Thursday, January 28, 2010

Scott Doty's Religious Autobiography

The following is a kind of "religious autobiography", for those wondering where I'm coming from. Sent to Americans United for the Separation of Church and State Associate Director for Religious Outreach.

My Religious Autobiography

My mother is a very devout Roman Catholic, and I was baptised and raised within that religion. This included being an altar boy, attending summer camp, and other activities sponsored by the Santa Rosa diocese.

I did attend public school, however, and in 1983-85 attended a high school that offered access to their new computer lab for interested students. I attribute a great deal of my critical thinking skills to the learning of software logic, as well as exploring and creating new software systems. This included my Advanced Placement courses in Computer Science and Mathematics in my senior year.

Meanwhile, during this late adolescence, I was attending a course intended to prepare us church youth for the RC Sacrament of Confirmation. It was here that I applied my critical thinking skills to ask some skeptical questions of the Church -- questions that neither the (lay) program leaders nor their religious advisor (a priest) could adequately answer. The result: the priest recommended that I drop out of the Confirmation program, and this was conveyed to me through the lay program leaders. (I never did meet with the priest.)

Over the years leading up to this, my mother had been more and more religiously minded, which (due to its affect on our family) I consider having become obsessive, even morbid. So at the age of 17, when my parents separated, my mother was afflicted with psychosis, exacerbated by her religious fears. The result: days later, she had a paranoid psychotic episode, for which I was finally able to get her to an acute psych ward for treatment. As sheltered as my upbringing was, the decision to take her to the hospital was difficult, requiring a kind of adult thinking that hadn't been any part of my life before. I was very happy when my father finally arrived at the hospital, who was very supportive in allaying my doubts and fears about my decision-making.

(Sidenote: My mother, thanks to ongoing treatment, has conquered the symptoms of her diagnosis of schizophrenia -- she is a wonderful person: loving, balanced, and tolerant of her adult children's life choices. I love her dearly.)

Fast forward to 1986: After a semester at Santa Rosa Junior College, I moved to live with my father and his family in San Franscisco, attending a semester at the city community college. After that, I enlisted in the United State Coast Guard, serving 4 years and three months active duty. My rating is now known as "Telecommunications Specialist" -- but at the time, it was called "Radioman". And in 1991, I was released from active duty as a Petty Officer, Second Class. Throughout all this, I was in a state of religious apostacy, though I held to my religious upbringing.

My stint in the USCG left me with a strong desire to help others, but also ignited a fierce passion for learning. Returning to SRJC in 1991, I attended courses in the sciences, including Astronomy and Archaeology -- even a course in Old Testament scholarship. But my strongest passion was for systems and network engineering, as I worked at SRJC's Computing Services to network the campus. 1991 was also the year that SRJC got their first Internet connection -- an event that, for me, was absolutely breathtaking when I realized what we had.

And so, Internet access expanded my learning capabilities so much, that I embarked -- without realizing it -- on a long journey of non-traditional education covering Astronomy, Philosophy, Physics, Theology, and Information Theory: including Queue Theory and Game Theory. The focus for all this learning was both the systems and networking careers that I continued...but also, discussions on the Usenet, a world-wide discussion system that still exists today.

Survival in Usenet discussions includes a healthy knowledge of critical thinking, as well as polemics -- a fact of life that has carried over to many of today's online forum discussions. This is also where I develop (and discussed) my scientifically skeptical philosophy, including reading books recommended from various Usenet FAQ's and discussions.

This narrative has grown long, so I won't go into my involvement in a number of First Amendment issues that arose at SRJC during its telecommunications "growing pains". But I will mention that I left their employ in 1995: partially because of a First Amendment issue, but also due to our company -- -- having grown enough that my attentions were needed full-time. That workload grew in intensity until 1998, when I burned-out.

After a period of recovery, I then continued the same workload for another two years, at which time I again "burned-out" again in 2000. I say "burned-out" in scare-quotes, because the actual event that led to a re-evaluation of my life -- including my religious life -- was, in thought, an epiphany; and in physical effects, was a kind of seizure in which I did not lose consciousness. I don't think about it much anymore, but I continue to be baffled about what exactly happened that morning -- but the result was a period of spiritual renewal, within which I underwent many religious experiences that cemented my faith in God. This included my first confession, in over 10 years, with the only Fransciscan priest in the Santa Rosa diocese -- a selection I made after much wandering in local parks, "walking quietly in the woods", and marveling at God's Creation. I'd also attended mass at a local RC parish, which I must say was a much more loving environment than the cold, stark parish that I'd grown up in.

Today, I am semi-retired, and have spare time that I fill with political, religious, and technological discussions online. I am a person: a particular nexus, the confluence of all these experiences and ideas -- and subsequent discussions therefrom -- which forms a healthy life of continuing non-traditional education. And as an advocate for human rights, I consider the First Amendment one of the most important restrictions on human government that the world has ever known.

And though my "first passion" is open source software and systems, I discuss my religious ideas online, too. A lot.

I have discussions with atheists, usually from the standpoint that their disgust for religion is warranted, if they only consider the ugly and aggregious statements and actions of religious extremists.

I have discussions, too, with a certain set of Christian apologists: which lately has been more about ecumenism and tolerance for other religions.

I guess, in a way, I'm a kind of "Unitarian Universalist apologist", advocating something I call "Rational Theology".

But back to the First Amendment. It seems like an easy idea: we need to keep human government secular, because it is impossible to equally protect the religious rights of everybody, if any one religion is favored by government. It is also odious to a free people to tax them to fund activities to support a religion that they don't subscribe to. This is rational, and rational people find these to be good ideas.

But religious extremists aren't rational.

So I continue to support the good work you all do at, and I'm proud to be a member. I've signed up for the monthly auto-donation program -- please let me know if there is anything else I can do to help.

Scott Doty

Santa Rosa, California, 2010-01-28

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