Sunday, August 31, 2008

Religion is the Prozac of the People

The God Antidepressant

God, how I envy people who have a strong belief in God. As someone who has been prone to depression for almost my entire life, I see how the belief in God alleviates depression for others. I wish I could take this antidepressant, too. I've tried, but I've never been able to stick with it.

Twelve-step programs, which address addictions that generally arise out of depression or other emotional disturbances, understand this with their belief in a "higher power" (though they throw in there, to paraphrase, 'in whatever form you may understand it') but ultimately they're talking about "God." What they're acknowledging, in not so many words, is a rehashing of what was said by Karl Marx, that "Religion is the opiate of the people." So, if you have to have an addiction, something to which you turn to make you feel better, it might as well be God, and not Vicodins, marijuana or beer.

I take Marx's statement in a slightly different direction: while he equated religion with an "opiate" which I take to mean something which gets you high thereby giving you a temporary escape, I suggest that these days, religiosity actually acts more like an antidepressant and cures the depression, giving the believer a permanent tool with which to feel reasonably content.

What blows me away is that for so many people it works. I see examples of it all the time: people who would be seriously depressed, even to the point of not functioning, if they did not have God to turn to. Life is seriously difficult for many people, and even more so for those for whom the "ordinary" problems we all have such as illness, divorce, bills to be paid, etc., are compounded by poverty, single parenthood, being a grandparent caring for young children, disabilities, incarceration, drug addiction: the list goes on from the most horrific on down to the petty frustrations of every day, such as the mail delivering something urgent a day late, job related stresses, etc.

If people couldn't rationalize their pain and console themselves with the belief that whatever is happening is part of God's plan for them, many would be hard pressed to face another day. At least two people I spend a lot of time with turn to God for help many times in a day. They easily explain away painful events by saying that if God wants them to endure this then they will, because their faith is such that they put their full belief in Him. Even if they can't explain the reason for something now, they are sure God will make the reason known to them eventually.

God, how I've envied this. How much easier and more comforting it must be to believe that no matter how horrific something is, it's happening for a reason. It seems virtually impossible (proven by how relatively few atheists there are!) to accept that all the suffering I endure is purely arbitrary, unexplainable, and, ultimately, in the service of nothing.

A specific example of this is the very human need for justice. How many times I've heard my religious friends express the belief that people get what they deserve, e.g., "Don't worry. God will take care of so and so [who did something evil], if not in this life then in the next." They are alleviated of having to cope with people doing evil to them or their loved ones and nothing will happen to them. And, in the reverse, people (like them?) who are especially good, will get theirs too. While they may not win the lottery, they'll be rewarded in some way for their goodness, again, if not in this life, then in the next.

The next installment of this blog will address how things might be if as many people as do take the God antidepressant didn't.
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Thursday, August 28, 2008


Yesterday, I received an email from an acquaintance of mine. The forwarded message contained a link to a YouTube video which pieced together clips of a speech given in 2006 by a politician in which he argued that it was not a good idea to use the Bible as a basis for public policy in the United States. The reasons he offered were responses to specific, problematic verses in the Bible, and the producer of the video accused the politician of "making fun" of the books in which those verses were contained.

He clearly thinks using the Bible as a source for public policy is a swell idea and scolded the politician for not agreeing with him.

The video irritated me.

Normally, I don't respond to emails like this one. A few months ago, the same woman emailed me an image of Jesus Christ, stripped down, beaten and bloody, kneeling on a cross with a crown of thorns on his head, a woeful expression on his face. I found it disturbing, much more than I did when I was a Christian. I guess my former desensitization to depictions of mythological torture has worn off because I actually became a bit queasy in my stomach looking at that image she sent.

I didn't write her back. I knew there was little point. I typically refrain from discussing religion with people I don't know well, especially when I know them to be fundamental Christians with little respect for anyone else's point of view.

This time, though, I felt the need to respond. Carefully, I explained my point of view, that regardless of what the Bible says, it's a religious book, and therefore, according to our Constitution's First Amendment, it's illegal to use Biblical text for public policy.

I quoted to her, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

Maybe I have a simple mind, uncluttered by linguistic subtleties others see, but I can't fathom how that sentence could be misconstrued. It could not be much clearer.

And I also suggested that the passages the politician discussed in his speech certainly were problematic--one was about how to keep slaves, another was about the way to stone a child that strays from the religion--and pointing out the inherent problems of those passages can't really be considered ridicule.

After I sent the message, I started to think of possible ramifications. This woman and I share friends, and we're part of a group that gets together once a month. All of the members have been outspoken about their faith. I am the only one who isn't Christian, and I have kept it to myself. I wonder, will she pass along my comments to the others? Will I be exposed to a whole room of cold shoulders next time we assemble? Will they decide to exclude me altogether?

Whether all of those minor worries come to fruition, or she dismisses my email with a shrug and moves on with her day, I'm glad I wrote it. When religious folks start spewing what can only be called nonsense, I struggle with frustration, sometimes outrage, and I don't always know how much to object. There are many occasions when I hear or read someone say, "This country was founded by Christians!" or "This country was founded on Christian principles!" Those are at the top of my list of peeves, lately, mostly because they are so blatantly, obviously false.

Yet I usually keep silent.

This time, I simply couldn't, and I hope that my email inspires my acquaintance to see a different side of things. Separation of church and state is a crucial issue, and there will be far-reaching consequences if we lose it. In this case, whatever it may cost me, I had to attempt to be the voice of reason.
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First Annual Parenting Beyond Belief Column Competition

by Dale McGowan, author/editor, Parenting Beyond Belief

In addition to my other writing, I edit the Humanist Parenting site for the Institute for Humanist Studies. One of my IHS duties is to solicit and/or write a monthly parenting column for Humanist Network News, which also then appears on The Meming of Life.

We've featured the writing of such freethinkers as Ed Buckner, Noell Hyman, Marilyn McCourt, Stu Tanquist, and Roberta Nelson, as well as columns of my own.

Now it's your turn to become the quiet kind of famous. We are now accepting submissions for the First Annual Parenting Beyond Belief Column Competition. Your entry should tackle a subtopic within nonreligious parenting (as opposed to the topic on the whole) or a personal story from your own experience.

The top entries will:

-- appear in Humanist Network News (subscription over 5,000);
-- be posted on the Humanist Parenting website; and
-- appear in the Meming of Life (which currently averages 2500-3000 visitors per day).

Submissions should be attached in a Word document 600-800 words in length PLUS a bio of no more than 75 words, and emailed to column [at] parentingbeyondbelief dot com with the word COLUMN in the subject line.

[No Microsoft Word? Paste into email.]

Deadline for submissions is September 30, 2008. Read more!

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Sobriety Without "God"

Alcoholism is a terrible scourge. Alcoholics Anonymous, which was founded in 1935, has been of tremendous benefit in helping people recover from alcoholism.

Unfortunately, AA does a lousy job of meeting the needs of atheists. It provides a very God-centered program of recovery.

If you go to enough meetings, you'll spot a few people who never talk about God, and even a very few who identify openly as atheists. Atheism is certainly tolerated, but it's not encouraged.

The real problem is not the social and philosophical discomfort of being an atheist in AA, which turns out to be relatively minor. The real problem is that when drunks come through the door of an AA meeting and hear all the "God talk," a certain number of them bolt out the door again, never to return.

Some of those people grit their teeth and get sober without AA. But some of them don't. It's a statistical certainty that some of them get drunk again, get behind the wheel of a car, and kill people. It would be naïve to say that AA has no complicity in those needless deaths.

Nothing whatever can be done to change this. AA was founded by a conservative Evangelical Christian who firmly believed not only that God had gotten him sober, but also that the only way to recover from alcoholism was by "finding God." To a large majority of AA members, the idea of recovery without God is simply inconceivable. AA is completely non-denominational, but theism is the lifeblood of the program.

Atheists who want to get sober do have options, including Rational Recovery (RR) and the Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS). They're smaller and harder to find than AA, but they do provide invaluable alternatives for atheists.

Unfortunately, the legal system in the U.S. typically sends drunk drivers to AA. The courts are actively supporting an avowedly theistic organization, and in effect steering people toward church attendance.

My own belief is that one of the essentials of recovery is a strong support group of sober people. AA has a solid presence in almost every town in the U.S., which makes it a great place to go when you're seeking support. But you do have to be thick-skinned enough to put up with a certain amount of "God talk." Read more!

Monday, August 25, 2008

LIVING IN THE VOID: No Atheists in Foxholes

We've all heard it many times--"There are no atheists in foxholes." Not surprising, this remark is attributed to a WWII Chaplin. I would be praying too in a foxhole. "God help me!" comes to mind. However, this doesn't mean that I believe in God, even at the time of supplication. It's more the child crying out to the parent to save them. And this is the essence of the individual/God relationship. Why do humans believe in God? Oxford researchers have received a 1.9 million pound grant for the development of the study of the cognitive science of religion. This grant will promote scientific ideas about the meaning of religion and its origin in the human mind.

Other research studies have already located a part of the brain that is the "religious-seeking part," which suggests that natural selection may have hardwired us for faith. And how natural then, for humans to create God in their image, not vice versa. But not every one can take that leap of faith and blindly believe in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence that says otherwise. Religion is like a theatrical play on a stage--the believer doesn't pull back the curtain to reveal the props backstage. Instead, they prefer, or need, to keep the curtain, their belief drawn.
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Finks ahoy!

by Dale McGowan, author/editor, Parenting Beyond Belief
There's plenty of nonsensical meme creation on the Internet (just so you know). One of my least favorites is what I'll call the Fictional Narrative Cartoon (FNC, or 'Fink'). Follow these steps to write a Fink of your own:

1. Select a life stance you have never held or attempted to understand.

2. Achieve a Vulcan mind-meld with people of that perspective. When that fails, simply pick a set of unflattering assumptions off the top of your head about what the world "must" look like from that perspective.

3. Weave a fictional monologue or dialogue to describe the world through the eyes of this worldview. Include acts of puppy smooshing for maximum effect.

4. Post!

I've seen atheists do this to religious folks and vice versa. It tends not to be a true Fink if the person once shared the worldview -- the atheist who was once a genuine theist, or the theist who was once a genuine atheist. In those cases, the risk of nonfiction sneaking in is too great. The true Fictional Narrative Cartoon must spring entirely from willful ignorance.

My Google alert for "atheist parents" brings Christian FNCs about nonreligious parenting into my inbox once in a while. The gods of cyber-serendipity smiled on me yesterday, delivering a Fink about an atheist dad talking to his child about death just days after I had posted a nonfiction narrative of the same thing.

The blogger, a Christian father of seven, begins by describing his approach as a Christian parent talking to his children about death:

Have you ever had a surprise party thrown in your honor? You walk through the door and the lights come on and the horns blow, close friends cheer as ribbons and balloons are thrown into the air? Have you ever watched as an athlete’s name is announced and he runs from the dressing room tunnel and onto the field as 60 or 70 thousand people cheer his arrival?...When my kids ask about death, these are some of the analogies that I use...

What a difference it must be for atheist parents, especially for those who want to be honest with their child.

He's right -- it is certainly different. And yes, it's a much greater challenge than contemplating death as a stadium full of angels doing the Wave. Unfortunately he doesn't stop with what he knows, but begins to construct a Fink:

“Dad [says the child of the atheist], what happens when we die?”

“Well, nothing really. We come from nothing and we go to nothing. Either your mom and I or someone else will put you into the ground and cover you with dirt and the person that we knew as YOU will just totally and completely cease to exist.”

“But how can I just come to an end? What if I only live until I’m five years old? I won’t get to do anything important.”

“My dear boy. Five years or five hundred years, it doesn’t really matter because none of it counts, not ultimately anyhow. Humans are part of a dying species in a dying universe. You’re an accident little buddy. An absolute accident to which we gave a name. Don’t get me wrong. We love you, and perhaps some day you can even manipulate some other people to love you too. But apart from that you’re pretty much on your own.”

“But what are we here for? Is there any meaning or purpose to all this?”

“Use your brain son. How can there be meaning and purpose to something that’s an accident?...Reality is, you come from nothing and you’re headed to nothing, just emptiness, a void. That’s all there is son. That’s not a bad thing son. It just is. The fact is, our life has no meaning, no context and absolutely no purpose save the purpose that you pretend to give it. Pretty cool huh?”

“But daddy, shouldn’t I at least try to be a good person?”

“Oh my precious little munchkin. Good and bad are just subjective words that some people use to describe things that they like or don’t like...All I know is, live good, live bad, live for yourself, live for others, none of it matters because the end of the good and the end of the bad, the end of people, pigs and insects is exactly the same, we rot away and become a different form of matter. Now, why don’t you run along. I’ve got some useless and pointless things to do.”

“But dad, that’s absurd! How do you expect me to be happy if life has no meaning, context or purpose” If that’s the way things are, why did you make me in the fist place?”

“Well, sweetpea, now you’re starting to ask what's beginning to feel like a lot of questions. First of all, I couldn’t not make you. My genes compel me to reproduce. I squirt my semen here and there and everywhere..."

You get the idea.

I was once at a family gathering where the subject turned to gays and lesbians. I chimed in that homosexual sex is disgusting. They all nodded, mildly surprised.

"You know something else that's disgusting?" I added. "Heterosexual sex." Reduce the sexual act to the physical slapping of flesh and it doesn't matter who is involved -- it's disgusting. Gay rights opponents recoil at the idea of gay sex because they strip it of the emotional component that transforms their own rutting into something entirely else.

Reducing a nonreligious parent's description of death to the slapping of dirt on a coffin achieves the same brand of reductionist nonsense. The Fink starts and stays with sterile facts, never granting the atheist parent the human faculties of compassion or love except as a laugh line. I do think we die, for real, and that love and understanding can help us live with this difficult fact quite beautifully and well -- even without invoking balloons and confetti.

The best thing about the growing nonreligious parenting movement is that we no longer need be content with Finks about nonreligious parenting. We're living the nonfiction versions. Which points to the most important difference between this blogger's take on the atheist parent-child conversation and mine.

Mine actually happened.

[Link to the fictional conversation]
[Link to the nonfictional conversation]
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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Where all roads lead (2)

by Dale McGowan, author/editor, Parenting Beyond Belief

[Back to Part 1]
We’d had the conversation before, but this time a new dawning crossed Laney’s face.

“Sweetie, what is it?” I asked.

She began the deep, aching cry that accompanies her saddest realizations, and sobbed:

“I don’t want to die.”

Now let’s freeze this tableau for a moment and make a few things clear. The first is that I love this child so much I would throw myself under Pat Robertson for her. She's one of just four people whose health and happiness are vital to my own. When she is sad, I want to make her happy. It’s one of the simplest equations in my life.

I say such obvious things because it is often assumed that nonreligious parents respond to their children’s fears of death by saying, in essence, Suck it up, worm food. When one early reviewer of Parenting Beyond Belief implied that that was the book’s approach, I tore him a new one. I am convinced that there are real comforts to be found in a naturalistic view of death, that our mortality lends a new preciousness to life, and that it is not just more truthful but more humane and more loving to introduce the concept of a life that truly ends than it is to proffer an immortality their inquiring minds will have to painfully discard later.

But all my smiling confidence threatens to dissolve under the tears of my children.

“I know, punkin,” I said, cradling her head as she convulsed with sobs. “Nobody wants to die. I sure don't. But you know what? First you get to live for a hundred years. Think about that. You’ll be older than Great-Grandma Huey!”

It's a cheap opening gambit. It worked the last time we had this conversation, when Laney was four.

Not this time.

“But it will come,” she said, hiffing. “Even if it’s a long way away, it will come, and I don’t want it to! I want to stay alive!”

I took a deep breath. “I know,” I said. “It’s such a strange thing to think about. Sometimes it scares me. But you know what? Whenever I’m scared of dying, I remember that being scared means I’m not understanding it right.”

She stopped hiffing and looked at me. “I don’t get it.”

“Well what do you think being dead is like?”

She thought for a minute. “It’s like you’re all still and it’s dark forever.”

A chill went down my spine. She had described my childhood image of death precisely. When I pictured myself dead, it was me-floating-in-darkness-forever. It’s the most awful thing I can imagine. Hell would be better than an eternal, mute, insensate limbo.

“That’s how I think of it sometimes too. And that frrrrreaks me out! But that’s not how it is.”

“But how do you know?” she asked pleadingly. "How do you know what it's like?"

“Because I’ve already been there.”

“What! Haha! No you haven’t!”

“Yes I have, and so have you.”

“What? No I haven’t.”

“After I die, I will be nowhere. I won’t be floating in darkness. There will be no Dale McGowan, right?”

“And millions of worms will eat your body!!” chirped Erin, unhelpfully.


“Well they will.”

“Uh…yeah. But I won’t care because I won’t be there.”


I turned back to her sister. “So a hundred years from now, I won’t be anywhere, right?”

“I guess so.”

“Okay. Now where was I a hundred years ago? Before I was born?”

“Where were you? You weren’t anywhere.”

“And was I afraid?”

“No, becau…OMIGOSH, IT’S THE SAME!!”

It hit both girls at the same instant. They bolted upright with looks of astonishment.

“Yep, it’s exactly the same. There’s no difference at all between not existing before you were born and not existing after you die. None. So if you weren’t scared then, you shouldn’t be scared about going back to it. I still get scared sometimes because I forget that. But then I try to really understand it again and I feel much better.”

The crisis was over, but they clearly wanted to keep going.

"You know something else I like to think about?" I asked. "I think about the egg that came down into my mommy's tummy right before me. And the one before that, and before that. All of those people never even got a chance to exist, and they never will. There are billions and trillions of people who never even got a chance to be here. But I made it! I get a chance to be alive and playing and laughing and dancing and burping and farting..."

(Brief intermission for laughter and sound effects.)

"I could have just not existed forever -- but instead, I get to be alive for a hundred years! And you too! Woohoo! We made it!"

"Omigosh," Laney said, staring into space. "I'm like...the luckiest thing ever."

"Exactly. So sometimes when I start to complain because it doesn't last forever, I picture all those people who never existed telling me, 'Hey, wait a minute. At least you got a chance. Don't be piggy.'"

More sound effects, more laughter.

Coming to grips with mortality is a lifelong process, one that ebbs and flows for me, as I know it will for them. Delaney was perfectly fine going to sleep that night, and fine the next morning, and the morning after that. It will catch up to her again, but every time it comes it will be more familiar and potentially less frightening. We'll talk about the other consolations -- that every bit of you came from the stars and will return to the stars, the peaceful symphony of endorphins that usually accompanies dying, and so on. If all goes well, her head start may help her come up with new consolations to share with the rest of us.

In his brilliant classic The Tangled Wing, Emory psychologist Melvin Konner notes that “from age three to five [children] consider [death] reversible, resembling a journey or sleep. After six they view it as a fact of life but a very remote one” (p. 369). Though rates of development vary, Konner places the first true grasp of the finality and universality of death around age ten—a realization that includes the first dawning deep awareness that it applies to them as well. So grappling with the concept early, before we are paralyzed by the fear of it, can go a long way toward fending off that fear in the long run.

Laney, for better and worse, is ahead of the curve. All I can do is keep reminding her, and myself, that knowing and understanding something helps tame our fears. It may not completely feed the bulldog -- the fear is too deeply ingrained to ever go completely -- but it’s a bigger, better Milk-Bone than anything else we have.

Visit The Meming of Life.
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Tuesday, August 19, 2008

My Daily Encounters With "God"

There is a ubiquitous presence in daily life of something for which we have no proof of its existence. I'm sure there must be some classical philosophical term to describe this phenomenon, but I don't know what it is. Does anyone out there?

Every day we encounter "God" in dozens of ways; and yet, objectively, "God" is a subjective idea. Amazing! We encounter something so often that is really an abstraction, an idea or belief. Is there anything else like this which has a pervasive presence in our lives, yet may or may not exist?

Someone might make an a priori argument that since "God" is everywhere, he/she/it must exist. But all the manifestations of "God" are man-made. Viz.:

* Places/things that mention God, such as money, banks, jewelry, songs, places of worship, etc. are omnipresent.

* Every day I say "Thank God" or "Oh God" at least two or three dozen times. Usually, afterwards, I feel silly. Often, I'll exclaim "Jesus Christ!" or "Holy Christ!" then I think, how can I say these things when I don't believe in them?

* On most days, at least one or two people tell me "God bless you and your family," and this has nothing to do with sneezing. Not sure what to say, I reply, "Thanks, same to you."

* Often, in response to my saying "see you tomorrow" someone will say, "God willing." Sometimes, now, I say it as an anti-jinx measure, which can't hurt.

* Often, I receive emails which tell me how blessed I am, how I should love God, and pass the email on to the people I love, as did the person who sent it to me. Usually, I delete them.

* Religious holidays.

And finally,

* I have daily interactions with people whose lives are dedicated to "the Lord." Most of them are Christians; a few are Jews.

All of the above is very confusing because I waver between being Atheist and Agnostic. Here is a constant presence in my life, and I'm not sure if it exists. So what do I do? What I've been doing since I was born into a secular Jewish family in a Christian society: I pretend a lot and participate a little.

What an odd thing, though, to be pretending about something all the time. But, if I'm saying I'm Agnostic, am I really pretending? Or, do I not know if I'm pretending? What kind of way is this to live?

To be continued...
Read more!

My Daily Encounters With God

There is a ubiquitous presence in daily life of something for which we have no proof of its existence. I'm sure there must be some classical philosophical term to describe this phenomenon, but I don't know what it is. Does anyone out there?

Every day we encounter "God" in dozens of ways; and yet, objectively, "God" is a subjective idea. Amazing! We encounter something so often that is really an abstraction, an idea or belief. Is there anything else like this which has a pervasive presence in our lives, yet may or may not exist?

Someone might make an a priori argument that since "God" is everywhere, he/she/it must exist. But all the manifestations of "God" are man-made. Viz.:

* Places/things that mention God, such as money, banks, jewelry, songs, places of worship, etc. are omnipresent.

* Every day I say, "Thank God" or "Oh God" at least two or three dozen times. Usually afterwards, I feel silly. Often, I'll exclaim, "Jesus Christ!" or "Holy Christ!" then I think, how can I say these things when I don't believe in them?

* On most days, at least one or two people tell me, "God bless you and your family," and this has nthing to do with sneezing. Not sure what to say, I reply, "Thanks, same to you."

* Often, in response to my saying "see you tomorrow" someone will say, "God willing." Sometimes now I say it too, just as an anti-jinx measure (which can't hurt).

* Often, I receive e-mails which tell me how blessed I am, how I should love God, and pass the email on to the people I love, as did the person who sent it to me. Usually, I delete them.

* Religious holidays.

And finally,

* I have daily interactions with people whose lives are dedicated to "the Lord." Most of them are Christians; a few are Jews.

All of the above is very confusing because I waver between being Atheist and Agnostic. Here is a constant presence in my life, and I'm not sure if it exists. So what do I do? What I've been doing since I was born into a secular Jewish family in a Christian society: I pretend a lot and participate a little.

What an odd thing, though, to be pretending about something all the time. But, if I'm saying I'm Agnostic, am I really pretending? Or, do I not know if I'm pretending? What kind of way is this to live?

To be continued...
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Monday, August 18, 2008

Why Are They "Praying For You"?

In much of my work, emails come asking about the correct way to respond when someone says something directly attacking, or passively disparaging to Atheists. A majority of this is regarding the phrase, "I'm praying for you". The comment, often supposed to imply that you are in someone's thoughts, is remarkably thoughtless. It's as if someone said to a woman without arms, "Why can't you hug me?" It just doesn't make sense to Atheists, and it certainly doesn't mean anything to us. Yet, we don't always have any visual clues during everyday interaction with most people as to beliefs, or lack of beliefs.

Those who wear religious garb, or specific tattoos, or even jewelry give us some indications of their thought process. As a species, we're trained to judge others by appearance, to determine ally from foe, family from stranger, business from casual. But, we're not trained nor do we seem to understand that our own methods of communicating our needs aren't clear. For example, teens who want to be different, wear the same black garb today that they did when I was in high school over 20 years ago. Parents often seem the same age as their children, and grandparents, which once used to illicit images of grey hair, and warm smiles, are now indistinguishable by age range. The forty-four year old next to you may be a first time parent, or a third time grandparent.

As we continue in our lives, we notice that stereotypes once held are now completely blurred. Where once it was taboo to marry between races, now it is difficult to know how many cultures exist within one household. So it is true with our view of those who are religious. Just looking at someone won't tell you Atheist from Catholic from Wiccan from Buddhist. In as much, our language has also blurred. The phrase after someone sneezes, "bless you", which came about during the days when plague was prominent, was also a pagan hex to ward off evil spirits. Atheists are just as guilty of using this phrase as anyone, simply because it has become a colloquial statement of "wish you aren't sick" ingrained in our culture from our earliest social interaction. It really doesn't mean anything, and really doesn't need to be said.

However, when someone says "I'm Praying for You", it doesn't feel quite the same way. It may indicates the speaker could be ashamed of your beliefs, and therefore wants you to change them- with his or her power of prayer. It could be a statement of "I have nothing to offer you that will help you, but this one thing I know I do for myself." It could be a statement of simple, genuine concern. The manner it is stated, and the circumstances which brings that comment out has as much to do with the words as the intent.

James Randi stated that he believes in the Good Neighbor Policy of Atheism. He assumes everyone is Atheist and doesn't preach the lack of belief to anyone unless challenged to do so. "Screaming at someone and telling him that you don't have beliefs and why is just as bad as screaming at someone and telling him what religion you have and why they should be 'saved'." He also gets very insulted when someone "blesses him or offers prayer" because it is "very assumptive to assume that you have enough power to bless me or change my life through your words."

Yet, when the phrase, "I'm praying for you" is uttered to us we aren't always clear on the response. It is dependent upon the circumstance, the speaker, the intent, and the manner in which it was spoken. Degrading another person isn't the Good Neighbor Policy, of which Randi spoke. But, there are times when hearing these words repetitively can be curtailed forever, simply with the response, "I can't accept your prayers, but I can accept your thoughts." Without insulting someone, or preaching the logic of Atheism, you succinctly state your needs. You relate to him on a peer level, and you don't disparage his way of life.

But what do you say when the comment is made as an insult or "lesson" to you as an Atheist? How do you politely tell someone that you are sick of hearing his wishes to convert you, or turn you away from what he may think is heathen path to hell? What if he is an employer, or family member? What can you say that will stop the prayers, and continue the relationship? You state the truth.

The truth is the easiest solution, and will keep that phrase out of conversations. You state, "I appreciate that you live your life as you wish, as free will is something I also hold dear. It's wonderful we can be adult enough to accept our differences." Then change the topic. Completely stop talking about the idea that prayer is part of his life and not yours. Don't bring up a church, or a time when you left a church. Don't carry the conversation farther than the fact of, accepting the person for who he is, and gratefully accepting yourself for who you are. You may need to say this several times, in several instances, but the message will eventually get through.

Cathe Jones is the author of the book, Godless Grief, and the moderator of the writing group, Las Vegas Quill Keepers. In September, she hosts a workshop on Godless Grief at the Atheist Alliance International conference at The Queen Mary, in Long Beach, California. She is represented by Janet Rosen of Sheree Bykofsky and Associates.
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Where all roads lead (1)

by Dale McGowan, author/editor, Parenting Beyond Belief
I have 22 posts jostling for attention at the moment, but a Saturday night conversation with my girls has sent all other topics back to the green room for a smoke.
The three of us were lying on my bed, looking at the ceiling and talking about the day. "Dad, I have to tell you a thing. Promise you won’t get mad," said Delaney (6), giving me the blinky doe eyes. "Promise?"

"Oh jeez, Laney, so dramatic," said Erin, pot-to-kettlishly.

"I plan to be furious," I said. "Out with it."

“Okay, fine. I…I kind of got into a God fight in the cafeteria yesterday.”

I pictured children barricaded behind overturned cafeteria tables, lobbing Buddha-shaped meatballs, Flying Spaghetti Monsters, and Jesus tortillas at each other. A high-pitched voice off-camera shouts Allahu akbar!

"What’s a ‘God fight’?"

“Well I asked Courtney if she could come over on Sunday, and she said, ‘No, my family will be in church of course.’ And I said oh, what church do you go to? And she said she didn’t know, and she asked what church we go to. And I said we don’t go to church, and she said ‘Don’t you believe in God?’, and I said no, but I’m still thinking about it, and she said ‘But you HAVE to go to church and you HAVE to believe in God,” and I said no you don’t, different people can believe different things.”

Regular readers will recognize this as an almost letter-perfect transcript of a conversation Laney had with another friend last October.

I asked if the two of them were yelling or getting upset with each other. “No,” she said, “we were just talking.”

"Then I wouldn’t call it a fight. You were having a conversation about cool and interesting things."

Delaney: Then Courtney said, ‘But if there isn’t a God, then how did the whole world and trees and people get made so perfect?’

Dad: Ooo, good question. What’d you say?

Delaney: I said, ‘But why did he make the murderers? And the bees with stingers? And the scorpions?’

Now I don’t know about you, but I doubt my first grade table banter rose to quite this level. Courtney had opened with the argument from design. Delaney countered with the argument from evil.

Delaney: But then I started wondering about how the world did get made. Do the scientists know?

I described Big Bang theory to her, something we had somehow never covered. Erin filled in the gaps with what she remembered from our own talk, that “gravity made the stars start burning,” and “the earth used to be all lava, and it cooled down.”

Laney was nodding, but her eyes were distant. “That’s cool,” she said at last. “But what made the bang happen in the first place?”

Connor had asked that exact question when he was five. I told Laney the same thing I told him—that we don’t know what caused the whole thing to start. “But some people think God did it,” I added.

She nodded.

“The only problem with that,” I said, “is that if God made everything, then who…”

“Oh my gosh!” Erin interrupted. “WHO MADE GOD?! I never thought of that!”

"Maybe another God made that God," Laney offered.

“Maybe so, b...”

"OH WAIT!" she said. "Wait! But then who made THAT God? OMIGOSH!"

They giggled with excitement at their abilities. I can’t begin to describe how these moments move me. At ages six and ten, my girls had heard and rejected the cosmological (“First Cause”) argument within 30 seconds, using the same reasoning Bertrand Russell described in Why I Am Not a Christian:

I for a long time accepted the argument of the First Cause, until one day, at the age of eighteen, I read John Stuart Mill's Autobiography, and I there found this sentence: "My father taught me that the question ‘Who made me?’ cannot be answered, since it immediately suggests the further question ‘Who made god?’” That very simple sentence showed me, as I still think, the fallacy in the argument of the First Cause. If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause.

…and Russell in turn was describing Mill, as a child, discovering the same thing. I doubt that Mill’s father was less moved than I am by the realization that confident claims of “obviousness,” even when swathed in polysyllables and Latin, often have foundations so rotten that they can be neutered by thoughtful children.

There was more to come. Both girls sat up and barked excited questions and answers. We somehow ended up on Buddha, then reincarnation, then evolution, and the fact that we are literally related to trees, grass, squirrels, mosses, butterflies and blue whales.

It was an incredible freewheeling conversation I will never, ever forget. It led, as all honest roads eventually do, to the fact that everything that lives also dies. We’d had the conversation before, but this time a new dawning crossed Laney’s face.

“Sweetie, what is it?” I asked.

She began the deep, aching cry that accompanies her saddest realizations, and sobbed:

"I don’t want to die."

(To be continued.)

Visit The Meming of Life.
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Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Second Problem of Evil (Under Tasso's Oak)

The Atheist Way is about living a robust, normal life uncluttered by religion. And for most people, musing on issues of philosophy isn't a big feature of normal life. So it's appropriate that most of the posts here are about life, not philosophy.

Yet for a few, musing on the big, abstract ideas is part of normal life, and bumping into a new idea is one of the most exciting things that can happen. Recently that happened to me while reading a book of essays on philosophy (Philosophers Without Gods, Louise M. Antony, Ed.) and I want to share those ideas here. Maybe a few others will share my excitement.

Two ideas in these essays were new to me. One is positive, a simple, secular basis for a moral system. I will cover that another day (I need some more time to digest it).

The other is a new perspective on the old Problem of Evil which makes it an even stronger argument against a god's existence.

The Old Problem of Evil

The Problem of Evil is an old argument against the existence of god. It can be summarized this way: if the world is created and maintained by an omnipotent and morally-perfect god, how come it contains pointless suffering? Because there is so much suffering of animals as well as people, and so many human miseries that cannot possibly be linked to human will, it becomes easy to conclude either that god is not omnipotent; or that god is not morally perfect (at best morally indifferent, if not outright malevolent); or more simply that there is no god.

The Problem of Evil has been explored in exhaustive detail by many philosophers. (For an overview of its many facets see the Wikipedia article . For a more technical review see the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.)

An argument that aims to reconcile the existence of suffering with a benevolent god is called a theodicy (from the greek words for justify and god). There are several approaches to theodicy, and people who are emotionally committed to the idea of a benevolent God can usually find one that satisfies them. Those of us without such a priori commitments usually find theodicies contorted and unconvincing.

A Different Face of Evil

My understanding of this old chestnut was broken open by the essay "Divine Evil" by the late David Lewis.

Forget the natural suffering caused by cancers, or by tsunamis, says Lewis. Forget the millions of years of painful deaths of innocent animals. All of that suffering was merely permitted by god, but it is only a drop of blood in an endless ocean of pain that is not merely permitted, but intentionally commanded by god. And this second ocean of suffering cannot be justified by any traditional theodicy.

What is Lewis talking about? He is pointing to the promises of eternal damnation that are an undeniable part of orthodox Christian (and, I understand, Islamic) belief. The key elements of damnation are that it is (a) a form of suffering, and (b) eternal, which is to say, infinite in extent.

The suffering of all sentient beings that have lived since the beginning of the Earth -- all the animals that have died in pain in a predator's jaws or a forest fire, all the people who have suffered disease or flood or landslide -- no matter what kind of arithmetic you use to calculate suffering, it sums to a finite value.

If even a single sentient being is made to suffer for an infinite time, the total suffering is infinite and has to be greater than any finite value. In fact, Christianity and Islam both insist that not one, but vast numbers of people will be condemned in this way. This is not the suffering that is merely permitted as an incidental part of creation — the suffering that conventional theodicies try to justify. It is suffering that is explicitly commanded, created, supervised by what is claimed to be a benevolent god.

Some modern Christians attempt to soft-pedal damnation, but it is not easy to find a kinder, gentler reading for texts like Matthew 25:41ff: Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire... and these shall go away into everlasting punishment... and that is only one of several grim promises of damnation in the New Testament.

Lewis argues at length that an infinite ("everlasting") punishment can never be a just penalty for a finite sin. But the justice of damnation is not the central issue. The issue is that (religious dogma insists that) god is determined to intentionally create an infinite quantity of suffering in the future that will utterly eclipse the finite sum of all previous suffering. None of the arguments that try to justify finite suffering can apply. Either this god is not benevolent, or it does not exist.

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Friday, August 15, 2008

Supporting Critical Thinking In Our Schools

A free society should want its schools to prepare its young people to think critically, make meaning, demand freedom, and bravely face the facts of existence. If a society does not want this, it means that its citizenry is ambivalent about freedom and its leaders are corrupt. If its citizenry were not ambivalent about freedom or outright antagonistic to it, it would make clear demands on its leaders. If its leaders were not corrupt, they would lead. What we see is exactly this combination of ambivalence and corruption that has produced an educational system where critical thinking is not valued, meaning is misconstrued, freedom is minimized, and the facts of existence are rarely allowed in the classroom. We see a system in crisis—one put there intentionally

It may seem paradoxical and absurd that a society should intentionally choose to educate its children poorly. Yet there is a strong pull in our culture to do just that. The reason is a straightforward one. Most people do not want their children to think. They want their children to get good grades, obey, fit in, find a job, play sports, salute the flag, kneel in prayer—but not think. Thinking is culturally portrayed as effete and funny but it is actually held as dangerous. Those who want to preserve their privileges, whether it’s their drinking habits, their bank accounts, or their fairy tales, do not want youth to ask difficult questions, dispute their authority, or threaten them with exposure. Their sense of self-interest makes them secretly wish that all schools would crumble and vanish.

This is why so little critical thinking is taught in schools. Educators agree, at least at the level of lip service, that teaching critical thinking skills is education’s number one priority. Yet classroom observers report that in 95% of the classrooms they visit no critical thinking skills are being taught. This is understandable, as an unspoken agreement has been reached by all involved—parent, politician, school board member, school superintendent, principal, teacher and, with that army aligned against them, students—that thinking is dangerous and should not be countenanced.

Therefore “learning” and not “thinking” is supported. Learning is safe. Nobody’s feathers are ruffled if you provide your students with another plane geometry theorem or twenty new French vocabulary words. The system is set up to support exactly this sort of transaction. There is a school subject called plane geometry, there is plane geometry subject matter, there is a teacher who teaches plane geometry, there is a student who learns plane geometry and is tested in plane geometry, there are uses for plane geometry, as a pillar in a liberal education and a steeping stone to solid geometry, and it all makes perfect, seamless sense. Doesn’t it?

No, it doesn’t. The tyranny of subject matter, with one subject following another from the cradle through and including graduate school, leaves little or no time for thinking. The “big” solution to this grave problem is to reduce to a minimum the teaching of traditional subjects and to completely revamp how we think of educating our children, focusing on a “thinking” model rather than a “learning” model. As this big solution is certainly out of reach, a smaller, perhaps obtainable solution is the following one: that a portion of each school day, perhaps an hour or two each day, from elementary school through graduate school, be turned over and devoted to thinking. Somebody with a new name might lead this portion of the day: not a “teacher” but a “critical thinking coach” or a “critical thinking facilitator.” This person could of course be a traditional teacher, but for this hour or two she would coach and coax, rather than teach and test.

What would occur during this two-hour block? Students would actually learn critical thinking skills. The device employed to help them learn these critical thinking skills would be “the big problem.” Students would be presented with a “big problem” and asked to think about it. They would be assured right off the bat that not only were there probably no easy answers to the problem, the problem might not actually be solvable. When a student did try to solve the problem with a slogan-sized, too-easy answer, it would be the thinking coach’s job to say, “But what if?”, helping the student, and the whole class, realize what a poor job slogan-sized answers did in addressing human-sized problems.

Here are some of the sorts of problems that might be brought forward:

• How do you decide if you should or shouldn’t support a war that your country is engaged in?

• How do you know when you’re addicted to something?

• In what circumstances would you turn a friend into the police?

• How do you know if someone is crazy and should be put in an institution?

• What should you do if your parents criticize you?

• Which should a just society more strive to uphold, the freedom to accumulate wealth or the fair distribution of wealth?

• How do you decide if space exploration is or isn’t an important societal goal?

• What is “personality”?

• If species “naturally” go extinct, what is the rationale for preserving bio-diversity?

• Under what circumstances is it ethical to lie?

It should be clear that these are questions that not even “the experts” can answer and also that these are infinitely more provocative and mind-expanding questions than questions like “What was the date of the Battle of Gettysburg?” or “Into what genre does Wuthering Heights fall?” It should also be clear that the “thinking coach” would have to remain on her toes as she facilitates the class discussion. She would need to anticipate the kinds of slogan-sized answers that students would be likely to give and be ready to help them see the paucity of slogan-sized answers.

For instance, if in the “In what circumstances would you turn a friend into the police?” discussion, a student was to say “As a matter of principle, I never turn a friend in!”, the “critical thinking coach” might reply ever so mildly, “What if your friend were engaged in a plot to kill your children?” If during the “How do you know if someone is crazy and should be put in an institution?” a student offered up, “They’re crazy if they look crazy!”, the “critical thinking coach” might respond, “So if an actor on stage were looking crazy, you would lock him up?”

These new “critical thinking coaches” would help students:

• Think for themselves
• Name problems worth solving
• Embrace complexity
• Expect to feel nervous
• Lead with skepticism
• Demand context
• Learn about the subjectivity of evaluation
• Form and test hypotheses
• Change their mind based on new evidence
• Grow comfortable with not knowing
• Think existentially
• Think big

Such sessions would dramatically smarten up students and would also partially inoculate them against supernatural enthusiasms. It is clear from countless studies that the more secular education a person receives, the less likely he or she is to believe in gods. These studies are doubtless full of confounds and artifacts but it is probably safe to say that secular education really helps in reducing religion’s grip. How much more would these “critical thinking” sessions help? Not only would we produce better thinkers and freer and more compassionate citizens, we would surely produce individuals far less likely to fall for the slogan-sized blandishments of religion.

Especially if we believe that reason is the primary sword that we employ to combat belief in gods, it would be wise if we added “more reason” to our current secular education system by lobbying for the introduction of these “critical thinking sessions” at every educational level, from elementary school to and through graduate school. Since every educator pays at least lip service to the idea that critical thinking is an admirable educational goal, it should be possible to nudge at least some schools and some school districts in the direction of revising the school day to include, in addition to subject matter classes, “critical thinking modules.” And you might think about becoming a “critical thinking coach” yourself and volunteering your services at a local school. What could be a more enjoyable pastime for you and of more value to society?

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Thursday, August 14, 2008

Creating in the Shadow of Cancer

A New Normal

The raw face of the unknown I stare in, sends shivers through my soul. My artistic activity has come to another level. It's been a year since cancer up-ended my life and, the precarious role of primary caretaker/second cancer patient, presented itself like a spoiled child. A new normal has set upon my creative life. Calendars are just fantasy now and scheduling long term dates are irritating. I look at photos of artwork for inspiration but the joy of planning months ahead brings on anxiety. The free flow of my creativity has been thwarted by an unseen silence.

It's hard to articulate the thing that dams up my creative flow, but the blockage is palpable. My Aha! – the enjoyment of a new idea flashing through me becomes daunted in the next moment of actuality. My artistic reality reflects this new normal creative life.

Every bump and twinge my partner has darts my spirit and panic awakens. It’s a spiritual dilemma. Making art anyway is now more than making meaning – it’s a way to survive. I can't do anything about this situation, but here I am. All I can do now is figure out how I create from this place. However, it's a huge energetic dare to stay in this new flow and extract my creativity.

My challenges are many. I’m adapting to remaining flexible and embracing uninvited change. It takes more than energy to face this challenge and I find part of my spirit stimulated by this new normal. Days when cancer seems the fantasy are both welcome and despised, because they expose my growth along with what has been abandoned. My painting is rusty and I can’t help overworking parts muddying their pigment. On reflection, sometimes I feel as if I’m stuck in mud. I decided it was time for a simple structure. A fifteen minute sketch everyday will help me awaken my skill and relieve stress. My internal critic can’t get too chatty over a brief and unintended masterpiece. The rhythm of work feels good. My mind can travel far away with my muse.

I need different creative space now. Little snippets of time to do small parts of my projects, work well with my new routine. I’m setting up small workstations around my studio to take advantage of time and keep my projects moving. Playing with my work more and not expecting anything good will result, removes pressure. I need no extra pressures now. I’m building both a reserve of energy and creativity to have ready for change. My senses are on high alert all the time and a new function of my muse seems apparent. Dabbling in new activities and taking advantage of every opportunity to walkabout and observe fills me full of something new. I’m not sure what will come into my art from all of this but I’m on for the ride.

It’s symbolic that this blog has started during the astrological sign of Cancer. My partner asked me what I thought about how cancer got its name. According to Encarta Encyclopedia, it’s Latin for crab and the crustacean is the symbol of the sign. It’s based on a Greek myth about Hercules. A crab fought him as he was attacking the Hydra, a many-headed monster. People born under this sign have an unusual sense of other people’s emotions and the knack to intuitively address their needs. Loving Comfort might as well be their name. I’m blessed to call one my close friend and she’s the antidote for a many headed monster like the disease. Writing this blog addresses my new normal creativity.

I learned along time ago that when life gets crappy it’s time to create a new one. The great thing about creativity is that it is constantly changing. There is a mysterious paradox between liking change in creativity, and hating it in something like cancer. On rough days my emotions run raw, which then feed a new creativity. We’re all familiar with the attitude S#*t happens! Or it’s always something! These days my creative zest fuels me with the response question- then what shall I create now?

How do you cope with the ugly dumps in your life? Do you feel your creativity is changed? When crummy things to you, what happens to your relationship with your creative muse?

Sandy Nelson makes art in Minneapolis. As a painter she loves to tell stories with her canvas and when writing she enjoys painting pictures with her words. She’s a Creativity Coach and consultant, running a consulting firm with her partner. Read more!

the mix

by Dale McGowan, author/editor, Parenting Beyond Belief

You've got to be taught, before it's too late
Before you are six or seven or eight
To hate all the people your relatives hate
You've got to be carefully taught

From the musical South Pacific

Our three summer family reunions were terrific, especially for the kids, who have discovered or re-discovered no fewer than 50 cousins of various degrees of remove. Better yet, these cousins are good kids, enjoyable kids, funny and friendly and loving kids.

And ohhh so very religious. Which is fine, of course.

My wife and I are the dolphins in the tuna nets of our respective families. Most all of the relations on all three sides are not only churchgoing but fish-wearingly, abstinence-swearingly, cross-bearingly so. The fact that most of them are also genuinely delightful to be around -- funny and friendly and loving -- serves as a nice slap on my wrist any time I find myself lumping together all things and people religious.

How can I not love it when my twelve-year-old second cousin, working on a leather bracelet, asks, "Mister Dale, how do you spell 'Colossians'?" (I nailed it.) Or when Becca, watching another young cousin making a wooden picture frame with the letters JIMS across the top, innocently asked, "Is that for sombody named Jim?" only to be told patiently that "it stands for 'Jesus Is My Savior'." It's sweet. It's lovely. Creepy-lovely, perhaps...but that's a kind of lovely, isn't it?

When it comes to assessing the many conservative religious folks in my life, though, there's a complication, one that still makes me dizzy after all these years. It was captured by (of all people) Larry Flynt, who wrote in the LA Times about his unlikely friendship with Jerry Falwell after the televangelist's death last year:

My mother always told me that no matter how repugnant you find a person, when you meet them face to face you will always find something about them to like. The more I got to know Falwell, the more I began to see that his public portrayals were caricatures of himself. There was a dichotomy between the real Falwell and the one he showed the public.

The same weird dichotomy is present in many of the deeply religious folks I know. Many are just plain good in word and deed, and I love having their influence in my kids' lives. But many others, including some I like so much I could burst, will be in the midst of a perfectly normal conversation, then suddenly spew bile or rank ignorance -- often without changing expression -- before turning back to the weather or the casserole.

It's not a case of some believers being lovely and others being nasty. That I could sort out. It's much more confusing. Like Larry said of Jerry, they're often the same people. But in the case of folks I know, it reveals itself in the opposite order of Flynt's description. I liked them from the beginning, then was blindsided by the nastiness.

The conversation at one reunion found its way to gays and lesbians, and a cousin -- one of my favorites, a deeply religious college graduate and the pick of the litter -- suddenly said, "What kills me is when they say [homosexuality] shouldn't be treated. Well if that's the case, why treat schizophrenia? Why treat cancer?"

All heads nodded but mine. I was searching for the perfect line. Finally it came. "And what about the lefthanders?" I said. "And those got-dam redheads, roaming the streets untreated!"

They laughed, not quite getting it, and the topic quickly moved on to (if I remember correctly) boat motors.

I find myself related by blood or marriage to several ministers, including a couple who are among my favorite people on Earth, open and honest and deeply humane, without a shred of pretense. There's another of whom I'm very fond as well, but in him we encounter The Mix. A quickish wit, he spends most of his time trying to make other people laugh. But when the conversation turned to the war and someone had the gall to mention the deaths of innocent civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, he erupted:

"Oh innocent civilians, innocent bystanders, boo hoo! First of all, they're not so innocent. Second of all, this is war! If you are my enemy, I'm not gonna shoot you in the leg, I'm not gonna shoot you in the arm...I'm going to put one right between your eyes. I'm going to annihilate you. And the sooner I do it, the sooner the world will be safe for God's people."

Several kids were sitting in earshot, getting themselves carefully taught. I was livid. "Now there's a man of God!' I said. "Hallelujah!"

Beloved Relation looked me in the eye, momentarily wordless, then decided to play it for comedy. "Just like the old days!" he bellowed. "Kill a Gook for Jesus! Kill a Commie for Christ!"


Anybody wish to guess the denomination that would have a minister playing so fast and loose with the Sixth Commandment, not to mention the Beatitudes? Yes, you in the back, Reverend Falwell -- what's your guess?

I listened to two high school teachers bemoaning their "lazy Mexican" students. "It's like an entire culture of unaccountability," one said. "And if I say a word about it, I'm a racist!" The other couldn't agree more. "Joo can't say dat to me, joo ees raceest," she mocked, and they laughed. I also heard them both bemoaning the posture, attitude, and irresponsibility of their non-Mexican students, but in those cases, it's because they're teenagers. For the Mexican kids, the same behaviors are attributed to Mexicanness. One group of sinners, in other words, is unforgiven.

On the ride home from one of the reunions, Erin told of a cousin she idolizes saying "I hate Democrats!" then informing the rest of the group in a whisper that Obama is "a Muslim."

My kids are plenty old enough to pick up on these things. Connor was nine when he asked, "Why does [Beloved Relation X] hate A-rabs so much?" with the requisite long 'A'. In answering such questions, I find myself struggling more than anything with The Mix, trying hard to emphasize the positive qualities of religion, to keep them away from the broad brush, to remember that we are all a Mix, to not to create my own category of unforgiven sinners. Again -- many of the religious folks in their lives are wonderful, kind, and ethical. But I can also say, with honest regret, that the greatest poison my kids hear comes from fervently religious people they know and love.

Why is that? (he asked rhetorically). And why am I so damned hesitant to point it out?

Visit Dale's secular parenting blog The Meming of Life. Read more!

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Miracles R Us...

I try not to be dogmatic about atheism. I try to remain open to the possibility that the universe is more magical than it seems.

Poking around on the Web the other day, I stumbled on a blog written by a devotee of "A Course in Miracles." Twenty years or so ago, I looked at ACIM briefly, but the Jesus talk kind of put me off. This week I thought, "What the heck -- let's see what's on their website. I could sure use a miracle!"

Their methods read like a kinder, gentler form of Scientology. The system is right out in the open, not shrouded in secrecy. That's the good news. The bad news....

The "lessons" involve daily meditation on specific phrases. (I'm not sure I want to dignify them by calling them "ideas.") The first few phrases seem designed to break down the seeker's intellectual preconceptions. ("Nothing I see in this room means anything." "These thoughts do not mean anything. They are like the things I see in this room." "My meaningless thoughts are showing me a meaningless world.") Breaking down preconceptions is not a bad thing to do. If you have real spiritual insights to impart, it may even be necessary.

The breakdown continues:

"I am never upset for the reason I think." "I am upset because I see a meaningless world." "God did not create a meaningless world." "I have invented the world I see."

But as new ideas are introduced to replace those you showed up with, a curious cloud of illogic settles over the scene:

"I am under no laws but God's." Isn't that what fanatics always say when they set out to butcher their enemies? Well, yes, it is.

"Sickness is a defense against the truth." Without denying that some illnesses are caused or influenced by mental and emotional events, I think we need to consider that this blanket assertion quickly leads to a "blame the victim" stance -- that if someone is ill, it's because they haven't embraced The Truth.

"Forgiveness recognizes what you thought your brother did to you has not occurred. It does not pardon sins and make them real. It sees there was no sin." By the time the acolyte has been led this far down the garden path, the reality of evil and suffering is being flatly denied. Holocaust? If "A Course in Miracles" is to be taken at face value, it never happened. That's the plain meaning of those sentences.

"Whatever suffers is not part of me. What grieves is not myself. What is in pain is but illusion in my mind. What dies was never living in reality...." At this point, it seems, compassion for our fellow humans has been replaced by the numbness of the True Believer. When bad things happen, I do not grieve. When I feel pain, I cut off all feeling in myself so as to maintain steadfastly my faith.

That anyone gets sucked into believing this stuff -- that's the miracle. Or, unfortunately, it's not. There is clearly a human propensity to get sucked into it. How sad. Read more!

Friday, August 8, 2008

So Do You Believe in God?

by Marlene Winell, Ph.D.

I get this question so frequently, I’ve decided to make a better effort to reply. To be honest, I don’t like the question because it presumes we know what those words mean. Here are some responses, touching on more or less serious aspects of the topic.

1. Which god? Do you mean Zeus, Baal, Athena, Shiva, Allah, Jehovah, or some other? If you mean one of those, then no. I am not a theist. I don’t believe in an individual being that created and now controls the world.

2. What is belief? Is it a cognitive conclusion that I have reached based on logical consideration of evidence?

That would assume I have access to all the information, and I do not. Is it an emotional feeling for something beyond myself? Well, my emotions vary, and some days are hopeful, other days are dark. Emotions are a rocky basis for “belief.” Do I make a leap of faith, not knowing anything really, but simply wanting to “believe,” and putting stock in a “scripture” to give it support? This is also difficult because knowing about the origins of “scripture,” I know the complexity; they were not simply dictated. Also, the strength of my blind faith can also vary and I’m not sure how completely I am supposed to convince myself in order to say I “believe.”

3. The concept of “God” usually meant by this question is some sort of being that exists “out there.” The god of the Bible is very separate, superior to humans, but anthropomorphic in many ways. Other gods are also considered “out there” and have controlling powers we do not have. A more New Age notion of god includes “the divine” in all of us, and still involves the notion of “spirit” infusing people. There is an assumption in most approaches to spirituality of a kind of “force,” which can be called by different names, but which is a thing in a universe of other things. As such, I do not resonate with this idea of “god” as an entity.

4. If I must use the concept at all, I would equate it with the “nature of being.” This is close to “ground of being,” a phrase used by Tillich and then by John Robinson years ago in the book, 'Honest to God." For me it involves a perception of existence grounded in the profound science of modern physics. Most ordinary people do not know much about this. Yet, we now know from findings in both relativity theory and quantum physics, that the universe is much more strange and incredible than we ever realized. It calls for massive humility because there are things no one understands, yet we now have good reason to question all of our basic assumptions about “reality.” The difference is bigger than finding out the world is not flat. We have evidence for questioning our ideas about matter, linear time, cause and effect, and more. String theorists agree there are eleven dimensions. Yet the general population operates all day every day assuming things that are completely out of date. The knowledge has not reached the masses. This is akin to having everyone act as if the earth is still flat. The issues are intensely profound, with implications for everything we do. The big words for me are “mystery” and “possibility.” Feelings are humility, awe, and excitement. There is no religious description of “god” that matches the grandeur of the universe as it is – elusive, ever-changing, impossibly mind-boggling. And this includes us. We are part of the fabric; there is no separation. If this is believing in god, then by all means, a hundred times YES! But I’m still not drawn to the language.

A couple of quotes that I find consistent with this:

“How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, ‘This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant’? Instead they say, ‘No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.’ A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.”`
-Carl Sagan

“I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.”
-Albert Einstein

5. Dispensing with the “god” word, it makes a little more sense for me to address “spirituality,” although this word has often meant a focus on other-worldly things. I prefer to describe spirituality as a way of living which is here-and-now. These are attributes rather than a definition. They involve feelings and perceptions and experiences which depend on openness. This openness can be chosen and developed. Rather than escaping into a different realm, I think of spirituality in terms of how we live our lives – the choices, the consciousness, the texture of daily life. There are several aspects of this:

Accord. This is the experience of feeling attuned with the rest of existence - a feeling of belonging on earth, being a part of the rest of nature, and in harmony with everything around. When you are in accord, you move along with the vast river of evolutionary change, feeling connected in a fundamental way with the harmony and power of the whole. You feel as though you are tapping into a rich resource that is beyond you, much larger than yourself. Your inner spring of god-within connects with the vastness of god-beyond, a "deeper power" rather than "higher power," a subterranean aquifer connecting all of life. This produces a sense of trust and safety, a knowledge that you fit, that you have a place.

Awareness. With awareness you are alive and awake, fully experiencing life. This means being totally grounded in the here and now. Your sensory experiences are vivid, and you notice what is happening when it is happening, both around and inside you. You do not reject uncomfortable experiences or deny pain; you are open and embracing of all that life has to offer. This makes it possible for you to enjoy things more intensely and to learn from difficulties. You are not trying to be on some other plane of existence, but are willing and happy to be here now, like a curious child.

Growth. Growth is a natural process. You are not static or inert; you are a changing, growing being. And your experiences can propel you to develop further. As a plant needs the attention of water and food to grow, you need to attend to your needs and consciously make opportunities to learn and change. This aspect of spirituality is active, complementing the more receptive elements of accord and awareness. As humans we are granted the exciting option of making conscious loyal commitments to move in positive directions. Learning will often occur anyway, as a neglected plant will often survive, but informed with a sense of accord and awareness, you can take action on your own spiritual behalf.

Transcendence. There are moments of awe for us in life, those times of being overwhelmed with wonder at beauty, or love, or natural power. At these moments you get clues about the immensity of the cosmos, like pinpricks in the veil around your limited consciousness. You are humbled and thrilled as you gaze at a sunset or a torrential waterfall. A moment of pure love can be ecstatic. Let your vision extend into the night sky, and you may experience a blissful dissolving of your individual ego. Not needing to understand or control, you can experience a sense of total Mystery. These moments are gifts that reflect your spiritual capacity, gifts that become more available as you open to your sense of the ultimate. This is not ultimate in the sense of above or better, but simply beyond your usual mode of consciousness. These are moments of realization knowing that the sense you have of “god” within is not only in contact with but one and the same as the transcendent “god”-beyond. You are a wave in the ocean, individual in a sense but also part of something much bigger – the immensely huge and powerful ocean of existence. You don’t understand and you don’t need to understand. All of this is multiverses away from “believing in God.”

So even though I would have to say I don’t believe in God and I am an atheist in the true definition of the word, ie, not a theist, I obviously feel compelled to question and reclaim the language being used and make this rather inadequate stab at describing my lived experience. It’s a bit defensive and that’s because the stereotype of the cold, shallow, hedonistic, selfish atheist needs to be challenged. In my opinion, it’s all about how we live, and not what we “believe.”

What do you think?

Kind regards,
Marlene Winell, Ph.D., psychologist and author of "Leaving the Fold: A Guide for Former Fundamentalists and Others Leaving Their Religion" and facilitator for retreats for religious recovery called "Release and Reclaim" The next one is Aug. 15-17 in Berkeley, CA

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Monday, August 4, 2008


Melissa LaFavers


Lately, I've been taking strolls around my neighborhood. I walk on sidewalks mostly shaded by tall, old trees. Their branches sway in soft Summer breezes, their leaves shine bright, healthy green in the sun. I turn my face to the sky and smile in the sunshine, soaking up the air, the warmth, the beauty all around me. I feel gratitude for my feet, my legs, my heartbeat, the sweetness of a warm July day.

This, to me, is sacred.

Often I find religious folks perplexed when confronted with the idea of not believing in god. Their belief in their god is so woven into every facet of their lives that they can't fathom how life could have meaning of any kind without the imagined presence of their heavenly father hovering over everything they do, say, think.

Many atheists have been accosted by a variation of the question, "If you don't have god, how do you have any morals or meaning in your life?"

Religion, as we all know, doesn't corner the market on morals or meaning. We humans have the ability to attach meaning to anything we do. Atheists and secular humanists may need to be more creative to define our lives without the ready-made boxes and labels that belief in god and religion provides, and we have much more freedom without the confines of established dogma.

I have a young friend who is a new mother. She is faced with the dilemma of bringing her daughter up without belief in god, while still wanting to create meaning for her, specifically in connection with seasonal celebrations, and wanting to allow her daughter to make her own choice of religion when she is mature enough to think for herself.

Celebrations require neither belief in god, nor religion. While we are both essentially atheist, my husband and I find a great deal to celebrate in what Wiccans call the Wheel of the Year. Most religious holidays have a basis in ancient Pagan festivals which were anchored in the cycles of Nature. We live in the natural world. We experience the delights of nature on a daily basis and don't need to believe in any deity to celebrate. We do join in celebrating the Winter holiday most people refer to as Christmas, though I find it more and more difficult each year to use that word. I prefer Yule or Winter Solstice. One of the things I love the most about the holiday season is the carols, and I've started to substitute "Solstice" for "Christmas" because it makes it more meaningful to me as I feel no connection to the story of Christ and his birth.

But I do feel connected to the magic of millions of intricate snowflakes falling from the sky on a blustery Winter day, to hot chocolate after shoveling my long driveway. I also feel connected to the first green shoot of a crocus as the cold begins its slow retreat and the wheel turns from Winter to Spring and all its new life, Nature awakening in a thousand different glorious and colorful ways all around me. I feel connected to the lush life of camping on a Summer weekend, the dance of a million distant stars in the night sky, the jubilance of an evening storm pelting our tent with a few raindrops, the song of Lake Huron lapping at the shore nearby. I connect joyfully to the parade of windblown Autumn leaves through a chilly afternoon, the scent of wood smoke from someone's first fire of the season, the zest of a ripe apple picked fresh from a tree by my own hand, the pleasing glow of a jack-o-lantern on a dark evening, the dazzling array of pumpkins at the local market.

Creating celebrations can be as elaborate as hosting a Halloween costume party, or as simple as sipping cider by a bonfire with friends. We can celebrate moments privately by reciting a poem or lyric on the anniversary of someone's death, or we can celebrate publicly by singing the national anthem with a crowd of people before a 4th of July fireworks show. The options are endless, and none require that we hide our reason in a box.
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Godless Grief- It's Okay to Feel

When we're sitting at home and realizing that we have to face people for the first time in a group situation after the news hits us-- perhaps it's just after learning that we have a friend in a hospital, or perhaps it's when we are summoned by a university to attend a massive convocation and vigil-- but we have to somehow find it in ourselves to face other people, despite our own shock, and our own pain.

The way we personalize our pain is unique. No one has a correct way to grieve. If someone is telling you "Oh, yes, well you're in X phase", chances are, you are not. You are in whatever phase you are in for that moment, in that time, in that day. One minute you may be laughing at a joke you had never even thought about since you were ten years old. The next you may find yourself huddled in bed and absolutely resolved never to leave. Either is perfectly okay, and both are absolutely the right way to feel.

But we aren't always given the luxury of our own time, and our own space. We aren't always allowed to be by ourselves, and that can man our grief is now a public affair. How are we supposed to keep it together when we are put in a situation such as a public funeral? Or what about being in a hospital, when a friend or a child is possibly never coming home alive? What is expected of us, and how are we supposed to behave when we have no idea what our emotions will lead us to think or react towards at any given moment?

First, you are around other people who are likely just as confused and as lost as you are. There are likely people who are naturally drawn to certain roles in these situations. Some are going to be the ones who play strong, silent leaders. Others will be quietly taking in the events around them, generally shocked or just holding off any response until they feel safe. Still others will be the basket cases, tossing out a variety of reactionary responses based on a number of catalysts including everything from the lighting to their own family history. Some of us are good at living in the moment, or are seeking out others to care for so we don't have to deal with our own pain until it is a time when we are feeling stronger. All of these roles is correct, and all of these roles should be expected. This is why you often find one family member taking up the cause of handling the details of funerals and feasts, and perhaps one stirring drama and another even missing altogether. These roles naturally occur during tragedy as they do weddings, or any emotionally charged event.

It is okay to be the one who doesn't attend the funerals. The person who doesn't attend is often the one who is given the cold shoulder by other family members, and I find that reaction appalling. To me this is the brave act of a person who understands his own ability of grieving. If he has no reason to seek closure through a funeral then I see no reason why he should be expected to attend one. Those who seek him are doing so for their own reasons, which can be tended to at any other time. Guilt has no place in grief. It's a very cruel tool that is used to manipulate others and certainly should not be used during times of sorrow.

And, it's okay to be the one who is emotional during time of sorrow and confusion. Men who have emailed me are never the ones who are embarrassed over tears. The people who complain more about tears tend to be those who have never shed them. I find those who are most likely to be afraid to cry are older women, those who have held families together as single parents, or those who have lived and fought as female soldiers. There's almost a wall built that won't allow them to be weak for enough time to acknowledge that their fear or sorrow. For what it's worth, I am now giving these women, and anyone permission to feel whatever pain and sorrow they need to feel. And, I give you all permission to cry if that is what you need.

Crying is not a physical action. The act of crying is a physiological reaction that has a chemical reaction not unlike that of some antidepressants. It helps to release some of the triggers in our minds that allows us to feel the painful sadness. Animals cry. We are animals. We forget this sometimes. But we have a biological need to do what animals do to function as a healthy being. This includes crying. If you do not think you have the right to cry, I am giving you the permission slip, and you have that right. You are as human as I am, and in your humanity, you own that right.

It's okay to scream, and yell. Anger is a part of grief. Anger directed at something positive, like something that helps you grow stronger, such as physical fitness or even singing to a recording, or screaming into a pillow, is perfectly normal, and even expected. Anger often causes people to move forward to actions. Actions that have come from anger include the creation of the United States, the recording of multiple albums, the Live Aid events, and millions of other positive changes of random order which popped into my head at the thought of it.

None of these emotions comes in any particular order. Some may even hit you when you are at these functions which you are expected to attend. It's up to you to determine how you should respond to the events at hand. Do you need to restrain the emotions you have just to get through, for the sake of children, or those around you? Is the event being televised? Do you have to wear specific clothing? Do you want to wear something that reflects your emotions if you are unable to express them verbally?

Remember, no one has been through the exact moment you are going through and you are the only one who can judge your own reactions. But whatever you feel, and whatever you understand, it's okay to feel. As long as you are not harming another person, or yourself, you are absolutely feeling the right things. And if you feel that someone should be harmed, then you may need to talk to someone who is better equipped to help you deal with your reactions. In that case, you can turn to any of the counselors advised by your friends, or family, or even those found on this forum.

Cathe Jones is the author of the book, Godless Grief, and the moderator of the writing group, Las Vegas Quill Keepers. She resides in Las Vegas with her husband, jazz pianist Mike Jones, and is represented by Janet Rosen of Sheree Bykofsky and Associates.
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Sunday, August 3, 2008

Low cost spots at recovery retreat

Hello everyone,
I posted a notice a while ago about the workshop we are doing Aug. 15-17. I'm pleased to say we have some space for "pay what you can" participants. The room and board is still $125 but beyond that is negotiable. So get in touch soon if you are interested!
Kind regards,
Marlene Winell

Here's the notice again.


It's not the end of the world! Join us at a recovery retreat.


August 15-17, 2008, with Dr. Marlene Winell

Do you feel alone in your struggle for healing? Come to a supportive and powerful weekend with others who can understand you -- an oasis from dogmatic teachings and judgmental groups. We'll rant and rave, tell our stories, discuss the issues, visualize, role-play, dance and draw – whatever it takes to think for ourselves and reclaim our lives. A joyful, empowered life is your birthright and you can start now.

WHEN: FRIDAY, Aug. 15, 7PM - SUNDAY, Aug. 17, 3PM.

WHERE: A beautiful house in Berkeley, California,
with hot tub and other amenities.

COST: $320 for the workshop, $125 for room and board. Financial need considered & options available.

TO REGISTER: Call 510-292-0509 or send an email to Register soon as group size is limited.

Dr. Marlene Winell is a psychologist & author of "Leaving the Fold: A Guide for Former Fundamentalists & Others Leaving their Religion." She has a practice in Berkeley & also counsels individuals by phone. For more info, mailing list, comments about retreats, & Youtube link, visit: Or call Dr. Winell for a complimentary discussion about your interest.
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THE MISSING LINK (Atheist Tales)

The Missing Link

A young archaeologist, who happened also to be an atheist, had many and sundry religious friends. Knowing that he was both an archaeologist and an atheist, they took great and constant glee in pointing out how the gaps in the fossil record disproved Darwin’s theory of evolution. “Without the missing link,” they chortled, “you have nothing!” Although he had a sensible response to their gleeful accusations, the response was complicated to deliver, not wholly convincing, and typically met with gales of knowing laughter. So usually he made no reply—hardly a satisfying outcome!

Sometimes he dreamt that the perfect fossils had suddenly appeared all at once and answered every question. It was a lovely dream, usually set in a cream-colored desert that was also, as was possible in dreams, a lush savannah full of lions and gazelles. The dig and find were scrupulously recorded in every conceivable way so that no one could doubt that the fossils had been extracted from virgin earth. It was the perfect setting, the perfect dig, and the perfect result. The young archaeologist would smile in his sleep and not feel the slightest twinge of envy that he hadn’t been the lucky—and soon-to-be world famous—archaeologist of record.

One evening he found himself hanging out in a seedy archaeologist bar not far from the university. Lost in thought, he sipped his wine and dreamed of fossils that no one had ever seen and the creatures those fossils recorded. A tap on his shoulder startled him. A man he didn’t know, who looked like one of those all-but-dissertation thirty-five-year-old faded graduate students, was breathing in his face.

“May I join you for a second?” he said.

“Certainly.” The young archaeologist waved him to a chair.

“You come highly recommended,” the man said, sitting down and pulling his chair close. “I’m in sociology. I’ve been studying the worldwide harm done by religions. I’ve spent fifteen years at it. I keep thinking: can’t they be stopped? One day last week a light bulb went on. I had a brainstorm. But I need an archaeologist to pull it off. I asked around—and people recommended you.”

The archaeologist felt a tingle run down his spine. Flattered, intrigued, and excited, he learned forward.

“What’s your idea?” the archaeologist said, his voice lowered.

“You know the missing link thing?” the man said.

“Do I ever!” the archaeologist exclaimed. “I get smacked around with that all the time!”

“Let’s make believe we found it!” the man whispered. “You will ‘find’ it and I’ll enlist other archaeologists to corroborate the find. Maybe we’ll ‘find’ several missing links at once, like an underground meteor shower! Maybe we can get hundreds of archaeologists in on the gag and have missing links found in every country on every continent! Aren’t you tired of being bludgeoned by the gap argument? Let’s ‘find’ a ton of missing links, all the missing links anybody could want, and then we’ll lock them away like some religious relic and not let anyone else see them. We could pull this off!”

The archaeologist, disappointed at being presented such a ludicrous and unsavory scheme, nevertheless pondered the man’s idea. “Of course, we’d be lying--” he began.

“They lie with their every breath, going on about gods!” the man interrupted. “It’s just tit for tat!”

“More importantly, that’s not the way science operates.”

“Science has to get down off its high horse and fight in the trenches. There’s a war going on!”

The archaeologist bit his lip. “I appreciate your argument and almost don’t disagree,” he said. “Almost.” His head swam. “But I couldn’t do it.” Suddenly his mind cleared. “And you shouldn’t pursue this,” he said. “It’s a bad idea. It’s beneath us.”

“Should I run through a litany of the horrors of religion?”

“Save your breath,” the archaeologist said, turning away. “I’m not interested.”

The man shrugged. “Some archaeologist will join me,” he said, getting up. “Of all the archaeologists in all the archaeologist bars in all the university towns the world over, some archaeologist will join me.”

“I wonder,” the archaeologist replied, turning away from the stranger.

The man’s plan disturbed him. He understood the argument that sometimes you had to fight fire with fire. Sometimes you had to pull off dirty tricks to achieve a righteous outcome. But that truth, while undeniable, was still a souring one. It meant that the battles and wars would never end. It let in everything you wished would one day vanish from the face of the earth. He finished his drink and left the bar in a bad mood.

That night he had bad dreams. Devilish fiends were making false finds in a coal-black landscape, cackling at their tricks, pulling out bones that never were and never could be and parading with them in monstrous dances around bonfires from hell. The archaeologist sat up in bed and shook himself; but as soon as he fell asleep the nightmare returned. It seemed that the man had ruined his beautiful dream of a righteous find.

About two weeks later the young archaeologist was having a drink with a colleague at the seedy archaeologist’s bar.

“Did you fall for that sting?” his colleague asked.

“What sting?”

“That thing that was going on here? That guy from the Freedom from Evolution Foundation, posing as a sociologist? They were trying to see how many archaeologists would be willing to falsify the fossil record!”

“No!” the young archaeologist exclaimed.

“He couldn’t find a single one. Not here, not in any archaeologist bar anywhere. There were some close calls—a fellow in Ann Arbor almost bit, and one in New Haven came this close. But ultimately no one agreed!”

The young archaeologist nodded. After a while, he found himself smiling. Yes, they would always use such tactics; they would fabricate, trick, lie, and scheme. On his side, the side of science, many unsavory activities would also occur: falsified research, unholy marriages with business, and more. But at least this time, in archaeologist bars in university towns everywhere, no archaeologist could be found to falsify the fossil record and provide the world with an unearned missing link.

That night his sweet dream returned. He dreamt that the perfect fossil had appeared and answered every question. It was the same lovely dream, set in a cream-colored desert that was also a lush savannah. The dig and find were scrupulously recorded, so that no one could doubt that the fossil had been extracted from virgin earth. It was the perfect setting, the perfect dig, and the perfect result. He smiled in his sleep; and in the morning he returned to work, a proud and happy archaeologist. Read more!