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Happy. Healthy. Heathen.

Traveling, training, thinking, talking, typing

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secularism

Best dilemma ever.

Followers of this blog will know that I came out as an atheist about 2 years ago.  Here’s that post, and here’s another about why I don’t do that quietly.

Yop.
Yop.

Over the past several years, I have continued to be involved in atheism activism on the local and national level.  I have loved this journey; I love being open to learning something new every day, whether that’s in the arena of science, or politics, or morality, or community, to be challenged with an old belief I hold dear that needs to be examined and either discarded or updated.

This blog is about a new thing I’m learning.  For the 45 years I was a believer and a church attender, I never questioned my charitable giving.  The instruction in the Bible is pretty clear about the relationship between believer and church and money.  The word itself, tithe, historically means giving 1/10th of one’s earnings to the church.  I took this admonition seriously, and along with my spouse, regularly and consistently contributed 10% of our earnings to our local church.  Having served on said church’s budget committee, I knew exactly where that money was going:  staff salaries, utility bills, literature for classes.  It was a mindless, relatively painless automatic task, and I never questioned whether or not we would comply with that mandate.

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Now that I’m secular, I’m free to give or not to give.  And if I give, I’m free to choose to whom I give, and I’m free to make that choice based on whatever qualifications I wish.  And not only am I free to give, I’m finding the process of searching and deciding to whom and how much to give both exciting and challenging.

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I met with my accountant today (it’s been almost 12 hours – I think I’m finally starting to relax my shoulders).  I have a modest budget, and a modest lifestyle.  I have no debt, and The Squeeze tells me that the only time he sees me splurge is on the kids.  With the OCD, color-coded, to-the-penny budget I have created for myself, even with tuition, I am now in a place where I can add a line item for charitable giving.

I could not be more thrilled.

I have a file on my desk with requests for donations.  Those requests are from some favorite organizations:  The Human Rights Campaign, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and the Adventure Cycling Association.  I also want to support my local Freethinkers Group, whether through sponsoring the website, or helping with other expenses.  I  want to be free to respond to any emergency, on the national, local, or interwebs level.  I want to do the fun stuff too – buy supplies for Aden’s classroom, give a grocery store gift card to a friend in need, send a little extra cash to a peace corps friend.

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Rereading this post, it seems a little simplistic and almost…remedial. Maybe it’s not something everyone else gets excited about.  But I’m not embarrassed about that.  I think it’s okay to learn a new skill, and be tickled to be doing it, at 52.

I love hearing from you.  Tell me your “giving stories”, how you choose, how it helped.

Thanks for reading.

What’s in a sunset?

I can’t start this post without beginning with a giant THANK YOU to my big brother for having given the last week to me.  I’m at his condo in Panama City Beach, 19th floor of the most beautiful resort setting EVER.  The only thing that is between me and the Gulf is the beautiful pool and patio.

I’ve gotten some fabulous studying done, eaten great food, played with the dogs on the beach, and seen some breathtaking sunsets.

Here’s one.
Here’s another.
Here’s the same one 15 minutes later.

x seven nights.

We’ve all seen them.  We’ve all stood there, in awe, trying to memorize the sight, the smell, the feel, the sounds, having a moment in the middle of a day where you want to not just stop time, but put 4 walls, a ceiling, and a floor around to sneak away to when you’re, well, not in that delicious bubble.

This experience I’m trying to relate has happened over and over and over in the past 5 years, and while I hope it doesn’t pass, I want to get it down in words in case it does.  It doesn’t show any signs of fading, and conversely seems to occur more and more often, with more and more vigor.

So many of these posts I write start with: “When I was a believer…”, and this one will too.  It’s one of the most crucial turning point of my life, one of those milestones that divides your life into Before and After.

Before discarding Christianity as my worldview,  I would see something as magnificent as a sunset, or a newborn, or a majestic mountain, and I would stop for a moment in gratitude and humility that God would have made that sunset/baby/mountain just exactly that way.  How wonderful that God would have put that sunset/baby/mountain together, in that fashion, in that place, to serve that purpose, and that I could see it and enjoy it and have my moment.  I remember it being emotional and moving and profound.  This was based on both my gratitude for getting to see this thing, but mostly it was the awe that God could have so easily have created it – in the blink of an eye, the sweep of his hand, a nod of his head.

Let me express what those moments are like as a non-theist.

I’ve been watching the sunset against the crashing of the waves of the Gulf on the white sands of the panhandle of Florida.  A storm system came through just as I arrived here, so there have been clouds across the sky at sunset.  As I watch the colors build, and the sun sink lower, and the blues of the ocean turn gray, and swimsuited children become dark silhouettes of joy and laughter, I am astonished into speechless and motionless wonder.

The probability of my tiny self of carbon in this place and time to be able to see what I’m seeing and hear what I’m hearing is beyond any mathematical comprehension.  To have had the life I’ve had to bring me to this place to see this sunset at this time stretches even the most vivid imagination.  My gratitude and humility to be here in the face of those odds are indescribable.

Dreamboat Neil deGrasse Tyson said this in his book Death by Black Hole

“While the Copernican principle comes with no guarantees that it will forever guide us to cosmic truths, it’s worked quite well so far: not only is Earth not in the center of the solar system, but the solar system is not in the center of the Milky Way galaxy, the Milky Way galaxy is not in the center of the universe, and it may come to pass that our universe is just one of many that comprise a multiverse. And in case you’re one of those people who thinks that the edge may be a special place, we are not at the edge of anything either.”

This universe was not designed with me in mind.  It wasn’t designed at all.  There is more beauty and magnificence in that truth than in any intent of any design.  That mountain is just that majestic, that infant is truly that perfect, and the sunset is simply that stunning (and if my geeky science friends bring to my attention that the pollutants in our atmosphere make for more beautiful sunsets,  I’m gonna end you).

So when you join me at my Tennessee cottage for sunset and cocktails, and I stop in the middle of my sentence because of the glory of the vision of the setting sun, you will know why.

Thanks for reading!

 

My take on the Chick-fil-A-holes.

AAAANNNNNNDDD I knew I couldn’t do it.  NOT comment on the Chick-fil-A thing.  Fail.  Oh well, I’ll try to be brief.

I am not boycotting Chick-Fil-A over the bigotry.  I’m not big on fast food in the first place, and that chicken sandwich is a little meh.  I’m a small business owner myself, and while it sounds cliche, I really try to make an effort to support small business.  In my small town here in the south, statistically, I’d be willing to venture that most of the CEO’s/owners/managers of these businesses share Dan Cathy’s worldview.  If I were to boycott every business I patronized in Middle Tennessee based on whether or not the staff opposed gay marriage, I’d be one frustrated consumer.  No, I’m not blogging about boycotting this chicken store.

There have been many bloggers and reporters who have covered the false First Amendment angle, so I won’t address that.  When Dan Cathy goes to jail, or is fined, or restricted from speaking about his bigoted position, I’ll write that blog.

So what’s my problem?

The thing that has bothered me more than anything else through all of this, the thing that has made me the saddest and most angry, has been the glee with which the Chick-Fil-A supporters have embraced this issue.

Let’s say you’re a believer.  Let’s say you have found some way to overcome all the contradictions, all the genocide, all the immorality, all the ignorance, all the misogyny, and you really truly believe the bible to be the true and only source for guidance in how you live your life.

How, with an iota of compassion in your soul, can you celebrate this as a victory?  How can you look at the LBGT community, your friends and family, your neighbors, and gloat and celebrate this?  If you believe marriage is an exclusive right for one man and one woman only, does your heart not break for your gay and lesbian brothers and sisters?  Does it not bring you to tears to know that, according to your belief system, these people will never know the joy of the commitment of marriage, the profoundly exhilarating and humbling experience of parenting?  If you believe this, and you must see how painful this will be for this community, how can you post those Facebook statuses?

There are so many things that make me angry about religion, but this is one of the things that makes me the angriest.  Some of you are my friends.  I know you are not bad people.  But lifetime exposure to a book-based morality instead of a compassion-based morality has distorted your natural, beautiful, healthy drive to decrease suffering in the lives of your fellow humans, and to increase joy.

When I became a secular humanist, I promised myself that no matter how angry it made me, I would never cut myself off from dissent.  But when you take pleasure in another’s pain, that’s not dissent.  It’s disgusting.

Thanks for reading.

TAM 10

The Amazing Meeting.

And it has been amazing!

This collection of skeptics, scientists, researchers, entertainers gathered in Las Vegas is equal parts information, education, socialization, and great big huge fun!  It has been made even more fun by the fact that my daughter Glenda has been able to come with me.  Daughter Amy got to come last year, and we had an equally delicious time.

What is skepticism?  By definition: doubt as to the truth of something.  TAM bills itself as:

The Amaz!ng Meeting (TAM) is an annual celebration of science, skepticism and critical thinking. People from all over the world come TAM each year to share learning, laughs and the skeptical perspective with their fellow skeptics and a host of distinguished guest speakers and panelists.

What falls under this skepticism umbrella?  ESP.  Sasquatch.  Religion.  Alternative medicine.  Anti-vax.  Any type of quackery that tries to bill itself as science.  Founded by James Randi, the JREF has been fighting psuedo-science for years.  The man himself was in attendance and available for chatting up during the entire conference.

I attended TAM 9 last year with daughter Amy, and this year daughter Glenda got to come with me.  We had a great time – the event is held in the South Point Casino, which is an experience in itself.  She busted out an impromptu hoop performance in the Del Mar bar and gave a mini-physics lesson about centripetal force, color spectrum theory, and LED light energy that will have this group of science geeks (a term of absolute endearment) smiling for years.

Some of the speeches are on Youtube, but more of the texts are.  This one is particularly compelling by Pamela Gay, as it addresses the hot button issue of harassment issues both within and without the movement.

I know this post is short; I spent a few extra days in Vegas having too much fun (just ask daughter Glenda), and cut short my time to unpack and repack for our family bicycle trip across Iowa, which will be my next post!  Bus rolls tomorrow (Friday) at 6!

So, to recap:  TAM 2012.  Fabulous.  Go next year.  I’ll buy you a drink at the DelMar!

Thanks for reading!

Scopes 2.0

Gotta love Tennessee.

The Scopes trial was in 1925.  Almost 100 years later, we are still fighting to have evolution, among other science, taught in our public schools.

Last week, Tennessee HB 368/SB 893, the ‘Monkey Bill’ was made law.  This bill can be read in its entire 2 pages here.

Here’s the relevant paragraph:

(2) The teaching of some scientific subjects, including, but not limited to,
biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human
cloning, can cause controversy;

The governor didn’t actually sign the bill, but acknowledged that it would become law anyway, even without his signature, which, of course, it did.

There was a rally today at the state capitol in support of public school science teachers, and to protest opening the door to any hint of teaching creationism in primary and secondary schools in Tennessee.  The bill contained language about this legislation not intending to endorse or represent any religion blahblahblah, but my question is:  For what secular reason does anyone object to evolution? There is no secular reason – this is a religious issue.

Evolution is not controversial.  All biological scientific study is based upon this foundation, and no reputable biological scientist rejects it.  The opposition to the teaching of evolution comes from Christianity, because it is in conflict with the version of creation in the old testament.  And there are those, like the folks who supported and voted for this bill, who feel that if you discount that literal version of events, you have to bring into question the entire book.

You won’t believe what I’m going to say next.  I understand and agree with that last statement.  The theory of evolution is in conflict with the Bible’s version.  They can’t both have happened.  Having been a Christian and active church-goer for 45 years, I understand the importance of the creation story.  All of the rest of the theology depends upon it.  No Adam, no fall, no fall, no sin, no sin, no need for redemption, no need for redemption, no Christ, no salvation, no nothing.

As I stood at today’s protest, surrounded by passionate, science-minded people, as I listened to a Vanderbilt professor, then Vanderbilt graduate student, then a Ravenwood High School science teacher, and I looked at the crowd, most of whom I know from the secular community in the Nashville area, a thought occurred to me.  Where are the moderate Christians?  You may claim that you, in your groovy, modern version of Christianity, embrace evolution, and global warming, and other sciences…that’s great, I guess, although I can’t imagine the mental gymnastics you are doing to get there, but why aren’t you here?  At this rally?  Protesting this backwards, destructive legislation?  If “those Christians” don’t represent you, where is your voice?  Of course the humanists are going to fight this, you know our pro-science position, but why aren’t you, progressive Christian?  Why aren’t you shouting in defense not only of Tennessee’s schoolchildren, but of your own faith?

This legislation opens the door.  We are disrespecting our children by allowing this.  We are forgoing our future by allowing this.  Do you know that Tennessee is ranked 49th in ACT scores?  Do you think this kind of anti-science approach may have something to do with this?  We should be appalled and embarrassed by this legislation.  No, we should be outraged.  We are putting our children and grandchildren at an incredible disadvantage in the national community.

I love this state.  I love the 4 gloriously different seasons, I love the southern charm, I love the rolling hills and the clean rivers and the pastoral countryside.  I want to fight for it, I want to be proud of my home.  But I am discouraged not only by this nasty bill, but by how few, and who, came out in protest today.  This matters.

The seculars will always fight it.  But until moderate Christians begin to police the fundamental fervor that is rampant in its ranks, change will be a long way off.  Speak up.  Grow a pair.  Or else throw in with them.  Shit or get off the pot.  Your own book uses harsh language about how a lukewarm believer should be treated, and for the second time in this post, I agree with the Bible.

Your children, your grandchildren, and every child in this state is counting on you.

Thanks for reading.

It’s not all about faith

I had an interesting conversation with a friend recently (see: Blog Rule ➜ I won’t reveal who you are unless I ask for and get your permission) about evolution and our “need” for faith.  It began with a discussion about a comment I made regarding every culture having some story or fable explaining the beginnings of time, the weather and other natural phenomena, and what happens after death, and ultimately encompassed all of the components of why people hold fast to religious beliefs.

The first question is:  Do humans have a psychological need to believe in religion?

I think we have a need to understand our environment.  I think we see this in the subjects the myths touch on – how did we get here, what is our purpose, what happens when we die.  It is astounding how similar these myths are from one culture to another.  A great many have the story of a big flood (here, here, and here), and most have some description of an afterlife.  I can imagine these tales being told from generation to generation, with children listening in wide-eyed wonder as each village’s best storyteller would embellish and dramatize.  I think these stories brought comfort and continuity and it is completely understandable why these stories were told and retold.

The next question then is:  After science explains so many of these things, why then continue to embrace the faith?

This question is a bit more complicated.  For me, it helps to think of this in terms of columns, or supports that hold up the foundation of belief, the loss of any single one of which won’t bring down the structure, so to speak, but collective loss of several will.

One of those columns is the desire to be cared for and directed.  Life is at times troubling, and difficult, and confusing, and unfair.  The feeling I think we are seeking is that same feeling one has as a child when one sees one home and parents as protecting and complete and profoundly secure.  It is not surprising that this feeling has a great deal of appeal, even to adults.  This is one of the supports that is hardest to let go; it’s almost a Stockholm’s syndrome, a celestial North Korea, as the late Christopher Hitchens said.  An eternal, observing, intervening, judging parent.  My own experience with this was exactly that:  before my deconversion, the idea of God loving and designing my life gave me comfort; afterward, the ownership and self-direction were liberating and empowering, far surpassing any grief at the loss of the Dear Leader.  The thought that my life would have exactly the meaning with which I would choose to bestow it was as intense and humbling a moment as I’ve ever had.

Another of these columns is the desire for an afterlife.  This is entirely understandable at first thought as well.  Death is so very final, and the loss of a loved one is as painful an experience as we have as human beings.  It isn’t even about “unfinished business”; we just don’t want to say a final goodbye.  For me, this was the last strand that held me to my faith – stronger than my need for a God, stronger than my need need for community, stronger than my fear of the unknown.  Having to say a permanent goodbye to those loved ones I had planned to see again was devastating.  Letting that go, however, has had the additional effect of placing much greater value on this life, on these moments, on these people, just as we are.  There is a particular boy I want to see again, who has died.  I want to talk to him, to see him smile, to ask him questions.  I believe I won’t have that opportunity, and that is heart-wrenching.  So, instead, conversations and moments with the people I love here in this time and place become ever so much more important and precious.

"For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring."

Another column is the complicated issue of morality.  As a believer, I used the if-you’re-not-a-Christian-you-can-just-make-things-up phrase from elementary school through my middle age, as if that were the worst statement you could cast toward an infidel.  I remember, though, as an Adult Class Sunday School teacher struggling to teach the lesson of the evil of situational ethics.  What were the absolutes of the faith?  Don’t murder?  Sure, except for the death penalty.  And self-defense.  And defense of others.  And euthanasia.  And war.  Truth-telling?  Again, yes, except for when you are hiding Jews in your attic or Tutsis in your hotel.  Coveting?  Thought crimes?  Really?  It’s getting messy and sticky in here.  Making decisions and judgements is hard, and comes with great responsibility, and may depend upon the details.  The drive to abdicate this sometimes troublesome and challenging process is another reason I think the church is so appealing to us.

Another column, that I’ve just recently blogged about, is the need to belong to a community.  “Everyone I know believes the way I do” is comfortable and affirming, allows a group to pull in the same direction, focuses money and energy, and is one of the worst reasons for retaining a faith that I can imagine.  We’ve just gotten through another Christmas season where, here in the south, there is a lot of conversation about the war on Christmas.  Outrage on Facebook statuses, print and electronic media reports about public nativity displays, mass emails about taking a stand for Jesus by keeping Christ in Christmas — all feed this very human need to conform and be included in the in-group.  Let me suggest that rather than, as a believer, looking for ways to feel oppressed and put-upon, spend a day or so looking at it upside-down:  see the country through the eyes of atheism, and see how firmly entrenched in Christian language, culture, and tradition our society really is.  How many visible and open non-believers are in public office?  (guess first, then check here and here)  How many US citizens identify as Christians?  Hard to be in the minority when you’re in the majority.  But these statistics are certainly revealing as we examine this primal need to be part of community.

Related to the above, and maybe particular only to me, is the verification of the faith through the test of time.  When I was in college, and was beginning to question what I believed, I put a lot of stock in the fact that Christianity had been around for so long – how could that have happened were it not true?  I don’t remember evaluating other long-standing religious ideas with that same criteria – Islam, Judaism, paganism, Jainism – and coming up with the same result.  I now agree with Tim Minchin’s sentiment:  “I don’t believe just because ideas are tenacious that means that they’re worthy”.  I explain it this way:  for every reason that you can ennumerate that falsify insert another religion here, those are the reasons I apply to Christianity.

You can tell that I’ve spent time with my children when my posts get philosophical and reflective – the little buggers have a way of forcing me to think and clarify my thoughts.  On Friday it’s back to school (2L!) and training, and the posts will be back to the law school/working out/massage therapy world. I haven’t done a 50 Things update in ages, and I’m planning out my 2012 races that I’ll blog about soon.

Thank you for reading, especially when the words are not comfortable.  I promise to always reciprocate – just bring the link!

Community

I credit evolution.

My kids get tired of my constant reference to it, but I think we can learn so much from our evolutionary heritage.  I’m not a scientist, so all of this is amateur, but I’m learning how to apply what evolution can teach us now.

About 10 years ago, when I started on a journey to regain my health, I discovered information that allowed me to do that.  I began to study metabolic science, nutrients, human anatomy, and what that information can tell us about what to eat and how to move.

Because I chose law school over medical school, I had to learn how to learn science, starting with formulating a hypothesis, studying the process, studying the data, in this case applying it personally (n=1), and seeing if the hypothesis holds up.  So here I started with the hypothesis that maybe we should eat like our ancestors ate, since that seemed to have allowed them some survival advantage.  I’ve written a whole other blog about all of that; I mention it because it’s the method I’m going to use for this next topic.

Back to evolution.  As I study anthropology and what our societies were like before we embraced agriculture, which seems to be a real change in our history, I’m finding that we lived in small, cooperative communities, pooling resources, celebrating together, grieving together, raising children, struggling to understand our environment, finding ways to protect ourselves from the environment and predators.  Almost all of these societies, across the globe, had myths and tales about origins of the world, explanations for natural phenomena, and rituals for birth and death.  As Americans, our particular pedigree comes from the Abrahamic line, and those rituals and rules over the years have become manifest in contemporary Christianity.   The church has provided a place for gathering, to worship, instruction, support, a common agenda – all sating very primal needs.

Sometimes in my discussions with believers, the topic veers from the validity of religion to the usefulness of religion.  I absolutely believe that religion can be useful; this blog is about just that.  I also believe that its usefulness has no bearing on its truthfulness (please tell me I just invented that phrase).

As I attend secular conventions (AA in April, TAM9 in July, Skepticon 4 in November), and as an avid blog reader, and new activist, I have made the following observations about the secular community:

1.  We are intellectuals.  We can blog the hell out of any topic, including, but not limited to, gelato.  We love the process of language, we love words, we have a unique ability to explain our position, and, thanks to the interwebs, can back it up with citations and references.

2.  We own the internet.  No shit.  It is the single most effective reason atheism is experiencing the growth it is – even evangelicals are acknowledging that.

3.  The future of the movement is in the hands of college students – not individual, identifiable people, but as a demographic.  It’s the perfect window of age to be free from familial obligations of church attendance and exposure to a broad base of philosophical and social input, yet young enough not to have established personal habits of faith and superstition in their own new families.

4.  We are young and we are old.  It seems that, both through the blogs and attendance at conventions, that we are comprised of youngs (18-25) and olds (50+).  It’s not that we don’t have the middle folks – in my own local group that’s actually a large percentage of our number – it’s just that that group is busy with career and spouses and children that the youngs and the olds don’t have.

5.  Community.   Online: we have it in spades.  Every support group you can imagine – recovering fundamentalists, ex-Mormons, secular parenting.  Flesh and blood: not so much.  We’re working on it, and we’re getting better at it, but we’re no match for churches.  I think that that sense of community, rather than a devotion to the faith itself, is what keeps a lot people in church.

As our evolutionary history tells us, we are social beings.  We need to feel included, but individual, protected but not restricted, part of a group yet independent.  The contemporary church has provided its version of that; I think the secular movement can do at least that, and even do it better.

My local group of seculars (hereinafter known as: the posse) is heavy on the very group I say the movement as a whole doesn’t have:  young adults with families.  There are couple of us oldies, and the ubiquitous college agers, but we’re lucky enough to have several young couples and their beautiful, freethinking young children.   Which finally brings me to the point of this post:  my scheme to take over the world social experiment.

Our posse, instead of just hanging out and sampling the finest hops our town has to offer, is going to add a bit of intention to our efforts.  We’re going to try to make our get-togethers a smidge more family-friendly:  choosing restaurants that are easier on the wallet, more conducive to child palates (notwithstanding my moratorium on Chuck E Cheese), parties where the children are accommodated with caretakers (perhaps education majors from our local university?), scheduled activities that work around school nights and bedtimes, service projects in which entire families can participate.

So stay tuned for updates — right now I’m on my way to a New Year’s Party with said posse – best wishes to all for 2012!!

Happy Saturnalia! Festivus! Christmas!

Ok, ok, I’m listening.  And reading.  And paying attention.  When enough of you ask the question, or make the comment, I get it.  That’s one of the best parts about having a blog; the opportunity to clarify, explain, and answer!

Christmas without religion.  I don’t know if it’s really that hard to comprehend, or if it’s simply too disturbing and uncomfortable to even contemplate.  Several people have asked, with differing levels of hostility, why I have an interest in celebrating Christmas.  My first inclination is to ask them what specifically are their Christmas traditions, and how do those traditions relate directly to the celebration of Jesus’ birth?  Let’s take a look…

Is December the 25th the actual anniversary of Jesus’ birth?  What information do we have about this?  Just a little research will reveal that even religious leaders acknowledge that it is highly unlikely that the date Christians celebrate as the birth of Christ is the date we know now as December 25.  However, let’s just assume for argument’s sake that we’ve simply agreed to celebrate it on this day.  But why did it get “implanted” here?  Why late December?   The pagan Roman emperor Aurelian had proclaimed December 25th as the birth of the invincible sun-god Saturn.  Christianity cleverly and strategically had begun supplanting pagan celebrations (see Easter) in an effort to “facilitate conversion”, and viola!  Merry Christmas!  In fact, there are some Christian faiths who choose to de-emphasize the celebration of Christmas altogether, basing that on admonition from the scripture not to participate in pagan festivals.

Christmas trees and greenery?  That’s an old Nordic tradition celebrating those evergreen and holly trees, with their lovely red berries, which keep their beautiful color even in the depths of winter.  I’m old-school, and will only be happy with a live tree; my mother and brother both have perfectly gorgeous fake trees, so the debate continues year to year.

Santa Claus?  That’s about as secular as one can get!  The patron saint of children, Saint Nicholas, whose day was designated as December 6, traditionally gave children gifts.  The poem by Clement Moore added to the image of the jolly old elf.  Again, many believers choose to downplay this beloved tradition in an attempt to be less confusing and more honest with their children about things that are make-believe and things that are real.

Stockings by the fireplace?  Another old European tradition about the Norse god Odin’s flying horse.  During the Yule festival, children would put carrots, sugar, and straw in their boots, and leave them by the fireplace for the great Odin’s horse.  In exchange for this kindness, Odin would leave the kids candy and treats.  In our house, the kids could retrieve their stockings before daylight, but had to wait til dawn to come wake us up for presents.  Most years, this was after our having stayed up til 3 or 4 am assembling some toy or another.  Another Christmas tradition in our house was Christmas day naps.

Family gatherings, food, singing songs?  As an end-of-the-year celebration, many people have time off and choose the recognized holidays to renew family ties.  Sometimes that includes attending church services, and sometimes not.  Schools are traditionally closed, allowing college students the chance to go home and see their parents and siblings.  Special and celebratory foods go hand in hand with this, as does game-playing, song-singing, laughing, talking…well, that’s how it is in my house!  Our favorite holiday foods – dark chocolate walnut fudge, boiled custard made with fresh eggs, sausage and cheese balls and gooey yeast cinnamon rolls on Christmas morning.

Gift-giving?  I believe that’s as old as mankind itself.  The tradition of expressing gratitude, or love, or affection through the exchange of gifts is carried on even now; the wrapping and decorating are an expansion of that.  We all know that we’ve taken this too far in our society, and have overcommercialized that aspect of the holiday, but it’s still integral to the season.  My go-to is always books, books, books, but I always get a little something sparkly for my precious mother.  And get this, my dad’s birthday is December 25, and I really do go to the trouble every year of getting him 2 gifts, and wrapping one in non-Christmas paper!

As for me and my family, our Christmas traditions now are almost identical to the traditions we observed when we were believers, leaving out only attending the Christmas services at the church.  We do a lot of eating/cooking/baking/drinking, a lot of game-playing (this year’s favorite is Apples to Apples), a lot of talking and laughing and gift-wrapping and arguing and debating, some movie watching, hiking on the farm, gathering old friends, and this year, a lot of relaxing post-finals, as my kids and I are all in school, save our one graduate intern.

Our unique traditions include:

A psycho collections of nutcrackers that is WAY out of control.  It started when the kids were little, and has grown to over 100.  Son Sam gets devious pleasure out of “reorganizing” my display by having them all turned to face the wall, or all turned to face each other, or hiding in my cabinets looking at me when I open the door.

Also, this truly bizarre assembly:  we have recently added this very unconventional (surprise) and darkly interesting event.  The kids and I share with one another our annual memorial plan update.   Yes, that memorial plan.  How we wish to be memorialized when we die.  We add some ghoulish delight by making it a drinking game (you’d have to understand my brilliantly quirky kids).  We end the affair by expressing yet again our love for one another, and our humble and profound appreciation for every single breath we draw in this, our one and only life.

So, that’s what Christmas means to me.  And I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that most believers participate in the same traditions as I’ve just described here.  If you want to put religious significance into this celebration, enjoy!

I’ll end with my favorite Christmas song….ever.

Best of the season to you and yours!

Thanks for reading!

Don’t call me blessed

As with so many other bloggers with whom I interact, and whose blogs I read, I am, even if subconsciously, always on the lookout for topics about which to blog.  I hesitate to write that, because I don’t ever want my friends and family to think they can’t talk to me about a particular subject because I’ll then write about it.  But so many interesting conversations come up on a daily basis that I want to put down to the 21st century version of pen and paper, the keystroke and data.  I promise that if I blog about something we’ve talked about, I won’t identify you unless I’ve asked you for your permission.

So…I had a conversation with a friend recently, about thankfulness, and the idea of blessings.  I’ve just written a  post about being thankful, without having an entity to thank.  My friend is a believer, and our discussion was about how he felt that all those things for which we are grateful were actually blessings from God, whether I acknowledged that or not.

What followed was a discussion about why God would choose to bless certain people with so much, and keep any blessings from the vast majority of others (say, most of the continent of Africa).  Most of the world does not have clean water, or enough food, or safety.  He said that sometimes God blesses us because we’ve been faithful, and sometimes he blesses us because it’s a part of His plan that we don’t understand, and vice versa – that sometimes we lose things because we’re disobedient, and sometimes we don’t understand why because we don’t understand His plan.

I asked if He thought God’s plan included any compassion on the part of God.  Why, whatever His plan may be, allow children to be born into starvation, in a war-torn country, to suffer for 5, or 6, or 7 years, witnessing death, feeling pain, to die a horrible death – whatever could God’s plan be with that kind of misery, multiplied by the thousands?

He hesitated, but then concluded that maybe all of that suffering was a way to get the attention of each of us, individually, to turn to Him.  This is not an immoral man.  I think because he’s heard this his entire life he’s accustomed to how it sounds.  It was not unfamiliar to me, as a former believer, and yet even only a few years away from the faith myself, I was utterly horrified at hearing him say this.  I asked if I could repeat back to him what I heard him say.  I described what life could be like for such a child, the things she might see, and feel, the pain, the agony, the absolute and complete suffering, all to get me to talk to God?  When He could, in the blink of an eye, say that to me Himself, and save this child, and thousands like her, from this fate?  I don’t know if I tried if I could come up with a more blasphemous thing to say.

He backpedaled and said he reconsidered.  He said no, maybe that was not the reason.  He’s imperfect and he should have thought a little deeper before he answered.  He said what he should have said was that, no, God did not do that.  God was only the author of all things good, that the evil and suffering in the world were the work of Satan, and sin.  This “metaphorical child” (yes, he said that) was in pain and sorrow because Adam had originally sinned, the world became imperfect, and evil came into the world.  Now she suffers because of that.  I pointed out that that was really a variation on what he had just retracted.  Could God or could God not intervene and alleviate this child’s suffering?  Yes, he said, He could, but He just chose not to….right back to getting our attention through the suffering of this child.

He reconsidered again, and said that he thought he could express it best this way.  God knows ahead of time how to get the most people to turn to Him, since that’s what he wants from every single person on the planet.  It hurts him to see suffering, he doesn’t want those people to suffer, but in the aggregate, that’s the way to get the most “bang for your buck” (my words, not his).  I think he took my stunned silence as acceptance of his position.

Of all of the reasons I push back against religion, this is probably the one that motivates me the most.  This is a good man, a moral and loving husband and father.  I think his compassion lever is malfunctioning, and it’s malfunctioning because he has had a lifetime of having to justify the unjustifiable, to moralize the immoral, to accept the reprehensible.  The Bible does tell about God’s judgement and wrath and killing and destruction to achieve his means, very clearly, and in numerous places.  Believers are left having to “do” something with all of these passages.  And that something fucks up the system.  Our natural compassion is blunted.  When a tsunami kills thousands of people, and it’s a given that God is in control of the tsunami, we have to come to terms with what to do with that information, and we push it and shove it and hammer it in, until the workings of an imperfect but highly functional biological, social, and psychological system of care and compassion are skewed beyond recognition.

Life is random.  And unfair.  And sometimes we get the good stuff, and sometimes we get the bad stuff.  There are things we can do to affect our fortune, for the good and bad, and there are things we cannot effect.  The danger with thinking that the good things in your life are there because God loves you so much, is the unspoken implication that the bad things in someone else’s life are there because God doesn’t love them quite so much.  And if God doesn’t care about them, maybe we don’t have to either.  My friend tried to back away from this, and stepped right into the next steaming pile of poo with his argument about God’s plan.

The problem of suffering.  Think.  Think again.  Then think again.  Just don’t call me blessed; I want no part of it.

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