Now more than 30 years ago, Bob Barzan invited a few friends to his San Francisco apartment to have the occasional tea, and talk about their spiritual lives. Out of this grew White Crane Journal.

The idea for the journal came early; while living in Nashville, 1987-88, Barzan looked around for some publication about gay spirituality and found nothing, and thought someone had to do something. He turned out to be that someone and sent the first one out to friends. We are all the richer today for his creative spirit, so while I think I know him fairly well…as well as two people living on opposite coasts can know one another…it was a surprise when we spoke recently and he dropped into the conversation that he was an atheist.

Bo Young: This issue is about “Doubt.” And I’m not sure how I should put this…it gave me pause…when not too long ago, you allowed that you were an atheist. Or as you put it “a non-deist.” At first I thought it might have had something to do with having edited this journal, but you said no.

Barzan: I am not sure that atheism goes with doubt. Atheists don’t doubt, and atheists include Buddhists and Taoist and all the other non-theistic religions. They are not doubters.

Young: Granted. I agree and take your point about atheism and doubt not being necessarily related. I didn’t imagine they were really, though I suspect doubt had to have occurred at some point to reach a non-theistic place. And on the other hand, maybe we’re trying to CAUSE some doubt.

Barzan: Cause some doubt? I love it!! Great idea.

Young: So was your comment about atheism sarcasm?

Barzan: No, I was not being sarcastic. I am non-theistic, a-theistic, there are no gods or goddesses except as metaphors. I have been such for about twenty plus years, so I was an atheist when I started White Crane, though not as refined in my articulation of it.

Young: Metaphors for what? And how has this view refined for you? 

Barzan: Often when people try to understand something that is not understandable they personify the situation and create gods, goddesses, and other supernatural being like angels, spirits, and devils to help them grasp the mystery. These beings help them understand creation, love, evil, pain, sickness, and death, among other things. For some, god can be the personification of forgiveness or judgment or compassion. This is not necessarily an unhealthy way of living, but there are traps. Where we get into trouble is when we believe that our projections are real, that our personifications are beings separate from our own minds and that these projections communicate with us. Actually we are just communicating with ourselves, telling ourselves what we want to hear. And too often what we hear are unhealthy teachings on how to live in the world. Too often our gods personify and validate compulsive behaviors of all kinds, hate, bigotry, exclusion, and injustice or tell us lies about love, sickness, death, or other aspects of life.

There is also a problem with people using religious teachings including images of god that are two thousand years old. For some reason many people believe that our ancient ancestors knew more about spirituality than people know today. There is no evidence for this belief at all, in fact there is a great deal of evidence that the ancient beliefs were at best superstitious and often unhealthy. We know that our ancestors had little understanding of the ways the world works. They held irrational and harmful beliefs about medical care, biology, sex, geography, and astronomy. We easily dismiss these aspects of their worldviews but accept their teachings on spirituality. The fact of the matter is, however, they were just as misguided and wrong in their beliefs about religion, ethics, and spiritual experiences as they were about anything else.

Young: In some cultures, gods and goddesses embody many of the weaknesses of human nature. Greece and India come to mind. Can you give some examples of gods that personify lies about love or sickness or death?

Barzan: The gods that most Christians, Jews, and Moslems create.

Young: Now now…let’s try to be nice here. Can you be more specific?

Barzan: Perhaps it would help if I give you examples of the lies people tell themselves through the gods they create.

  • We are the chosen people.
  • Gays are evil.
  • Infidels must be destroyed.
  • Marriage is only for men and women.
  • Women are inferior to men.
  • Sex is evil.
  • Sex is only for making babies.
  • Our god is the true and only god.
  • God answers our prayers.
  • Your sickness is a punishment for sin.
  • The wicked will be punished.
  • We will be rewarded in the next life.
  • Women should not be educated.
  • The world was created in six days.
  • It’s a sin to eat (fill in the blank).
  • Spare the rod and spoil the child.
  • Never touch women, especially if she is menstruating.

Is that enough?

Young: I guess you’re right…no need to be nice when you’re not playing with nice people, huh? You certainly don’t need to convince me. There does seem to be a leitmotif through the list…aside from the magical god stuff, there does seem to be a rather heavy interest—and a negative one, to be sure—on women and sex.

Barzan: I think it has been that way, at least in the monotheistic religions, right from the beginning. I think the two are related, women and sex that is. It would appear that the gods are as interested in sex and women as straight men are, and the gods are in need of controlling sex and women in a way that is very similar to the way straight men want and expect to control them. Since it was straight men who gave us these gods, I guess we really can’t be surprised. We really need to get beyond god-ness.

Young:  How do you get “beyond god-ness”?

Barzan: I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but very similar to how we got over the Easter bunny, tooth fairies, Santa Claus, and the belief that our parents are all-powerful and all-knowing. It is part of the process of growing up, part of maturing, and it can be difficult because it challenges our worldview. Realizing our gods are projections is a beginning. Then it is important to continue to ask questions about our personal beliefs and understandings, and not accept pat or irrational answers.

God-ness has helped us understand great mysteries, but it is a limiting concept or notion. In fact, I think that god-ness is now a hindrance to personal and community development. It prevents us from using the full force of our intelligence and creativity in solving the ethical, political, social, and environmental crisis facing us today. Non-theistic worldviews are not something new. Buddhism, some types of Taoism, and many native religions are non theistic, but I think we need a non-theistic worldview for the 21st century.

Young: You mentioned earlier that this non-theistic philosophy hasn’t really changed since the days when you first established White Crane but that you’ve just become more articulate. What do you mean by that and what would you say to White Crane readers today that you didn’t or couldn’t say then?

Barzan: There has been a change since I first started White Crane in 1989, but it isn’t as if I’ve been silent since then. White Crane readers and others have had many opportunities to read my writings over the years. Among the issues I can never repeat often enough however, is the importance of discernment. This has become clearer over the last 16 years, and a much more important issue then non-theistic worldviews. It is discernment that guides our spirituality. Without discernment we can never know if we are living a healthy or unhealthy spirituality. Another is that spirituality is our whole way of being in the world including how we make and spend our money, how we treat other people, including our fellow drivers on the road, how we sex with ourselves and others, and every other aspect of our lives.

Young: We’re certainly in agreement on what spirituality is. And it’s why we can discuss anything from food and knitting to the newest pronouncement from the Vatican or Dharamsala.

Barzan: That has always been part of White Crane, you have made it more explicit, and I am glad for that.

Young: After my own search and discernment, I couldn’t tell you one school of thought that made much spiritual sense to me. There’s just so much ego and personal power that comes into play in almost every setting I’ve seen. I keep coming back to the Radical Faeries as a neo-religion, spiritual movement. Even Buddhism I find a little off-putting. I’ve seen so many people who are devoted Buddhists, who meditate “religiously” and at the same time, some of those same people are detached to the point that they are out of touch with their feelings, their embodiment. I just can’t believe that’s preferable.

Barzan: This is why discernment is so important. A healthy spirituality or way of being in the world is more than meditation, more then ritual, and more than a profound sense of connection to the universe. It is easy to get carried away by the altered states of consciousness, by wanting to be holy, or to have unusual experiences, but it is vital to actually be and do. When I am doing counseling with someone who says to me that he or she has had a profound religious experience of some kind, I say to them, “That’s great, now tell me how is it helping you be a more compassionate person, a more loving person, a more forgiving person, and give me some concrete examples.”

Young: I think the argument is that religion is the only thing that civilizes human beings, that constrains them to be “good” or “moral.” I don’t think either of us is arguing for moral relativism.

Barzan: Oh dear, if this were true we would really be in trouble. This must be the argument from someone with a vested interest in religions and who is interested in controlling people. The fact of the matter is that religion has inspired both good and evil, and I think we have reached a point where the trend is more evil than good. There are other reasons, not religious, for treating people well, for creating art, for sharing resources, and the other goods that religion is often credited with. Recent research by Greg Paul at Creighton University in Omaha published in the current issue of the Journal of Religion and Society, shows that the more religious a community is, the more that community suffers from murder, infant mortality, teen pregnancy, abortion, and sexually transmitted diseases. Other studies show the more religious a group is the higher their divorce rates and rates of teen sex.

It is commonly accepted that anything done in the name of religion is good and beneficial, and that personal beliefs are sacred and beyond critique by anyone. This way of thinking, of course, is dangerous. All human experiences have been used to foster both healthy and unhealthy ways of living. It was religion that inspired the inquisition, the suppression of women, the attacks of September 11, 2001, and that is inspiring the renewed attack on gay people from the Vatican and others.

It is vital that we not blindly accept the irrational, dangerous, and caustic religious beliefs of other people, no matter who they are. Religion deserves no special privileges; it is not beyond criticism. I believe in the right that anyone has to his or her own personal beliefs, but the line is drawn when those beliefs lead to actions that are dangerous to themselves or others.  When someone comes up to me with what I think is a bizarre religious belief, I ask them what evidence they have for such a belief. I think we have to be less afraid of challenging ourselves and challenging others.

Many people hide their bigotry, hate, and lack of compassion behind their religious beliefs. They have the right to do that, but I will not hesitate to call them bigots and their beliefs bigotry. One of the things that bothers me is when people call themselves conservatives when what they really are, are bigots. I was talking to a man once who said his parents are against same sex marriage because they are conservative. I corrected him, pointing out that to believe you have a right that other people don’t is to be a bigot, and that his parents sound like they are bigots. He looked at me in a shocked silence for a moment, and then agreed. His parents are indeed bigots.

 Young: But if we move beyond theism and mythology, what is the context in which “spirituality” exists?

 Barzan: That is exactly the point: it exists in every context. I like to think we are rescuing spirituality from its exclusive claim by religions. Religion is only one tiny aspect of spirituality.

To broaden the general context, I would go beyond criticism of irrational religious beliefs and the demand for intellectual honesty. I think we can create a context where open dialogue is fostered and people welcome the open exchange of ideas. Personally I enjoy having my ideas and perceptions challenged. To have this happen is a true blessing. I would also like to see more use of our cross-cultural intelligence and creativity in exploring issues of ethics, mystical experiences, and community. I don’t think there has been enough scientific study of joy, compassion, love, or forgiveness. The scientific study of altered states of consciousness and how they relate to daily living is only just begun. The works of Lawrence Leshan (author of How to Meditate) and more recently Andrew Newberg (author of Why God Won’t Go Away) are breaking new ground. I think the future of spirituality is very exciting.