So I bet you thought I was…something other than a Scientific Pantheist

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As a companion piece to my post on my sexual identity, here’s one that lays out (in somewhat less conversational manner) how I identify spiritually. In case you wondered. 🙂

For a somewhat similar project – and one with which I can, to a large extent, get on board – see Mike McHargue (aka Science Mike), Axioms About Faith. Actually, while you’re on his website, check out other stuff Mike is doing, including his book Finding God in the Waves and his podcasts. He and I are on a very similar wavelength (pun intended) and he’s been a welcome companion on my journey recently.

Anyway, read on if you dare.

General identification

In rough order of preference:

  1. Scientific/Naturalistic Pantheist and Humanist
  2. igtheist, ignosticagnostic, atheist, nontheist, post-theist, skeptic, secularist, empiricist
  3. Episcopalian, therefore Anglican, therefore Christian (though a heretical one)
  4. Drikung Kagyu, therefore Tibetan Buddhist, therefore Buddhist (though a heretical one)
  5. Heavily influenced by portions of Quaker, Taoist, JewishHindu, and Marxist thought

(I should mention that nearly everything I know about Scientific Pantheism I learned from the good folks of the World Pantheism movement.)

Creed

  1. I believe in the sacred.
    1. The universe – all of reality – is sacred.
    2. What I mean is: in potential, and very often in actuality, it is a good place.
    3. I am comfortable, depending on the company I’m in, using the term “God” to represent this universe, this reality, in all its fullness.
  2. I believe it is on us to work to make that good potential more real.
    1. If God is love, or the source of love, then that love is expressed only when we animals and humans express it.
    2. If God is the source of justice, then that justice is approximated only when we do the work required to move toward it.
    3. Love and justice are aspects of God only via those aspects of God called animals and humans. (Barring other types of sentient life so far undiscovered.)
  3. I believe it is on us to work out how to do this.
    1. Nobody is going to tell us how.
    2. Nobody is going to tell us “right” from “wrong”.
    3. We need to work it out, as individuals and together.
  4. I believe that the sacred is reality, and reality is sacred.
    1. Reality (or God) is: this one, everyday, natural universe.
    2. No “supernatural” makes sense to me.
    3. There are many, many things in this natural universe that we do not understand. There may be things within it that we can never understand. That does not imply that they originate in a separate “supernatural” universe.
    4. If there are other detectable universes, they may one day be discovered; presupposing them is uncalled for.
  5. I believe in the sacredness of, and the call to care for, the earth, with all of its oceans and lands, plants and animals. We are all one, and all in this together.
  6. I believe in humanity, and in the potential for humans to be good, individually and together.
    1. I believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every human.
    2. I believe that we must work for one another’s dignity, wellness, and liberation, regardless of race, ethnicity, national origin, gender, gender identity, sexual identity, dis/ability, social class, faith or lack thereof, etc. We are all one, and all in this together.
  7. I believe in science and the scientific method as our primary way of understanding reality, with philosophy and the arts playing a crucial role in interpreting that reality.
  8. I believe in mindfulness/contemplative/meditative practice and spiritual experience.
    1. As ways to grow in understanding and acceptance of the inner reality of the mind.
    2. As ways to grow in appreciation and gratitude for, and acceptance of, the outer reality of the universe.
    3. Depending on the company, I am comfortable referring to some of these practices as “prayer”.
    4. I am comfortable calling myself a contemplative, and a mystic, as well as a practitioner of mindfulness.
  9. I believe that we are better together than individually.
    1. I believe that when we listen together, to one another,  in sincerity and openness, what emerges from our discernment has the potential to be better than the sum of its parts – of us as individuals.
    2. I believe in this communal listening as a method to discern a path forward that is closer to unobstructed reality (both of the participants’ minds, and of the outer universe) then we might otherwise discern.
    3. Depending on the company, I am comfortable referring to this kind of listening as “prayer” and to the communal phenomenon of achieving greater clarity as “the Holy Spirit”.
  10. I believe in learning from human teachers (such as Jesus and the Buddha) and human writings (such as parts of the Bible and the teachings attributed to the Buddha), without dangerously deifying those people and documents.
    1. All that said, the lives and teachings of Jesus and the Buddha – as well as of many of their followers through the ages, and of sages from other traditions – are centrally important to my journey.
  11. I do not believe in any God who speaks (except when we speak), or who responds to supplication/prayer (by changing anything but the heart and mind of the speaker or listener), or who expresses favor or disfavor, or who takes sides.
    1. I do not believe in a God who “plays favorites”, both because I am highly skeptical that one exists, and because if one did, I would find that entity morally reprehensible.
    2. “God says” are possibly the two most dangerous words in the English language.

General thoughts and genesis of this document

I started this when the thought occurred to me: maybe I’m an atheist, but I’m a mystic atheist. The “mystic” stuff I was thinking of includes: meditative and contemplative practices (I’ve been sitting in silence each day), including “spiritual discernment” in the style pioneered by the Quakers (which, in my current understanding, is really just a combination of silence, openness, and listening to oneself and others), and also a deep sense of hopefulness and gratitude regarding our one natural universe. I have a deep sense of the actual and potential goodness of/in the universe, and my response to that doesn’t seem completely unlike “worship” in some ways. I don’t expect to get any communication or action from anything outside of or above our natural universe from any of this, but it still feels to me like “mystic” is not entirely an inappropriate term for these aspects of how I relate to the world.

Spiritual autobiography

I was brought up essentially secular in a family that was nominally Episcopalian, but mostly stopped going to church after I was confirmed at age 9. I was fascinated by evangelical Christianity (and friends with many evangelicals) through middle school, high school and college, without ever converting. In college I minored in religion, which opened up the vista of world religions to me, and I basically fell in love with all of them, collecting scriptures and bookmarks to web sites and visits to temples and centers, without ever adopting a faith.

Then when I was 27 (1998) I discovered my bipolar disorder (the hard way – pretty much how it goes, I think) and one of my therapists said something that led me to seek out the local Buddhists. I then spent three years as a practicing Tibetan Buddhist before moving and failing to find a Sangha which clicked for me.

About a year after that I had an experience that led me to seek out the Episcopal Church of my childhood, and finally converted (albeit to very progressive Christianity). I spent years in both the Episcopal Church and what was/is known as the “emerging church” (a progressive, experimental church movement informed by evangelical, liberal mainline, and non-Christian sources), and I’m still an active member of an “emerging church” community.

Then in 2010 I spent 9 months clinically depressed, and for the first time was forced to stare into the abyss of my own mortality – something I’d avoided (actually, violently recoiled from) doing before that. After that, I found that I was OK with life being finite – not thrilled about it, and of course I’d love to be proved wrong – but OK. Gradually I realized that, once I didn’t need a supernatural God to save me from death, I no longer really believed in one. But I was (and am) still actively involved in a Christian church and on the boards of two explicitly Christian nonprofits.

In early 2016, on a weekend retreat for one of these boards, I had a strong feeling that simply “atheist” was not a sufficient term for me. I didn’t believe in a supernatural, personally active God, but I did have a deep sense of connection to the universe and a reverence and gratitude for it – and that this felt “mystical” to me, in a non-supernatural way. This led me to write a “creed” of sorts for myself now, which I shared in a group called “Life after God”, and someone there suggested that I check out World Pantheism (an organization of folks who identify with scientific or naturalistic pantheism). So I did, and I’ve really liked what I’ve found.

Now I describe myself as both a Humanist and a Scientific Pantheist, although “agnostic” and “atheist” are not inappropriate terms for me – they just don’t say much. Also, I still consider myself a part of both the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Christian tradition of which it is a part, and also the Drikung Kagyu Lineage and the Tibetan Buddhist tradition of which it is a part, even though I no longer share the supernatural beliefs (resurrection, trinity, karma, reincarnation) of those traditions. And I have a lot of respect and affinity for a number of other world faith traditions as well, including the Quakers, Unitarian Universalism, Zen Buddhism, Taoism, Judaism, Baha’i Faith, and, well, really the more progressive and mystical and naturalist branches of all the world faiths. And I also kind of love the weird bits too, despite that they can so easily become harmful.

So I bet you thought I was straight

the bisexual pride flag: a broad hot pink band on top, a narrow deep lavender band in the middle, and a broad deep blue band on the bottom

Unless you have specific reason to think otherwise, I’m guessing this post’s title is fairly accurate. Further, I imagine that’s true if you’ve known me for years and years, or if we’re just acquaintances, or if I’m only somebody you decided to follow on a social network. Why? Because we’re culturally conditioned to assume that everyone is straight, cisgender, and mono, unless we have serious reason to believe otherwise.

Which is pretty much the reason I’m telling you otherwise. (Well, that, and because the cultural assumptions of “normal” – and the bullying that helps to enforce those assumptions – sometimes provoke kids to kill themselves.)

So here are the facts, at a certain level of detail:

I’ve been married to an amazing woman for almost 22 years (as of September 2015). (I’ve been diagnosed with bipolar disorder for 16 of those, which is proof enough of “amazing”, I think.) On the very rare occasions that the subject has come up, I’ve generally not corrected anyone’s assumption that I identify as straight.

If you know me well enough to know all (or much) of this, I certainly don’t blame you for thinking I’m straight.

More facts: before I was married, I didn’t have a whole lot of sexual experience. However, I did have sex with more than one person, and not exclusively with women.

Let’s take a break to review some helpful tools:

  • The sex researcher Alfred Kinsey first published the Kinsey Scale in the 1940’s. It’s limited, but it’s a useful shorthand. It rates sexual orientation on a scale from 0 (100% heterosexual) through 3 (50/50 bisexual) to 6 (exclusively homosexual).
  • Fritz Klein added some nuance to Kinsey with the Klein Grid, which rates 7 categories related to sexual orientation on a scale of 1 to 7 (roughly corresponding to Kinsey’s 0 to 6). It also takes into account change over time.

So, the scoop? The common assumption, based on my long-term marriage and the general cultural default, would be that I am a 0 on the Kinsey Scale (exclusively hetero). In fact, I am a 1 – 2. Taking into account the Klein Grid categories, my responses vary a bit in the different categories, and they are definitely weighted toward women, but I am not exclusively hetero in any of those various dimensions.

The final row on the Klein Grid is self-identification. (So here’s what I came to say.) I’ve spent most of my life failing to correct the default assumption that I am 100% hetero. It’s easier that way, for sure. Being married to a woman, I can easily pass as straight.

But I don’t want to do that anymore. I want to stop doing it for the sake of my own authenticity. And I want to stop doing it in some small hope of helping other folks – especially young folks who also don’t conform to the cultural assumptions regarding sexual orientation and/or gender – to feel authentic and valid in their own skin.

So for the record, here’s how I would prefer to identify, in regard to sexual orientation.  I’ll give you several options, in order of preference.

1) Queer. I used to prefer a more specific identification, but I’ve come around to preferring “queer”. Because it identifies me as non-compliant with cultural defaults/assumptions regarding sexuality and/or gender, without necessarily making the details of that your business. If you call me queer, I’ll take it as a compliment, unless it isn’t one.

2) Bisexual.  I also used to prefer pansexual over bisexual, because the distinction that’s made between pansexuality and bisexuality is that “bisexual” implies that gender/sex is binary, while in fact there are lots of possibilities in between and perpendicular to “man/male” and “woman/female”, including genderqueer, intersex, and much more. That said, the vast majority of folks who identify as bi are absolutely not trying to say that there’s no way they could be attracted to someone who isn’t 100% unambiguously male or female, as sometimes seems to be implied by writings on pansexuality. So you can call me bi, and it’ll be both accurate and clear to most people what that means.

3) Pansexual.  This (or possibly polysexual) is the most accurate and precise label to describe my sexual orientation. Essentially, it means that my potential ability to find someone sexually, physically, personally, and emotionally attractive is not automatically limited by their biological sex, gender expression, or gender identity. (Please refer to the Gender Unicorn if a reminder of what these terms mean would be helpful.) My attraction is weighted toward women, similar to the way in which some people might be especially attracted to redheads, or to tall people, or to extraverts, without that preference in any way ruling out their attraction to folks with different characteristics.

4) Straight. Most people who don’t read this will probably continue to presume that I’m straight. That’s OK, more or less. I rightly pass for straight, and have done for most of my life. In the future, if someone explicitly mentions making this assumption, I’ll correct them. But it’s not as if I find the label inauthentic, inappropriate, or offensive. It’s reasonably accurate for me. It’s not like I’m a 6 on the Kinsey Scale, or a 4, or even a 3. This is also a somewhat appropriate label for me given the straight privilege the I have almost always “enjoyed”. However, if you have read all this and are having trouble dealing with it and would just prefer to think of me as straight, my request to you is this: If I am someone who is important to you, please try to grapple with this part of my identity. I would be grateful.

(As an aside, this article is about sexuality, not gender, but I also identify as “mostly cisgender”, but slightly genderqueer. My preferred pronouns are “he/him/his”.)

So that’s it. I’m not as straight as you maybe thought I was. My hope is that, by rejecting that assumption (and continuing to do so going forward), just one other person – possibly a young person – who is also outside the sexual “norm” will feel just a little more OK with who they truly are. And in any case, this means that I’m just a little bit more transparently who I am. I feel as if that’s worth something.