Musings

The Rest of the Story

In preparation for applying to law school, I spent hours today working on drafts of personal statements in various forms. While working just now, I was inspired to share something I should have posted years ago.

In April of 2011, I published the post “The Closet Agnostic: My Own Coming-out”. In it, I shared the letter I wrote to my father in February of 2009 where I confessed my disbelief in God. Writing that letter was, perhaps, one of the most powerful experiences I’ve ever had. What I neglected to mention in 2011, however, was that reading my father’s response affected me more powerfully than my writing him in the first place.

Until that point in my life, friends, family, and my entire worldview had been shaped by my membership in the Mormon Church. I worried that leaving it would mean losing friends, expulsion from the university, and—worse by far—wounding my younger brothers and sister, my mom, and my dad, who all believed that with faith in God and worthy membership in His church, family ties would endure beyond the grave and into eternity. Confessing my burgeoning atheism would, to them, come as a rejection of more than just faith—it would come as a rejection of their love and eternal companionship. I imagined telling my father—the man who had baptized me; the doctor who had once, full of faith, laid his hands on my head, and commanded me to be healed by the power of God; who had taken me aside as a boy and showed me a painting of Jesus calming the storm and said, “Son, I believe this really happened.” I imagined telling him that all my professions of faith had been lies. I imagined his disappointment, and it broke my heart.

It took more than a year to find the courage, but with shaking, clammy hands I finally wrote him that letter in February of 2009 and confessed my disbelief. At first the words were halting and awkward, but shortly pages of the most honest and cathartic prose I have ever written came pouring out of me. He responded simply:

Ryan,

I love you little man. Many people, including me, have found themselves in your position. We will work through it. I don’t have any doubt of that. Be your cheerful, optimistic self and do what you know is right. I can’t wait to see you.

Dad

Instead of addressing my concerns or asking why I hadn’t said something earlier or even telling me he was sorry I felt so conflicted, he told me exactly what I needed to hear, even though I didn’t know it was what I needed when I wrote him in the first place. He reaffirmed what was, to us both, so much more important than religion: he understood me, and he loved me. Absolutely and without question, he loved me. And nothing I had said or done had changed that or ever would. Reading that made me feel shallow-minded. I had worried, whether I knew it or not, that my family’s love for me would be, at least in part, dependent on our sharing a similar religious belief. Reading his response put my mind back into perspective. It reminded me that my family loved me dearly and always would, and it reminded me that there was nothing that could be more important.

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Shane Koyczan

Over the past week or so, I’ve run into spoken word poetry by Shane Koyczan (COY-zan) online three or four times. A friend posted a link on Facebook, I clicked one of the related videos suggested by YouTube, and there he is.

Shane is a 36-year-old Canadian poet, writer, and artist. I hadn’t heard about him until days ago, but I can’t turn him off. I don’t want to. It’s incredible.

Do yourself a favor and watch one of these all the way through.

The first is called “The Crickets Have Arthritis”. It’s about sharing a hospital room with a 9-year-old cancer patient.

Part of this reminded me a bit of one of my own posts (just much, much better). I can’t explain why, but Shane’s words hit me as perfectly…real.

And they visit every day and stay well past visiting hours because for them that term doesn’t apply. But when they do leave, Louis and I are left alone. And he says, “The worst part about being sick is that you get all the free ice cream you ask for.” And he says, “The worst part about that is realizing there is nothing more they can do for you.” He says, “Ice cream can’t make everything okay.”

And there is no easy way of asking, and I know what he’s going to say, but maybe he just needs to say it, so I ask him anyway. “Are you scared?”

Louis doesn’t even lower his voice when he says, “Fuck yeah.”

I listen to a 9 year old boy say the word ‘fuck’ like he was a 30-year-old man with a nose-bleed being lowered into a shark tank–he’s got a right to it. And if it takes this kid a curse word to help him get through it, then I want to teach him to swear like the devil’s sitting there taking notes with a pen and a pad. But before I can forget that Louis is 9 years old he says, “Please don’t tell my dad.”

The second is an animated project called “To This Day”, and it aims to confront bullying. It’s very good.

Why I Teach For America

Many Americans accept educational inequality as an unsolvable, self-perpetuating economic quandary. Children in low-income areas (most of them children of color) receive substandard education, find substandard jobs, follow substandard career paths, and live in low-income areas where their children follow the same substandard pattern. And that’s if they attain jobs and careers at all. Children in these areas are many times more likely to go to jail or die an early death than their (mostly white) counterparts in middle- and high-income areas. While this entrapping financial spiral is tragic, the greatest travesty lies beyond economics: education and learning are essential, not only to a successful career, but also (and more importantly) to a complete, satisfying, happy life.

My own passion for learning and insatiable curiosity have given me such a life. In high school, I applied for an Idaho Public Television internship in the Idaho Capitol. Covering committee hearings and floor debates sparked my intense interest in politics and rhetoric that continues to this day. Three years later, I left on a two-year church mission to Taiwan, curious about the world and hoping desperately to find faith in God. My doubts only increased, but despite this challenge, I returned with a deep understanding of a new language and culture, and with the confident assurance that I could sacrifice personal wants and dedicate myself to a single cause from sunup to sundown, seven days a week. Two years ago, spurred on by my love of political rhetoric and a desire to stretch myself, I applied for and accepted the position of Editor-in-Chief with The BYU Political Review. Frantic editing and all-night publishing sessions before monthly deadlines became stepping-stones for some of my most meaningful conversations and deepest friendships.

Through these experiences, it has consistently been my parents and my teachers who inspire and challenge me to learn and grow.

Last year, as I was approaching graduation and still entirely unsure of what I wanted to do in life, I heard about Teach For America. At the time, I was mildly attached to the idea of law school—that great catchall for vaguely ambitious students with undergraduate degrees as useless as mine. While studying for the LSAT, I discovered that two good friends of mine—both brilliant, ambitious, and capable—were applying to Teach For America. I read the flyers, met with the recruiter, and perused the website.

Teach For America (TFA) takes a two-pronged approach at addressing educational inequality in America. The first step is to recruit a critical source of ambitious, altruistic, energetic, accomplished individuals (most of them recent college graduates) with a strong record of leadership experience. TFA coaches these individuals (called Corps Members) through an intensive summer training program and helps to place them in low-income area schools throughout the country. Once placed, these Corps Members teach for a minimum of two years.

The second step is the natural result of the first. Affected by their experience with TFA and in teaching, many Corps Members continue to work in the field of education. Others go on to work as lawyers, doctors, politicians, scientists, etc., but, changed by their experiences, Corps Members promote positive and effective social and political reform aimed at eliminating educational inequality regardless of their profession.

Inspired, I cancelled my LSAT registration and began my application within a few days. I joined Teach For America because it represents the best and most effective opportunity I have to instill in others the same passion and love of learning that has brought me so much joy. I joined so I could teach.

Give ’em What They Want

Someone asked me recently why so many of my posts deal with religion. It’s a fair question, considering religion comes last in my tagline.

When I began blogging more frequently, I had actually envisioned spending quite a bit more time discussing East Asian politics, Chinese history and literature, Sino-American relations, and other China-related topics that my education gives me somewhat more authority to discuss. I’m no foreign policy expert, and my Chinese isn’t at the point where I peruse PRC white papers over breakfast, but I thought with my penchant for things Chinese and my mild ability to relate international affairs to practical living, maybe my readers would find it worthwhile.

To my dismay, however, my few posts on Chinese culture and sayings are among my least popular posts. Even recent and flippant posts like “Weiner’s Weiner” have received more all-time hits than “Pulling Shoots to Help Them Grow“, which is still one of my favorite posts.

Judging by my stats page, what readers really want are abrasive rants on religion. My posts on religion receive many, many more on-site views, comments, and syndicated views than posts on any other subject. And the more I stray from dispassionate reasoning and toward impassioned raving, the more hits and feedback I receive.

So why do I write about religion so frequently? Here’s half the answer:

STIRFRIES hits per day. The arrows indicate new posts (red for religious posts and green for other posts).

 

And here’s the other half: I was taught to pray before I learned to ride a bicycle. I know more religious songs than most people know secular ones. I graduated from a 4-year religious seminary and attended a religious university where part of my general education was regular classes in scripture and doctrine. I spent two years as a missionary in Taiwan, where I was taught to feel guilty if I thought about anything BUT religion. And all told, I have spent over a year of my life inside a church building—and that’s excluding classrooms at BYU, all of which are dedicated to God and most of which are used for religious observance on Sundays.

Since I was a child—and until only very recently—my social and family life has revolved around religion. Doubting Thomas and perpetual critic that I am, I have spent thousands of hours considering the role of religion in my life, in society, in human history, its benefits, its drawbacks, its consequences, its veracity.

Religion is what I know. More specifically, doubting religion is what I know. If a few hundred hours of study and a piece of paper that says I know Chinese language, literature, and culture qualify me to comment on Sino-American anything, then a lifetime of theological study, indoctrination, and private criticism give me the right to say a few words about religion.

In the Mood for Cuban? Skip Havana Central

Since moving to Manhattan, I’ve been overwhelmed by incredibly tasty food.

Most of my favorite foods from Taiwan can be found near Canal Street or St. Mark’s Place, and for a while it seemed like I couldn’t get through a full day without an intimidatingly massive slice of Koronet’s cheese pizza.

The bibimbop in K-town is amazing, and the fried chicken and gravy over syrupy waffles I had once in Harlem still make me salivate.

In fact, the only sort of food I’ve had and actively disliked in Manhattan is Cuban food. My first experience (a few months ago during restaurant week) was terrible. My bland jumbo prawns seemed the only meat dish on the table not overcooked by hours. The pork was hard and chewy, and the chicken was dry as a mouthful of sand.

But I figured we just had a bad experience. There was another Cuban place, Havana Central, not too far from Columbia. I wanted to give Cuban food another go. As hesitant as I was, it was regularly packed to the brim of happy diners, and I had a coupon, so what did I have to lose?

More than I expected, it turned out.

Here’s the shortlist of grievances:

  1. Our waitress was inattentive.
  2. My pineapple chicken tasted like it had been on a forgotten warming rack for 30 minutes and, trying to salvage it, the chef had decided to pour a bit of canned pineapple over the top and serve it.
  3. My girlfriend’s steamed shrimp could just as easily have been purchased pre-cooked at the supermarket across the street and warmed in the microwave.
  4. An obnoxiously loud group of students at the table next to us yelled at some friends passing by on the street (we were seated outdoors), and their two foreign friends then proceeded to step over the barrier and stand with their butts nearly pressed against our plates while they guffawed drunkenly with their friends at the table. Despite being unable to serve the tables beyond ours for the students standing in the aisle, the waitress said nothing and did nothing but wait. It wasn’t until I’d had enough and asked them to “stop sticking [their] asses in our food” that they finally left.
  5. I gave the waitress my coupon before we ordered, but she still gave us the full tab and had to be reminded that we’d given her the coupon.
  6. Havana Central, apparently assuming that it is worthy of immense tipping, adds an automatic after-tax gratuity (that we only just caught before adding our own tip).
  7. Worse, the receipt (see the photo at the right) even gives suggestions for how much more gratuity you should give (we gave none).

Needless to say, I’m done with Cuban food. And if you must try Havana Central, skip the food and order a mojito.

Happy Atheism

Often, the same individuals who argue belief in God because it makes them happy think that belief in no God should make me sad. They ask me—words gushing with sympathy and confident they know my answer before I give it—whether my worldview makes me depressed:

“If there’s no God, there is no right and wrong. So you don’t believe in morality, do you?”

“If there’s no God, then there’s no real purpose in life, is there?”

“Doesn’t it make you sad to think that there’s no life after death?”

Coming from theists, these questions are somewhat understandable, but what truly depresses me is hearing other atheists ask the same questions (or answer in the affirmative)!

But atheism does not imply absolute nihilism, and (rather than making me depressed) atheism makes me happy!

Atheism≠Nihilism

Nihilism is a multi-faceted concept with many meanings. Nietzsche himself described the concept in both positive and negative lights. I am a moral nihilist, as far as I understand the term. I do not believe there is a higher law that determines absolute right and wrong. And, consequently, there is no objective “good” and “evil”. But this is not to say I don’t believe in morality; I simply believe that morality is a subjective word, fluid in its meaning across national borders, situations, circumstances, and time.

I think most people (theists and atheists alike) are moral nihilists, though most theists would be loath to apply the term to themselves. Consider one of the great American moral debates: abortion. Moral conservatives (mostly religious) oppose abortion vehemently and consider Roe v. Wade an abysmal failure of the Supreme Court to protect basic human rights. However, the majority of these moral conservatives who oppose abortion agree that, in certain instances (e.g. if the pregnancy is a threat to the life of the mother, the fetus is nonviable, or if the pregnancy is the result of incest or rape), abortion should be permitted as a legal and moral option. Those who hold this view cannot claim that abortion itself is an immoral act; rather, it is circumstance and motivation that determines morality. Killing works much the same. If person A shoots person B and takes his wallet, it’s an immoral action. But if person A shoots person B while person B is holding a gun to the head of person A’s wife, thereby saving her life, it’s heroic.

But simply because we cannot establish clear lines between absolute right and wrong does not mean that we are unable to live moral lives or make moral judgments. As individuals, we judge morality mostly by the Silver Rule: “Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you.”

I’ll wager that, were we to establish strict laws and punishments based solely on the Bible, most Americans would find Biblically-sanctioned practices (selling our daughters into slavery, killing everyone who works on the Sabbath or plants different crops side-by-side or wears clothing made from different thread) as abhorrent as they find the concept of Sharia Law.

In short, atheistic moral relativism is more moral than Biblical or Koranic law, and most Americans recognize that without thinking twice. The only attraction a theistic understanding of law and punishment brings to the table is the hope that evildoers who are never caught and punished in this life will get what they deserve later. (Which means that atheism, if accepted generally, would actually encourage a more effective justice system.)

Stepping beyond morality, atheism does not preclude the possibility for purpose in life. Asserting that if something ends (life in this case), therefore it is worthless, demonstrates absolute ignorance. Thousands of counterexamples to this sort of nihilism present themselves on a day-to-day basis—and none of them have anything to do with God.

Think about what you eat, what you wear, where you live, and the thousands of choices you made since waking this morning. Everything you do is, from your perspective, calculated to make you happy. Yet it is mostly transient. You enjoy and look for better sources of satisfaction. You want to wear more comfortable shoes or more fashionable clothing. You want to ride a roller coaster or play a video game. And yet, after the day is done, you have gained absolutely no long-term benefit from picking the apricot jam over the strawberry jam. The flavor lasts a few moments and fades. But because the flavor fades does not mean choosing the apricot was worthless. It made you happy.

If you were told right now that you have exactly one week to live, what would you do? Perhaps do what you can to put your family and financial affairs in order, but I’m confident you’d eat your favorite food, indulge in a bit more ice cream than usual, visit your parents and siblings.

We seek our own happiness in everything that we do—even when we don’t realize it. We choose to donate to charities because it makes us happy. We go to work for terrible employers because the long-term consequences are better than if we didn’t go to work.

The only difference between atheists and theists in this regard is that theists are impossibly optimistic in how long their happiness-seeking behavior will endure…and also in their ultimate effectiveness at achieving happiness.

Which brings me to my final point.

Life After Death, Unicorns, and Why Atheism Makes Me Happy

Asking if I worry that there is no life after death is like asking if I am actively dismayed that there isn’t a magical, time-travelling unicorn waiting outside my apartment. That more people believe in life after death than the magical unicorn does not make me regret its non-existence any more. To paraphrase Mark Twain, I have no recollection of existing for the billions of years before I was born, and it was of no inconvenience to me then. I don’t suppose I’ll care much when I’m dead either.

What I do care about is wrenching every last bit of happiness I can out of the world I’m in. This is where atheism makes life so much sweeter. Knowing that there is no tomorrow makes today particularly precious. Understanding the improbability of life makes me appreciate its impossible beauty. Believing that there is nothing about the universe that prevents us from understanding its mysteries makes me want even more desperately to satisfy my curiosity about quantum mechanics, the origin of our species, the history of human thought. And knowing that I’m too small, too short-lived, and too limited to learn everything I want to makes me yearn for a unified species of global intellectual cooperation and specialization.

Accepting and understanding my own atheism has driven me to a singular religious conclusion: Life is short. And then it ends. Happiness will not be doled out posthumously by a benevolent being to those who never had it here. Find it now. Cultivate it. And share it.

“Religion Makes Me Happy”

Not long after opening up (somewhat) to friends and family about my agnosticism, I was called into my bishop’s office after our regular Sunday meetings in the BYU 108 ward. The bishop was conducting interviews with members of the ward, and my turn was up. We chatted for a bit about life, school, and my post-graduate plans, and then he asked if I held a current temple recommend. I told him I didn’t, and so he began to ask me the standard set of questions associated with a temple recommend interview.

He asked, “Do you believe in God, the Eternal Father?”

And I told him no. It was the first time I’d given that answer to any bishop—and he was perhaps the fourth or fifth person I’d ever told I didn’t believe in God. He asked me why I felt that way, and we discussed it for a while. Surprisingly though, the interview didn’t end with that question. He asked if we could continue the temple recommend interview, and when I consented, he went through the questions one by one. And one by one, I denied faith in Jesus Christ, the Holy Ghost, the Atonement, Christ as Savior and Redeemer, and the Restoration of the Gospel. I denied that there was a prophet on the earth, and I refused to sustain the leadership of the church. Finally, I told him I didn’t consider myself worthy to enter the temple. But when we reached the end of the interview, what he said caught me by surprise.

“Well, Ryan, I know you feel like you don’t believe in any of this, but you served a full mission, you’re active in the church, you do your home teaching, you’re keeping the commandments as best you can, and I feel like all of that demonstrates faith—even if you don’t recognize it.” Then he signed his name on the temple recommend and gave it to me to sign.

I almost laughed at him. Explaining my smiles, I said, “I can’t sign this. Signing means I think I’m worthy to go into the temple, right? I just told you I don’t think I’m worthy, and if I meant that honestly, I can’t sign this. If I do sign it, then I lied when I told you that I was honest with my fellow men, which means I shouldn’t sign it.”

He seemed frustrated, but he understood. And then he said something that really disturbed me at the time, though it took more than a year (and reading Richard Dawkins’ excellent book The God Delusion) to understand why. He said, “Well, Ryan, I understand where you’re coming from. I think we all have doubts sometimes—and particularly those of us who, by nature or by education, think critically about everything we’re taught. I’m a scientist, and I’m used to having concrete evidence before accepting hypotheses. But in this case, believing in God and following his commandments has always made me happy, and to me, that’s evidence enough.”

It’s been a few years since our interview, but I have heard his words echoed many, many times by those who believe in God. Not just “It makes me happy”, but “It makes me happy, and that’s enough.” It makes me want to scream, to type in enormous font—bolded, italicized, and underlined: That it makes you happy does not make it true! That it makes you happy does not make it good for you!

That believing in something makes us happy does not make it true.

Believing in Santa Claus as a child made me as happy as I suppose it makes any other child. And it’s natural, of course. Consider the idea: a single, magical, bearded, jolly man who, out of sheer good will and holiday spirit, flies about the world in a single night, delivering elven-made toys to young boys and girls (but only so long as their names are on the “nice” list).

But St. Nick is nothing but God dumbed down for children! Too young to fear death and wish for eternal life, they get candy and toys instead. Too short-sighted to wait till the end of their lives for reward, they wait till Christmas. More easily threatened than their parents, their naughty behavior receives lumps of coal instead of an eternity of burning and suffering at the hands of sadistic monsters.

Happy as it made me, it was a lie—a lie that hid a much more beautiful and believable truth: my parents loved me dearly, buying gifts with money that could have been spent on themselves and giving them anonymously.

That the ideas of life after death and an all-powerful, benevolent being make us happy is no surprise. Of course these things give us hope and courage to face our own mortality. But that they bring happiness does not make them true…or even good for us.