Why “Atheist” and “Agnostic” are stupid titles that make us less intelligent

It’s time to vent about something that has begun to annoy me more and more – the stupid titles we have for people who don’t believe in religion or God.  In this little article, I’m going to argue that our use of these words isn’t only imprecise, but actually makes us all less intelligent.  Hang on, I’ll get there.

Agnostic vs Atheist

When someone says they’re agnostic, what they mean is that they’re not sure whether or not God is real.  They’re likely very uninterested in finding out, because they don’t think it’s possible to find out in the first place, and they just live their lives as they think they should.  If God decides to make himself known somewhere five years down the road, cool.  If not, whatever.  No big deal, but they’re not about to be as presumptuous as to say there isn’t a God.  Who are they to pretend to know one way or the other?

An atheist, on the other hand, is, in the eyes of a lot of society, someone who is certain God doesn’t exist.  They’re often seen as being against religion, actively fighting against dogma with the same kind of religious zeal as the people they’re opposing.

What the words actually mean

Agnostic simply means “without knowledge.”  Gnosis is the Greek noun for “knowledge,” slap on the A and it means the opposite.  To be agnostic about something is to not know whether that thing is true and to believe that it is impossible to ever know.

In same way, Atheism simply means “without theism.”  To be a theist is to believe in a God (specifically, a personal God), and therefore to be an atheist is to not believe in God.  That’s it.

(Side not, you could also be a Deist – someone who believes in god, but doesn’t believe he/she/it is a “personal” god.  In other words, they created the world and are now eating popcorn, watching the cosmic drama of Life, but aren’t involved in it.  There are probably five million other things you could be as well, but these are the main ones.)

Two reasons these words suck

  1. Notice that we don’t have terms in our society for not believing in the myriad other things we don’t believe.  I’m not an a-santa-ist or an a-unicorn-ist simply because I don’t believe a bearded man walked through my front door a few days ago (we don’t have a chimney) to leave a package under our tree, or that a horned horse’s tears can cure any illness I have.  Likewise, my worldview should not be defined by one thing out of a billion in which I do not believe.  We’re defining a person’s worldview by views they don’t have about the world.  That’s dumb.
  2. Atheists do not know there isn’t a god, we just have no good reason to believe in one.  Except for a few extremists and a lot of people who haven’t thought enough about what they believe, there are very few people on this planet who would claim to have an absolute knowledge that God does or does not exist.  The rest of us are somewhere on the continuum from belief to disbelief, accepting uncertainty as a fact of life.  For this reason alone, “agnostic” doesn’t mean anything to me – all of us who think it is impossible to prove that God exists or doesn’t exist are agnostic by definition.  Believers feel they have a good reason to believe, unbelievers don’t.

Two reasons using them the way we do makes us stupiderrerr

  1. Most of us in our culture view uncertainty as a bad thing.  Someone’s intelligence, in our minds, can be measured by the number of strong and clear opinions they have on politics, science, religion, and so on.  When in a debate about something we’re not sure about, we’ll often say something bold, pretending to know things we don’t, because to not know something is to be weak, ignorant, and wrong.  We can hardly be blamed for this, we’re surrounded by media filled with opinionated news anchors, spewing facts and statistics that “prove” their positions.  Too often we latch on to a pundit’s positions because to repeat them in the same tone of confidence makes us feel intelligent and clear, even though we really have no idea whether that person’s facts were right, whether they skewed a statistic to meet their agenda, or whether they cited the one study out of 5,000 but didn’t tell us.  We’re easily manipulated because we adore certainty and shun uncertainty.  We’re made less intelligent because we don’t know how to deal with uncertainty.  In this way, if more of us were agnostic and had a healthy dose of cognitive uncertainty, the world would be a better, less virulent place. 
  2. But if we use “agnostic” to say we don’t try to learn about the world, that’s also dumb.  So we can’t prove God does or doesn’t exist.  We also can’t prove a lot of things in science.  Scientists develop a model by which we can understand the world, see if it fits with the rest of our body of knowledge, and then continue to move forward, constantly challenging and tweaking what we already know to fit with new evidence.  To be agnostic doesn’t just mean you don’t know, it means you can’t know.  And while that’s true, it’s also true about nearly everything else in our lives.  Yet we still manage to make decisions and progress intellectually, and those decisions are based on the models we accept about the world.

Now, if someone calls themselves an agnostic, and I call myself an atheist, what difference is there in how we live our lives?  Probably none.  We don’t pray, we don’t attend church, we don’t ask for forgiveness.  We both probably live our lives as if there isn’t a God, trusting in our own moral compass instead of what’s laid out in scripture.  For many people, calling themselves “agnostic” is probably the result of atheism’s negative stigma and from not feeling comfortable with their new doubts enough to give them such an ominous and opinionated-sounding title.  They’re still in flux, so it’s a good word to use because it’s noncommittal.  That’s fine, I just think we should find new words.

In short, it’s dumb that the main word I have to describe my worldview is based in what I don’t believe, we’re all agnostic to varying degrees and therefore to call yourself agnostic is meaningless and counterproductive (although comforting), we should all be more comfortable with the idea that we don’t know a million things in life, and just because we can’t know something doesn’t mean we can’t still make reasonable assumptions and conclusions from the things we observe in the world around us. 

To end, here’s a ridiculously awesome quote about uncertainty and science:

There is a widely held notion that does plenty of damage: the notion of “scientifically proved.”  Nearly an oxymoron.  The very foundation of science is to keep the door open to doubt.  Precisely because we keep questioning everything, especially our own premises, we are always ready to improve our knowledge.  Therefore a good scientist is never “certain.”  Lack of certainty is precisely what makes conclusions more reliable than the conclusions of those who are certain, because the good scientist will be ready to shift to a different point of view if better evidence or novel arguments emerge.

Failure to appreciate the value of uncertainty is at the origin of much silliness in our society.  Are we sure that the Earth is going to keep heating up if we don’t do anything?  Are we sure of the details of the current theory of evolution?  Are we sure that modern medicine is always a better strategy than traditional ones?  No, we are not, in any of these cases.  But if, from this lack of certainty, we jump to the conviction that we had better not care about global heating, that there is no evolution and the world was created six thousand years ago, or that traditional medicine must be more effective than modern medicine–well, we are simply stupid.  Still, many people do make these inferences, because the lack of certainty is perceived as a sign of weakness instead of being what it is–the first source of our knowledge.

– Carlo Rovelli, Physicist, The Uselessness of Certainty

After note – in the spirit of embracing uncertainty, I have to admit the high possibility that I asserted things in the article above which aren’t correct.  For that, we have debate!  I would love to adjust my views on the subject above so they’re more accurate. Please leave your thoughts below 🙂


This Poem Will Change Your Life


Aubade, by Philip Larkin, hardly needs any introduction if you’ve heard it before or if you’ve read a few atheist writings.  After reading it once you’ll likely not be able to forget it, and if you’re anything like me you’ll recognize many feelings you’ve had before.

It was good enough at expressing what it does (I’m not going to interpret it for you, that would kill it) that it made it into Christopher Hitchens’s compendium of Atheistic writings, The Portable Atheist.  I’ll give you part of Hitchens’s introduction to the piece, followed by the poem in print and a fantastic reading by Larkin himself.  Read it first and then watch the video – the images will come out much more strongly if you do.


An aubade is a poem about lovers parting at dawn; in this instance, Larkin’s love is life itself, accompanied by the grim but honest realization that it does not extend beyond the grave and the we delude ourselves by imagining otherwise.


I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
—The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused—nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear—no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can’t escape,
Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

Larkin’s reading

My thoughts

I love so much about this poem, but I’d rather leave you to your own thoughts than mine.  I’ll just point out my favorite parts.  The first is the way he introduces the thoughts – waking up to “soundless dark” at four in the morning.  The second is the statement that “An only life can take so long to climb clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never,” because sometimes I feel that way.  The last is the conclusion, “Postmen like doctors go from house to house.”

How did you react to this poem?  What parts did you like the most?  What did it make you feel?  Please leave your comment below.

This poem, along with my introductory article (Death of an Atheist), introduce many themes I’d like to discuss over the next few weeks as part of a series on Death, Life, and AtheismClick here for more info, follow, and join the conversation!

The Death of an Atheist

Have you ever woken up from a dream–an intense dream–and had the emotions of that dream carry over into consciousness long after you awoke?  Last night that happened to me.  As I lay in bed, depressed, I had one overwhelming thought:  in all likelihood I will be completely forgotten within four generations.  This thought wasn’t depressing.  It was just a realization, a cool-headed analysis of the reality of the passing of time.  I was feeling depressed, but for a different reason.  But now I’m getting ahead of myself – let me go back to the beginning . . .


I had a dream the other night, and in the dream my sister Emily had died.  I was notified, by telephone or in person, I don’t remember.  Have you ever sought to dwell on a negative thought just so you could bring up a specific emotion in yourself?  Like when you want to feel angry so you think about someone bullying your little brother, or when you want to really feel pain so you look at pictures of friends you haven’t seen in years?  Well that’s what I did in this dream.  I visualized my sister as the sweet kid and strong adult I knew she was, saw the relationship we had, and the one we never had because of distance, being too busy, or just because of apathy.  I felt the pang of regret for not having become closer to her when I had the chance.  It seems my dreaming brain wasn’t yet satisfied with the depth of my remorse, so it conjured up something greater – after dwelling on my sister for a while I also realized I was the only one still alive in my immediate family.  Of all the depressing dreams I’ve had in my life I’ve never been the only survivor left in my family.  I felt alone without them.  My gene pool, the people I grew up with from infant to adult, the only people on earth I have any real connection with beyond mere friendship, the people who could steal from me, or ignore me, or just have such a different personality from me but who I would love anyway–my family–was completely gone.  I was in a room, maybe a waiting room or a funeral parlor, and there were people all around me, but they were strangers, not my family, not my blood, and I didn’t care about them.  I was alone.

Awake now, sitting in my bed, drinking a glass of water, I realized I need to make some changes.  Because all I have is this life.  You see, when I die – hopefully as an old man while peacefully sleeping, or maybe while I’m on a mountain doing what I enjoy with those I love – I’ll be gone.  There won’t be a judgment; a cloud where I’ll eternally play harp music or a hell where I’ll eternally burn.  There won’t even just be blackness.  I will be dead – unable to perceive even the absence of light and conclude that I’m lonely.  Unable to feel, observe, think, regret, hope, or DO anything.  I will never exist again.  It’s not a happy thought, but it’s a realistic thought, and I have no reason to seriously believe any other philosophy.

This is important to me, because there will be no second chance to make something happen if I fail to do it now.  No procrastination.  No thinking, “Well, I loved Emily, and we didn’t have as good of a relationship as we could have, but we’ll have the chance for that when I pass away.”  To believe so is to rob yourself of the truth, and to rob yourself of the chance to create truly amazing relationships now.  If I want to have real meaning in my life I have to do it now.  Right now.


Alone in my dream, with other people around me but none of my family, no one who had any reason to remember me, I realized that by all realistic expectations I will be completely forgotten within four generations, and mostly forgotten by three.  Think about it for a second – what do you know about your great great grandparents?  I know very little about my great grandfathers and almost nothing about my great-greats, even though I’m named after one of them.  I’m sure they did some good things, and certainly their decisions still silently impact my life today, but I don’t know their humor, their accomplishments, or their stories.

Your mom undoubtedly told you you’re special, most moms do, but I grew up in a religion that taught me I’m something even more than special.  You see, I was chosen before the world was even created to be born in this difficult time, given the truth, the simple and enlightening truth, to take to others lost in the gray confusion created by Satan and years of sin.  I was sent on a mission to convert others to the teachings that would literally save them from everything bad in this world and the next.  I was sent to change the world . . . or at least a good chunk of it.  I was told I’d live forever, and that death was just another beginning.

I now realize the only reason I’m here is because my parents had sex and the biological processes worked the way they’re supposed to.  No grand purpose, no all-powerful being guiding my decisions, no big impact on the world I’m destined to accomplish.  By all probable expectations I will have been born, lived, and died without causing even a minute difference to the world, or at least not a recognizable one.  Undoubtedly one of you is saying to yourself, “Well, everything we do has an impact and we can never comprehend how much we changed those around us.”   You’re absolutely right.  But go climb a mountain and look out over a valley.  Open up an atlas and look at the world.  Look at the largest cities, and marvel at the size of them, the sheer number of people who are living right now.  Marvel at how small you are.  Realize billions have come and gone, affecting only those in their immediate vicinity and were forgotten with everyone else.

The fact is within four generations no one will remember my name.  Unless of course I’m one of the few – if I write something truly great, star in some groundbreaking movie, or accomplish some great political reform that has my name attached to it.  But even then the futility of it all makes that quest hollow.  Self-aggrandizement solely for the purpose of having your name memorized by future generations is an altogether unfulfilling purpose to live for.  I won’t care if I’m remembered – I’ll be dead!

And that simple realization helps me gain real meaning in the life I live today.


This moment–right now–laughing with friends, helping a stranger, learning everything I can, hanging out with family, struggling on the climbing wall–ENJOYING every moment I can in the fullest sense of the word–that’s what life is about!  ENJOYING my family.  ENJOYING each of my friends; their unique humor; their unique outlook.  Taking joy from helping the one, from caring about someone enough to listen to them, to teach a child something that will help, to give them confidence so they’ll believe in themselves.  These are the little things that make life great.  Being remembered, my name being engraved on some wall, written in some text book, or repeated by my descendants, is of little importance to me.  What pride is there to be had when I’m a corpse?  None of that is important.  It doesn’t matter if the stranger I help remembers me, or if the kid I teach praises me – all that matters is that I did something to make his life a little brighter, a little lighter, a little happier.

The fact is – all I have is this life.  These moments, written down in the book of my life – individual, fleeting experiences I have while the pages turn more and more quickly – is all I can guarantee.  So I LIVE.  I LIVE each day; each moment I can.  I revel in the weaknesses that make me ME, laugh at my inability to overcome them, and put one foot in front of the other and try again.  I appreciate each person around me, doing my best to not see them as society does–as a consumer, a product, a beauty or a beast–but as complex individuals with their own great stories.  I become honest with myself, and open my heart up for others around me so they can actually see the real me, and I hope they’ll do the same.

“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more.  It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.” 
Macbeth, act V, scene v

A tale told by an idiot . . . signifying nothing.  This thought does not depress me – rather it motivates me to learn to really live a full life.  I will not be “an idiot, full of sound and fury,” thinking so highly of myself while I live and then being forgotten – my life having meant nothing.  Rather, I know I’ll be forgotten, and try to live my life according to what brings me and those around me the most joy.  The truth is I have no purpose given to me from outside myself.  No God telling me I’m important.  No teacher giving me false hopes and delusions of grandeur.  The purpose of my life is solely up to me to create and to enjoy.  And I’m going to enjoy the hell out of it!
What do you think?
This is part of a series–Death, Life, and Atheism–where I’ll be compiling some of the best literature and poetry about death and atheism, along with some thoughts of my own.

If I Have a Gay Child

Occasionally, something you’ve believed for a long time strikes you in a deeper way than before; you realize, more fully, what that belief means.  You “get it,” seemingly for the first time.  An excited energy makes you want to share what you now fully understand, even though others who know what you believe will probably say, “Uh . . . duh.”

Yesterday, this is what I realized:

If I have a gay son or daughter (or transgender or anything else), not a single part of me will be in any way disappointed.  In fact, I would be happy and proud.

I would be proud in the same way as if they had told me (on their own) that they wanted to work hard to become a concert pianist (or better yet, a jazz percussionist): I would be glad that they knew who they were, what they wanted, and that they had enough integrity and passion to pursue it openly.

And then I would tell my child I love them, I support them, and I’ll stand for them in every way I can.

And with that . . . I give you Honey Boo Boo.

Nathan and I on the Gay Mormon Stories podcast

A few weeks ago, my brother and I were interviewed for the Gay Mormon Stories podcast by Daniel Parkinson.  It was a lot of fun and I’m so grateful to be a part of it!  We talked about what it was like growing up as Mormons with a gay dad (who lived in another state), how our family has developed over the years, our eventual path out of the Church, and our new relationship with our dad as activists for homosexual equality.  The podcast went live this morning – Part 1 and Part 2.  (Update – my mom’s interview is now up as well – Part 1Part 2, and Part 3.  My dad’s is up as well – Part 1 and Part 2)

As you listen, I hope you’ll consider some of these questions:

  • “What would it be like for a 10- and 13-year-old to find out that their dad is gay?”
  • “How would that knowledge affect their Mormon faith and their relationship with their dad?”

Within a few weeks, my mom’s podcast and my dad’s podcast will also be available.  My earnest hope is that this conversation will be helpful.  I’ve become a little cynical lately by how difficult it is for us all to understand each other, impossible even (see Sunrise).  I hope you’ll listen, try to see things from our perspective, and then consider what you think about it yourself.

One thing I want to make clear is that you don’t need to leave the Church to accept gay people – many faithful Mormons already have.  Nathan and I are, however, the personal witnesses of the damage narrow doctrine can cause to families and we talk about that quite a bit in this podcast.  That was our experience.

Also, Nathan and I didn’t leave the Church because of doctrines about homosexuality, though they did challenge us in important ways.  We simply feel closer to our dad after losing the belief that he couldn’t be happy without the gospel.  Please understand that what I’m talking about here is sincere pain I felt while growing up, feeling that my dad was a bad person for choosing to be gay.

What I want to see is more Mormons who embrace the gay people in their communities.  So many gay Mormons are still ostracized by their families.  In fact, 42% of homeless youth in Utah are gay!  Many of them were kicked out of their homes by their Mormon families in a “My way or the highway” sort of way.  How many others have committed suicide?  Or lived in depression?  Or thought, for the majority of their lives, that they were wicked or “depraved?”  Or developed psychological problems or been pushed to “greater sins” as a result of losing everything because of their family’s response to their sexual orientation?  Whether or not you believe homosexuality is OK in God’s eyes, the way Mormon culture currently approaches it is hurting a lot of people, my family included.

For the sake of all the young Mormon boys who will tell their fathers, with strained voices and watery eyes, that they like boys instead of girls (and for the sake of the lesbians and bis and transgenders and everyone else too), please –  let’s drop our differences for a minute and talk.

Gun laws, gay marriage, Obama-care, all the polarizing topics we argue about every day, let’s cut it out for a minute, look around, and see things through other’s eyes for a minute.  Let’s realize that while we bicker, each as confident in our own positions as we were when we acquired them 10 years ago, others around us are experiencing a very real pain.  They need friendship, they need understanding, they need loved ones who listen and don’t judge, who don’t trivialize their inner struggles, who don’t assume things about why or what they do, but who just listen to them and trust them.

So here you go – you have an opportunity to sit back and listen for a bit, to see the world through our eyes as we talk about our past.  I hope you’ll take the chance, and then I hope you’ll help me see through yours by responding.

Much love,



My mom’s interview is up!  Click here to listen.

(ps – If this is your first time to this blog, please read 2012 in review for a good overview of what this blog is about.  Also, here’s the philanthropy blog mentioned in the podcast.)

“Glimpses of Buried Treasure”

The other day I was hiking in the Greenbelt here in Austin Texas, a system of trails that follows a seasonal stream, and I stumbled onto the scattered pages of what I thought was someone’s journal.  The pages were spread over about fifty feet of the dry creek bed, a recent rain having weighed them down so the wind hadn’t taken them very far, and I guess I did what anyone else would do when given the chance to read the secret thoughts of a stranger: I started reading.  It turned out to be a community notebook, placed in a cave a few weeks ago for whoever stumbled on it to write in.  Then I did what any responsible citizen would do and picked up the litter so I could throw it away.  Or I did it because I wanted to write about it . . . .

On my mind was something I had just read in A Tale of Two Cities.  I think it does a good enough job explaining why this notebook of random thoughts was so great to have found.

A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other.  A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it!  Something of the awfulness, even of Death itself, is referable to this. No more can I turn the leaves of this dear book that I loved, and vainly hope in time to read it all.  No more can I look into the depths of this unfathomable water, wherein, as momentary lights glanced into it, I have had glimpses of buried treasure and other things submerged.  It was appointed that the book should shut with a spring, for ever and for ever, when I had read but a page. . . .  In any of the burial-places of this city through which I pass, is there a sleeper more inscrutable than its busy inhabitants are, in their innermost personality, to me, or than I am to them?

Cave Secrets cover

Cave Secrets

(Click on any of the circular pictures to enter the album)

Greenbelt Journal - Lost mother

I am ever interested in the secret lives of other people and ever impressed at how impossible it is to know them.  As I passed people on the trail and had quick conversations about dogs and the weather, I wondered what they would write on their page and what unknown stories lay hidden further beneath.


(PS, if by any small chance one of the authors of this journal finds this post, or anyone else who knows, let me know where the “cave” is and I’ll return the book with a new one that is more permanent!)


This morning there was a beautiful sunrise and I saw myself in it, my own insecurities and anxieties reflected back in a way that helped me understand myself. I thought about society and public opinion, about history and fame, about why none of us really understand each other.

Nature is like poetry in that way–vague and ready to be interpreted for our own use–but I don’t like to stretch symbolism farther than needed. What follows is simply an attempt to describe what I saw while watching the sun rise and the scattered thoughts that followed.


Silhouetted trees, black with no leaves, set against a stark orange background of a large cloud, waves across its surface. The sun is at just the right angle that, much like the sand of a beach when the sun is low, the cloud’s low points cast shadows across the rest.


It’s the small things that are so impressive, the things we usually don’t notice and that don’t last long enough to give us a second chance. Here you see loose fog at the bottom of the cloud, closest to me in the picture, that will soon be burned upwards or will become invisible once the sun is too high to reflect through it to my eyes.


Each phase of this sunrise lasts only a few minutes. The waves on the bottom of the cloud are gone, the sun having risen behind and becoming only an orange glow, and the cloud now blocks most of the light from reaching my eyes.


Wispy clouds high in the atmosphere now have their moment.  Invisible or unnoticed before, they are now bright, intricate, and delicate, set against a blue sky and above a dark red. These clouds now pull my eyes upward, halt my breath, stretch my mouth into a smile, move my hand to the camera, my finger to the zoom, and cause me to take eight photographs to try to capture their simple but intricate appeal. This is the signature of 7:30 AM.

The rest has been beautiful and unique, but this is my favorite. I can’t explain exactly why.




As the sun rises more, the orange glow begins to disappear, the sun now almost completely darkened behind what has become a very large cloud. Above, the light’s reflection is too much for the intricacies of 7:30 – it too becomes indistinct, the light blending too much for detail.


New clouds form above the large cloud, bright on the bottom and dark on the top, dotting the sky in a diagonal line.



The sun is now finally visible above the large, low-hanging cloud of the early morning.


These clouds were beautiful, but wouldn’t have been anything special without the low-angled sunlight passing through them. In fact, many of them were in the sky before I woke up. Had I looked out my window at four in the morning it isn’t likely I would have felt impelled to get my camera and go outside to capture the view; any clouds would have been dark, gray, or unseen. During the short time of sunrise and sunset the colors are so unique and fleeting that we have to either look at them or admit that we’re out of touch with nature.

Even these clouds were the only ones I noticed among hundreds of others within my view, and even then I only focused on the most brilliant among them for a few short moments before the sun, followed quickly by my eyes, shifted its gaze elsewhere.

Scattered thoughts

I am a lot of different things at once, and so are you. Since I don’t know you, and you don’t know me well enough to speak for me, I’ll speak of myself and hope you can understand. That’s the difficult thing – to be understood. Everything I am influences the way you hear me.

I’m an atheist ex-Mormon. To some, that fact brings an unexpected twinge of curiosity: “There must be a great story here.” Hours of friendly conversation follow. To others it brings genuine emotional pain, a feeling of loss, a felling that a friend is now an enemy, an ally now a critic: “Oh how and why did he do that? He was so faithful and strong.” To others–perhaps to the more insecure or controlling–it brings anger, and results in biting remarks most often unheard by me.

Religion, along with politics, is a topic where most people expect misunderstanding and conflict.

I’m also philanthropist. You are too, most likely – it’s not an exclusive term reserved for the rich or the hipster, it’s just about doing good for other people. I write my honest thoughts about poverty and nonprofits in a way I hope is helpful and interesting. Most find this inspiring: “That’s awesome, I want to do something like that too.” Other people are, as surprising as this has been to me, sincerely offended. I ignored them until I realized they really believed the words they said about me, and then I lamented our inability to be heard correctly and recognized how oversensitive and callous our society is at the same time – ready to react defensively but excited to criticize when we can: “This racist, pampered, pretentious fool actually thinks he’s making a difference. This slum-tourist, this sheltered naive prick, this self-absorbed idiot.” Still others are defensive and distrustful. Within their vague responses I hear what they mean to say: “Would you please just not ask as many questions or discuss our programs so openly? You might mess something up.”

I’ve felt misunderstood at many times in my life, but usually I’ve been able to explain it away. These reactions to writing about philanthropy were startling.

I’m a lot of other things too, some of them controversial, some boring, all of them important to the way I’m heard. I’m a banker for a large bank at a time when large banks are hated; I’m an American; I’m white, tall, blonde-haired and blue-eyed; I’m a man; I’m bilingual; I’m liberal; I live with my fiance; I’m talkative when with friends and content to people-watch when with strangers. Each of these things–and thousands of others like them–are seen in a different way by every person who sees them.


Sunrise11Consider this cloud. I love how each smaller, individual cloud is pressed together into one large body. It reminds me of a hand-drawn map of an archipelago or the rippled sand on the shore of a mountain lake.

Still, it’s nothing compared to the scenes shown above.  That has nothing to do with the clouds themselves, it has only to do with the sun and I, standing at a particular angle to each other that other clouds are more brilliant and these are more gray.  To someone else though, farther to the north than me, these clustered clouds are in just the right spot to be colored beautifully by the sun.  What is gray to me is beautiful to someone else.

And that’s the truth I want to give here, the only words that really matter to this whole article: understanding is impossible. When I write something, the way it is received by others has far more to to with society and with the prior position of the listener than it does with the words I say.

Consider the scriptures. I used to read the scriptures and get a great spiritual feeling. Now I don’t read them at all, but when I do I notice all the destructive things in them, like the stories that glorify murder in the name of god or the verses that make all other lifestyles seem terribly unhappy, for example. How different my experience is now than it was before. The book hasn’t changed, I haven’t even really “changed,” but my perspective has. Now I get my spiritual feeling elsewhere.

We each interpret the world through our own experiences. What would a life-long atheist understand about the feelings of a Mormon boy reading the scriptures? He might become familiar with the doctrines and the scriptures themselves, but he wouldn’t understand what it was like, not fully. The imaginative and empathetic person can feel a little of what someone else feels, but that has its own limitations. If I had never felt good while reading scriptures, how differently would I view my Mormon friends? How much less would I understand them?

Likewise, how can Mormons understand me and my experience?

Consider politics. A conservative friend hears a speech about protecting the second amendment from “Barrack Hussein Obama” and it rouses within him a righteous anger against those who are attempting to “weaken America.” That feeling is real. I hear the speech and make fun of it right away, titling the speaker as moron, idiot, zealot, dogmatic, and ridiculous. The words we heard were the same, the simplistic meme was the same, but the response it received from me and my friend are completely different.

We’re prepared by society and by our former training to accept some things and reject others instantly. I could list a hundred other examples, but I don’t think we need to bore ourselves with repetitive detail.

If it sounds like I’m playing the victim, I am. I’m realizing now how impossible it is for us to all understand each other for how we really are. We are perpetually prone to misjudge. We’re each victims of our own training.

Being offended

Realizing that full understanding is impossible (with almost everyone) doesn’t relieve us of responsibility to explain ourselves well. Words are powerful – the smallest of them can change the tone of a sentence and affect the way we react to it. Ignoring accountability for the words we choose is silly.

I’ve heard the LDS phrase “It’s your choice to be offended” enough times to cringe when I hear it now, and this seems like a good place to rant about it for a second.

No, it isn’t my choice to be offended. Linguistically it doesn’t even make sense. It’s no more my choice to be offended by someone than it is for me to be slapped – it is an action done to me by someone else. It is my choice how I react to that offense, or whether I’d like to remain upset, just like it’s my choice whether to slap someone back after they slap me, but let’s keep the language clear.

I’m sure the person who authored this unfortunate LDS phrase didn’t realize it was going to be used as a license for members to say whatever they wanted without consequence.  They may have meant the phrase to be used to say a state of mind like “being upset” or “being angry,” in which case it is true that I choose the emotion of being offended.  But if you say something racist or homophobic you can’t toss your hands in the air, repeat this LDS phrase, and avoid apology. Nor can I, after watching people misunderstand me, simply throw my hands in the air and blame it all on how impossible it is to be understood.

So it is that there are two truths, existent at the same time: it is impossible to understand others perfectly and it is my responsibility to make myself as easy to understand as possible.

The best writing

The best writing is true, and that doesn’t necessarily mean people will like it. After all the frivolous words fade from human memory–the vain, the dogmatic, the pretentious–these true words last because people continue to be influenced by them across generations. I wonder which words about our day will survive the passing of time and how many of them I would have agreed with.

If I want to write something true, I have to strike a delicate balance between disinterest and interest in how society responds to my words. On one extreme I would constantly be thinking about how people might react and my writing would become fickle and easily forgotten. On the other extreme I could become pompously disconnected from reality, too sure about my own conclusions.

I think I’ll leave the flatness for politicians that need votes and just be myself. Maybe then I’ll say something true enough that others will appreciate it and it will last. Or maybe not.

Maybe I’ll be a cloud that will shine resplendently when society becomes aware of my words (and when I’ve written my best). Or maybe I’ll be there in the sky, saying true things but going unnoticed, a midnight cloud with no one to see or a mid-day cloud with few to care, while brighter clouds give porch-sitting watchers their morning thoughts.

All I can do is live my life honestly and explain myself clearly, as disinterested in the sun and the porch-sitting watcher as that 7:30 wisp was in me.


Oh, and here are some more awesome Texas clouds 🙂