Monthly Archives: December 2013

Jesus Radicals

Happy New Year’s Eve! I hope everyone is safe and well. I’ve been traveling and unable to respond to my email this last week, so if you’ve sent me a message, I will get to it in the next few days.

Speaking of messages, I get a lot of emails asking me to reconsider god. It’s always the same arguments that people (usually Christians) want to engage me in. You know, can I prove that God’s NOT true? Why did I take hope away from my kids? Sometimes, it’s the same people who write on a weekly basis. In this new year, if you write to convince me to see the light (and you know who you are), I appreciate your efforts, and I will read your email. However, if you want me to respond, I will do so either by making your email the topic of a blog post or, if you prefer, I will answer you directly provided that you make a donation to St. Jude’s Children’s hospital for $25. You will donate to a worthy cause, and I won’t feel as if I am wasting my time responding to the same arguments over and over and over.

If you are an atheist, agnostic, humanist, naturalist or any other nonbeliever writing to share a story or a link or ask a question or even just to say “hi,” I enjoy your emails and welcome the opportunity to connect any time.

Enough of that. Let’s talk about Jesus Radicals. That’s the name of the site from which the following story comes from. (Thanks Theresa for sending the link to me!)

Here’s a  quick summary: Each day, three loyal women of Christ pass a calendar stand on their way to work. On the weekend of Black Friday, they decided they’d had enough. They were offended by the site of scantily-clad girls on the front of calendars.  The anonymous author of the article writes, “Each passing encounter forced a specific sexuality and beauty standard upon us, and we couldn’t take it anymore.”

Being a woman, I understand that some of my fellow females choose to objectify themselves, but they do so knowingly and for a price, both in physical and emotional currency. That’s their choice. It’s one thing to make a living as a swimsuit model and quite another to be an eight-year-old beauty pageant contestant, strutting across the stage in a swimsuit. (Where is the outrage and activism over that?) Christians might also remember that the Bible is full of stories about women who are sold, rapes and mistreated, that the most important woman, Mary, did not have a choice when she became God’s receptacle and incubator for the great savior of the human race, a man who would grow up to inspire thousands years of conflict with anyone who didn’t believe in him.

But back to the story. So what do the Jesus Radicals advocate? “If your environment disturbs you, disturb it.”

That’s right folks. If your surroundings irritate or make you feel uncomfortable, then you should feel free to break any commandment or secular law you want: steal and destroy personal property, cause harm to others who make you feel uncomfortable, insist that every person think and believe exactly as you do or you will commit acts of terrorism.

But understand this. If we, as individuals, are uncomfortable with the standards and values one group “forces on us,” then the miscreants of Jesus should be ready for Secular Radicals to steal their Christian-themed calendars and their Bibles and “gift books” from stores (Costco, watch out). Because what they are promoting has nothing to do with the teachings of JC, but everything to do with encouraging intolerance,  self-righteousness, jealousy and narcissistic personality disorders.

And breaking the law? “It will be easy and fun.”

Appreciation

If you’re interested, check out my interview with the New Republic in a piece called, “The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas.” I’m very grateful that they gave me the opportunity to speak about this topic, which never would have been up for discussion ten years ago.

Religion is loosening its grip here in America–even in places like Texas–thanks in large part to people like you and me speaking up about our lack of faith, writing about losing our religion and raising our kids without it. Every time we speak up and say, “I don’t believe in god,” we desensitize believers. We change the perception of what it means not to believe in god.  When we come out to family, friends and neighbors, people who once thought of us as “good Christians,” we prove that there is no link between belief and morality.

No discovery, no invention, no movement is the act of a single person.  It is years of building upon the discoveries and actions and ideas of previous generations. In the case of a social movement, it takes millions of people changing their attitudes, actions and beliefs.  For secularism, it has included the work of scientists and historians and people who are willing to listen, read and make their own conclusions. According to the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI),  two recent surveys of Americans found these interesting religious trends:

Belief in the historical accuracy of the Christmas story in the Bible has dropped 18 percentage points during the last decade. In 2004, two-thirds (67%) of Americans said that the story of Christmas was historically accurate, compared to only 24% who said it was a theological story.

In 2004, only 13 percent of Americans believed the Bible was not the word of God but was written by men and  82 percent believed that the Bible is the word of God.  A 2013 survey found that 30 percent of Americans now believe that the Bible is not the word of God but a book written by men and 63 percent believe that the Bible is the word of God.

Americans are questioning the veracity of what they’ve been told and of what they are reading in the Bible. Many of the people surveyed still believe in God, but now they are questioning the facts of their religion. Once believers start turning away from church, it is a lot easier to turn from God. At the very least, there will be more understanding between those who still believe and those who do not as people come realize that the Bible does not hold the facts, that God is just wishful thinking.

The loud and proud Evangelicals have also experienced a sharp decline in numbers over the last ten years, and indeed, appear to be part of a dying church. With the rise of the nones and their exodus out of the church, with the lack of faith in so many young adults and with the children you and I are bringing up as atheists, agnostics and freethinkers, religion is unraveling at the seams.

Some say Christianity will experience a resurgence, but they, of course, are hopeful Christians. It is more likely that religion will hang on like a loose tooth and that a segment of our population will remain devout, but that most of us will lose religion and belief all together. Our humanness, rather than our disparate beliefs in the god narrative, will unite us.

You and I and our friends who believe as we do are making rapid social changes. We are bringing a lot of different faces to atheism—not just white academics—but women and men and young people of all shapes, sizes and colors. We are taking this movement mainstream.

Thank you for walking with me and for being part of this change. I appreciate all the conversations we’ve had, the guest posts and the links you’ve shared with me.

Have safe and happy Christmas and New Year’s celebrations. Talk to you next year!

Moral Limbo

In “Why There is No Such Thing as a Good Atheist,” yet another poorly-reasoned attack on atheists, Pastor Rick Henderson writes this in his conclusion: “One sign that your worldview may be a crutch is that it has to appeal to an answer outside itself…”

Here we go again. Does this guy listen to himself talk?

Yeah, you, Rick Henderson, do you realize that in your worldview you appeal to an answer outside yourself? You cannot know right from wrong until you consult your moral shaman; you must ask yourself, WWJD?  That’s scary as hell to me.

And the answers you receive?

(Silence)

We are waiting.

Right. It’s not for us to know or understand or blah blah blah. Because this all-knowing, all-powerful god is either fucking with us or is blind, deaf and/or mute.

My patience is wearing thin for people who climb atop their imaginary moral high horse and preach. If you need to believe that there is a super-human being in the sky who wrote The Definitive Book on Human Ethics (nonhumans have a different guide), then perhaps you should be asking that being what he based his sense of decency on, how he came up with his “objective” laws, and why he cannot enforce them.

I know. It’s scary as hell to think we’re all alone here on Planet E.  We’re like prisoners without a warden. If all humans thought that no one was in charge, we’d have anarchy, right? People would kill their neighbors, fornicate with farm animals, eat their young. (OMG!) We need god to be good boys and girls.

But wait. Atheists cannot be bad or immoral either, for if we don’t believe in god and his objective good, then we cannot know what is objectively bad or immoral. Following Henderson’s reasoning, because evil exists in the world and in human nature, we now have to say that someone or something placed it there. There is also a Definitive Book of Wickedness. So, according to those who believe as Henderson does, there are no morally bad atheists either because we don’t believe in their god hypothesis.

I suppose then, you and I live in a state of moral limbo, incapable of understanding what is right because we have no super-daddy to tell us these things.  One of the problems with this very simplistic worldview is that people like Henderson fail to understand that morality is not that simple. It’s a changing, growing thing. A consensus.

Killing is wrong. We all agree with that. But what if you had a chance to kill a woman who was holding hundreds hostage? You’d kill her, right? Or would you put down your gun, remembering the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” What about our soldiers and police officers who kill to protect the public or our nation’s economic interests? (Freedom is not free!) If you believe in god’s commandments, then there are no exceptions, unless one was specifically stated by The Man himself in a verifiable way. (Hearsay doesn’t count.)  If you believe as atheists do, then you understand taking out the woman hostage-taker is not a moral crime.

That’s all I have to say about this. I’m tired of beating religion’s dead horse.

7 Ways Parents Help Kids Succeed

We know what they think of us. The world, that is. We live large. We have too much. A nation of extremes. We are obsessed with image. We take more than our fair share. We spew pollutants into the air, earth and water, with little care or concern for future inhabitants or anyone or anything beyond our borders. We’re greedy. We’re tiger moms and helicopter parents. Our kids are spoiled, fat, lazy, gamers. Affected by affluenza. Falling further behind in education.

In some ways and for some people, these things are no doubt true. But for a great many of us, we want to raise kids who will be educated, capable citizens, who will contribute to society and who will be happy, or at least, content. (Happiness cannot be under-rated, for happy people are, after all, less dangerous and more productive.)

It’s a big task. As parents, we work hard to meet the emotional, intellectual and physical needs of our children. We want to give our kids everything and every opportunity we didn’t have, but we also realize that kids who are given everything will accomplish nothing.

What should we focus on? What should we teach our children to help them succeed? In the fascinating article, “What if the Secret to Success is Failure,” researchers listed seven qualities that would predict “life satisfaction and high achievement” in our kids. They are:  zest, grit, self-control, social intelligence, gratitude, curiosity and optimism. Yes, math and science are important, but the traits they acquire that will inspire and help them learn are just as important.

It’s not easy to teach these intangible things. As parents, we have to learn or possess them, too. Take self-control, for example. To teach restraint, you have to model restraint. When I want to yell at my son for his smack-talking, I bite my tongue and take a couple of really, deep breaths. (Okay, and I think about shock collars and straight-jackets.) Sometimes I fail at modeling self-control. I can only hope that I did it mostly right, that my kids remember the good examples I set, the times when I said, “I’d like to have X, but I have to wait until I have enough saved.”

Most children are naturally curious, so our challenge is, how do we help them keep it? Wonder and inquisitiveness grow out of allowing our kids to explore their environments, to take things apart and to experience cause and effects. We don’t need to entertain them. Television is no substitute for doing, for real learning. It dulls the senses, makes minds receptacles for cultural trash.  Boredom is our children’s friend, not enemy. It means kids have disposable time on their hands, something adults never have, that can be invested in a variety of ways from playing to creating.

By the time we get to the teenage years, however, we feel like we’ve run a marathon; we’re exhausted, ready to collapse, maybe even quit our kids. We hear these things: “I hate you.” “You are mean.” “You are the worst mom ever.” “I swear I’m never coming to visit you when I get older.”

Okay, maybe I just hear those things from my kid. And I feel as if I’ve done it all wrong. Yet maybe, just maybe these protests are signs of something else. I’m not giving in—or giving up. It means I’m sticking to something. I have grit. I’m holding my ground.  There are times I think, WTF. In a couple of years, my kid will do whatever he wants anyway. It’s easier to say: no problem. Just do it. Leave me alone. It’s damn tiring to persevere. It wears you out to stand your ground day after day.

Yet being overly permissive and giving in to our kids is the easy way. That feeds the stereotype a lot of the world believes. Our kids are out of control. Ungrateful. Spoiled. Unappreciative. We’ve indulged them too much. Asked nothing of them. Compared to the rest of the world, our kids do have a lot.

But it doesn’t mean our kids will grow up unappreciative. This holiday season, as always, I will remind my children to show gratitude and write thank you notes. I will remind them that a Christmas gift is not a right or entitlement, that we don’t deserve anything. We keep nothing in this world. What we get, we will one day, sooner or later, give back. There are no exceptions.

The things we do outside the classroom—at home, day in and day out–the nagging, prodding, pushing and guiding our kids to develop character, not only help them in school but in life. We can help our kids acquire traits that will enable them to grow and to learn on their own, making self-education as important to traditional learning, traits that will help them achieve success, the above-mentioned zest, grit, self-control, social intelligence, gratitude, curiosity and optimism.

We are not simply stereotypes and statistics. If we failed today, we can hold on to the optimism that tomorrow will be better. That we and our children will be better.  Because being a parent, like being a good citizen or student or human being, is always a work in progress.

Grandma Got Run Over By a Front-Loader

Christmas Parade

Our friend Theresa shared this photo, which she took during a Christmas parade near Dallas this weekend. Yes, that’s Jesus, Mary and Joseph in the dirty bucket of a front loader. It’s so…Texas. And as Theresa said to me, it’s rather funny that dear old Santa and his magical reindeer are majestically elevated atop the tractor, above the reason for the season.

Do you think this get-up gave anyone pause? (Besides, Theresa, that is.) The irony of baby Jesus and big-bellied Santa riding around town on a tractor for a Christmas parade. Seems to me it makes a mockery of the whole God business. It makes you wonder why some folks fight so hard to keep the likeness of Jesus in so many prosaic places, like schools and courthouses and tractors. This should be one more reason to add to the list of why religion should be kept in the church. But, of course, that’s just the opinion of someone who doesn’t even believe in this God stuff.

Besides the fact that creating cheap plastic reproductions of your favorite heavenly star is supposed to be a sin, what does it say about the respect you have for your savior if you tote him around and have your way with him? Not so sacred, I think. I can’t imagine doing these things with a life-sized replica of one of my dead relatives. That’s just weird.

Wasn’t it Abraham, the founder of monotheism, who became irate at his father’s business of idol-making? Didn’t Moses come along with an important message, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath…”  Before these cheap reproductions were made in China of people who history has no pictures of (Megyn Kelly), all sorts of gods and goddesses were actually created in the Middle East.

I’m pretty certain my fellow Texans would not be happy to know that we’re worshipping a god who was neither created nor reproduced here in America.

Just wanted to share T’s funny photo with the rest of you. I bet you guys have plenty of your own stories to tell about nativity scenes.

Christmas Whinery

“I love the commercialization of Christmas because it spreads the Christmas cheer.” Whoa, Mrs. Palin. (It’s that woman again.) No. It. Does. Not.

She’d be hard-pressed to find a preacher who agrees with her.Palin also says, “Everybody should have the right to celebrate the season without a few bah-humbugs.” Yet there are plenty of things to bah-humbug about without signaling out secularists who simply want better boundaries between religion and the state. (Not to mention that “everybody” is not a Christian.)

Christmas is a painful time for a lot of folks, a time of unmet and unrealistic expectations, angry drivers, grumpy shoppers, long check-out lines, huge credit card bills, bratty kids, drunk uncles and unfriendly in-laws. Oh, yeah, and then there’s The Reason, which is different for us but the same for about 83 percent of America. It’s one of two times out of the year that many believers will don coats and herd the family to a brick and mortar church, where people will briefly feel goodwill towards the strangers around them before they get back on the roads and flip those same people off.

This isn’t the Christmas experience for all of us, of course, and not for the rest of us all the time. But you get the idea.

Let’s back up to Palin, though. This year she wrote a book, Good Tidings and Great Joy: Protecting the Heart of Christmas. (Lovely personification.) She wrote it to fight for Christmas, because, she says, secularists don’t want to acknowledge “Jesus is the reason for the season.” Damn, those meanies.

But hold up. If Jesus is the reason, then why do we give presents to ourselves? Why do we love, honor and obey consumerism? And how does giving stuff to people who already have a lot of stuff spread his cheer? (I’m preaching to the choir, right?) Shouldn’t we just be giving each other a high-five and shouting, “Hell, yeah! We’re saved.”

Silly, I know, but so is this idea of a “war on Christmas.”

So some Christians want every American to celebrate December 25th in the same way and for the same reason as they do because, apparently, we should all be Stepford Christians. That control issue can be handled most effectively with a little counseling, IMHO. Those like Sarah Palin and Rep. Dwayne Bohac (TX) and Assemblyman Ronald Dancer (NJ) need to understand that they can celebrate and say whatever they want about Jesus at home and at church, and it doesn’t take away from their holi/holy-day if some of us don’t celebrate the birth of their savior, too.

However, believers and nonbelievers can be united in the spirit of Christmas anyway. Though you won’t catch us talking to the ghost of Christmas past, we’re very amenable to working together to create “good tidings and great joy.” Jesus Christ, if indeed he was real historical figure who lived a life of kindness and forgiveness, had a message. Help others. Be nice. Reach out. That’s our message, too! (Or for most of us, at least!)

Instead of pushing the commercialization of Christmas, perhaps we should buy our children one or two gifts that they will appreciate, and then allow them to decide where a holiday donation of time and/or funds should be made.

This list would be a good place to start. Then there are the theater tickets (support the arts!), the angel trees and the soup kitchens who need volunteers, just to name a few. (For more ideas, check out SixDegrees.org.) The last few years, we have, in addition to the angel tree, picked the American Cancer Society and our local homeless shelter, which relies only on donations and support from the community. So many ways to spread cheer, so little time.

Let’s not allow some Christians (ahem, Ms. Palin) spoil the true meaning of Christmas. The best gift we can give our children is to teach them it’s not all about them.

God’s Henchmen

A few of us who chat here just spent the last two days without power, the fall-out from an ice storm. The temperatures have been in the teens and low twenties, and now I’m sure we all have a renewed appreciation for heat and lights. I hope everyone is safe and warm, here and across the country where the storm is heading.

A weather crisis is always a good litmus test of our character and of the character of those around us: Did the neighbors with power open their homes to those without? Did we check on our elderly neighbors, who could not step out of their homes without fear of falling? Who are we when times are difficult, when we have nothing personal to gain?

It reminds me of a movie I saw, Philomena, which is based on true events. If you want to see it and haven’t, stop reading here so that I don’t spoil it for you.

At 18, Philomena became pregnant. Her father sent her to a convent in Roscrea, Ireland, that took in unwed mothers. He then washed his hands of her.

Thousands of girls were sent to Roscrea, where they were shamed and put to work, used as slave labor 7 days a week until their “bill” to the nuns was paid off. The young mothers were forced to give up their parental rights, and wealthy Catholics, mostly from America, “donated” money to adopt these children.

In other words, the convent sold babies.

And then they did everything possible to stand in the way of mothers and children who tried to reconnect. The nuns deemed this as penance, as what these mothers must suffer for the crimes they committed: having sex. Of course, if they had properly become the property of a man first, taken his surname and had sex out of duty, then they would not have been sinners–or saints. You can’t be a Christian rockstar mom like Mary if your loins have been infiltrated.

But here is the most fascinating part of this story. Through the two main characters we see the intersection of faith and reason. Philomena forgave the nuns for taking and keeping her from her son. To this day, she remains a staunch advocate of the Church. On the other hand, the researcher who helped her, atheist and former Catholic Martin Sixsmith, was not so forgiving. He did not want to let the nuns off the proverbial hook.

Does this mean that the religious are “good,” more forgiving while people who do not believe in god are hard-hearted and unforgiving?

Hardly.

What it means is that, in addition to the brainwashing many believers receive from birth, the emotionally-destructive programming that has made them believe they are dirty and sinful and not worthy of justice, religion discourages followers from holding others accountable. The nuns did what they were supposed to do: they were godly and pure, and they were carrying out god’s will. He’s the boss, the rule-maker.

Sure. There are times when we should forgive: when reparations have been made or wrongs have been righted. There are times when we should let go: when nothing can be done and the anger is killing us. But there are also times when we should not forgive. Forget the blather that it’s not healthy. It’s constructive when used to hold others responsible for injustices.

Apparently, in the case of the convent at Roscrea–and in many cases every day, all over the world–you’re not held accountable unless you are one of the poor, unwed girls who were only doing what nature had programmed them to do: procreate. Otherwise, you get to pretend that you’re not really the judge and jury—you’re only god’s henchman.

If you have no personal sense of right and wrong and you’re only doing what you think someone else wants you to do so that you can gain personal favor, then what does that say about your character?

(Perhaps you have none?)

Can Our Friends Make Us Sick?

I was listening to an interesting discussion on NPR yesterday about friendship. In the course of the interview, author Carlin Flora said that not having enough friends has the same health impact as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. According to her research, we should all have 5 good friends. (Introverts need fewer, but stronger connections, and extroverts need more connections.) These social connections— friends, relatives, neighbors, colleagues—improve our quality of life as well as our odds of survival.

One small part of this conversation about friends really caught my attention. Flora was asked if friendships made in churches are the reason the religious seemed happier. And she replied, “Yes. Churches are really in the friendship business.” According to Flora, friendship is the secret ingredient that keeps people coming back.

While churches bring the like-minded together for social networking, we know that they also provide validation for ideas that cannot stand on their own outside of religion, reinforcement that members are “good, Christian people” and relief from solipsistic loneliness and fears of the unknown. Not only is the person sitting next to you a potential friend and spiritual cheerleader, but you’ve also got an unconditional friend in God and his son (for Christians), who both live inside your head and hear and/or answer your prayers. Ironically, outside of a religious context, we would label this behavior as a mental health concern.

This brings together the confluence of two ideas, religion as friend-finder and religion as illness. In Daniel Dennett’s book, aptly titled “Breaking the Spell,” he likens religion to a cultural parasite. Like germs released through a sneeze, religions “…exploit similar mechanisms, such as irresistible urges to impart stories or other items of information to others, enhanced by traditions that heighten the length, intensity, and frequency of encounters with others who might be likely hosts.”

Friends can infect and re-infect each other, and the virus attempts to spread to others in the community through various forms of outreach. The germs are passed on to offspring at birth, too, and reinforced throughout childhood. We cannot, then, as both Dennett and Peter Boghossian have mentioned, feel anger or hostility towards people who do not realize they’ve been infected with a parasite. We can only accept them and try to help them help themselves. In other words, we cannot cure them if they do not understand they have an illness.

The world is full of people infected by religion. How did it take hold? More importantly, why are some of us not infected? How have we been cured? For those born into faith, it seems that there must be some sort of anti-dogma tendencies in our hard-wiring.

Perhaps the answer is just simply that, at one point in our development as a species, we needed god. And now that we don’t, we are, as a whole, slowly evolving, moving away from the need for god to comfort and to provide “explanations.” Maybe it’s no longer in our genes. As more of us befriend each other, as we come out to our religious friends that we are not believers and raise our children without dogma, we are slowly eradicating the religious virus. We still need our friendships, but fewer of us will make our friends sick.