Sunday, October 16, 2011

Coming of Age

Recently, several teenagers (not my own) have expressed to me some interest in discussing or learning more about atheism (mine act as though they've heard more than enough).  

When do people come of age, or reach an age of reason? 

Many faiths seem to tie religious maturity to sexual maturity, as their rites of passage coincide with the onset of puberty. Jewish girls bat mitzvah at age 12, while Jewish boys bar mitzvah at 13; Mormon boys can achieve priesthood at age 12; and Catholic children are confirmed as early as the sixth grade (age 11 or 12). A quick Google search reveals that Islamic kids undergo a change in religious responsibilities once they show physical signs of puberty, though no ritual is performed.  

It is my sense that many people at that age are still well under the influence of indoctrination and the gravitational pull of parental and social approval, while others are merely rebelling against it. They might not have learned much about cultures and belief systems different from those around them. My own mom claims that I've always been an iconoclast, but I never voiced an objection to doing those things that were expected of me in the Catholic Church. 

On the other hand, by that age most kids are in the process of gaining independence of thought and forging their own identities, values, and judgments--ideally, a process that lasts a lifetime. Maybe this is an appropriate age to present an alternative to theism, particularly to someone who has shown a curiosity about it. 

I have no interest in "converting" anyone, but I am happy to discuss and debate what I believe. I also hope that by increasing others' knowledge, I could increase tolerance (ooh--there's that bad word again!) and understanding for non-believers such as myself. 

Back to my initial point: would it be OK for me to talk to someone else's teenager about atheism? Should I seek permission from a parent? If you think so, do you hold the same opinion for more mainstream belief systems? Do you have a problem with people handing out copies of the new testament as kids leave their elementary schools?  

I truly would like to hear your opinions, so I'm posting this jointly on my blog and as a note on Facebook, where it is easier to comment. Please weigh in. 

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Evolution of an Atheist

I attended the Texas Freethought Convention over the weekend. It would be impossible to summarize the experience in one (readable) post, so I won't even try. I loved it so much, yet it has left me conflicted in a number of respects. 

Perhaps that is a sign of growth--or evidence of mutation. 

The first conflict is that I have the first stirrings of a compulsion to become more active as an atheist. Such a prospect makes sense on the one hand, but it also makes me uncomfortable. Unfortunately, many people distrust atheists--probably not you, Reader, but after viewing online comment boards following local stories about Giles County schools' posting of the ten commandments and new regulations designed to shut down Planned Parenthood clinics, I was pretty surprised at the level of anger and hatred toward atheists here in southwest Virginia. In my mind, I responded: "You don't even know me. I have contributed, and continue to contribute, a lot to this community--why would you want me to move away?"--because that was pretty much the stock advice for atheists.  

I am a timid person. Before the conference, I liked the idea of being just a normal, everyday person, involved in a variety of interests and activities, who just happens to be an atheist. There are so many of us, you know--or really, you might not know that, because how would you? And I also write this blog, partly for catharsis, partly for therapy, but also in an effort to increase understanding for at least one atheist and in the hopes of dispelling at least a little xenophobia. 

Anyway, after repeated exhortations at the conference for us to GET INVOLVED, I'm wondering if that is sufficient.  

The second one is that I've become more anxious about the effects of sharing my thoughts, feelings and information I'm learning with others around me, who for the most part are religious to one degree or another. My husband grew mildly defensive when I shared with him the quip, available on t-shirts and elsewhere, "Science flies you to the moon; religion flies you into buildings." We all hate terrorism, right? He felt it came across as too superior. 

He also took umbrage at this video of Richard Dawkins in announcing Christopher Hitchens. I thought it was brilliant (to be read with a British accent, of course); he took umbrage.

Here's a picture of me with Mr. Dawkins--thanks again to Gary from the Skeptic Wire Podcast:

I tried to explain to my husband that the focus of the weekend was on theocrats who wish to infuse our secular government with fundamentalist Christianity--at the expense of women's health, civil rights for the LGBT community, scientific advancement, teen pregnancy prevention, and liberty to practice any religion other than fundamentalist Christianity--as well as biblical literalists who wish to deny the fact of evolution and attempt to disrupt our kids' science educations based on a literal reading of the creation myth. Everyone in the audience (I think) was united in opposition to those forces; I didn't think the barbs in the speech were aimed at people like my husband, good people who are religious. 

Well, upon another listen, and another reading of the text, I get his point; it is rather offensive to any theist. Yet I still find it brilliant.

This is what's known in atheist circles as a mixed marriage. One of the presenters at our conference was Dale McGowan, executive director of a humanist charitable and educational foundation called Foundation Beyond Belief, and author of The Meming of Life, a blog centered on secular parenting. This page should provide a good starting point for me to consider as I try to work out this issue (and wait for the publication of Mr. McGowan's upcoming book on mixed marriages).  

So, now I've got some disruptions in how I interact with other organisms in this complex environment. Mutations, if you please. Will selection, natural or otherwise, prove them to be beneficial? 

To quote the Magic 8-Ball, "Cannot predict now." 

Sunday, September 11, 2011

September 12

You remember where you were on September 11. Do you remember who you were on September 12? 

Amidst the grief, the anger, the helplessness; amidst the horror, disgust and fury; amidst the hatred toward the men and then-shadowy force that were responsible for this incomprehensible crime, something surprising emerged. 

Party affiliation, nationalism, tribalism, and barriers of almost every kind seemed unimportant, petty, trivial. We regarded each other in a spirit of compassion and concern for our shared well-being. As condolences were sent out from across the country and around the world, as we reached out to family, friends, neighbors and strangers dealing with pain, we became a better people. We set our focus on what unites us, and resolved to overcome the divisions. 

Where did that go? 

As you encounter the numerous imperatives to "Never forget," you probably think first of that day: the victims, the selfless first responders, the heroes on Flight 93. Then you might remember the days since: the grieving loved ones left behind, those military and police forces who put their lives on the line daily to protect us, the firemen and first responders willing to risk their own safety in order to restore ours. 

I hope we can take it one step further, with a focus on the future. As we pray, meditate or reflect, let us all remember who we became on September 12, and aspire to revive that. 

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Talk Dirty to Me

Mmm. Bad words. I get off on them--well, some of them. 

Words like tolerance. Reason. Choice. Heliocentric. Evolution. And the subject of today's discourse, secular. 

Bear with me, because I have a bone to pick first. While some words can get me all tingly, I don't like being played. 

A certain element in our society has mastered the art of warping public opinion through calculated public relations campaigns. When I worked in PR, I picked up a book called Words That Work: It's Not What You Say, It's What People Hear by Frank Luntz, thinking it would add an arrow or two to my professional quiver. It mostly just left me feeling slimed.

This is the guy responsible for changing "estate tax" to "death tax"; "oil drilling" to "energy exploration"; "global warming" to "climate change" (though he has since come to believe that humans have contributed to glo--excuse me, climate change); "healthcare reform" to "government takeover"; and "consumer financial protection"--as in, let's guard against a repeat of the the subprime mortgage meltdown and resulting financial disaster--to "excessive bureaucracy." Here you can find more on his memo to Republican lawmakers to ensure public opposition to financial reform legislation, and who is paying for his efforts.  

Back to my point: somewhere along the line, "secular" has become a bad word in some circles. We should revere the canon that fueled so many cannons in the revolutionary war: government and religion should not be intertwined. This was one of the linchpins of the enlightenment, and an axiom of the new United States' government. 

Our constitution specifically, and after great debate, laid down the framework for a secular system of governance. It includes no mention of god or provenance; rather, it comes from "We the People." The bill of rights begins with two clauses ensuring religious neutrality, and bans any religious test for holding public office.

The Treaty of Tripoli, signed during George Washington's presidency and ratified under John Adams's, includes this assurance: "the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion." The Baptist Joint Committee's Executive Director has a level-headed post about secularism's role in our political system in this post

Did you learn about this in high school? Probably not, and an exceptional book by James Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me, can explain why: our American history textbooks suck. They are designed to advance a bland, falsely glowing, overly simplistic narrative and, in an effort to gain adoption from state school boards, avoid any whiff of controversial stuff.  

This insightful essay from the author of Freethinkers and The Age of American Unreason explores the deficiencies in our textbooks and basic education, and argues that freethought and secularism should be integrated at every level of schooling.

Who is behind this campaign to sully secularism? I have no idea. But this blog post chronicles recent examples of defilement, and they are all coming from the religious right.

Talk dirty to me. I don't want trumped-up fairy tales about intelligent designers, a 10,000-year-old Earth, Christian nations and the end times. I want facts. Maybe I can't handle the truth, but I'd rather try: I want to hear about the gritty, disruptive, mistrusted, imperfect, dissident and bold ideas that have fueled true human progress throughout the millennia.  

Oh! The rapture.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

We're Very Against Assaulting People

Something really strange happened in southwest Virginia last week. 

A student group called Freethinkers at Virginia Tech was chatting with folks at a table on the Virginia Tech drillfield to promote "Ask an Atheist Day," which I'd never heard of before reading about this. I'm telling you, we're a pretty decentralized bunch. 

Anyway, a kid stood near the table for about an hour, then borrowed a pen from the Freethinkers, drew a cross inside a circle on the back of his own hand, and according to this account, "asked students at the table to stab him in the cross with the pen to 'prove to us God existed.' The students declined." Undaunted, the guy stabbed his own hand with another pen, then assaulted a police officer who responded to the scene and, later, two other officers, as well as breaking out a police car window. 

I'm pleased this kid will be getting some needed mental health treatment and that no one was seriously injured. What I really like most, personally, is the reaction of one of the Freethinkers when the kid initially asked her to give him the stigmata. The article provides this account: "'We don’t believe in assaulting people,' [she] said. 'We’re very against assaulting people.'” I agree with that position statement 100%. 

The article linked above is from, which is run by students. Notably, none of the other local media outlets covering the story mentioned the religious angle to it. That's probably a good thing, because in addition to being decentralized and against assaulting people, I think atheists would prefer fewer stories about religion-based divisiveness. 

However, I wonder if the story were a little different--say, it was a religious group behind the table and someone wishing to prove that god does NOT exist by stabbing his own hand--whether the media would have shown the same restraint. 

I'm skeptical. 

Saturday, March 26, 2011

One of Them Must Be Wrong

I heard a quote this week that sums up my fear of organized religion. 

"Both sides are yelling, God is great, like God's on their side. Shame on you. We used to be united."

The context--well, does it matter? Pick your region, your tribe, your country. Pick your issue, your rationalization. Pick your century. Pick your god; there are so many from which to choose. 

Such a cloak for the exercise of violence, hatred, and conquest is antithetical to greatness, goodness, or even the most modest hope for mankind's future. 

Here is a link to the story for source purposes. But before you dismiss it as something that doesn't happen in your backyard, I suggest you take a better look around. 

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

No, Thank YOU, George Washington!

Good news for the day after Presidents' Day: it is being reported this morning that the Giles County School Board voted to remove the ten commandments from its walls. Yay!

There are many kind and thoughtful people out there who wanted them to remain up. To them I advise: display a copy of whichever version you ascribe to (there are many different versions, depending on religion) in your home. If you want your children to see them every day, this is the proper place.  

There are also many not-so-kind and not-so-thoughtful people out there who saw this scuffle as an opportunity to declare the United States a Christian nation, and the school board's initial decision as a shot across the bow of secularism. To them I say: let go your wrath. This is a secular nation. This fact is one of the amazing things about the great experiment of our government. It is to be celebrated, not spackled over. 

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Missing: the Shoulders of One Giant

Today is Thomas Paine's birthday. The author of Common Sense, Rights of Man and The Age of Reason, he is among those we call "the founding fathers." His writings largely fueled the fire of the American Revolution and inspired many of the bedrock principles of our constitution and bill of rights. John Adams reportedly said, "Without the pen of the author of 'Common Sense,' the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.”

Why am I writing about him in my atheism blog? Because he is not only the patriot's hero, he's also the secular humanist's. Though he believed in God, he was a deist--one who believes in a divine creator who does not interfere in human affairs. His writings on the subject promote reason above revelation, and rail against intitutionalized religion and Christian doctrines. 

I'll be wearing this t-shirt today:

That image is kind of small; it says, "My country is the world. My religion is to do good."

By the end of his life, his views on religion had so ostracized him in the United States that only a handful of people attended his funeral. His obituary in the New York Citizen included the summary, "He lived long, did some good and much harm." Sheesh. 

Things get really hinky at this point. He wanted to be buried in a Quaker churchyard, but none would receive his body for burial so he was laid to rest under a tree on his farm. Ten years later, William Cobbett, who had written a slanderous biography of Paine but became his #1 fan after actually reading his works, exhumed the remains with the intention of giving him a proper burial in England, Paine's native land. 

What happened next? Let me quote Susan Jacoby's Freethinkers: "[F]or no apparent reason, [Cobbett] kept the bones in a box in his house. His heirs failed to keep track of the remains, so they are lost to posterity--something that probably would not have struck the author of The Age of Reason as a catastrophe." 

But yeah, his bones are missing. 

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Low-Hanging Fruit in Giles County

Constitutional issues are low-hanging fruit in a small southern town. Most residents are churchgoers, and most know each others' business, and many are happy to pontificate about what others should and should not be doing. As a result, there is a high degree of complicity when it comes to violations of church-state separation.

Exhibit A: the Giles County School Board. In December, the Freedom from Religion Foundation sent a request to the GCS Superintendent asking that framed copies of the 10 Commandments be removed from schools, as the displays violate the establishment clause and clear Supreme Court precedent. The Superintendent (reportedly on advice of counsel) complied. Yay, FFRF! Yay, Superintendent!

Oops. There must have been some sermonizing over this, because about 200 outraged citizens and preachers showed up at last week's School Board meeting and demanded that the decalogue be rehung. The School Board, too cowardly to make an unpopular decision, voted unanimously to hang them right back up.  

The Bill of Rights is designed to protect individuals from majority rule. No matter how many zealots attend a school board meeting, it is the sworn duty of government officials to uphold the Constitution and protect the minority on matters of race, gender and religion.

In my opinion, the school board members just committed Giles County to a huge bill: not only is the County going to have to defend itself in slam-dunk lawsuits threatened by FFRF and the ACLU, they will likely have to pay the plaintiffs' attorneys fees in any such suits because of their blatant disregard of bedrock constitutional protections and clear precedent. FFRF told them as much in a follow-up letter accessible here, adding that the school board members could be held personally liable too. 

On a positive note, in researching this today I ran across a pretty cool organization: The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. Check out this awesome list, "Top 5 Myths of the Separation of Church and State." After reading some outrageously ignorant evangelicals' comments on this news item, it was heartening to discover this page. 

Stay tuned.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

What say you?

I lifted this picture from Facebook.

The sign says:
"Obama is not a brown-
skinned anti-war socialist 
who gives away free healthcare.
You're thinking of Jesus." 

Monday, January 10, 2011


Being raised in a Catholic household does strange things to a person, probably the best known side effect being unwarranted Guilt. 

It can arise, unbidden and unjustifiably, at any moment, as one recalls past events. There is no infraction too minor, nor any statute of limitations. It happened to me this evening. 

I was steeped in the knowledge that the cure for Guilt is to confess and seek absolution, so here goes: 

It was about 12 years ago. We were selling our house in a small town in Georgia. Our agent was motivated to sell our house, as we had a contingency contract to buy another one of her listings. Get it? Big commissions on the line. She scheduled a showing of ours, and let it slip that one of the family members was a minister in a conservative congregation. 

Well, I've mentally run what I did through all the moral and ethical no-no lists I can think of, and I'm pretty sure I have nothing to feel guilty about here, unless you consider targeted home staging wrong.  

Still, I feel a little dirty for using the intel to appeal to the buyers' likely prejudices. I left one lone book in a place of prominence in our living room: Focus on the Family's Complete Book of Baby & Child Care. 

They bought the tableau, and the house. 

Mea culpa. Any suggestions for penance?