Monday, December 23, 2013

End the Outrageous War on Festivus

This holiday season I found myself among countless Americans shocked and appalled at the ever-present degradation of our society's traditions and values. I am referring, of course, to the ridiculous "Festivus" display erected in the Florida state Capitol earlier in December. NPR reports:

"There's a brand-new holiday display at Florida's state Capitol in Tallahassee: a pole celebrating Festivus from the TV show Seinfeld."
"It's the latest protest exhibit after a Nativity scene was set up in the rotunda last week. 'This whole thing is just a serious feat of ... ridiculousness,' says Chaz Stevens, who marched into the Capitol building on Wednesday morning clutching a case of empty Pabst Blue Ribbon beer cans and a 6-foot pole made of PVC pipe."

I must admit I agree with Stevens on one point: this is a "feat of ridiculousness" - of his own doing. This man's actions run contrary to the basest American instincts. Everybody knows that Festivus is a time to sit around an unadorned aluminum pole, engage in feats of strength, and tell your family how disappointed you were with them during the past year. In season 9 episode 10 of Seinfeld - the episode from which this glorious day is derived - it is clearly stated that Frank Constanza "hated the commercial and religious aspects of Christmas" and so went on to create his own holiday. Stevens spits on these humble beginnings with his loud, obnoxious display.

Stevens smirks arrogantly next to his bastardization of an American tradition. Not pictured: his fedora.

And yet, this is hardly Stevens' most egregious offense. In response to a suggestion by a Christian organization that they may push for manger displays in every state, Stevens replied: "I'll see all 50 capitols then...Why not? Sponsored by Pabst Blue Ribbon."

Ugh! A corporate sponsorship for the overtly noncommercial Festivus? The mere idea leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth (not unlike Pabst Blue Ribbon). Clearly, this rabble rouser's blatant disregard for the holiday spirit represents a continuing decline in the moral fiber of the American people.

And yet in a way, Stevens' shennanagins merely crystallize a more disturbing trend. Both the public at large and numerous private businesses have adopted the allegedly more inclusive "happy holidays" greeting in place of my preferred "happy Festivus." I find it personally offensive that poorly paid retail employees would dare not to assume which holiday I choose to celebrate.

Scrooge McDuck: Now with more .jpeg!
Though the government may or may not be involved at all, the fascist communist nazi political "correctness" of our society has really seriously gone too far this time. For real. One needs only to look at the lamestream media firestorm over Duck Tales' star and patriarch Scrooge McDuck's embrace of American capitalism to see the writing on the wall. I am a strong, independent patriot who don't need no "happy holidays," and I resent the attempt to acknowledge the wrongheaded notions of multiculturalism in my America.

In the spirit of a freedom-loving people I once thought I knew, I encourage you to make your concerns vocal. Post incessantly about it to your facebook or twitter. Start arguments with friends and family when you gather together for Festivus (or whatever other weird holiday thing you do). No matter what, just be sure to complain as much as possible if you even vaguely perceive that something may not be to your liking. After all, that's the American way.

Friday, December 13, 2013

How Activist-y Must I Be?

On fall break, I celebrated the holiday with my family (this year, it was just with my parents and older brother) the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, since everyone made plans of their own for the actual day, a week prior to dinner.

I chose the seat closest to the window, though the curtains were drawn, for the purpose of being able to look out from the corner into the kitchen, the living room, and elsewhere. Likely a control thing. As everyone settled to where warm side dishes and entrees were placed conspicuously within reach, I grabbed a baked roll, and took a bite.

I was the only one to do so. My mother’s hands were folded, her fingers intertwined, with both her elbows resting on the edge of the table. After making a hard glare at me, her mouth contorting a bit, she said, “Dad, say grace.”

He smirked and belted loudly, “GRACE.”

And I did what atheists are supposed to do. I made a case for the whole thing to be bypassed, suggesting, “Why don’t we just go around and say what we’re thankful for? You know Adam’s agnostic and I’m an atheist.” My mother had no cohesive explanation. With her, it’s all tradition for the sake of tradition- don’t question it. I won’t hate you forever for this, she insinuates, but don’t deviate from the plan.

And so my father, in an attempt to diffuse tension and what could have become a legitimate fight, said, “It’s not about religion. It’s not about that.”

He promptly began again, praying, “Dear God, Heavenly Father.”

I finished eating my roll, keeping my eyes open all the while. And as he ended his short speech, I testified in the name of Pastafarians everywhere, utilizing my laptop to search for the lines and preach the Flying Spaghetti Monster’s prayer which appropriately comes to a close with “R’Amen.” My father, a few feet away cutting some turkey, found it highly amusing and laughed his ass off. My mother kept droning, “Stop it, Katrina.”

But all of this made me wonder- especially after Tom Flynn’s presentation on “The Trouble With Christmas”- how will I assert myself as a secular humanist, if at all, come Christmas? Historically speaking, my protests have often been swiftly squelched. But that was as a household dependent. Now, to be yelled at and ‘disciplined’ would be arbitrary and fruitless. I can’t be grounded. I can’t be told I won’t get any presents from ‘Santa’ (at least, I hope not). None of that matters to me, and none of the rules of my adolescence apply.
Still, I find myself feeling convinced to join in the festivities. I make excuses, like:

1. This is the only holiday my family unit ever celebrates with serious gusto, and it’s the one season where everyone plays nice.

2. Nostalgia aside, it is in fact how I learned about philanthropy.

3. My friend’s birthday falls a few days after the 25th of December. I mean, I’ll be shopping for him anyway... so I could just get gifts for others as well while I’m out.

4. It’s closer to New Year’s Eve/Day, and in Russia, gifts are exchanged on that date instead of Christmas, so there’s really not a problem if I’m culturally aware. Besides, in the Netherlands, gift giving is only on the 6th  of December, the celebration of Sinterklaas’ birthday, so it’s kind of sort of secular anyway, if I’m thinking of it through the lens of another region.

5. My dad’s been saying for years that Jesus was not born on Christmas, which is almost like admitting that it’s a totally inaccurate winter hoopla. As long as we’re not operating under any false pretenses, why not?

6. I don’t want to be that guy, that militant ‘this is bad, don’t do it’ person of the group again. Further, I’m not going to be able to stop anyone I’ll be visiting to not celebrate. So, to bluntly and idiomatically put it, why shit where I eat?

Regardless of my reasoning, I feel convicted for wanting to get involved and send out my glittery snowmen non-descript greeting cards. Even though I tend to limit myself in buying people what they may need, like clothes, food items, and books (yes, I consider them essential), the self-judgment rages, and I fear the atheist/agnostic/secular humanist/freethinker/etcetera community will judge me for how I feel.  
Which is, essentially, divided. But not all of us agree, and not all of us are anti-theists. While I agree that the holiday season poses certain social problems (like people choosing to donate to homeless shelters, food banks, and charities simply and only because it’s cold and Christmas), it’s also an opportunity for people to get together, catch up, and indulge. What’s so wrong with that?


Thursday, December 5, 2013

Rock the Night in Review

About a month ago, the Illini Secular Student Alliance spearheaded a community effort, rarely paralleled by other nonreligious student groups, which capped our 2013 fundraising efforts for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. With a lot of help from one of our Outreach Assistants, Justin Tanaka, ISSA put on a benefit concert at Canopy Club in Urbana. We brought together seven local bands and partnered with the University of Illinois Chapter of the Foundation for International Medical Relief for Children to bring in a crowd of over one hundred fifty people.

Since the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s big charity event is the annual Light the Night Walk, we so cleverly dubbed this concert “Rock the Night.” The concert featured Bones, Jugs & Harmony, Church Booty, The Northbound, Jay Moses, Fauve, Red Devil, and Justin’s band, A Cool Hand.

I believe it was the most enjoyable charity event I have been to in a while. Don’t get me wrong, I delight in every chance I get to give a little bit of what I have to a good cause, but at this event I paid five dollars to hear seven bands. I could sit back, beer in hand, chat (or yell, essentially) with friends, and know that my money was going toward helping people that need it more than I do.

After expenses, we raised over $600 for the two charities, with due recognition to the wonderful bands who donated their time. Additionally, the headlining band, FAUVE, must have been swept up in the spirit of it (so to speak) and made their own $100 donation to LLS!

One of the best parts about the event was the scope of the audience we reached in promoting our secular and charitable values, because enjoying live music is something that all varieties of people love to do. Not only did one of our campus’ charitable organizations reach out to join in helping us, over one hundred fifty people showed up to an event put on by an explicitly nonreligious group.

And if you’re a secular group out there (or any group for that matter) that wants to put on a similar event for a good cause, Justin will assure you that it’s easier than it sounds! He’ll be blogging a step-by-step guide soon, but for now here’s what he has to say about the event:

First, I need to say thank you to everyone involved. Canopy Club was wonderfully accommodating, and the sound engineer, Mike, worked just short of a miracle fitting so many bands into one night. Also, everyone should know that the bands played for free to make sure we could raise as much as we did, and many of them rely on music to make a full or part time living, so thank you all; I can’t stress that enough!

Second, I must admit that I was a little nervous at first. It had nothing to do with organizing a show, I do that all the time, but this was my first act as a non-insignificant liaison for the secular community. It must have been that the bands, the RSO’s, and the concertgoers alike surely included every faith and non-faith on the pie chart, but to my surprise and relief, no one cared. I’m not entirely sure why I thought that anyone would care that atheists were raising money for charity, but that, to me, is still pretty cool: humans working together to do a good thing.

I’ll have a “How-To” guide up soon for anyone interested in putting on a benefit concert, and it will echo a “For Dummies” guide, as I am a huge fan of the series. In general, I find that some event planning has a lot of brainstorming for clever things to do, but I promise that charity shows are very straightforward. “Build it and they will come” is not far off.

Monday, December 2, 2013

The New Religion

Listening to Dr. Monica R. Miller's Skepticon speech on hip hop, my mind was opened to perspectives I never thought possible--music as a religious movement, even music as religion. Her discussion of artists' expression of their own religious views, their own dissenting opinions, brought me to no longer just regard these lyrics as components of songs, but as tools to reach the public. Her discussion of the culture of hip hop, its social implications, and its devoted followers opened my eyes to the strong connections to the cultural aspects of religion, and in a growing secular society--this means more and more artists' open dissent with religion and increasing secular influences in the hip hop culture. Although I had always considered music to be a tool for artists to express their views--religious or otherwise--never before had I thought so deeply about these lyrics being used as a tool, or the hip hop culture manifesting its own religion. I began to question and research, thinking deeply about all music, all art, the messages the artists try to send, the reaction to the messages, and the culture behind it all. This brought me to what I believed a profound thought: is art itself religion?

As denoted in Wikipedia, religion is a collection of beliefs, cultural systems, and worldviews that relate humanity to an order of existence; it is something "eminently social." Is that not also what art is by definition? Art organizes an artist's beliefs, a view of his or her own 'world order' into a cohesive 'picture', a picture that inevitably depends upon culture, whether it be the culture of the depiction or the culture of the artist himself. And this art, art of any kind, serves as a movement, a medium for followers to gather around, and grounds for social events of all scales. These movements, sparked by an artist's expressed dissent or agreement with cultural worldviews--worldviews such as religion--provide the forum for those followers and opposers to discuss these pointed opinions, argue about them, and question their own pre-existing beliefs. Knowing this, artists utilize their works to take a stand on issues, creating awareness. And as Dr. Miller pointed out in her talk, growing non-religious population in America--the growing population of 'nones'--means a growing dissent with religion in the form of artwork. It means a growing population without a connecting force such as a church turning to music, art galleries, dancing, as a form of culture and connection, of a new form of religion. By looking to my favorite art form--film--I will explore the growing secularity in cinema, the stand the filmmakers take on issues, and movies as religion itself, as my religion--much as did Dr. Miller.

Recently the massive success of fantasy worlds brought to life--a trend I regard with glee as my favorite books manifest on screen--represent the growing acceptance of secularity in society today. These worlds--the wizarding world of Harry Potter, the fantastical land of Middle Earth--engross the viewers, creating a belief that these worlds exist. This complete encapsulation challenges faith, for the worlds--worlds entirely negating Christian ideals--are as completely believable as the existence of God. Pushing the limits further are more direct challenges to faith such as the movie Life of Pi. This film--a vivid experience taking the viewers through Pi's quest to find God, a quest that leads him to discover the good in several different religions--openly negates the idea that only one religion holds true.

And pushing the limits even further are those movies challenging a cause, taking real life situations to make direct stands on issues--backed by all filmmakers who defend the message within the film and without. A film I chose to exemplify this, the film Milk challenges the notion that homosexuality is wrong or inferior--a notion perpetuated in the Bible. This film, depicting a true story, popularized both the success and harrowing abuse of a homosexual man--Harvey Milk--in his quest to take office. Not only that, but it showed his homosexual relations with various men, normalizing an 'abominable' act by biblical standards. This film, released in the midst of a vote on the legalization of gay marriage, was a pointed stand on the issue, a secular stand on the issue. Calling out all who voted against marriage equality, Sean Penn--the leading role of the film--took this very pointed stand in his acceptance speech for the Academy Award.

These films are not on the fringe, mere indie acts challenging the popular religious views of today. They are mainstream culture, winning prestigious awards and selling out midnight premiers. These movies are a culture in themselves, a way for the artist to express their worldview and audiences to embrace and accept it. They are a forum for discussion, for disagreement, for questioning. They are social events--the midnight premiers bringing costumes and hordes of groups flocking to the theater. Dr. Miller's discussion of hip hop is synonymous with movies, with all art, as it shapes our worldview, it is social, it provides culture. If art isn't indicative of religion, I don't know what is.