An Atheist in Jesus land.

I’m beginning to write this on a plane traveling back to California from Roswell, NM where I traveled for a wedding, and it has been an eye opening experience. I had been to Roswell many times when I was younger to visit family, but I hadn’t been back there since I became an atheist several years ago. It’s amazing how much the rose-tinted glasses of religion altered my perception of the town. Roswell, NM is famous for the “UFO crash” in 1947, but the locals don’t really seem to believe those stories much (for them, UFO stands for “Unlimited Financial Opportunity”). Their delusion, however, is about 2 millenia older; the religiosity of the town was just dumbfounding.

Ten Commandments Monument

Ten Commandments Monument (1)

Symbolizing the level of religious delusion, I think, is their proud display of the ten commandments on the lawn of the county courthouse. This monument isn’t inside where the only people who see it are locals there on business. It isn’t sitting next to the building where it would blend in, or even facing the building for that matter. It is blatantly positioned right next to the highway so that drivers passing by will see it…proselytizing to anyone who drives by, which is a lot considering that the courthouse is situated on the main highway passing through the town. It’s basically a big “fuck you” to anyone who isn’t Christian or Jewish. It’s also as if they are just daring someone to speak out against it. Perhaps not coincidentally, there is a World War II era canon on the courthouse lawn just a few dozen feet away.

If someone were to speak out against this monument, I have little doubt that the town would react with a vengeance at least as strong as that seen with Jessica Ahlquist, Damon Fowler, et al. I get the distinct impression that virtually the entire town is fundamentalist Christian, and they really aren’t accustomed to dealing with dissent. I also suspect that the majority of Christians there aren’t the Easter/Christmas Christians either. For what it’s worth I did send a note to the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico about the monument, but since I’m a Californian I don’t have standing and can’t really do much about it.

Liquor store religious sign

Liquor store religious sign (3)

Religion was absolutely everywhere in the town. If a display wasn’t about aliens, it was about Christianity. I saw business signs that incorporated the fish logo, even though those businesses had nothing to do with religion. I saw liquor stores with signs saying “God Bless You” on them (that was good for a laugh, I admit). I would estimate that around 20% to 30% of all billboards were religious; sometimes of the generic “find Jesus or burn in hell” sort, but typically advertising for a church.

The churches were probably the most disturbing thing I saw. They were everywhere. In a town of 48,366 (2), there are 58 churches according to the yellow pages (3)! That’s 1.2 churches per thousand people! For comparison, the city I live in in Silicon Valley has 0.6 churches per thousand people and, given the wide diversity of faiths here, the number of places of worship would normally be expected to be higher than a more homogenous place like Roswell. Many of the churches in Roswell looked brand new and very expensive. I cannot begin to fathom how much money has been spent on churches there. What makes it truly disturbing is that Roswell is a very poor town, where the median income is just $36,237 with 21.8% of people living below the poverty line. By comparison, the national median income is considerably higher at $51,914, with only 13.8% of people living below the poverty line. (4) Seeing half-collapsed buildings are a common occurrence, and most of the houses have visible signs of decay. You can almost see the buildings crumbling before your eyes. It’s a stark reminder of how much poverty there really is in the US. To see all of these people struggling so much, and then to see how much money is going to these churches really really makes me angry!

Nice church next to a trailer park

Nice church next to a trailer park (5)

Just being there was oppressive. It didn’t matter that I didn’t interact with many people and didn’t experience much proselytizing (I haven’t come out to that side of the family yet), I still felt incredibly stifled. I was constantly on edge the entire weekend. It seemed like there wasn’t a moment that went by that I wasn’t reminded of the religiosity of the town. I don’t think I’ve ever been happier to be flying back to San Francisco.

What is equally amazing is that I never even noticed how religious it was before. I did a little digging and the ten commandments monument was definitely up last time I was there, but I didn’t notice it. I didn’t notice all of the churches, I didn’t notice all the ads, and in general I didn’t notice how prominent Christianity is there. I’m shocked at how effective the blinders of religion are. I only had to spend a few days there; I can’t imagine what it must be like to have lived your whole life there. There are people suffering under these oppressive conditions all around the country. It was a brutal reminder of how important our movement truly is. It’s not just about preventing atheists from being harassed, although it is that. It’s not just about upholding the law when others are content to break it, although it is that too. This is about allowing people to life their lives as they see fit. This is about preventing the ostracization of minorities everywhere. This is about creating a world where ancient superstition doesn’t govern a nation.

(1) Frysinger, Galen R. “Roswell, New Mexico.” Available: http://www.galenfrysinger.com/new_mexico_roswell.htm
(2) “Roswell, New Mexico.” Wikipedia. Available: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roswell,_New_Mexico
(3) “Yellow Pages.” Superpages. Available: http://www.superpages.com/
(4) “State and County QuickFacts.” U.S. Census Bureau. Available: http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/index.html
(5) “Church on the Move.” Jesse M. Harris, Architect. Available: http://www.lpdj.com/projects/Move.htm

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Why don’t Christians understand the separation of church and state?

The reactions of the Cranston, Rhode Island Christian majority to the result of Jessica Ahlquist’s lawsuit has gotten me thinking. Just why is it that Christians don’t understand the concept of separation of church and state? They certainly disagree with the concept, but I think that, just as importantly, they have some misconceptions about it.

First, some background for those that aren’t familiar with the Ahlquist case. At Cranston West High School in 1963, a banner was created titled “School Prayer” containing the following text:

Our Heavenly Father.

Grant us each day the desire to do our best.
To grow mentally and morally as well as physically.
To be kind and helpful to our classmates and teachers.
To be honest with ourselves as well as with others.
Help us to be good sports and smile when we lose as well as when we win.
Teach us the value of true friendship.
Help us always to conduct ourselves so as to bring credit to Cranston High School West.

Amen.

Jessica Ahlquist

Jessica Ahlquist (2)

This banner still hung in the gym when Ahlquist, an atheist, began attending. During her sophomore year, the ACLU sent a letter on behalf of an anonymous parent (presumably not Ahlquist’s parents) to the school requesting the banner be removed since it is obviously illegal. When Ahlquist learned of the letter, she began attending school board meetings to try and persuade the board to remove the banner. After multiple failed attempts, she filed a lawsuit with the help of the ACLU against the school and won (obviously). (1) Before, during, and after the trial, Ahlquist has faced a great deal of push-back from the Christian majority in Cranston, including threats of violence. She has had to have a police escort at school, and her state senator even called her an “evil little thing.” (2)

Many arguments have been put up in defense of the banner, and many arguments have been made about how the lawsuit is part of our evil plot to get the government to support the religion of atheism. Obviously these arguments incredibly inane and not even remotely based in reality, but nonetheless they are being made. As an example, see this comment from the comments section in the Providence newspaper (3):

As an analogy to hanging a banner with a verse on the wall of a public building that our citizens are exposed to, I fear that at some point in the future, the legal process on this issue will evolve to the point that houses of worship will not be allowed to front public streets. After all, citizens pass them bye while traveling said public streets and the separation purists certainly will not allow that will they?

Why do so many Christians always seem to think that our efforts in enforcing the separation of church and state are really efforts to outlaw faith? I have been pondering this question lately, and I have a few hypotheses.

"Help! We're Being Oppressed"

"Help! We're Being Oppressed" (4)

A common hypothesis that comes up is that these Christians have enjoyed majority status for a very long time, such that they don’t know what it’s like to be a minority. They don’t know what it’s like to experience real religious prejudice, so to them anything that hampers their ability to what they want is viewed as a grave injustice and a violation of their rights. I do think this is true, but I don’t think it’s the only reason, and maybe not even the primary reason.

Another hypothesis I have is that these Christians have a lack of basic understanding of the law and our governmental structure. There are two common misconceptions that I see rather often. The first is that the government is only forbidden from establishing a government church. I think the reason for this comes from a reading of the First Amendment in a vacuum.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof (5)

As worded, the amendment does seem to imply that it only forbids the US Congress from writing legislature that favors one religion over another, but anything else is allowed (side note: how do people take this wording to mean that congress is only forbidden from establishing a state church? It’s quite the leap). What these types of people fail to take into account is that the constitution does not exist in a vacuum since we are a common law nation, but instead must be considered with the history of the Supreme Court and other legislation, namely Everson v. Board of Education and the 14th Amendment (the constitution applies to federal and local government). The second misconception that I see often is that legislation passed by “majority rule” has the highest level of precedence. The most obvious example of this is the backlash against the recent Proposition 8 ruling. Rick Santorum even stated (6):

We need judges who respect the people’s voice. Let the people decide with respect to what the Constitution says.

That is simply not how our government works. The US Constitution is the supreme law of the land. Nothing can override it except another constitutional amendment. At all. Period. End of discussion. Yet Christians don’t seem to understand this and so we get so many instances of “those damn judges are ignoring the will of the people.” Judges aren’t ignoring the will of the people, they just simply recognize that the Constitution trumps the will of the people.

Let's just go with "First Amendment"

Let's just go with "First Amendment" (7)

My third hypothesis is that these types of people tend to not really care about the law. They tend to go on and on about “I live and die by the Constitution” and “Government should get out of our lives so we can be free,” but they don’t really believe those things. Instead, they see the government beginning to crack down on laws supporting their beliefs, whether it’s no prayer in school, outlawing abortion, or banning gay marriage. They see these actions as the government intervening in their lives, and as a result they are experiencing a loss in freedom. Technically they are correct, too. They are loosing their freedom to illegally use the government to advance their personal beliefs in spite of the constitution. What they fail to realize is that, in these instances, the government is actually making our society more free, not less. Then again, maybe they do realize that this is the case…

It’s important to note that I used the term “hypothesis” here, not “theory.” I did this intentionally because I do not have strong data to support these hypotheses, just personal observation and a lot of reading, but they seem reasonable. What can be done about this? We just keep doing what we do…calling out their stupidity and doing our best to educate the public. We are already seeing a decline in religious attendance, and much of it is due to increased education. Education is the key to everything, and societies always become more educated over time, not less. Time is on our side, we just have to endure in the mean time.

(1) “Jessica Ahlquist.” Wikipedia. Available: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jessica_Ahlquist
(2) Goodnough, Abby. “Student Faces Town’s Wrath in Protest Against a Prayer.” The New York Times. 26th January, 2012. Available: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/27/us/rhode-island-city-enraged-over-school-prayer-lawsuit.html
(3) Dujardin, Richard C. “Federal judge orders ‘immediate’ removal of Cranston school prayer mural; appeal unlikely .” The Providence Journal. 11th January, 2011. Available: http://news.providencejournal.com/breaking-news/2012/01/federal-judge-o-1.html#.TzXtjl0Xuca
(4) “Help! We’re Being Oppressed!” Reddit. Available: http://www.reddit.com/r/atheism/comments/dy84p/help_were_being_oppressed/
(5) “First Amendment to the United States Constitution.” Wikipedia. Available: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Amendment_to_the_United_States_Constitution
(6) Savage, David G. “Santorum decries ‘judicial tyranny’ in Prop. 8 ruling.” Los Angeles Times. 12th Februaru, 2012. Available: http://www.latimes.com/news/politics/la-santorum-decries-judicial-tyranny-in-prop-8-case-20120212,0,2601434.story
(7) Tristam, Pierre. “Deconstructing the Bill of Rights.” Candide’s Notebooks. 23rd February, 2007. Available: http://pierretristam.com/Bobst/07/cn022307.htm

Art is for everyone, you just have to know where to look.

I really do believe that art is for everyone, but many people don’t get into it because they are intimidated. I can understand the (false) perception that you have to have this encyclopedic understanding of art history in order to appreciate art, and that if you don’t just absolutely love every piece cited as a masterpiece, then it’s your fault and you just don’t “get it.” It’s unfortunate that this perception is so prevalent because it is patently untrue.

On the Bank of the Seine, Bennecourt

On the Bank of the Seine, Bennecourt (1)

Art is, almost by definition, subjective. It is emotional. When experiencing art, we are going on a journey, one in which we bring all of our past experiences and values in to our understanding and appreciation of a work. Given the huge diversity of experiences, it seems obvious (to me at least) why everyone experiences art differently, and thus appreciates different art.

I do think that there is an objective answer to the technical qualities of a work. Some pieces are just simply painted/written/composed better than others. I don’t think that anyone would claim that Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto’s are less technically accomplished than The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, or that the Monet’s On the Bank of the Seine, Bennecourt is less technically accomplished than Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup.

For me personally, though, I prefer Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band over the concertos because I just don’t respond emotionally to Baroque era pieces. Similarly I like the Warhol piece over the Monet piece because the impressionistic period, well, kinda bores me. Most impressionists painted subjects who were well off, usually in a state of leisure. I don’t get the sense that impressionists were trying to really say anything with there pieces, but rather were trying to push the boundaries of technique. This approach just doesn’t invoke the same response in me that the idea-focused works of Picasso or Dali do.

Campbell's Soup Cans

Campbell's Soup Cans (2)

I don’t mean to diminish the importance of Monet or Bach; they were both pivotal to the growth of their respective meanings, and were very talented artists. They just aren’t my cup of tea is all, which is fine. I recognize that many people don’t share the same tastes that I have. Shostakovich is one of my favorite composers, but critical opinions of him are mixed. For example, French composer Pierre Boulez was critical of  Shostakovich, dismissing it as “the second, or even third pressing of Mahler.” (3) That doesn’t really matter to me though, because when I listen to his work, I love it. I also recognize that Boulez doesn’t like Shostakovich the same way that I don’t like Monet. Everyone is different, and that makes it interesting.

So what about someone who isn’t in to art and doesn’t know where to start? My advice is to try and sample as much as possible. Go to a varied and all-encompasing museum (such as the de Young museum in San Francisco), instead of a more focused museum (like the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art). Museums like the de Young make it easy to see a lot of different types of artwork. The same thing for music, film, and literature: just experience as much as possible. There is so much variety in the art world that there is most likely something for everyone. Finding out what one likes is the hard part. Once you know what you like the rest is easy, and rewarding.

(1) “On the Bank of the Seine, Bennecourt.” The Art Institute of Chicago. Available: http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/exhibitions/Impressionism/Monet
(2) “Andy Warhol.” Wikipedia. Available: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andy_Warhol
(3) “Dimitri Shostakovich.” Wikipedia. Available: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dmitri_Shostakovich#Criticism

P.S. My banner for this site is a cropped version of a photo I took of a piece at the de Young museum in San Francisco.

Self Portrait by Francesca Woodman

I was at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) recently where I saw the collected works of Francesca Woodman. It was a truly amazing exhibit! SFMOMA puts it best in describing Woodman:

Francesca Woodman (1958-1981) was an artist decisively of her time, yet her photographs retain an undeniable immediacy. Thirty years after her death, they continue to inspire audiences with their dazzling ambiguities and their remarkably rich explorations of self-portraiture and the body in architectural space. (1)

Woodman was only active for a few years, starting in 1975 and ending when she committed suicide in 1982. She focused primarily on self-portraiture, intending her work to be a sort of dialog with herself. (2) While others focused on the world around them, Woodman look inward. Her work has an ambiguity about them that is endlessly fascinating. The meaning of her work is very non-obvious, and I’m sure has generated much discussion. She explored a variety of themes, such as occupation of space and differentiation of the self from one’s environment. She has a number of pieces where she almost appears to be disappearing into the space itself.

There is one piece that spoke to me more than the rest. SFMOMA had the title listed as “Untitled,” but I have also found the title listed as “Self Portrait,” so I am going to use that title going forward. While studying this picture, I started talking with one of the museum staff about it, and our interpretations of the piece were quite different; a perfect example of the ambiguity of her work. Before I discuss our interpretations, take a moment to come up with your own. It’s hard to see in this copy of the image, but the sheet of paper on the wall is a birth certificate, and the scarf around her neck is a mink scarf.

Self Portrait

"Self Portrait" by Francesca Woodman (1) (3)

The staff member and I both agreed that the birth certificate plays an important role, but we differed on what that importance was. The staff member viewed the birth certificate as an unnecessary reminder that the subject is alive…i.e. that there is this beautiful woman filled with complexity who is very much alive, and the birth certificate is only necessary for those who can’t see it. It makes a statement that people get caught up with image and how they think society wants them to look and that they needed to be reminded from time to time what real beauty is. My interpretation is subtly, yet dramatically different. I don’t think that the birth certificate is superfluous for the subject but necessary for others, but rather that it is superfluous for others but necessary for the subject.

When this picture was taken, Woodman was attempting to become a fashion photographer in New York. It seems reasonable to assume that she was aware of the superficiality of the industry. Look how the mink scarf serves as a sort of border between the superficial and the real. Her face is very done up; covered in makeup, perfect hair, that “modelling” expression that looks like there is no emotion. It is practically lifeless. Contrast this with her body below the scarf. Her body is very natural, with skin blemishes, armpit hair, and a more natural skin tone. To me, this represents a woman who has forgotten that there is a real person below the facade of superficiality thrust upon her by the industry/society, and needs the birth certificate to remind herself that she really is still alive.

Which interpretation is correct? I’m not sure, and I’m not even sure if there is a “correct” interpretation, or even if the question itself is valid. It’s also interesting to ponder that the photo was taken in 1981, the year that Woodman committed suicide. Could this have been an expression of how she saw herself at the time? She never said while she was still alive, so we’ll never know. All we can do is ponder her magnificent work and discuss, as great works of art are wont to do.

(1) “Francesca Woodman.” San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. 151 Third Street, San Francisco, California. Visited January 15th, 2012. Reference: http://www.sfmoma.org/exhib_events/exhibitions/430
(2) Romano, Gianni. “Francesca Woodman on being an angel.” PhotoArts. October, 1998. Available: http://photoarts.com/journal/romano/woodman/
(3) “The Friends of the Uffizi Gallery.” The Friends of the Uffizi Gallery. Available: http://www.friendsoftheuffizigallery.org/gifts.html

Misogyny in the atheist community…again

So once again, the topic of gender equality has had to be dragged out and explained one…more…time… (1) (2) (3) (4) (5). The last article (5) by Greta Christina is especially pointed (if you haven’t read it, do so right now). In the comments, an astute reader posited that the misogyny issues we are grappling with is our “hot-button” issue for our community, just like pedophilia is Catholicism’s hot-button issue. These types of events are unfortunately bound to happen once a community has a large number of members (expected value increases), but how the community reacts to such events is not just a matter of probability. It says something more fundamental about the community.

Misogynistic Conversation on Facebook

Misogynistic Conversation on Facebook (5)

When we look at the priest sex abuse scandals, there doesn’t appear to be (to me at least) that there is much internal conflict within the church on how to deal with this. Catholics mostly seem to just brush it away (“They aren’t really Christians”), and chalk it up to a few bad apples. This says to me that the average Catholic does not care about this issue, and by extension does not care about solving this issue. Very few Catholics are actually pedophiles, but by not taking an assertive stance against that incredibly small minority that are, Catholicism as a whole has been hurt, with membership declining faster than other denominations (6). Normally I would be incredibly happy to see church membership declining, but this is not a good reason why.

In many ways, the issues we face with misogyny in the atheist community appears to be having a similar, if somewhat muted, effect. When one of our movement’s best bloggers writes a post about her desires to rage-quite the movement (7), there is a problem. The number of actual misogynistic assholes in the movement is, I’m sure, quite low, but when we don’t try to address these issues when they come up, we make our movement weaker.

There is hope though. Beginning with Elevatorgate, we are beginning to speak up about these instances. Progress is being made. I have certainly learned a lot from the discussion of these events. While I wouldn’t consider myself as having been misogynistic like the guys that were discussed, my views on feminism and the state of female equality were definitely skewed. It has been through these discussions that my opinions have changed for the better, and I doubt I’m the only one.

(1) Watson, Rebecca. “Reddit Makes Me Hate Atheists.” Skepchick. 27th December, 2011. Available: http://skepchick.org/2011/12/reddit-makes-me-hate-atheists/
(2) McCreight, Jen. “The straw woman of the skeptical movement.” Blag Hag. 2nd January, 2012. Available: http://freethoughtblogs.com/blaghag/2012/01/the-straw-woman-of-the-skeptical-movement/
(3) Mehta, Hemant. “Accounting for Accumulation.” Friendly Atheist. 5th January, 2012. Available: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2012/01/05/accounting-for-accumulation/
(4) Christina, Greta. “Why “Yes, But” Is the Wrong Response to Misogyny.” Greta Christina’s Blog. 29th December, 2011. Available: http://freethoughtblogs.com/greta/2011/12/29/why-yes-but-is-the-wrong-response-to-misogyny/
(5) Christina, Greta. “Two Questions for DJ Grothe.” Greta Christina’s Blog. 9th January, 2012. Available: http://freethoughtblogs.com/greta/2012/01/09/two-questions-for-dj-grothe/
(6) “NCC’s 2009 Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches reports decline in Catholic, Southern Baptist membership.” National Council of Churches. 23rd February, 2009. Available: http://www.ncccusa.org/news/090130yearbook1.html
(7) McCreight, Jen. “Drama.” Blag Hag. 10th January, 2012. Available: http://freethoughtblogs.com/blaghag/2012/01/drama/

P.S. Sorry for the lack of updates lately. I’ve been swamped at work plus the traveling for the holiday’s, so I have had very little time for much else. Things should be more or less returning to normal over the next week or two though.

Farewell Christopher Hitchens

As I am sure everyone has already heard, Christopher Hitchens passed away on December 16th. Richard Dawkins has a wonderful eulogy at (1). I discovered Hitchens rather late in life. The first time I ever saw him speak was on a Penn & Teller Bullshit! episode, where I wondered “just who is this guy downing scotch and cigarettes like there’s no tomorrow.”

My respect for him has certainly grown over the years, and I think he was one of our movement’s best speakers. He embodied the idea of a skeptic so well…he always had his own opinions, and one was hard-pressed to infer his opinion on any given subject until he spoke on it. Never the crowd-follower, he showed us all that we should always question groupthink, in all of its forms.

After his diagnosis, he showed us even more what it means to be a skeptic and a humanist. I am still in awe at how he handled his inevitability with such grace and aplomb. His courage in the face of death is truly an inspiration to us all. More than anything, he showed us through his actions that religion is not necessary for dealing with death.

Hitches was truly a great human being, that rare one-of-a-kind who was both passionate and measured. The skeptic community, and indeed the world at large is poorer for his loss. We shall miss him.

(1) Dawkins, Richard. “Illness made Hitchens a symbol of the honesty and dignity of atheism.” The Independent. 17th December, 2011. Available: http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/richard-dawkins-illness-made-hitchens-a-symbol-of-the-honesty-and-dignity-of-atheism-6278298.html