Monday, February 24, 2014

Who gets to decide who gets called what?

I was raised in the Bible Belt. I went to Baptist churches more than any other, and at some services and revivals, I was told by the leaders and other congregants that Catholics, Mormons and/or Methodists weren't really Christians. And my Catholic friends have told me that they were told at various times that all non-Catholics weren't really Christian.

In Egypt, I was told by a colleague, a Sunni Muslim, that Shi'ites aren't really Muslims. Bosnian friends who consider themselves Muslim were told by people visiting from Saudi that, in fact, Bosnians were real Muslims.

After a doctor that provided abortion services is shot in the USA, people will say, "Oh, he wasn't really a Christian." And after a bombing by someone claiming to be Muslim, other Muslims will exclaim, "Oh, he wasn't really a Muslim. That's not true Islam." The Taliban will kill Muslims in Afghanistan and say it was justified, because they weren't really Muslim. Malala Yousafzai is quoted as saying, "The Taliban think we are not Muslims, but we are. We believe in God more than they do..."

I've heard Buddhist debate who is really a Buddhist, Jews debate who is really a Jew, and I'm guessing every other religion has members debating this.

Who decides what is religiously authentic? Who gets to decide who gets called what?

As an Atheist, I'm frequently confused by all these I-am-this-but-that-one-is-not claims. If someone says he or she is a practitioner of this or that religion, then that's how I refer to that person - and as a result, I've had some indignant responses from people who also identify as a part of that religion, who don't think that person's version is the "real" version.

To be honest, I'm sick of it. I'm sick of the back and forth. Do people who engage in this rhetoric not realize how incredibly silly they sound? Why do YOU get to decide who gets called what, but not the person you criticize? That person believes that a/the god is on his or her side just as much as you do, and has just as much dogma and holy book/holy person quotes to back up his or her point of view as you do. In a debate, you both would end up being guilty of cherry-picking phrases and rules to back up your claim.

I wish I could side with Malala Yousafzai in saying her version of Islam is the real one, and the Taliban's isn't. I wish I could side with the United Church of Christ over, say, the Southern Baptist Convention, in terms of which version of Christian practice and teaching is the true one. But I can't. As an Atheist, I just can't. But I can most definitely say which I prefer, which I would like to have the most adherents, if said people simply MUST believe in a magical, invisible super friend.

So, yes, I do roll my eyes when someone of a faith reacts to an act of violence by someone else of faith by saying, "Well, he/she isn't really Christian / Muslim / Jewish / Hindu / Buddhist / Whatever." Because that person who committed the violence is saying the exact same thing about said speaker.

There are universal horrors we, as humans, should all be condemning, not because of a religion, but because of our humanity: murder, sex trafficking, child molestation, sexual violence, oppression, ethnic "cleansing", and on and on. And there are universal virtues and conditions we, as humans, should all be celebrating and embracing: kindness, understanding, compassion, inspiration, freedom, equality, equal access, safety, security, and on and on. I judge you based on your practices with regard to these universal virtues - and you don't need a god to have them, nor a label.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Happy Darwin Day

Happy Darwin Day!

Darwin Day is a global celebration of science and reason held on or around Feb. 12, the birthday anniversary of evolutionary biologist Charles Darwin.

Monday, January 13, 2014

The entire universe in a glass of wine

"If we look in glass of wine closely enough we see the entire universe."

Theoretical physicist Richard Feynman earned himself the moniker “the Great Explainer” and his lectures at CalTech became, in the words of Maria Popova, "a cultural classic, blending brilliant yet accessible explanations of science with poignant meditations on life’s most profound questions."

This blog by Brain Pickings about one of Feynman's most famous lectures is a treasure. It focuses on a lecture titled “The Relation of Physics to Other Sciences,” in which Feynman, "eloquent and enthralling as ever, illustrates the connectedness of everything to everything else.

Read the excerpt, or listen to it (there's a link on the page), and be inspired!

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Cowards and Christmas music

Today, on my Facebook feed, a friend wrote:

I'm so happy to see all of your children's holiday performance photos...but sad that I'm in <<NAME DELETED>> County Schools and we can't do such a thing as we might offend someone... Since no program is done, the atheist children are well covered.

Her friends jumped in, deriding us horrible ole' Atheists for taking away all celebrations of the holidays in schools.

Let's be clear: if this public school system in Tennessee really doesn't have any holiday music performances, it's because the decision-makers in that school system are lazy, cowardly and misinformed. It's NOT because of Atheists, nor because of the other groups, like Catholics, Mormons or Jehovah Witnesses, who also sue public school systems that use school activities to promote a particular religion.

Any public school in the USA can have a program of music, dance and/or skits in December that includes Christian music - it just shouldn't be ONLY Christian music. As the Freedom From Religion Foundation notes, "Nine Christmas songs and one 'Dreidel Song' does not a balanced concert make."

As noted by ASCD (formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development): Religious “neutrality” does not mean hostility to religion nor ignoring religion. "Neutrality means protecting the religious liberty rights of all students while simultaneously rejecting school endorsement or promotion of religion."

It's this simple: a public school concert should not be a constant advertisement for a religion. A school concert that features well known relgiously-themed Christmas carols as well secular songs such as "Deck the Halls," "Walking in a Winter Wonderland," and "White Christmas" (and, even better "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer") is going to meet the standard of celebrating various aspects of the season without endorsing any one religion. Even a winter concert of nothing but devotional music by Brahms, Hayden, Verdi and other classical music legends and no secular choices at all would probably not be challenged as promoting one religion but, rather, be seen as educating and celebrating historical European classical music, and as a way for the student performers to improve their classical music skills.

Now, if you will excuse me, I'm going to sing along to "Oh Come, All Ye Faithful," followed by Robert Earl Keene's "Merry Christmas from the Family". That's how I roll at Yule Time. And if you want to come sing Christmas Carols at my house, bring it - I've got some chocolate for ya. Just don't expect me to convert.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Are all volunteer firefighters religious? Of course not.

In this blog Making certain volunteers feel unwelcomed because of your language, the blogger explores the issue of religious volunteers in a group that doesn't officially identify with a religion making other volunteers feel unwelcomed. The example used is a Facebook group that is supposedly for all volunteer firefighters. In response to the religious message, which is meant to inspire, the blogger asks:

"Can you imagine if the administrators posted a message that assumed all volunteer firefighters are atheists and, if they aren’t, they should be? If a message was posted saying that the best way to handle challenging situations in life was to NOT believe in a god? Can you understand how that kind of message would be completely inappropriate for a group for all volunteer firefighters, not just religious ones?"

And speaking of volunteering, here is a list of Group Volunteering Suggestions for Atheist and Secular Volunteers - places where you will be welcomed with your time and expertise to help others!

Monday, November 25, 2013


Thankful, as an adjective, means to be pleased and relieved. To me, being thankful is demonstrating appreciation for good things. It's something humans have done for a few millennia, building an endless number of rituals around such.

I don't need a deity to feel grateful to - to be thankful, to have gratitude, needs no belief in an invisible super friend.

As I noted earlier this year, the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California-Berkeley studies the psychology, sociology, and neuroscience of well-being, including how the traits of altruism, compassion, empathy, and mindfulness transcend religions and contribute to happiness. The importance of gratitude is one focus of their study. Scientists are finding that people who practice gratitude consistently report a host of benefits:
  • Stronger immune systems and lower blood pressure
  • Higher levels of positive emotions
  • More joy, optimism, and happiness
  • Acting with more generosity and compassion
  • Feeling less lonely and isolated
A few years ago, I decided to start sending thank you notes. I send them via formal stationary or via a simple postcard. Some people have gushed to me how they have made them feel - others have never mentioned them. But I do them, regardless of any comment I may or may not get, because I want that moment recorded and acknowledged, for myself and the other person. I want to demonstrate, clearly, that I valued that thing or moment. And it really, really makes me feel good.

Also a few years ago, I made a commitment to write at least two good reviews for every bad one I write on Yelp. I've actually far exceeded that margin. One place I wrote a bad review for saw all my good reviews and worked to correct the problem because they could see I wasn't just a curmudgeon.

And then there's my victory dance: for getting a discount airline ticket, or a refund of some kind, or for making a flight I was convinced I was going to miss... if I'm going to stomp about and lament a missed flight or poor customer service, I'm going to get happy for when things go right - much to my husband's embarrassment at times (dancing in public does that).

Thanksgiving has always been a special holiday1 to me. I like the focus on people being together, rather than on gifts. It transcends any religion. I've experienced the day far from my family, hundreds, even thousands of miles away, and that feeling of welcome, of kindness and of celebration for being together is something I always cherish.

So, for what am I thankful? For 2013, I'm grateful for:
  • the patience, love and support from my husband
  • the continuing health and vibrant nature of my 17 year-old puppy
  • the time I got to spend with my sister and nieces this year
  • the kindness of the community in which I live
  • my financial stability
  • the paid work I got in 2013
  • the stamps in my passport, even the latest one for a trip that was a disaster
  • all national parks in the USA
  • my motorcycle
  • the Affordable Care Act (but not the web site!)
  • the natural beauty all around me
  • the choice to buy a house seeming to be the right one
  • Benedict Cumberbatch 
  • a release date for Sherlock in the USA
  • Nathan Fillion on Twitter
Savoring life is good for you - science says so! If you don't feel gratitude, but want to, then go through the motions of gratitude - write thank you notes (even on sticky notes), send an email thanking someone for something, write a positive Yelp review for a restaurant, a hair salon, a car mechanic, a lawn service, a store, or other business you have patronized. Going through the motions can cultivate the emotion of gratitude.

Happy Thanksgiving!

1: The word holiday probably comes from the Old English word hāligdæg, which means holy day. Here, I'm using it to mean day of celebration and recreation and no work.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

I don't like your church, but I might like your church goers

The Friendly Atheist, Hemant Mehta, recently published a blog about Stephen Colbert being one of the headliners at the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner this year, in honor of the former New York governor and Roman Catholic luminary. In it, he noted:

Colbert, as a devout Catholic, may be one of the only people who can rip on the Church’s foibles as its leaders look on with joy. That’s a power I hope he takes full advantage of while he can. 

If you watch the Colbert Report, you know that Colbert has been incredibly hard on the Roman Catholic Church via his show, taking very sharp, unflinching jabs at it regarding its treatment of women, its wealth and its coverup of pedophilia, to the point that you can tell he's made his audience uncomfortable (gasps rather than laughter).

Yet, the reaction from Mehta's readers was hostile, with endless criticisms and incredulity about Colbert being Catholic.

The vast majority of the actions and policies of the Roman Catholic Church absolutely disgust me. Since I wasn't raised Catholic, its rituals are rather meaningless to me, and so I have no nostalgia for them. Its wealth is vomit-inducing - while I can appreciate the architecture of various Roman Catholic Churches around the world, I can't ignore the gold and silver, the sculptures, the multi-million dollar ornamentation. And I also seethe at how often the Roman Catholic Church has turned a blind eye to criminal, even deadly behavior, from crimes against humanity during Western Europe's colonization of the world, to the Holocaust, to the the workhouses (slavery) of Ireland, to the Rwandan genocide and on and on and on and on.

But I also don't judge individual Catholics any more than I judge someone from a country with a government that commits atrocities. I have been thankful that so many people around the world have been kind to me, a USA citizen, despite what the USA military or government has done to their country. I love my country, but I'll be the first to give you a long list of things about it that disgust me.

Like most of my Roman Catholic friends, I bet that Colbert sees the failures in the Roman Catholic Church as failures of humans, rather than his God. I also bet that he's benefitted hugely from his membership in terms of emotional support in times of crisis - his father and brothers were killed in a plane accident, and if you've ever lost a close family member and been a part of a religiously-inclined community, you know how amazing that very sincere support and love can be - I speak from experience, as an Atheist that was overwhelmed with the support of my Bible Belt community when my father died. I think he's stayed in the Roman Catholic Church, despite the horrors that he readily acknowledges and continually criticizes on his show, because of the support he and his family has received in their (his family's) worst time, because he credits that church with his sense of social justice and compassion, and because of the faction within it that works so passionately for social justice and engages in activities like setting up homeless shelter, helps illegal immigrants, etc., as well as the faction that is against Rome's policies regarding women and birth control - I think he wants to be one of those people that wants to be a part of the compassion it can promote but also work to change it (much like Jimmy Carter stayed an active Baptist for so long, trying to offer an alternative to what his church's convention was saying).

Maybe it's a little like why I have stayed a citizen of the USA, and stayed active in government, voting, working for candidates and joining local government citizens' committees: while I'm disgusted oh-so-often by the actions my government takes, I don't want to leave it to the people who want to take away women's rights, discourage minorities from voting, start wars, etc. I want it to be something that helps everyone. And it won't be that if everyone that's disgusted with it refuses to be a part of it to help change it.

No, I don't like the Roman Catholic Church. At all. But just as people abroad haven't said horrible things about me for remaining a citizen of the USA, despite drone strikes and invasions of other countries and people imprisoned for years without trial, I'm going to cut you some slack for remaining in whatever community of faith you're a part of. It's your words and actions that are going to win me or lose me.