Send an Atheist to Church: Ashley survives Brookland Baptist Church

As part of a fundraising effort for a cancer charity, the local Pastafarians at USC group took donations, in exchange for which the atheist members agreed to be sent to church.  I was sent, along with three other students, to Brookland Baptist church, in West Columbia, SC.

Brookland Baptist Church

I have not been to church in a long time. The closest I’ve been in the last five years is probably the local Unitarian Universalist fellowship, but as their minister is an atheist, I’m not sure how much that counts.  I have actually been to Brookland Baptist before, at the very end of 2006, when John Edwards was speaking there.  I was highly skeptical of him, but after seeing him demand healthcare for all and declare we needed a way to be patriotic besides war, I absolutely fell in love.  Which turned out real well.

Back to the church:

Brookland Baptist Church is a largely African American megachurch, founded in 1902. On Sunday, not only are the parking lots full, but the lots across the street are not enough. The church claims 5,300 members, seats 1,600 on the floor and 500 in the balcony.

Dove with laser beams

I arrived before my fellow heathens and had to wait outside for them.  Initially, I was quite self-conscious because everyone was staring at me, but when I realized it was just because I was the only white person there, not because I was an atheist, it became less worrisome.  For better or for worse, church services seem to be very heavily segregated.  Just as you’d only find one or two African-Americans at your average Episcopalian service, you’ll only find one or two white people at your average Baptist service.  They were, despite the staring, very nice and friendly.

The rest of the cohort arrived and we were sent up to the balcony because one of our members wanted to film some of the service.  I was a little disappointed not to be in the middle of the throng of people, but also relieved that no one would be judging me for being on Facebook during the boring parts.

And boy were there boring parts!

I am a temporally minded person and therefore was already highly irked that the service started 15 minutes late.  I was even more irked when it turned out that the service lasted nearly two and a half hours.  I would have much rather re-watched The Hunger Games with that time!  How someone sits through that every Sunday is beyond me.

Aside from the absurd length, I didn’t really note too many significant differences in the structure and audience participation than the last time I went to an Episcopalian service.  Admittedly, that service was at one of the churches that left the American Episcopalian church to join the Rwandan one because they hate gays so much, but you know, Episcopalianish.  Brookland did, however, have one of the best announcement voices I’ve ever heard — it was like the “In a world” voice, but he was just reading the locations and dates of events.  It was awesome.

This is the song that never ends

There was a lot of singing.  Interminable singing while the collection plate went around.  As much as comedians joke around that the Anglican church is joyless, but the Baptist church goes crazy with the music, there was no evidence of that.  The musak style choir songs were not joyful, just very long.  Fortunately, I had a book, since we were subjected to what probably added up to over an hour of this.

We were, however, very fortunate to have attended the day that we did because the focus was on education and they were recognizing the scholastic achievements of their students.  I don’t know what there normal services and sermons look like, but this was a perfect illustration of how important churches are to the minority community here.  It’s heartwarming to see an institution take so much time and effort to help children succeed and overcome the shortcomings of their schools and local environments.  It is a real shame that, in most cases, the only place they can find this support is in churches.  I know I’ve said it before, but I will say it again, secularists need to pick up minority causes — they are basic human rights issues and we should be on the front lines supporting them.

The church gave out scholarships to graduating high school seniors, and then had a college graduate come and deliver the speech for the day.  Anrae Jamon Motes graduated from MIT in 2010 and currently works as a consultant; he came to give advice to students in the congregation.  He was fantastic.

Motes plays with legos; I love the internet

The entire thrust of the speech was about using education to empower yourself, especially economically.  This is an important message to this community, a community that does not generally have economic power.  He did not really talk about religion until the very end of the speech, where he focused on the support system that the church had given him.  Truly it is not faith that changes these people’s lives, but the actions and support of this community, and that’s something that is quite moving.

That said, he did give some of the credit to Jesus, but I was very impressed by how pragmatic and practical the overall message of the entire day was.  This was not a day about God’s achievements, it was a day about people’s achievements, and much more enticing to an outsider for being so.

At the very end, the deacon made a call for people to join at a protest/celebration for the arrest that has finally come in the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case.  There was a general call for people to be more proactive, to do more than just talk and complain and protest, to actually get out there and vote to change things.  Their goal is to empower people through evangelism, education, and economic change and they emphasized that their community “is about more than winning souls for Christ, it’s about changing lives.”  And to that I can certainly say, “Amen.”

Columbia women, afraid their husbands will be recognized, ban in-town sex shop

The first sex shop in the city of Columbia, SC may be shut down after members of the City Council voted to effectively ban sex shops from the city.

Unhappy wives had been appealing to the council for weeks after the “adult superstore” got its business license on December 4, citing their fear that having an adult store so close to their homes rather than on the outskirts of the city would lead their husbands to frequent such establishments more often and risk their friends at the Country Club seeing their cars.

Shelby, a conservative Christian and devoted mother of four, asks how she is supposed to explain it to her children.

Despite the fact that my children have never once pointed to a store and asked me what it was, what am I supposed to tell them when they do?  Do they really need to know that mommy met daddy when she was paying her way through college as a stripper?  Do I really want them to talk about it when playing tennis at the Club?

The beautiful building next door

The store, located in one of the busiest and ugliest corridors within city limits, is further off the road than anything nearby, but this is not enough for many of the anti-sex women in the town.  Ann, a retiree who lives nearby, is worried about her grandchildren.

I realize that there are nothing but shoddy buildings and fast food restaurants on the street, but there are some good American businesses, like check-cashing places designed to take advantage of the poor.  We don’t want a business supporting healthy sex lives, that’s not what Columbia is about.  Now, a gun store would be just the thing for that location.

Not everyone is against the store, however, and a few voices have come out in support, including Ashley, a local student.

Retroactively changing the law to punish a specific business makes these prudes much bigger a**holes than the ones undoubtedly on full display inside the store.  Think of the children?  What exactly do these people think they had to do to make their children?

A member of City Council, speaking on condition of anonymity, said, “If they’d only given us free vibrators like we’d asked, it never would have come up for a vote.”

No Profanity Ordinance? Bullshit.

Today I read a news story in The State and WIS that said the Columbia Police Department is going to be enforcing a “no profanity” law within the city limits.

The police spokeswoman said: “If they want to curse, do it in their own home. Why do you have to do it in park where they are other children, other people who will. This, it’s just quite frankly, pretty rude.”

Rudeness is not illegal and no one has the right not to be offended. Furthermore, there is no clear definition of what is considered profane. There is no list of forbidden words, phrases, or subjects available to anyone that I am aware of. Or is it like pornography, we are just supposed to know it when we see it? How can they justify this, or is it just an effort to put up signs to stop people complaining at meetings?

Furthermore, based on the ordinance that they are citing, I simply do not think that someone dropping an F-bomb qualifies as Disorderly Conduct as it is defined in ordinance 14-91, the ordinance listed on the sign.

It shall be unlawful for any person within the city limits to engage in the following conduct, knowing or having reasonable grounds to know that it will tend to promote or provoke a fight, assault or brawl.

Am I to believe that simply cursing within earshot of someone is attempting to provoke a fight? Is that something any reasonable person thinks? The ordinance is clearly NOT about profanity — the term “profanity” does not appear at all — putting that on a sign is an absurd stretch.

A law banning profanity would be unconstitutional, but the law they cite doesn’t even do that! They’ve just made it up!

Atheist vs Christian Billboard: Let’s Be Friends

Nearly a month ago, I introduced you to the Columbia Coalition of Reason, which had put up a billboard inviting local non-theists to contact us.  The reaction from Christians was predominantly negative, but we also received a lot of very positive responses from both non-believers and believers.

This week, a local church decided to put up a billboard in the same location in the digital rotation along with our billboard as a direct rebuttal.

This is fantastic.  One, it means we’re in the news again, and two, it means we’ve opened a dialogue with local people of faith.

Dustin Tucker, the guy who has coordinated the billboard effort, was interviewed by local TV station WLTX and spoke to how great it was that the opposing view was speaking up and expressed hope that the atheists would be able to do some sort of joint charity effort with Park Street Baptist Church, something that’s already in the works.

Unlike the responses to the previous news stories, the ones to this seem much more level and reasonable.  Here are my two favorites:

Wow…if the billboards can co-exist..perhaps the believers and non-believers will find a way to co-exist as well.

If one wants to see God look into the eyes of a child and you will see Innocent little angels. Those who choose not to believe live very empty lives.

I love kids, don’t get me wrong, but they are definitely demons.

If you’d like to know more about the billboards you can go over to Friendly Atheist, where the president of the Pastafarians at USC has done a nice write up, go listen to the podcast I did at A Matter of Doubt, or:

TUNE IN TONIGHT!  (Sunday, 12/18) at 8PM EST to Reason Podcast where someone from the group will be chatting about it live!

Columbia Coalition of Reason Hate Mail: Part I

I still don't understand how people are offended by this

We sent out a press release this morning about the billboard, and by the afternoon we’d had coverage on some local websites and by tonight we’d had interviews on local TV.

The comments on the news sites have been pretty negative, but the people actually contacting us have been very positive and grateful.  I’ve collected some of the angry comments from our e-mail and the news sites to share with you.  Everything is copy & pasted with no editing for grammar, spelling, or logic.

We are hoping to do dramatic readings of some of these.  I’ve numbered them so that you can easily comment on which ones are your favorites.

PASCAL’S WAGER

1. “To all atheists: If as a Christian I’m right …. then you lose. If you’re right … then you still lose. Good luck with those odds.”

2. “I would much rather live my life believing that there is one true God and find out later that there isn’t, than to live my life as if there isn’t, only to find out later that there is! I guess we’ll all find out for ourselves on judgement day. As for me, I know in my heart that Jesus died for my salvation and for the salvation of all sinners, and that one day I’ll join Him in heaven with the rest of the believers. Heaven or Hell is your choice… I’ll take the high road, thank you…”

ATHEISTS ARE ALONE

3. “Don’t Believe in God? You are not alone.” Unless you look at the really big picture and realize you are. Completely. Alone.”

4. “No, if you do not believe in God you are not alone. But you soon will be.”

5. “You’re not alone” are the atheists suicidal? depressed? I’m sure they are, i would be too if i were an atheist. let’s pray that they open their hearts and minds to God

MAKE SENSE?

6. “That true God. I was surprise why to say can’t believe God?! They people already know God is true in the Heaven. I believe GOD in Heaven! I never say that unbeliever God before. Should to be change post Believe God, and not say Godless period!”

7. “Madalyn Murray O’Hair, killed by one of her own followers and employees was the most widely known and hated of all Atheists. She, one of her sons, and grand-daughter were killed in a robbery gone bad committed by one whom she trusted. Her surviving son William J. Murray is the chairman of the Religious Freedom Coalition, a non-profit organization in Washington, D.C., active on issues related to aiding Christians in Islamic and Communist nations. She felt so strongly about his becoming a Christian she had this to say about him. “One could call this a postnatal abortion on the part of a mother, I guess, I repudiate him entirely and completely for now and all times. He is beyond human forgiveness.” WOW! What a way for a mother to treat her own child over a difference of religious opinion in a country where we have a right to practice or not practice our religion freely. Way to go Atheists!”

8. What does the year 2011 mean?….. It means the age of JESUS. And he is coming back. Believe it or not.

YOU RUIN CHRISTMAS

9. “My question to the atheists and agnostics, what is the real purpose of the billboards during one of the most holiest times for Christian and Jews? Where were you in June?”

10. “”We’re your friends…” really? Friends don’t slam your beliefs during your holiest of months. If you’re our friends why not put the billboard up in June? The answer is because you enjoy slamming Christians. Give me a break. You have the right to do whatever you want, but have some class and put your signs up during another time.”

YOU GO TO HELL, YOU GOT TO HELL AND YOU DIE

11. “I THINK WE SHOULD PUT UP A SIGN RIGHT NEXT TO THAT ONE THAT SAYS “GOING TO ****? YOU ARE NOT ALONE” I WOULD DONATE. THE ONLY REASON US CHRISTIANS “PUSH” OUR BELIEFS ON ANYONE IS BECAUSE WE READ IN OUR BIBLES THAT JESUS CHRIST COMMANDS WE SHARE THE NEWS “SO THAT NONE MAY PERISH”. I SHARE JESUS BECAUSE I GENUINELY FEEL SORRY FOR THOSE THAT DO NOT KNOW HIM. TO KNOW JESUS IS TO KNOW PEACE”

12. “They might as well spend all their money on silly billboards…they can take it (to ****) with them…”

13. “The time will come when we can so OH WE TOLD YOU SO!! You say non Christians maybe be sitting by us in church-nah I don’t think so”

14. “**** is getting HOTTER as we speak! For those who don’t want to believe, that is your choice, but don’t beg for mercy on your day of Judgement!”

15. “People of all religious beliefs and backgrounds, remember one thing please. When it’s all over and you find that you were wrong, it’s TOO late then to make a change. So, be sure that what or who you believe in or don’t believe in is the right way to go, cause you only get one shot. I know where I’m going. Maybe I’ll see you there. If not, say hello to Hitler and Bin Laden for me, OK!”

16. “WIS/TV… Fred Edwords, national director of the United Coalition of Reason, said “Such non-theists sometimes don’t realize there’s a community for them.” /////////////////////////////​/////////////////////////////​////////////////// In a related story—it’s reasonable to say that what the Coalition doesn’t know, as well Is…if they stay their course—they’ll find their community—a very hot place known as…**** !!!”

17. “Atheists cease to exist once they die. They then become believers. Dont believe in God? I’m sure your boss will let you work for Christmas.”

HELL... hellooooo

MUSLIMS

18. “why don’t they do this campaign in countries like Iran or Saudi Arabia, i bet those atheists feel even more lonely! American Christians don’t force their religion on people,they, just like the CoR, like to get The Word out, but what you do with it, its up to the individual. The USA still has religious freedom last i checked.”

19.

(We need one about not believing in Allah. - An Allah coloring book. - You can get an Allah coloring book with Dealchicken coupons. - The Allah Christmas Book. Allah delivers guns and bombs to all the little future terrorist. - My personal favorite...Allah lights the menorah coloring book.)

SO ANGRY

20. “I believe in Him and I also believe I’ll boycott any advertisers that use Lamar billboards.”

21. “stupid tards why would you be sitting next to us in church if your not a believer ? i think you plan backfired instead of spreading your non existent belief in god anyone who quiestions gods existence will inevitably come to the conclusion there is a god.not offended, all things work to the glory of god.”

22. “This article made me sick and so do half of you posters. That’s what is wrong with the world today. You should be ashamed. I choose to praise God and if you choose not to, then that is your problem”

23. Its funny these people don’t believe in God but they use the money that says “In God We Trust”. Since you don’t believe in God try living without the money that has His name on it.

CRAZY

24. GOVERNMENT CONSPIRACY!!! MAKE THEM TAKE THEM DOWN!!! SOMEONE CLIMB UP AND PAINT OVER THE DON’T! THEN IT WILL BE A GREAT SIGN!!

25. For those who dont believe will be the ones who when the time comes will be demanding to be let into the Ark when the world does come to an end. For the way of life is through Jesus Christ and for the way to Death is those who choose not to believe.

26. do believe in God: so people need to watch out what the put on a sign. boy if my sister get hold of this she will be calling on God to take it down:

27. Why is it important that you tell the world you don’t believe? This is the work of Satan, you better believe it. I am sadden by this display.

28. I just want to let you know I am very offended about your billboards. Why can you all put this up and we cannot have billboards with God’s name in it for the good? I really feel this is not fair. Just remember God is watching you.

LONG FORM

29.

Just read on your home page in which you wrote “people who don’t believe in a god or gods can be decent citizens…” Gods? Most people (around here) believe in just one God. I think when you wrote “gods” you were being patronizing, no?

I used to be agnostic, so I understand where you are coming from. But I was a little offended by the “gods” reference. You are making fun! Look, Christians and religious folk used to really annoy the crap out of me, especially being the pragmatist that I am. But I think in the end I was more jealous that people could “let go” and accept something that was contrary to rational thought. They were more open-minded than I was and that really got under my skin. So I would make snyde comments like “do you believe in fairies too!” But really, I was just jealous that others could accept something that I could not.

I’m not going to preach. But from one former atheist/agnostic to another, I’d like you to consider one question. This is the question that ultimately helped me to become more open minded in my search for “what is?” No laughing, this is serious stuff and I want you to do your research and really, really ponder it…like for a year or more. Here goes: Why do atoms attract? (and, no, the answer is not “because God tells them to”, lol….or IS it) Remember: question everything, and let your intelligence set you free.

I can assure you that we are not making fun of religious people, nor do we intend to seem patronizing. The simple fact of the matter is that there are, in fact, people in this very community who believe in multiple gods. Both Wiccans and Hindus live in the greater Columbia area. We apologize if you felt offended.

As for your question, atoms are attracted to each other through Van Der Waal’s forces, electronegativity, and ionic or covalent bonding. As an archaeologist, I cannot speak definitively on inter-atomic forces and subatomic particle interaction, but there are plenty of physicists among us who would be happy to discuss the finer points of the theoretical physics should you ever feel inclined to attend a meeting or event advertised on our home page.

I thank you for taking the time to write and express your concerns to us directly, and I hope that my answer has proven satisfactory.

Sincerely,

Dustin Tucker
CoR Coordinator

Really? Hindus have multiple gods? They seem so nice, but that’s just crazy.

And thanks for the invite to your activities, but I’ve spent many hours participating in these types of discussions and the answers are always the same. But Justin, in your search for reason and understanding I don’t want you to forget about gravity. Its a big deal. That two objects are pulled together without a single physical, detectable thing binding them is quite the conundrum. Many physicist and scientist believe that there must be something there pulling these particles and objects together. However, this missing something is not detectable on our level or by our limited senses. Many believe it exists on a different plane or dimension all together. But it must exist. Otherwise, these objects are being pulled together by magic, and that’s not reasonable. Nonetheless, these things or invisible “forces” are well beyond our scope and certainly beyond our natural senses.

In reality, we are limited to only what we can see, hear, feel, touch and smell. To me, its incomprehensible to imagine what lies out there that we have no ability to know about or even comprehend because of our physical and sensual limitations. Science and reason are not equipped to tell us. Nor are they equipped to tell us they “don’t know” as that kind of defeats their purpose. Yet, the more we uncover, the more lucid it becomes that there is much more out there that we do not understand, including those things that we are unable to perceive. It could be anything. There is no denying this, it is simply a reasonable conclusion. Of course, what you do with that conclusion is up to you.

PALATE CLEANSER

30. “I am a Christian; I belive in God and the bible, grew up in Church etc. I am not perfect and I do sin quite frequently. We as Christians believe we are forgiven and are entitled to believe what we choose just as everyone else is; there is freedom of religion and freedom of speech in place to protect everyone and their beliefs.”

Effort

I’ve decided to make a concerted effort to post more, even if it’s not about anything particularly interesting or a particularly in-depth post.  It turns out writing a personal blog while writing for a professional one becomes a lot more difficult.  Not because there aren’t things I care about, but because they necessarily take a backseat to paid work.

I’m trying to train myself to write more anyway, because I should.

I spent several hours yesterday at a media seminar with Fred Edwords (Fredwords) and it was very interesting how much of his talk overlapped with the things I’ve been talking about at TAM, D*C, and at the UU today.  PR is basically reliant on getting emotional responses from people.  It seems very straightforward to me, but I guess when you don’t come from that background it is difficult to understand why just a logical argument doesn’t work.

Big things are happening in Columbia, SC!

Shooting in Shandon

Shandon

Shandon

I’ve had a very strange day.  I have a lot I’m supposed to be working on, but I’ve found myself in the middle of this tragedy playing out in Columbia, SC today.  You hear about shootings and tragedies on the news, maybe you, like me, find them disturbing and fascinating and horrifying.  Sometimes even those distant horrors can seem personal, like Columbine, and people who weren’t even close to being involved have to get through the grief of the event.

I certainly didn’t think I’d ever know someone at the center of something like that.  Why would I?  It seemed like something that happened in other worlds.  Certainly not in Columbia, SC, and definitely not in the whitebread, middle class neighborhood of Shandon.

I woke up early this morning and couldn’t quite go back to sleep, so I checked my Facebook.  One of my FB friends wrote that they’d heard shots outside their house, and they live in Shandon.  My mom lives in Shandon, but all I really thought was, “Now I can get back at her for all the paranoia when I lived in Echo Park.”  And I went back to sleep.

After I got to work, I read a little about it, and the information was sparse: a police officer had been shot in the protective vest, a suspect with an AK-47 had been killed, suicide by cop, and it all happened within sight of my mother’s house.  That was a little bit too freaky, so I texted her to make sure she was OK.  She didn’t reply for a long while, and when she did I was really flummoxed.

“It was Blake Jernigan.”

Blake

Blake

And here was my thought process: Blake Jernigan.  Was the shooter?  That can’t be right.  Does she mean he was the officer who is OK, no, he’s too young, that doesn’t make sense, she must mean he was the shooter.  He did get in trouble a couple years ago for drugs or something, but he’s like 22, he’s a kid!  He went to high school with my little brother!  He used to hang out at our house, he’s friends with my little sister, clearly she’s got something mixed up or is talking about something else…

So I texted my little brother, hoping that he’d say something like “Oh, no, she just meant it was at his house, it wasn’t him, he’s fine.”  He didn’t say that.

Then the news caught up with gossip and reported that the shooter was Blakely Jernigan.  They even found a picture of him from Facebook.  He looks exactly like he did when he was 12.

If you ever know someone involved in some sort of story, don’t read the comments.  Really, do not, it will only make you angry and sad and doubtful of the worthiness of humanity.  I don’t begrudge the cops for shooting him, they did what they had to do and shooting at cops is basically a death wish, but I don’t understand the people crowing about the death of a 22 year old troubled kid.  Calling him names, discussing which more terrifying weapons the police should have used to destroy him, and of course the one guy who says he’d wished it was Obama that got shot instead.

Then my brother FB IMed me, he seemed really freaked out.  No one was surprised that he came to a bad end, but no one thought he’d be at the center of a police shoot out either.  Apparently his personality had drastically changed since going to college, he started doing and selling drugs, and he got a fully automatic AK-47 because people were robbing him.  Not really a story that’s going to have a happy ending.

I dunno, maybe this is one of those bleeding heart liberal things, where I just can’t make anyone into a cardboard cutout bad guy.  I can’t help but see people in these stories, even when I don’t know them.  I just don’t know why anyone is happy at the death of another.  I have no distance from this, so I guess I can’t really say.

I am very glad that the officer is going to be just fine, I only wish the same could be said for the Jernigans.

logan

Logan

My sister on the news