Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Missionary Position

Mormons are known around the country for their mission work nationally and internationally. Most young members make the commitment around the age of 19 to spend 18 to 24 months completely separated from their family to spread the word of their church. They have to take time off of college (which is why schools with high Mormon populations are favorable for incoming college freshman). They get two phone calls a year back home (barring some unforeseen circumstances). It may sound like a terrifying and awful program that young adults are forced into. However, there are benefits to the program. The young members choose to go on a mission and are not required to. They get free language immersion. They get to spend two years abroad exploring a whole new part of the world.

So what do the missionaries actually do? Parodies like "The Book of Mormon" portray the missionaries as overeager and slightly fanatical. I grew up around a large Mormon population and I found that this is too true. The missionaries travel door-to-door and attempt to spread their gospel. They hold small group meetings with potential new members of the church. They devoutly read the Bible and the Book of Mormon and grow in their faith. It is much like any other mission work that various denominations perform.

From a secular position, missionary work may seem like a frivolous task. The missionaries may seem brain-washed into doing the dirty work of the church. Depending on the mission, the young members may provide little to no support to the local community through volunteer work. While it is something that atheists may hate, there are upsides to the work that Mormons do. The positives are not in the recruitment of new members, but rather the effects on the missionaries themselves. A lot of the young adults would likely never have had the chance to live abroad and learn a new culture, They learn how to take care and be self-sufficient without having parents just a phone call away. While I may not agree with the message that they spread, I respect the values the program teaches to young people. I know that not everyone agrees with my position, but I only hope that you understand and tolerate the Mormons more the next time you see them walking down the street toward you.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Renaissance Humanist Art: A Brief Introduction

     As one look at the news can tell you, being an "out" atheist nowadays can carry considerable risk, and declaring your lack of faith openly and to everyone is probably not a very savvy career move. However, heathens today have it easy when their risks are compared to some of the potential consequences of being declared a nonbeliever anytime prior to the Enlightenment while in Europe. Here are some of the many punishments the Catholic Church (who basically ran the nations of Europe at the time) employed in the distribution of divine justice to heathens:
  • beheading
  • quartering
  • the rack
  • castration
  • force feeding
  • the iron maiden
  • dunking
  • psychological torture lasting for months or years
  • branding
  • dozens more
     Sounds like fun! Allow me to remind readers that in 18th century Europe and earlier, being un-Christian wasn't just a Big Deal because an estimated 99.5% of the population was either Catholic or Protestant depending on the nation, but because the Church had an international paramilitary police force, not believing in God, Jesus, and my man H.G. was a crime of about the same magnitude as murdering your entire family. There were no atheist communities, conferences, watering holes, or school clubs. Most atheists undoubtedly thought they were alone in their rejection of the Church and were likely terrified as a result. Even among the intellectual and cultural elite, acknowledgement of another person's lack of faith was equivalent to condemning them to death, and it was arguably only the success of the French Revolution and its promotion of secular ideals that put the nail in the coffin of the Church's monopoly on art and culture throughout mainland Europe. Despite all this...there were definitely atheists around. At that time, these individuals would probably have referred to themselves as "humanists", reflecting their humanistic and service-oriented worldview, or they might have called themselves "freethinkers" in order to represent their desire to draw their own conclusions on matters of the divine. Humanism started in Italy and fomented for hundreds of years and was one of the major driving forces behind the Enlightenment of the late 19th century. Many of these Renaissance humanists chose to leave behind clever hints and clues about their secular values or humanist philosophy in visual art, music, and writing, and there were more undercover atheists around in the 1700s and even earlier than you might think. What follows is one specific example...attend tomorrow's talk for much more info!

Raphael's The School of Athens, 1509-1511

     The Renaissance was an interesting time for the art world, for several reasons. Throughout the Middle Ages and Europe's earlier kingdoms, the Catholic church controlled the vast majority of the wealth and political power in the European international geopolitical landscape, and as a result, was the moral authority and financial backer of essentially all public art. Prior to the late 1400s, more or less the entire body of commissioned and/or preserved art is Christian in content or message, and Bible references, Christian themes, and Jesus metaphors and iconography of the man himself are all over the place. However, around the end of the 15th century the Church softened its stance on art that was not explicitly about praising God, and as a result, let sly artists like Raphael subvert Church-sponsored art in order to promote secular or atheist values.
     The School of Athens is a notable fresco for several reasons: its massive size and incredible detail, its iconic placement in the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican, and the unusual content of the fresco, having nothing to do with traditionally depicted Christian history. Raphel told Church officials that he wanted to paint the fresco in order to honor the Church's connection with ancient Rome and commitment to education, and Church officials apparently weren't too bright at the time, because Athens isn't in Rome, but they gave him carte blanche to paint anything he wanted on the walls of the Apostolic Palace without being disturbed. Let us admire the cajones of Raphael  for a moment: this man painted a massive not-so-subtle humanistic trifecta IN THE VATICAN.
     The piece centers around Plato and Aristotle, apparently in deep debate while students and onlookers hang on to their every word and ordinary Athenians go about their business and listen in. One of the central themes of Renaissance humanism was, unsurprisingly, humans--artists sought to depict the accomplishments of the civilizations of yesteryear without diminishing those accomplishments at the command of the Church. Raphael, in addition to being a painter, also saw himself as a historian, and put months of research of the poorly-documented Greek history of the time into the architectural and clothing details of the subjects in the picture, and in order to include and disguise his humanistic shout-outs.The emphasis on knowledge and totally non-spiritual nature of the fresco was a deliberate slap in the face of Church officials who believed they were going to receive a Church-endorsing fresco, and Raphael attempted to include as many of the secular values of the classic High Renaissance in the behavior of the subjects in the School as he could. In addition to depicting "heathen" Greek worshipers (seen with a sacrificial robe, far left), Raphael depicts Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Pythagoras, and several other secular philosophers, and he also depicts women in an academic environment, something the Church of the 1500s was very uncool with. Even the statues in the fresco are jabs at the Church: below the main hall we see two Muses supporting the floor, and the large statues on either side of the image are Aphrodite and Ares, the Greek gods of love and war.
     Raphael's inclusions were carefully designed to be recognizable to any student of secular philosophy, while not being directly disrespectful of the Church enough to tip off Church officials and cause the removal of the fresco. Shortly after its installation, the Vatican declared the fresco to be one of its finest artistic works, and announced its intention to eternally safeguard and protect the School. Approximately half a century later, when the Church finally got around to hiring its own art critic to examine the content of Raphael's work, they were very unhappy to find that their highest holy house contained art that mocked Christianity, but the Church still felt bound by its earlier promise and so closed the whole area of the Apostolic Palace indefinitely instead of destroying the fresco. Today, the Church has opened the area to public viewing, but visitors to the Vatican will still hear a very watered-down and Christian-oriented explanation of the fresco's contents.
     Hear the rest of Raphael's story, as well as several other prominent underground Renaissance humanists' stories, at tomorrow's meeting!

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

What's Scarier than an Anti-Vaxxer?

Over the past few months, a surprise throwback to the 1800s has swept several states, with multiple outbreaks of Measles sweeping through several of the United States. Yep, brothers and sisters, we’re reenacting Oregon Trail. Jeb just died of the consumption, so caulk your wagon, let’s ford that river. Yeehaw! But, before I succumb to dysentery, allow me to suggest that the measles shouldn’t be winning the headline for the best example of medical ignorance in America today. Yet, let’s celebrate the fact that it is being attended to.
Finally, an outpouring of condemnation for the Anti-Vaccination Movement and its desire to return to a simpler time when infectious disease was a constant concern. This movement’s unscientific thinking has always faced criticism, but now that a disease that was once declared eradicated in the United States has returned, the condemnation has become far more pronounced and widespread. The topic makes headlines regularly and several celebrities have weighed in on the issue. “Anti-vaxxers” have made great fodder for various comedians, with Jimmy Kimmel releasing a hilarious PSA on the importance of vaccination during an episode of his show. Kimmel doubled down by mocking anti-vaxxers in a later episode after receiving several hateful tweets after the PSA aired.
Anti-Vaccination sentiments became popular in 1998, when British scientist Andrew Wakefield published a fraudulent study claiming there was a link between the MMR (Measles Mumps Rubella) vaccine and rising rates of Autism. Since then, a mountain of evidence has risen up and utterly refuted this ridiculous assertion. Medical experts and concerned citizens alike have worked together to persuade anti-vaxxers away from these harmful views. Still, more than 15 years later, the damage continues to spread. Science, reason, evidence, and diplomacy alike have all fallen on deaf ears. Now that all else has failed and this movement has managed to undo a real accomplishment of modern medicine, the opposition has one last weapon up its sleeve: ridicule. Fairly recently, the New Yorker ran the following cartoon:
It’s unfortunate it has come to this, but nothing else has worked, and now a disease that we thought was history is on a comeback tour, all because too many people remain stubbornly ignorant concerning vaccines. For this reason, I am thrilled this movement is finally getting the shame it deserves. It will not change the minds of those who follow it, but it will make them look ridiculous enough that few outsiders will be willing to hear them out.
Despite the recent resurgence of Measles, no deaths have been attributed to the virus since these outbreaks began last year. In fact, while a young child recently died in Germany, I was unable to find a recorded death from Measles in the United States since 1979. Vaccination is very important, but if we’re going by body count, far more tragedy has come from something much worse.
While I didn’t find any deaths from measles in the United States since 1979, I did uncover four peculiar deaths from Pneumonia in the state of Idaho since 2011. The age of the Pneumonia victims ranged from a few days to 16 years. In the same state and time frame, I also discovered the death of a one-year-old by Diabetic Ketoacidosis, along with the deaths of six additional infants. Causes of death included extreme prematurity, lack of kidney development paired with infection, sepsis caused by intestinal blockage, and suffocation caused by breeched birth. One infant died of Meconium Aspiration Syndrome, a condition caused by inhaling amniotic fluid contaminated by the infant’s own feces. The cause of death for the final infant could not be exacted. None of these six babies lived longer than a week. In addition to these 11 untimely deaths, I also learned about 15-year-old Arrian Granden.

In late May 2012, Arrian and five other members of her family contracted a severe form of food poisoning. Those affected were plagued by nausea, diarrhea, and excessive vomiting for at least a day. Before long, everyone started to feel better, except Arrian. She continued to worsen. Eventually she could no long even attempt to eat or drink anything at all. Finally, after three torturous days of heaving, her esophagus could take no more; the organ ruptured just above the stomach. After hours of internal bleeding, Arrian slipped into cardiac arrest and died. From the first sign of illness to her very last breath, she was never seen by a doctor and received no medical treatment of any kind. In fact, none of these twelve children were ever seen by a doctor, even as they laid dying. The mothers of the dead infants received no prenatal care during pregnancy. The first, and likely the only professional to examine any of these children - was a coroner. Autopsies revealed all of these deaths were preventable by modern medicine.
As mentioned, all of this tragedy has occurred in just a few short years in the state of Idaho. In 44 states, the parents of most of these children would have been charged with negligent homicide and sent to prison for their terrible crimes, but not in Idaho. If the parents of these 12 children were mentally ill, they would lose custody, but they do not suffer from mental illness.
Neglecting their sick, newborn, or not seeking medical care during pregnancy was not an act of hatred either. They surely wanted their children to live long, healthy lives just as much as any parent. They grieved as anyone would. However, no matter how dire the situation, they did not and will not seek medical attention for themselves or their innocent children.
Their church forbids it. Parents are allowed to substitute children’s medical care with prayer under Idaho state law. The parents will face no repercussions at all. This church, Followers of Christ, believe that “the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up.” (James 5:15)  When this fails, the Followers of Christ take full advantage of Idaho’s negligent homicide loophole. Members who seek medical care for themselves or their children are blacklisted and shunned by the congregation for interfering with the will of God.
Most anti-vaxxers I’ve met would not think twice about rushing their child to the emergency room if they were struck by pneumonia, sepsis, ketoacidosis, severe food poisoning, or internal bleeding. Most anti-vaxxers I’ve met wouldn’t dream of going a full nine month pregnancy without a single doctor’s appointment, let alone not even contact a physician. Most anti-vaxxers I’ve met would - at the very least - request the presence of a trained professional during the birth of a child.
Ultimately, the Anti-Vaccination Movement is united only by the belief that refusing one small aspect of modern medical care is the better option. The Followers of Christ congregation is united in the belief that refusing any and all medical care is the only option. Both groups shamelessly impose these beliefs on their blameless children. Given this comparison, I must ask: if an anti-vaxxer is an “idiot,” then what on Earth is a faith-healer? Furthermore, if not one person has died in this country (yet) as a result of anti-vaccination sentiments, and the movement behind them has generated global outcry, then where is the outcry for the deaths of 12 children from one church in less than 4 years? If anti-vaxxers are shamed and ridiculed by late night comedians and armchair activists alike, why hasn’t the Idaho state government been hit with a tidal wave of criticism and mockery for openly allowing parents to sit and watch their children die without action? Few seem to even be aware of this issue and almost no one seems to know the details. Even local news networks have been reluctant to pick up the story. I know I’ve never seen it make national headlines. If we’re going to lampoon anti-vaxxers, we also need to call attention to the 12 kids from Idaho who will never grow up or receive justice. Few are willing to make fun of groups like these because they fear being seen as religiously intolerant, but if The New Yorker can call anti-vaxxers “idiots”, let’s strive for some consistency.

Autopsy reports for the 12 victims can be found here.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Atheist in the Foxhole (by Byron Case)

The Atheist in the Foxhole
Byron Case 

Never mind that I was only twenty-three years old, that I was unversed in the rules that govern the mean streets, or that I actually had nothing to do with my friend’s murder, a jury found me guilty. For one count of armed criminal action, the court sentenced me to life in prison; for one count of first-degree murder, I was to serve a concurrent sentence of life without the possibility of parole. Afterward, with a feeling in my chest like someone had put a very large rock there, I asked my lawyer to confirm my understanding of what this meant, that mine was a slow death sentence. He scratched at an invisible spot on the table between us and cleared his throat a couple of times before answering, “Um, yes. It is.”

There was no question, then, that I was bound for a maximum-security prison. I’d quite likely spend multiple decades locked up there before at last making what convicts’ gallows humor has dubbed “toe-tag parole.” The big sleep. A dirt nap after a long, hard day of living.

Here’s the point at which certain personal essays will describe the author’s come-to-Jesus moment.

Mine was not an upbringing steeped in religious tradition. Excepting the vehemence of paternal grandparents heavily involved with the RLDS church*, little effort was made to instill in me a belief in the numinous. I was never baptized, and my hippie parents talked openly about the equal validity (to their minds) of theories of reincarnation, the paranormal, extraterrestrial visitation, and the existence of any of a panoply of gods. They assured me that whatever I decided to believe would be okay with them, that they would love me no matter how crazy my ideas. Like I suspect most kids do when given theological carte blanche and permitted truly independent religious studies, my personal evolution took me through the dark, disorienting lands of several Judeo-Christian faiths, assorted flavors of Buddhism, a smattering of New Age notions, and resolved itself into resolute atheism by my mid-teens.

I came by it honestly, so I’ve never been shy about my disbelief. My first car bore a silver Darwin fish emblem. I upped the ante when my native Kansas legalized the teaching of Intelligent Design in its public schools: I drove to the county courthouse and registered ATHEIST vanity plates. It was an act of protest, but I also hoped that visibility was the key to normalization – and maybe eventual acceptance. But besides a few acts of minor vandalism visited on my vehicle, the only reactions ATHEIST got were angry honks and upthrust middle fingers in traffic, an “Is that for real?” at a fast-food drive-through, and a neighbor’s confession that she accidentally clipped my bumper in the parking lot a few weeks prior but didn’t immediately tell me out of literally mortal fear. “I thought you might kill me or something,” she said, visibly trembling in the middle of summer.

Caption included by author: "What's the matter with Kansas?" This dented bumper, courtesy of anonymous Midwest Christian love. 

Clearly, Midwestern freethinkers had a lot of headway to make in the war against cultural intolerance.

Some years later, at the railroading that was my trial for murder, there was no physical evidence with which the prosecutors could implicate me. They had the testimony of an ex-girlfriend whose story was that she’d watched me fatally shoot our friend four and a half years prior. Beyond that, they had to reach. Pressed to explain what the motive for such a heinous crime would have been, my ex stumbled, then offered the most incriminating thing she could think of: “He doesn’t believe in God.” Debate raged over whether or not to allow into evidence photos of my ATHEIST license plates or printouts of my personal website linking to organizations like the Center for Inquiry, the FFRF, and American Atheists. In the end, the judge declared these prejudicial. Religious matters were, thankfully, off limits during the proceedings, but the prosecution’s eagle-eyed sniper still carried out their assassination of my character with reptilian efficiency.

Like anyone else who enters the system, I underwent weeks of testing and observation at an interim prison – a so-called diagnostics center. There, exams and questionnaires quantify each prisoner’s intelligence, education level, physical and psychological health, vocational qualifications, et cetera. At one point, fairly early in the process, I was asked my religion. My answer won me an uncomprehending stare from that census-taker – a sight I will remember for all my days. This woman had probably forty years’ life experience and saw what I’d guess was 150 new arrivals each week, to every single one of whom she posed the same question. Still, mine was the reply that derailed her cognitive train. Telling her I was a unicorn would have met with less surprise. Then, following a brief, confounded silence, she muttered, “I’ll just put ‘none.’” I found this unsatisfying in its imprecision, but I let it pass without comment.

It was an exchange rich with portent, a sign of things to come. Just last week at my prison job, I held my tongue for as long as I could, then engaged a coworker (convicted of a triple homicide) in a debate over how “scary” people without spiritual beliefs really are. He insisted that every atheist he’d ever met was “a bad person.” I refrained from asking what this made him, other than a devout Catholic. In my interactions with other prisoners, mention of my disbelief either turns the other party into a stutterer (“But, but, but, but – ”) or a volcano of vitriol. At least in similar free-world exchanges no one usually feels so threatened by a secular perspective that they get physically violent. Here, penned in by razor wire and a lethal electric fence, people’s gods are often all that’s keeping them from teetering over the precipice, into despair.

The percentage of Americans professing disbelief in any higher spiritual power varies, depending on who’s conducting the poll, but the figure I see most often is 4%. This figure doesn’t seem applicable to the United States’ prison population. In my nearly fourteen years’ imprisonment, I’ve met exactly two agnostics, yet haven’t encountered a single atheist of any stripe. In such dire circumstances as these, the need for comfort, for personal validation, and for redemption by any means is profound. It doesn’t take a doctorate in psychology to puzzle out the appeal of religious faith among criminals, many of whom have alienated their families and friends through sundry acts of avarice, wrath, or lust. God, at least, forgives- even if Aunt Susan thinks you’re human garbage.

Hope is that pernicious thing that allows you to acknowledge the seriousness of the falling sky while protecting you from the dread of an imminent beaning. Rather than stare into the void and quail, scurrying like a terrified pet into the arms of some benevolent master, I look ahead at my future in prison and experience not existential terror but an emboldening. There’s a reserve of will and purpose I never would have guessed was in me – more than enough to let me thrive, mentally and emotionally, despite spending years locked in this concrete box.

I don’t dwell much on grim particulars:

I’ll never drink another cup of good coffee, never again feel the wind in my face as I speed down the highway, never invite friends to another dinner, never again make love.

Instead, I turn to affirming thoughts that help me hold on to the humanity stripped from me by circumstance:

I can use this ordeal as fuel for my writing, as a platform from which to inspire others, as an exercise in personal strengthening.

If I can be said to hold any faith in my heart, it’s that the truth will come out and I’ll walk free of this awful purgatory, to a life harder won and most assuredly sweeter on the tongue than the person who has not been so tested could know.

*Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS), not to be confused with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). 

To read more by Byron Case: visit his blog for journal entries, comics, and updates on currently available and/or forthcoming publications.

To read about the case and subsequent controversy, see The Skeptical Juror and the Trial of Byron Case by J Bennet Allen.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Baptism: Get Out of Hell Free

One of the most loved and referenced parables in the Bible is that of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 11-32). For those that may not have heard the story, it goes like this: A man had two sons, and at the younger son’s request, gave each son their share of his estate. The younger son decided he was too good to live with his family, so he went off and gambled away all of his money until he was homeless and living with pigs. So he went home and begged his dad for a servant job to make up for what he’d done, but instead of his father getting angry, he threw his son an elaborate welcome home party and forgave him immediately. The older son, who had been hardworking and faithful to his father, found out and was pissed that his brother was essentially getting rewarded for throwing away his inheritance. But when he complained to his father, he was told that it was time for celebration because the father’s son was once dead, but was alive again.

 Christians use this story as a parable for God’s forgiving nature and to explain that the lost can be found, and no matter what you’ve done, if you repent God will forgive you. I’ve heard this story many times over my life and it has always been the Bible story I hate the most. Even as a kid, I thought it was incredibly unfair that the older son worked his ass off while the younger son was an irresponsible little shit, yet the younger son got the better end of the deal.

 On a broader scale, it has always bothered me that in Christianity anyone can get into heaven, no matter what horrific things they’ve done. As long as a person gets baptized and apologizes for their sins after, they’re in the clear and get to go straight to heaven. The idea is that after people get baptized they start living their life for Jesus, therefore any sins they commit later must be an accident and the sinner will feel genuinely horrible about their transgressions. But let’s be real here, people just use Christianity and the infinite forgiveness they receive to excuse any and all awful things they do.

 I actually like the Islamic way of getting into heaven better than the Christian method. In Islam, everyone’s fate is determined on a day of judgment. Every individual’s actions are weighed, everything a person has ever done is considered, and only those who have done more good than bad in their lifetime will enter into Paradise. There are two exceptions stated in the Quran: Enemies of Islam will immediately go to Hell, and those who die fighting for Allah’s cause are immediately sent to Paradise. This method supposedly motivates people to live moral and good lives and to do good deeds. Once again, ideas are quite different from reality.  However, the idea that people get into heaven based on the balance of their good and bad deeds is much more fair and appealing to me than the Christian ideology stating literally anyone can go to heaven if they just get baptized.

 Of course, I don’t actually think that there’s an afterlife or any sort of deity that will evaluate my choices and send me somewhere based on them. The only person who gets to judge my actions and decide my fate is me. A lot of religious people use their faith to either justify or excuse their actions, and when these people are asked for an explanation for their questionable deeds, they’ll commonly reply with “Well, only God can judge.” This diffuses responsibility and makes it so easy for people to do shitty things with minimal guilt or consequence. For me and other non-religious people, the weight of our actions rests with us. We determine the best way to go through life. We must take responsibility for ourselves and use the one life that we get to do what’s right and what’s good.