December is Almost Here

my brother Jeremiah and his best friend, Gilbert

On December 20, 2008, my brother left his home in Santa Ana, California early to drive to work. The route he usually took was blocked off by police and ambulance, so he went a different way that morning.

There was no way he could know his best friend lay there, dead.

Gilbert Vasquez would have been 26 just three days later.

The adventures he and my brother had over the years were plenty and usually involved drinking. Gilbert showed remarkable resiliency: chastising my brother for joining the military and planning to marry a total stranger; forgiving him repeatedly despite my brother’s drunken rages that several times brought the police to his doorstep and one year even got him physically thrown through a Christmas tree against the wall as reward for patting out a fire my brother set to his shirt after passing out with a lit cigarette in his mouth. But these incidences are the type of things you tolerate with people you love, and Gilbert was family.

One of the last times I saw Gilbert was at my brother’s wedding – which was not a wedding at all, but rather a gathering of him, his new wife, my mother, grandmother, the best man Gil, and I outside the courthouse steps. Nonetheless, Gilbert was so happy, it is impossible to erase the memory of his giant smile as he wrapped his arms around me for pictures.

I moved to Tennessee shortly after, where I lived for over three years before returning to California just a year ago. I am grateful to say I visited home and insisted on getting to see him just two months before he died. My brother and I walked to his house and spent most of the night there, talking and drinking.

Gilbert was one of the nicest people you ever met. My mom and grandma loved him and would forgive him anything. He was one of the few people allowed in my mom’s house despite her problems with hoarding, and he genuinely didn’t mind or at least never said so. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to hear him speak negatively about pretty much anyone! He always saw the good in people. And he wasn’t just my brother’s best friend – he was pretty much the only one left after getting married and putting family before partying.

No one seems to know for certain why Gilbert was out walking at 5:30 in the morning. What we do know is that a man hit something in the crosswalk near his home and got out of his car to see it was a person. He called an ambulance and desperately tried to resuscitate Gilbert with CPR. He couldn’t understand why the young man had been lying in the road. Later that day, the first man to hit Gilbert and drive away would confess his guilt to family members who would turn the hit-and-run incident in. But regardless of which driver actually killed Gilbert, the fact remains that over an hour after being struck, he was pronounced dead.

It was a rainy day in Tennessee when I got the phone call. My mom advised in her hysteria that I call my brother for support, because he’d most likely rather hear from me. I collected myself and called him. Although he initially answered hello, there was silence on both ends of the line for several minutes as I tried to find my breath. He finally said, as softly as a person could, “I guess you heard about Gilbert.” I was not the strong big sister I would have liked to have been at that time, because I promptly burst into tears.

A few days later, my mom was headed to work when she saw a site on the side of the road and stopped to take pictures and send them to my phone. The curb Gilbert had stepped off of into the sidewalk where he would be killed was covered in flowers, candles, teddy bears, and signs lovingly wrapped in plastic to protect the paper from potential rain damage. Some of the balloons said Happy Birthday. Some said Merry Christmas.

Christmas, in another state. I went to a movie, can’t even remember what. When I got out I was literally dragged into a truck I’d never seen that was so covered in mud I couldn’t see in the windows and two of my friends managed to identify themselves before getting seriously injured. They went mudding – a curious event we don’t really do in California – with me in the back; we had dinner and wine. I found myself sneaking out into the cool night air and yet, passed my house about a block away and kept walking. I had no destination, I was simply lost in music.

Coming up on a curb, I saw Gilbert. He was in the driver’s seat of a car about to execute a turn out of a driveway. I blinked and saw that not only was it not Gilbert, but the guy looked nothing like him and was blond. He was leaving the bar. I couldn’t help but think that, if Gilbert were alive, the bar would be a great place to be on Christmas! (He was estranged from his own family.)

So that night, I saw more of my friends, celebrated my pal Curtis’ Birthday, and met the man I would fall in love with who would break my heart and lead me back home where I could spend time with my brother in the silent and constant memory of the love of his friend. But when December is getting near, there are nights I think about the fact that some of us die young.

Oh, how we miss you.

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The fall of a giant: A personal history with the Crystal Cathedral

Crystal Cathedral

The first time my grandma took me to the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California, I was probably about five years old. Staring at the megachurch’s crystal structure as it sparkled in the sunlight, I couldn’t help but ask an awestruck question:

“But grandma, aren’t people starving?”

I was your average, inquisitive kid. And I’d be lying to say the structure didn’t impress me on some levels – the Glory of Christmas, a play held in the cathedral yearly, dazzled me with angels zipping down metal cords from the rafters and my main interest in life – animals – flocking the stage. It quite literally took my breath away, well, at least until the year I puked during it and it lost some of its luster.

pulpit

The dizzying array of metal and glass at the pulpit

Being in the cathedral for Sunday services was awe-inspiring: inside a giant, glimmering tower, you seemed walled in by massive panels of glass that stretched far beyond the heights of the elevated pulpit to the heavens itself. Everything was massive and gleaming, save the pithy-looking humans and the whirring cameras that followed tracks in the metal framework between glass panels. But, as impressed as I may have been, I quickly lost interest in Robert Schuller’s Tower of Power sermons and guest speakers and instead waged battles in my mind of all things He-Man and Ninja Turtle. At the end of the boring, mumbling speech (and semi-interesting plate of cash being passed around that I always deposited the dollar my grandma had given me ahead of time in, to the seeming delight of other seniorly citizens), Schuller himself was there to shake every leaving person’s hand with a, “god bless you, have a good day.” I actually appreciated this small bout of human interaction, but it no more endeared me to the man than it did make me believe in god in any way.

At the time, my brother and I spent alternating weekends at my grandpa’s house in San Diego, so church was only an every other week affair. I tolerated it because I loved my grandma. We’d often go with her friend Jean, who always wore brocade costumes and enormous, gaudy jewelry that entertained me in its own regard.

When I was seven or so, my grandma enrolled me in Sunday School. It was not in the cathedral but a separate, giant (and, at least on Sundays, rather abandoned) building with a large Roman-style fountain out front. This is when church became less an experience, more a negative experience for me. Before, I was happy to ignore sermons and stare at the structure of the building and plants – now, religion was delivered to me in a format that required paying attention. The first story my group was exposed to was Abraham and Isaac, and I was not at all hesitant to mouth my outrage over it. As the adults tried to tend to my outbursts, I was soon aghast at the realization that they believed the shit they were spewing, and I was not about to be turned into a zombie like them!

The second Sunday School session went similarly rough, but this time, I began to try to deconvert other children. The adults murmured worriedly to themselves while staring at me, then would round up each kid I talked to to talk privately. I decided this was a real waste of my time, so I dropped out entirely.

Hence on alternate Sundays for four years, I went with my grandma to the shop near the cathedral for breakfast (usually a bran muffin and tea, for me) and then walked into the building, waved as she went off to the cathedral for her sermon, and found a place in the building to hide. I’d hide under a desk or the stairs or a room by the donuts or in an emergency stairwell by a soda machine; exchanging my dollar to be donated for an icy Mountain Dew and then chucking the change in the fountain out front for no apparent reason. (I didn’t believe in wishes being granted, either!) Very few adults bothered to ask who I was or why I wasn’t in class. One time, the singing drew me in; another, a session of free play in the indoor gym area, but both times I disappeared afterward when the preaching commenced on an eternal bathroom break.

When Sunday School was over, kids would be put out onto a small enclosed playground to await pickup. I always got there on time, and teachers even lied to my grandma about me doing well in class on occasion for seemingly no benefit other than saving their own hides.

After my grandfather died, my grandma shuttled my brother and I to Sunday School weekly. We were different ages, so different classes, and neither of us talked about it. One Sunday when I arrived in the stairwell with the soda machine, I found my brother sitting there. He, too, was ditching classes, so we ditched together after that. One Sunday, however, a rather distinguished-looking man saw us in the room with the coffee and donuts and took us into his own office and explained that we shouldn’t keep coming to Sunday School and he would inform our grandma of the fact. She stopped taking us after this with no fuss, but later I would find she deeply resented that we ditched classes and, perhaps even more troubling, the notion that I was destined to hell because I didn’t share her beliefs.

Over the years, we watched the property of the cathedral spring up with new, insanely expensive items like a solid marble “reflecting room” and donations such as a glass belltower and an improbable Wyland painting celebrating a whale calf’s first breath as “creation”, despite the fact that christians are rarely environmental stewards. They even got their own private burial ground on property! My grandma went to church less and less and eventually not at all, but she still tithed, and every time I saw a donation envelope in her house from them, I ripped it up and threw it out – I was disgusted that they were fine with taking her money. I did not care for the Schuller’s politics as I got old enough to really understand them.

And now… The megachurch is finally claiming bankruptcy, owing an estimate between 50 and 100 million dollars. Frankly, I don’t know what this means for the age-old spectacle, but I’m pretty sure the announcement will draw in many a donation and wealthy benefactor! The Schuller family will die, as it lived, in financial excess gained from the terror of people their faith victimized. It isn’t really a success story – the ministry will continue in their Schuller’s books and websites (they are currently trying to manipulate the courts to get out of paying their massive doubt and will likely succeed), and the tower itself will probably remain in place – but it nonetheless brings a small comfort.

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Sunday Musings: The Subhuman Treatment of Atheists in America

Seventy-five percent of Americans currently identify as christian – a number that has slowly but fairly steadily been dropping since 1990. Mark Galli, managing editor of the Evangelical magazine Christianity Today, said: “I feel sorry for those people who don’t think there’s anything greater than themselves. It must feel like a lonely and frightening world for them. Lone-ranger spirituality is not conducive to taking us to the depths God designed us to go. It leaves out the communal dimension of faith. If you leave out the irritations, frustrations and joy that community entails, you miss something about God.”

It must feel pompous to make enormous assumptions about the lives of people whose beliefs (or, in this case, lack thereof) you cannot possibly comprehend, but the theme is relatively common in christianity. This blog is from two years ago, but the attitudes are still expressed today. Let me give you a few sample comments, with brief commentary of my own:

C.S.Lewis (among others) addresses this question, saying that if we don’t base our concept of Good on something eternal and unchanging, then that concept may be manipulated to serve evil purposes (such as killing newborns).

To base our concept of good on something eternal and unchanging is of course a refutation of evolution – change over time – but this doesn’t make sense. People do “evil” things, every single day. Some could easily argue that, just by living in westernized country, you contribute indirectly to evil, simply by existing.

Certainly atheists can be good people, but when they are good it is not because of the atheism – but despite it.

I could say the same about christians – as a matter of fact, given the fact that the bible is full of acceptance and condoning of genocide, torture, rape, murder, incest, slavery, sexism, homophobia, and infanticide; it far more applies to christians than atheists!

Platitudes like “be nice, seek happiness and don’t harm others” are what we often hear from people who acknowledge no faith… They get away with reducing their views to such greeting card banalities because they are not conscious of the fact that they live in a culture that is founded upon religious principles… They understand intuitively that this is wrong, they just can’t articulate it in secular language. Their objection is really a reflex resort to a conscience that was formed in a culture built upon religious principles.

Now you’re telling me our culture was built upon religious principles, and that shaped our laws, and we abide those laws and thus, religious principle by default.

This is a fascinating argument, given we don’t follow biblical principles at all. Our laws don’t justify killing bad children, women who aren’t virgins when they marry, or those who follow another faith. I could go on and on, but let’s just cut to the chase: the only two commandments that are laws (not killing or stealing) are laws because they’re common sense, not because of the bible. Otherwise, they’d all be laws.

the “non-believers” still have this moral standing because god has imprinted his rules on all mans hearts before they are born.

Obviouslythere is no free will then, and no sociopaths or bad people in the world. Check.

I don’t accept the argument… not because I don’t “like” it, but because I believe in the dignity of the human person. I don’t believe that the tiniest human is simply a “cluster of cells.” I believe, that from the moment of conception, a human being is a glorious creation with a soul.

So? Your inability to grasp the concept doesn’t make it less true.

One Sunday our priest outlined the difference between animal and man by pointing out that if a dog is hungry and you give him food, he will eat. He cannot choose not to eat, if that’s the answer to the formula. A starving man, on the other hand, can turn down food if he so chooses.

Is your point that, when it comes right down to it, dogs are smarter than people? And if this is an analogy… You’re saying a man can choose and a dog can not. So a dog automatically believes in god, since this choice is about faith? Or god doesn’t exist, because, obviously, dogs don’t believe? Am I missing something here?

According to many of these comments and ideas from other christians I have heard over time, atheists are not really free to be atheists. They are bound by religious rules, whether they “see” it or not. One woman even went so far as to claim that atheists spoke out against her because they could hear god’s voice within them, yet actively chose to ignore it. (Apparently, she’ll get back to us on why – perhaps god has sent us to be damned just to test her faith! And frankly, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if she did believe that.)

Such beliefs unfairly deny atheists what we truly are and give us no say – We have been violated by a parasite that uses our bodies as a host and then judges us after we die for not recognizing they were responsible for our good deeds. What these christians think of sociopaths, child rapists, and murderers is far less clear… And far more disturbing, when you realize that these people have a better chance of eternal reward than atheists; as the majority of them are christian or later repent and become christian in prison.

This “god is the inherent good inside of you, whether you recognize it or not” argument (displayed in a brilliant show of nonsense last week when someone thus claimed atheists do not exist) would seem to challenge the christian notion of free will. If I only do good because of the god inside me (I choose not to embrace but who violates me, otherwise – the most intimate and ultimate of rapes, in my opinion), then where is my free will? And, more importantly, how do you describe people who don’t do good things? Ah, we are all sinners! But, wait. God is inside of us, controlling us, making us good. But we aren’t all good! Because we’re sinners… And round and round we go.

What makes animals good?

In their book ‘When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals‘, Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson and Susan McCarthy argue that nonhuman animals experience emotion and provide several examples of animals going against survival instinct to display such emotions. (Emotions, by the way, that many humans deny them on a religious base ideal that humans are somehow special and separate from the natural world.) Can you explain why, when having to choose to either electrocute themselves or another monkey to obtain food, most monkeys choose to shock themselves? If it is the inherent good given to them by god, then what do you say about the small number of those who choose to shock another?

There is altruism in nature that sometimes even extends to other species, but humans seem to have an innate desire to describe this as something bigger than it actually is. Is god in the heart of the dolphin that saves a dog? And if so, then where is god when a child is being brutally raped and murdered? What “lesson” is learned from this scenario? To whom does it benefit?

These are questions with which we all struggle – but in my opinion, christians probably struggle more in this department. As such, they’ve twisted their “loving” god into a being who “works in mysterious ways” and “has a reason – it’s just higher than us, so we can’t understand.” But by giving a child’s death a reason or a calling, they are, in actuality, condoning it. In a world where miracles happen, so too, must crimes be allowed to happen. God either intervenes, or he doesn’t. And if he is within us all and making otherwise immoral atheists do good deeds… Well, round and round we go, again!

And such is the problem with faith – it offers answers, but not real ones. The truth is, we don’t have all the answers. And just saying god has control, everything happens for a reason, etc is a means to no longer look for those answers.

Multiple christians in my life have told me that I am incapable of experiencing love or joy without god. (Who is apparently within me, controlling my good deeds – but unable to allow me to experience the full gamut of emotions only believers are privy to!) A couple weeks ago, a catholic blogger wrote:

To conclude with a phrase: I heard the expression ‘joyous atheists’ the other day and it struck a tinny note against my lexical eardrum. Indeed I refudiate it on the grounds it is an oxymoron. ‘Joyous’ has spiritual connotations and atheists have rejected the life of the spirit. They can of course be ‘happy’ – a word that is much lower in the hierarchy of the emotions.

You can be either ‘joyous’ or an ‘atheist’; you cannot be both. Discuss.

I would think the author would have more important things to talk about than her mastery of the English language (the majority of the blog), capped off with a ridiculous lack of comprehension of the word joy and stirring a pot of hate toward her fellow man… After all, isn’t her church still protecting child abusers and telling Africans that condoms have AIDS? Oh, but you want to focus on your slice of the self-righteous christian pie, instead.

Well, the word ‘joy’ means “happiness; delight”, so now christians are apparently denying us happiness, as well. Spiritual connotations? Only about a third of humans on earth are christian – leaving four billion or so people out of the ability to experience “real” happiness and love and doomed to eternal suffering.

I find myself in shock when someone says I am incapable of loving fully or experiencing true happiness. (Of course, all of that can be negated in a nanosecond, once I casually accept that a man was brutally tortured to death so that I would no longer have to be held accountable for my transgressions – truly, the most amoral of amoral concepts!) Christians have painted me as some bitter, empty waste of existence, struggling with my demons and full of contempt for them. Indeed, many have noted the vitriol from atheists against them; acting like petulant victims who are being persecuted for their faith. Really? The victims here are the majority, and not those who are basically told they cannot experience human emotion because they don’t believe?

I’ll go out on a limb here and suggest that the reason christians get so much flak from atheists is mainly due to this subhuman treatment and furthermore, because they are attemption to change our laws drastically in ways that infringe upon our civil, reproductive, scientific, and educational rights! One need only look at the preposterous changes to Texas textbooks to fully understand just why so many atheists are getting angrier – and more vocal about their anger.

The chemicals in our brains (assuming we’re mentally fit) are the same. And, even though people don’t like to hear it, that is the stuff that love and joy are made of. Many of us experience the same things – believing a story about a supposed man’s existence doesn’t change that. Your brain while in love experiences the same chemical change as mine while in love – exactly the same. You do not have something that I do not. You are not capable of emotions that I am not capable of. You are no more human than I am, just because you want to believe in things you cannot prove.

This man sums up many christians’ views of us far better than I can (I am so intrigued by his entry that I plan on dedicating another entire entry to it, at some time!):

Atheists come from no one and nowhere, are going to no one and nowhere, and exist for no valid purpose or reason whatsoever. The atheist’s emotions are of no consequence – they do not truly love, they have no true compassion, they have no true joy. In truth, atheists have no soul, no spirit, no mind or valid thoughts – they are no more than the chance crashing together of purposeless atoms; an exclusively material ‘thing’ that is a byproduct of a random, meaningless explosion of unaccounted (for) matter. That’s it.

When the atheist dies, the deep, cold, empty truth is that their pessimistic life was altogether purposeless, absent meaning, and did not matter.

…unless God exists.

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