Thursday, July 24, 2014

Review of the Madison Freethought Festival

ISSA attended the 3rd Freethought Festival this past weekend of April 12, and while I (Alex) have been a member for three years now, this was the first conference/festival I attended, and I now see what all the excitement is about.

In the video below, I highlight two of my favorite events at the festival: Hemant Mehta's talk on branching out into different forms of media, and the debate between Rev. Matt Slick and Dan Barker (president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation).

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Atheism, Poetry, and the Tabling of Secularism

Let's talk poetry. 'Atheist' or 'Agnostic' is likely not the first thing people associate with 'Poet.' Perhaps for obvious reasons. But I've been thinking lately: what do we think about when we think about poetry? And how is secularism influencing this particular writing field?

In response to a recent call for submissions by poetry journal Rattle editor and author Tim Green, I sent a message to him inquiring why the editing board decided to do a series called "Poets of Faith" and not anything open to secularists this season. Rattle tends to do different themes every few months or so. In the past, they've put out issues like "Tribute to Law Enforcement" and "Single Parents." But in the few years I've been following what they publish, I haven't seen anything related to secularism. I'm not at all against a "Poets of Faith" series. It's often very interesting to see what religions or spiritual paths people identify with, and how it impacts their writing, and how it can be molded into each individual's craft and how, in some cases, it's fairly absent. I just thought the lack of inclusion something to note. In any case, his response interested me greatly, because I believe there was a misunderstanding. When we had our back and forth, I meant 'secular' as in 'non-theist.' When he said 'secular' he meant 'would claim to be secular in any identifiable way.'

Interesting distinction. In any case, I liked how he clarified, and I'm posting it here.

"In my experience, poets are very similar demographically to scientists. There's a small percentage who make faith claims -- Dana Gioia, Mark Jarman, Marie Howe, etc. But the majority are secular, or a kind of Mary Oliver agnostic, leaving room for mystery but rejecting any dogma. I mentioned the scientist issue, because that's something I've been planning to do for a while, but what might work out would be an Atheists Poets issue. I think atheists are 10% of the general population (supposedly, I think it's actually much higher, but that's what the surveys say). Among poets willing to make that claim, it's probably a little higher, 15 - 20% maybe, which is probably what the percentage is for religious poets. We'll probably do that sometime."

I consider this to be fairly accurate, and I'm left here wondering: why are poets demographically similar to scientists? Why might so many poets identify as atheist or agnostic? 

My guess would be that poetry tends to require a writer to scrutinize and consider a situation, or object, or feeling (or whatever) from a variety of perspectives with a certain thoroughness known as critical thinking. But when I search the term 'atheistic poets' on Google, university library catalogs, and local databases, I get nothing academic. Through Google, the only promising hit was on The library databases gave me nothing, and the only other 'atheist poets/poetry' hits were amateur blogs. Very amateur blogs. When I searched 'secular poetry' the internet nearly caved in. I got results ranging from "Guide to the Secular Poetry of T.S. Eliot" to "Medieval Hebrew poetry in Muslim Egypt: the Secular Poetry of the Karaite Poet Moses ben Abraham Dar'i" all the way up to "Morality and Masculinity in the Carolingian Empire." More than half of the results included 'secular' and 'religious' and their derivations in the titles, and the range was spread nicely.

Secular [sek-yuh-ler]: adj. of or pertaining to worldly things or to things that are not regarded as religious, spiritual, sacred; temporal.

Atheism [ey-thee-iz-uhm]: n. disbelief in the existence of a supreme being or beings. (Atheistic is reflexive of atheism, so it was pointless to put its definition  here).

Welcome, all, to the gray area. I have a hunch that past authors have had to waddle in it, because of social pressures or other reasons. The ambiguity in classification has made things... interesting for poetry. Most atheistic writing I've found tends to be nonfiction (thanks Dawkins), and I worry that the atheist community isn't representing itself very well in the arts right now. We call nonreligious music 'secular' but in doing so, we're only simply saying that it's 'not religiously themed.' Are we doing the same in poetry? Has 'secular' become the living room rug we all step on and prefer versus the hardwood floor panels of 'atheism'? Every term has its distinctions, but when it comes to visibility in poetry, 'secular' just doesn't seem to hold up.

I think there tends to be very little discussion about poetry, and how atheists manufacture meaning for themselves and in their writing. I think there also tends to be the assumption that non-scientists are more spiritual than they actually are. (Although, to speak frankly, I think powerful individuals in society are always assuming the general populace is more religious than it is). 

So, what are atheist poets to do? Rally for their own spaces, perhaps as I politely did? Embrace the vagueness of 'secular' for whatever reason? It's my position that any mode of action that is respectful and beneficial should be taken. 

Getting lost staring into space induces wonder, always, but there are other fascinations equally powerful, I think, that are often talked about in poetry. Poets tackle everything. Poetry, to me, is a life conference. 

So, my position is also that we need more poets saying, "Hey, I can write beautiful, artful things, revel in semantic wonder...and not believe in a higher power. This is my awe."

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Think of the Children

I don't know about anyone else, but almost nothing makes me angrier than people who refuse to vaccinate their children. I don't know what "research" they're doing, but it seems that watching celebrities and reading blog posts about how doctors are out to get you seem to be about it (Jenny McCarthy, anyone?). I've always assumed (hoped) that these people were a sad, confused minority, but as it turns out, half of America believes in at least one medical conspiracy, according to a new survey.

Before I continue ripping people a new one for not checking their sources, this survey was approved by the institutional review board of the University of Chicago. It surveyed over 1300 people and was weighted to provide a representative sample of the people of America. In a word, it's pretty legit.

20% of respondents believed that the government is lying to us about vaccines. 20% believe cell phones cause cancer, but big businesses bribe health officials to lie about it 12% believe that the CIA infected African Americans with HIV by pretending it was the hepatitis vaccine. A whopping 37% believe that the Food and Drug Administration has natural cures for cancer but isn't releasing them.

Sorry Jimmy. Maybe if you had enough Facebook likes you could have that magical herbal tea.

The people who believed these studies tended to rely on celebrity doctors and the internet for medical advice. Of all the people who depended on those two sources, 80% believed in at least one theory. They did not get physicals as often and shunned things like flu shots and sunscreen. One thing that I found surprising was that the conspiracy theorists came from all across the political spectrum, demonstrating that research ability isn't just lacking on one side. They were more likely to be poorer and less educated, but the study indicated that there were conspiracy theorists from all different backgrounds.

So are these people stupid, or crazy? No. The government is confusing as all get-out, and there's always a new health craze attractive person on TV telling you not to worry, they have all the answers to keep your family safe and in good health. But these people don't know where to get good information, or maybe even how to begin looking. As the public school system in America heads downhill, so does our ability to think critically and be true skeptics instead of paranoid theorists. So I guess this is really a call to teachers and parents and congressmen and administrators--teach the kids to be critical thinkers. To not rely on Dr. Oz or WebMD for their health. To know how to read a study and see if it's well done. To be able to realize who to trust (hint--your doctor is a good one. They don't go through 12 years of post high school education to joke around) but also how to get second opinions. Let's teach our kids to be real skeptics instead of fostering the next generation of paranoia.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Progressive Is the New Black

Recently I came across an ad that looked surprisingly, well, gay. Suspicious--not of the ad itself, but of my possible misinterpretation of it--I dug a bit deeper. What I found, yet again surprisingly, was an entire movement of progressive ad campaigns.

The ad--a campaign for Banana Republic--features models who are coupled in real life, including couples of two men, clearly representing the homosexual population. And to my delight, Banana Republic is neither the only major brand to do this, nor is it the first. In fact, several companies have recently broken the heterosexual-only precedent. In 2011, J. Crew featured its designer, Somsack Sikhounuong with his boyfriend in an ad campaign, and in 2012, Ray-Ban, Gap, Target, and JC Penny all displayed ads with gay or lesbian couples. And recently, Barneys released an ad campaign called "Brothers, Sisters, Sons & Daughters" featuring transgendered models and their support groups.

Refreshingly enough, the reason behind these ads was not to shock consumers, but to represent reality--the world we live in today. As stated by the chief creative officer for Banana republic, their goal was "to reflect our world and how we live in a true genuine way." And the CEO of Barneys fell along the same ideals, stating that it was the right time to feature an ad with transgenders because "the T in LGBT was getting left behind."

These type of ads, increasingly more common, reflect not only a shift in the consumer industry, but in the consumers themselves. These companies know the impact they have, the influence their ads will bring not only to themselves but to the cause for equality. The choice to include gay or lesbian couples in their ads is not arbitrary, but a calculated decision to support equal rights by showing equal representation. And as progressive companies continue to produce these ads, the normalcy of it is increased, encouraging more conservative companies to also champion equal rights. Yet, Banana Republic, Barneys, J. Crew--no matter the stance they wish to take, they still have to sell clothes. Clearly these ads do not only reflect the companies' support of equality, but consumer support as well. Generally, consumers today, particularly the younger demographic support marriage equality more fervently than any generation before.

Essentially, these ads are a double-edged sword--in a good way--not only promoting inclusion, but reflecting the public's cry for this inclusion. As more and more of these advertisements come out, more people are exposed to them, normalizing homosexuality, increasing acceptance, creating a larger platform of supporters and opening the door for other companies to support the cause for equality. These ads are a great thing, not only because of their promotion of inclusion and equal rights, but because of their reflection of consumers today.

Friday, April 4, 2014

The Spirit of Fear

For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind. -2 Timothy 1:7

For today's sermon, I would like to address a certain disconnect I have observed in the secular community. Now, Bill Nye is pretty cool. And personally, I laud his performance during the recent debate between himself and Ken Ham on the viability of Ham's creationist model of the world. But something bothers me. This isn't a hesitation exclusive to this debate. This discomfort is of the same sort I have experienced time and again as I've watched the clash of world views between the religious and the rest of us.

This discomfort is not due to any objection to the Science Guy's efforts to educate the public; I think the time is right for the scientific community to descend from its ivory towers and directly engage creationist ignorance and inanity in the public square. Nor is it due to any particular element in the content of Bill's arguments; I think he did quite well in delivering a clear presentation of sane science. My discomfort stems from a certain naïveté of his that I wish to address in this piece. Many secular people, including Bill Nye, do not understand the Spirit of Fear.

I. The Frustration

The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good. --Psalm 14:1

There is a question I see many non-religious people wrestling with privately. They don't want to articulate it, for it is an obnoxious question with overtones of arrogance, intolerance, and guile: Why do religious people sound so goddamn stupid so much of the time?

There it is. Are you glad I said it for you? Breathe a sigh of relief, for I have borne your cross of political incorrectness. Nye submits a tree with 10,000 rings. Ham: Jesus. The Bible. The earth is 6,000 years old. Nye submits an ice core from the antarctic displaying over half a million summer-winter cycles. Ham: Jesus. The Bible. 6,000 years. Nye submits a fossil record demonstrating the evolution of life from trilobites to mammals over billions of years. Ham: Jesus. The Bible. 6,000 years. Rubidium and Strontium? Ham: Don't care. Jesus...

But the religious aren't inherently stupid. Many of them manage to put their pants on in the morning and go to work or school; a very small percentage of them are even renowned scientists in their field. What's going on here? Why are people like Bill Nye forced to furl their brow in frustration when trying to communicate fact? It's not that hard, right? This tree is older than you say the earth is. This tree is of the earth. Therefore, you are wrong, Ken Ham. QED. Doy.

As evidenced by Bill Nye's presentation, as evidenced by so many polemic endeavors by so many skilled elucidators of knowledge, there is a fundamental disconnect going on here. How can irrationality persist when assailed by evidence so sound? Why aren't the religious swayed by your ineludible command of reason and evidence? Well, I shall tell you.

II. The Background

There are different types of religions. Some religions, like Shintoism, could be best described as organized systems of paying respect to our elders. Buddhism has its serious problems, but at its core it is more of a practice than anything, a methodology giving instructions for escaping the suffering of this world. Hinduism has a deplorable caste system, but one does not incur bad karma for not believing in the concept of karma.

As for those who do not believe in the life to come, We have made their deeds seem alluring to them, so they wander blindly: it is they who will have the worst suffering, and will be the ones to lose most in the life to come. You [Prophet Muhammad] receive the Qur'an from One who is all wise, all knowing. -Surah 27:4-6

Islam and Christianity, on the other hand, are fundamentally different in terms of their soteriology (albeit not completely unique; there are a few others like them). Soteriology: the theory of and instructions regarding salvation, from the Greek “σωτήρ” meaning savior and “λόγος” meaning word or study. I don't mean to belabor an obvious point, but before one can declare the Shahada and become a “saved” Muslim, one must first sincerely believe that there is a god, that Muhammad is his final prophet, and that the Qur’an was composed by God and revealed to Muhammad by the angel Jibril (Gabriel). Before one can become a “saved” Christian one must first sincerely believe that there is a god, that he incarnated himself as Jesus of Nazareth, that he died and rose again, and by doing so atoned for our sins. These are specific claims about specific events in history.

If you declare with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. --Romans 10:9

In other words, although this point is not always clearly and explicitly articulated in these spiritual circles, the first step in their version of salvation is to accept a set of assertions. Do you believe George Washington chucked a silver dollar across the Potomac? Do you believe Paul Bunyan created the lakes of Minnesota stumbling around in a snowstorm? YES or NO? Your eternal disposition depends on your answer. “Creed” comes from the the Latin credo, meaning “I believe”, so I call these “creed-based religions”.

Let us step back for a moment to reflect on the fundamental ridiculousness going on here. Ultimately, whether or not you spend an eternity in Islamic or Christian Hell is determined by a post-mortem pop quiz. Did you believe Jesus was the earthly incarnation of God? Whoops. “Say, 'He is God the One, God the eternal. He begot no one nor was he begotten. No one is comparable to Him.'” -Surah 112. You thought God begot a son via the virgin Mary in Bethlehem? Blasphemer! Sucks to be you. Oh, you didn't get the memo about the Holy Qur’an? Too bad. Enjoy Hell, motherfucker.
Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed. -John 20:29

Assertions. Really try to pick up what I'm laying down. In creed-based religions, salvation begins with believing claims, by acquiescing to ideas. That is first base in the creed-based religions, Islam, Christianity, etc. Now, there are other steps, other tasks, other ingredients involved in avoiding being on fire forever. (Catholic confession, The Five Pillars of Islam, etc.) But you must first be convinced by these claims in order to be saved from the eternal torture I discussed last time.

III. The Fear

So to return to our question, why do religious people sound so goddamn stupid so much of the time? Well, here it is: If your salvation from eternal Hell depends on your belief in a set of claims, then to believe in that set of claims becomes the highest of virtues. To cease to believe becomes the most terrible of tragedies. To convince others to believe becomes the ultimate moral good. To persuade others to abandon belief becomes the height of moral failure and transgression.

"If anyone causes one of these little ones-those who believe in me-to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” - Jesus, (supposedly), Matthew 18:6

The values of science such as freedom of expression, open-mindedness, critical thinking, questioning assumptions, embracing life's opportunities to discover one's own errors, and to take joy in gaining better insight-- these are wholly antithetical to the very essence and foundation of creed-based religions. We can see the evidence of this today in the Islamic world with its censors, Sharia Law, and thought police. And until modern secular thought began to inch its way into Western society and take civil authority away from Christian churches, we saw this Spirit of Fear manifest itself in inquisitions, witch-burnings, pogroms, and heresy trials.

They must be silenced, because they are disrupting whole households by teaching things they ought not to teach...” -Titus 1:11

Although, thankfully, Christians are now prevented from killing non-believers in our country with impunity, they still suffer from and foment the Spirit of Fear in America. Christians see their neighbors, their friends, and their family, discarding specious claims and convictions previously held, and it frightens them. These apostates used to be just like them. (Gasp) “Could such a terrible thing happen to me?” they wonder. Christians and others in creed-based religions do not have the luxury of entertaining other ideas, other opinions, or other perspectives which could potentially threaten their faith. When salvation begins with a belief in a set of assertions, changing one's mind becomes the ultimate existential threat to one's eternal disposition. There is literally Hell to pay for thinking too much.

IV. The Evolution Hoopla (an aside)

This Spirit of Fear manifests in many ways, but I would like to address the specific topic which I mentioned earlier:  young earth creationism. Why do so many literalist Christians get stuck on this one issue? Why don't they get hung up on the Bible's assertion that there is a great ceiling in the sky, or the firmament, “hard as a mirror of cast bronze?” (Job 37:18) Why aren't they worried that one of NASA's rockets might accidentally bump into one of the “floodgates of the heavens” (Genesis 7:11) precipitating a deluge once again as holes are punched in the firmament which “divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament”? (Genesis 1:7) (God wouldn't let that happen, of course. Genesis 8:21. But still.) The evidence for evolution is just as solid as for a heliocentric solar system and a “roofless” outer space.

The answer is Jesus. Or, more specifically, why Jesus' death and resurrection have the effect of saving people who believe these two events occurred. Many in the Christian laity may not have asked these questions, but their leaders who promote creationism certainly have. Why do Jesus' death and resurrection supposedly atone for our sins and reconcile us to God? Why didn't Jesus' death and resurrection conjure some other magick like ending all suffering, or curing all disease, or bringing world peace, or turning the moon into a giant purple raspberry?

God's word is true. I've come to understand that. All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and Big Bang Theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of Hell. And it's lies to try to keep me and all the folks who were taught that from understanding that they need a savior.” -Rep. Paul Broun, 10th Congressional District of Georgia

The New Testament is clear in its explanation of the “physics” of salvation. There is a poetic beauty, an almost mathematical symmetry to the apostle Paul's explanation in Romans 5, reiterated again in 1 Corinthians 15: If death entered the world through the sin of one man, then the sacrifice of one man atones for the sin of the world saving us from death. The curse of the original sin of Adam, which vicariously condemns us to eternal Hell, is lifted by the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus, which vicariously redeems us into everlasting life.

How cute. It's not difficult to see why this quaint narrative has been compelling to many over the centuries. The trouble is, evolution decimates this narrative. Evolutionary biology shows that there were no Adam and Eve in a garden 6,000 years ago, and thus no original sinner to commit the original sin. It shows that we form a continuum with all life on Earth, that we share a common ancestor with horses, chimpanzees, lizards, and onions. The record of our kinship is engraved into the DNA of every cell in our bodies.

So whose sin did Jesus die for? If there was no concrete point in our history where humans began, if we share a common ancestor with all life, should we send missionaries to the bonobos to tell them to stop fornicating so prodigiously? Can walruses accept Jesus as their personal savior? Do bananas go to heaven? Will I spend eternity with the bacteria I just killed by washing my hands with soap? Hopefully penicillin goes to heaven too, because there's going to be a lot of vindictive microbes there with a grudge. To what subset of the continuum of life does Jesus' saving grace extend?

Catholics have a way out of this particular problem, because they have an infallible pope to “imagineer” the Bible as being open to the compatibility of the theories of salvation and evolution. The Pope can just declare that God guided evolution and started injecting souls into our ape ancestors at some unknown yet distinct point, and abracadabra, ex cathedra, the creation story now becomes an allegory to a point. (For further reading on this topic, see the encyclical of Pope Pius XII, Humani Generis) But for those who adhere to a strict philosophy of sola scriptura like Ken Ham and other young earth creationists, this presents a damning, faith-invalidating conundrum.

For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God's sight. As it is written: "He catches the wise in their craftiness"; -1 Corinthians 3:19

The Spirit of Fear. That's what Bill Nye and many others do not seem to understand. In his Big Think video entitled, “Creationism is Not Appropriate for Children,” Nye demonstrates this disconnect in his comprehension. He said, "I say to the grownups, 'If you want to deny evolution and live in your world that's completely inconsistent with everything we've observed in the universe that's fine. But don't make your kids do it.'" What the fuck, Bill? He’s not asking them to let their children choose a different career track rather than follow their parents into the circus. He’s not requesting that parents kindly refrain from smoking crack in front of their kids. From the point of view of the audience he is addressing, he is asking parents to let their children pour gasoline on their own heads and light a match. Only worse, since “the fire never goes out” in Hell. (Mark 9:43)

When you come to a point where you realize presenting one more transitional fossil, one more red-shifted star, one more radiometric sample will be futile, your understanding of your task must adapt. Many complimented Bill Nye on avoiding theology during his debate. I think those expressing this sentiment are woefully ignorant of the situation. We must acknowledge that we will be ineffective at communicating science until we first put on a psychotherapist’s hat and deal with the deeply ingrained anxieties seared into the psyches of the indoctrinated. In order to perpetuate and preserve itself, Christianity must instill a deep Spirit of Fear into the minds of its adherents, an inoculation against reasoning and questioning too much. That damage must first be undone.

V. The Big Picture

Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it. -Proverbs 4:23

This Spirit of Fear is not always confined to matters directly affecting soteriology. The glorification of recalcitrance and assholery, being necessary to the security of an irrational belief system, can often be seen radiating into other, often bizarre areas of religious life. When thoughts become threats, anything, real or imagined, could potentially open the doorway to danger.

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. -Ephesians 6:12

Growing up in the church, there was always something weird and irrational threatening us in the heavenly realms. I remember the church committee formed to try to exorcise the 2-D Nintendo arcade games from the local Pizza Hut, the sermons urging a boycott of ABC for airing the show “NYPD Blue” due to its racey (at the time) content, and the meetings about homosexuals surreptitiously infiltrating other churches in our Mennonite conference. There was “Adventures in Odyssey”, a child-oriented radio drama produced by Focus on the Family which warned us about the dangerous demons we could unwittingly summon if we were so foolish as to play RPG’s like Dungeons and Dragons. The cast of the show even included a token “unsaved” smarty-pants scientist named Eugene Meltsner to teach us that even smart people could be so stupid as to not believe in Jesus. (Of course, later, he learned his lesson when he foolishly ran a high-tech computerized death simulation. Since he was not a Christian, he inevitably wound up screaming in a virtual reality Sim-Hell. Completely traumatized and terrified by the horrific experience, he finally came to his senses and toed the religious line. Yay wholesome Christian kids’ shows!)

But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. -James 1:6-7

It was much the same at home. By some arbitrary metric, one educational PBS show was permitted, another was taboo. All secular cartoons were evil. “Star Wars” was evil because, “The green guy with pointy ears looks like Satan.” I always wondered how Mom knew what Satan looked like. Secular music was shunned unless it fell into certain understood categories like classical music or ole' timey tunes. Books which would be considered innocuous to most would disappear from my bookshelf. When traveling my dad would pray a “hedge of protection around the doors and windows of this motel room.” This was in case some of the previous occupants had committed some sinful act which might have opened a magical portal to the spiritual plane enabling demons to squeeze through and haunt us. And don't even get me started on the Halloween shenanigans.

We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. -2 Corinthians 10:5

Many American children grow up in environments so extreme in their psychological sheltering, Orwell himself would be impressed. Their parents have hermetically sealed them against anything that might induce any trace of cognitive dissonance between their indoctrination and reality. They live in rural areas, cut off from the internet and other media. They are homeschooled. Their only contact with others outside their family is in churches filled with like-minded individuals. If they are permitted to go to “college”, they often end up at an institution like Bob Jones University or Liberty University, where the shielding from reality continues.

Unless you’ve been living in a shoe, you've probably seen the Spirit of Fear at work in American culture. Just turn on your local Christian radio station, and you will hear Professor Haywood Jabuzoff from American Bible Patriot NASCAR University somberly discussing with the host whether the antichrist will be a Jew or a Muslim, or how to drive the gay demons from your child. You may even see it in your daily interactions. Last week, a religious person I know sent me a Christian apologist’s “book review” for Hitchens’ God Is Not Great. Had the person read the book in question? No. He couldn’t have, because that would have been too scary. He could only dare to  defer to authority and pass along to me the brain scat of Christian “experts” qualified and trained to endure the tribulation of cracking the pages of an evil so potent. 

The greatest dangers for Christians are not real threats, but rather the phantasms of their own minds. When Pat Robertson warns that homosexuality causes earthquakes and hurricanes, when Jerry Falwell claimed that feminists and pagans caused 9/11, when you hear Christians attributing school shootings to the fact that kids aren't being forced to participate in state-mandated obligatory prayers, the easily accessible evidence that these claims are not true cannot assail their mental edifice of irrationality, fortified as it is against reason.

VI. The End

Before you can fill a jar, you must first take off the lid. Before Bill Nye, or any of us for that matter, can succeed in educating those stuck in a creed-based religion, we must first approach the problem as psychologists dealing with fear psychoses before filling minds with real knowledge. The Spirit of Fear affects the religious in a way unique to each individual and community. You will find some whose soteriology is not challenged by evolution, but think zygotes in a petri dish have the same value as a fully developed person. You will find some who think being gay is okay, but gay marriage is an existential threat to society. You will find some for whom religion plays almost no visible role in their lives, but who will lash out at you for speaking an ill word about whichever belief system they belong to in those moments of their lives when a superficial display of piety is required. Each religionist is different, terrified of diverse spectres. But the origin of the fear is the same. Thoughts and ideas are a threat to salvation.

Years ago I was confident that if I laid out a perfect, logical, irrefutable case for why evolution is true or Christianity is bullshit, etc. the person with whom I was speaking would melt under the power of my superior reason. This was quite naïve of me, and having been trapped in a "relationship with Jesus" myself, the folly of this mentality should have been obvious to me. In fact, a perfect argument could foreseeably have an opposite effect to that which was intended. Why? A common theme accompanying creed-based religious indoctrination is the idea that doubt itself is an attack of the Devil.

Those who turn on their heels after being shown guidance [from the Qur’an] are duped and tempted by [Shaitan]. -Surah 47:25

This creates a paradox, as I painfully experienced when I first began escaping the trappings of Christianity. As the case for changing religious belief becomes stronger, one's conditioning exacerbates the Spirit of Fear, inflicting the doubter with a sense of paranoia. The more compelling an argument for belief change is, the more the doubter's conditioning induces a counter-reaction, a terror of besiegement by the evil forces he was guaranteed would try to deceive him into altering his beliefs in the first place. Creed-based religions have been cleverly engineered with this self-fulfilling circular prophecy: The fact that you are doubting confirms what you are doubting, because what you are doubting predicted you would doubt. Aha!

The concept of God has given them the Spirit of Fear. Without developing a compassionate sensitivity to these individuals and their ensnared state of mind, you will gain little ground. Fear breeds resistance to rationality. Unless you address the fearful, emotional element, you will always be presenting the 101st reason Sheik Hussein Obama is not building concentration camps for Christians in Montana, the 1,001st scientific paper demonstrating abstinence-only education is useless if not downright harmful, the 10,001st example of why gay marriage does not cause society to implode, the 100,001st astronomical measurement showing the universe to be billions of years old, or the 1,000,001st fossil proving evolution. It is not enough to regurgitate fact. The manacles of the Spirit of Fear built into the very fabric of Christian faith, and other faiths, must be addressed before progress can be made. Good luck with that.

All scriptural quotes come from M.A.S. Abdel Haleem’s translation of the Qur’an, and the NIV and KJV translations of the Bible.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Christian Culture: The Funny, The Sad, and The Not-So-Kosher

It's hard to believe that a large portion of my life was spent in an isolated Christian community. It was my school, it was my free time, it was the decor at my mom's. Maybe that's why I liked reading so much. No matter where I was, in a sense, I could get away from it all: church cult-y-ness and family problems.

It's understandable that I've repressed a lot of my childhood and adolescence. I'm an atheist, after all. I never openly identified as Christian, but then again, where I come from, Christianity, like heterosexuality, is just something people assume. I tried to blend in as well as I could regardless. With that comes a lot of cognitive dissonance, a lot of trauma, and a lot of funny memories, actually.

This past month in ISSA, we held a screening of a movie called The Lock In produced by Rich Praytor and Beverly Banks for Holy Moly Pictures about a group of teens encountering demon possession (or a haunting? it's hard to tell) after viewing paper pornography. At one point, the youth pastor makes a statement about 'reds and blues making purples.' One of our members yelled out, "Wait, what?"

I turned around to try and explain that 'reds' meant 'females' and 'blues' meant 'boys' and 'purple' is any kind of canoodling. Usually kissing. Or sex. You know, the simple stuff.

But of course, that wasn't the worst part of the movie. The obvious costume changes, poor camera handling, and unprofessional acting were testament enough. About halfway in, I get extremely nauseous and had to excuse myself. Whatever intestinal thing I had going from eating too many dried apricots was immensely aggravated by the shoddy, shaking images and high pitched screaming.

Anyway, the event itself reminded me of a lot of interesting/funny/sad aspects of Christian youth culture. Where to start?

1. "No blues and reds making purple in the closet." Or something to that effect. We've been over this one, but I have to stress how ridiculous this is. Way to gender-binary, guys. And the color thing is so arbitrary. Also, a closet? Really? Them even saying this makes me think, "All right. Someone has had to have done this before for them to issue a warning." Which makes it even funnier. Gotta love that abstinence! Until you don't and have no idea what to do when proximal to an attractive human.

2. Watching movies like the Left Behind series, Passion of the Christ, The Ten Commandments, and Veggie Tales. These productions are slightly higher budget, so I have to admit, they aren't entirely painful to watch. But still, they're on par with the recent flick "God's Not Dead." The focus is always on the 'non-believers' who are then forced to a) repent b) reveal why they 'hate God' c) look really sad d) all of the above. Oh well. At least The Prince of Egypt had a really good soundtrack.

3. Family Christian bookstore, if you haven't heard of it, is like a Barnes & Noble tribute to the trinity and all things PG-13. They sell bookmarks, figurines, clothing, and bibles. A lot of bibles. It's a bible emporium. But they also advertise VBS (vacation bible school) programs, ministries, charities, and so on. Fun fact: every time my mom brought me, a car almost ran us down. And by almost, I mean, people just generally failed to halt for pedestrians in that area whenever I was near. They could sense my evil soul approaching. 

4. Lock-ins. They are, indeed, a thing. A lot of the time it's nothing fancy, and it's basically a giant sleepover. Typically a kick-off service with 'modern' Christian rock music, food, hot cocoa (and/or pop) are constituents, and video and board games major components. But when I was in middle school, our church went all out. In the gymnasium, they constructed a wrestling ring and hired professionals to entertain us. All I remember was one of the older guys in the audience saying, "Oh my god. He shaved his back. You can see the razor burn. Oooo that's got to hurt." Note: the gymnasium on Sundays also functioned as the adult chapel. So religious. Very Christ-like. Wowe. 

5. Camp. VBS and in general, camps that promise to provide religious guidance are just the weirdest kinds of camp. VBS is usually for the younger kids, and it's a little more enjoyable, because at that stage you don't really know what's going on but the songs are lively and sometimes there are puppets and they give you snacks. As children age, the amount of time spent away from home at these things may increase. But it varies from place to place. They tend not to be as dogmatic and sing-along-y stuff late in the game, but church services are still facilitated. Even on vacation.

6. Separate services. Maybe this is a given to some people, but it's a little strange, considering toddlers get lumped in with junior high kids depending on the place. Usually, it's split so that 'adults' go to one service and 'non-adults' go elsewhere. Some have daycare available during services though, which is very considerate. But after initial services, sometimes there are study groups. And again, people are separated based on grade in school. Worksheets, crafts, candy, coloring, discussion. That's what usually occurs. It's okay to be confused, but not to question too many things too quickly. You'll understand when you get older. And usually, it's for the parents and the child/teenager to decide when is a good time to assimilate into the adult chapel. There's no concrete transition point, but I'd say it's around 12-14 when the older kids want to ditch the kiddie sermons. Although, it's a bit of a misnomer to call it 'Sunday school' since I didn't really learn anything. Remember, Christians generally like to edit out all the messed up stuff. "Sodom and Gomorrah? Yes, let's tell them that story. But let's not tell them about the almost-sexual-violence-against-angels-in-disguise part, and let's certainly not tell them about the incestuous rape of Lot by his daughters directly after." 

7. That awkward moment you give in after years of belligerent comments and ask to be baptized, the whole congregation makes a show of it. You repeat some things after the pastor. Blah blah blah Jesus is the savior blah blah blah paid for sins blah blah blah in his name, Amen. And then everyone watches you get dunked in a lukewarm water filled bathtub. Like that's normal. Oftentimes, the pastor will hold your nose closed for you. Which is always intensely uncomfortable, if you don't like being touched.

8. Sometimes, people try to make Christianity culturally exclusive. One televangelist we had to watch in class during middle school made a joke that went: 'Humans can't possibly be from monkeys..but I don't know about some!' with the punch line being an image of a guy with a purple mohawk and piercings brought up on the screen as he finished his statement. Yes. Because body modifications are atypical of humanity. Not. 

While I find a lot of this hilarious, I have to acknowledge how completely 'natural' this all seems to other people, like my older cousin, who is now a chaplain and blames homosexuals for state-based tax problems. A lot of aspects of Christian culture are amusing until I remember again the major issues facing theistic communities, such as the assumption of heterosexuality and abstinence as 'moral' and 'correct,' the obligation of indoctrination versus exposure to other faiths or, everyone forbid, atheists and agnostics, evangelism (which has the potential to be, and often is colonial and dominated by ethnocentric individuals) which tends to lead to the destruction of 'unlearned' cultures and in-group conflicts (over traditions, what constitutes truth, and so on), and don't even get me started on all the 'service work' done with good intentions. Humanitarian efforts are good, but often misplaced.

Example: immediately after Hurricane Katrina, the church I attended organized two trips down. They donated all of the church's pews and focused mainly on making sure a new church could be built. Did they do other things? Yes. But they spent a lot of time and money on proselytizing when they didn't need to.

A more obvious example is the Water Project. It's a registered non-profit 501(c)(3), but a high amount of missionaries are trained to go out into sub-Saharan Africa to build wells and pumps, along with others. On their website, they state: "We are NOT a religious organization. The reason we do this work is because we are Christians." 

I hate to poke an already engorged bubble, but I think a better claim would be, "...we do this work because we care about other people." Has a slightly less self-aggrandizing ring to it.

Overall, despite giggles that may occur when I consider a culture I've chosen to leave, I'm still very critical of it for behaviors and mentalities encouraged. The only struggle? Not getting too angry.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

An Elegy to Pope Francis the Liberal

     When the current Pope put on the hat last March, the world was watching. From the start, Pope Francis was far from an ordinary member of the seminary. Born in Argentina, the first ever Pope from the southern hemisphere, and the first non-European Pope for more than a century, he seemed to be exactly the kind of outsider who might shake things up in the the extent that the Vatican can be shaken up, that is. This was a public image that was hugely embraced by the media and repeated often, and is controversial today. What does the Pope of today really think about issues like homosexuality, abortion, and birth control? (Spoiler alert: he's not as much of a Good Guy as you think.)
His waving style is also decidedly un-Popelike.
     One line that I see getting tossed around quite a lot is that Pope Francis has declared that "all atheists are redeemed." While this is technically true, this is the Pope we're talking about here--he chooses his words quite carefully. When the papal quote was first spoken, there was some substantial controversy over what he had meant. (See the comments section in the previous link for good times.) Did the Pope truly just give atheists a free pass into heaven? Were we bros now? Not really, as it turns out. A close look at the Bible passages he references, along with a few technicalities, should be kept in mind. He informed the world that all atheists are redeemed, but redeemed=/=automatically saved. All atheists are redeemed in the same way that all pedophiles are redeemed--we both have a chance to accept Jesus in our hearts etc. etc. and although the Pope was creating an image of tolerance, he was also just reminding everybody that "it's not too late, folks."
     Another issue that the Pope has spoken some interesting words about is the Church's stance on homosexuality. To the best of my knowledge, Pope Francis has never asserted that every homosexual person is hell-bound, only the ones that act on their sexual impulses. Remember kids, you can go to heaven as long as you remain chaste your entire life--while you're at it, why not join the priesthood? Also, this is the same man who openly opposed gay marriage while he was in a position of power in Argentina and referred to it as the work of the Devil and a "destructive attack on God's plan." Despite these, uhh, small quibbles, though, he thinks that gay people are great! He's been hailed by the media as the least harsh Pope on homosexuality so far, though, so that's something.
     Just to go down the laundry list, the Pope has also said that abortion is "horrific" and something that good Christians ought not to do, although notably he has approved the use of contraception to control disease, which is pretty great. At the same time, though, he's still not allowing women to be priests, he really enjoys reminding people that everyone who accepts Christ must also accept the Church, he thinks that homosexual adoption is not cool, and has reminded us all that his first loyalty will always be to Church doctrine. While I'm at it, this guy is not a comic book villain, he has some excellent qualities--his stance on the importance of Catholics to assist the poor and needy has always been rock-solid and he has even taken steps to reduce the Vatican's wealth.
     So how progressive is Francis, really? I think it's clear that the media's trumped-up and oversimplified version isn't accurate--this is not Pope Francis the Liberal, and not a man who wants to seriously mess things up in the Vatican. He's made some great steps forward, to be sure--never forget, the last Pope thought that contraception was never okay and that every last gay person had a one-way ticket to hell. Is the honeymoon over? What has he done well, what has he done poorly, and what can he do in the future? Tomorrow's ISSA meeting should yield some interesting discussion, so make sure not to miss it!