Preacher at the Funeral

This week is full of commitments and deadlines. Rather than try to meet all my blogging commitments with new work and failing, I’m pulling out some old posts. Given how my audience has grown, most of you won’t have read them at the time. This post was originally published here.

Let me start by saying that I understand the role of religion at a funeral. I understand that believing death isn’t real and permanent comforts a great many people. I’m not one of them, but I won’t begrudge solace to those who are.

That said, I despise, with all I am, the time at a funeral that is spent on advertising Jesus instead of on the dead and the survivors.

My grandfather’s service was Friday. He received one of the lovelier eulogies I’ve heard, delivered by my mother and my uncle. They talked about his childhood and theirs. They told the skunk story and about the frustrations of deer hunting with a man who loved the woods but apparently didn’t want to ever have to dress another deer in his lifetime. They talked about his courtship and marriage of 67 years and how he still thought my grandmother was the most beautiful woman he’d met when she died at age 90.

Before and after the people who actually knew my grandfather, a Lutheran pastor spoke. He played some religious music my grandfather had picked out a couple of weeks before he died, songs that my grandfather had sung through his life and that brought him comfort. My grandfather hadn’t been to church in decades, to the best of my knowledge, but that had more to do with an argument with a minister than with losing his religion.

The pastor was perfunctory in those bits of service that are actually service to the mourners. He read the bits of Revelations that deal with heaven without much attempt to string them into coherence. He did not, thankfully, try to pretend that he knew anything about my grandfather, as the pastor at my grandmother’s funeral had done. The pastor was saving his energy, and he was saving it for proselytization.

I don’t know whether anyone told him there were nonbelievers in the crowd. I doubt it. You don’t generally tell someone in a situation like this that he won’t face an entirely friendly audience. I didn’t notice him checking whether everyone prayed either, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t. I was looking out the window, watching the birds outside the window the way my grandfather used to before he went mostly blind.

Still, for whatever reason, the pastor wasn’t content to simply reassure those of us who were religious that my grandfather and grandmother were together again in heaven–or would be together after the resurrection. He was clearly up on his theology but uncomfortable getting that specific with us; he hinted instead.

No, the pastor poured his energy into exhorting us all to believe as he did. There were bits and bobs throughout the service, but the worst of it came as a sermon after the eulogies. It was very much an “Enough about the dead person I don’t know; let’s talk about Jesus” moment.

Heaven is like Disneyland, you see.

The pastor apparently had a desperate need to tell us about the song “When You Wish Upon a Star” and how it played after The Wonderful World of Disney and made him want to go to Disneyland but how he as a child couldn’t imagine ever being able to go to Disneyland because it was so very far away and his family never traveled very far but how he finally at age 31 took his children there and has now been to every Disney theme park except Euro Disney and how that means that heaven may seem impossible but really isn’t. Really.

Me? I had to sit there and bite my tongue about Disney advertising their brand to young, impressionable children and about thin facades of magic and selling us all something we just don’t need. I had to be silent while he got to say whatever nonsense he wanted. And I had to do it at my grandfather’s funeral because selling Jesus to us all was more important than focusing on those of us who were mourning.

It was the single most selfish moment I’ve seen at a funeral, and the pastor didn’t have the excuse of being distraught.

It took all of lunch with my husband and niece and the 18-mile drive to the Fort Snelling cemetery with the motorcycle cop putting himself in harm’s way to smooth our progress to settle my anger. It took the rows upon rows of white stones stretching in all directions to restore my sense of perspective. The 21-gun salute and “Taps” were a far more effective remembrance than anything the pastor had said, as were the very short rituals of thanks from the President and Joint Chiefs of Staff delivered by the volunteers at the cemetery.

Then the pastor showed up again to inject religion into this ceremony as well by leading the Pledge of Allegiance. (It didn’t go quite as he expected, I think. I’ll say the pledge, but I can’t remember where “under God” is supposed to go. I always finish early.) Then another prayer in the cold and the wind.

I was wearing just a wool sweater, where everyone else was wearing winter coats, but I didn’t even notice in my anger. I just wanted it all to be done and over with so I could leave–my grandfather’s funeral.

Now, I’m sure that this pastor thought he was doing what needed to be done. I doubt anyone has ever told him to his face that he made a bad situation worse by his behavior. We don’t do that to pastors. However, after this experience and after hearing from so many people who had similar experiences, maybe it’s time for that to change.

Religious People Cheat

This week is full of commitments and deadlines. Rather than try to meet all my blogging commitments with new work and failing, I’m pulling out some old posts. Given how my audience has grown, most of you won’t have read them at the time. This post was originally published here.

Jesse Bering has an article up at Slate this morning on whether nonbelievers should marry believers. His argument in favor?

On the one hand, I’d no doubt be irritated by my very religious wife’s supernatural beliefs. On the other hand, the very fact that she believes strongly in some divinely imposed morality should influence her behavior behind my back. She may well be suffering a very bad case of the dreaded God delusion, but perhaps this isn’t such a bad thing for her atheist husband. After all, my faithful, imaginary wife would then be operating under the assumption that cheating on me would not only hurt her family if the affair ever came to light, but would result in eternal damnation or perhaps an unhappy plague of this-worldly misfortunes even if it didn’t. Never mind if she’s crazy. I’m a pragmatist, so what she believes to be true is all that matters.

[Evo psych argument for why this should be important elided.]

Now, now, Dawkinsian atheists, I know what you’re thinking: You certainly don’t have to believe in God to be faithful to your spouse; marriages are built on mutual trust; religious people cheat, too; and so on. Of course you’re right about these things, but we’re still in the emotionless realm of the hypothetical, remember, and all else being equal, if you’re simply trying to minimize the chances of landing an adulterous partner, you might as well stack the deck in your favor by marrying the woman who “knows” that God would get really mad at her if she misappropriated her genitalia. This isn’t just my being a contrarian, either. There really is evidence from controlled experiments showing that religious thinking and church attendance leads to moral behavior.

For the record, he does recognize this as a bit of cold calculus, done for the purposes of writing the article. That’s not my problem with it. My problem is that the research he cites (the “controlled experiments” link) doesn’t say what he seems to think it says about cheating.

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On Display: Clothing, Breasts, and Power

This week is full of commitments and deadlines. Rather than try to meet all my blogging commitments with new work and failing, I’m pulling out some old posts. Given how my audience has grown, most of you won’t have read them at the time. This post was originally published here.

Greta Christina has been writing about fashion as a language, about how we choose what to express and the fact that we don’t get to choose to say nothing by our choice of clothing. On Friday, she wrote about her relationship to clothing as an expression of gender. The whole thing is interesting, but I was struck in particular by her statement that “male drag was a way of feeling sexy and sexually transgressive when my weight was up and I wasn’t feeling conventionally attractive.” I’ve been thinking about weight, clothing, and gender for some time. Greta’s post has inspired me to write about it.

Breasts are fascinating, but perhaps not quite for the reason you’re thinking.

All right, in addition to the reason you’re thinking.

Breasts, or at least larger breasts, are made up primarily of fat. As a culture, we hate fat, but we love breasts. Where else but in the bumpy cleavage of a very thin woman are the unmistakable signs of plastic surgery so generally accepted?

Hips and butts too, but as a former kid whose diapers slid off my nonexistent hips all the time, I’m somewhat less qualified to talk about the dichotomous reaction to those particular secondary sex characteristics. Breasts I’ve got, in plenty. Sex and fat in one package.

It’s a combination that brings…an interesting set of choices. [Read more...]

When We Half Understand Poverty

This week is full of commitments and deadlines. Rather than try to meet all my blogging commitments with new work and failing, I’m pulling out some old posts. Given how my audience has grown, most of you won’t have read them at the time. This post was originally published here.

Yesterday’s New York Times carried an article on the relative cost of fast food and fresh, home-prepared food. The article challenges the notion that junk food is cheaper than fresh, using fast food as its comparison.

This is just plain wrong. In fact it isn’t cheaper to eat highly processed food: a typical order for a family of four — for example, two Big Macs, a cheeseburger, six chicken McNuggets, two medium and two small fries, and two medium and two small sodas — costs, at the McDonald’s a hundred steps from where I write, about $28. (Judicious ordering of “Happy Meals” can reduce that to about $23 — and you get a few apple slices in addition to the fries!)

In general, despite extensive government subsidies, hyperprocessed food remains more expensive than food cooked at home. You can serve a roasted chicken with vegetables along with a simple salad and milk for about $14, and feed four or even six people. If that’s too much money, substitute a meal of rice and canned beans with bacon, green peppers and onions; it’s easily enough for four people and costs about $9. (Omitting the bacon, using dried beans, which are also lower in sodium, or substituting carrots for the peppers reduces the price further, of course.)

This is cheating a little bit, given that the actual poor don’t really go out that often, even to McDonald’s. A better comparison would have been prepared and unprepared grocery food. The numbers would have been closer as well, though I’m not sure which food would have come out ahead on average.

When Jennifer Ouellette linked to the article, someone (with time to comment but not to read, apparently) asked whether the article addressed time poverty. Another person noted that she can make healthy food for her kids in 20 minutes. She also keeps fresh fruit around for snacking and pushes the most perishable fruit on the kids first so it doesn’t go bad.

I’ll get to the problem with applying that perspective to poverty shortly, but I’d also like to point out that the Times made a similar mistake in the article.

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Through the Eyes of Strangers

The ripples from the Minnesota Atheists billboards just keep being felt. Because of the billboards, the St. Paul Saints contacted MNA to sponsor a baseball game. A baseball game sponsored by atheists is newsworthy enough that it was reported in Texas, in Pennsylvania, and apparently, in Montreal.

If you listen to the radio show from last Sunday (which you should do anyway, because Chris Rodda is a great, passionate guest), you might hear a bit of extra noise in the background. A good cameraman can’t always be quiet, no matter how he tries. And Fred is good. He worked his butt off for a few seconds of footage from the show and a minute or so from the interview that happened immediately after.

Fred and Isabelle, the reporter/interviewer who met with us and had a lovely Sunday brunch and chat, are in the U.S. to traverse the length of the Mississippi before the election. They’re here to explain to those back home the state and complexity of our nation. One of the things needing an explanation to Canadians (or Canadiens) is the struggle of U.S. atheists for public acceptance, as about a third of Canadians are non-believers.

Isabelle was very up front, talking to us about finding the entire problem foreign and strange. Just as strange to her was the preacher she talked to somewhere along her travels whose American dream was for free markets. In fact, baseball may be the only subject in their video where Isabelle felt on completely solid ground, as that is her husband’s beat.

So if you want to find out how outsiders see American atheism, check out Isabelle and Frederic’s coverage from Sur la Route du Mississippi. For an English translation of the written text, click here.

Humor Study Is Funny Peculiar

This week is full of commitments and deadlines. Rather than try to meet all my blogging commitments with new work and failing, I’m pulling out some old posts. Given how my audience has grown, most of you won’t have read them at the time. This post was originally published here.

This week, Scicurious and I are tandem blogging her Friday Weird Science paper. This one just had a bit too much weird for one person.

Child pointing at the camera and laughing.

Heh. Heh. Heh.

A summer school theater teacher of mine from way back claimed to long for a unique career. He wanted to be a stand-up comedian for preschoolers. There were just one or two little problems. The kids don’t have a lot of disposable income to spend on entertainment, and the parents weren’t going to pony up for a grown man standing in front of a bunch of kids saying, “Pee-pee. Caca,” no matter how much the kids were, well, peeing themselves with laughter.

ResearchBlogging.org iconMy teacher understood humor at its most basic, and he would laugh his ass off if he were to read a recent evolutionary psychology paper on the topic, “Humor ability reveals intelligence, predicts mating success, and is higher in males.” If he didn’t have one of those common names that makes a person impossible to catch up with, I’d send it to him. It’s the sort of evo psych paper that ignores everything we know about inheritance, almost everything we know about the topic being studied, and much of what we know about sex to say, “Look! Correlation! Thus…selection!”

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Saturday Storytime: Mrs. Henderson’s Cemetery Dance

Sometimes as a writer, you step back and say, “Wait. What did I just write?” I have to assume that, as both a writer and editor of horror erotica, Carrie Cuinn has the occasional interesting reaction when she does that. There’s not even a tiny sign of self-consciousness in this story, though.

Mrs. Henderson, the poor widow who lived next door, helped Mrs. Herbert to her feet while Mr. Herbert searched for the right words. “Not to be rude, sir, but aren’t you meant to be dead?”

Mr. Liu blinked. “I am dead.”

“Ah, but what I mean to say,” Mr. Herbert countered, “is that aren’t you meant to be buried?”

“I was buried,” Mr. Liu acknowledged.

“Right, yes, of course,” Mr. Herbert replied. “I was there, you know. Fine ceremony. One of the last we had at the old cemetery, before we dug that new one behind the church. It’s just that … I believe that you were meant to stay buried.”

“Dog took his arm,” Mary said again, helpfully.

“Yes, exactly. The dog took my arm,” Mr. Liu said. “I don’t think that’s the sort of thing one should just let stand.”

“That would be hard to ignore,” Mrs. Blackstone, the schoolteacher, said. The crowd murmured, nodding their heads.

“It’s agreed that we understand why you … rose up, as it were,” Mr. Wenzlaff, the village’s mayor said. “Now, in the interest of civic peace, what can we do to get you to go back?”

“Back to being dead?” Mr. Liu asked.

“No, it’s clear that you’re still dead,” Mr. Herbert said, glancing down at Mr. Liu’s rotting clothing and missing arm with a frown, until he caught the dead man looking at him. “Sorry,” he mumbled.

“I think they mean for you to go back to your grave, sir,” Mrs. Henderson said quietly. As a young woman whose new husband had gone off to war and not come back, she knew a thing or two about being unwanted in this village.

“You can’t send him back without his arm,” a voice called from the back of the crowd. There was some commotion as the villagers backed away from the speaker, until everyone could clearly see the strange man who’d spoken. His face had rotted away, leaving only a few bits of skin and hair atop his ivory skull. Bare skulls were notoriously hard to identify in those days.

Mrs. Herbert moaned and fainted again, slipping from Mrs. Henderson’s frail arms like a sack of potatoes.

Keep reading.

“Feminism+”, or One-Drop Activism

There’s a class of criticism of Atheism+ that says, “Oh, they shouldn’t co-opt the word ‘atheist’. They should just call themselves what they are, ‘Feminism+’.” Or “We wouldn’t be so upset if they’d just be honest and call themselves, ‘Feminism+’.” We’re not really atheists, you see. Because we’re feminists. And if we don’t clearly label themselves as feminists–instead of atheists–we’re being dishonest and misleading the people watching them.

It took me a while, but I finally figured out what was so familiar about it. It’s the one-drop rule rewritten for our situation. [Read more...]

Atheists Talk: Howard Bloom on “The God Problem”

Howard Bloom is an extraordinary individual, which might be amusing when one realizes that a vast portion of his interest is the study of groups and system interactions. Bloom is a scientist, an activist, an innovator and a music industry publicist whose success in that arena is credited more to his understanding of mass psychology than of music.

Howard Bloom is a prolific writer whose topics of interest seem to span the entire range of everything from the beginnings of the universe to the future of mankind. His work has been published in well-known journals, magazines and newspapers, and he is the author of four books. Howard Bloom will discuss with Atheists Talk his newly published book The God Problem: How a Godless Cosmos Creates. Like so much of his work, it is difficult to put into any one box. It is a novel, an autobiography, a well-researched history of science. It is story of groups, of thoughts, of science and philosophy. The God Problem is all of these things in parts, but the whole is harder to define. Join us this Sunday to learn more about Howard Bloom and his fascinating new book.

Related Links:

Listen to AM 950 KTNF this Sunday at 9 a.m. Central to hear Atheists Talk, produced by Minnesota Atheists. Stream live online. Call in to the studio at 952-946-6205, or send an e-mail to radio@mnatheists.org during the live show. If you miss the live show, listen to the podcast later.