Thursday, February 26, 2015


I started my winter break off much sadder than most people. I went back home after a long week of finals to go almost immediately to the memorial service of my paternal grandfather, my last living grandparent. The last time I attended a funeral, I was only eight years old and I did not really comprehend the gravity of the situation. I barely remember what people said during the service or what happened afterwards. This time was essentially the first time I was going to be actively attending a funeral.

The service was held in my old church in a small, auxiliary chapel with seating for maybe fifty people. It was really the perfect size because the only attendees were my family, some close family friends, and a few members of the congregation that knew my grandfather. The pastor read the selected sections from the Bible and then my father gave a eulogy that centered around my grandfather's connection to God and churches throughout his life. After the eulogy, the floor was opened to anyone who wished to share stories about my grandfather and an older man stepped forward. While he regaled us with the funnier moments he shared with my grandfather, I realized one thing. I caught a glimpse of the community my grandfather loved in this church. It was a community I never felt like I belonged in but I longed to join as a child.

The next few days at home, I honestly looked at what I had in life. Death has a funny way of bringing you back to reality. I tried to find that sense of community that I know my grandfather once had. My first place was naturally to look at ISSA, the first "religiously-affiliated" community I ever called mine. ISSA has been through its ups and downs recently and we are pushing through and rebuilding the group once more. It may not seem like it right now, but we are working on that community. ISSA provides that community (akin to that which churches provide) for nonreligious students and without it, some of our members would feel very alone on campus. My experiences over break have reminded me that our group needs to maintain the relationships we have built and try to reach out to even more people.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Church of Scientology: A Mission to a Mission

The Church of Scientology has been a curious concept for decades now. This new-age religion counts several celebrities in its ranks, with Tom Cruise and John Travolta being among the most famous members. Many celebrities credit the church’s successful drug rehab program with keeping their careers on track and helping free them of various addictions. However, the church has been widely criticized as a scam to extract money from its members. The organization has even been accused of false imprisonment and torture of certain members. To try to better understand the church’s teachings and common practices, I recently visited the Church of Scientology Mission of Champaign-Urbana with a fellow member of ISSA. For the sake of storytelling, I’ll call him “John.”

The Champaign mission is only open to the public a few days a week from 7 to 9 PM, so it was after dark when we arrived at the small, dark-brick building tucked into a residential neighborhood on John Street. We entered through the front door of the two-story building and were met by two men. They were both late middle aged, with one sitting at an L-shaped desk just inside the door and the other across from him in one of two chairs. John explained that we were “checking them out” and we introduced ourselves to the man at the desk. If I remember correctly, the man’s name was Paul. Paul seemed eager to explain the fundamentals of Scientology to us potential converts, but the other man left the room almost too quickly. We soon sat down in the two chairs across from Paul’s desk to hear what he had to say. This area felt almost like a miniature bookstore in someone’s living room. A large bookshelf sat behind us, packed with the various works of L. Ron Hubbard. A smug, black-and-white portrait of the church’s founder hung on the wall behind Paul’s desk. It was as if Hubbard’s unblinking eyes were staring at you no matter where you were in the room. There was a flat screen TV around the corner and a fireplace to the right of us. It was clear almost as soon as we arrived that the mission was also a home.
Paul seemed to be in his mid 60s. His white hair was longer than average and he was quite charismatic. I must admit I was surprised by how normal he seemed. I had pictured someone in their 30s or 40s who was either completely emotionless, or was just a little “too happy.” When someone gives a large part of their life to a religious organization with a reputation anything close to the likes of Scientology, one might notice a certain look in that person’s eyes. It is as if their eyes are open just a little too wide and don’t blink often enough. I was surprised to see that this was not at all the case with Paul.
Paul explained that the Church of Scientology was founded by science fiction author L. Ron Hubbard in the 1950s. Hubbard outlined the 8 Dynamics of life and existence in Scientology. They are:
  1. Self
  2. Creativity
  3. Group Survival
  4. Species
  5. Life Forms
  6. The Physical Universe
  7. The Spiritual Dynamic
  8. The Infinite
“The Infinite” is commonly defined as “God” or a “Supreme Being.” We were reassured that our understanding of the Eighth Dynamic would not be infringed upon as we would reach the correct answer on our own without being told what it was, as long as were well in-tune with the other seven Dynamics.
Paul said Hubbard pioneered research in psychology and “the reactive mind.” According to Paul, Hubbard developed these findings into various courses and programs for Scientologists to use to improve various aspects of their lives, especially in being more “present” and self aware. He called this work and processes Dianetics, and compiled them into a book by the same name. This book dominated the selection on the shelf.
The process of auditing is a central part of Dianetics. Paul described auditing as a form of religious counselling in which a recipient works one on one with a trained “auditor” to seek out psychological reasons for physical, mental, and emotional difficulties that person may have. According to Paul, the man who left the room when we arrived was a “highly trained auditor.” Paul cited L. Ron Hubbard in saying, “function determines structure, not the other way around.” This meant that one’s own mental condition could be the determining factor in a variety of physical ailments. Paul claimed to have been cured of some form of color blindness during an auditing session when the auditor’s shirt appeared to change color before his very eyes. He explained that while these treatments could not regenerate a limb or anything of that nature, one could speed healing and cure various ailments through simply answering questions and following instructional videos and recordings that only had a direct effect on the mind.
During the conversation, I asked if these services we free due to their religious nature. (I already knew the answer to this question.) Paul was quick to point out that a “donation” was required for most services. If John or I were interested, we could begin our spiritual journey by purchasing a copy of Dianetics for $20. After reading the book and a free initial auditing session, auditing and classes would generally be sold in 5 hour blocks at $25 an hour. There was a strong emphasis on purchasing materials from them rather than seeking them out from other sources. Copies on the internet are often out of date, there is often a waiting list for the books in libraries, and so on. I felt slightly pressured to purchase a copy of Dianetics, but declined. I was not surprised when Paul mentioned he owned his own business. He was a skilled salesman.
Our causal meeting ended up lasting a little over an hour. Paul remained charismatic throughout, but seemed to grow suspicious of me toward the end as my questions took a slightly skeptical turn. Within 5 minutes, he asked me where I was from two separate times. There was something oddly alarming about his tone that I couldn't quite make sense of. We each expressed interest in returning, but this interest was less than sincere. We left with free pamphlets and a basic recording on the principles of Dianetics (pictured above).

All in all, I found this experience very interesting. I saw a slightly more human side of this religion and was even able to pick out a few positive aspects of Scientology. That being said, I would never recommend it. The focus on monetary gain for the church and the lack of sound science in its practices was painfully obvious. There are much larger issues that stem from religion than the Church of Scientology, but it is still an organization that should be watched carefully.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Too Far, Too Biased, or Too Appropriate? An Unexpected Writing Project

Being a James Honors Scholar has its perks- occasional free Krannert concert tickets, promotional books, shirts, and cookies; leadership opportunities others may be looked-over for; and academic distinction on transcripts and the space to, well, work on work you want to work on.

But in the fine arts, you do not have the benefit of objectivity. There are no extra problem sets. There are no options like the Chemistry REACT Program. To put it bluntly, there are no boundaries.

I’m a Creative Writing and Anthropology major with an English minor. CW is my primary. Most if not all of the content I’m assigned involves reading and writing, and editing. It’s exhausting in ways rote memorization cannot be compared to because they’re on entirely different spectrums, in my opinion. My concentration in CW happens to be poetry, and that, again, is a different world of consent-to-be-mindfully-gutted.
Though art feels natural for me to engage with, I often unconsciously shelve topics for CNF (creative non-fiction) instead, or entirely avoid subjects (romantic anything is not my forte). We could say I had this coming. We could say I didn’t.
Last month, I met with an instructor I’ve taken a ton of workshops with. In one, last year, I wrote an essay about apostasy, and reflected on certain religious rituals that hold some nostalgia. I was anxious about sharing the piece, and mildly bothered by some comments and stares (written on a copy of my paper- "Christians believe in evolution too :)" and a sidenote about how I should really emphasize that my background was "Creationist" because #NotAllChristians), but overall, the experience made me believe I was understood and accepted - regardless of our polar-opposite views in some respects. Once, I was told after class, "[It] can come back" (the "it" being faith). After that, in private, I tried to explain my atheism. "It's like, there's a socket and a plug, but I just don't have a plug. I am not connected with anything." I thought that was a simple analogy. I thought I was safe. Ta-ha, not. New standards require that I conform to non-negotiable specifications of said instructor’s choice in compliance with the JHSP (James Scholar Honors Project).
For the advanced-level, I’ve been assigned:
-20 additional poems total
-2 must be lengthy (at least three pages or more)
-10 must be in the style of letters to the Christian God
-10 can be whatever form and theme I choose
As you can imagine, when I heard, “Ten will be letters to God,” the shock was overwhelming. I took it lightly and couldn’t stop giggling, though the disorientation was not something I anticipated. We exchanged jokes about it: 

"You know, it's funny you're having me do this, because there's a section in the poem I just turned in dealing with communication and God. It's like he's saying Got you now, bitch." 

"(laughing cordially) Bitchhhhhhh.

I was given an example of what another student had to do last semester, and while mine is similarly intense, it's nowhere near as upsetting, trust me. I departed with a strong sense of where to begin, thinking, Well, at least this will be a challenge.
But I am left wondering: is this ethical? While discussing the project, I noted some definite hesitation and confliction in gestures and how I was informed, on her part. I’m glad at the pausing. Clearly, I’m not the only one questioning the necessity and seriousness of it.
My experiences with Creationist Christianity and psychical delusions have led to more than skepticism. They’ve led to real and lasting hurt. My coming-out was not a smooth transition, and it continues to be an issue for some (including anonymous men on the internet who stalk my page and message walls-o-text with the intent to convince me the Illuminati is trufax and the Bible predicted these end-times and I must save souls and rectify or suffer the frenzied-disco-til-you-drop-burn in Hell 5ever). And don't get me started on indoctrinated gender norms and sex (as well as orientation) shaming, the speech policing, the book censorship, and the effects of RTS (religious trauma syndrome, as described and researched by Dr. Winnell). 
I am also left wondering: in this field, do we care about ethical? A work of art (literature or otherwise) is not only detailed, but vulnerable. It provokes emotion and thought. It reveals a new perspective, describes the mundane as significant, and it meditates. A work of art is not easy to commit to, particularly if the content is personal.
The endeavor is experimental for the sake of growth. That much I understand, and I’ve chosen to go forward, but what would have happened had I said, “No.”? What if I sensed some lurking conversion agenda, or perceived it as a form of persecution? I could have been asked to write eulogies for anyone I’ve ever loved. I could have been asked to watch dissection videos of cats online and to write using notes about that. I could have been told to consume bizarre food products. I could have been given three YellowBook directories from different states and told I can only construct poems from words found in them. Why this? Why something so sensitive? Why, when I’ve on my own already attempted to comprehend aspects of prayer in a secular style? Why, when this is something I struggled with for my entire childhood and adolescence, is it being pushed back onto me? Every time I sit down to write, I think, This is disingenuous. It took me two and a half weeks just to get one solid draft for a piece out. (That is not a good pace, if you were wondering). 
I’m uneasy.
But I need the credit.
I’m willing.
But where do I draw my lines, now?

Friday, February 13, 2015

Spirituality in the Absence of Religion

        "Spiritual but not religious" is a phrase you hear more and more these days. In 2012, a Pew Foundation survey on religion found that about 16 percent of Americans placed themselves in the category of “unaffiliated" ( 16 percent is a sizable portion of the American population—that’s over 50 million people in the United States who no longer adhere to religious beliefs. 
                                                            Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith  

          About 10 years ago, Sam Harris published his book The End of Faith which kick-started the New Atheist movement.  Along with writers like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett, Harris was unapologetic in his denunciation of literalist religious beliefs.  Looking back, New Atheism was at its best when it provided a clear defense of reason against the many fundamentalisms that only look backward. At its worst, however, it dismissed all experiences of "spirituality" as worthless, pudding-headed confusion.
         In the last chapter of The End of Faith, Harris argued that real spiritual experience was not only possible in the absence of religion, but that it was almost a kind of birthright.  Harris, like many religiously unaffiliated people in the 20 percent, had always found meaning in experiences of personal spirituality. Those experiences take center stage in Harris's latest book Waking Up, in which he writes, “Spirituality begins with a reverence for the ordinary that can lead us to insights and experiences that are anything but ordinary.”  The methods he's interested in are exactly the ones used for millennia in exploring the nature of subjectivity. Collectively he calls them “contemplative practice,” but most people know the methods as meditation.  The self-transcending experiences these contemplative methods make possible are, Harris claims, reproducible. That's what makes them good analogues to the evidence-driven methods of modern science.
         If anything, the 10 years since the rise of New Atheism has shown us how limited its engagement with questions of human spirituality can be. Yes, fundamentalism is dangerous and anti-scientific. Yes, we should vigorously defend the progress made since the time of the Enlightenment. But is that really all there is to say about science and spirituality?  Are we sure that the experiences people feel as spiritual are fully explained by neuroscience in its current form? Are we sure there's no further meaning to be explored in these experiences either personally or in public, philosophical, or scientific contexts?  Of course, we can't be sure. People in the “religiously unaffiliated” category are, in general, not hostile to science. They are apt not to reject science's promise of knowledge based on evidence but, instead, to embrace it.
         But along with that embrace, they also experience their lives through a sense of awe and wonder that many perceive as spiritual. They are, in other words, trying to understand how the worlds of science and spiritual experience fit together. Thus, people in the "spiritual but not religious" category are trying honestly to understand what it means to be both spiritual and scientific. 
         There is a really interesting conversation to be had in this new territory. There remain many open questions like: What is the relation between brain and mind? What is the context of human meaning? What is the nature of consciousness?  It's all the terrain lying beyond the false certainties that have dominated the past 10 years of exhausting "religion vs. science" debate, which hasn't taught us anything particularly useful about the role of spirituality in the lives of people who are religiously unaffiliated. And it's a new conversation that will, hopefully, welcome truly curious people of all persuasions: religious, atheist, scientific and spiritual.