Thursday, October 30, 2008

Encouraging active moral reasoning

by Dale McGowan
Author/editor, Parenting Beyond Belief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Saturday, October 25, 2008

An Open Letter to Sarah Palin

Dear Sarah,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Marlene Winell, Ph.D.
October 21, 2008

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

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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Acceptance: "I get it now."

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

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

I'm NOT Joe Plumber

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

why do Christians visit atheist blogs?

by writerdd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Religion and Politics: A Match Made in ?

by Denise Beck-Clark

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dealing with Believers

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

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

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

They're Mormons.

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Help! I Want To Believe!

by Denise Beck-Clark

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

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

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

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

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

by Dale McGowan
Author/editor, Parenting Beyond Belief

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

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

I promised to hold it together.

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

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

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

The operation commenced at 1330 hours.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thursday, October 2, 2008

Atheist Alliance Convention 2008- and Guilt Lessons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

What are we?

by writerdd

I am a spirit, I have a soul, and I live in a body.

That's what I was taught in Sunday school when I was a child. In a way, I no longer believe that today. I've come to see that the body is what I am. ("You are what you eat" has become more than a catch phrase to me.) Without a body, a soul or spirit cannot exist. There is no non-corporeal being that inhabits my body like a house, or a temple, giving it life. I'd figured this out on my own quite some time ago, a short while after I stopped going to church in the 1990s. When I read Francis Crick's book, The Amazing Hypothesis, I dind't find it amazing at all to consider that there is no spirit of life, breathed into my by a god, animating my mortal flesh.

But that's not to say that I'm a soulless being or a spiritual zombie like a vampire. We humans certainly do have souls, something that makes us different than other animals, something unique and amazing and wonderful. This soul may not be a literal force, and it may not be something that can carry on after the death of our bodies, but it is very real. We all feel it. We all experience it. We all know that we are more than just a hunk of meat.

So what is this thing we call a soul, or a spirit? I believe it is consciousness, the very thing that gives us the ability to feel and experience at all. It is nothing supernatural, metaphysical, or paranormal. But it is still quite mysterious. No one can even quite define what consciousness is, just as no one can quite define what a soul is. I don't think that's a coincidence. In the future, I imagine, that scientists will be able to give us much better explanations for how our minds work, but I don't think I'll get to find out in my lifetime. I can live with not knowing. I don't have to make up explanations about ghosts in the machine. 

Religious people may use the terms soul and spirit in a way that I don't like. But the word breath was once used in the same way. It was beleived that our breath was, quite literally, our spirit, and that it was the very breath of the gods put into our earthly flesh to give us life. After all, when we stop breathing, we die. Today we know that is, at best, a metaphor. I hope to be able to use the modern words soul and spirt in the same way: as metaphors that capture the essence of what it feels like to be alive and human. At least until someone figures out a better way to explain what we all experience with words that are easy for everyone to understand.

Descartes and my Sunday school teachers may have been wrong, and we may now know that there is no separate, ethereal being dwelling inside our flesh, but in a way I still do believe.

I am a spirit, I do have a soul, and I live in a body.

(Oh, and I changed my hair.) Read more!