Is Christmas Weird for You?

My wife thought it was odd that I was listening to so much Christmas music this year as an atheist. I have to admit that I had realized it as well. It took a few days before I pieced together that a general change in perspective I’d been experiencing had been accelerated by a change in my mix of brain drugs. However, the more I thought about it, the more that it made sense that Christmas not be a particularly religious time for me and that it didn’t feel weird to be that way.

Let me back up a little bit. I grew up in a bit of a religiously unusual household. Beyond the normal weirdness that being raised by a lapsed Catholic and a lapsed Fundamentalist brings, I had the added benefit of having been brought up in the Church of Christ.

For those not religiously in the know, while things have changed a great deal in the last 25 years, generally members of the Church of Christ did not used to recognize religious holidays as valid. We were free to celebrate them as civil holidays but don’t you go bringing some damn creche into my display of Santa Claus stuff.

I can get into all the whys and wherefores in future entries, if there’s an interest, but suffice it to say that they felt that since the Bible did not endorse celebrating a special day for Jesus birthday, the weekly celebration of “The Lord’s Supper” was the only religious holiday with which we needed to concern ourselves.

So I grew up with all of the usual trappings of Christmas such as the holiday specials and the songs and such but doing so was rather like a mental minefield. I was trying to weave my own narrative from what was out there about Christmas that would allow me to appreciate it as a civil holiday without seeing it as a religious one.

So, even though I considered myself a Christian growing up, I had already been dealing with this question a lot longer many others who become atheists. So I was cool with all of the quasi-religious trappings of the holiday having already considered them either superficial or irrelevant years ago.

In many ways I was extremely grateful to those great pioneers of the American Christmas like Coca-Cola, Irving Berlin, Hollywood, Charles Dickens, and television executives. Thanks to them I already knew how I felt about Christmas without having to even begin the religious. Christmas was a time each year when we chose to give in to the better angels of our nature. We gave people the benefit of the doubt. We showed people that we cared about them. We made it a special time of year for everyone, even the poorest among us, so that, for at least a small part of the year, you wouldn’t think about what a shithole your life was the rest of the time. And it’s to keep the masses buoyed up long enough to get through to the rest of the year.

Christmas was about make-believe, it was about children, it was about joyousness, festivities, family, friends, and showing how much you cared. Did it really matter why we were celebrating like this? Did it diminish the goodwill that was fostered? As a functional deist, the reasons didn’t matter so much as the mere fact that it existed at all.

So, as a now-atheist, who seems to be quickly developing a spiritual but non-religious side, let me wish you and yours a very merry holiday and all the childlike wonder you can stomach.

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa, Io Saturnalia, a Joyous Solstice, and however else you mark this end of the year among yourself, your family, and your friends. May your celebrations be joyous and filled with wonder and may your hearts be filled with gladness.

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Why Donald Trump, and His Supporters, Scare the Hell Out of Me

Donald Trump and his supporters scare the hell out of me. And they should scare the hell out of you as well.

Frank Luntz, a Republican consultant, recently conducted a focus group with Trump supporters and this was what he told the press that had been watching from behind one-way glass when the focus group left:

“You guys understand how significant this is?” Luntz asked the press breathlessly when he came back into the room behind the glass. “This is real. I’m having trouble processing it. Like, my legs are shaking.”

“I want to put the Republican leadership behind this mirror and let them see. They need to wake up. They don’t realize how the grassroots have abandoned them,” Luntz continued. “Donald Trump is punishment to a Republican elite that wasn’t listening to their grassroots.”

Trump is no longer funny. He’s got a real chance of winning the White House. This focus group was shown video of Trump being misogynistic, flip-flopping on positions, and mocking others and they walked away liking him more than when they walked in.

“When the group listened to a clip of Trump claiming that as president ‘the military is going to be so strong’ that ‘nobody is going to mess around with the United States,’ nearly everyone registered approval on their dial meters of 100—a seldom occurrence among focus groups.”

One member of the focus group said, “When he talks, deep down somewhere you’re going, ‘Holy crap, someone is thinking the same way I am.’” Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t think that way “deep down” or anyplace else and the fact that there are large numbers of my fellow citizens that do think that way is terrifying.

And Trump is winning over more than just conservatives: “Trump’s unapologetic focus on strengthening the border—he wants to build a wall and deport all 11 million immigrants before letting many back into the country—excites many conservatives, as well as some who don’t traditionally vote Republican.” (emphasis mine)

I urge you to go to the Time Magazine website and read the entire article.

This is shaping up to possibly be the most important election of our lifetimes. It may well determine what direction this country goes in for decades to come. It’s time to educate yourselves, mobilize your friends and families, and get ready to defeat Trump.

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Transgender 101

Transgender signAround 2007, while evaluating blogging platforms, I checked out Tumblr. I quickly realized that it wasn’t a blogging platform in the traditional sense. It more closely resembled a social network where you could follow the blogs of others with like interests and see the updates to the blogs in a newsfeed. I began following some Doctor Who blogs and didn’t think much else about it until some time later.

After I’d been there a while and had diversified the blogs I was following I started to see other types of posts show up in my newsfeed that were rather more personal. What I didn’t realize at the time was that I had stumbled on one of the few social networks where many of society’s outcasts felt able to bear their souls. Gays and lesbians, those who self-harm, the genderfluid, those who are asexual, and many others who felt that society didn’t understand them.

As time went by, reading their pleas for acceptance and their explanations about what it meant to be each of these things began to soften and then change my views on things. However, it wasn’t because I identified with any of these categories. It was because, due to my weight (even as a toddler I had to wear “husky” clothes) I grew up being betrayed by those I thought were my friends until I just stopped trying to make friends anymore. All throughout adolescence my feelings of social isolation and worthlessness grew both at school and at home. Though I may not have been threatened with physical harm or cyberbullying, I could understand and empathize with being an outcast as well as being ridiculed and mocked.

You would expect adults to have learned to accept others who were unlike themselves but, for people in many of these groups, the isolation, the guilt, and the threats never end. All they really want is to be accepted for who they are and to be treated as an equal with everyone else. What was often standing in their way was fear of the unknown and prejudice against those who are different.

I know I didn’t understand, and didn’t want to understand, people who conflicted with the morals I had accepted. In fact, I pushed away a good friend of mine because she came out as a lesbian. I tried as best I could at the time to understand but the ideas of morality handed down by an iron age god and the narrative I’d been taught by some of that god’s followers explained same sex attraction kept me from being able to accept her for who she was.

Eventually my thoughts and ideas did change. In fact, it was one of several reasons I eventually became an atheist. I couldn’t buy the goodness of a god who would condemn these people as morally bankrupt because of circumstances that were beyond their control.

Humanist ethics begin with empathy and so I’d like now to return the great gift I was given when I came to understand and accept these groups of people on their own terms by, hopefully, helping others come to empathize and understand them as well.

Because it’s been in the media so much recently with the stories about Caitlyn Jenner, I wanted to start with those who identify as transgender. I had just started to research where to find the most accurate information about this group when I came across the perfect resource. I listen to a dozen or more podcasts each week and one of them is the Gaytheist Manifesto. The podcast is hosted by Callie, who’s a trans woman, and she is both an activist and is trying to form a community for those who identify as both gay and atheist. It just so happened that, coincidentally, this week’s podcast was called Transgender 101. In this episode Callie invited on a new acquaintance who didn’t know much about what it meant to be trans to ask any questions he might have, no matter how personal or awkward, so that the episode could be shared with others who lack an understanding about what it means to be trans. And so I invite you to follow this link to this episode of the podcast and give it a listen. I learned several things from it and I’m sure that, especially if you’re unfamiliar with those who are trans, you will too.

Finally, as always, once you listen to this episode of the podcast, please feel free to engage in discussion about this with Callie directly through social media. You can also start a discussion below in the comments or on any other social media that I frequent.

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Normalize Unbelief: A New Name and a New Focus

Bernie_Sanders_2016

Bernie Sanders may be the best hope for progressives of all stripes to get back our country from those who are in process of stealing it.

When I was struggling with leaving conservative politics I was alarmed by what seemed to me to be a sharp turn to the far right starting about the time Scott Walker was elected in Wisconsin. It’s entirely possible that it was merely my perception that had changed but, regardless, I have become increasingly alarmed as Republicans have continued to push further and further right until what used to be the center now seems like the extreme left.

At that time I began to see clearly the real agenda that the Republican party has had all of these years. That they didn’t want smaller and more responsive government but, rather, they wanted less democracy and they were willing to strip it out right before our eyes if we let them. It is distressing to me that even as this radical coup d’etat continues to roll forward at increasing speed that these people continue to be elected. It seems that it is nearly daily now that new stories come out about how Republicans have moved another step toward stealing democracy away from the American people and replacing it with some weird kind of alliance between those who want a wealthy oligarchy and those who want a theocracy. During this same time fundamentalist and evangelical Christians have continued their quest to entirely merge themselves with the Republican party and thus have made themselves the enemies of everything we’ve tried to build in this country.

As these changes have been happening my existential crisis has cleared into a realization that I haven’t moved all that far. Rather it’s those on the right that have moved at breakneck speed away from the rest of us. So I no longer seek merely to survive my existential crisis but to become a part of this opposition movement I have watched slowly come together over the past five years. This coalition is of those who want what our Founding Fathers promised: a republic where everyone is equal. It contains some who at one time were moderate Republicans, until the party forced them out and it also contains liberal Christians and many atheists and humanists.

It is well past time that we must declare who we are and take a stand against this quickly growing threat to our country. As such I feel a need to declare where I stand, which is that I stand for taking back our right to equality from those who feel they have a right to take the Christian Privilege they have enjoyed for much of the past 1700 years and use it to squash anyone who stands in their way. I also stand with those who agree with the Progressive Movement from a century ago in realizing that the traditional ideas of poverty, wealthy, and government are just flatly wrong.

A quickly growing part of this movement are the atheists and other unbelievers, often referred to as “nones.” As I have become more acquainted with the atheist movement in the US over this past year or so I’ve realized that there are quite a few people out there who are actually unbelievers who are embedded among the enemy. For one reason or another they have found their faith to evaporate and yet they continue to have financial and/or family obligations that prevent them from being able to openly declare themselves to be unbelievers. I have come to feel that it is necessary for those of us who either never had or have lost our belief in a supreme being to take the responsibility for continuing to pave the path away from fundamentalism that many who have gone before have begun.

And so, with these twin, and intertwined, goals I am announcing the death of Surviving My Existential Crisis and the birth of Normalize Unbelief. I hope that even those of you who still consider yourselves believers will continue with me. Our desire for a return of our secular state unites us even if you don’t feel that you should abandon your faith in a supreme deity. I have no desire to trash religion in general but it’s application as a bludgeon and as a way to drag our society back into medieval times.

As always, please feel free to engage either in the comments, on Facebook, Tumblr, or over on what’s left of Google+. Good luck everyone, we’re going to need it.

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Tomorrowland is Infectiously Optimistic and Helps You to Keep Giving a Damn

George Clooney in Disney's optimistic movie

George Clooney in Disney’s optimistic movie Tomorrowland

Though I had enjoyed all of the previews I’d seen for Tomorrowland, I was skeptical going in. Mostly that was from seeing so many bad reviews and knowing that it did poorly in its opening weekend. However, having now seen it, I don’t understand why so many are so down on this movie.

Tomorrowland provides exactly what we need right now: hope. It’s easy to become jaded and cynical after so many years of having the conservatives (and even some who claim to be progressive) try to roll the calendar back at least 50 years here in the United States. In fact, there’s likely a fair number of people throughout the Western World who want a bright future for humanity and are feeling like their every good effort is being thwarted. If that’s you, or someone you love, go see Tomorrowland. You’ll leave the theater feeling a bit more optimistic about the world’s capacity to change and in an individual’s ability to change the future for the better. Not to mention you’ll get to see Hugh Laurie play a pompous Brit and get his just desserts in the end.

***BEGIN SPOILER ALERT*** Okay, for those of you who either aren’t planning to see the movie or don’t mind spoilers here’s the premise (which you don’t actually learn until about ⅔ of the way through the movie): what if you knew that there was a terrible catastrophe coming but people not only wouldn’t heed your warning but actually made your prediction into a pop culture obsession? Would you become fatalistic, resign yourself to its occurrence, and try to insulate yourself from the effects of the catastrophe? Or, would you choose to be optimistic and doggedly work to change things? That’s, ultimately, the question the movie confronts you with. The movie urges you to choose optimism but shows that even the most optimistic can become fatalistic and uncaring. ***END SPOILER ALERT***

Western society is facing a number of significant challenges right now that, if they continue to be handled as they currently are, will cause catastrophes unlike any of us have known in our lifetimes or the lifetimes of our living relatives. Religious fundamentalism seeks to reassert itself in society, businesses and the über wealthy have gained control of the levers of power, climate change is continuing unabated, and cultural regressives want to take away all the progress that’s been made during the 20th Century toward making the world fair, just, and equitable.

Right now it would be really easy, especially here in the US, to just throw up your hands in despair and either become a Prepper or live with your head in the sand. But, there’s always an alternative. Right now those seeking to restore the secular nature of our society are being greeted by successes on several fronts. Right now there are people organizing to get money back out of politics. Right now there are people organizing to elect an openly socialist president. Right now activists are taking to the street to fight on new fronts in the wars on racism and sexism. Right now members of the LGBTQ community are in process of winning the national right to marry the person they love, regardless of gender. Right now can be a very hopeful time in which to live, but, if we want hope, the one thing we can’t do is merely document the disasters as they happen and, when they come, stand back to say “See! I told you disaster was coming!” And, in the end, the characters in the movie choose to be optimistic and to proceed with hope. The question left to us here in the real world is will we do the same?

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I Am Openly Secular

openlysecular.orgI’ve been struggling for several months to write one or more posts on the fact that I have determined that I am an atheist. In fact, I have probably at least five drafts of posts saved that I began but was never able to complete satisfactorily. However, I also feel that the fact that I have not declared the fact that I am now an atheist and a humanist is hindering me from posting many other things I’d like to post that begin with the assumption that you already know I’m an atheist.

It took me a couple years to come to grips with the fact that I’m now an atheist. It isn’t anything I wanted or asked for, it just happened. Contrary to what some may believe, many people do not make a conscious choice to become an atheist because atheism isn’t a declaration of what you do believe but rather what you do not believe. Therefore, atheism is simply the result of no longer being able to sustain your belief in your chosen deity and having no other candidates to take their place. You simply cannot will yourself to be a believer regardless of whether you wish to be one or not. Declaring myself to be an atheist is simply a matter of not being a hypocrite about it (not to mention the fact that I have enough anxiety just getting through the day without adding this big of a secret to the mix).

This also seemed like an appropriate time to declare myself to be an atheist since Openly Secular Day is coming up on April 23. Part of Openly Secular Day is to tell at least one person that you are secular in your beliefs. I’m simply getting a jump on things by being a week and a half early. Plus I would find it rather awkward and difficult to just walk up to someone and say Hey, I’m an atheist and, as my wife has told me many times, I’m much better at explaining things when I have an opportunity to write them down.

I will, hopefully, be able to put my thoughts together into a narrative about how I arrived at this place in my life at some point in the near future. In the meantime, please feel free to ask me questions (my email address is available on my about.me page) or otherwise engage me in dialog.

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US State Department Admits “We Cannot Kill Our Way Out of This War”

Apparently the political and religious right are pitching a fit about the admission by a spokesperson for the US State Department that America, or indeed anyone, can win this battle by trying to kill all of the violent and fundamentalist Muslims.

The fact is that the more violent Muslims that are killed, the more new violent Muslims will be created.

It’s likely that even many on the left here in the United States will not agree with this solution but it is, so far, the only thing that makes sense: The real solution is to show the violent and fundamentalist Muslims that truth can’t be found in a holy book but in the continued expansion of our knowledge about our Universe through scientific experimentation and analysis.

The root of the problem is that these people believe that their senses are lying to them and that the words that were written in a book more than 1,000 years ago, by someone who had no more insight than anyone else who lived at that time, carry more weight than what they can observe and and experience.

The reason we’re not talking about that fact here in America is that a large percentage of the American public believe the same thing. They simply adhere to a different holy book.

There is no real difference between fundamentalist Muslims and fundamentalist Christians so far as where they look for their understanding of reality. They each look to a book that was written more than 1,000 years ago by people who had no more insight into how humans think and act than anyone else who lived during that time.

This cycle of killing will continue until everyone is willing to admit that you cannot learn about humanity or the Universe we inhabit through a holy book. In the meantime, the problem may go away for the moment or may shift to the fundamentalist believers of a different religion, but the problem will continue so long as there are humans who believe that ancient books filled with what is, at best, conjecture, grant their readers more insight into the human condition and how to live in and care for the Universe than the rigorous testing of what we experience.

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