Sunday, December 26, 2010

A Season for Reason

A couple of atheist-related things happened this December. 

First, I was interviewed by a graduate student doing his thesis on something about atheists' being the most distrusted segment of society. I think he was hoping for some horror stories; I had none to give him. No one has been rotten to me about my absence of faith (thanks, y'all!). But then again, atheists don't wear insignia or otherwise stand out on the street, so how would you know? Plus, I told him I have no designs on public office and really have nothing at stake, being an already outspoken stay-home mom type. 

Let me tell you this, though: it was good to be able to speak openly with someone interested in the whole atheist experience. One of his questions threw me for a loop: it was something like, "How did you come to believe in atheism?" I don't "believe" in atheism; of all the -isms, it's the least -istic. But after making that clarification, I was happy to talk. 

The other thing that stands out from the interview was not the observation he made, which others have made since I started this blog: that admitting one's atheism is like coming out of the closet for an LGB, as he put it. Rather, it was a related theory he postulated: that atheism is no more a choice than sexual orientation. I believe that's true. 

Like an LGB, I could choose to continue to pretend. But it would be a lie, one that makes me feel like who I really am is wrong. I'm gratified that I don't feel the need to hide. 

Second, I went to church. I know, right? My son and his friend were solo vocalists on Christmas eve, so I couldn't NOT go. Discounting some pervasive cognitive dissonance, it was a beneficial experience. I decided that with one fundamental exception, my underlying philosophy of living isn't too different from the priest's: it's about people, and how you treat them. Especially the tired, poor and humble. Everyone was really huggy afterwards, in the fellowship hall and on Facebook. It was cool. Thanks, Christians! 

I have to admit, it's been a little strange this December not knowing if I should say, "Merry Christmas" to people--or really, whether I should say, "Thank you," when they say it to me. I mean, I'll tell a Jewish person, "Happy Hanukkah." Heck, I've said it to someone I thought was Jewish--twice, actually, before he corrected me. I don't need to correct people, right? My sister-in-law teased me for accepting Christmas presents; her exact taunt was, "Moral convictions be damned!" 

Anyway. A merry month, even for a fledgling self-described atheist. 

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Season's Greetings

This will be my first December as an open atheist. Will anything change? Probably not. Hopefully not.  

Here are some things I love about the Christmas season--look, I'll acknowledge the season even if I don't subscribe to the miracle--that might seem inconsistent with non-belief.

I still love to get Christmas and holiday cards, no matter if they're slathered in all manner of religious iconography, especially if they contain a photo or a handwritten note. It's about reaching out to the people in your life, stoking fires that might have been neglected.

I love the memory of what Christmas is through a child's eye. No school; just home. Being bundled in a warm house with Mom baking the cookies her mother used to bake: Brazilian coffee cookies and almondy spritzes, both plain and chocolate. Being bundled in a warm car with Dad driving the family to look at Christmas lights. The glow of little electric candles in your bedroom window after lights out. It's about the connection of generations, being part of something beyond your own self.

I love the Charlie Brown Christmas Special. We'd take the time as a family to watch this each year, bundled on the couch or floor of the family room. My favorite part is the scene with Linus in the spotlight. You'll recall that Charlie Brown is isolated with his pitiful tree on the right side of the stage, while all his friends--including his dog--are on the left. "Lights, please." Linus quotes the story of Jesus' birth as told in the book of Luke. Slow down, take a deep breath, quietly reflect. "And on earth peace, and goodwill toward men." Things got better for old Charlie Brown after that. It's not about gaudy decorations or presents; it's about love. 

I love this poem by Phillips Brooks, an Episcopal priest: 

O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years

Are met in thee to-night.

The everlasting Light, electric candles, Christmas tree lights, menorah. The warmth of hearth, ovens, heaters, blankets. We all find tidings of comfort and joy in these symbols of love. 

Yoga classes conclude with "Namaste," a greeting I learned meant, "The light in me salutes the light in you." Wikipedia divulges a number of other meanings, including this nugget: "I honor the place in you in which the entire Universe dwells, I honor the place in you which is of Love, of Integrity, of Wisdom and of Peace. When you are in that place in you, and I am in that place in me, we are One."

To my family, Christian, Jewish and otherwise, to my friends new and old, to Luke, Fr. Brooks, Charles Schulz, and to all of you, I say:

Merry Christmas. Happy Hannukah. Season's greetings. Namaste.  

Monday, November 15, 2010

Six Minutes of Awesome

Can an atheist feel awe, you ask? Sure! 

I had an interesting conversation recently. A good friend expressed her displeasure at the choice of religious music on the bill at our school's winter choral concert. She's a religious skeptic, though perhaps not an atheist. Her point was that a public school concert should not be so heavily heavenly. 

Me? I have absolutely no problem with it. None whatsoever. I have openly wept at this concert (my kids won't sit with me any more). "Stirring," "inspiring" and "moving" don't capture the impact on me of these young voices harmonizing in such a solemn manner. 

Hey, I'll take beauty where I can find it. I think it's safe to say that all great works of art have been created from inspiration. In recorded history, in the Western world (familiar to me), a good chunk of that art was created as a tribute to the Judeo-Christian god. I've seen this:

and this:

--and been moved by their magnificence. We don't have to mourn Pharoah Khufu to appreciate the stark beauty in this feat of human effort, right?

So today I was treated to another exalting experience. Background: I LOVE the idea of flash mobs. One of my friends who knows this about me was kind enough to share this link today. In a recent "Random Act of Culture," 650 choristers gave Christmas shoppers a surprise treat when they performed the Hallelujah chorus from Handel's Messiah at the downtown Philadelphia Macy's. Please watch the video (there, I linked it again); it will bring you six minutes of awesome today. 

And then indulge my cynicism: is that majestic department store (complete with THE WORLD'S LARGEST operational pipe organ) a cathedral of capitalism? 

Monday, November 1, 2010

Report from the Front Line of Reason

I drove to Washington, D.C. this weekend to join the Rally to Restore Sanity. Though the massive crowd prevented us from actually seeing the program, it was wonderful to be in such a diverse crowd with one thing in common: mutual respect. 

A group of people on the steps of the National Gallery of Art - East held a sign proclaiming themselves atheists, but I felt no urge to jog up and say "Hi! I'm one of you!" even though I was wearing my insider's t-shirt. Atheists might never become a strong political voice in this country--there's just nothing there to ritualize. I'm cool with that as long as society neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg, to paraphrase Thomas Jefferson.   

Okay, I did overhear one skinhead say that he felt like punching someone, but of the tens of thousands of people we came into contact with--actual physical contact, that is--he was way outnumbered. So much humor, so much tolerance, so much positivity. It was a beautiful experience. 

We the people came together on an achingly beautiful day in the Garden of Giants.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Devil Does, Indeed, Wear Prada

So I read this compelling article saying, essentially, that it's high time to address rising income inequality. 

I have a couple of really loaded friends who might take a few moments from chasing their capitalist dreams to read this entry, so I'm going out on a limb when I say this, but: duh. 

In my Catholic high school, Fr. Caffrey taught us the following definition at the beginning of one term: "Religion is the answer to the questions of the mysteries of life." An intellectually playful man, he had a glint in his eye when he told us weeks later that to some people, sports are a religion. I was all like, "What?" and he happily supported his thesis that to some people, sports are the answer to the questions of the mysteries of life. I can't remember how, but that's not important; what's important is that critical moment in my life when I started to wonder, "What's so sacred about religion?"

I personally know some people who regularly worship a supernatural deity, and who live in accordance with the principles of humanism--which is not the subversive philosophy I was indoctrinated to believe when I learned about the Scopes trial. These people are a credit to humanity and a testament to their religion. But let me put them aside for a moment. 

I think we all know people whose actions evince worship of other gods, regardless of where their dress slacks sit of a sabbath morning. Some of them are alchemists who have discovered a magic formula. "P" stands for power here: 

$ + P = 2$ + 3P. 

Talk about the magic of compounding! 

It is my contention that the upcoming elections are not about witchcraft, small town folks, Main Street, big government, tax relief, deregulation, race, masturbation, gun control, family values, global warming, marriage equality, small business, and certainly not the Constitution or the principles upon which our country was founded, EXCEPT--and this is a big except--to the extent they serve the First Church of Getting Richer. 

For more on this, I invite you to read what I consider Justice Stevens's swan song, his brilliant dissenting opinion in Citizens United v. FEC. It's long, but never tedious. If you don't have the time or inclination, perhaps it can be summed up in its sad reference to the following quote from Thomas Jefferson: "I hope we shall crush . . . in [its] birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country." That's in footnote 54. 

OK, I'm going to go enjoy this gorgeous, sunny day with my dog now. 

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Wall of Separation is a Load-Bearing Wall

So let me tell you about last night's local city council meeting. I'm going to give you the version that won't appear in the papers, because it's subjective, subtle, and based in part on hearsay and a little guesswork, but it is quite revealing--and hey, this is my blog, not court. 

It was a light agenda, only three items. One of them was "Council will consider whether to move Halloween trick or treating, from Sunday, October 31, 2010 to Saturday, October 30." This proposal was raised by a newly elected city council member at its previous meeting two weeks ago. The reason? Because of church. He made some noise about how it was also out of concern for Sunday's being a school night, but given that Radford traditionally has trick-or-treating on Halloween, without regard for the day of the week, this can be striken as an obvious pretext. 

I should be a judge [Correction: see comments]. 

Citizen comments come near the start of the meeting, before council begins discussing items of new business. The agenda contains two instructions for citizen comments: state your name, and limit it to five minutes. The goodly mayor repeated these instructions at the beginning of this portion: state your name, and limit it to five minutes. 

One citizen (OK, she's one of my best friends, but that's not relevant here) stated her name and spoke about the inconvenience, confusion and significant disruption this would cause. She made a great case and kept it under five minutes. 

The next person did NOT state his name. He did, however, offer a rebuttal to my friend, saying, "What you've gotta realize, this is on a church night." At one point, he pointed toward my friend and questioned her religious beliefs, and not in a nice way; he said, "I don't know what HER belief is, but . . ." I'm calling him The Pointer. 

The next citizen also neglected to state his name [Correction: see comments]. He said, "[It's] a matter of keeping the Sabbath day, that's . . . what it is for me and him" (indicating the previous speaker). 

I'm assuming that's what it was too for the city council member who brought it up in the first place. See, the reason no one asked The Pointer to state his name is because, as I later learned, he's the council member's father [Correction: see comments]. I'm guessing the next speaker is also known to the council member, perhaps through his church. 

Three more people (including me) presented opposition to the move. We all stated our names, we all kept it under five minutes. If I'm not mistaken (public speaking throws me into my own personal hell of anxiety, so I don't remember everything perfectly), each one of the four of us expressed respect for others' religious beliefs

Apparently, respect is a one-way entitlement. I was told later that the council member who raised the issue, as well as the other recently elected member--who included church involvement in his campaign materials--could be seen rolling their eyes during comments in opposition.

The relationship between church and state in our country has become almost incestuous in recent years. It's not supposed to be this way. Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine went to great lengths specifically to ensure that it wouldn't.  

The rest of my story is that no council member made a motion to consider the proposal, so they neither discussed nor voted on it. Trick or treating will be on Halloween. 

Thank you, Founding Fathers. Over 200 years later, and you've still got our backs.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

If It Says "Lib" on the Label

"Lib" as in liberal, of course. 

Labels on canned goods are a good thing. They provide a lot of information you need--what's in the can, how much is in there, whom to sue when you get sick. 

But with people--we know not to judge a book by its cover, right? Was it Kierkegaard or Dick Van Patten who said, "If you label me, you negate me?" 

People are complicated. Liberal, conservative, moderate; Catholic, Sikh, atheist (maybe I should capitalize that to give it more gravitas); straight, gay, bi; big-endian, little-endian, vegan; capitalist, Nazi, Stalinist; pro-life, pro-family, pro-choice;  environmentalist, clean coal advocate, BP stockholder.      

When I was a kid, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare had a PSA that must have run during Saturday morning cartoons, because--like the Preamble to the Constitution (props to Schoolhouse Rocks!)--I can recite it by heart. An old man and his grandson are fishing in a rowboat on a quiet lake. Gramps calls out the kid for being a bigot--do you remember this? "Jimmy is one of my Jewish friends." "Well then, you are prejudiced. You think of Jimmy as your Jewish friend, and not your friend." 

Sometimes, people do you a favor by telegraphing their own prejudices*. For instance, "I'm not a racist, but . . ." has never in the history of mankind been followed by anything but a racist comment. Most Facebook postings using the plural "liberals" or "conservatives" telegraph the writers' prejudices (and fondness for straw man arguments).  

But like life, like people, using labels is complicated. If I have a vegetarian over for dinner, I know I should make some meat-free foods. If I'm having a happy hour and invite a Mormon friend, it's hospitable to offer Fresca and root beer in addition to margaritas and microbrews. Labels aren't all bad. 

Maybe the point is to start with the cover, then look deeper into the book. Or maybe the point is that it's really not our place to judge human volumes at all.   

*Also be wary of any statement following the words, "I'm gonna be honest with you," or "Trust me," or "Of course, you know that . . ." People rarely argue with "Of course." Trust me. I use it a lot, to be honest with you. Check the first line of this entry. 

Friday, October 1, 2010

I Don't Believe In Peter Pan - But I Will Quote Barrie

"All this has happened before, and it will all happen again." I am reminded of the opening lines of Peter Pan when confronted with people who don't want evolution theory taught in public schools.

Earlier this year, I attended a local school board candidates' forum. One question from the audience asked each candidate if s/he would support teaching evolution in science class as a fact or theory, and if s/he would support teaching intelligent design in science class as a fact or theory. Having studied constitutional law, I recognized this as a well-settled legal question, a no-brainer. 

Of the six candidates, two--including one chemistry professor--answered that evolution is a theory, not a fact, but that it's currently the one best supported by scientific evidence and is therefore a proper subject for study in high school science. Conversely, intelligent design is incapable of support or disproof using the scientific method, and has been held by the courts to be a thinly-veiled religious argument. Therefore, it does not belong in the science curriculum. 

Each one of the other four candidates (including two incumbents, who should have at least a basic understanding of the separation of church and state) said, "If you teach one, you should teach the other," or some variation thereof. 

To present intelligent design in a public school science class would be unconstitutional. The first and fourteenth amendment prohibit public schools from trying to advance a religious theory, including the teaching of creationism as science. The only federal court to have considered the question ruled that "intelligent design" is a religious ploy to get around the laws prohibiting creationism-as-science, and therefore has no place in a public school science curriculum. 

The Flying Spaghetti Monster depicted at the top of this page was a fortunate by-product of this controversy. I entreat you to read the Wikipedia article by the same name, which includes the story of Pastafarianism's genesis, along with lots of context. I love context.

Back to the school board race. Only one of the two candidates who answered appropriately was elected to the school board; fortunately, she's also the chairman. Unfortunately, the professor didn't make the cut. So now at least two of our five school board members publicly support a hypothetical curriculum that is in blatant violation of well-settled constitutional law. 

It occurred to me that the current noise about evolution theory is similar to the upheaval about heliocentrism that lasted from the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries. "I don't care how much so-called 'evidence' you have; it goes against what scripture says, so it's wrong." 

All this has happened before, and it will all happen again, be the disruption theological or economic. Global warming, anyone? 

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Jesus Tastes Like Cardboard

It's true; ask any Catholic. 

I thought I should start my new blog with an attention-getter, so yeah. Cardboard.   

I was the daughter of Catholic parents--well, a Catholic mom, anyway--and attended parochial schools through high school. On a weekly basis, I tasted first-hand the dull, dry wafer that millions of people in this world believe to be converted into Jesus's body during the sacrament of the eucharist. Not symbolically converted; actually converted. 

I can still summon up the memory of that taste, but I can't summon up a memory of a time when I genuinely believed it. I said to myself that I believed it, and I said, "Amen," when the priests proffered the little off-white disk with the secret code words. I knew the right answer. But honestly? Nothing. 

I stopped going to mass once I moved into my college dorm room. I dabbled with various denominations when I married an Episcopalian, especially after we had kids. But once I determined to do an honest self-examination, the gig was up: I'm an atheist. 

Or secular humanist, if you'd like reassurance that there is a moral code at work to keep me from murder and mayhem. 

None of my friends or family have come out to me as atheists yet, though some of them probably are. I don't ask everyone I know. It's personal. But sometimes it comes up in conversation.  

The point is, you wouldn't know it from looking at me (unless I'm wearing my "Village Atheist" t-shirt). I have no flashing eyes, no floating hair. There's nothing extraordinary about my life experience. I'm just the heretic next door. 

I don't wish to disavow you of your faith, but if you'd like to know more about one non-believer's beliefs--assuming you can suppress the urge to weave a circle round me thrice and close your eyes with holy dread--read on.