Saturday, November 6, 2010

A Journey of Disbelief (Part 3): Community

There are a lot of things to which I committed at the beginning of my Skeptual project which I have ceased to uphold: I have not recorded regular self-observations, I ceased to track the number of thoughts when I meditate, etc.  I don't regret these particular decisions because, in reality, they didn't facilitate the general goal of the project (ie. to use traditionally spiritual practices as a means towards personal growth).  I do, however, regret the general decline in practice.  Over the past 4 months, Skeptuality - and thus my own personal growth - has been little more than a second-thought.

While I take full responsibility for the general lack of commitment, I recognize that there are times in my life when that commitment has been easier.

*Scene becomes all wavy. Cue the flashback music.

A New-born Skeptic and a bunch of Sufis
In Fall 2007, I had recently moved to Southern Illinois to begin my MBA, and for the most part, life was smiling at me.  I received a fellowship that paid for my education, I was recently reunited with my girlfriend from whom I had been separated for a year, and my studies in organizational behavior held my attention more than I had anticipated.

In my org behavior class, I had a project to compare the structures, motivational systems, and client base of two organizations. Given my attraction for studying religions, I thought it would be an interesting twist to do a field study on two local religious institutions - taking the opportunity to also look at their ideologies through a  sociological lens. Luckily, my professor had similar interests and completely supported my goal.

* Sufis: Enter Stage-left.

I heard through the grapevine that a small community of Sufi Muslims lived in the area. In my view, the field study would be a perfect opportunity to look into this unlikely group in southern Illinois and fill in the gaping holes of my knowledge about Islam. What I found - begrudgingly accepting the cliche - is something that changed me deeply.

In the Sufi community, I found a group of people who wholly committed themselves to personal and communal growth. With them, I learned of selfless-service as a spiritual practice, any one of them giving more of him/herself than I had ever seen another person give - volunteering seemingly countless hours per week, investing completely in their relationships with each other, fostering relationships with the external community.  Every individual was the picture of transparency, openness, tolerance, and kindness. Each held a sense of awareness and personal responsibility for his/her actions that I would have previously thought unrealistically idealistic.  In walking into their micro-cosm, it was as though I had stumbled into a future I hoped could be attained, surprised to find it already existed.

Before meeting the Sufis, I had proffered that the greatest asset of religion was its ability to offer a sense of community to its membership. With the Sufis, I experienced this first-hand. The traditions and practices they shared served the dual-purpose of tying them together and reminding them of their goals towards self-betterment.  Through creating metaphors around these practices, they wrote meaning into their lives as individuals and fostered relationships with a group of individuals who could share that meaning.

I spent 2 semesters practicing with, volunteering with and writing papers about the Sufi community.  When it came time for me to graduate, I seriously considered remaining with them and becoming a member of their community.  "Why," you may ask, "did I not?"  "If this scenario was so idyllic why ever would you leave?"

To claim there was only one reason I ultimately chose to leave would be minimalistic.  There were a lot of factors and moving parts that, when I took them into consideration, made me lean towards a different path.  That being said, there is at least one reason I would like to highlight here.

When I began my study with the Sufis, I was still not completely comfortable with the title of atheist; I still deeply wanted to believe in a higher consciousness or some cosmic force guiding natural events. While my time with the community convinced me that individuals are capable of much more than I would have given them credit, it also convinced me that the explanation for such kindness, love and growth need not lie with some supernatural force. My experience with the sufis, made me a humanist; I learned first-hand that human-kind is enough to create good in the world without supernatural, moral dictate or cosmic guidance.

The fact that I disagreed with the community on the "god question", made me feel different from them. It made me feel as though, despite all of their kindness and acceptance of whoever I chose to be, I would not be able to fully share the meaning that they created between themselves.  I wanted to at least give myself a chance to find, or help create, a community who held a more similar view on meaning.

* Through the power of imagination, the reader finds him/herself transported to present day.

... I take full responsibility for my lack of commitment over the past 4 months, but commitment without a group of people sharing in that commitment is difficult.

When I first came to New York, I met so many skeptics, humanists, atheists, and generally secular people, that my hopes were extremely high; it was here that I would find/help create humanist community.  I became a volunteer coordinator for the Center for Inquiry, I participated in philosophical discussions, I attended scientific and socio-political events; I was enthralled by all that was available to me.  But at the end of each evening, I was an individual. Everyone of us were just individuals attending the same event.

Having a practice, and creating metaphors that connect you to that practice, can be a profound source of personal meaning.  Yet, when a group of people share in those practices and that meaning, you are no longer just a lone spec of carbon floating through the cosmos; you are interconnected. Something out there in the universe - if only other specs of carbon - care about your journey. With the Sufis, that interconnection is what drove me to practice, to create meaning and to pursue personal growth.  As an individual meditating and doing yoga in my apartment, its really only me who cares.  My personal search for community continues.

What to Do?
For now, I would like to make an attempt to recommit to meditation and yoga.  For the next two months, I am going back to the basics in order to more firmly establish what I would like out of my practice.  We'll see how things have evolved by January to see how year 2 of this Skeptual experiment may look.

*Stage fades to black and the curtain falls.  The audience is all like.."I wonder whats on youtube?"

For Reference:

Monday, August 23, 2010

Selfless Service - Skeptic vs the Dishes

Selfless service as a spiritual practice is harder than it sounds.  In my service, I'm not simply volunteering time/energy; I'm volunteering time/energy with the goal of maintaining a certain attitude towards those actions.

For example, I generally have two attitudes with which I approach doing the dishes:

Approach A) Whiney, discontented grumbling - In approach A, I pay attention to the small ache in my back from bending over the sink. I recognize the fact that our sink is too small and that we don't have enough counter space for the dish rack. Most of all, I am aware of the things I could otherwise be doing. Awareness of self, surroundings and actions while doing the dishes takes me to a little place I affectionately call the 7th circle of hell. I have an irrational hatred for tableware in soapy water.

Approach B)  "Cloud 9" - In approach B, I sing. I turn on the playlist in my brainy brain, warm up my vocal chords (often to the displeasure of wifey), and mentally check-out from the situation. I do my best to forget the aching back, small sink, lack of counter space, and loads of fun to be had elsewhere. Through focusing on singing, I do my best to impede my consciousness of a reality that would have me scrubbing plates, pots and pans.

Approach C
Skeptual selfless service is my attempt to create approach C: contented awareness of any situation. Not only do I have to aim my full attention to the horrible lot that is my life when I am forearm deep in suds, but I have to do so without my usual bitching and moaning.  I attempt to force a level of maturity upon myself that no reasonable person wants. I say to myself, "Yes, you're doing something that you don't want to be doing right now ... something that you would probably sell your sister to get out of ... but that's no reason to be a baby about it."
Based upon my description above, you may be wondering, "Why is our favorite spiritual skeptic not contented with approach B."  Lucky for you, I've become quite good at foreseeing the wonderings of my imaginary audience and have come prepared with answers.

Simply "checking-out" of a situation reinforces my ability to not deal with those things that I don't like. For each situation in which I can mentally check-out, there are at least 10 in which I cannot. Skeptual selfless service forces me to practice attaining the goal of the serenity prayer:

Grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.

I find the exercise to be a lot like meditation.  During meditation, the practitioner observes any discomfort that may come with sitting for a long period of time (numb legs, aching back, etc) and attempts to maintain a modicum of serenity. I attempt the same while doing the dishes, scrubbing the tub, etc. The difference lies in my interaction with those around me.

During meditation, I purposely remove myself from interaction with others so that I may come to a place of calm while alone.  During selfless service, my goal is to serve others; so I find myself in the company of the person I'm serving, wanting to throw a tantrum ... or at least make snide comments that communicate that I'm contemplating violence... and must essentially refuse myself the right to do so. I must bring myself to a happy place about all those forks and knives sitting tauntingly at the bottom of the sink.

I may have bitten off a bit more than I can chew with this practice, but I'm certainly going to continue trying.  I would just suggest that no one stop by the apartment between 8 and 10pm unless they want to discover just how gloriously I'm failing.

... back to the pots.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Selfless Service - 2 Months Sans Ego

For the next two months, my skeptual practice will be selfless service. "Woah, woah, woah, Skeptomaniac," I hear you say. "What do you mean by self-less service or 2 months 'sans' ego," you ask. Thank you for asking, imaginary audience. Come right in and grab a seat as I pull out my mental suitcase which, for this particular concept, needs unpacking.

From a high-level view, "selfless service" seems pretty straightforward: serving selflessly, serving without concern for self, or simply, putting concern for others before concern for oneself. But why should one not be concerned with himself? Isn't self-concern what spurs an individual to care for his mental and physical well-being? Self-concern not only ensures the livelihood of the individual, but could also be seen to motivate that individual to focus on the well-being of family, friends and community by their mere proximity to that center of self. Perhaps selflessness is overrated; perhaps good old fashioned self-centeredness provides a perspective that advances the well-being of the masses.

If one says that "selflessness" prioritizes the needs, desires or general well-being of others before those of the self, then what is there for an individual to gain in this exercise? According to many spiritual traditions, particularly eastern traditions, the "self" is the source of most if not all suffering. Through fixation on the self - that amalgamation of whims, inclinations and other mental processes - we set up expectations for reality that may or may not be met. When met, these expectations fill us with a sense of joy; when unmet, they fill us with distress. Through breaking that fixation on the self, one may escape the cycle of reward-seeking or punishment evasion. One aligns his perspective of reality with what reality actually is at a given moment in time. Through exercises in selflessness, one practices this alignment of perspective and can purportedly reach a lasting sense of  peace, tranquility, or even the much sought after enlightenment.

Now, as readers may have come to expect, I am skeptical about some of these claims.  For example, while I can see the benefit of releasing certain expectations, desires or beliefs that do not/cannot meet with reality (ie. hoping to come home to Scarlet Johannson and the wifey, both intent upon cuddling), there are certain occasions where it is advantageous to push through reality's hesitance to meet your expectations (getting that new job, going back for that PhD, etc). It seems to me that there are cases where self-betterment  is actually enabled by discomfort or a moderate amount of suffering, for in this, one finds motivation to alter his situation. However, this being said, I feel that these sorts of objections may be a straw-man for a more complex and nuanced philosophical view.

The truth of the matter is, regardless of whether or not selflessness enables a more broad, profound sense of well-being, there are certainly many occasions for myself where "selflessness" has encouraged a deeper sense of momentary well-being. And there are still other occasions in which I first thought of myself rather than a loved one or even complete stranger, and ultimately regretted doing so.

If for these reasons alone, I will engage in selfless service to my friends, loved ones, greater community, and complete strangers over the next 2 months.  During month one, I will attempt to volunteer my time at least 2 times a week to a yet to be decided upon goal (perhaps volunteering at my CSA, doing the all the dishes and all the cleaning in the house, giving my wifey inordinate amounts of massages, etc). In the time that I'm volunteering, I will attempt to do so without serious concern for any inconvenience or discontentment that I may be inclined to feel during the process. ... sighs to self ... the wifey is going to enjoy these next 2 months WAY too much.

I'll see you next time readers. Same skeptic time. Same skeptic channel.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Secular Ceremony - A Marriage Story

Mawage. Mawage is wot bwings us togeder tooday. Mawage, that bwessed awangment, that dweam wifin a dweam... Ok. While I'm no Prince Humperdinck, I was recently married. My marriage and the work my new wifey and I put into it has spurred a lot of thoughts.

At the reception after our marriage, a friend of mine told me a story about his brother.  His brother, presumably a secular atheist/agnostic, chose to have his wedding in a Catholic church. When my friend asked his sibling why he had chosen a religious setting for his big day given his non-religious leanings, he answered, "I want my wedding to be a spiritual event and you can't get that in secular weddings."  

After I recovered from my mind-gasm from all these Skeptual buzzwords (agnostic, atheist, spiritual, secular...I had shivers), I began to consider this sentiment.  I've heard this idea echoed by many and it is not limited to weddings. Births of children, teenage rites of passage, initiations into groups, and of course, weddings are all important moments in our lives.  Since these meaningful events are painted with largely religious backdrops, I understand why the average secularly-minded or non-believing Joe may be inclined to exchange a ceremony that has a little more personal meaning for one to which his family, friends and community may relate.  

Below, I've listed what I feel to be some of the most pertinent considerations my wifey and I contemplated; then, I list the alternative we chose. Since I, in no way, wish to denigrate how others choose to commemorate important moments in their lives, I've tried simply to draw attention to the aspects of my ceremony that were particularly meaningful to me.

1) "Leave it to the Professionals" - Many of people's most beloved ceremonies happen once in a life time. As the great sage Eminem once said, "you only get one shot." There are a lot of moving parts to a ceremony and one wants to be certain s/he is in good hands. Religious officiants know their job and they perform it well; wouldn't it be better to be safe than sorry on the big day?

To lead our ceremony and help us with its creation, the wifey and I chose a close personal friend. We chose someone who shared our values and vision for the wedding, but who also had a kind-hearted, openness in demeanor that was so important to us for this role.  The connection we share with this person made the process so much more meaningful than if we were to have chosen an unknown.  

To be an officiant is a tough role and I don't believe just anyone could pull it off. Our friend speaks both french and english (important since my wife and her family are Frenchies). He is well-spoken, relatively comfortable presenting in front of crowds, and was willing to put in months of work into the ceremony with the wifey and me.

2) "Family Resemblance"- While there is a plethora of traditions - and thus ceremonies - one of the things that gives a ceremony meaning is that, to a certain extent, it feels familiar.  If all the wedding ceremonies were lined up next to each other, one would notice a family resemblance. This sense of familiarity facilitates the community's emotional connection with the words and actions happening in front of them. Stray too far, and you risk losing the community.

Does Johnny 5 have an illegitimate son?
We were highly sensitive to the diversity of backgrounds present at our wedding. While we wanted a ceremony which represented us and our values, we needed to create something to which the members of our community could relate. We took the basic structure for a ceremony from the book "Promises to Keep"  (highly suggested for secular and religious alike) and adapted it to our particular goals. We then spent months creating content with our officiantThose months of preparation, I believe, were pivotal to how much emotional weight the ceremony held.

Rather than having someone tell us what our ceremony should be, we spent days talking about each paragraph written. "What does the invocation mean to us?" "What will this statement mean to our community?" "How best do we recognize the people and values that are important to us?"

The forethought that went into it created a huge sense of personal buy-in for each of us. This was more than a day we said vows in front of our friends and family; this was a presentation of ourselves, our values, and our months of effort. With brainstorming and reflection, we were able to make a ceremony that - imho - was creative and resonated with people.

3) "Location, Location, Location" - For those who were religious in a past life, hosting a ceremony in a religious space holds a sense of the sacred. Since we want to imbue meaning into our special moments, a religious space - an already sacred and spiritual environment - sometimes seems like the obvious choice.
The space we chose for our wedding, a small village where the wifey's mother lives, is a place where the wifey and I have spent many vacations with friends and family. By sharing the space with a slightly wider audience, it extended in the intimacy we usually share with a smaller group to our extended community. The location added immensely to the importance of the day.

Creating the Sacred Secular
After my friend told me about his non-religious brother's religious wedding, he said that he wished his brother could have witnessed our wedding. "I think he would have changed his opinion. Your wedding was secular but very spiritual; it felt sacred." My new wifey and I felt very much the same way. If I may paraphrase an insight first made by Austin Dacey: the typical sense of the sacred comes from a vertical relationship with a higher power. This, however, is not the only sense of the sacred we may attain.  There is also a horizontal sense of the sacred; a sacred, a spiritual, that comes from our relationships with each other. 

Throughout much of what I've said above, I've made reference to a person's community.  Community, friends and family are as much the purpose of a ceremony as witnesses of it. We gather the people we care about together to ask them to recognize us, to ask them for support, and to communicate to them their importance in our lives. In a marriage, we gather the community of both parties so that they may, at least symbolically, become one.  In my wife's and my ceremony, we did as much as we could to facilitate this fusion of community; the fact that our friends are now friends, in many ways reinforces our commitment to each other and instilled the ceremony with a deep sense of sanctity.

The secular sacred, though perhaps elusive, does exist. Whether in a marriage ceremony or a teenage rite of passage, we can commemorate the meaningful moments in our lives in ways that resonate with our personal beliefs and communicate that to our communities considerately and respectfully. 

For those who may be interested in parousing through our ceremony, please click on the link. It requires a password, so please simply email me if you are interested.

**I'd like to give a special thanks to those people who were a part of our wedding. You're presence and participation really did make it a life-changing event.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Prayer: Thanks, Goal-setting, and Story-telling

The day behind me has been long. I stand, tired and quiet, looking out toward the Manhattan skyline and embrace the pleasure of a soft breeze. The diverse array of individuals around me have come for the same reasons as I - a little quiet, a perfect view, and to spend time with friends and loved ones - and from the smiles on their faces, I can only assume they share my feelings. This group of strangers, men and women from a spectrum of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, face a common vision and simply exist in peace. The relaxation of a deep breath washes over me, a sense of contentedness fills me, and I say a short, descriptive prayer: "Thanks".

"Thanks" is often followed by an object: "thank you," thank god," etc. Most of the time, I like this. I don't simply want to describe a state of being, "I am grateful;" I like my gratitude flowing outward from my mental space towards a recipient. However, sometimes there is no a recipient to be found. Who do I thank for a sunset or a cool breeze? Who do I thank for a fortuitous chain of events untouched by human design? When no single entity is responsible for good fortune or positive feelings, I am left with a present, of sorts, and no one to acknowledge for it. This is one benefit believers have that I sometimes miss.

During my practice over the past month and a half, "Thanks" has been one of the three main types of prayers I have offered. When I've been conscious of a state of appreciation, I have stated it out loud. I've enjoyed this simple acknowledgement if for no other reason that it seems to change my short-term perspective. In the few moments following the prayer, I interpret my life through a lens of gratitude. Despite the lack of a direct recipient for that appreciation, the small "nod of my head" to the uncaring cosmos still brightens my day.

Story-telling and Goal-setting
In the morning, while showering, I talk to myself (*writer admits insanity). I tell myself the story of my week or of my day. I confide my fears and concerns for my life, recount my hopes for the days ahead, and try not to linger on either.  I ask myself what I would do if I were a more mature, "enlightened" version of me; I talk to myself as though I am that more mature, "enlightened" me, imagining what it feels like to assume the role. I set goals and ask myself to hold me accountable.

I engage in the process out loud, since to leave the words unspoken often transforms the process into daydreaming and introspection. This is, perhaps, the hardest part for me. Holding my concentration on what I'm saying ... I already know the story. I don't know if this process brings me any closer to the "me" I want to be, but it can feel good to talk to someone who understands me (most of the time). :)

All That being said ...
Praying seems to turn my meaning-maker machine on full blast. As I talk to myself in the morning, I search for things that tie together the stray threads of my life. This by itself is not problematic, but because of this, I sometimes find myself granting meaning to insignificant things. If I have a simple disagreement with someone at work, for example, I end up wondering "what that disagreement will mean in the greater context of our professional relationship." That simple question posed to myself during morning prayer, and ultimately left unanswered, becomes a gray hue to the background of my day. I often find myself lending undue weight to the minutia of life where I could have expended my mental energy elsewhere.

On the other side of the scale, prayer also leaves me attempting to interpret, "the bigger meaning of life", which as Julia Galef recently pointed out,  has some inherent false assumptions. Life doesn't always have meaning. Sometimes, piles of metaphorical feces happen, and we adjust. While I strongly believe in weaving meaning into my life and making choices that fit into that pattern, I am unsure whether a daily self-discussion on the global meaning of life is fruitful toward attaining overall goals...

I want my attempts to create daily meaning through prayer to neither cause me to fret over the small things nor impede my own action by waiting to puzzle out the big things. In this cosmic drive through, I'd like one order of the Buddhist middle path without the side of superstition... go heavy on the mustard.

As noted in my first articles, I will not be adding new practices during the month of July. As this is the case, I will most likely not be writing during that time either. If all goes as I hope, readers should receive a new slew of articles in August.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Talking to Mysel ... Praying

Disclaimer: I will be approaching this article a bit differently from those I've done so far. Typically, when I begin an article, I have at least some sense of where I am going with it; if I have not yet drawn some conclusion, I think more or talk to more people. This time, I don't know my destination. In this article, you will journey with me towards my conclusion ... if there is one to be reached. Please fasten your safety belts and put your seats and tray tables in their upright and locked positions as we prepare for takeoff.

What does it mean to pray?
Almost everyone I've asked this question to has zeroed in on a similar definition in under a minute. "Talking to God." No one talks about ideation on personal behaviors and attributes of the divinity as Maimonides or Aquinas might propose; even when pushed in this direction, most respond, "You can ideate on stuff if you want, but thats not what normal people do when they pray." Apparently, everyone just wants to have their thoughts heard by the bloke presumably responsible for life, the universe and everything. So this leaves me in a sticky position. I can either ...

A. Talk to God as though he's there.
However, if I asked almost anyone alive today to pray to Zeus, s/he could not do so without feeling disingenuous. An a-zeusist does not pray to Zeus because s/he does not think Zeus is there to hear; it would seem ridiculous. What I have found it extremely difficult to make "believers" understand is that I am not running from God or rebelling against God. I simply see no evidence of his existence. That being said, perhaps I just need to suck it up and pretend.

B. Reinterpret what God is in a naturalist light.
I could repaint God as nature or love or perfection, personify those ideas, and have a conversation with my anthropomorphic metaphor. While I resonate more this line of thinking for its ability to stay within the bounds of naturalism, most people with whom I speak seem off-put by my use of metaphor. "Well, if you don't think its real, it kind of loses meaning doesn't it?" Perhaps.

C. Think of prayer as introspection, and bugger the rest of you.
While theologically speaking, I would be well within the bounds of what believers SHOULD be practicing theologically speaking, the heady approach seems disconnected from what people actually do. Since the purpose of Skeptuality is to take actual spiritual practices and consider them in a secular, skeptical perspective, I'm not sure I would not be serving my stated goal in ignoring what most people do.

So, let's put this question on hold to consider another question.

What do most people pray about?
Friends and family have been kind enough to talk to me at length on this topic. For the most part, it seems simple enough. People pray for strength and patience if they are having a rough day, as a form of gratitude for something pleasant in their lives, for themselves or others as a response to sickness or unfortunate, undesired happenings, or just to talk about their day to a loving listening ear. I can't say that I don't envy this.

Who wouldn't love to have a non-judging, loving ear for every worry or woe. The idea of someone to share all of your happiness at a moments notice or better yet, some benevolent benefactor who has gifted you with every happiness you possess, is a lovely idea. I can see why people like it...

I'm truly not sure what I will decide upon. At the moment, I've tried all of the following.
  • Telling the story of my day as if to an audience of 1 or more people...but in my head. I talk about where I could have done better and the things of which I am proud.
  • Picturing personages, fictional and non, I admire and asking their advice - the "What Would Jesus Do" approach transformed into "What would Sagan Do?" or "What would Albus Dumbeldore Do?" ... While I feel like a crazy person, I like talking to Carl and Albus :)
  • Talking to my "heart". This is an idea put forth in the Alchemist by Paulo Coehlo and even as a non-religious person, I love the metaphor. Continuing in conversation with a part of me more in touch with my deep desires and well-being than my conscious mind.
Yet, all of these feel a bit forced. I'm not sure what to do. Perhaps the feeling will change with time...We shall see.

I don't believe I will come to a final conclusion without further consideration. In the meantime, I have put a poll in the right hand column. Please take time to vote ... I will do my best to listen to the reader feedback.

Until next time prayer fans!

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Empathy, Evolution, and Evidence: A Response to Kami

In response to a recent post, a new reader posted a lengthy comment with some thoughtful questions and observations. Rather than responding to her in the comments, I figured I'd share our discussion with all readers.

Hi Kami,

I truly appreciate your well thought out response, especially given your finals.

With my Top 5 Strategies article, I was feeling a bit playful and perhaps came off a bit too harsh...the dog analogy was most likely a poor choice in hindsight. That being said, tactice #2, listed below for reference, is one I use often.  
Despite resistance, sometimes Bobby the boss just thinks it's REALLY important to communicate how Obama is a muslim loving, socialist, Ant-Christ or, worse yet, an atheist. In this case, I go all Socrates on his ass! I'm like, "Really? That's interesting. Why do you think that Obama wasn't born in the USA? Do you feel like Glen Beck is a reliable source given his open aggression against the current Commander and Chief? What would it take to convince you that Barack-o-rak isn't a 'commy-lovin' dictator trying to sell us to Red China'?"
This, I believe, connects with what you reference when you made a call for empathy. I couldn't agree more with you that empathy will be our "saving grace" in this pluralistic society. However, sometimes, because our assumptions are so different, we have to first ask a lot of questions in order to understand (intellectually) the POV of the other so that we may understand the person (emotionally). Socrates, essentially the inventor of this method and of philosophy, has been one of my heroes for a long time.

You state: 
"Although there are definitions in which I think searching and the definition itself are not mutually exclusive properties... atheism is not one of them. You cannot claim that no God exists while simultaneously searching for the possibility that one MAY. It is not fallsifiable. )"
So, I haven't really written about, to my recollection, my full stance on atheism, agnosticism, etc. I am both an atheist and an agnostic (not contradictory I assure you). As you point out, the "God" claim is not falsifiable. So, epistemologically, I am an agnostic: I cannot know.  However, the question then has to be posed: how does one act with a lack of knowledge. 

The traditionally religious choose faith (ie. belief not based on evidence). As an atheist (a - theos = without god or godless), I choose disbelief. I make this choice based upon probability.  The more precise one gets in his/her God claims, the more strongly atheistic I become because those claims gravitate towards the falsifiable and inevitably the falsified. The more fuzzy one is with God claims, the less falsifiable and the less I have to say ... generally.

To your questions:
1)What are our origins? If you believe evolution is the answer...what are the flaws in that argument?
I do believe in evolution. While I was not properly educated in Evolution throughout my schooling (being raised in a small Christian town in the south, not a lot of opportunity), I have since read much on the matter which seems supremely reasonable. 

However, I am not a scientist. If the science community were to turn around tomorrow and say, "We got it wrong guys. Evolution is not how it all happen." I'd say, "Ok, Great! One more false theory out the window." I put my trust in the scientific process because it is self-correcting. What the experts tell me after having fought it out between themselves I will take as truth (with a small 't') until more information comes to light.

2) If religion IS the opiate of the masses.... (and it might be)....instead of turning a nose towards those who are in the midst of the seemingly cult-like behavior.... ask yourself WHY DOES IT INNATELY FEEL GOOD AS A HUMAN TO PARTICIPATE IN SUCH ACTS?
It does feel good to engage in Cult like behavior. We spent most of our evolutionary history in small tribes competing for resources. The ancestors which best succeeded were most likely those that had a clearly defined in-group/out-group behavior. But just as our intellectual pursuits have given us technology to overcome physical limitations (glasses, wheelchairs, hearing aids, etc) so do they give us philosophy to overcome our psychological and social limitations (prejudice, intolerance, etc).

3)Where is the empirical evidence that God does NOT exist? 
One cannot have evidence of non-existence. All one can proffer is non-evidence or falsified "evidence". If we look back through history, we are left with nothing but falsified claims and unfalsifiable, subjective claims. As I mentioned earlier, in lack of evidence, I choose not to believe.

4) If mankind is imperfect and fallible, why can you not hold the bible, torah and other religious books on the same level that you hold books of empirical science?
All these religious texts individually claim to be inerrant work of a perfect being. Thus, only ONE of them could potentially be right given their disagreements. Furthermore, all of them are fraught with internal inconsistencies and historical not perfect.

Science is sometimes inaccurate and often steps back from its initial claims only to postulate another claim. This is not a fault; its a feature. Science makes not claims at perfection..just at an ever advancing search for truth (again, little "t"). It is for these lots of cool stuff its given us...that I trust science and not religious texts.

You are obviously a well studied, intelligent person and I am honored to have you as a reader and questioner. I encourage you to challenge me where you may find identify fuzzy, unclear thinking and I will do my best to either clarify my beliefs or alter them where needed.  Looking forward to your comments.

Ps. I have begun reading your article called the "Atheist Manifesto and the Empirical Evidence that Proved I was wrong". When I finish, you'll most likely find me in your comments :)

A Note to all my readers: I have begun prayer...however strange and difficult it feels for me. I am, however, still working on the context under which I will be praying  moving forward. Please feel free to leave your feedback for how I should pray, when I should pray, what I should pray about, and even who I should pray to (although this latter one by necessity will come with restrictions).