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Seeking Religion; Finding Charity - my search ends with empathy

Posted: Wed, October 01, 2014 | By: Humanism



by Hank Pellissier

Many human lives have bizarre twists and turns, sharply steered by abrupt personal transformations. My own narrative is a bit convoluted and… infuriating? After I recently announced via LinkedIn that I was the new Manager of Humanitarian Activities for the Mormon Transhumanist Association, my oldest friend texted me:

“WTF?!?!”

He’s confused - am I the same person? I’m a “god-less” militant, right? Producer of an atheist calendar and atheist film festival, faith-bashing blogger in essays where I ridiculed all religions as “Idiotic Conglomerations of Useless Irrational Rubbish.”

But now, I’m gleefully working with Mormons? and other religious folk? “WTF?!?!” is a legitimate response. What the heck am I doing?

My labyrinthine “spiritual journey” provides the answer:

I was baptized and raised Catholic, attending parochial school from Grades 1-8. I was a good little Catholic boy; this is evident in photos of me - hands clasped in prayer, gazing wistfully upwards towards God. I got A’s in catechism. I was evidentially the best little Catholic boy in my school because I was annually chosen to carry the crown of roses for St. Mary, in the May procession.

I was also charitable. The Catholic school I attended collected money everyday for “Pagan Babies” - for only $5 you could adopt and name your own Pagan Baby - I saved my allowance and bought a lot of them, I named them “Henri Fidel” after myself - I dreamed of meeting them. When I grew up, I wanted to be a Missionary, wandering jungles with a Bible and crucifix, seeking primitive tribes to save their souls.

My Catholicism abruptly ended when I hit puberty - emerging testosterone destroyed my faith. Why would a kind and intelligent God create sexual desire? To tempt us unmercifully? Sex, I decided, was too strong, important, and necessary to be categorized as a Sin. I left the Church at the age of 18.

After that, for the next 10 years, I described myself as a Taoist-Zen Buddhist. Yes, it was a pretentious hippie thing to say, but that’s what I was. Long-hair, yoga pants, Birkenstocks. I read the Tao Te Ching in multiple translations, I meditated irregularly.

I also took psychic reading classes; this led me to another trend. When I was 28 I heard a “voice.” I was reading the “Seth Speaks” books when it happened; sure enough, I started channeling, too. I was semi-reluctant - I refused to write down what the “voice” told me. But I did obey two requests of the “voice.” The voice said I should be a minister, and I should study religion. I always look for cheap bargains so I became a Universal Life Minister - the license only cost $40, issued from headquarters in the sacred city of Modesto. I performed weddings, I married about eight couples - about half are divorced now.

The second request? I went back to college and got a Master’s Degree in Religion & Humanities, at an affordable rate, via a correspondence program from Cal State Dominguez Hills. The “voice” disappeared after that, after popping up on and off for 7 years. Was the “voice” bored with me? Or satisfied? I don’t know - I didn’t miss it - I became “agnostic.” Just not very interested in religion for 8-10 years. I got married, had two children, started a preschool…

When I was 55 I was suddenly intrigued by Quakerism. I liked the history and the social justice; abolitionism and peace. I attended Quaker Meetings - the silent program - and I dragged my family for one year to the jungles of Costa Rica where there’s a Quaker colony in Monteverde: emigrees from Alabama who moved to Costa Rica to protest the Korean War draft. I was a Quaker attender there, in the jungle, until I was waylaid by…

Atheism! In April 2009 I found myself simultaneously angry at Pope Benedict and Islam. Benedict? he said condoms in Africa promoted AIDS by encouraging sexuality. Islam? My fury was ignited after I read Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s biography “Infidel.”

Suddenly I was a Militant Atheist. I plunged right in. I produced an Atheist Film Festival in San Francisco and an Atheist Calendar for Atheist Alliance. I read Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris… I liked the books, but the atheist organizations I met… uh oh…

I went to an Atheist Picnic Party in Golden Gate Park, with one of my daughters. I thought it was really boring. The atheists ate really bad food. The big event was a Bible-Throwing contest, to see who could throw the Holy Book the farthest, on a lawn. My daughter won the children’s competition, they were pleased with her. But I think… the Bible has some fantastically great literature. I thought the militant atheist scene… was entirely negative, it was just about bashing people who believe in religion, ridiculing their books…

Quickly, after that, I became a Transhumanist. They’re the people who want to live forever, as god-like superhumans via advanced technology. Transhumanism is wonderful, it has all this optimism in it (like a religion) it offers the hope that you can Live Forever, Happily - great stuff! Plus, as a Transhumanist, I could keep my militant atheism - they’re compatible. 90% of transhumanists are atheists.

In 2012 I became Managing Director of a transhumanist think tank website called the Institute for Ethics in Emerging Technology. I launched the website into an Atheist attacks on Religion - I wrote essays lambasting religion as stupid. I was hostile - I was an aggressive militant atheist transhumanist.

But then 2 things happened…

First - I decided to throw a transhumanist party at the Russian River. I invited all transhumanists to this party, but only five people showed up, and four of them were Mormon Transhumanists. Atheist transhumanists - with the exception of John Niman - did not show up! Religious transhumanists are apparently more social? I was surrounded by laughing Mormon Transhumanists, with casseroles. Other religious transhumanists like Giulio Prisco and Pastor Alex were also emailing us saying they “wished they could be there.”

3 days went by. I had a great time. With the Mormon Transhumanists. Wonderful people.

Here’s the Second mind-changing incident… the transhumanist think tank asked me to run an “African Futures Project.” My first task was a cell phone drive, I would collect as many mobile phones as I could, and deliver them to impoverished Africans. I was very excited about this — it was a combination of being transhumanist and charitable at the same time. I was convinced I’d be very successful. I told my boss - “I will collect 1,000 cell phones.”

Transhumanists have hundreds of old cell phones, I thought, they will mail them to me. I will be extremely successful! I worked gruesomely hard at the cell phone drive, but the end result was: I failed to gather 1,000 cell phones, I only gathered 100.

I got 30 from my Catholic Mom; she works as a volunteer for a thrift store. I got 30 from my brother - he’s a Silicon Valley CEO; he told his employees to bring them in, and they did. I got another 30 from a Mormon Transhumanist - Roger Hansen - a very nice philanthropic guy; he collected them from everywhere. And I got the last 10 from various non-transhumanist friends of mine.

What I realized, with depressing shock - I got absolutely Zero cell phones from militant atheist transhumanists. Very discouraging. Militant Atheist Transhumanists had Failed in Charity. This worried me - do transhumanists care a Lot about Living a Long Time but they don’t care At All about poor people?

I remembered my old Catholicism. There was an Epistle I still believed in, Corinthians 13. I will paraphrase it here:

“though I speak with the tongues of men and angeles, and though I speak with the gift of prophecy and have all knowledge,
and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and Have Not Charity, then I am nothing. Charity suffereth long and is kind…
Faith, Hope, and Charity, these three, but the greatest of these is charity.”

Charity is the only message I retained from Catholicism. Charity is the best of all virtues. Charity is Goodness. Charity is Love.

The lack of Atheist Transhumanist Charity was extremely disappointing. Kind of a deal-breaker. I didn’t want transhumanism to be just a Little-Bit Generous - I wanted Transhumanists to be the Most Generous. It would have been a a merger of my two favorite ideas.

When I was a preschool director, 10 years ago - I found a “sister school” for my preschool - an impoverished school where my few dollars could help. It was in The Philippines - a mission reservation school for an indigenous tribe called the Alangan Mangyans. The average Mangyan makes $30/month - they’re the poorest of the poor.

I bought the Mangyans farm land, so they could be “self-sufficient”, the plan was to have them grow bell peppers and sell them and never need me again. But it didn’t turn out that way, it turned into a constant flood of needy emails, wanting money for seeds, tools, fence material, chickens, rice, pens, paper, books… Recently I got an email from the Mangyans that basically said, “There 300 of us now. We all have tuberculosis; we all have parasitic worms that are crawling inside us, we’re hungry, we have diarrhea, but no toilets.”

I want to help them, but I can’t afford it anymore, so I decided, “I’ll send a petition to everyone I know and see who I can raise money from.”

I didn’t petition atheist transhumanists this time because they failed so miserably with the cell phones. I tried everyone else though. I got $1,500 from a Filipina friend. $500 from a Lutheran transhumanist. $300 from a Mormon transhumanist. I raised enough money to sponsor 36 kids at the Mangyan school and de-worm all 140 children.

Optimistic now, I embarked on another project - helping an orphanage in Uganda. I wanted to raise $3,000 so the orphans could have a Chicken Farm, that laid eggs, to feed themselves and sell at markets, for economic self-sufficiency.

The Mormon Transhumanists contributed money immediately, then they asked if I would be their Manager of Humanitarian Activities. I said YES. The Mormon Transhumanists sent in more money, over $1,000. Another transhumanist - Pastor Alex of Northminster Memorial United Church in Flin Flon, Canada, rallied his congregation - they sent in $700. A high school teacher in Memphis, Tennessee volunteered to help me - her students and friends contributed hundreds more. I was having fun and being charitable and a transhumanist, all at the same time.

The conclusion of my story is this… I’m not looking for a religion or church anymore. The limited money and time I have is devoted to taking care of the poorest of the poor. My Religion is Charity. I don’t believe in religions that don’t devote a lot of money to charity but… if a church said, “we’ll give money to the poor people you care about” - I’d join that Church. That would be great.

I believe there should be economic equity in the world. There are 1,210 billionaires, 11 million millionaires, and 1.2 billion people who live on less than $1.25 per day. People should be charitable. We need to help people who are desperate. It is selfish to be stingy when our money can relieve suffering. That is my religion, and I’m happy with it.

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want to be charitable? here’s an orphanage in Uganda that can use your help. Click HERE



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