Happy. Healthy. Heathen.

Traveling, training, thinking, talking, typing



Sometimes you just get lucky

I’m at the American Atheists convention and I have a blog queue that is about to bubble over.  There have been great speakers, big laughs, a costume party, old friends, and I have every intention of posting about all those things.

However, something happened last night that bumped all that down the list.  I met Earl Smith.

This American Atheist convention is the 50th anniversary of its founding, and it’s being held in Austin, Texas, where Madalyn Murray O’Hare began the organization in 1963, after the landmark ruling of removing prayer in public schools.  It’s 4 days of activism, socializing, speakers – all the usual that go along with conventions.  We’re meeting and staying at the Hyatt in Austin, which is one of the subjects I want to post on.  I have been astounded at the job they have done in accommodating us is so far beyond what is usually expected.  I have tried to express my gratitude to the waiters, check-in staff, and security as the opportunity presents.

Earl Smith is the director of security at the Hyatt hotel in Austin, Texas.  He’s a tall, snowy-haired, good-natured African American, and we (Eliott and I) warmed to him immediately.  Last night, he shared the following story with us.

Earl was drafted in 1966, and served with the 173rd Airborne brigade.  That unit sustained losses of over 10,000 American lives, and Earl returned home weary and lost at 22 years old.  He struggled to find his way, and was sent to prison a year later for a 5-year sentence for robbery.  He was given clemency in 1977, and when he was released, he set about rebuilding his life at age 25, with a war, a prison term, a broken marriage, and the racism of the south in his past.

Earl started with the Marriott in Chicago, and began working his way through the hospitality industry, finally taking the job as the head of hotel security at the Hyatt hotel in Austin in 1998.  In 2008, as you may remember, the final debate of the Democratic primary was held at UT Austin.  In a stroke of logistic hilarity, or maybe staff ineptitude, both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and their respective debate teams stayed at the Hyatt in Austin.  When Earl was telling this story, he couldn’t stop chuckling relating the efforts the hotel staff went through to keep distance and peace between the groups in the hotel.

Earl found himself on an elevator with then-senator Obama.  In Earl’s pocket was his military patch from the 173rd Airborne, which he had carried in that pocket for 40 years.  Earl asked Mr. Obama if he could give him something, and of course Mr. Obama said he could.  Earl handed him the worn, frayed patch, and told him that he wanted to offer it to him on behalf of the American people.  When Earl told me this part of the story, using hand gestures that spoke even more than his words, he said, “I just felt so relieved to give it to him”.

The story now has to take a leap through time, to January of 2013.  One morning, when Earl arrived at his office, his staff was all atwitter about a phone call he had received – from the White House!  President Obama’s assistant chatted with Earl on the phone and via email over the next few days and arranged for him to come to Washington DC for the inauguration.  Earl was delighted, and set about arranging his budget and time schedule in order to go.  Earl’s employer, surprise surprise!, arranged for him to have a room in the packed and expensive Hyatt Hotel within walking distance of the Washington Mall.  When his tickets to the inauguration were delivered to his room, they came with a little more news:  President Obama wanted Earl to visit him at the White House the following day.  The question was also asked:  What else did Earl want to do while he was in our nation’s capitol?

Here was Earl’s list:  he wanted to go to the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, and the brand new Dr. King Memorial.   On a cold January day, Earl Smith attended the second inauguration of the first black president.  He said he loved every freezing minute of it.  Then the former Army private visited the memorials.  In telling this story full of emotional highs, at this point Earl became emotional, describing the feeling he experienced walking that sloping sidewalk, along that cold, reflecting granite, far too full of names.  40 years vanished, he said, and those names and faces came right back to him, reminding him of where he had come from, why he was where he was, who he had lost.  When Earl then visited the Dr. King memorial, he said moments from the past – JFK’s assassination, the war, the civil rights struggle – all came to him as he stood there, taking in the monument.  But there was still one more highlight.

It was time to go the White House.  Earl found himself sitting in a chair in a hallway, not really sure what was in store for him.  He said after he returned from a nervous trip to the bathroom, his escort was nowhere to be seen, so he just took a seat in the chair, and just then, walking down the hall, was a tall, thin, African American man extending his hand saying, “I’m so glad to see you again, Earl.”  Then, at the end of that hall, Earl walked in to the Oval Office, that iconic rug on the floor, the desk, all of it.  Earl and his President chatted for a bit, 20 minutes in fact, and Earl repeated to him the purpose of the patch; that he wanted the president to have it on behalf of the American people.

Please take the time to visit the link and watch the video.  What an honor and privilege it was to have met Earl and hear his story.  He’s a lovely, kind, gentle man, and if you are ever in Austin, go out of your way, even if you don’t stay here, to visit the Hyatt and ask to meet Earl.

I'm so proud of this picture!
My friend, Earl Smith

Thanks for reading!

Edit 4.1.13

Awesome level:  Maximum
Awesome level: Maximum

My first Blog award!

This will be a very short lesson on why you don’t give an award to an obnoxious overachiever (think:  Hermione).


My internet friend, Marisa, nominated me for this award.  Here is her blog, so check out her work.  She writes about art, music, cinema, plus she’s funny and smart and has impeccable taste in blogs.


Part of the dealio is that I am to tell 7 things about myself.  Because I’ve had this blog going for so long, I’ve told almost everything, so some of this may be a repeat.

1.  I have an extensive nutcracker collection.  I started it accidentally, and now it’s out of control.  When I put them all out at Christmastime, sometimes in the light of the tree, with all their sparkly clothes, and swords, and movable chins, they creep me the hell out.

They're amassing behind me
They’re amassing behind me

2.  I don’t like chocolate OR ice cream.  I just don’t.

3.  Since 1990, I have ridden my bicycle across Iowa at least a dozen times.

This line stretches for 70 miles
This line stretches for 70 miles

4.  I would rather read than watch television.  Anywhere, anyplace, anytime.

5.  I hate country music, but I love the titles:

If You Want to Keep Your Beer Ice-Cold, Keep It Next To My Ex-Wife’s Heart

How Can I Miss You If You Won’t Go Away?

Her Teeth Was Stained, But Her Heart Was Pure

6.  I backpacked through Europe when I was in college, complete with Eurail and hostel pass, and went to Greece without telling my parents.  Because I went by myself, they wanted my itinerary before I went (this was the dark ages of phones – you had to go to a telephone building to make an international phone call).  Greece was nowhere on the list.  My dad’s still mad about that.

7.  I have an insane, irrational fear of cockroaches.  Dad was a Navy man.  I grew up in Jacksonville, Key West, Pensacola.  In a trailer.  With giant, flying palmetto bugs.  Me, 4 years old, the sheet pulled over my head, eyes squeezed shut, hearing those hideous things flying in my room at night.  **Shudder**  Not so irrational now, huh?

Another part of the deal is that I have to link to 15 of my favorite blogs.  Here you go:

1.  JT’s Patheos blog

2.  Greta’s blog

3.  My girl Susan’s blog

4.  Son Sam’s blog

5.  The Bloggess

6.  Drs. Mike and Mary Dan’s Protein Blog

7.  Ted’s Blog

8.  Bookshelfporn

9. Joe. My. God

10.  Jesse and Julia’s Blog

11.  Neil de Grasse Tyson’s Blog

12.  Whole 9 Life Blog

13.  Dr. Peter Attia’s blog

14.  Pharyngula

15.  Eggton

And there you have it – thank you again, Marisa – this was fun!  I thought I’d have a little trouble coming up with 15, but I actually had to struggle to edit it down.  I’ll try to do another post with another 15.

Thanks for reading!

No, Believer, what if YOU’RE wrong?

I gave blood today.  I won’t say that it’s entirely altruistic.  I believe our bodies accumulate too many heavy elements, iron is one of them, and an occasional bloodletting helps keep those levels down.  I like that – doing a good deed that’s good for me too!

As you know if you have donated blood, the process takes a bit of time – paperwork, interview, vitals, then the actual bloodgiving itself takes a moment or two.  I had my Kindle with me, but my bloodtaker was chatty, so once I saw where the conversation was going, I put my Kindle aside, and, as a captive audience, and taking a deep draw from the well of patience, I engaged in the 398th version of this conversation.

It started with a question about my tattoo.  When I don’t have time to engage in a protracted conversation, I say that I got my tattoo as a celebration of completing my Ironman (partially true).  When I have time and the situation lends itself to conversation, I give the more accurate answer:  that it’s a symbol of my embracing science and reason over faith and religion as a guide for life.

Because I’ve had this conversation so many times, I know how the rest of the conversation will unfold.  A little more back and forth about what that means, a little personal history, and then realization on the part of my companion that I am serious about my unbelief.

And then it comes.  They look into my eyes, and with an earnestness that I know comes from fear, because I had it myself, they say it.

“What if you’re wrong?”

Pascal’s wager.


I gather my patience (I may have explained it several hundred times, but they haven’t heard it, ever).  I explain who Pascal was, and what the entire premise of their question is:

If you erroneously believe in God, you lose nothing (assuming that death is the absolute end), whereas if you correctly believe in God, you gain everything (eternal bliss). But if you correctly disbelieve in God, you gain nothing (death ends all), whereas if you erroneously disbelieve in God, you lose everything (eternal damnation).

So I go through my explanation, like thousands of my fellow atheists have through the years.

1.  I cannot simply will myself to believe in something for which there is no evidence.  If I told you I had a magic cricket in my purse that talks to me and advises me, that you can’t see, or hear, could you WILL yourself to believe that?

2.  If your belief is based only on gambling against a loss, how do you know you’ve picked the right god?  How do you know you’re not offending the REAL one by throwing in with this one?  There are THOUSANDS of gods in thousands of religion, all with some variation on hell and heaven and eternal punishment.  And wouldn’t believing in the WRONG one be even worse than not believing in ANY?

3.  If I’m just believing as an exit strategy for this world, with god’s omnipotence and omniscience, would he not see that I’m faking it?  Would that not be MORE offensive that being honest about my disbelief?

In this particular version of this oft-repeated scenario, my kind bloodtaker listened while I talked it through, nodded her head as I explained my position, then concluded with, what else:  “I’ll pray for you, Gayle.  By name.”  Alrighty, then.

As I got my sticker and bottle of water (I passed on the cookies and crackers), I was already writing this post in my head, and this is what I want to say:

“Christian, what if you’re wrong?”

What if you’re wrong about spending your life waiting for guidance, not acting for lack of divine message, missing an opportunity to experience something or someone?

What if you’re wrong about how to invest your time and money in alleviating suffering in the world, not based on what the bible says about that, but on real, genuine, compassion for the hurting, the hungry, the homeless?

What if you’re wrong about how we are to treat the earth, not as something over which we have dominion, but as something we are to respect and care for?

What if you’re wrong about your role in judging the decisions other people make about who they love and who they want to marry?

What if you’re wrong about heaven and hell, and about how fast and fleeting this life is, and about what you should say to those you love, and how you resolve struggles in relationships?

What if you’re wrong about the importance of science, wrong about denying evolution, wrong about using prayer instead of medicine?

What if you’re wrong about assuming it is god’s plan that people suffer and die from disease, hunger, war, famine?

What if you’re wrong about how you’ve spent your limited funds giving to a church to pay electric bills and staff salaries, instead of investing in your family’s future, improving education, raising the quality of life for everyone in your community?

What if you’re wrong about spending your Sundays getting up early, getting your children up early to spend the day inside a building convincing yourself to believe something for which there is no evidence, convincing others to believe something for which there is no evidence?

What if you’re wrong about what you’ve taught your children about values and compassion and humanity?

What if you’re wrong about what sin is, about what is okay to enjoy and with whom to enjoy it?

What if you’re wrong about the usefulness of prayer, and about how you can truly help someone who is in a bad place, or at a bad time, or in a bad set of circumstances?

What if you’re wrong about thinking you are a sick, worthless, disgusting being in need of a cure, of salvation?

What if you’re wrong about thinking anyone who doesn’t believe as you is a sick, worthless, disgusting being in need of a cure?

What if you’re wrong about believing that because you’ve followed the rules and have experienced good fortune, that those who experience misfortune have obviously fallen short of being worthy of god’s blessings?

What if you are wrong about endorsing a book full of misogyny, divine murder, ethnic dominion that has tremendous potential to be interpreted as literal, applicable, and appropriate for THIS time and THIS place?

What if you’re wrong about using your feelings about what an invisible, undetectable being might be telling you about how to treat yourself, your spouse, your parents, your children, your money, your neighbor, your world?

So. believer, please understand what Pascal’s wager is before you ask us that question.  Understand that’s it’s a weak position in the first place; an admission that there really is no good evidence upon which to base your beliefs.  Understand that it’s one of the first things we had to deal with when we began to doubt our faith, and in fact, kept a good many of us in the faith for a great long time.  Understand that we have a response to it, a reasonable, practical, rational response.

Then turn it around and ask it of yourself.  And answer it.

Thanks for reading.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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!

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