Me, Josh Duggar, & Our Ruined Institutions

[Author’s Warning: Nuance Ahead!]

Today I woke up to another wave of news articles about Josh Duggar and the Ashley Madison saga and decided I couldn’t let it pass without comment. I normally stay away from “current affairs” (no pun intended, really!) and as I have gotten older, more and more I see news as just noise, mostly to be ignored, or at least not to be taken too seriously. But this time it’s different. This time I am moved to speak out after remaining silent for 10 years.

You see, I’m from Northwest Arkansas. I spent the first 2/3 of my life there. I knew the Duggars — and the whole political-religious entanglement that is life in Real America (as opposed to the coasts, which I shall refer to hereafter as “Fake America” — on which side you take my irony is up to you). It was my life, and the only world I knew, save for the Internet.

I’m going to comment on the Duggar situation and the culture that surrounds it, but it’s necessary for you to know a bit about my life to understand my unique perspective on the matter. None of the story is anything I haven’t shared with many people openly, but it is the first time I’ve told it in an extremely public format like this, so bear with me.

The first disclaimer before I go any further: I am eternally grateful to my mother for her deep kindness and extraordinary love and compassion, without which I likely would not have emerged from my upbringing the way that I did. To any friends & family who might read this: if you find this offensive or personally hurtful, I hope you will examine why you are taking it personally or as harmful. Everything I am writing below is intended to prevent more people from being hurt, and comes from a place of love, so I hope you will see it as a call to rethink and reconsider rather than as a personal attack, which it is certainly not meant to be.

The Closeted Gay Kid in Arkansas

The Budding Zealot

I grew up to be a Pharisee. Phariseeism came easily to me. I was a well-behaved, self-controlled child who almost never made any sort of public mistakes and as a result was treated by adults as a model child. I was the teacher’s pet in school and Sunday School. Add to that my natural intelligence and precociousness and you get a recipe for a smug, arrogant little asshole child. Fortunately, and again I think because of my mother’s influence, I was also a tender and compassionate child who cried easily (and often), and was overly empathetic to others’ suffering. It is perhaps because of the latter that I felt more comfortable living like the former. But it was a strange way to come up.

I always assumed that the other kids didn’t like me because I was better than they were, not because I was a complete dick about it. This interaction with my peers just cemented my Phariseeic aspirations. I got involved in the church and Republican politics at an early age, and these things and the desire to go far with them were nearly my total identity when I was a teenager and in college.

All of these years were spent at the First Baptist Church of Bentonville, Arkansas, where dogma and shallow theology reigned supreme. I assume they still do. I was taught all of the major doctrines of Jesus like judge your neighbor, cast the first stone, gay people are evil, abortion is the most horrible thing to ever happen to America, war is Godly — especially if it’s against Muslims, and oh yeah, God is Love…something like that.

Pretty confusing stuff, really.

As a curious kid, I asked questions people didn’t want me asking, and so I learned how to ask them subtlely to test what they were really thinking. I played a lot of games with adults in and around my religious upbringing, trying to dig at the root of what they really thought and why. What I discovered is that almost none of them did…think, that is. That’s when I started losing respect for almost all of the adults in my life, and about the time I started experimenting with Calvinism.

Calvinism: A Bad Trip

If it sounds like I’m associating Calvinism with dangerous drug experimentation, well, you could put it that way. Except Calvinism is way worse.

God jumps out of the mirror at you in dark smoke and makes you feel like you and the entire human race are complete shit and unworthy of existing. If you think I’m exaggerating, let me give you a taste…

The mind of man has been so completely estranged from God’s righteousness that it conceives, desires, and undertakes, only that which is impious, perverted, foul, impure, and infamous. The heart is so steeped in the poison of sin, that it can breathe out nothing but a loathsome stench. But if some men occasionally make a show of good, their minds nevertheless ever remain enveloped in hypocrisy and deceitful craft, and their hearts bound by inner perversity.

The thing about Calvin, though, is that he was a pretty smart guy, in purely intellectual terms. His reasoning made sense, if you accepted his presuppositions, which were not too far off what I had been raised to think, so it was incredibly alluring.

Calvinists too I found to be extraordinarily intellectual folk, the most intelligent Christians I’d ever met at that point of my life. To paraphrase the movie The American President, when you are in a desert you get so thirsty you’ll drink the sand. So I started drinking the Calvinist sand. In effect, it’s just a more intellectualized path to the same dogmas (and politics) I was raised with, and I still have a lot of respect for Calvinists. I think they are horribly horribly wrong, but they at least seem to have given their position some thought.

But I Wanted to Kiss a Boy

To date, I’ve still read more theology than any other subject. I consumed it voraciously, as any good young Pharisee would. Until one day all of those deeply repressed homosexual urges came bubbling up to the top. Just when I thought I’d “conquered” these feelings and interests, they came roaring back in the second semester of my senior year in college.

My attempts to date girls had been completely unsuccessful because my heart had never been in it. I went on dates and I thought I was charming enough (I’d actually be terrified to ask them now!), I never could muster the nerve to kiss them, because, well, girls have coodies and stuff. I just wasn’t into it.

I had been tortured by this because at the same time I felt no genuine interest in dating, I was told by everybody around me that all successful politicians had wives, and my empirical research had pretty well borne this out. So rejections from girls tended to hurt me pretty badly, because I saw it as a barrier to my life’s dreams.

All of my close friends my whole life had been heterosexual males, and because I didn’t possess any of the caricatured stereotypical traits of a young gay man, I had otherwise passed through life unnoticed by my environment as a closeted homosexual. I had even passed by myself somewhat unnoticed, and certainly from a place of deep denial I was good at pretending as much.

But then a tragic event — the sudden death of a longtime friend and mentor — spurred in me a new wave of introspection and self-examination. What did I want from my life? How did I want to live, seeing how life can be so unexpectedly shortened? My political ambitions came into question. What if I never achieved what I wanted — what if I died before I reached my goal? Would it be worth it to live the way I was living, lonely and miserable?

Dating the President of PRIDE

I’ve always been somebody who was extremely quiet and subtle in life *sarcasm* so of course I would find a discreet closeted guy to date for my first time. No, no, of course not. I had class with one of my long-time nemeses from debate and campus politics, and at some point, we started talking, and then hanging out, and eventually dating. No odder couple could there have been than me, the firebrand Republican and him the flaming Democrat (hey, I’m allowed to say that). It was a rather controversy-filled short relationship, as you might expect, but thankfully the experience pushed me out of my comfort zone enough to again more deeply question the fundamental philosophical presuppositions on which my life was operating.

In the second major re-examination of my life (the first having led to Calvinism) I was fortunate to have been supported by my lifelong friend and high school debate partner Joshua Kenyon, to whom I am eternally indebted for his deep compassion and intellectual vigour. He forever changed my life, not only by supporting me in the process of coming out to myself — a process much harder I think than coming out to other people — but perhaps moreso for introducing me to the writings of M. Scott Peck, Henri J.M. Nouwen, and Thomas Merton.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, Josh had given me the seeds of what would eventually become my deepest passion and life’s work. But it took 7 years for those seeds to grow. The intervening 7 years are a story (or perhaps, many stories) that deserve attention in and of themselves, and maybe one day I’ll get around to telling those stories too, but they aren’t relevant to our topic at-hand.

8,054 Kilometers Away

Why I’m So Riled Up

Fast-forward to now, and I have spent the majority of my adult life living in Chile, after a couple years in Dallas, Texas. My life in Arkansas is a distant memory. There are many people who I would love to see, and who I know would love to see me, and I hope that such a reunion is possible one day, but for now I’m not motivated to go dredging up the past with a return visit.

There’s a reason for this that is deeper than just feeling like Arkansas is an intolerant and backward place. It’s not that at all. We are all backward and intolerant in some way — we just haven’t realized it yet. In these intervening years of the brutality of real adulthood, I have decided to live my life as a continual quest for identifying my backwardness and intolerance. Which is to say, to continue figuring out the ways in which I am ignorant, and then go about responding to this new discovery of ignorance.

[Heresy Warning!] To me this is what the Garden of Eden story is really about. It is a universal and always-true story. We are curious to know more about the world, but worried that knowing more might demand something of us, or realize how wrong we have been (getting kicked out of the Garden). Most of the time, the easiest thing is to want to go back to some past Garden or at least to stay in the one we are already in. This is why I’m so pissed off at the general culture in which I was raised. It’s not that they are intolerant of gays, or in favor of overseas wars (and think that God specially blesses those who volunteer to fight in them!), as bad as those things are.

But rather it’s that they have created an entire culture that is opposed to thinking. If they are right about the things they espouse, then why not encourage critical thinking to allow young people to come to those conclusions on their own? If it’s all so obviously true as they claim, then why not trust that any path of philosophy will eventually lead people there?

Of course I presume the answer is that they know that open, critical thought will almost never lead anybody to that precise set of conclusions, and certainly not without some degree of nuance, exception, and a dozen caveats. This is quite threatening to them. Life is much easier to live if you think you have everything all figured out. Critically examining everything is tiresome, and yet it is our only real defense against error. Because we know for a fact that there has been a lot of error in the past.

It’s always been funny to me that the same set of evangelicals who claim that error is impossible when it comes to something trivial like homosexuality (and in the grand scheme of all of theology and the subjects of the Bible, it is not what one could call a major theme!) openly talk about the error committed by the Roman Catholics for 1,500 years on the most central topic of Salvation by Grace until it was ‘corrected’ by the Reformation.

File Under: Things That Make You Go WHAT THE FUCK?

Poor Josh Duggar

So this gets me to the topic at-hand, and I hope you’re still with me, but all that stuff really was necessary.

I have extraordinary compassion for Josh Duggar. I met him many times when he was a teenage kid, when his dad was an Arkansas State Representative and running for higher office. I saw him paraded around in public with his n brothers and sisters (I can’t remember exactly how many there were at the time) like little show monkeys, with their songs and musical instruments, and their dutiful mother towing them along. Oh the gushing praise they received from some, and whispering ridicule — even amongst conservative Republicans — from others.

I always felt sad for them. They were part of a circus, and they didn’t even know it.

I don’t dare to guess at the deep motivations of the parents, so let’s assume the best intentions. There was then, at the least, a substantial ignorance of the impact of that way of life on the children, an impact that has now several times recently been exposed publicly because of the public life the parents chose for the entire family. Were it not for this fact, it would be much easier to give way to my inner troll and the schadenfreude that would feel so rewarding.

But I see the whole family as being caught up in a much broader victimhood. They are, all of them, victims of a pernicious strain of a virulent ideology that has infected American life for about 150 years, starting with the evangelical revivalism of the late 19th century. This doesn’t mean they can just get away with anything they do and it be excused (REALLY), but it is important to understand the roots of the circumstances here. I’m perhaps particularly compassionate because these victims include most of my family, and most of the people I knew for the first 2/3 of my life.

I don’t consider myself to be a victim, because I managed to escape from it. I managed to make the hard decision to get away, both physically and spiritually/intellectually. But I see so many people from my early life still plagued by the dogma.

It is very difficult to escape, though, when from infancy you are taught to be terrified of hell, and to be sure that you are sure that you are sure that you are “saved.” It’s no different from being in an abusive relationship. You come to believe that you couldn’t live without them and you will surely be destroyed if you leave. Only the threat of eternal hell is much more potent, because it’s eternal. As horrible as it may sound, at least abused spouses have the escape of death as an out. Those threatened with eternal damnation are optionless.

Confronting Our Demons Honestly

The thing that most religious practice does most terribly of all is being honest about our specific ‘demons’ and seeing them as perfectly normal, and even healthy. I know this is going to sound strange to a lot of people, but stick with me if you can.

Imagine Josh Duggar and I were in a Sunday School class together as late teenagers and I said “you know, I saw some pictures of naked guys and was pretty aroused by this.” He might have responded “I have this fantasy of having really violent sex with a girl.”

In each of our respective contexts, such open admissions would have gotten us sent straight to the senior pastor’s office to figure out how we were going to be “fixed.” That might mean, as it did in young Josh’s case, getting sent to some sort of rehab camp, and in my case would have (if I had made a public error to that effect) gotten me sent to an ex gay camp.

Accountabilibuddies and all that.

Now think of an alternate universe where this would not have happened. Instead, perhaps somebody would have sat down with me and said “you know, a lot of Christians think that homosexuality is wrong, and here are the reasons they have for thinking that. But there are also a lot of homosexual Christians out there too, and here are the arguments they make in support of their beliefs. Ultimately, though you are the one who has to answer to God, and you have to explore this and make your own decision about how to live your life. There are people here who love you and would support you.”

Imagine Josh Duggar sitting down with a Sunday School teacher who said “you know, Josh, sex is a really powerful part of life, and it’s really normal to have these kind of fantasies. It’s not even bad to have them. But you have to think about how you want to treat other people — and if you are having sex with another person, you have to remember they are a human being with feelings, just like you. So what may seem exciting to you when it’s a depersonalized fantasy might be something you would see differently if you put it into context — you should probably consider all of these factors and more. But it’s something that in the end you should discuss with your partner beforehand, because the way you have sex is a mutual decision between the people involved.”

Alternate universe indeed…

Aha! God is Not Great! See! See!

Of course the first reaction of many people from Fake America is to dump on religious practice and belief generally. The chorus of sniveling malcontents from the militant atheist corners, parroting their British cousins Dawkins, Hitchens, et al are all screaming “see! look! this is what religion does to people!”

They ridicule, in their smug tone, the silliness and backwardness of religious belief. “Oh ho ho, how positively medieval you Real Americans are!”

But you guys are part of the problem, too, you see. You’ve helped to create a false dichotomy. By pigeonholing all spiritual questions as “unscientific,” you have created a stigma on the other side. There are many people suffering today from spiritual emptiness because they are afraid to even ask the deep questions for fear of being harrassed by the self-appointed roll-takers of the “in crowd.”

This is why we have seen the explosion of yoga and sanitized meditation practices. It’s just spiritual enough to quench the thirst of those wandering through the desert without inviting the scorn.

This is a problem for two connected reasons. The first is that there are a whole lot of extremely good, wonderful, earnest people out there who see this approach to spirituality as being not very serious (and you must admit, they have a point), and hence are still drawn to the Church and more traditional forms of religious practice.

While these folks are not likely to be the firebrands shouting hellfire and damnation to everybody, they are also likely just to say, subconsciously, “Well, I’m not gay or I’m not this or that, so these rules don’t seem so bad to me.”

The vast vast vast majority of conservative Christians I have known throughout my life are like this. They are good, loving people who want the best for their children, who really do want the best for society, and who take the spiritual part of their lives very seriously. It is difficult for me to find any reason not to respect them for this. Many of them are deeply humble people who shun consumerism and materialism, and in practice are more communist and leftist than the people who actually espouse those ideologies.

These were my Sunday School teachers, these were the mentors I had throughout my childhood, adolescence, and college years who were truly living out the teaching of the prophet Micah:

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

So they stick with the God they know. They hardly see any other options. They certainly don’t want to be vapid hippies or hell-bound intellectuals.

The other side of this problem is that the yoga-goers are often looking for more than “topical ointment,” which is what the sanitized spirituality of the in-crowd provides. I go in, I do some mindfulness stuff, and my anxiety goes away for a while. When it comes back, just do some more mindfulness stuff, and it goes away again.

This is better than mountains of Pfizer pills, of course, and there’s nothing inherently bad in it. But the more I meet and chat with yoga-goers, the more I sense that there is a deeper yearning for exploring the mysteries of life than is fulfilled by an hour of sweating with people in stretchy pants.

What is the nature of existence? Who or what is God? What is dogma? What is Love? What is the meaning of my life? How should I relate to my fellow humans?

These are some of the deep questions of life that traditional religion has scripted answers for, and for which yoga-in-stretchy-pants isn’t quite prepared.

But where to go if you really want to think about these questions, and to ask even more?

The Ruinous State of All Our Institutions

All of our institutions are based on having answers. The State thinks it has all the right answers, and if you don’t go along with them, then somebody with a gun will show up and force you to come along with him.

The Church thinks it has all the right answers, and if you don’t agree, then you can buy your first class ticket to the Lake of Fire.

Our Schools and Universities present themselves as bastions of knowledge, and knowledge of course is the opposite of ignorance, so of course they have all the answers! Indeed, when occasionally somebody tries to present the situation more honestly, they are ejected for the academic equivalent of heresy.

As a result, all of these institutions are in terminal decline. The Higher Education Bubble is a topic of common discussion. The decline of American dominance and hegemony is almost already old news, and the fractures of the Modern State are becoming painfully evident in most of the rest of the world as well. And of course, the Church in almost every corner in the West is singing its swan song.

There are a couple of reasons this should worry everybody, and shouldn’t be unreservedly cheered on even by the most vociferous enemies of these institutions.

The first is that we really do need institutions to help us coordinate. We need them in a lot lower dosage and in different forms than in the past, thanks to technology, but we still need them. As enthusiastic as I am about the possibilities of cryptocurrencies, all of life is not going to be mediated on the blockchain. We have to deal with each other as fallible humans, and institutions were always needed, and therefore designed with the assumption that we were fallible and would go on being fallible. I have questioned that assumption, and yet it still seems to me to be pretty accurate right now.

All of our current institutions, though, were designed pre-software, and therefore aren’t continuing to function, and there’s little evidence they plan to do a major upgrade. Pope Francis on Twitter hardly counts — MOOCs either, in the case of universities. I won’t even talk about the National Health Exchange software…

We can debate about the extent to which we need these different institutions, and how they should function, but except for the most stubborn ideological anarchists, most people agree that we have to have them in some form. Their decline should spur us to action.

But the action shouldn’t be just to revive them as they were, because the reason they died is that they weren’t serving their purposes very well. When you have all the answers in a world that is changing really fast, it’s hard to maintain credibility — or be useful. What good is it to have printed textbooks in schools and universities when science is constantly having to revise itself?

Discovery, by definition, is “uncovering.” That means something was covered before — unknown. That means ignorance. University dons don’t like talking about their ignorance. They’d rather convince you just how smart they are.

How, then, can we keep pace with innovation and developing technologies to solve the problems facing people all over the world (and the existential problems facing humanity and Earth itself) if we are kowtowing to dogmas in any form?

I’m inclined to agree with Emerson,

I am ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions.

If we are to embrace all of the possibilities of life (and therefore the possible solutions to all of our problems) there can be nothing off limits from our questioning. And so it is only the mind of the questioner that can be considered sacred, again echoing Emerson,

There is nothing at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.

That means not accepting any institution’s framework or rules without first questioning them — all of our institutions, religious and secular alike.


Neither Religious nor Secular, Just Human

Everything I’ve written so far comes from a more than passing interest in these subjects. I have been variously angered and saddened by the pitiful state of our social institutions since childhood that a couple of years ago I decided try to do something about it.

With several other like-minded individuals, I founded Exosphere, and we describe ourselves as a “learning and problem-solving community.” We are building an institution that admits upfront that it doesn’t have any answers. We think we see some things happening in the world that are critical to understand, like the phenomenon of Software Eating the World and the importance of what my friend Venkatesh Rao calls Breaking Smart.

But we don’t have any formula for doing this. We don’t have any answers for you. We are just people who want a safe place to question everything, where we are able to support each other in asking those questions, and in experimenting with all of the possibilities life has to offer, where the only limits are self-imposed limits, and where even those are questioned, too.

Which kinds of questions do we want to ask?

All of them.

Questions — especially how questions — about science, technology, business, ethics, existence, pasta, and more.

How do we build better, more sustainable businesses where work feels like play?

How do we better solve technological limitations to create more abundance?

How do we utilize markets to reduce poverty in the world?

How do we live in ways that recognize our impact on the rest of the earth without destroying human freedom?

How do we cook pasta al dente so as not to offend our Italian friends?

I told you — all of the questions.

We want to become the only institution in the world who doesn’t have an orthodoxy or ideology or specific mission, but one whose mission is merely to help people do the thing in their life that comes most naturally to them, utilizes their talents to the fullest, and challenges them to grow.

And while we go deeper in science, technology, and business, we also want to understand ourselves better. We want to understand ourselves so we can be better versions of ourselves — but not to become other people. Not to become what somebody else expects us to be. Not to play a role or read from a script. To improvise our own role, and change it whenever it’s time to change it, and not be judged for that either.

We are “radicals”, in the true sense of the term, which means people who go to the root. We want to question so much as to get to the root of everything. Nothing is too sacred to be questioned. Nothing is off limits. We want to expose all of the idiocy in our thinking, correct course, and try to do it better in the future.

We’re creating an institution that sees life as an Infinite Game and we want to do interesting things together for the rest of our lives.

If you’re tired of all the charlatans out there peddling answers and certainties, and you want to find a group of people who are experimenting and figuring out things as they go, come join us.

If you’re looking for a place where everybody agrees with everybody else, then Exosphere isn’t the place. We argue all the time, about everything. Some of us are religious, others are atheists or agnostics. We are from dozens of countries and languages and are learning how to laugh with each other about our strange cultural differences, while embracing and appreciating the positive differences too. Some of us are left-wingers, others libertarians, and others conservative. Some of us like surfing, others like camping. Some prefer whiskey, others pisco. Some are dog people, others cat people.

You know, all the important dichotomies.

But if you’re certain of everything already, whether it’s that there’s No God and Religion is Evil, or that all you have to do is pray the sinner’s prayer and you’re bound for an eternity in paradise, and you don’t need to ask any questions, then good luck to you — but try to keep it to yourself.

The rest of the world has suffered enough from people like you for the last…you know, all of history.