Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Think of the Children!

Dear Abby published an interesting letter today, from a woman who, along with her husband, is an atheist. Their families are quite religious, and the writer said that "several nieces and nephews (ages 4 to 9)... have asked us repeatedly why we don't go to church with them, since the whole family attends together. Their mother has made it clear that they do not want the children knowing there is another option besides Christianity..."

Abby gave her some potential responses, and then added, "While I respect your in-laws' desire to practice their faith, I think it is unrealistic to try to keep children in the dark because as soon as they hit school -- unless they are home-schooled or in a church-run school -- they are going to meet other kids who worship differently or not at all."

I face this issue myself. I have nieces that I absolutely adore, who are being raised in a very religious household, one where they are told that if a person hasn't accepted Christ as his or her savior, that person is going to hell. Eventually, my nieces are going to be told that Aunt Autumn is going to hell, because I won't lie to them; I will tell them I'm not a Christian if they ever ask, and because of what they are being taught, it's going to hurt them. And that breaks my heart. But I didn't create this situation, and I won't be the last person around them that turns out not to be a Christian.  

I hope that, when they ask me if I'm a Christian, or they ask me why I'm not one, I get to also tell them I believe in love, in kindness and in humanity, that I think all people are part of a great big family on Earth, and that life is wonderful when we work to learn about each other and our world, when we help each other, when we celebrate each other, and through working to keep our planet healthy. I'll never try to convince them to not be a Christian, but I will also never stop trying to help them love science and the diversity of humanity.

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.