I doing the same thing when I’m being “polite” and choosing not to rock the boat so I can come off as a good example of a “nice” atheist?
Do I speak up when they say something utterly offensive or outrageously inaccurate?
I’ve been devouring your blog since I found it and very much value your opinion. Honestly, it’s helped just to get it all out – I don’t have a huge circle of friends to hash it out with and can only talk about it so much with my partner, as I don’t want to damage the fragile link she has been slowly rebuilding to her family. Any advice would be great – or a link to an article or book, etc.
I hope future generations appreciate what herculean emotional feats of strength are demanded of the all gay people in our time. Let me just start by saying, I’m very sorry both that you are in a situation like this and that it is so very common.
There are several issues to separate.
The first issue is the question of whether there is something insincere about their niceness to you and yours to them. Just on the level of Christian and atheist relations, it sounds mostly fine. To the extent that this is a truce on religious issues it is good in several ways. For one thing, putting religious differences aside is healthy for us to find each other’s common humanity. Being able to do this helps the cause of acceptance of atheists, often as much as any explicit argument does. Because, as the experience of the gay community has taught us, knowing someone from a stigmatized group is the best way to overcome prejudices about them. Being the “nice atheist” is not you being servile, it’s you making it harder for your future in-laws to demonize atheists. That you are unapologetically out to them as an atheist is bold enough, so don’t worry that you’re not doing enough in that relationship.
You mention that when you see their materials expressing their involvement in causes that you realize would hurt you that it’s like a slap in the face. While you feel like speaking up to them, there are relational reasons I will talk about in a moment to be slow and careful about that. I would recommend that your first response to that desire to speak up should be to become more active about your atheism and your politics in your spheres of life that are separate from your family/in-laws.
You find proselytizers distasteful so you’ve not tried to live that way. You feel betrayed when these people close to you don’t behave with the same level of respect for your beliefs that you’ve been trying to show theirs. I would encourage you to contemplate that religions don’t just passively wait for people to choose them out of the blue, based on independent thought process. They are aggressive. Religious people often aggressively inculcate their beliefs in their children and some religions, evangelical Christianity being the paradigmatic one, are aggressive proselytizers by nature. This is why I think it’s not enough for atheists to be passive and just leave others alone to think whatever they happen to think. I think it’s important that we get organized with each other and develop rival institutions. This doesn’t mean that we have to sink to their level in manipulative proselytization tactics. It does mean that we need to provide resources to help other atheists who are either vulnerable to potential proselytization instead have non-theistic resources to meet their needs and to help other atheists like you who feel besieged by religious bullies.
It’s okay to proactively support your view of the world if you think it is truer and practically better. It is definitely necessary too that there be a cultural counterweight to the rancidness of the religious right. It sounds from your letter like if you had other friends who cared passionately about opposing religious irrationality and bigotry you would be able to feel less silenced. For a lot of people initially joining atheist groups is like finding a support group where they’re finally allowed to vent their frustrations with religious privilege without having to self-censor and tip toe around religious feelings. They can be with other people who just get it. For a time at least, that’s a healthy thing.
And if you were being more proactive about your atheism and connecting with others who shared your views and finding believers who want to debate about religion with you, whether online or at an “ask an atheist” table you and a group might set up, etc., then you would be on more of an equal footing with your future in-laws. You wouldboth be active members of the struggle for the intellectual and moral consciences of our culture. You wouldn’t feel as passive while you see them actively working against your interests.
But even if you became more involved in pro-atheism, pro-LGBT, pro-choice, pro-evolution, or other groups where you could be a more active participant, you should still then approach your personal relationships in thoughtful ways. For me, my philosophical energies go into my teaching and my blogging. I don’t bombard my family or my offline friends with philosophy or atheism unless they’re into that kind of thing. I keep my spheres separate. This is much easier for me to do because I have so many outlets for my philosophy and for my atheism. If you have those outlets, you may be able to be a little less frustrated and feel a little less disempowered when with your fiancée’s parents. You’ll be ready to play the role that is best for that relationship.
Approaching that relationship, I think you need to keep several things in mind. All your patience with them and deference, as unjust and rightly infuriating as it is, is not in vain. Not only as an atheist but probably even more so as a lesbian you are doing a potentially powerful thing by humanizing a whole class of people to your fiancée’s parents. The dignity which you display and draw out of them is not in vain. This seems to be the primary way that our culture has had a jaw droppingly fast (by historical standards) flip on the morality of homosexuality. We have gone from solid majorities thinking homosexuality is immoral to solid majorities thinking it is not immoral in just twenty years. While that progress is still too slow for millions of gay people who have to live through strained relationships and discrimination and abuse, and who have to each be their own kind of activist just by trying to live their lives like any other normal people, it is still impressively fast change when looked at on the longview. And this change seems to be driven by people being out.
So, please don’t feel like you’re being silent and steamrolled. You’re not. You’re bravely showing up and facing these people who you know are bigoted against you time and again. And you are keeping your composure and eliciting their dignity by being resolved in your own firmness about who you are. You’re being downright heroic, as I see it. You are putting yourself on the line for your fiancée, for yourself, and for her parents, even as their behind-your-back behaviors and bigotries would justify you never facing them again. I am in awe of the courage and moral strength that you and countless other boundary breaking gay people show. It is no small thing to humanize your oppressors. I have nothing but appreciation for those of you willing to patiently do this.
Now to the real practical problem. While I see the humanizing, tolerance-increasing value of people with ideological differences laying aside their differences in order to have positive friendships and family relationships with each other, and while I think it is crucial to having a civil society and a unified culture that we have these intimate relationships across disagreements, there are limit points.
At a certain point, “loving the sinner and hating the sin” is untenable. At a certain point, anti-gay bigots have to make real choices. If they really think that the love and sex that you and your fiancée share in is a sin, then they cannot wholeheartedly embrace your impending wedding or your eventual children the way that loving parents do.
If they show up at the wedding with beamingly happy faces and embrace your children, then there are no two ways about it–all their “homosexuality is a sin to be hated” stuff is empty words. You have won. And if they boycott the wedding or cast a pall on it with dampened enthusiasm, if they bring conflict into their relationship with your children, then all the stuff about “loving the sinners” is empty words.
You cannot say you love your child when you spurn their wedding solely on account of the gender of their spouse. You cannot say you love your child when you sow discord in your relationship with their children, particularly when you do so by begrudging the child’s other parent solely on account of their gender.
(I develop these points extensively in the posts Confronting Conservative Christians With The Consequences Of Their Homophobia and Why Loving the Sinner But Hating the Sin Is Not an Option When Dealing With Gay People.)
Essentially, you are anxious because your future in-laws’ big decision point is coming and you shrewdly see it coming. Your future in-laws have been living with cognitive dissonance. They have been able to live in the realm of civil truce and mostly done an admirable job (except for when they occasionally throw their religious privilege around by picking on other religions in front of you).
Now, if the experience of others who had homophobic parents is any guide, this could go either way. Some parents resolve the cognitive dissonance in favor of their kids and become pro-gay. Some go the other way, to one extent or another. I worry because your fiancée’s parents accelerated in their religiosity on account of her coming out as gay, which makes them sound more deeply homophobic than they even are religious (rather than begrudgingly anti-gay because of being religious). They’re also worrisomely active and intensifying culture warriors. And the father has been emotionally destructive in the past.
On the positive, from what you said it also is possible that ten years of virtual estrangement from their daughter may have softened them. They may, if pressured, wind up caving on the side of preserving their relationship with their daughter.
No one can really know here.
So what should you do?
First things first. Primarily this is between your fiancée and her parents. So, it seems inappropriate to further complicate her ability to get them to accept her for being gay by making atheism an explicit point of contention when the civil compromise on that issue can remain in place, even post-wedding. There’s a scenario where they accept your marriage but spend the next 30 years not arguing Christianity vs. atheism with you. That’s a win, I think. Their acceptance of their daughter’s gayness and her marriage is paramount. That’s the moral victory you really need to win. Act on your increasing atheist consciousness elsewhere. Don’t let it distract from this. Only well after they’ve flipped far enough on gay rights to be trustworthy should you really even contemplate trying to push the atheism issue, I think. And even then, do so in ways that don’t put your fiancée in the middle of you and them.
Secondly, I think you and you fiancée need to discuss potential contingencies. A watershed moment is coming. I think you need to work out with her what matters to her and what matters to you. Brainstorm every possible reaction her parents can have along the spectrum of acceptance to rejection and decide what she will do. This relationship is primarily between her and them. They’re her parents. The two of you need to be on the same page about what happens in any of a number of scenarios. Andyou need to know that your fiancée ultimately will choose you over her parents in the ways that are vital to your own sense of safety and trust in your relationship. Because once you’re married, now her in-laws are much more your problem too. In-law problems are a leading cause of divorce. And whereas right now you interact with her parents with a degree of autonomy and freedom to get up and leave her parents and never see them again at any moment if things go really south, you’re going to be much more webbed in with these people when you’re wedded to their daughter. I think it is vital you put your energies into making sure that your fiancée and you are completely on the same page. And that doesn’t mean convincing her of where her priorities should be but figuring out, when push comes to shove what will her heart do.
Ultimately, if your fiancée is more committed to you than to necessarily having a relationship with her parents and if it is more important to you that you marry your fiancée than that you necessarily have a wife whose parents will be part of your and your kids lives, then take this gamble clear-eyed that one possible scenario is you build your family estranged from your wife’s parents.
But whatever you do, see clearly the range of possible scenarios ahead, figure out what you can really live with and thrive with happily and prepare courses of action accordingly.
Finally, I would create something of a long runway up to the actual marriage that gives her parents time to digest this. Unavoidable hints this is coming probably should be dropped. You want to give them time to process this and mentally prepare. You may even opt to jointly write a letter in which you express your earnest desires for them to be a part of your future wedding and marriage. How you want to know they will have healthy relationships with your future children, not soured by any ambivalence towards your marriage, etc. Put in positive terms about how it is your hope for what they might share with you. Giving them that space to process may help prevent rash responses from them and give their brains the chance to cope with reality and make the major decisions they’re in for.
While you are already out, there are a couple of books on coming out as an atheist (that also have relevance to coming out as gay), that may be helpful. David McAfee’sMom, Dad, I’m an Atheist: The Guide to Coming Out as a Non-believer and Greta Christina’s new book Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why.
I have a question for you! What do you think one’s moral obligations are to an ailing parent who parented very poorly?
I had what seems to me to have been a very rough childhood. My parents divorced when I was four and my mom pretty much neglected me. She stayed out all night and left me at home alone without food frequently. She drank too much. When she was home she was asleep or drunk. Several times we had to move because she bought clothes and shoes rather than paying for the rent. We moved many times to avoid creditors or to follow a man. She moved me to my grandmother’s house when she couldn’t afford the rent and gave my cat away while I was visiting my dad.
By the time I was a teen, she decided to blame everything on me. I left as soon as I could and moved out on my own my senior year in high school. We had moved to California when I was a junior and she wanted me to move back to Texas during my senior year when her last relationship failed. I moved out and she moved back to Texas.
Since I have been an adult, she has neglected her own mother and let her die all while drunk. She spent her parents’ money and practically danced on their graves. When I was 19, my grandmother asked me if I wanted the money or the house after she died, and I told her I didn’t want her to die, so my grandmother didn’t change her will and it all went to my mom. My mom spent the money on a cruise to Hawaii, then let the house go to shit. They put a lien on the house because she didn’t pay the bill for the flowers at my grandmother’s funeral. She lived there until she went to rehab and couldn’t go back because she couldn’t pay to get the electricity and water turned back on.
In 2000, I struck a deal with her to let my husband, kids and I live here if we got the utilities back on and worked on paying the back and present taxes. After a year or so, she decided I needed to buy the house or move. I bought the house for 75,000 of which she pocketed 45,000 after the fees and liens, etc. had been paid. I advised her to pay off her car (which she had obtained by making my 75 year old uncle cosign for) and find a cheap place to live. She did not heed my advice and instead she bought a house more expensive than mine, and filled it with thousands of dollars of furniture and bought two full size poodles to complete the picture. (Oh my this is getting too long…sorry.)
I got a 30 year loan on a house that probably should have been mine, and she got her car and house repossessed in short order. She ended up getting an infection from a knee replacement, very well made sure her wound wouldn’t heal (I am not making this up…nurses told me they suspected Munchousen’s syndrome) and had an amputation on her left leg right below the knee.
Then everything began to go her way. She received long term disability from her job, then social security and Medicaid and reduced-cost housing and everything else she could get. Her apartment is lovely, she has a provider and gets student loans she will never pay back and lives a nice life. Her amputation was the beat thing that ever happened to her.
Wow. I sound bitter. Anyway, since I have been an adult, she has aligned herself with my abusive ex and fed him information while encouraging me to trust her. She was angry that I told the n
Social workers at the hospital that she had a drinking problem and could not care for her mother so she told Children’s Protective Services that my husband sexually molested his daughter in plain sight in front of everyone. We were investigated and cleared after my step-daughter had an intrusive medical exam.
If you need more examples, I am not close to being done but I will spare you more details unless you ask for them.
I have a lame psych degree and I really think my mom has Narcissistic Personality Disorder and I don’t think she cares about anyone but herself. There are times I have removed myself from her life because I had enough to deal with without her insanity. I did that about a month ago. But her neighbor called me yesterday and said she had gone to the ER and I have been there for several hours over the last two days. I feel like I need to protect myself from her toxicity but I also feel responsible as her only child and only living relative that does not hate her.
What are my moral responsibilities to her? Should I treat her like a child would a normal parent? I love her but she has hurt me every chance she has had and she is passive-aggressive and unappreciative and she tries to make me feel obligated to do for her and there is no pleasing her. If I don’t go the extra mile, should I feel guilty? Am I a bad person? She can be nice and we get along sometimes but there are always strings attached and underlying tension and hate from her.
What say you, Dan?
Why do we have special obligations to family members? I am inclined to think that it is because society as a whole inevitably cannot meet all the needs of every individual when they hit turbulent times as efficiently as smaller networks of people assigned to one another can. And so social institutions built around kinship serve this role of giving a great majority of people a relatively small set of people with whom they have shared special obligations and to whom it is morally accepted that they show some degree of socially tolerable favoritism. And this is reasonable given that, at least in parent-child relationships, there seem to be great natural psychological propensities towards love here, in most cases.
And since everyone owes their very lives to their parents’ genetic contributions and since most people grow up receiving immense amounts of care from their parents, especially during the early years in life when they are the most utterly dependent on others’ care, a very good case can be made that there is an enormous debt in terms of labor and money that most people owe their parents. We owe them our existence at a minimum, and we owe their contributions to our survival, our physical, emotional, and mental development, etc. We can never fully pay back this debt directly to our parents. It is the nature of things that most people wind up returning the favor of their parents’ care for them by “paying it forward” to the next generation. And one imagines that the care they give their own parents is comparable to the care they receive from their own children.
So, in this picture, what do you owe a terrible parent? What do you owe your mother, Julie? Were we not talking about your mother, the question would be open and shut. Anyone you do not have some special, overriding obligations to, who exploits and manipulates you and causes you emotional pain and tries to sabotage your life as badly as your mother has is someone you should feel no compunction about cutting out of your life. Anyone you don’t have overriding obligations to who behaves like this is someone you should feel no guilt about leaving behind. And even if you do have obligations to her, they are, at this point, formal ones, as far as I am concerned.
What I mean by this is that any obligations you might have are due to a respect for the value of having the institution of family as one where even the rottenest people are theoretically to be afforded some allies, or due to a respect for the fact that, neglectful as your mother was overall, she still invested some minimal modicums of care such that you were able to grow up and have a life and family of your own. These sorts of bare bones abstract considerations are alone what should tether you to her, if anything should.
But it is important to recognize that whatever your formal obligations might be to her in the abstract, when she engaged in outright malevolent, destructive behavior like trying to destroy your husband’s life with false, criminal accusations, you are pretty much absolved of any obligations to keep her in your life in any manner whatsoever. And I think that abusive, neglectful, and otherwise counter-productive parenting that harms children precisely where they are requiring care can make it so that the debt that might normally accumulate is simply not there. If parents did not give the care that normally incurs the debt, but instead fail to give the children what the children are minimally owed, then it is the parents who owe the children when all is said and done. And even people that on net we owe, say parents who overall did greater good than evil by us, should not be able to trap us on that technicality into being subject to exploitation or abuse. And even what you might owe her, we might reasonably, as I mentioned earlier, be considered “paid forward” to your own children and what she is owed from her children as a mother is little if the standard is what she paid to her own mother, on your accounting.
So only if you feel completely safe associating with her and can trust that in her current situation she has few realistic means of maliciously trying to injure your interests, should you even consider paying back whatever vestiges of debt you could reasonably consider yourself to have towards her as some one who at least raised you, however negligently, and towards whom you have at least a formal institutional connection to as a daughter.
As an unaffectionate, neglectful person who only took care of your basic needs (and sometimes only did so barely) when you utterly depended on her, and who owes you much more by way of nurturance than she will ever pay you, and who did not even return the debt she owed her own mother, you cannot conceivably owe her much more of a debt than to make sure that she does not fall completely through the cracks of the social and medical system as far as her basic needs are concerned. You may not even owe her that much morally. But just for the sake of erring on the side of moral scrupulousness, let’s assume you owe her something. Even then you certainly do not owe her any assistance that puts you at risk in any way or demands sacrifices from you in any way.
You do not owe her a full time commitment to be by her bedside and to assuage her every whim so that her stay in the hospital is as comfortable as possible. You do not need to put your life on hold or to put her needs over those of yourself, your children, your husband, your friends, or other family members.
There is nothing wrong or ungrateful about you if you do not feel much affection or sympathy towards her or if you deny her companionship. She has not been the source of love that you have needed and deserved. As someone who has been emotionally draining and a source of tension, hate, irrational guilt, and any number of other likely psychological anxieties and insecurities for you, it is not only perfectlyunderstandable but arguably much more rational if you do not feel strong feelings of love for her. To the extent that your emotions are in your control I advise you not to actively cultivate feelings of affection and attachment to her but to free yourself emotionally from her as much as is possible.
But this may be difficult for you since she is your mother. You shouldn’t feel guilt for not going the extra mile for her in caring for her but you may feel strongly inclined to do so anyway. If you wind up, because of these feelings, going beyond the minimum and taking care of her in more gracious and sacrificial ways that she does not deserve, do these things for your sake rather than hers. Do them so that your conscience, even the irrational or self-doubting part of it, is completely at ease and even feelsvindicated and proud, rather than uncertain. While it would be more rational to adjust your conscience so that it does not feel guilty over not investing in a destructive person, the second best thing is to be able to stamp out all potential for guilt by saying, “I did everything that could have been demanded of me even were my mother a good one and not a malignant influence in my life.”
If that makes it a bit easier to stave off the guilt than to have to remind yourself against irrational self-doubt why you didn’t owe your mother much, then for your own future emotional ease, it may be worth it to you to give her a bit more than she deserves in the meantime. If she does not have long to live, you can see this as one final ordeal to endure so that when she is gone you can have a clean conscience.
But if you go down this path, beware that there is another psychological risk. The more you do for her and yet recognize that she never reciprocates with genuine appreciation or no-strings-attached affection, the more that you might feel rejected in a painful way. On the one hand it is comforting to be able to say, “I did everything right and then some more, so it’s not my fault that she never reciprocated” and sleep nights with a clean conscience. But unfortunately, it might hurt you all the more if you crave your mother’s approval, affection, and nurturance if you say to yourself “I did everything right and yet still couldn’t get her to be proud of me and desire me for my own sake rather than for what she could use me for.” This is what is so destructive about her inability to love the people who are psychologically the most prone to get trapped craving her love. You have to look out for yourself and knowing your own mind think through which you are more likely to think and which thought will give you more suffering day by day and in the future when she is gone.
If time with her is only going to disappoint you more and more the more that it remains unfulfilling then it could be more emotionally damaging than it is worth in benefits to you. And in that case you have to cut her off. Or at least, if you cannot bring yourself to do that and you must keep visiting her, you should, without any compunction, walk out and go home with a brief, firm, civil explanation every time she introduces tension, hostility, and manipulation into your relationship by criticizing you, demanding of you, and passively aggressively poisoning your interactions. She needs to be trained to understand that the only terms on which you will spend time with her (if at all) will be ones where she does not try to get her claws into you to try to hurt you. You need to show her over and over again if necessary that you will simply not be manipulated. You will give her what you judge she deserves and if she does not like it she will get nothing at all.
The hard truth is that the only emotional solace you can reasonably hope to get from investing more energy into her at this point is the removal of any nagging doubts that you didn’t fulfill all of your obligations. Putting more work into her at this point can only prove to yourself that you are morally responsible even when you have cause to feel morally absolved beyond a shadow of a doubt and so you have no cause for guilt. But if you are inclined to put more work into her out of hopes that finally she is going to love you properly, then you are going to be disappointed and I do not think you should waste the effort. Probably the best you can accomplish is to merely train her to treat you formally with more respect by consistently refusing to be around her soon as she disrespects you. You still have the hard task in life of coming to terms with the fact that she is never going to be the mother you deserved. So, don’t do this expecting her to finally be a different person capable of caring about you.
In sum, I think that family, especially parents and children, have more obligations to one another than we would have towards others. With anyone else, unless they have some other extraordinary basis for obligating us, we can cut them off far more swiftly and thoroughly for mistreating us. With family we often accumulate greater debts and interconnections to one another and the family is culturally set up to be a valuable formal social relationship that serves a greater good to maintain as reliable and trustworthy in general, even when it hurts us somewhat individually. But when family, even parents or children, actively and maliciously try to hurt us and fail in their own obligations willfully and unrepentantly, we can feel absolved from obligations to them and even consider them to owe us more than we owe them. If we still want to honor the existence of abstract debts and to do our part to uphold the general institution of the family, and take care of a family member whom we have rights to abandon, we should only do so on terms we define and control in ways that put ourselves at no risk of emotional abuse or other harms and in ways that do not sacrifice our own flourishing or those of others to whom we have duties.
Anything more we opt to do should be for the sake of warding off even more damaging irrational guilt that we may not otherwise be able to shake emotionally. In other words, we should take care of them, if at all, only to assure that our own consciences feel no doubt so that we can move on without second guessing and take satisfaction in ourselves as at least done all we could. Feeling outright blameless, having been extra morally careful, can be an insurance policy against those who would exploit our scrupulous feelings irrationally and for making sure that any negative or missing positive emotions we have to suffer from the ungrateful are absolutely not our fault. But we have to be careful in what we do not to invest any of our energies with a false expectation that an unloving person will finally love us. If that is what motivates us, then we need to start preparing to move on from that unfairly disappointed dream.
I’ve been reading your blog for about 18 months now and really enjoy your work! I particularly like your clear reasoning and hope that you can help me with an issue, even though it might not be one of your major topics.
My problem concerns the relationship between me and my girl friend, Rachel, so here is a little bit about it:
We have been together for about 15 months now and in the past 2 months I have started to feel a little disconnected with her. I’m afraid that I might not be in love with her anymore. I do not feel the high I used to get when I met her and have gotten a little bit indifferent to her problems.
Yet still, I feel that she is a very important person in my life and I want to be there for her. Also I feel that I have found a person who I share a lot with, be it interests in life or values as to what is important to each of us.
Now I realize that things do not stay as they were in the beginning of a relationship forever and that not everything your partner does is cute or lovable after over a year of being together. However, I imagine a relationship to be more than being two good friends who have sex with each other. I feel that there should be something like the spark that is there in the beginning of a relationship. Maybe not the same feeling, but at least something similar.
I talked to her about it yesterday and she proposed that it might have something to do with the fact that she was so busy in the last months. She is in the 4th year of her PhD and has to publish two more papers within the next half year (one of which is submitted, at least). Further, she has had to go to lots of conferences lately. So she is really stressed and tired most of the time and we can hardly do anything nice together. Pretty much all we do together is watch TV and have dinner. I have tried to help her out, so she is a little less stressed. She proposed that her pulling the energy out of me was what might have changed my feelings, but I am really not sure.
On the one hand that is plausible to me, but on the other hand I’m not sure this is really the issue but that my feelings might have changed independently of that.
For example, I feel less attracted to her. Actually, I think of one of my coworkers during sex sometimes. Now this seems to be merely about sexual attraction for me. However, it tells me that my feelings for my girlfriend are not as strong as they used to be and that something is wrong.
So, ultimately, I am afraid that I do not love her anymore. I do not know whether this is just temporary, because my girlfriend was so consumed by her work and we did not do any fun activities in the past months; or whether this is about me being in the process of ceasing to love her, in which case I feel like I should break up with her. And yet the mere thought of ending our relationship hurts very much and it does not feel like the right thing.
I am having a really hard time trying to sort out my feelings and get a clear picture of what would be the right thing to do. Maybe one thing worth mentioning: This is my first real relationship with someone, my past ones being more like either wholly sexual relationships or a love that couldn’t be because I fell in love with a girl that was in a relationship. So, needless to say, I have no experience to help me in my decision.
Thank you already in advance for helping me out. I hope the topic isn’t too far from the topic of your blog.
Obviously, I cannot tell you, Edward, whether you should break up or not. Were you to raise these issues to me in a live consultation, I would focus primarily on asking you questions to guide you through a clarification of your own values, priorities, feelings, experiences, goals, beliefs, etc., so you could get a clearer idea for yourself of what to do.
What I can do is just lay out some philosophical considerations and questions that I think it would be valuable to incorporate into your thinking in a situation like this.
The first thing to keep in mind is that, as far as I can tell, there is no rush to make a decisive choice. It is counter-productive and a waste of time and energies for people to hang on to a relationship because of the inertia of familiarity and comfort with the status quo even when deep down they know it is wrong and have known that for a while. But your feelings have only been waning for what sounds like a short period, so there’s no need to prematurely worry about that problem. For the time being at least it sounds like the first thing you should keep in mind is what my dad reminded me when I contemplated leaving graduate school (and the scholarship paying for it) after my first semester: “You can always walk away, but you can’t always come back.” You can always end the relationship, but you can’t always regain it. So, it’s best to be really sure before you walk away.
And rather than fear that you may be wasting time (yours or hers), remember that especially if your months with her are numbered, they’re precious. This has been a watershed relationship in your life. This is one of the special ones. She is one of the special people in your life for good, unless something surprisingly takes a turn for the terrible. You will ideally have a fond place in your heart for her for the rest of your life. So even if this proves short lived, savor the time you have with her. Don’t take it for granted. Don’t waste it–especially if it is nearing the end.
But there is no need to assume it is nearing the end. It is normal for people in long term relationships to go through the lulls you describe and the 15 month mark you’re at is a perfectly normal place to be experiencing it for the first time. The loving feelingmight come back if you give it time. Many people in long term relationshipsdo experience such rebounds of feelings repeatedly. You already know you’re capable of chemistry with her, because you’ve had it, and you feel confident that you have the important ingredients on paper that make sense for a long term relationship. Don’t be hard on yourself for not feeling it for the time being. Don’t try, counterproductively, to force your feelings. You don’t want to turn feeling for her into a chore you have to do.
So, while your waning feelings may be a natural and healthy symptom that a finite relationship has run its course, it may be worth it before concluding that to first see if you can wait out your current feelings of lost excitement and see if you can have the new experience for you of rebounded desire connected to a more maturing, enduring kind of love. It’s possible, at least in theory—many couples experience it, so it’s probably worth a shot since you care so much about her. And if the feelings just never come back there’s no shame in just accepting that your first foray into “real love” was successful for a time but not ultimately the right thing. That does not have to mean that you are hopelessly unfit to commitment without boredom. But first I would give trying to see if feelings come back through a willingness to actively prioritize Rachel as special works. You have never had a committed long term relationship before so it is probably worth seeing if for the first time you can not only fall in love but also fall back in love the way people in long term relationships often need to. This is unexplored territory for you and so probably worth the emotional experiment if nothing else. That’s my guess about where the most potential growth and self-discovery is for you right now, going on what you said in your letter.
Consistent with not demanding of yourself any particular feelings, remember that a committed relationship is about highly prioritizing someone else’s needs and happiness irrespective of how you feel any given day. Love is easy when it’s motivated by passion but we need to be willing to still behave lovingly even when we lack that particular propeller and need to rely on our sense of commitment instead. Should the day come that you become convinced the relationship is not right, then you don’t have to remain committed. But for as long as you are with her, give it all you have and do not become resentful if, for certain periods and for understandable reasons, you need to pick up some slack while she’s got more on her plate than you do. Focus on the value of who she is and what your relationship means to you and just do the right things by her out of appreciation for all that, without keeping a scorecard.
You will know you’re in trouble when you find yourself promising her lots of your energy, and trying to convince yourself that you will come through like someone that loves her, but winding up implicitly falling through over and over again and pushing her away in the process. This may be starting in that you say you’re already becoming a bit indifferent to her needs. If that starts coming out in behaviors of talking up to yourself and her just how enthusiastic you are about coming through for her but no longer following through like you are now, then that could be a bad sign.
The first priority I think you have here is to honor your relationship with her while you are still in a relationship with her. I would advise against indulging in fantasizing about your co-worker while you are with your girlfriend, unless that’s something she is comfortable with. Presuming that Rachel’s feelings are typical, she likely would be hurt to know that you are resorting to sexually thinking about someone else in order to become aroused for sex with her. Unless it’s a mutual activity like watching pornography together or stimulating one another by sharing fantasies or stories of your encounters with others, or it’s something you talk about and both feel okay about, etc., she would probably feel some sort of rejection or jealousy to know that secretly you are arousing yourself with the thought of others when you are with her. And while these fantasies are, I am assuming, hidden in your mind right now, they are likely still objectively a form of betrayal to her, whether she is aware they’re happening or not, since she probably wouldn’t like it. Your times being sexually intimate with her should be about the two of you connecting and, while there may be healthy ways to bring in the thought of other people or maybe even bring actual other people into the situation, mutuality is important to that being healthy.
And this brings me to a broader point. If your previous sexual relationships with women have been focused around sex and not love, your mind may be simply habituated to moving on after a certain amount of sexual familiarity. You may be prone to boredom or have created an expectation of a short cycle with any given person. If long-term monogamy is a goal of yours, it is conceivable that a rehabituation of your mental habits may be in order. You didn’t mention whether you are also watching pornography on the side. It could be that in your mind your girlfriend has a lot of competition for your sexual mental space and, as only one inevitably imperfect flesh and blood person, she may not be able to satiate you if your mind is habituated to incessant variation. While there is nothing inherently wrong (and much potentially recommendable) about sexual variety in partners or fantasies over the course of one’s life, if you want your sex life with your girlfriend right now to be its most exciting so that that can contribute to feeling excited about her generally, then you might need to discipline yourself to focus less on sexual prospects outside of her in order that your brain more closely associates its sexual pleasure with her and revolves its excitement around her more and appreciates her more. Alternatively, you might just give up on passion with her for a period, fantasize about others when she’s not around, and then with that out of your system return to a full time focus on her after some mental space. But I worry that that has more risk of taking you away from her emotionally rather than back to her where you sound like you want to be.
From your descriptions of previously only loving in cases where you couldn’t have someone and not being in love with the people you could have, it sounds possible that you feel generally more excited by the prospect of what you can’t have than what you can. Whereas long term monogamy–assuming this is your ultimate goal, whether with Rachel or someone else down the road–is going to require you learning to be excited by what you have.
If you’re worried that if you don’t resort to fantasizing about your coworker you’ll not even be able to perform sexually and risk making your girlfriend feel worse that way, I think that that’s a risk worth taking. That might force a conversation you need to have. It’s worth being proactive about talking to her about ways to counter monotony in the bedroom. Those skills of communication and collaboration will be key if you want a long term fulfilling sexual relationship with a woman (monogamously or not) for many years.
The next thing to consider is what is really going on when you think about your shared interests and values. Those are great things to build a relationship on. But, of course, in countless cases they only work on paper. Were any of us set up with any number of people who happened to share our interests and our values, how many would actually also have chemistry with us? Chemistry is the key intangible variable. You have to figure out whether you can have it for the long term. If you don’t, what works on paper may not be enough.
But I take it you did have chemistry for a solid 13 months and now the pressures of life are intervening and overwhelming. So, there’s hope that that’s all that is changing things. But there are a few things to think about. First of all, the pressures of life will keep intervening. She or you may regularly be too busy to spend a ton of together time for long stretches in future years. So, I doubt it’s a good idea to just think about this as a stage you can get through barely before going on to being happy in the future again because things are just easier again. Were I you, I would see this as an opportunity to develop and test long term effective techniques and habits for maximizing the value of your time together during the inevitable periods in which life is tough and demanding on your relationship.
Analyze the time and the energy each of you do have and ways you can make more out of it. If you have time and energy she doesn’t have, you can also think of ways to use that to make things better for when she does have time. Pitch in to minimize her chores that might eat at her free time and energy, prepare special activities for when she’s available to enjoy them, etc. Also consider ways you might be able to rearrange your schedules so that you capitalize on periods of peak energy (maybe in the morning?) or inevitably unproductive periods of the day. Even if you’re going to watch a lot of TV and eat a lot of dinners there are ways to make that time more special by being more deliberate, even if it’s just choosing better what you watch or what you eat! And there are low energy but highly rewarding ways to spend quality time if she’s very tired.
If you believe that the connection you have with her is precious and hard to replace and that the ways you line up are much more than a paper calculation, and it feels so wrong (as you describe) to imagine not being with her, then proactively work on weeding out her competitors from your sexual imagination and start deliberately making the most of what time and energy she realistically has for you. Concentrate on what you have. You don’t want to wind up letting her go and only then intensifying your feelings again because you can’t have her. Even if this is ending, you had might as well savor her while you still have her in your life so in the meantime concentrate on that as a way to appreciate her again. Knowing a good thing is going to end intensifies it for us. If after a few more months of that you wind up feeling like you are going through the motions for someone that you fundamentally don’t care enough about to put so much concentration into and someone whom you are no longer sexually and romantically excited by, then you might reconsider taking a break and opening up to seeing other people. And then you will figure out whether you miss her enough that you really do care after all, or are ready to genuinely move on from her. And she’ll work out the same. But in that case, be prepared for the possibility she finds she can move on while you find that you can’t. So remember again, “you can always walk away but you can’t always come back.” That has to be forefront in your mind before deciding to break up, even provisionally.
Levi writes in with a difficult, nuanced problem:
Dear Dr Fincke,
I just recently found out that someone I will be housemates with fairly soon is an extremely religious Christian of the homophobic, anti-choice, etc. variety. I am a bisexual atheist — and we’re past the point where either of us could back out of the lease without losing a fair amount of money. On the one hand, perhaps it won’t be a problem, because I’ve known her for a while and never realized she’s this religious (so maybe she can keep it to herself). I grew up among fundamentalists and my family is quite religious, so I know how to live and let live when necessary.
But I don’t particularly want to go back to the days when I felt uncomfortable and unwelcome as a queer atheist in my own house. I don’t have a problem with religious people, despite being one of the dreaded New Atheists, but I do have a problem living with someone who thinks that my rational opinions and sexual identity are the work of the devil and deserve eternal punishment.
Obviously, I need to talk to her, because I highly doubt, given what I’ve learned, that she’d agree to live with me if she were aware of my atheism and bisexual lifestyle. But this opens another can of philosophical worms, because I feel on principle that our culture, particularly the “coming out” culture and its closet metaphor, too often places the burden of “coming out” on the marginalized person.
I’m out, both in my atheism and my sexual orientation. Yet people are continually expecting me to come out, yet again, to them. Which is only a real problem when my friends start pressuring me to talk to this future housemate, because it would be unethical or unfair of me not to inform her of my sexual identity and atheism before moving in– and yet don’t see that I was just as uninformed of her religious inclinations. I know it’s petty of me, but after dealing with this for years, I’d like, just once, for the burden of this to be placed on the straight, Christian friend. But my real, less petty, worry is relatedly that I don’t want my identity, as the “abnormal” one to be the one which, in some sort of live-and-let-live arrangement we come up with, is forced to be kept more hidden (I’ve dealt with the whole
“you can be out but don’t bring any LGBT friends over” attitude before). Neither, of course, do I want to ask her to keep religion in her room or whatever so as to “get even” or some sort of nonsense like that.
So question is how to, first, approach the topic and, second, negotiate some kind of agreement whereby neither of us has to abdicate our identities and principles, but also where the more marginalized identity is not the one expected to stay closeted.
Again, if this doesn’t fit the bill of “philosophical advice” feel free to ignore and move on.
Thanks for your time! (And your blog — long time lurker.)
I think the most important part of this issue to you sounds like your very good desire to challenge the power dynamic and moral assumptions whereby you would be the one who has to run yourself by the religious person for approval as an acceptable roommate. You risk being rejected in a way that is repulsive and unfair. But if you don’t mention your orientation or your atheism and work this out in advance you risk the extremely upsetting scenario of having to walk on eggshells in your own home–something I think you should see doing as a last resort. So, how can you flip the power dynamic or at least equalize it?
This may vary depending on how many people total are moving in. Let’s say there is at least one more person in addition to the two of you. If there is and your other housemate is pro-LGBT then this may be relatively easy. The two of you can be fairly straightforward and say, it is come to light that you hold views like that being gay is sinful. While you are entitled to your conscience, we want to make clear that Levi might have boyfriends or people unabashed about being LGBT in general over and that has to be something you’re comfortable with if you’re going to be able to live here. In this case, she’s the one being asked to either be tolerant or not be part of the equation. You two represent the dominant norm and it is up to her to accommodate herself to this dominant social, moral standard, rather than for you to ask permission to her.
Now if there is just the two of you, there’s a more equalized scenario for which I would recommend a different strategy since if there’s just two of you you can’t frame this as “we’re in agreement this will be the way of the house, either accept it or back out”, which would conveniently put all the pressure to conform on her. Or, alternatively, even if there are more people, this second strategy still may be preferable because it is a way to exert less overall pressure and be more compassionate and reasonable and equitable.
This second path is to drop the fact of your bisexuality out nonchalantly like it’s no big deal and like you expect her not to be phased. In other words, you act like the norm is already one in which you are fully respected and equal and have nothing to formally “come out” about. So, you can do something like ask all the housemates, or just the two of you if it’s only you two, to get together to go over house rules in advance because when people don’t do that they have greater conflicts down the road. In going over the house rules, you can nonchalantly say, “Okay, what should be our policy on guests and noise and use of the common spaces. Like, what if we both are going to have our boyfriends over at the same time…” Saying something like that presents you as so convinced of the normalcy and legitimacy and equality of your having a boyfriend just like she would that you are just assuming she will roll with it. This puts subtle pressure on her to accept it. People tend to want to agree with others, especially with values. You put it on her to make an issue of it.
But if she makes an issue of it under this circumstance and says you can’t be housemates, then, again, like in the previous scenario, it’s her religious problem that makes her the one who walks away. You are just living under the new and morally improved conventions in which this should not even be a controversial question that you are entitled to have boyfriends (and have them over). Now, there is no avoiding this: you risk being treated unfairly. Under any scenario, her finding out in advance means her rejecting living with you out of bigotry. Under some scenarios where she finds out after you’ve moved in together, you risk living feeling judged in your own home. I think that last feeling, of not being able to comfortably express your sexuality and your religious views in your own home is likely far less tolerable than finding out in advance someone is too bigoted to live with you.
In both of these scenarios, both the confrontational one and the nonchalant one, the key is to frame things in such a way that it is undeniable and non-negotiable that the norm for your house is that you will express your sexuality as freely as were you heterosexual. Either this is done by coordinating with another housemate to affirm accepting this as the precondition of living in the apartment in the first place. Or this is done by tacitly accepting her religiosity and acting as though you simply assume she will accommodate your bisexuality. This all puts the onus on her to come out explicitly to you as a homophobe if that’s what she chooses. If it matters enough for her to do so, then she will. If it doesn’t, then she may be in for some internal wrestling but now you have the leverage if after moving in she starts passive aggressively showing disapproval or outright complaining. If it was all clear in advance, you can shut that stuff down by saying, “Well you knew in advance and I’m not changing for you.” And having clarified it all in advance, you will probably feel all the more emboldened to assert yourself because you will be in the right.
This means that you may want to creatively imagine house rules to discuss that are general enough that they don’t sound like they’re built around protecting your right to be openly queer with openly queer friends but that unambiguously involve that. Other rules might be: “How do we deal with debates over religious or political between us?” Negotiating that can be done nice and abstractly. That’s not something uniquely a problem for LGBT folks. It is an issue of “do you want to make home a safe space away from such conflicts?” (I have a terrible memory the semester I deconverted in college of getting into bed only to have my roommate prod me over how I had any reason to be moral whatsoever. It was like, “I can’t be free from this even in my bed??”) So, establish how comfortable you guys both are with debates in general and where your boundaries will be. And that’s a great way to feel out how openminded she’ll be. It’s a great excuse to nonchalantly and on equal ground point out important things about yourself as part of just “revealing your politics” rather than “confessing your questionable sexuality for approval”.
Another rules discussion that can reveal yourself and potential issues in an even ground way: “What should be our take on using the common living areas to have friends over to discuss potentially controversial ideas? Like, what if you want to have a Bible study or I want to plan an LGBT awareness event? Should we let each other do that even if it will make each other uncomfortable with some of what we say?” In that case it is up to her in advance to decide what matters more to her: her ability to hold a Bible study or her ability to stop you from having a pro-gay themed discussion. She might opt to say “no discussions of controversial ideas in the living room”. If that’s the case then you decide if you want to put up with that. But if you do, at least it’s a rule that will be fairly applied. It won’t be you being restricted technically because you’re gay, but it will be a truce with an ideological opponent, formally similar to whether the issue was just Republican or Democrat.
In exchange for your not having activist meetings at home, she will be sacrificing something comparably important to her potentially, the right to have religious themed get-togethers. You may rightly walk over that. But if you choose to live with it, it’s knowing that she has to make a comparable sacrifice, so you’re not being treated as lesser in that way. And if you walk over it, it’s because a compromise in dealing with conflicting ideologies couldn’t be worked out. I hope that doesn’t feel as directly like being rejected just for being bisexual. But, again, that invidious rejection is an inevitable possibility somehow in all of this.
Terry writes me with the following quandary:
I have been reading and enjoying your blog about converting FROM Christianity, and it has really startled my viewpoints and way of thinking. You see, I am a teenager with a difficult problem that seems very similar to yours. I am set to be a Christian camp counselor in the summer, but I really struggle with ‘blind-faith’. My constant analysis of Christianity has given me mental turbulence. My father has always influenced me. He used to be an extremely devout Christian, but has since deconverted and is currently a Zen Buddhist. I constantly flip-flop between passionate love for God, and hostility. Currently, I am devoid of passion for God…but I am set to be a Christian leader! How can I honestly try to convert children and minister to others when I have such a shaky faith? I don’t feel comfortable sharing this with anyone, especially anyone else who works at the summer camp… I fear that I will lose my job and be shunned out. What should I do? I hope that I have been clear with my problem, and if not, then please ask questions so that I can clarify.
Your struggle sounds remarkably reminiscent of mine during my last summer as a Christian. What a terrible quandary I was in. It sounds like you are not yet at the place of certain disbelief as you phrased this as a matter of your passion for God waning, rather than your belief. Either that or you do disbelieve but as a Christian you are still not facing this full on, for whatever reasons. So you are conceptualizing this in terms of loss of passion.
My ultimate advice is that you eventually embrace your doubts, study philosophy, science, and history attentively, and just generally explore life and ideas outside the confines of what Christianity insists of you. I am very grateful and hopeful that you are already reading my stuff with an open mind and that you are willing to reach out to someone like me for advice.
As to your worries about alienation, it can be very difficult to lose your Christian community. A lot of ex-Christians suffer quite a bit. All I can say is that it is very much worth it for the sake of the truth, the numbers of out of the closet atheists and communities for them grow by the day, there are tremendous resources for connecting to other atheists online thanks to social media (if you friend me on Facebook, for example, I can get you friended up with dozens of atheists in no time), it is very much better that you leave the Christian community sooner rather than later in your life, and, seriously, you don’t want to spend your whole life in a community that makes you dread being honest for fear of ostracism. That’s a cult, not a place where you are going to grow intellectually, morally, or spiritually.
There are atheistic religious options (and again more are being cultivated) if you fear you will miss various experiential aspects of being part of a church. You can attend a Universalist church that will not judge you for your doubts. You can explore various forms of Buddhism rationalistically (as your dad might be doing). And there are ethical culture societies and other Humanist groups you might be in touch with.
But, as to the summer, I understand if you feel like you cannot leave your faith and back out of being a camp counselor immediately. I understand your anxieties of dealing with the summer. I have been there in such an eerily similar position. An untold number of deconverting Christians have been in positions of leadership struggling immensely with this conflict.
Here is my advice for them. When I deconverted, I didn’t feel good about much of any of my work spreading Christianity. It made me feel like not only was my life spent not promoting the genuine good but it was spent promoting the opposite of what was really good. It made me feel really empty of meaningful accomplishments up to that point in my life. Now this wasn’t entirely true. There is tangible non-cognitive good you can do even when you are ostensibly promoting false beliefs. You can provide emotional support, teach people some things which are true, help people exercise their minds, role model virtues for people in any number of ways, etc., even while what you’re saying is technically quite false, morally dubious, and overall counterproductive to getting life right. So, you can focus on what good there is even amidst the falsehood if you come down on the side that your current beliefs have been a sham.
So, what’s my advice about being a camp counselor while suffering from these doubts? If you feel like you must do it because there is no time to back out and you are not yet ready emotionally to deal with the consequences of having many people you love backlash against you for your disbelief, then at least straighten out in your mind what is most core to what you believe about values. What are the most important value priorities? What values do you know in your guts will remain most important to you whether you believe in God or not? What values are so important that they transcend religious affiliations and belief structures in general? When you meet people of different faiths or no faith, what kinds of attitudes about how to treat others and how to make a just world are most important to you for finding common ground with them despite your differences? What values, if we all truly lived by them, would make the most people thrive to their maximum and be their happiest, independent of whether or not their beliefs were right?
Whatever those values are, teach them this summer. Teach them to others and to yourself. Meditate on them, study how they can be implemented the best possible, internalize them deep into your guts. Study them and teach them to others, whether you are a camp counselor or not. Study them, constantly reexamine them critically to make sure they are correct, and for as long as they prove to be good and for as long as you improve upon your understanding of them, teach them with your whole life.
If you are uncertain of the truth of your faith, you don’t have to convert anyone to it. You can use all your teaching opportunities as chances to use the Bible and the Christian tradition to talk about your actual core values that you won’t regret having promulgated. You can shy away as much as possible from committing to hard propositional claims about the truth of this or that specific, fanciful Christian doctrine.
You never have to corner a kid and pressure her into believing. When I was a camp counselor, I was in my very early 20s and my campers were in their teens. I had to do “one on ones” with them. While others used those to try to wring conversions out of the kids however possible, I usually used them just to counsel the kids about whatever their problems were. When I had a Hindu camper, I didn’t try to convert him, I just did comparative religion with him. Sat down and listened to him about what his faith was all about and told him what Christianity was all about, and together we figured out what we had in common and where the core abstract philosophical differences between the two faiths really lay.
There are any number of ways you can have meaningful positive, open ended discussions about genuine values problems even if you are constrained to wrapping it up in Christian myths and metaphors and language. You can at least commit to speaking truths–if not the literal truth for the time being.
Even were you in the position of being asked to give an altar call and tell people explicitly to come up and commit themselves to Jesus (which kind of makes me feel dirty to give my blessing to you to do!), there are ways to frame what coming to Jesus is about. Why not give a speech about how following Jesus is going to mean really not judging others as he says not to judge or really caring about the poor as he insists over and over. Tell people not to come up and commit if they are not going to live up to that but be like so many legalistic Pharisees in the church. You can find Jesus’s own words and lean on them and no Christian will be able to interrupt your altar call to complain. But, hopefully, being only a teenager, you won’t be asked to give altar calls. And really you should avoid accepting any assignments that involve that kind of thing. You can bow out of them with a bit of literal honesty about not feeling spiritually right about it, even if you can’t explain why. People may not understand but may honor that honesty.
So, my advice is figure out what you really think the truths about values are that you feel so comfortable promulgating that you will not regret having inculcated or reinforced them in people even should your beliefs change. And only really talk about those values, regardless of what your outward Christian formulations are. Be as truthful as you can in that sense for as long as you are committed to Christian employment. But then as soon as you can get away from responsibilities to that Christian camp, go work out what you think in private without teaching anyone.
Don’t live a lie. There is no need to, long term. You may have other complications in the meantime. Your dad sounds likely hospitable to your leaving the faith. I don’t know about your mom. I don’t know about your town. But in time you should have recourse to at least stop going to church if not openly declaring yourself a non-believer, assuming that’s where you wind up. And if that’s the case, there are many atheists out there to connect with. You won’t have to be alone.
1. Your desires for love and sex are good and your frustrations at not having these things don’t make you merely entitled objectifiers of women. You’re not pathological creeps or unlovable simply for loving women who do not happen to love you back. You’ve had it drummed into your head that you can earn love just by proving yourself to be a good guy and treating a woman like gold. You can’t. Don’t set up your expectations like that. While, yes, we should have a society where people love and admire others for their good character and for being good friends–and, yes, such good people deserve romantic love and sex if they want these things–no particular person owes you romantic or sexual love.
Turn your frustration into asking more structural and global questions instead of irrationally just creating counter-productive hostilities towards women as a whole class of people. How do good people successfully get the love they deserve already? Do you know any good people who found someone who appreciated them? Find out how that actually happened. What innovative ways can we change our norms so all people, regardless of their social awkwardness, have better shots of finding genuine love more readily? And, in your own life, what are the best positions you can put yourself in to find the kind of person who would naturally appreciate you in your own idiosyncratic particularity?
2. Understand that the women who have rejected you are not to blame. Nobody can ever be blamed for just not feeling romantic chemistry. And no amount of begging or pleading is ever going to make those feelings materialize. They can’t be bargained for. And it’s a crappy thing to do to accuse someone of having character flaws for simply not feeling it for you. I have been there, over and over and over again. Unrequited love is excruciating. But just because you’re in pain doesn’t mean anyone’s to blame. And we need to learn to stop our emotions from leaping from being hurt (which we’re all entitled to feel) to imputing to those who happen to hurt us the willful desires to harm us. We have to repeat in the mirror a million times that just because we were hurt by not being loved the way we yearned for doesn’t mean the women we loved had any intention or moral failing or lack of self-understanding that led them to hurt us. They just didn’t feel it and just because we’re in pain doesn’t mean anyone is to blame. End of story.
3. Stop putting women on pedestals. I understand the temptation to think that by idealizing women and romanticizing how you’ll treat them like princesses you’re doing the right thing and rejecting treating them like sex objects. Been there, brother. The problem is that it’s an overcorrection in the other extreme. It puts too much pressure on women (or anyone) to be idealized like that. By spending your friendships with women building them up in your mind to be super beings you set yourself up to be disappointed and resentful when they wind up being only human. Especially when, in their mere humanity, they just don’t happen to respond to your virtues as you imagine such a moral super being should. Women beingpeople means women are just people. The less you fall into hastily romanticizing everything about a particular woman or about women in general, the more you will be able to see them for who they are and calibrate more realistic expectations in your relationships with them as distinct individuals.
4. Stop treating women as all psychologically the same. Women are all individual people. There is no secret code to uncracking “the” mind of all women. They don’t all want the same things and they don’t all need the same things. And trying to strategize relating to them like it’s a game is not the path to the authentic relationship you ostensibly want. And it doesn’t matter if hundreds or thousands of women don’t find you to be their cup of tea, or even treat you badly, they don’t represent all women. There are always more women out there and they have the full spectacular range of human personalities just like men do.
I’ve been epically horribly mistreated by a couple of women I’ve been romantically involved with. And yes, that hurt. Excruciatingly. I wound up taking quite a few years away from dating at one point in order to recover. I just lost all motivation to date and in all likelihood it was because my heart just couldn’t risk suffering like that again very quickly. But that doesn’t mean I’ve ever gone back into dating assuming the next woman will be just like the women who hurt me. Sure if they actually act like those women, that makes sense to respond to the warning signs! But if they don’t act like those other women, there’s no need at all to expect them to be like those other women. They’re not all robots from the same manufacturer. They’re individuals. And just like in all other interactions in life you treat each person as an individual with a distinct personality and calibrate your expectations based on their specific personality, your focus with women should be no different. Who is this woman? What does she want? What is her character like? Trying to figure out “Women” is counter-productive to paying attention to the specific women you deal with and it’s certainly the wrong way to move on openheartedly from the women who simply weren’t right for you.
5. Stop falling in love when it’s not mutual. If you find a woman attractive, see if she’ll spend time with you. Drop hints she can take or leave that you have some interest in her and don’t get emotionally invested until she reciprocates those indications. After college I stopped suffering from gut wrenching unrequited loves by following this simple rule. I have just enjoyed flirting with women, going on dates, being friends with them, having casual sex with them if they wanted, etc. And in the context of just getting to know women with no expectations from them, I have picked up on hints when they’ve liked me and been able to decide whether I was romantically interested or not. After roughly a dozen gruelingly heart wrenching unrequited loves from ages 11 years old until 21, I’ve nearly thoroughly avoided them from 21 until almost 37 now. My only heartbreaks since have been from failed relationships and a case where a woman gave the signals, I developed feelings in response, and then she quickly went cold. Other than that, I’ve not let my heart get attached ahead of what’s been reasonable.
I don’t put any more stock in a woman than she gives me good warrant to believe it is rational to invest. No matter how much I like a woman as a person, enjoy my rapport with her, or (even) like having sex with her, I keep her emotionally at arms length until I get clear signals that she really wants something else. And how can you tell those signals? She’ll send them. And she’ll usually make them clearer and clearer in increments if it takes you an especially long time to see them. And the one time that I really came close to a devastating crush and knew I couldn’t be friends with a particular woman because I was falling way too fast for her and she was not reciprocating, I just stayed away from even a friendship with her. It was unrealistic and not worth the heartache. Unrequited love is not your friend. If a relationship is real and is going to happen, it will happen when the chemistry is mutual. If you don’t trust yourself to only feel the chemistry when it’s mutual (as I don’t) then do as I have done and just flirt and casually date and be friends with women and temper your emotions so they synch with what the women are indicating to you is realistic.
6. Understand that romantic love is a sexual kind of love, rather than simply friendship with the reward of sex, and that that’s okay. For various good reasons there is a lot of anxiety that people not use each other for sex. And we all know that physical attraction is the most superficial level of attraction and the most on the end of the scale that involves objectifying people (and objectifying women in particular, given our culture’s attitudes). So I get the temptation to think chaste friendship love is inherently more virtuous than sexual love. And sex can sometimes emotionally bond you to someone who is wrong for you. So, it’s tempting to think that it’s just smarter to make sure you really like someone without having sex or romance with them before deciding to go down that road and risk marrying someone you’re actually incompatible with. My hunch though is that it can be an overcorrection to sterilize your relationship with a potential partner by completelydesexualizing it too. I think it’s possible that some relationships that might have had a spark under different circumstances smother the potential for that by framing it as friendship too long.
And, on the opposite end of the spectrum, when you do have feelings for someone and yet you’re not consummating them physically or even with a chaste romance, you can wind up making your feelings that much more intense from frustration and fantasy and idealization. So, yes, you can have sex and bond too quickly. But on the flip side you can also be hyped up on frustration that a friendship isn’t turning romantic or that a romance isn’t turning sexual and start confusing your intense desire for a relationship or for sex into an overestimation of the rightness of the person you want. Sometimes through sex you can dispel a haze of misleading horniness that keeps you from seeing the other person realistically. I have often called sex the “truth serum” since sometimes after sex with someone I find that my interest in them really does dissipate and other times I find that it only intensifies. It’s not the whole truth–you can sexually attach to someone you’re not really compatible with and have inadequate rapport with for a long term relationship–but it’s a helpful part of figuring out what you really get from this other person. Sex is not the reward for being good, in the early stages of a relationship it’s partly an experiment through which you get to know and assess someone as a potential long term partner.
For these reasons, it’s simply best to accept that each relationship has its own organic pace. And that means sometimes you will feel the chemistry and rush several paces physically and emotionally very quickly. And just because it’s partly “infatuation” and “superficial” attraction does not mean that it can’t also be something that involves enduring chemistry, rapport, compatibility, and friendship too. And some other relationships will start as flirty friendships for a few months before the stars align and things start to happen. There’s nothing more or less virtuous about the one way rather than the other. And just because people take romantic shots on people because something about them is viscerally attractive in first impressions doesn’t mean that those people are superficial and only attracted to looks or assertiveness. It just means that there are some people our brains quickly assess as carrying themselves or speaking or dressing themselves, etc., in ways that might indicate some good things about who they are.
And, yes, it’s comforting to know off the bat that we find them physically appealing since (for most of us) sex is ideally an integral part of how romantic love would be eventually expressed, enjoyed, and cultivated. Knowing you hit it off with someone in terms of basic attractiveness of manner and appearance is as good a reason as anyone to at least give someone a shot with something as non-committal as a date. There’s nothing shallow about any of that. Dates are non-committal. And the “verdicts” on where you stand with someone come way more quickly when you actually go on dates, with all the explicit connotations that you’re considering each other as romantic prospects involved, than if you try to have a friendship first. If you’re romantically interested already you should either be seeing if they want to date already. If they don’t, it’s better to know that sooner rather than later when your heart is over-committed and it’s harder to let go. Dating allows this sort of hastened assessment and really can spare a ton of unnecessary pain.
7. Focus on cultivating yourself to be an excellent person above all things. Everyone (from PUAs to feminists and everyone in between) will tell you (rightly) that people are attracted to confidence. Even more than that, they’re attracted to excellence. And developing personal excellence will also make you confident. And it will usually put you into environments in which you will perform excellently and attract admirers to your excellence. This isn’t a straight line, unfortunately. It is possible to be excellent but hidden from view. But in my experience, the less I have focused on looking for women and the more I have focused on developing my projects, cultivating my abilities, and working on my personal character, the more women have come looking for me. Remarkably, I’m fatter than I’ve ever been and I’m in a precarious financial position for someone at my age, and yet it doesn’t matter–more good, smart, attractive women have taken a proactive interest in me of late than ever before.
There are plenty of good women out there who really do appreciate virtuous men for their virtues and who really want what they say when they talk about wanting a man who is respectful and caring and kind. If you really focus on those virtues and not on picking out in advance which woman you are determined to get to appreciate them, in time you should have pretty good odds of finding love.
8. Accept that you are only looking for one close romantic and sexual partner at a time. Or if you’re polyamorous you’re still just looking for a relative few at a time. This means that you don’t have to connect with everyone. It’s okay that you’re not connecting with countless people with that elusive combination of explosive sexual, romantic, and friendship chemistry. The number you need to connect with to eventually wind up deeply satisfied is really small! If marriage is what you want you’re probably just looking for one person, right? So, don’t try to become what everyone wants or advertise yourself as what you think women want. Just figure out who you’re most comfortable being and find someone who digs you like that. Don’t try to change so everyone will like you (which is impossible and will leave you dissatisfied). Be defiantly, idiosyncratically, and (most of all) excellently you, the best possible version of you. And if you’re lucky, some day someone who drives you wild will look at you and say “Finally! The weirdo I’ve been looking for my whole life!”
9. And even if you do all of the above and are unlucky in love, as some of the best of us truly are, at least you will be your best self and connected as possible to other people who you like and who mirror your virtues at your best and who make for great friends. You will have the room in your life for more rich friendships than those intensely in one central relationship often wind up having. You’ll likely have more passion and energy available to fuel more personal projects. You can learn the joy of being someone who looks for what opportunities he has and who lightly moves on to the next one when each particular one doesn’t pan out. You can learn how to stop investing all your hopes in any one person or life situation saving you. You can end the cycle of disappointment, resentment, and counter-productive bitternesses that comes with investing your heart and your expectations in what is not guaranteed to you. In love, and then in all of life, you can constantly turn your head away from looking backward with frustration and self pity, to constantly looking forward with an eye for what possibilities still lay before you if only you pay attention to what you can control and what you can try to have rather than what you can’t control or can’t have.
It is absolutely possible to have a meaningful life without a romantic partner or without anything else you might myopically convince yourself is the be all end of existence. I’ve lived a good number of years happily single (barely looking if at all) and rather investing in numerous friends and looking proactively for enriching opportunities in other areas of my life wherever I could find them. Those have without a doubt usually been among the happiest and most fulfilled years of my life.
It’s okay to be single, even in perpetuity, if you don’t find one of the possible people truly right for you. It’s far better than the soul-sucking alienation than being with the wrong person.
For more about the friend zone and my take on debates about it, see the larger post this is excerpted from here.
I’m an atheist. I was raised as a Christian but deconverted in my early twenties when I realized that I didn’t have sufficient evidence to support my beliefs. Since then I’ve tried to adopt a consistent and rational way of looking at the world and I’ve tried to remain intellectually honest. I’m struggling with something right now and I feel like I’m letting myself down in that aspect, at least in the intellectual honesty department, and I could use the perspective of a clear-thinking secular person like yourself.
I’ve come to the conclusion that I want to be religious, at least in a manner or speaking. I want to perform rituals like chanting, praying, or making offerings. I also want to belong to a group of at least somewhat like-minded people who are doing the same things, so it needs to be in the context of some already-established tradition. I see some benefit to this kind of practice in people I know, even if everything is happening on a psychological level rather than some sort of “spiritual” one.
This seems to conflict with my desire for rationality to be my guide to truth. Invariably, there would be some aspects of any of these traditions that I’d be unable to accept as true. I’d have to view the gods as representations of nature or as something going on inside my own head rather than as real beings existing outside myself. I’d have to view stories as useful myths rather than as factual history. I’d have to paint every supernatural element as some sort of metaphor or useful tool rather than as being the truth. It seems like too much of a hassle to be worthwhile, but I think I’m willing to do it.
By adding this metaphorical spiritual level over what I consider to be natural or psychological phenomena, I’m not sure if I’m “betraying” rationality or not. I’m also concerned that this would be viewed as evidence that people “need” religion to live a fulfilled life.
I’d appreciate any thoughts you have.
Shawn, I think there is nothing to be ashamed of about in your desires for the kinds of good things that people experience in religious communities, practices, services, ceremonies, etc. I do not think they necessarily have to conflict with the ideals of rationality and intellectual honesty in any way. And you are not alone in longing for them. Unfortunately, mass consciousness raising movements often do best by appealing to people’s resentments. Anger is a powerfully motivating tool. And so the atheist movement has gotten tremendous mileage by appealing to atheists’ bitternesses towards religion. Appealing to how atheists feel like maligned outcasts and pointing out the encroachment of faith into our science classrooms and religious laws into our bedrooms have been fantastic ways to rally atheists together and to raise a consciousness of atheist identity.
But we atheists are much more than our anger. We are much more than what we reject. And many of us are increasingly cognizant that religions have been ripping people off for centuries not just by selling them counter-productive falsehoods but also by monopolizing, exploiting, and perverting powerfully important aspects of normal human psychology. Religious rituals, practices, communities, etc. are pitched directly at very real needs and real cravings of human hearts and minds. Religions would not grip so many human hearts for so many centuries had they not been tapping into something real in people. There is nothing remotely irrational about wanting those needs and cravings met.
If we are to be intellectually honest and rational we need to confront the ways that our brains are emotional, social, and physical. We need to accept that our bodies are part of how we engage with the world. While Christianity infamously disparages the body, many Christian traditions are masterful at manipulating it for Christian purposes. As empirically minded rationalists, we need to take our bodily nature seriously. We need to learn from the wide array of religious traditions about how they use bodily motion, communal ritual, communal life, emotional experiences, etc. in order to train people in ways of thinking and feeling and valuing and bonding. We need to take all of this seriously. All of these practices have great potential to give people intrinsic pleasure and to contribute to processes of conscientious self-cultivation and social transformation.
It is hard being a human being. It is hard getting control of our emotional and social and psychological lives. It is hard raising kids. It is hard making decisions. It is tough work to hammer out an integrated metaphysical and ethical worldview, build a social support structures, put one’s own mind and heart in order, and develop personal habits of character formation. It is even tougher to do all this stuff by oneself. It is hard in an era of fragmented and compartmentalized lives for people to develop a coherent sense of self and purpose in life and to do so in an integrated way where these various “spiritual” aspects of life are robust and mutually reinforcing. While many atheists are happy to try all this on their own (or simply do not personally feel or understand any of its importance), others quite rightly want help. But they look around and often the only institutions they see that have formed “programs” for working out all this stuff are steeped in supernaturalism, irrationalism, pseudoscience, authoritarianism, regressive values, superstition, etc.
But there is nothing irrational about wanting to harness the “irrational” sides of one’s nature; the ones that connect with other people through chanting or which change your mood with breathing techniques. Just as we are fighting to reclaim the body and sex as inherently good and worth celebrating against deeply suspicious and anti-natural Christian propaganda, we atheists need to reclaim many of our other bodily ways of regulating our inner and outer lives while overcoming the reflexive antipathy felt by anti-body species of rationalist atheists.
Just as sex can be great (even outside of marriage!) if we learn how to do it in ways that consensual and mutually pleasing, so can the other “irrational” sides of our lives be put to work serving overall mentally, emotionally, and socially healthy lives. We just need to be guided by reason. We need to routinely scrutinize our goals, our beliefs, and our methods with skeptical rigor to make sure they are not leading us down some rationally discernible negative path intellectually or morally or emotionally or socially. But beyond that we can be very constructive about harnessing the tools religions have developed for truer, more ethical, and healthier psychological and social ends.
Will doing this prove people need religion after all? What matters, Shawn, is what youneed. If in fact you will flourish best by getting in touch with sides of yourself that religious practices help people with, then that’s a fact. Hiding it to advance an ideology that tries to erase that fact wouldn’t change the fact. You are an intellectually honest person. Let’s build our ethics around the actual facts and not try to contort ourselves to pretend another ideal fits us that doesn’t. And don’t worry, even if you in fact would be best served by religious practices, that does not mean all people ultimately need them. Let all people find their own path. Let’s destigmatize the different options. Let’s only stigmatize being an enemy of rationality or the good. Those who cite the benefits of religious participation as justification for faith and irrationalism and other forms of mental subordination to arbitrary authorities and beliefs or regressive values are those who need to be challenged. Those neutral psychologists who just recognize the plain truth that in many cases religious practices and communities empirically have some benefits that keep people coming back are not the problem.
But will joining a religious tradition give aid and comfort to irrationalism and authoritarianism? Unfortunately I think innumerable rational people trade off their minds (or keep quiet about their doubts) for religious benefits, thinking that participating in supernaturalistic, authoritarian traditions are the only way to have the latter. I do think in the long run that’s a problem because it deceives the superstitious into thinking more people believe in their literalistic fantasies than actually do–which only makes them more credulous and manipulable and dangerous to others. So, personally, I would advise disassociating from any religions where not only the liberal believers but the philosophically sophisticated ones are saying things they only mean symbolically in ways that deliberately confuse the less educated literalists. That’s a seriously bad part of what is perpetuating irrationalism. We need to reclaim the techniques employed presently by supernaturalistic and authoritarian religions, not simply help them perpetuate their Wizard of Oz act by playing along with it publicly.
But this is also why I want to actively encourage the intellectually honest who are interested in religiosity to jump in and contribute to the health and vitality of rationalistic religions that future generations of thoughtful people will see those options instead as clearly where they belong and they can stop propping up intellectual and moral authoritarians.
Fortunately, there are options for people who want to make clear that they are rationalists, skeptics, atheists, etc. while engaging in religious (or quasi-religious) practices. There are unabashedly atheistic Buddhists, Wiccans, Unitarian/Universalists, Humanists, Jews, and Ethical Culture Societies. To widely varying degrees, you can be among such people and be uncompromisingly clear that you find value in symbols, rituals, chanting, etc., but not in faith or authoritarianism or superstition.
I would personally recommend you join on with Humanists or Ethical Culture Societies since they are the most explicitly and universally non-theist. But there is value in being an atheist who helps rationalize Wicca and Wicca may help you find a distinctly naturalistic and non-Abrahamic set of symbols that might be more appealing to you if Christian symbols would feel too much like reneging on your atheism and reverting to theism. And Buddhism has centuries of developed thought and practice to draw insights and techniques from, much of which is metaphysically, spiritually, and ethically truer than Christian thought and more inherently compatible with secularism, in my experience. It will help get you way outside the limiting boxes of Abrahamic religious and philosophical categories. Alternatively if you missChristian symbolism, then maybe you can get more of it at a UU service and should go that route.
This week I had an interesting conversation with a very liberally minded Catholic and pressed him to explain why he insists on remaining in his tradition. His answer got me thinking that for many people the only available language to describe and intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, and socially engage with large swaths of their human experience is religious. Only through the symbolic languages of religious traditions do they know how to articulate very real feelings, longings, needs, and sides of themselves and the world they experience. Naturalists still need to do a ton more philosophical and scientific work translating all those ideas into popular, rational, naturalistic categories that do justice to the grains of truth in them while removing so much chaff from them. But even more importantly, we need to stop trying todemystify them. People viscerally know that an account of love as “just chemicals” vitiates their lived experience of love and is, therefore, not only unsatisfying but in some crucial way false and counter-productive to the practice of living life. We naturalists, rationalists, and atheists, need to find naturalistic language and means of expression that convey a sense for the rich experiential content of life that can rival and replace the supernaturalistic language to which people are attached.
In the meantime though, you can accept that some things are so far only articulable through a set of symbols and metaphors. In one of my favorite posts, I have tried to argue that art can communicate in irreducible and invaluable ways sometimes that we shouldn’t even think of trying to translate into literal terms because it is inherently impossible to recapture the richness of what was there in the artistic expression. Even the most hardboiled atheists I know love to talk to each other through the language of shared stories be they film references, high art references, musical references, or sayings, symbols and other allusions that come from our rich contemporary tradition of sci-fi and fantasy myths.
Non-literal communication is an aid for expressing truths we do not yet have adequate literal expression for and often never will. There is no shame for employing it in the meantime or, in some cases, forever, for as long as it is the best language we have available and for as long as we do not illicitly employ it in philosophy or science or government or anywhere else where its false dimensions will only distort and confuse rather than illumine. It is also valuable that we do not assume all religious symbols are inherently more deeply true. Sometimes they are more false than trueand potentially misleadingly so. So we must be rationally critical, even when we are being symbolical. But this is quite possible.
Over a year ago, I solicited insights into atheist religiosity from those engaged in it and was bowled over by the extremely helpful, thoughtful, and insightful replies I got in the comments section. If anyone is curious, I started to open up personally to the idea that we might talk about there being something like “true religion” as I thought through some ideas in real time on the blog three years ago now in one of my personal favorite posts “True Religion?”. Finally, in December 2011-January 2012, the non-theist metaphysician and philosopher of religion Eric Steinhart did a fascinating series of guest posts on the potential ways that Wicca could help atheists looking for non-Abrahamic resources for being religious and how atheists could help Wiccans become more rational and less potentially dangerously superstitious. His book length series of posts is provocative both religiously and metaphysically and I highly recommend it.