Friday, December 19, 2008

SEASONED WITH REASON - Stunning Ignorance

Last night, I got together with a group of women I see about once a month when we gather to make cards and learn new paper crafting techniques. While they are all Christian, I get along really well with most of these women. A few of them are very vocal about their religious beliefs, while I tend to keep mine to myself.

While we ate supper together at a restaurant last night, that became a little more difficult.

I don't recall how the subject came up, but one of the women--I'll call her Mary--said something about "all the fruits and nuts" in California. Mary is the one who once emailed me religious nonsense criticizing Barack Obama for not wanting to run the country by biblical scripture. I wrote a calm, composed response reminding her that there's supposed to be separation of church and state in our nation, that using any religious literature as a basis for government would compromise religious freedom for everybody.

She didn't respond.

So the disparaging, veiled comment about California's gay population didn't surprise me, nor did Mary's comment about California being poised to fall into the Pacific Ocean, destroyed Sodom-and-Gomorrah-style by god. But then, in what I think was an effort to change the subject, another woman said something about political corruption in Chicago, referring (I assume) to the recent scandal involving Obama's Senate seat.

And Mary said, "Yeah, look what happened to New Orleans."

I was flabbergasted. Of course, I know that there are people who actually think that way. They see natural catastrophes like Hurricane Katrina as god's judgment for sin, and even when I was a Christian, I considered that idea utterly preposterous and appalling. I remember people of faith proclaiming that AIDS was god's judment on homosexuality and shaking my head in disgust.

Rarely do I have to sit next to such stunning ignorance, though. Most of the people I know, even the Christians, don't think that way, and if they do, they keep it to themselves. I sat next to this woman feeling a small war within myself. Should I speak up? Should I point out the obscenity of her assertion that all of the innocent people who died in that disaster deserved it because of some imagined "sinfulness" of New Orleans as a whole? Or should I let it go, not afford her the dignity of any response?

That is what I did. I said nothing. I let it pass, but I don't know if that was the right thing to do. I believe, especially after reading The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins and seeing the movie Religulous by Bill Maher, that atheists need to be more vocal and outspoken, to challenge religious dogma in all its unapologetic ignorance.

I didn't do that last night. I'm not sure why.
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Saturday, December 13, 2008


Bah Humbug - Not!
by Denise Beck-Clark

As a Christian acquaintance of mine who persists in sending the sappiest emails, informed us recently, “Jesus is the reason for the season.” I thought, Whew, now I know why everyone is walking around saying things like “Season’s Greetings.” I checked out my Delete key and it worked well... thank the lord.

Another Christian acquaintance of mine gave me a lovely card with a lovely note that she wrote in her English as a second language. She thanked God for knowing me, saying I am a “special person, strong and kind.” Respecting my not being a Christian, she also wrote “Happy Holiday,” thereby avoiding the faux pas she made when we first met and she gave me a very religious card.

The irony is that I am a Jew, as was Jesus, who also, reportedly, was strong and kind. I will show my ignorance here by saying I don’t know what his religious beliefs were, but I have come to understand that I am an atheist. I don’t admit this often, just as I often don’t talk about being a Jew. You’d think that being well into middle age I’d be used to being in the minority, but really I’m not.

Back to Christmas and “the season.” Like many people who don’t believe in Jesus, I still like the season. It’s fun, pretty, and kind. I love Christmas lights, and I love giving and getting presents. There’s really only one thing that bothers me about Christmas, and come to think of it, it’s not really about Christmas at all. It’s about certain people’s interpretation of Christmas. It’s those people in government who forget about separation between church and state. Did you know that in New York State there’s only one day of the year when there are no Lottery drawings? You guessed it. Why is this? I bet if I wanted to undertake the filing of a class action suit we would win.

Unfortunately, I have neither the time nor the money to do this, so I will continue each year to be angry that they withhold my addiction from me every December 25th. At the same time, I suppose I can look at the bright side which is the money I’m forced to save. So, thanks, New York State, for imposing your Christian beliefs on me. Oh, and Merry Christmas. And Happy Holiday, to any one of the many non-Christians who love this country for its guarantee of religious freedom.
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Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Happy Christmas!

by writerdd

Hi everyone. Quiet around here lately. I imagine that everyone is busy with holiday preparations, shopping, and travel plans. I've been noticing the annual "war on Christmas" stories popping around the blogosphere and I'd just like to say that I think the best way to win the imaginary war is to celebrate Christmas with abandon -- especially if you don't believe the baby Jesus is endowed with divinity or supernatural powers.

I love Christmas. I love Christmas trees, carols, sappy holiday movies, and the sound of jingle bells. I love the good cheer and the wishes for "peace on earth, goodwill toward men (and women and children)". I love that people will travel halfway around the world at this time of year to be with friends and family. I love that we indulge in family traditions that we ignore for the rest of the year. I love that for one month you can ignore diets and discipline and just enjoy life in its fullest, without guilt. I simply can't help myself and I don't think I should try. I even celebrated when I lived in California with no snow or cold weather.

I think the biggest humbugs are the Christians who make a stink about the war on Christmas, hence squelching the spirit of joy and cheer that everyone else is feeling. They turn a time of joy and goodwill into a time of anger and bitterness. And I'm not playing their game.

Merry Christmas!

How do you celebrate at this time of year? Read more!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

moving from anger to hope

by writerdd

I'm tired of being angry. Have I said that already? I'm sure I have. I am tired of the bitterness, the doom and gloom, the fear mongering, and the angry arguments that have been taking center stage in the national dialog -- and in the dialog between atheists and believers -- for the past 8 years.

I didn't pay attention during this election cycle. I already knew I would vote for the Democratic candidate, and I got so angry during the 2004 election that it almost made me sick. So this year I deleted all the political blogs from my RSS reader, I fast-forwarded through all the political ads on recorded TV, and I skipped the debates. But on November 4, I wanted to watch the election results come in so I turned on CNN and watched all night. All through the evening I could feel an electricity in the air. It was like a fog was burning off or after a long arctic winter the sun was about to rise. The anticipation was palpable. And when the results were announced -- Obama had won! -- and the new President Elect got up to give his speech, I was shivering with excitement. I wanted to shout along with the crowd, "Yes We Can!" I believed that change was coming, and it would be wonderful.

On Wednesday, I heard several Republicans say "Now we're in for it," "the country will be facing a rocky road for a few years," "we're headed for trouble," and "there goes the Constitution." Apparently many of my Christian relatives and friends were afraid and depressed about the election results.

John Marks, author of Reasons to Believe, noticed the same thing:

I wept for joy as I heard [Obama] speak in Chicago. Millions of Americans didn’t. Millions are scared and horrified. This may be sad and even disgraceful, but it’s also true and can’t be wished away. Let’s not get all self-righteous about these nervous Americans. Let’s follow Obama’s lead and see them as our fellow citizens in need of hope and inspiration.

After I recovered from wondering how these people could have missed the rocky road, trouble, and attacks on the Constitution that had occurred during the past 8 years, I found myself wondering how the negative reaction of conservative Christians was different than my reaction after the previous two elections. It also made me think back to my days as a fundamentalist Christian, when there was pressure all around me to be afraid of Democrats, of left-wing heathens trying to destroy morality and bring our culture to collapse. The peer pressure was intense, but having been raised in New York, mother of all blue states, and having been influenced by my teachers and my Jewish-atheist-communist grandfather, probably the most moral and upright person I have ever known, I knew the fear was unfounded. At least in part, the pressures of the fledgling religious right to force all born again Christians to conform to their political agenda pushed me away from the church. And the contemporary fear mongering of the mature religious right, married to the Republican party, gave me a sour taste in my mouth and made me feel that the majority of Christians today are judgmental, bigoted, fools.

Recently I've been in touch with several friends from my born-again days, some of whom are still devout Christians. I don't know what I expected, but they are the same nice, caring, enjoyable people they were when we were friends. They are not clones of James Dobson or Pat Robertson. And I am not a clone of Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris. I don't want to demonize my friends because of their beliefs and I don't want them to demonize me because of my unbelief. We are not red and blue states, we are the United States, as Obama said; we are not Christians and atheists, we are human beings; we are not believers and unbelievers we are friends and relatives; we are not holy and heathen, we are mothers and fathers and sons and daughters and teachers and firemen and writers and computer programmers.

I still intend to do what I can to combat religious fundamentalism and bigotry in the name of God (and bigotry that has nothing to do with God). And I think that religion, although it is sometimes used for the greater good, has a tendency to decay into legalism and hate of anyone who is "other." Regardless of the good intentions of individuals, the movement of groups is more often inspired by fear than by love. This tendency can make religion dangerous and I hope that individual spirituality will someday replace organized religion. But in the meantime, I also intend to hold out the hand of friendship to people regardless of their beliefs about God, and to find a way that we can all work together to make this country, and the world, a better place for everyone.

I'm tired of being angry. I choose to reject fear. I choose to reject anger. I choose to reject division. I choose to embrace hope.

Cross posted on Sheep to Shawl.
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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

is religious fervency hormonal?

by writerdd

I don't mean this as a joke, but as a serious question. One of the big turning points for me as I was leaving religion, was realizing that the times I felt moved by the sermons in church were usually when I had PMS. I realized this during a period of time when I was struggling because I couldn't find a church that was meeting my emotional and psychological needs. I was probably outgrowing my need for religion, but I wasn't aware of that yet. Here's a bit I wrote about that memory, and some further thoughts on the topic:

A couple of my friends went to Cleveland Christian Fellowship a few miles south of town. I was, by now, fed up with the internal politics at New Life Bible Church, and had visited Cleveland Christian a few times in the past, so I decided to go there for a while.

It was the most cheerful church I’d ever attended. The worship team led the congregation in upbeat songs with snappy tunes and the band played background music filled with bright major chords. Electric guitars, a synthesizer, and drums made the meeting feel more like pop concert than a church service, and with their big hair and shoulder pads, the worship leader and backup singers looked as if they’d stepped out of an MTV video. Usually the worship leader segued into one or two slow songs, ballads about Jesus or the Holy Spirit, before ending with one last burst of joy and praise. Sometimes there was special music before the sermon, and someone from the congregation sang a popular Christian song accompanied by a karaoke-like recorded arrangement.

When the pastor finally came out onto the stage to speak, everyone was in a great mood, warmed up by the music, ready to be inspired for the week. The sermon was usually upbeat, too. None of fire and brimstone of Calvary Baptist, none of the quiet introspection of Smithtown Gospel Tabernacle, none of the intense self examination of the house churches I’d attended, none of the serious study of New Life. Sometimes it seemed to me like this church was not much more than a social club. But I had nowhere else to go.

A couple of months after I started attending, I surprised myself by starting to cry at the end of the sermon, when the pastor asked us to give more of ourselves to the Lord—to pray more, to read the Bible more, to witness more, to praise God more. Whatever I did, it was never enough. I always failed in my attempts to maintain my devotion. I was slipping away again, letting the cares of the world distract me, falling into sin. A tear dripped down my face, then another, then another. I closed my eyes and turned my face up toward heaven to pray, letting the tears flow freely, even though I knew my mascara and eyeliner would run. I needed to find a way to restore my relationship with the Lord and start over once again.

When the service was over, I stopped in the ladies room before driving home and was glad that I had a tampon in my purse from last month. As I took the tampon out of the wrapper, it hit me. I was crying because I had PMS, not because God was speaking to me. Had this happened before? How many times? Had all of my spiritual awakenings been the result of hormone fluctuations? I didn’t want to think about it, but I couldn’t stop myself.

For the last couple of years, I've been feeling an interest in spirituality again (although not in Christianity or any other religion), as I have begun to go through menopause. It makes me wonder if, at least for many women, these feelings stem from hormonal changes. It's always been comforting to me to realize when my bad moods are tied to physical causes, and it would comfort me now to realize that these feelings I'm having can be dealt with medically. It seems to me that many more women than men are involved in evangelical and fundamentalist Christian churches and other spiritual movements, or at least is is the women who usually start getting involved and the men often seem to go along to keep the peace in the bedroom. I wonder if any studies have ever been done about this.

Cross posted on Skepchick.
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Misquoting Jesus

The other day I found myself getting curious about the curious idea that the Bible is the inerrant word of "God." Not really so that I could debate any fundamentalists; I don't tend to hang out with fundies, and in any case they're impervious to rational debate. Maybe I just wanted to feel smug.

I want to recommend the book I found -- "Misquoting Jesus," by Bart D. Ehrman. It's scholarly but short and readable, and it explores in detail the question of textual alterations in the many copies of the New Testament.

It's no secret that the manuscripts that were eventually stamped with the official seal of approval and became what we know as the New Testament were hand-copied by scribes over the course of hundreds of years, leading inevitably to copying errors. What I didn't quite realize was that here and there, scribes deliberately altered certain passages in order to promote doctrines that they favored and get rid of bits that would appear to support competing doctrines.

Ehrman, by his own account, started out as a dyed-in-the-wool fundamentalist, but his intellectual curiosity and honesty eventually pulled him away from that position. His own current beliefs are kept scrupulously out of the book, but whatever he may think of Jesus, he makes it clear that the Gospels were written by human beings, who had the usual range of human motivations and failings.

It's a good book. Well worth reading if you're curious about this stuff.
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Friday, November 14, 2008


Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night with an awful awareness of death. These moments are no fun at all. I envy religious people, who "know" they'll enjoy eternal life. The prospect of eternal nonexistence, however remote it may seem when you're in good health, is difficult to come to grips with. I guess the Catholics have to worry about eternal damnation, but I understand they have some procedures in place for avoiding that outcome.

I don't have a perfect salve to heal this hurt. One thing that helps is if I know I've done things during the day that I truly enjoy. When a day is wasted on stress or mired in mindlessness, the day is gone forever. Looking forward to doing some fun things tomorrow helps too.

I also find that it helps if I spend some time with kids. If you have grandchildren, they may be a good antidote. I'm childless, but I teach private music lessons. Right now two of my favorite people in the world are bright, articulate, inquisitive ten-year-olds.

And as some of my friends in 12-step groups like to say, "H.A.L.T." Don't get too Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired. When I take care of myself physically, the anxiety recedes, if only a little.

On my tombstone I want a quote from Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower": "There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke." Sometimes it's easy to laugh, but sometimes it's not easy at all.
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Sunday, November 9, 2008

Secular Weddings, Secular Rituals

Like many of you, I was transfixed by the events on November 4th, during the elections across this great country. I was also glad to see that someone who is articulate, and skilled at speaking well was the one elected to be our next President. But, while I cheered the idea that we are now electing a man who would not even be able to vote, due to his race, less than 100 years ago, I mourned the idea that the trade off, for some, was to exclude those who love someone of the same sex, and those who are Atheist, are still pariahs.

National Public Radio posted several conversations regarding the recent Bills that were up on ballot boxes, asking if the public would approve the rights for a same sex couple to:
  • Adopt a child;

  • Marry;

  • Have family rights in case one is placed on life support;

  • Have the right to have a school dance include same-sex couples;

  • Have the ability to handle the final arrangements for a domestic partner of the same sex.

The arguments against "Gay Marriage" tend to come from those who believe that religious thought has a place in legal contracts. Aside from having church or chapel weddings, the idea of marriage has been historically of a way to build land, add new family members, and promote a growing community.

Increased land offers increased taxation. Land is built for industry, farming, and services, which is directly used to increase jobs promote increased market and products. The legality of marriage has far more to do with Taxation than religion, and therefore having the argument that "God doesn't recognize marriage between Sam and Dan" doesn't hold water. In fact, many church parishes grew from the addition of families and the land held by these families. Churches exempt from taxation benefit from the land growth, and those who are members, using their property for religious ritual, assist in the avoidance of taxation.

Atheists are often subject to the same arguments of not being able to wed in a church or chapel. Wedding Chapels in Las Vegas do perform rituals for those who are Atheist, and you can request the removal of biblical phrases from the ceremony. Yet, we are told that since we do not hold the tenets of the belief system of this institution, then we are doing nothing more than mocking those who are more pious. This comes from a city that has drive-through chapels, men in capes performing services, and yes, even Elvis as the celebrant.

If we changed the laws to exclude those who do not want to be part of a church, then we exclude homosexual couples who do have a religion belief system in place. If we change the laws to exclude Atheist couples from marrying because their beliefs aren't in tune with those held by the chapels, then we are saying "Take our money, but not our thoughts".

But, both non-wedded domestic partners, who are either gay, or Atheist, or even combination of both, are losing rights by the laws that allow:

  • Insurance for blood related or marriage related relatives;

  • Medical proxy during crucial hospital events;

  • Ownership, property rights, and probate rights- including the dispensing of children after a long term relationship ends, or during a medical crises, or even death;

  • A partner to incriminate another even though married couples don't have that same caveat.

Probate rights are in play most prominently after a loved one dies. The way most Probate laws are written, only couples sanctioned by a religious ceremony, who have their licenses from states supporting the union, are considered "married". But, there is a strong movement towards Secular Ceremony. Whether gay, or straight, the Secular Celebrations community offers the rite of passage from single-hood to wedded bliss. Another Secular Celebration site, done by Humanist Alita Ledendecker is in Tennessee. And, Mel Lipman, the man who helped power up the Freethought Movement everwhere he has ever lived, is finally moving back to Las Vegas to continue his work in providing both wedding and funeral rituals to those who prefer to halt the religious chatter. His work is primarily through the LVFT and HALVOSON movements.

While many people in our country proudly stand against the status quo, and vote for the idea that a black man can lead us, there is still fear over the idea that family, as defined in a religous book, (Torah, Quaran, Bible, etc), will no longer stand as the "right" way to live. In fact, in the last forty years, more divorced couples have raised children than those who have stayed together. More couples who are domestic, and "common-law", as determined by the laws of the states in which they live, end up lasting in their relationships far longer than those who are considered "regular" wedded couples.

The idea that an Atheist can raise a child as a single parent is scary to many people. Yet, when adoption agencies withhold children from these families, they are also teaching a child that being different and thinking differently will only get you punished by the world around them. If we decide, as a country, to unite people in Secular ceremony, rather than religious rite, we are opening the idea that living without the rules of a storybook god won't change that people will love each other, no matter what the sexual orientation, the color of the skin, the accent of their voice- and dedication to that love is what is important.

The government makes money from Wedding Licensing. It loses money from property taxes on churches. It gains money by not recognizing the rights of those who have no legal binding marriage, absorbing property for sale for profit. It gains money from sales taxes relating to the cost of a wedding, and it gains money from the use of permits, and all other expenses relating to weddings. It even has a cut in the cost of plane tickets for the honeymoon. Rather than telling a group or groups of people "we cannot recognize your love for each other", it would be a smart business move to say, "We must recognize the financial contribution you have made because of this union." By removing a church from this equation, it could also gain property taxes from the ritual sites. It is just good business to allow same-sex couples, and Atheist couples to maintain their right to pursuit of happiness by promoting the options for these rituals.

Obama chorused his speech with "Yes We Can". As he did, the numbers fell for those four states who were struggling with rights for homosexual people. The key point people made was "Gay people choose to be gay". Just like that cow that chooses to be a source of milk, it simply is what it is. There are those genetically, and certainly hormonally, different enough to disprove the "choice" theory. The fact is we CHOOSE to be Atheists, whether we're born straight, or not.

The fight is now on, and the world is now ready to battle the next round of human rights. The rights of gay people to be family, and the rights of Atheists to become family without the sanctioning of a religious organization. Can we win this fight despite all of the walls of hate ahead of us? "Yes We Can"

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a peek into my struggles

by writerdd

For the past year, I have been trying to write a book about my de-conversion from Christian to atheist. Actually, it’s something I’ve been working on for four or five years. Last year (2007), I wrote about 30,000 words, stories about my life. This year, I tried to put them together into a book. So far, it’s not working. It’s hard to take 46 years and condense it into something that can be read aloud in six or seven hours. It’s even harder to focus your memories in a way that makes a story that is true and is still interesting to other people. I don’t know why I can’t write this book, actually. When I have written short bits of it and post them on the Skepchick blog, many readers have found them interesting. But when I try to put it together into a book, to create a longer narrative, it all falls apart and turns into a boring pile of shit. (Maybe, I can’t help thinking that my mother is thinking, maybe God is trying to tell you something. Don’t hold your breath, mom.)

So, what is this book I’m trying to write? It is, at least in part, the story of going against the crowd. While America was experiencing a religious revival, fundamentalists were becoming more vocal and prevalent the news, and conservative Christians were filtering up the ranks of government and into the White House, I was losing my faith, quitting church, and voting for Democrats. I’ve never followed trends or been popular, but in the last two decades of my life, I have found myself consistently moving in the opposite direction of society. Everything I have done has been diametrically opposed to cultural trends. While America was becoming conservative, I was becoming liberal. While  mega-churches were growing exponentially, I was sleeping in or going to the movies on Sunday mornings. While Christian books were becoming national best sellers, I was reading and writing about atheism.

It’s not that I’ve been traveling completely on my own. I started writing my book in the wake of 9/11 and under the influence of Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. Like some readers here, I have felt afraid of and intimidated by fundamentalists. I felt the need to fight against religion and to stop it from encroaching on secular society, the society that I’ve chosen to live in. I felt threatened by the people I used to love, and disgusted by the same religion I used to embrace.

I haven’t even finished a first draft, and I find myself in a completely different frame of mind. Being pissed off all the time is hard, and when I look back into my own past, I don’t see the strident, belligerent, bigoted Christians that I see on the evening news. What happened to the Christians that I used to know? What happened to the churches that I used to enjoy attending? Was it really me that changed, or was it American Christianity? Maybe we grew apart, like lovers who married too young and found, after just a few years, that they no longer had anything in common. At least we didn’t have any children, I can tell myself. Does this make divorce any less painful? 

Now I just find myself feeling confused. I don’t believe in God any more, and I have no desire to go back into a life of faith, but I don’t want to be angry all the time and I don’t want to have my happy memories tainted by more recent stories of religious abuses. I don’t want to demonize good people who are sincerely trying to improve themselves and the world, but I also don’t want to let religious zealots and bigots force me, or anyone else, to follow their antiquated Biblical sense of morality by taking over control of our legislature and courts. I don’t want to ignore the real dangers of religion gone wild, and pretend that the ugliness is not happening because my personal memories are happy.

I constantly have to fight the black-and-white mentality that I adhered to as a fundamentalist. Being an ex-fundamentalist is being like a recovering-alcoholic. You’re never quite free of that past, never able to relax and have just one beer, just one thought. You have to be on guard all the time. In my flight away from fundamentalist Christianity, I found myself with the tendency to fall into a kind of fundamentalist atheism. At first I denied the possibility of the existence of such a thing. Atheists have no holy book, no deity, no sacred creeds, nothing to take literally or to be fundamentalist about. And yet, many atheists and skeptics latch onto the same kind of all-or-nothing thinking that fundamentalists employ. They believe that literalist readings of holy texts and fundamentalist interpretations of religions are more valid than metaphorical readings and liberal interpretations. They see the world as an us-versus-them situation, where you must choose to be on the side of good or the side of evil. The only difference being which side each group considers good.

I don’t want to be a white-and-black atheist fundamentalist any more than I want to be a black-and-white Christian fundamentalist. Like Lokai and Bele, the two-colored men on an old episode of Star Trek who looked identical to the crew of the Enterprise, but who hated each other with a vengeance because one was white on the right side of his body and the other was white on the left, Christian and atheist fundamentalists are nothing more than mirror images of each other, more alike than they are different. Although I still agree that on some level the idea of atheist fundamentalism is an oxymoron, I am beginning to understand how some people can use the term without irony. Can both things simultaneously be true?

To none of my questions can I find satisfactory answers. "I don’t know" goes through my mind more than any other conclusion. It frustrates me, but perhaps ignorance, the admission of ignorance, is the cure to the fundamentalism that has plagued me for so many years.

It’s hard to write a book when you don’t know what you think about a subject. It’s even harder when the book is about your own life and you have no idea where you are going to end up. Sometimes I am afraid my forays into my past will allow the sirens of Christianity to call to me again, that I will once again be sucked into a world of wishful thinking and blind faith. Sometimes I am afraid that I will lose my way and forget who I am and what I’ve been through. I do remember where I came from and a few stops along the way, but the biggest changes in my life happened on days that are forever lost to my memory. So how I can I even begin to tell this story? And why am I obsessed with telling it anyway?

I find myself thinking that maybe it’s too late to write this book. The small wavelet of atheist popularity is over. Once again, I’ve missed my chance to travel with the crowd. Readers are bored with polemics against religion. When George W. Bush leaves the White House, no one will care about religion seeping into politics any more. When the Democrats are back in power, the Religious Right won’t be in the news any more. But I can’t stop thinking about my life and how it has played out against the backdrop of American society. On the other hand, I don’t give a crap about the larger society or any universal messages that might be contained in my story. It is my personal journey and it doesn’t need to be anything need to be anything bigger to be important or meaningful. 

Sometimes I think I need to start the book completely from scratch, but how can I possibly throw away all the words I’ve already written? I need to write, perhaps not a memoir about the past, but two intertwined stories: the story of my previous journey into and out of Christianity, and the story of my explorations of atheism and skepticism over the last few years. To me, the worlds of skepticism and atheism seem just as empty and shallow as the world of Christianity. I don’t find solace in groups or comfort in community. I have to make my own meaning, and create my own purpose in life. As much as I would like to fit in, I don’t. So where does that leave me? Where will that lead me? I have no idea. And if I don’t know where I’m going, how can I write about where I’ve been?

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Wednesday, November 5, 2008

by Dale McGowan
Author/editor, Parenting Beyond Belief

annd220909There are countless congratulatory messages for President-Elect Obama this morning, all well-deserved. The most remarkably gifted presidential candidate of our time managed somehow to negotiate an unimaginably grueling campaign, and we, despite ourselves, managed to elect him. Shout-outs all around.

But I wanted to take a moment to recognize one of the people who by Barack's own account helped make him what he is -- his nonreligious mother, Ann Dunham.

It should be a matter of no small pride to nonreligious parents that the next President -- a man who has been praised for his ethics, empathy, and broadmindedness -- "was not raised in a religious household."1 It's the other, undiscussed first in this election -- the first black President is also the first President with a completely nonreligious upbringing.

"For all her professed secularism," he wrote in The Audacity of Hope, "my mother was in many ways the most spiritually awakened person that I've ever known." And even as she expressed her deeply-felt outrage over those aspects of organized religion that "dressed up closed-mindedness in the garb of piety [and] cruelty and oppression in the garb of righteousness," she urged her children to see the good as well as the bad. "Jesus, she felt, was a wonderful example," said Barack's half-sister Maya. "But she felt that a lot of Christians behaved in un-Christian ways."2

Ann recognized the importance of religious literacy and saw to it that her children were exposed to a broad spectrum of religious ideas. "In her mind," Obama wrote,

a working knowledge of the world's great religions was a necessary part of any well-rounded education. In our household the Bible, the Koran, and the Bhagavad Gita sat on the shelf alongside books of Greek and Norse and African mythology. On Easter or Christmas Day my mother might drag me to church, just as she dragged me to the Buddhist temple, the Chinese New Year celebration, the Shinto shrine, and ancient Hawaiian burial sites. But I was made to understand that such religious samplings required no sustained commitment on my part--no introspective exertion or self-flagellation. Religion was an expression of human culture, she would explain, not its wellspring, just one of the many ways -- and not necessarily the best way -- that man attempted to control the unknowable and understand the deeper truths about our lives.3

Maya remembers Ann's broad approach to religious literacy as well. "She basically gave us all the good books — the Bible, the Hindu Upanishads and the Buddhist scripture, the Tao Te Ching — and wanted us to recognize that everyone has something beautiful to contribute."4

In this and several other respects, Ann Dunham was a nonreligious parent raising a child in the 1970s according to the exact philosophy of Parenting Beyond Belief -- educating for tolerance and empathy, lifting up those religious ideas that are life-affirming while challenging and rejecting those that are life-destroying, and seeking the human foundations of joy, knowledge, and wonder of which religion is only a single expression -- "and not necessarily the best."

Barack went on to identify as a Christian. Whether this is a heartfelt position or a political necessity is less relevant than the kind of Christianity he has embraced -- reasonable, tolerant, skeptical, and non-dogmatic. His examined and temperate faith is something he sees as deeply personal, possibly because he had the freedom to choose and shape it himself -- precisely the freedom I want my children to have. It is difficult to picture this man forcing his religious opinions on others or using this or that bible verse to derail science or justify an arrogant foreign policy. It's not going to happen.

It is impossible for me to picture this man claiming God has asked him to invade [insert country here] or that ours is a Judeo-Christian nation. In fact, when he lists various religious perspectives, there is an interesting new entry, every single time:

(Full speech here.)

Is it a coincidence that a child raised with the freedom and encouragement to think for himself chose such a moderate and thoughtful religious identity? Surely not. And if my kids choose a religious identity, I'm all the more confident now that they'll do the same. anno2209Just like Ann Dunham, I don't need to raise kids who end up in lockstep with my views. If our kids turn out anything like Barack Obama, Becca and I will consider our contribution to the world pretty damn impressive, regardless of the labels they choose to wear.

Neither do I think it's a coincidence that the man who has inspired such trust, hope, and (yes) faith is the product of a home free of religious dogma. This is what comes of an intelligent and broadminded upbringing. It's one of the key ingredients that have made him what he is.

So thank you, Ann, from all the nonreligious parents following in your footsteps. We now have a resounding answer for those who would question whether we can raise ethical, caring kids without religion:

Yes We Can.
1Audacity of Hope, p. 202.
2Ariel Sabar, "Barack Obama: Putting faith out front." Christian Science Monitor, 06/16/07.
3Op cit, 203-4.
4Op. cit.
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Thursday, October 30, 2008

Encouraging active moral reasoning

by Dale McGowan
Author/editor, Parenting Beyond Belief

The second installment in a nine-part series on best practices for nonreligious parenting. Back to BEST PRACTICES #1.

If the Ten Commandments had been posted at Columbine High School, the April 20 massacre would never have happened.
--former Republican Congressman and current Libertarian Presidential candidate BOB BARR, at a press conference on June 17, 1999

Children's understanding of morality is the same whether they're of one religion, another religion or no religion. But if it's simply indoctrination, it's worse than doing nothing. It interferes with moral development.
--Dr. LARRY NUCCI, director of the Office for Studies in Moral Development, University of Illinois, Chicago

moralsign3490Last May I mentioned a powerful study in which 700 interviews survivors of Nazi-occupied Europe—both “rescuers” (those who actively rescued victims of Nazi persecution) and “non-rescuers” (those who were either passive in the face of the persecution or actively involved in it)—were interviewed about their moral upbringing. Non-rescuers were 21 times more likely than rescuers to have grown up in families that emphasized obedience—being given rules that were to be followed without question—while rescuers were over three times more likely than non-rescuers to identify “reasoning” as an element of their moral education. “Explained,” the authors note, “is the word most rescuers favored” in describing their parents’ way of communicating rules and ethical concepts.1

This echoed work by Grusec and Goodnow in the 1990s, which showed that "parents who tend to be harshly and arbitrarily authoritarian or power-assertive are less likely to be successful than those who place substantial emphasis on induction or reasoning."2

Both the Oliners’ results and the central role children play in their own moral development are underlined by cross-cultural research from the Office for Studies in Moral Development at the University of Illinois, Chicago. Children in cultures around the world tend to reach certain landmarks in moral development reliably and on time, according to lead researcher Larry Nucci, regardless of what their parents do or don’t do. “Children’s understanding of morality is the same whether they’re of one religion, another religion or no religion,” says Nucci.

The reliability with which kids hit these moral landmarks was underlined by a University of Zurich study published in the August issue of the journal Nature. Kids between 3 and 4 were seen to be almost universally selfish, after which a "strong sense of fairness" develops, usually by age 7 or 8. Fairness was most evident toward those with whom the children identified—in this case, kids from the same school as opposed to a different one.

Ideas of fairness and of in-group preference appear to go hand-in-hand. "The simultaneous development of altruistic behavior and preference of the own group provides interesting new impulses for the conjecture that both of these processes are driven by the same evolutionary process," said Professor Ernst Fehr, one of the principals in the study. This development, which has never been shown to occur in other species, "may be an important reason for the unique cooperative abilities of humans," he said. Unlike animal and insect societies, human societies are based on a detailed division of labor and cooperation in large groups of genetically unrelated individuals who are nonetheless joined by common concerns.

So once again, for the vast, vast majority of kids and situations, morality happens. We are wired up, however imperfectly, for cooperation and fairness. Parents can and should encourage these tendencies, but we mustn't think we are writing on a blank slate, or even worse, rowing against a current of natural depravity. Our job is to draw out and enhance the ethical nature that evolution has already put in place, then expand it beyond the in-group by widening those circles of empathy. Knowing that our children's tendency is toward the ethical can help us relax and row with the current, knowing that kids in a supportive, "pro-social" environment tend to turn out just fine.

Nucci's work does point to one way in which parents can actually impede their children’s moral growth. Any guesses?

“If it’s simply indoctrination,” he says, “it’s worse than doing nothing. It interferes with moral development."3

So the one practice conservative religious thought insists is vitally important in moral education, the one thing we are begged and urged and warned to do—to teach unquestioning obedience to rules—turns out to be the single most counterproductive thing we can do for our children’s moral development.

Instead, the best thing we can do is to encourage our kids to actively engage in the expansion and refinement of their own natural morality—asking questions, challenging the answers they are given, and working to understand the reasons to be good.

Marvin Berkowitz, professor of character education at the University of Missouri, puts it just that clearly: “The most useful form of character education encourages children to think for themselves."4
1 Oliner and Oliner, The Altruistic Personality, 181-2.
2 Grusec, J.E. and J. J. Goodnow, “Impact of Parental Discipline on the Child’s Internalization of Values: A Reconceptualization of Current Points of View,” Developmental Psychology, 30, 1994.
3 Quoted in Pearson, Beth, “The art of creating ethics man,” The Herald (Scotland), January 23, 2006.
4 Ibid.

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Saturday, October 25, 2008

An Open Letter to Sarah Palin

Dear Sarah,

As a former fundamentalist, I'd like to call you on what you are doing. The media has called you “opaque” about your religion, but some of us can connect the dots.

This is not about disrespecting your private beliefs. However, your religion matters to us because it matters to you. You have done and said things that indicate you are a born-again, literal Bible-believing, fundamentalist Christian. This is the most important thing about you and you have not been honest about it.

Most people who have never been entrenched in the subculture of fundamentalist Christianity may not understand what this really means, but I do. Like you, I was raised in the Assemblies of God and I was a zealous part of the Jesus Movement. Like you, my life was consumed with seeking God's will for my life and awaiting the imminent return of Jesus.

It's clear to me that you want to do the Lord's will, as a true believer would be in your position. You talk of the “spirit of prophecy.” You are on a mission from God. If that is not true, then I challenge you to deny it.

You probably know that you have a huge conflict of interest here by running for office. Jesus said “love not the world” or you will not have the love of the Father in you (John 2:15). You are ambitious, Sarah, but you can’t have it both ways. And if you are the kind of Christian I think you are, you abhor the thought of denying your allegiance like Peter did.

Former fundamentalists like me know that your worldview is so encompassing, authoritarian, and powerful that it defines who you think you are, the way you view the world, history, other people, the future, and your place in the world. It defines you far more than hockey mom, wife, woman, hunter, governor, or VP candidate. Your indoctrination began as a small child so I know it goes deep.

As a born-again fundamentalist, you would believe that every bit of the Bible is God's perfect word. You would have a supernatural view of reality where Satan is a real entity and where good and evil beings are engaged in "spiritual warfare" (Ephesians 6:12). We know your pastor advised you to read again about Queen Esther, who rose up to save the Jews. Like your Christian supporters, you are likely to believe that God has "called" and "anointed" you to lead America. This is why you have accepted blessing for office through the "laying on of hands" and prayer to protect you from witchcraft.

So what does this mean for governing? What could Americans expect with you at the helm? If you have a fundamentalist worldview:

You cannot affirm basic human decency or capability, because according to your dogma, we are sinful, weak, and dependant on God. And so, your decisions would not be based on expert advice or even your own reasoning, but on your gut-level, intuitive interpretation of God's will. This would allow you to do anything and claim you were led by God.

Your thinking necessarily is black or white. People and policies are either good or bad. After all, Jesus said, "He who is not with me is against me" (Matt. 12:30). Under your leadership, diplomacy and cultural nuance would be less important than not blinking. In a spiritual war, you don't negotiate with the devil.

Social policy? As a believer in individual salvation, you would emphasize individual morality and responsibility, not a community approach with structural solutions. You would be judgmental and controlling of personal choices regarding sex, reproduction, and library books instead of addressing global warming, torture, poverty, and war. Your belief in eternal hell-fire, your deference to a literal Bible despite its cruelties and vengeful god, and your training to disbelieve your own compassionate instincts, are likely to leave you numb at your moral core. You might recall the verse, "If a man will not work he shall not eat" (2 Thess. 3:10). However, faith-based initiatives would be okay because they would use caring to evangelize.

How about science? As it has in your governorship, your interpretation of the Bible would trump scientific scholarship and findings. You would deny the human role in global warming because God is in control. More importantly, you would not make the environment a priority because you do not expect the earth to last.

International affairs? Since your subculture has identified the establishment of Israel in 1948 as the beginning of the end, you would see war, epidemics, climate change, and natural disasters, all as hopeful signs of Jesus' return. You would be a staunch supporter of Israel and deeply suspicious of countries like Russia identified with the antichrist in the end times literature. (You have publicly said that you expect Jesus to return in your lifetime and that it guides you every day.)

This type of Christianity is not about following the teachings of Christ (as in Matthew 25 on caring for the poor). It is about death – his death, our death, the death of the planet. Sarah, if you are a born-again literal Bible-believer, this is how you would view reality. If I am wrong about this, please clarify publicly, and we will all sleep better.

The fundamentalism that has very likely shaped your thinking teaches that working for peace is unbiblical and wrong because peace is not humanly possible without the return of Jesus (1 Thess. 5:2,3). Conflict, even outright war is inevitable, for Jesus came not to bring peace but a sword (Matt: 10:34-37). Like millions of fundamentalist Christians, you may actually find joy in global crises because these things portend His return (Luke 21:28).

But all of this certainty and fantasy in today's complex world is dangerous, Sarah. There was a time when all of humanity thought the world was flat. Today, the stakes for such massive error are much higher.

So I ask you, Sarah, Warrior Princess for God, -- How dare you presume to take responsibility for our country and our planet when you, in your own mind, do not consider this home? I mean home for the long haul, not just until your rescue arrives from space. How dare you look forward to Christ's return, leaving your public office empty like a scene from the movie, Left Behind?

What if you are completely wrong and you wreak havoc instead with your policies? If you deny global warming, brand people and countries "evil," support war, and neglect global issues, you can create the apocalypse you are expecting. And as it gets worse and worse, and you look up for redemption, you just may not see it. What then? In that moment, you and all who have shared your delusion may have the most horrifying realization imaginable. And it will be too late. Too late to avoid destruction and too late to apologize to all the people who tried to turn the tide and needed you on board.

Leave this beautiful, fragile earth to us, the unbelievers in your fantasy. It's the only heaven we have and you have no right to make it a hell.


Marlene Winell, Ph.D.
October 21, 2008

Marlene Winell is a Bay Area psychologist who specializes in recovery from fundamentalist religion. She is author of Leaving the Fold: A guide for former fundamentalists and others leaving their religion. She is the daughter of Assemblies of God missionaries. A longer article about Sarah Palin's religion is on Dr. Winell's website:

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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

"That doesn't sound very Atheist to me..."

That doesn’t sound ATHEIST to me....
When we're having our lowest times in life, there's nothing in the world, and in our entire human-being, that states, "Only those who believe in a god or religion needs to have assistance from psychologists, psyciatraists, or social workers." Yet, there are Atheists who prefer to SHAME people who seek out responsible medical help.

Some "bad neighbor Atheists", as James Randi calls them have sent me letters, or emails just refusing to believe that Atheists are supposed to grieve, and certainly shouldn't use, and I'll quote one letter because it is 180 degrees from the truth:

"Jones, we don't need any crutches. No pills, no prayers, no doctors giving a panacea and sending us off in a foggy mist of psycho-babble."

My first response was, "Who was the mental health professional assigned to him to make him so close minded to the idea that MEDICAL professionals are a crutch during times of loss?" But more so, I wondered, how many other people feel this way aren't getting help necessary to get through the really rough patches in life.

Many letters as of late are regarding the great "It's not a depression" scare that we're amidst. Retirees are writing that they are now supporting adult children, and cannot afford their own bills. Employees of long standing are now on the chopping block at places the family has worked in for generations. We're developing a shell-shocked generation of "NO one cares, I'm just a number, so let's have dessert first." Wreckless behavior is on the rise, and with that, tragic deaths. Banks are closing before people tap into their IRAs and force the closures. It's just sad. It's sad that the people who saw it coming were told, "that will never happen." And, these same people, despondent, confused, and bewildered, are being told, "Go to church and pray about it."

We'll stop at that first. No Atheist needs to PRAY to make the world's troubles go away. Talking to yourself is great at calming YOU down but it won't do anything to your neighbor, or your children's future other than keep you out of it for a few moments. STAY in the NOW. Simple neuro-lingistic programming DOES work at keeping us focused, and the mind/body response DOES work at keeping us focused on solutions. Prayer occupies the mind in the same way dreams and fairytales do- the outcomes are out there, unreal, and often just a random tangent of neurons firing based on the part of the brain most stressed at the moment. (ie. You spent the day worry about a car breaking down, and you later dream you own a car that has a flat tire.)

Meeting with groups of people to talk to an invisble entity doesn't help. Meeting with groups of people to form actions and plans will. Get with other people from your company and learn how to cut corners that will make the organization see the PEOPLE as valuable as long as there are ways to cut other things. (Do you really need a soda machine in the hall? Does it matter if the paper you print on is pulp stock or standard?) Start making a solution team, and cut expenses- car pool, offer prizes in gas cards to people who come up with the innovative ways to keep the company affloat.

Meditation and prayer are not the same. Meditation is a state of turning your mind into a calm place from the many thoughts bounced around and argued, events, calandars, bills due, children, illnesses- etc... When we meditate, we are taking moments in the NOW, and saying, "This is my time to NOT think of anything other than what calms me." (puppies, oceans, big sky, anything that puts you in a place of nothing matters for five minutes.) EMBRACE those quiet times. That is what meditation does.

As an animal trainer, I've noticed most of my animals will do just this. If there's a tassle, or one of the cagemates isn't feeling well, or they're waiting for foodtime, many will simply sit in one spot. They aren't causing another animal any stress, and they aren't falling asleep- they just sit, some brush their faces- and just wait. It lasts about a minute or two- then they're back to bouncing and begging for ratty-chow, but they take that time to go from 100% play to 100% calm. It's a forced moment to live in the now- without any interruptions- and can be as short as 30 seconds. Suddenly you'll find your energy easier to tap into for the things that are most pressing, and you'll do better at it.

I'll say this until I have eggplants growing from my ears- but it's more than true. ALL of the human species rely on ritual of some sort. There's no hoodoo juju, and there's not a single church involved. Ritual is merely a structured set of events, shared or not, that helps a person get through the acknowledgement of an event.

I repeat: Ritual is merely a structured set of events, shared or not, that helps a person get through the acknowledgement of an event.

Acknowledgement of something means you are at a point of understanding something better. If we get hired to a new job, a ritual could be decorating a cube so we feel the person who was there before no longer has a presence, and we now belong there. If someone we love is in ICU, we know that by visiting on specific times, and saying specific things, we have acknowledged s/he is in pain, and we have made a commitment to help ease that pain.

If someone we love dies, we may perform an act that would have made that person laugh in our time together. We do this to honor the memory, and to remind ourselves, our moments together did matter- and will always matter long after s/he is gone.

For instance, my foster mom died in 2001- Every Saturday night, I ensure I'm by the PBS station, watching "As Time Goes By", the show we would sit for hours watching in he home. It's a ritual I've maintained for most of the last seven years. During the time, I feel close to those memories, and the years we spent together. I don't hunt for her ghost, or do seances or other self-serving nonsense designed to make someone rich-- I just honor the person I miss by continuing a ritual of something we enjoyed together.

Medications are NOT designed to stop you from grieving loss. They're designed to help you get through anxiety, depression, and chemical imbalances that naturally occur when we are facing loss. Most people given medications for their response to grief have these as short-term solutions. You aren't "mental", nor are you "lazy" for taking them. We're well past the days when we'd jail a woman for having post-partum depression, PMS, or even FREE WILL. Doctors are trained in mental health at every teaching hospital in the world.

There IS a thing called post-traumatic stress disorder. It doesn't mean you were in a war zone. During the earthquakes in 1994 in Southern California, hundreds were suffereing the PTSD symptoms, afraid to leave homes, aftraid to drive highways as they watched the 14/I-5 interchange fall, afraid to leave their jobs because looting was everywhere. These all fall into post traumatic stress, and asking for help is by no means a religious right. It is a human right.

I can't emphasize- the five phases of grief so well touted by the late Elizabeth Kubler-Ross- simply don't exist for all people. Don't expect to have one response flow into another response, as you may only feel angry, then suddenly feel, hapiness. Or you may only feel numb, and then after a few months, go into crying fits. In her model-
Denial: Example - "I feel fine."; "This can't be happening."'Not to me!"

Anger: Example - "Why me? It's not fair!" "NO! NO! How can you accept this!"

Bargaining: Example - "Just let me live to see my children graduate."; "I'll do anything, can't you stretch it out? A few more years."

Depression: Example - "I'm so sad, why bother with anything?"; "I'm going to die . . . What's the point?"

Acceptance: "I get it now."

In fact there are at least thirty other responses the "average" person feels- including relief, which doesn't make you a bad person. Guilt- the disccusion I posted earlier- is a huge part of loss for some. And others will feel acceptance, and nothing more. NO one has to go through five stages of anything- it's not human nature, it's an observation made by one person. Human nature shows time and again that we're far more complex and far less likely to live in the NOW, thereby invalidating much of the work Ross did.

I'll close this long note on the letter I got that said, "That doesn't sound Atheist to me..." when I said being around friends and community is a good way to help heal." In fact, ATHEISTS have strong human bonding, and have strong, smart intelligent communities. They won't pray for you, but they'll make sure your bills are paid, or your face is clean. Pragmatic is the plan of the day- and that's a large part of what community does- it puts us in a state of self-acceptance. That's quite humanitarian based, and certainly deity-free.
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Thursday, October 16, 2008

I'm NOT Joe Plumber

It's pretty scary. All the people I know who are intelligent aren't registered to vote..well not ALL of them, but a good majority. The excuse of course, "I don't want to vote for the lesser of two evils." That's a self-important crock of bull pucky, folks, seriously. You can't make changes by sitting at home complaining. You have to make effort somehow.

There would be MORE choices if MORE people put effort into saying what they are about, who they want rep'ing them, and if there was- quite frankly- NO party system at all. I think anyone who says, 'I dont' vote because I'm not a Democrat or a Republican' is really saying, "I don't vote because I ONLY want there to be democrats and republicans." You set up a system that perpetuates itself if you do NOTHING to change it.

I've been a registered NON-Partisan for about 20 years. Being from Massachusetts doesn't mean you're a democrat, but it can mean you've had better public schooling than other places. I did. I was "honors" and "gifted", and got through Latin Academy for three years so I could go to a Magnet Arts school, as a journalist/theater person. I elected to make my education important enough to me to graduate high school early, and to go to college. I elected to leave college and go into the service when I saw there wasn't financial options for me. Yes, emancipated children can do that, so I did. I elected to go back to school, and earn a few degrees, predominately in the creative arts. But I elected to do this, as it was the wise course for improving a life that could have been less than worthwhile.

I didn't grow up originally in a neighborhood that was filled with people driving Mercedes, and sending kids to summer camp. I started out several blocks from the projects in a relatively poor neightborhood, that was peppered with people from Lebanon, Italy, Ireland, and Haiti. Many of the people I grew up with settled in on the life of parenting, working at the local shops, and enjoying a high school education. I elected not to be this way.

In my later childhood years, I did end up living in a neighborhood where homes and the car people drove were more expensive than most people's entire lifetime fortune. I had a 27 piece silver service to use on Sundays, and did. I saw the other side of the tracks, and there were no subways, sewers, or five and dime stores- there was tea parties, cocktail parties, and "dinner meetings". The culture was as different from food stamps and government cheese as could be.

But, I don't understand why people ELECT to be ignorant. Ignorance is a choice. I grew up with no opportunities and yet, I found them, was given scholarships, and moved far ahead of what I could have had I elected to be just a kid who went with what people told me I was supposed to do. Free will is a magnificent thing.

People know I was a Richardson fan. A Mexican in the White House has so much comedic potential, but I had first-hand experiences with him, when he was my governor, when I lived in New Mexico. I read Richardson's blogs, and understood WHY he was going to pull out of the race, and WHY he was going to support Obama. I'm also one of the few people making sure C-Span gets SOME ratings. I've sat and watched votes that went on for days. I sat and listened to philibusting bombastic blunderers.

One of my students in New Mexico was pretty disdainful of me as I would rib her constantly for being an ardent Ross Perot supporter. In fact, I admired her greatly for going against the grain, and electing to be aware of whom it was she was supporting. Mostly, I prodded her because it gave her a platform for the speech class. She taught many students to stand up for who and what they believe in, and never be goaded by someone else's ideas. She was fabulous for it.

I watched the debates, along with many of my friends, as I sat at Facebook, typing commentary. Patton Oswalt, Brody Stevens, and Taryn Reid also did this, and many others had great moments of hilarity that Letterman and Leno would envy. But, really, we were trying to get people to LISTEN to what is being said. Don't just assume that someone is in favor of your beliefs because you were the same title, logo, or skin color. LISTEN to what is being said, and watch HOW it's being said to see if there is any genuine passion. Where there is passion, there is truth, where there is truth there is purpose.

I'm not Joe Plumber. I'm the one in my house who votes. If there is Atheist to vote for- that's great. I'm not going to vote for someone JUST because I support Atheists. If there is a pro-choice person to vote for, great. I'm not going to vote for someone JUST because they share my thoughts. If there is somehow someone who actually funded education before war- well- that person just doesn't seem to exist, does it? But, it's up to me to decide if I will follow my free will, elect someone who best represents the majority of my beliefs, and then put that person into office.

I'm not going to be Bushwacked anymore.
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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

why do Christians visit atheist blogs?

by writerdd

Reading Melissa's post made me think of something I wrote the other day, that may become part of a memoir I am writing about leaving Christianity behind.

I’m not entirely sure why born-again Christians read atheist blogs. I never would have. Perhaps its a morbid sense of curiosity. Perhaps they think they can save us. Maybe they think we are misrepresenting their Savior and they want to set the record straight. (As if God couldn’t take care of his own reputation.) In any case, they claim to want to spread the love of Jesus, but often end up in bitter, heated arguments with unbelievers. From the tone and vocabulary, you can’t actually tell who is the Christian and who is the atheist.

I felt a lot like Melissa does for a long time, and I still do in a way. I refuse to be silenced by Christians -- or people of any faith -- who think "you have to believe in something" is the best response to my atheism. I've been pissed off since somewhere around 9/11. But now I am tired of being mad at Christians. It's really exhausting. While I've been working on my memoir, I've been looking at old photos of friends from church and year books with pictures from the Bible school I attended, and I found myself smiling more than anything else, remembering good times, and good people. I wonder, "What happened to Christianity in the last 20 years to change me from seeing Christians as good people to seeing them as big-mouth bigoted bullies?" I think it's the action of the Christians, always pushing themselves to the forefront, trying to force everyone to follow their rules through legislation, blatantly disregarding the Constitution of the United States. When I was a Christian in the 1970s and early 80s in New York, it was considered uncouth, unspiritual, for born-again Christians to be involved in politics. We were in the world, but not of it. Our mission was spiritual, not political. Looking back, I see that when churches started getting involved in politics, that's when I got a bad taste in my mouth and started to feel like something was amiss.

So, I'm not really sure what to think about all of this. Frankly I'm tired of thinking about it. I wish Christians would just mind their own business and leave the rest of us alone. If they won't do that, then they have to suck it up and take it when we push back. We're not the ones being the bullies.

And Christians visiting atheist blogs and hassling people in the comments are just one example of that bullying. Personally, I think Jesus would be pissed.
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SEASONED WITH REASON - When Frustration Reigns

Lately, in the past month or so, I've been struggling again with anger towards the religious, particularly Christianity because that's the religion with which I'm confronted most often. The subject has come up on this blog before, probably because one of the issues of being Atheist is dealing with religious folks who refuse to respect our philosophies, even while they demand we respect and even adopt their beliefs.

On days when I'm not feeling as enlightened as I like to feel, it infuriates me.

My husband and I have seen Religulous, Bill Maher's documentary about the dangers of religion, twice. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Maher addresses the three most popular organized religions, mostly, and challenges each in turn. He makes really good points. He also challenges those of us who are not religious to be more vocal, more public about it, which give me a lot to think about.

I strongly believe that most religion is dangerous. Why do I say "most"? Because there are a few religions that don't interfere with a person's reasoning capabilities. Wicca and other Nature religions are good examples. I was Wiccan for awhile, and most of the Wiccans and other Pagans I met saw "god" and "goddess" as metaphorical. Their religion is based on a reverence for Nature, and scientific inquiry doesn't threaten their religious beliefs. Wiccans don't have an ancient book that they consult to determine how to live. Their "doctrine" is simple: harm none. They are led by their conscience.

When religion demands that we circumvent our ability to reason and think, then it is dangerous. What remains a continuous dilemma for me is how to cope with how I feel about, say, Christianity when people I love and interact with regularly are devout Christians. I've always considered myself a reasonable person, open to new ideas, respectful of people and their right to believe and think whatever they want.

However, I'm getting weary of Christianity being shoved down my throat everywhere I turn, even here on this blog, where Christians are filling our comment section with anti-Atheist drivel. The difference between me and the average Christian, including the ones that I love and respect, is that whatever I believe, I neither expect, nor demand, that everyone I encounter bow down and worship my lack of belief in god.

I spent a couple of months hanging out online at the Atheism boards on Beliefnet. What was the discussion about most of the time? Christianity. Not Atheism. Rarely did any issues regarding Atheism or Secular Humanism come up. Why? Because there was a constant barrage of Christians with delusions of grandeur preaching their gospel as if we'd never heard it before, as if we'd be inspired by their retelling of stories we've heard and debunked a thousand times, and miraculously turn to Jesus. Even the board moderator supported the idea that there is evidence of god's existence while continuing to assert that he is an Atheist.

And here I am, feeling the need to talk about Christianity. I am weary of defending my lack of belief in what, to my mind, is the same as the Cinderella story. I don't want to discuss the existence of Jesus anymore than I want to delineate the reasons why a pumpkin could theoretically be used as a vehicle. At the same time, I don't want to be the kind of person that steps on the toes of others, and I'm still trying to figure out how to stand for my own beliefs without doing what Christians do to me on a regular basis. I don't want to be, as my five-year-old niece might say, "ugly" to people, especially the people I love who are deeply religious.

But I also don't want to back down and let the Christians win by default. They have a right to believe what they wish; they don't have a right to demand and insist we all believe like they do and run our country, our society, our world into the ground with their religious fervor. I am trying to find a way to be vocal, to be public, to be a voice of reason without letting anger and frustration propel me in a direction I don't want to go.

It's a discussion I'd like to see explored more here so we can learn from each other. We all have to live in this world, and we will always be faced with Christianity and its persistent adherents. Most of us want to be liked; most of us want to be accepted. We want to play nice and get along. But we don't need to back down and play quite so nice with people, whatever religion they are, who are hell bent on stepping on the rights of others.
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Monday, October 13, 2008

Religion and Politics: A Match Made in ?

by Denise Beck-Clark

The great thing about Blog writing and reading is that they stimulate thought. The Blog written by Jim Aiken relates to something I’ve given a lot of thought to over the years: the relationship between religion and politics, and, specifically, how it impacts on personal relationships.

My late mother, who identified herself as “a Democrat,” was married to a man who believed that Ronald Reagan was too liberal. I would always ask her on the phone, for this was when I was an adult, and didn’t see her much in person, how could she even be in the same house with someone with such views, no less be married to him, my belief being that a person’s character and his/her politics are inseparable. Her answer: We don’t talk about politics. Now I realize that there was another reason that explained the feasibility of their relationship: they weren’t religious. I never realized that before, but I do now. If either one of them had been into God, they couldn’t have stayed together. But just their political beliefs were avoidable.

It often happens that people with certain religious beliefs also have certain political beliefs. But this is not always true: there are many Democrats who have a strong belief in God. What separates them is the desire to impose their beliefs on others. That’s also where religion becomes pernicious. What would it matter if most of the world had strong religious beliefs if they didn’t condemn me for not having them. Religion, when it is done sincerely, can have very positive effects, viz., a Mother Teresa. Unfortunately, so many people get more caught up in imposing their religious beliefs on others than in the beliefs themselves, to the fanatical extreme of incarcerating or killing people who don’t agree with them.

But I digress. Recently, something interesting happened with a colleague at my job. Though she is a strong believer in God, she and I were becoming quite friendly, being aware of and tolerating each other’s differences. Until one day recently the talk turned to politics and she started to rant and rave about “those Democrats.” I said to her, “Betty, I am one of those Democrats.” Since that day our friendship has cooled. It was as if we could tolerate the one major difference, but add to that the political thing and it became too much. Oh, we are still friendly, we still talk and like each other superficially, but we know this friendship can only go so far; ultimately, there’s too much about each of us that the other doesn’t like or approve of.

Is there a conclusion here? Yes, and I think it’s the same one that Jim was given as advice by people who responded to his Blog. Above all, most of the time we do what is practical. It’s practical for Jim to smile at his mother’s neighbors so they will look after her. It’s practical for me to be friendly with my colleague at work. It was practical for my mother to be married to her husband. It’s when people’s actions go beyond the practical and focus more on principle that the stakes get higher. So the real problem is when people act on principle; that’s when relationships, be they of a personal or a societal nature, become strained and people get hurt, individually or en masse.

On the other hand, there’s an argument to be made for acting on principle, but that’s another essay.
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Friday, October 10, 2008

Dealing with Believers

To paraphrase Lady Astor, I don't mind what people believe, as long as they don't shout it in the streets and frighten the horses. Other people's beliefs become my business only when they make them my business.

My mother is 86 years old. Her neighbors are not only friendly and nice, they're helpful. They mow her front lawn. We did a garage sale together this summer, and the guy helped me move a couch. Once when Mom fell down, I ran next door and got the neighbor lady, who helped me get her back on her feet.

This month (October 2008) they have a "Yes on 8" sign on their front lawn. For those outside California, Prop. 8, if passed, will outlaw gay marriage.

They're Mormons.

They haven't tried to convert me, so up to now it has been none of my business. But now ... now I don't dare speak to them.

If I see them in the front yard before the election, I will walk on as though I was preoccupied and didn't notice them. That strategy only needs to work for a few weeks.

After the election, if Prop. 8 fails, I'll be ever so nice to them, and the status quo ante will reassert itself. But if Prop. 8 passes, how will I deal with these nice, helpful, vicious, bigoted savages when I see them?

Confronting them won't do any good. Religious people are mostly impervious to rational argument. Alienating them won't help Mom at all. But if I smile and say hello, I'll leave them with the very mistaken impression that I like them. That I accept their hatred of gay people as a normal and unremarkable part of the social fabric.

I have no answer to this question, and if Prop. 8 passes I'm going to need one. Read more!

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Help! I Want To Believe!

by Denise Beck-Clark

It dawns on me that one thing more alienating than being Jewish in this Christian culture is, well, besides being a Muslim, being an Atheist. What poor timing: now, when this country seems to be at an all time high, at least since the 1950's, in its religiosity, what a time to come to the realization that I am, after all is said and done, an Atheist.

Writing these Blogs has caused me to have a revelation: I am, indeed, an Atheist. Prior to now I called myself “Agnostic,” but I understand that this was based on confusion. For, vis a vis the identity of God, I’ve been confused, all my life! I was raised by non-religious Jewish parents, who, when, I asked as a child, “What is God?” answered, “God is all around us. God is in everything.” They didn’t say “there is no God.” Nor did they call themselves Atheists. But I definitely was not raised as a believer in A God.

Because I grew up believing in “God as a Force,” this stopped me from calling myself an Atheist. Now, however, I’ve come to understand that when we talk about “God” we’re talking about the anthropomorphic God. God as the Father of Jesus. God as the Creator, Protector, and All Powerful Being that loves everyone unconditionally. God as the old man with a white beard and long robes, or, in whatever persona people picture this Being.

All my life, until now, I have found it reasonably acceptable to believe in God as a force because to define God as a force allows for stuff like synchronicity, and for believing that there’s energy out there that never dies but instead is re-formatted and re-cycled and provides, at times, a certain unity and logic to things. It’s God as Karma, God as a lesson, God as an explanation. But now I know that this is not the same as the God that people love and pray to.

I have found believing in God as a force to be mildly comforting. But I know that this comfort is nothing compared to the profound solace that is brought by the belief in God as an All Powerful Being who will love me unconditionally and have my best interests at heart at all times. It’s this latter belief that really helps people, and I sorely miss it. Because when the going gets rough, as it so often does, wouldn’t it be wonderful to have this Being to turn to with absolute faith and trust, which would allow me, like a child trusting her all-powerful loving parents, to believe that yes, Denise, everything is going to be just fine. You’re one of God’s children and God is always looking after you. How comforting! No wonder so many people are believers.
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The Devil Went Down to Georgia

by Dale McGowan
Author/editor, Parenting Beyond Belief

devil320991I read to Delaney's first grade class yesterday. She had prepped me for my visit like a military operation, reminding me at least five times of the exact time and S.O.P.

"There's a chair you sit in, and I'll sit right by you," she said. "You have to bring three stories, but don't be sad if we don't get to all three."

I promised to hold it together.

She nodded, then ran upstairs to rummage through her books. Five minutes later she was downstairs, beaming.

"First, you'll read this one," she said, handing me Rosie's Fiddle, a great version of a classic folktale. "Then Crictor, the Boa Constrictor, and then"--she held up a finger, eyes closed-- "IF there's'll read Pete's a Pizza."

"Ooh, good ones," I said, only really meaning it about Rosie's Fiddle. The other two are nothing much, but Rosie's Fiddle is the kind of story that can keep a roomful of six-year-olds perched at attention on the edge of their buns.

The operation commenced at 1330 hours.

"If Rosie O'Grady ever smiled," I read dramatically, "no one but her chickens had ever seen it. She was as lean and hard as a November wind..."

The story goes on to describe the solitary Rosie playing the fiddle on her porch at night.

Folks said Rosie could fiddle the flowers out of their buds. They said she could fiddle the stones out of the ground. Folks said Rosie O'Grady could outfiddle the Devil himself. And that was a dangerous thing to say.


I flashed forward through the story in my mind, a version of Aarne-Thompson taletype 1155-1169 (Mortal Outwits the Devil). The tale has taken many forms through the years, but once a Russian folktale put a violin in Lucifer's hand, the fiddling faceoff became the preferred choice, from Stravinsky's L'histoire du Soldat to The Devil Went Down to Georgia. And Rosie's Fiddle.

"What's the Devil?" one kid piped up.

Shitshitshit. I looked at Mr. H, Laney's magnificently gifted and cool teacher, whose smile was unperturbed.

"It's a kind of a monster," offered another kid.

"No," said a third, "the Devil is the one who curses you if you do something bad."

Aw shit. Stupidly, this hadn't even crossed my mind when Laney selected the book.

I turned the page to reveal a drawing of the Devil, horns and tail and dapper red suit, standing at Rosie's gate with a golden fiddle. They exchange pleasantries, then he gets down to bidness. "I hear tell you can out-fiddle the Devil himself," I said with a growling Georgia accent, for some reason.

Soon the inevitable challenge is made, and Rosie mulls it over:

Now Rosie wasn't any fool. She knew what the Devil would ask for if she lost: it was her soul she'd be fiddlin' for. But Rosie had a hankering for the Devil's shiny, bright fiddle.

I see all of this as great folklore. But I also knew that if I'd walked into my daughter's classroom and heard another parent reading a parable of the Devil casting about for human souls, I'd have laid a poached egg.

The kids were riveted -- it is quite a compelling story -- and Mr. H didn't seem the least bit troubled. But I was glad to pick up the second book, leaving the world of Faust and Charlie Daniels in favor of a safe, dull story about a pet snake -- pausing for only a moment to remember whether the damn snake offers anybody an apple.

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Thursday, October 2, 2008

Atheist Alliance Convention 2008- and Guilt Lessons

This last weekend of September was spent in the harbor on The Queen Mary in Long Beach, California. Aside from a couple who took it upon themselves to try to convert all whom they saw wearing "Atheist" on badges, the event was quite lovely.

From Bobbie Kirkhart, to Ellen Johnson, I was fortunately surrounded by super-star women in the Atheist community, and at the helm was now retired Alliance President, Margaret Downey. At every turn, nothing but positive influence, and positive reinforcement that the freethinking community is alive, well, and filling up convention halls.

On Saturday, the 27th, I was even more honored to meet up with some people who wanted to participate in the Godless Grief workshop. There were some lovely people who had experiences to share, and on couple whose daughter even worked on making a film about their growth as Atheists much later in life.

An interesting comment was brought up during the workshop- it was about loss and guilt. We have to remember that guilt is one of the few emotions we feed to ourselves, and often rather than an emotion of conscience, and consciousness, it's an emotion of self-defeat. It's a natural response when we feel helpless, or at fault for an event, and it can be consuming if we don't realize there are lessons learned by it.

For example, if you have accidentally killed a person in a car wreck, the natural response is remorse, and a sense of guilt. It is also the only emotional response we seem to grab onto as a self-punishment, rather than one that teaches us about our own humanity. After time passes, and after you have confronted the people, or even yourself, about your feelings, you can either realize what lessons you have gained from the experience, seek some forgiveness - again from others, or within, and understand that your guilt is now something that has taught you that you have love for your fellow man, rather than apathy. That makes you a better person, a stronger person, a more HUMAN person.

Some people carry their guilt as a badge- like the great Scarlett Letter for all those around them to see. For years they struggle with the concept that they are to be punished for something they've done, and when others don't continually admonish them, they do it to themselves. In fact, that's a self-perpetuating form of guilt, and doesn't help you grow, or learn, or understand that even if you are at fault for something in someone else's life, you live a life of serendipity, and you aren't going to impress upon the world how much self-torture you are enduring. That's only something you understand. Only you can see your pain in this, and only you can decide if you deserve this.

You have the right to feel sadly, and to feel remorse, and you can know that if you at least acknowledge you were wrong, and can learn, you can help yourself learn forgiveness. It doesn't discount the event, and it doesn't mean you are no longer remorseful, or feel for those who have been directly affected. But it does mean you can give yourself enough kindness, and love, to say you are as human as the rest of us, and at some point EVERYONE hurts some one else. Maybe the events aren't as dramatic as causing someone else to die, but it can be just as painful for someone to lose a friendship, or a marriage, or even contact with family members, and all of these events bring guilt.

Others seem to discover that you can at some point take yourself from the equation, learn to forgive yourself, and start to see the event with objective eyes. For instance, in the car wreck example, if you realize the car had bad brakes, or your loved one didn't wear a seat belt, or there were underlying medical conditions you may not have known about, you can learn to readjust your thoughts to not fully bear the loss as entirely your fault. It isn't saying "it's someone's time" like the religious like to spout on about- it's saying, "I did what I could do at the time, with the amount of knowledge that I had....and did all I knew how to do." That's self-acceptance, and can be a form of forgiveness.

I am going to have a full chapter on this in the upcoming book, but the final guilt lesson- it's okay to feel GOOD after a loss. That seems to be a well of guilt for some. When a spouse dies, for example, and it's been the right amount of time- that only YOU will feel- and you're ready to date, or enjoy yourself with friends, or even laugh again, there's nothing to punish yourself for in doing so. You deserve to be happy. You are living, in the moment, in the now, and in the reality that you have the capacity to love, laugh, and be yourself. You, as a human, and as a living breathing person, have the right to enjoy moments. Maybe they are small at first, but you are entitled to them. And, you don't need to tell yourself that you don't get to have these moments simply because someone in your life is no longer there. They had time to laugh when they wanted to, and now they are gone. It's an honor of the memory of someone we cared about to laugh at what once made us happy.

And, you deserve to be in the now. The now is only guarantee we have. Enjoy the sound of the world behind you, the feel of the chair below you, and the smells, or textures around you. You are alive. Enjoy that. It's you being you, and no one can punish you for that except YOU. And why? Why punish yourself for being alive? It's something we have for such a short time. Guilt won't help you get through your day. It will only feed the idea that you don't deserve to live in the now. In fact, YOU DO. It may be painful some days, but that reminds us we are human.

And humanity is the power of free thinkers everywhere. Read more!