Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Atheists Are People Too

Elitist. Fedoras and neckbeards. Arrogant. Immature. Without morals. Satanist baby-eaters. These are just a few stereotypes that come to some people’s minds when they think of atheists. I'm from Texas, so I know firsthand how people can get when they discuss atheists. A lot of people claim that atheism doesn’t exist, and they say people claim to be atheists because they’re angry at something, but deep down they know God is real. Others just can’t understand why people would be so ignorant as to not believe that a guy in the sky created them and is watching their every move. But for the most part, people have an extreme anger towards atheists and really hate them. This is why I firmly believe that the first step in the secular movement should always be to humanize atheists in the minds of fundamentalists.

In high school, I didn’t really come out as an atheist until my senior year, and when people found out, they were shocked. At my school, anyone who wasn’t a straight, conservative Christian was known for what they were. One other guy at my school was an outspoken atheist and he was known as The Atheist. By the time I graduated high school, I was known as The Second Atheist, simply because I was open about my beliefs and willing to talk about them. However, when people found out, I got a lot of “But” comments.

“But you’re so nice!”

“But you’re so quiet!”

“But I thought you were smart???”

And so on. The people I told (who even knew what atheism was, because a surprising amount had no idea) had all these negative preconceived notions of what an atheist should be like. When I didn’t fit that mold, people weren’t sure how to react. For a lot of people at my high school, I was the first real life open atheist they had met, and it confused them.

However, once people found out, they were surprisingly receptive of my beliefs and what I had to say about why I am an atheist.  They realized that maybe the atheist stereotype was wrong. My hope is that when the people I’ve talked to about my atheism have conversations about atheists with others, they’ll remember me and remember that at least one person they know doesn’t fit the stereotype.

Humanizing atheists is the first step in convincing people to try and understand our beliefs and respect them, which is the key to un-blurring the line between church and state. For this reason, I love the ads that the Freedom From Religion Foundation have put out that put a face to secularism. It’s crucial for secular people to be open about our beliefs (if it’s safe to do so) and talk to others about it so that they can reform their own ideas about what an atheist looks like.  A surprising amount of people, especially in the South, have never met an atheist, and they only know what they see portrayed by others, on the news, in the media, and online, which can seriously damage atheists’ reputation. By being completely open about what I believe (for the most part, I’m still not quite willing to discuss my beliefs with my close family in Texas), I hope that others will see that maybe atheists aren’t all arrogant, immoral, baby-eaters.

Hopefully one day, people of all religions can talk about atheists and the secular movement without discrimination or blowing us off as egotistical assholes. Hopefully, atheists as a whole can be seen as people too.

Friday, November 21, 2014

We Won the Lottery

When my Biology professor lectures about sperm and egg production through meiosis and the formation of a human embryo when the two combine, very few people in the room would call the experience “spiritual.” I, however, relish in the feeling I get when I learn more about these processes, as they remind me of how privileged I am to be alive. The professor explains the average man will produce about 525 billion sperm in his lifetime, and that the average woman will release about 450 eggs. I am reminded in these lectures that the DNA encoded in the 23 chromosomes in each of these cells is unique to that cell. No two reproductive cells (gametes) are the same. When these chromosomes from sperm and egg combine for a total of 46, you have an embryo with all the genetic information needed for a human to develop. Automatically, this embryo is also genetically unique and there will never be another exactly like it.
If only one sperm is needed to fertilize one egg, think of all the possible combinations the gametes of just two people could create. Just from all the gametes of one man and one woman in one lifetime, there would be about 236 trillion completely unique arrangements of DNA, each containing all the genetic information needed for one individual human being.
Of course, the incredible majority of these possibilities will never actually come into existence. Think of the number of children your biological parents have together. For me, that number is 2. Out of 236 trillion hypothetical people, only two - my sister and I - won the incredible privilege of being born. Out of all the world leaders, the dictators, the poets, the doctors, the artists, and the high school drop-outs that could have just as easily been born in my place, I won a lottery with odds 1.3 million times higher than the Powerball.
You did too, and you only won because your parents happened to procreate at least one time. If your parents had never met, the lottery you were lucky enough to win would have never even happened in the first place. Everyone you've ever heard of, in their ordinariness, exists in spite of overwhelming odds. Many go through their entire lives not realizing their incredible fortune. Even my peers in Biology class don’t seem to realize this, at least not as a majority. I never let on, but when someone tells me that the finite life they are currently living is not enough, and that they want - or even demand - an eternal one, I get very angry. We both won a few decades of sunlight when the innumerable majority won absolutely nothing. This is why I refuse to wish for a second life and chose to be content with the life I have. I would love to live forever, but knowing what I know, that would be a very arrogant request.

“We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?”

- Richard Dawkins

Monday, November 17, 2014

Atheism in the Military

Former US Military Chaplain William Thomas Cummings is famously attributed with saying, "There are no atheists in foxholes" and, up until recently, the United States military tended to agree. There is no real community for secular soldiers like there is for soldiers of pretty much any other faith. Military atheists have had no secular "chaplains" with whom to discuss their problems until recently.

At the beginning of this month, we saw an interesting turn of events as the United States Navy appointed their first ever atheist Lay Leader. A lay leader, for those unaware, is a non-ordained member of a congregation chosen as the spiritual leader (usually to give sacraments or perform certain portions of a religious service). This pivotal appointment shows a striking shift in the face of the military.

For years, our military has typically been a highly religious group. It make sense if you believe the same philosophy as Cummings. Men who are faced with death on a daily basis may be more likely to believe in Heaven (or some sort of afterlife) because it softens the reality of death, Active duty military members deal with death all the time and they have to reconcile the fact that: 1) they themselves have killed another human being and 2) any minute in a war zone could be the last. Religion gives a safe way to push these harsh realities under the rug for a while.

Military atheists have no such comfort. They have to tackle these realizations head on and still complete the job they are assigned. I know from personal experience that some atheist soldiers deal with killing other people by dehumanizing the enemy. Maybe an atheist "chaplain" can help change this mentality, or at least help support secular military members. The chaplains can discuss the harshness of working in an active war zone and how to face death on a daily basis. Maybe the chaplains can make atheism less of a stigma simply by existing.

This change is a small step on the road to acceptance for atheists. That may sound corny and overused, but it is true. Every institution that allows atheists an equal platform with any religious group opens the doors. It may take time, but improvements like these can help change the face of secularism and make atheism something people do not have to hide.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

When Education Wins, Indoctrination loses

When I was little, I loved dinosaurs. I had all the toys, books and documentaries my parents could stand. I sometimes spent hours a day soaking up information, learning a significant amount for my young age. This kicked off a life-long interest in science and in how the natural world works. When I was a kid, if you asked me when the dinosaurs went extinct, I could have proudly told you without hesitation, “65 million years ago.” From this, I knew there had been a progression of life through time, with some species dying out and others coming into existence as the years passed. I am not sure when exactly I first learned about evolution, as it was simply the other side of what I already knew. I never even questioned it because it fit so well with my understanding of the past. I do know that I must have still been very young at that point.
Dinosaurs were not quite this cool, but to a little kid they are.

However, in addition to all this learning, I also sporadically attended church with my mother and sister. I also attended Sunday school and “vacation bible school.” I was even briefly enrolled in a Christian academy. I was given the basic, cookie-cutter version of Christianity that is often given to children: God made everything in 6 days, God loves you more than you can even understand, Noah built the ark, Jesus died for your sins, loving Jesus is the key to living forever, and if you reject this you’ll be on fire for eternity. This contradiction between knowledge and faith was something I thought about a lot from a very young age. My faith fluctuated strongly from the very beginning, even ceasing to exist for about a month’s time when I was about 6 years old. But to not believe was to be uninspired and empty. What’s more, it was to burn in hell forever. When it was time for my Lutheran confirmation, I had known for years that the world wasn't created in 6 days, I understood why the biblical flood simply didn't happen, and deep down I knew a lot of Christian teachings simply didn't make any sense, but I still believed everything that I could justify. I was in 6th grade when my confirmation started. Before I knew it, hard-line Christian fundamentalism was being drilled into my head. I recall my youth pastor making a point of why fearing god was just as important as loving him as to disobey him meant my worst fear - an eternity in hell. I can still remember the gut-wrenching fear I felt whenever a doubt entered my mind. This fear was what kept me from rejecting these teaching as a whole. My peers and I were instructed that the Bible was the sole authority of knowledge, and because of this, we had to infer that the Earth was between 6 and 10 thousand years old, no matter what anyone said or what evidence was given. I knew my pastor was lying to my face when he told us evolution was the theory that animals magically transformed from one another - and I knew he was wrong when he said evolution was “just a theory.” Despite knowing that my peers were being miseducated, the fear of hell still kept me as Christian as I could be. In desperation, I was almost able to accept contradictory aspects of scripture and science as both being true at the same time.

However, time went on. I graduated confirmation and was now free to sample cheap wine and stale crackers two Sundays a month. Now without the constant reinforcement of my beliefs, I swallowed my fear and began to question what I had been told to think. I started pulling threads, and the whole thing came apart very quickly. Learning about the dawn of civilization in History class was when my faith really started to unravel, as I was forced to focus on the time period when the bible was written and creation supposedly happened. Because I asked these questions, by the middle of my time in High School I knew I was an atheist, but I didn't admit it out loud until much later. 
But what would have happened without my early interest in science? What would have happened if I hadn't watched the Discovery Channel every day and had never been exposed to all of the knowledge that eventually broke the back of my indoctrination? Not every child is as fortunate as I was. Many children who go through the type of indoctrination I experienced are sheltered from scientific thinking by design. I am absolutely convinced that without this early introduction to science, I would be a lost cause today. This is why science education is so crucially important, especially in young children. When I was being told these things, I knew the same abuse was happening in every city and town in the country. I now know that to stop it, children have to hear the truth in school. They have to hear it from somewhere, even if they're told it’s a lie at home. Some children will still fall under the spell, but the ones that don't will become the great scientists, engineers, and thinkers the world needs.

Monday, November 3, 2014

I've Got Stucco In My Ventricles

Three years ago, I committed total apostasy. The initial shock made me feel like my heart was being yanked up and out of my throat. Hated. I felt hated. I felt hated as a woman. I felt hated as a queer. I felt hated as an intellectual. I felt hated as a child. I will never forget my father's words. 

"Arrogant! You're arrogant!" and he jabbed his finger so hard into my chest, I stepped backward. He said nothing else. He left my mother's town home and slammed the door. I waited a week for an apology. 

All I ever yearned for was to be comfortable with who I am- and who I was; to not be so extremely conscious of my so termed 'deviance' and how furiously I had to fight to blend in. As a consequence, I didn't ask questions I should have been able to about personal safety. I went on to persuade myself I liked the breasts of other women in the way artful nudes are admired. And based on how my parents were- before and after the divorce- I had a distorted sense of what was okay. 

I became tolerant. Tolerant is a dirty word. Let me tell you why. Tolerant, in my case, meant passive. 
Passive meaning: not reacting visibly to something that might be expected to produce manifestations of an emotion. Passive also meaning: I thought I had to accept anything strictly because of blood-lineage or a presupposed connection. 

In the secular world, you are not told you must love your father simply because he is your father. You are allowed the space to dissent and to be an individual. It took me too long to full-circle. I am a person. I am a person. Do you realize what you're doing to me? What you're saying? I am a person

God’s Laws, Our Mouths

Just to recapitulate, in case some of you don't know, the dogma I’d been raised with (in a nondenominational private school) was simple regarding relationships.

1. If you’re a chick, get with a dick.

2. Don’t date anyone who doesn’t have the exact same foundational beliefs and opinions as you.

Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? And what communion hath light with darkness? (KJV 2 Corinthians 6:14)

3. Here, have a veiled metaphor for your virginity and try not to be too angry when it’s insinuated by a teacher who openly mocked and marked you as “Goth” with the cool girls in class because you happened to be into black eye-shadow  that having many sexual partners in your lifetime makes you a heartless slut.

The equation:

Your Heart (vagina) / People You Love (people with penises) = Diminished Self

(e.g. verbatim: There will be less of you to give whenever you’re forced to move on). 

Translation: Whenever you 'love' (have sex) with someone, you are breaking off a piece of that Kit Kat bar, and letting someone else have it. It isn't returned. There are no refunds, here. Eventually, you have nothing else to give. Or at least, a fractal of something left to offer. That's the essential message I was given by a Bible teacher while we sat together, overlooking a lake at sunset in Wisconsin on a dock, when I was thirteen. She approached me because I wasn't making nice and social with the other boys and girls. Some people don't understand solitude, I swear.  

Regardless, by her logic it should be understood that you, as a woman, are meant to be paired with a man. But if you happen to care for more than one in a lifetime and marriage isn’t the end goal, you can no longer be a full person. Your capacity to love has been quantified.

I have lived my life as if sex and all the accompaniments are a sort of collective being given away. That's a faulty and serious framework to begin any relationship with, because it exaggerates the power exchange as being one sided. It emphasizes consummation and minimizes any duality.

It says: women show vulnerability, that vulnerability is intrinsic and limited, and that men receive.

It does not say: men show vulnerability, that vulnerability is intrinsic and limited, and women receive in turn.

It says: we believe we are protecting girls when we tell them to treat their xxx-hood as something like a trophy with an expiration date.

It does not say: this is poisonous.

For a majority of my formative years, I was required to wear shorts underneath my pleated plaid skirt when in uniform. I was not allowed to wear slacks, like the boys, until I was ten. This policy was eventually reneged, but all girls were required to wear either jumpers or sweater vests over their chests, especially those in junior high. Breasts, crotches, stomachs, thighs: restrict access, remove visibility; the flatter the top, the better.

As a woman, you could not slouch, even with coverings underneath. You could not part your legs. Even when wearing pants, it was frowned upon, though tolerated. As a woman, you were watched closely. As a man, your shoelaces were your most pressing concern. If they were untied, you were asked to tie them. That was it. 

In sixth grade, administration decided we needed help.  

They targeted the girls as subjects for group therapy, to take place during gym class. Without a parentally approved waiver, it was mandatory. I, and a friend to go unnamed, believed we were the only ones who got out of it. A week later, her mother found the note she hid in her backpack and that was that. So I became the only girl not attending, and for the rest of that year, it was mostly me and the boys shooting hoops and running and playing with the rolling carts that always jammed our fingers.

After sixth grade, we had separate PE periods. It was something we accepted. I didn’t understand the separation, but I didn’t ask. I intuited, maybe, it had to do with our bodies. I just wasn’t sure which parts. I wondered if maybe it was my leg hair. And then I was grateful.

Some of the girls, in response to segregation, rolled the waistbands of their pants up, to show a little more leg. Laugh. Hair toss. Sassy strut. Hallway performance. Look around. These girls read lingerie magazines during prayer. These girls were girls and they wanted everyone to know.

It made my modesty and silence all the more suspect. I feel like people saw me as this nun-like, shrouded figure. Occasionally they’d get a glimpse into my world, and I’d shut the door.

Let's Pretend It Didn't Happen

My family’s take on relationships and gender performance could best be described as laissez-faire, imposingly judgmental, or aggressively counter-culture. Depends on the year. Depends on the day. Depends on the circumstances.

At 12 years old:
1.         Me: Eh, I’m getting a little hairy. Should probably do something.
            Dad: Why shave? You don’t need to shave your legs. That’s ridiculous.
            Me: Oh. Okay...

At 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, and 20 years old:

2.         Me: I’m not really looking for something now.
            Mom: Good. You don’t need any man. You do what you need to do.
            Me: -blinking slowly-

At 19 years old:

3a.       Me: Well, _______ broke up with me. A couple days after grandma died.
            Dad: Did you have sex with him?
            Me: ... I don’t really want to discuss that.
            [one month later, at Chipotle]
3b.       Me: Do you remember ________?
            Dad: Yea.
            Me: He tried to pressure me through text to give him a blowjob.
            Dad: -laughs so violently that he begins choking on a bite from his burrito bowl-
            Me: ...You all right?
            Dad: -damn near whinnying in his giggles-
            Me: -staring-
            Dad: Why the FUCK would he do that?
            Me: I have no idea. We haven’t spoken to each other for nearly two years.

My mother bought me a bunk bed last year, claiming it would be useful if anyone, say my then partner, ever slept over. My father can’t seem to absorb information tactfully. They are in complete denial. They either want to know nothing, or everything. Because I am the girl.

I am the girl who had a strict curfew. I am the girl who was laughed at and ignored when angry by her mother because I was ‘on the rag.’ I am the girl who, at legal age, was chastised for talking about sex among friends I grew up with. I was the girl whose dad called her a ‘dyke’ for wearing pigtails. I was the girl who asked, ‘What would you do if I was gay?’ to hear the tearful reply, ‘I don’t know. That’s not how I raised you.’ I was the girl hoping these were all someone else’s mistakes, that my bisexuality wouldn’t be called a choice, that maybe it would stop.

Any perceived slight would throw one guardian into a martyr-complex fit of screaming.
Insubordination, or even disagreement, could get the other spitting and yelling in your face.

As a boy, you’d be smacked and called a ‘pussy.’ As a girl, you’d get about the same. Especially if you couldn't learn to square your jaw at the onset of such outbursts. 

At this point, the breaking point, maybe- it didn't matter. It ceased to matter.

Anyone could do anything to you. Anyone could say anything. Internalized bitterness. Isolation. Your closest comrade, your sibling, became your enemy, because the laws of the patriarchy and cyclical anguish are unfair and they always have been and you don’t know why. And it took you distance to repair wounds other people created. And it took you time to recompense for what you did instead of dressing those wounds. As if you should have known to.

My brother and I don’t talk about this, just as we don’t talk in detail about our childhood and the double standards and the abuse. We are, ourselves, glimpses. Of what we were. Of what we could have been.

You know how he is. I’m just sick of it. Shh. Let’s just drop it. I don’t want him to hear and get pissed.

And when my brother says this, I can see his lip quivering when he was nine. I can see the moment he wanted our father dead. 

But we don't talk about this. 

Act V: Curtain Call 

I have always been relatively private with my affairs. I once joked to myself that the highest compliment I ever heard (from a casual friend, at our hometown library) was that no one really knows anything about me.

My defense: How do you tell someone, “My parents are kind of horrible people sometimes, mostly, and they don’t seem to know it.” and “I have spontaneous breakdowns in church because I believe I am damaged and unwanted and horrible.” and “It’s everything. Everything has made me this way.”

That’s just it. You don’t. And you certainly don't say the breakdowns haven't stopped or slowed down or disappeared even though you desperately fucking want them to. 

As my experiences with people have remained steadily negative over the years, varying in intensity, I’ve become even more withdrawn. Perhaps more prone now to hide information about who I’m with and, by extension, how I feel. And though I have no empirical study to share, I can say it doesn’t matter whether or not the person has identified as secular or religious. I’ve been treated just as poorly across the board. I just happen to socialize and prioritize atheists over theists when it involves a companionable preference.

But I’m left wondering how much responsibility I should take in every scenario. Do I deserve to be called names, cheated on, yelled at, hit, or emotionally manipulated? The answer is no. Do I deserve to be told I am inherently sinful, that I am unnatural, that I should be held to a higher ideal because of my gender and orientation? No.

And I’ve learned to walk away. Easier done with exes and strangers than those who, well, reared me, obviously. Some obligations are inescapable. Some problems go unresolved.

But regarding dating, do I sometimes deserve to be left, and could my conflicted upbringing play a role in my behavior, which leads to ending after ending? Yes. Absolutely.

I have a warped view of closeness. I do not know how to be gradual. If I’m invested enough psychologically, it is high-octane, 0-50mph, all-in, I love you I love you I love you but I can’t say so yet because that would be insane.

Even if I’m not listing out every single manic thought that passes, it shows in my demeanor.

And somehow, I’ve romanticized this. I have erected a bridge between my anxiety and my artistic nature as a justification for dysfunction, hyperactivity, frankly: being too much.

I’ve tried to rationalize my obsessive tendencies as productive.

Look at my GPA! Look at how many manuscripts I’ve got going! Look at all the groups I’m active in, my volunteer hours! Dual degree with a minor! Planning a graduate school application four semesters in advance! All my professors enjoy my presence! “Katrina is a joy to have in class.” My cat hasn’t had a periodontal disease ever which is rare because I am rigorous about maintaining his health! I can bake for six hours straight after a full day of work and won’t feel the oven burns because I’m so in the mood!

Fact: Some manifestations are better than others.

I pretend I don’t understand kindness, and endearment, and charm- at too loud a volume- can be insufferable. I pretend honesty and fluid communication and adjustments as recommended can fix everything. Na├»ve.

NewsflashFools rush 

I struggle, and I’ve been struggling, because I’ve been taught for so long that my value is bodily, and that my value isn’t bodily. I’ve been told to be independent, but to also consider marriage as a viable option. I’ve been told that condemnation should be expected, but not assumed, so long as I renounce my disbelief. I’ve been praised for being ‘on my own’ and all at once pitied because my conception of a night in entails primarily a) spooning my cat b) binge eating cheese and honey c) dreaming of someone to appreciate this roller-coaster of an unplanned pregnancy. I can be whoever; I can’t be whoever.

Let go and let God.
But God is not real.

Follow one social script, and not another.

It's either or; can't mediate, can't find a balance.  

Black and white thinking. Similar to catastrophism. I fall into it every day. I am not in therapy or on medication I need. I am black and white thinking. Everything is a jump forward. There are no transitions. (Which honestly explains my pain in writing English essays). 

I do not accept change easily, especially if it conflicts with the reality I’ve structured in my imagination. You can’t possibly mean this. Two weeks ago you said the opposite.

This is what indoctrinated sociological fallacies do to a person after prolonged exposure. This is what fear of rejection, fear of Hell, fear of intimacy, fear of coming out, and fear of mortality can amount to: an extreme adverse reaction to theology and simultaneously an inability to extricate its toxicity. When coupled with a tumultuous and unhappy adolescence, it can begin to feel irreversible. I am attuned to judgment and power and melancholy and it’s overwhelming.

Before I had friends, I had a binge eating disorder. Ostracism, too, will so contribute. I don’t have her anymore. I don’t have the cognitive dissonance Christianity inspired, either.

Instead, in its place, I have some quasi-intolerable disquietude that I believe might lurk beneath often disliking my shape, beneath feeling disheartened at the number of people who have disappointed (or deliberately hurt) me, beneath feeling separate from all of my familial roots, beneath insomnia and starving myself when stressed (a subset of what I hope is a diminishing compulsion), beneath the uncontrollable crying fits, beneath, even, the general sense of discontent.

It is my former religion as a pathology. It is my religion not letting me be, though I said goodbye years ago. It is my old religion whispering, “When will you be empty? After five romances, or eight, or ten? That many? Hmm? Have you had enough? Do you know you’re a fucking whore?” It is my parents echoing the voice of my internal bastard. 

The truth of the matter is, I’m still slowly working through the trauma of a not-so-pleasant household, of horrible men, of religion and how, no matter how far away I am, their individual, tenebrous grasps on my psyche continue and are inexplicably intertwined.

The more apparent truth is, if I had a more stable and secular view to start out, I might not be this way. I might have been taught to protect myself, and to resist basing my worth on the delusion of an imaginary source of forever affection so long as, so long as, so long as.

I might have been warned that love, no matter how desired, should never be conditional.

From that, I might have known that any undue violence, in any form from a person, should be as equally unacceptable as God’s imminent fury and immortal judgment.

I might not have so many panic attacks, induced by certain subjects and events. I might not be so neurotic and sensitive. I might not be so quietly fragile.

I have been terrified and I have been alone, and I have been angry. Can I tell you?

This is retrospective, but also a place of blame.

When I could not speak, I wept.

I wish someone had known it was not the Holy Spirit.