Atheist in need of advice: How to cope with family?

I offered to post these letters anonymously to our blog to solicit more feedback from others who might have more, or better, ideas to help this person—to make it simple, let’s call him “John.” My offer was accepted, and so I’m sharing. In brief, John suspected that his mother was being influenced by religious relatives. And the relationship between him and his mom, which had been cordial, became strained. I suggested he not go on a hunch, but address this issue with his mom directly, to just ask what had motivated the change—so they could at least have a conversation based on whatever was actually going on. This is the reply I received after he took that advice: [Read more…]

Atheists as Vulcans without Machismo? An e-mail exchange…

I recently received the following e-mail query:

What do you think about the fringe criticisms against atheism that talk about the setbacks of overly concrete/logical thinking and a lack of abstract, emotional capacity commonly associated with atheists?

They criticize atheists (especially Dawkins and people like Dawkins) for being dull, unpleasant, lacking machismo and being unappealing to women. They argue that overly concrete thinking is detrimental to living the dynamic and largely abstract life outside of scientific institutions and number crunching facilities. Popular psychology even attested and perpetuated this bullshit with labels like Aspergers which describes people who are book-smart but have no people skills. I can’t cite any source that surveyed people with Aspergers and how many of them are religious or irreligious but I can guarantee a majority would be atheists.

The question is, is being 100% logical all the time really the right way to live an awesome and successful life?

You got things like music and art that you can’t build or enjoy without a level of spiritual capacity. As an example, to fully enjoy the spirit of Christmas, you gotta suspend some logic about Santa Claus and just let loose to enjoy the holiday, especially for the children whom you wouldn’t wanna ruin the fun for. Or watching cartoons and coming across many things that just don’t make sense, like the characters not falling off a cliff as long as they don’t look down and other inconsistencies in the plots of long-running anime episodes that you just don’t wanna over-analyze or be too logical about because it ruins the fun and the whole point of the show which isn’t to take it so seriously.

So essentially they are calling atheists a pack of basement-dwelling empty nerds who don’t know how to have a good time, which I gotta admit isn’t too far from the truth.

What do you think about all this?

My response was brief:

I don’t think their accusations are remotely accurate…and tell us much more about those making those accusations than the target of them.

And apparently insufficient…so the author asked for more information:

Why not? Is it not true that those prone to atheism are much more concrete thinkers than those prone to religion? You have to admit there is a correlation.

Here’s my response…

The fact that we’re not prone to accepting fantasy-as-reality doesn’t mean that we’re emotionless robots or Vulcans, incapable of appreciating beauty.

I’d argue that, in fact, the opposite is true. The individuals that I’ve met in the atheist community, are rarely dull. To the extent that we’re unpleasant, it stems from the frustrations of seeing reality treated as a minority position by individuals who credulously accept the supernatural while attempting to impose their religious views on other by legislation, coercion and indoctrination.

With respect to the lack of machismo or being unappealing to women, I find those claims absurd and sexist. They are particularly stupid charges that would be beneath response if it weren’t worthwhile to expose the ignorance and privilege of those making the claim.

There’s not a single public atheist figure that is advocating logic at the expense of emotion, humanity, beauty or empathy. (And if they’re were such a person, the rest of the public atheists would be the first in line to point out that this individual certainly doesn’t speak on behalf of other atheists).

There is no “spiritual” requirement for enjoying beauty or art…and such statements only demonstrate that the individuals have no concept of either the people their criticizing or the human condition. Most of my atheist friends greatly appreciate beauty, art, literature, fantasy, science fiction, music, films….the list goes on and on.

In addition to the television programs, podcasts, speaking engagements and activism efforts, I not only work a full-time job, but I take time to enjoy the world I live in. I read books (often fantasy and sci-fi), visit zoos, caves and museums, shop at craft fairs, hike and explore nature. I also crochet, make chain mail jewelry and oil paint. I play board games, card games, computer games and billiards. I am moved by great musical and artistic performances – occasionally to tears.

I do these things with my wife and with many other members of the atheist community. Dawkins has spoken many times about the beauty of nature. Hitchens has done so as well. I was fortunate to hear both of them speak publicly about this subject at the convention this past weekend.

As I said, the accusations aren’t remotely accurate and can only be made by someone engaged in a quixotic and xenophobic dismissal of a perceived enemy. What a sad existence one must have to presume that those who don’t share one’s imaginary friend are somehow deficient and sub-human. Curiously, they’ve often adopted religious positions that relegate the entire glory of existence to the status of a doormat – a place to wipe one’s feet while waiting for an afterlife. While their perceived enemy, to the extent that they’ve established anything akin to a religion, have largely adopted humanist positions.

And, as I’ve now wasted two e-mails responding to this absurd subject, I’ll be posting it on the blog so the reply might help prevent others from asking this.

Thanks for the question and for pushing for a follow up…but I’m most definitely finished with this particular subject.

Coming Out

I recently met a young woman online who is about to go off to college. She is a recent deconvert and made the decision to “out” herself in her home. As is common, the experience was less than stellar for her. And she recently linked me to an article she wrote describing what it’s been like. I loved her story and asked if it would be all right to share it for the benefit of other young people in similar situations. Fortunately she agreed. So, without further delay, Emily’s story:

Things That Must Be Said
With a mere twelve days left before I leave home for college, I’ve finally come to the frustrating, yet incredibly sad realization that I cannot express my beliefs without being attacked by members of my family, and some of my friends. I’ve realized that I cannot simply live without being quietly or not so quietly judged by the people who are meant to be my comforters and supporters. I am normally quiet and passive when it comes to my beliefs because I am afraid of conflict, and I feel outnumbered. But I can no longer sit back and be trampled. I can’t just cater to everyone around me. I have to be confident enough to defend myself to everyone around me, because I can’t pretend to be someone I’m not.

Tonight, as I sat quietly at the dinner table with my mother and younger brother David, my brother suddenly brought it to my mother’s attention that I was overheard talking on the phone about something with which she did not agree. I had been on the phone the day before with a friend of mine who happens to be atheist, and we were discussing our opinions on current world events. This triggered an onslaught of verbal abuse from my mother, who said that ever since I became an atheist, I am now selfish, “troubled”, coldhearted, and that I see the world from twisted perspective. David, at the wise and all-knowing age of fifteen, feels that my atheist friend Jordan is a bad influence on me, and, in a nazi-like manner, he feels that he must inform my mother at all times of any sort of liberal or atheist talk on my part. He informed my mother that my facebook page is filled with atheist propaganda, and at that, my mother flew off the handle, yelling, “Is that true, Emily? Do you really have atheist things all over your facebook?!” Ha, first of all, I don’t think I have ever posted anything particularly “atheist” or abrasive, because, like I said, I fear conflict, and a part of me has always been afraid to stir up trouble, or displease anyone. Until now. Second of all, even if I did have atheist posts all over my profile, is there supposed to be some sort of crime in that? When I told my mother this, her response was, “Well it just doesn’t look good, and that’s not all you are.” Of course that’s not all am. Being an atheist is only a tiny fraction of who I am as a person, and I find it sick and sad that my loved ones are willing to write me off and harshly judge me simply because I’m an atheist. My father, an abnormally quiet and passive man, who seriously never contributes to any conversation, decided tonight would be the night to jump in and tell me that even if I am an atheist, I don’t need to parade it around. Parade it around? I’m pretty sure 90% of people who read this have no idea that I’m an atheist. He said “I have plently of friends who don’t believe, but that doesn’t mean they tell anyone about it.” So apparently my dad feels that its okay if I’m an atheist, as long as I don’t make it known to anyone. My older brother has also attacked me numerous times, in front of guests as well as behind my back, about my choice in atheist friends, because he feels I am “easily manipluated.” Apparently everyone just thinks I’m stupid, when in reality, I’ve given this subject more thought and consideration than any of them combined.

Let me just say that even though my family claims to be catholic, they have not attended mass since I quit going to church a few months ago. I was the one who always encouraged my family to go to church. And when they didn’t, I would go alone. I was the one who believed it all. So if none of these people in my family truly know about or believe in catholicism, why are they so quick to pounce on me for being an atheist?

I was once very catholic. I graduated from a small, all- girls catholic high school. I attended weekly youth group, and mass. I went on countless retreats and ACTS retreats. I attended many candlelight ceremonies, rosaries, and “see you at the pole”’s. I was a eucharistic minister, I was in the liturgical choir, and attended Catholic HEART workcamp for three consecutive summers. I prayed the rosary in my car on the way to school. I was a group leader for middle school and high school kids. Most of my volunteer work was done through my church. I loved God. I did everything. You cannot say that I was a half baked catholic. And yet, somehow, I changed.

I took a world religions class, I had my first real open minded conversations with many different people about religion, and humanity, and life in general. I read new books, and I watched new videos and debates and documentaries. I spent many hours (and many sleepless nights) agonizing over what it was that I truly believed in. Most importantly, I used my own rationale, and my own original thoughts. And then one day I made a conscious decision to gradually leave my church. And it was very difficult to leave behind many people at church whom I knew loved me and wanted the best for me. But I couldn’t be a part of something I no longer believed in. And for some reason that blows people’s minds. People can’t fathom how or why a person would make such a 180 degree change.

The real problem is, my family can’t figure out why I don’t want to be around them. They don’t understand why I have no respect for them. They want to blame it on the fact that I’m an atheist now, and that it must be because my atheist friend is a bad influence on me, they assume he must be constantly whispering in my ear and telling me to hate my family. The truth is, I have real, personal reasons for disliking them, and being an atheist has nothing to do with it.

I was once told that atheists have “a certain anger in their hearts”. Yes, I am angry. I’m fucking angry that being an atheist is somehow the equivalent to being a monster. I’m angry that something this trivial has to be blown way out of proportion. I’m sick and tired of having people talk about me behind my back, and make judgements about my choice of friends. I’m tired of being told that I’m “troubled” or “easily manipulated,” I’m angry that people think I should be ashamed of myself. As if I am somehow automatically set beneath other people because I am an atheist.

Apart from being angry, I’m simply disappointed in people. I thought I had stronger relationships than this. I thought my loved ones were more open minded than this. I thought people loved and cared more about me than to treat me like some kind of diseased person.

In case you were wondering, I’m not a monster at all. I’m a nineteen year old girl about to go to college. I’m sensitive and I’m shy. I like poetry and french movies. I’m a decent human being who cares about other human beings. And the truth is, even if I pretended otherwise, I would be hurt if anyone decided to cut me out of his or her life just for my religious preferences.

###

For an example of what Emily has been dealing with at home, I will share what some of her siblings offered in the comments section of her article. I can only assume this type of abuse is acceptable in her home, as her siblings seem to hold nothing back.

Her younger brother’s first post read, in full: “All of y’all are fucking retarded.”

Later when I commented, her other brother hurled back this misogynistic abuse defending the other brother: “Hes not stupid, anybody that knows him (Jordan and Emily included) will tell you that. What’s stupid is insulting a 15 year old who you dont even know, you leathery old twat.”

There was much more–and all quite ugly. I’m amazed Emily has come out of this able to think clearly, not reacting herself in an abusive fashion, and still loving and regarding her family despite how religion has torn them, so obviously as her brothers’ demonstrate, apart.

Best of luck, young lady!

Bigots Don’t Get to Claim the Moral High Ground

Uganda plans to introduce the death penalty for gays, but the government there says it’s more likely that the bill will only pass with life imprisonment:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/8693560.stm

I’m not sure why, but in the last week, I’ve been presented with several issues that all involve gay hate and persecution in the Christian community. I’ve wanted to post about it, but wasn’t sure how to put it into a concise and linear statement. So, I’ve given up trying; and instead I am including below some abbreviated recent thoughts I’ve sent privately to a few correspondents:

Correspondence 1:
…I’m getting near to a boiling point with the whole anti-gay thing and religion. It may be difficult to believe, but I actually am more angry at the religious persecution of gays than of women. With women, the idea is a submissive existence, where women are acceptable—but only if they know their place. But gays have no “place” in Abrahamic religion, generally. Even some of the most educated Christians I know seem to have difficulty admitting there’s nothing wrong with it. The stupidity they spout, such as “Well, that’s up to god, I don’t judge.” As though they think there is some sort of dilemma. Judge what?!

I met a gay guy this week who was raised by fundamentalist parents. They believe in faith healing, and all manner of garbage. They taught him that gays were vile, evil, crimes against nature, abominations to god, the whole nine yards. He said he didn’t really think about it until he hit 13-14 and began to have sexual thoughts about the other boys in his school. Then he started worrying and wondering why god made him with these feelings, but was going to send him to hell. He told me he would engage in regular teen-boy activities in his room, and then feel so bad about it he’d go and shower and scrub himself until he bled. Finally, around 17, he took a bunch of pills. He said the attempt was half-hearted. And I’m happy for that—because today he’s a talented musician with a lot to offer. About his parents, he said he knows they only did what they were taught, and they didn’t know any better. He loves them and says they took care of him and tried to keep him from harm. But I can’t help thinking of all the trouble they caused, and how easy it would have been to keep him from that harm, if only they’d just asked: “Why are we saying this is so bad?”

His father told him eventually that he’d always known/suspected his son was gay. He explained he couldn’t understand how a loving parent could suspect their child is gay, and still proceed to tell them all the horrible hateful things his parents told him about homosexuality.

I have brown eyes. Most people on the planet have brown eyes. That doesn’t mean people without brown eyes are unnatural. And it’s certainly no license to persecute or hate them. “Uncommon” should never be equated with “evil.” “Evil” needs far more justification than that.

I have trouble grasping how people who exhibit hatred and bigotry and persecution—even violence in some cases—against gays can be considered to be on the “right” side of anything, while a gay man who forgives all the pain that has been inflicted on him, and just wants to live and be happy and not hurt anyone, is the vile abomination?

I seem to be getting a lot of prods on this issue recently. And until social equality is reached in this arena, I suppose everyone on the side of reason should be weighing in on this. ACA always supports the Gay Pride Festival locally. And I think this is an issue that is ripe for constant hammering. Hateful bigots who comfort themselves that they’re on the side of right really need to be told as loudly and often as possible they’re on the side of pure, unadulterated evil.

I just need to find the right words. But maybe those are the right words? Maybe that’s all that needs to be said?

Thanks for your letter. Sorry that gay people everywhere have been somehow singled out to put up with the worst of this bullshit, honestly.

Correspondence 2:
Maltreatment of women gets a lot of media attention. And well it should. But to me, the crimes against the gay community are so much worse—not by magnitude of numbers, but by sheer irrationality and vilification. Even the most misogynistic religions will allow a place, however disdainful, to women. But with gays—I mean, I can’t imagine being stoned to death because of how I was born. I loathe to see a woman persecuted for refusing to wear a veil. But I know that horrible as it is, she can hide behind that veil and live in hopes the oppression will end. With “gay”—there is no “king’s X”—no compromise you can strike. What you are is wrong.

To try and make it more clear, I host a party every year in November at a local Lake lodge. I invite friends, and we hang out for a weekend. One year, a gay friend told me that the location I use is notorious in the gay community for a gay hate murder that happened there years ago.

Here’s the point that bothers me: There are men who will rape and murder women. But I am aware society condemns those men as monsters and criminals. We haven’t quite reached that level of understanding with “gay.” Today, if someone kills a “fag,” I’m disturbed to know there are still a number of people in our culture who think the “queer” got what was coming to him. Literally, he shouldn’t have been gay.

And there is no rational basis for this hatred and vilification. These are good people who happen to be a minority percentage who are attracted to same sex mates for whatever reason. They’re not hurting anyone. They’re not converting anyone. They just want to do what any of us do, and be open about who they are and live their lives. And for that, they are vilified and persecuted.

I recall when I was in church, “gay” didn’t even require an explanation for why it was a sin. It just was. “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve,” right? Phenotypic attributes occur in populations on a bell curve—nearly across the board. You have the most dominant traits, and then you have less dominant extremes on either end, and a lot of diversity in between. I have gay friends who say they could have sex with opposite sex partners if push came to shove (some have even been married before), and others who say it wouldn’t be possible for them. I have straight friends who can’t fathom gay behavior, and others who say it’s six of one, half dozen of the other. In anthropology, you study different cultures around the globe, and by no means is homosexuality vilified in all areas like it is in our culture. And historically, it’s the same. Depending on where/when you happened to be born—you may be accepted, considered to be special to the gods, or executed.

There used to be a commercial where they sold contacts to change your eye color. In every commercial they shot, the woman they were selling to had brown eyes. Well, blue and green eyes are beautiful, I agree. But the fact is, if you want to sell contacts to color eyes, your target market is brown because brown eyes are the dominant trait in humans: Africa, Asia, South America, India, Aboriginal Australians, Native Americans, the Mid East—you get the idea. What if it was determined that since most people have brown eyes, eyes that aren’t brown are a crime against nature? Unnatural and therefore a sin? Punishable by death, imprisonment, or being persecuted and vilified by your society? Can you imagine the label such an initiative would get in today’s society? Not one person would think you were sane to suggest such a thing. And yet that’s exactly what we do to gays. And nearly all
the haters think you’re crazy to question “why?” To them, that question, by itself, is evidence of your own moral depravity. It’s “obvious” what’s wrong with these people—in the fundamentalist mind. They’re not the standard, so they’re wicked. But loads of people have attributes that are nonstandard, and we don’t think it’s fine to kill them. And the false facts cooked up to vilify it are just aggravating. I recall some years ago showing someone once that AIDS was most prominent in heterosexual, not homosexual populations. They refused to believe it until the statistics were staring them in their face. It’s frustrating to know good people who are subjected to this sort of prejudicial treatment, and then recognize a lot of people in our culture don’t understand what the motivation could possibly be to make it otherwise.

A Final Note
Just to add that the reason in the Christian Bible for condemning homosexuality is that it places a male in the position of a female. In other words, it’s a misogynistic argument that it’s wrong for a man to be used as a lowly woman. It’s a disgrace to male superiority, and any man who humiliates himself (puts himself on the level of a rank female) needs to die.

In Leviticus 18:22, the Bible says, “Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable.” It’s right between rules against burning children as human sacrifices and having sex with animals. That’s where you rank if you’re gay, according to the Christian god (to whom these statements are attributed in verses 1 and 2 of the same chapter).

Later in Leviticus 20, which also starts out attributing it’s content directly to god, in verse 13 it says, “If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.”

I can hear it already, though: “That’s the Old Testament.”

Yes, it is. It’s the Old Testament, the first part of your Christian Bible, and it says your Christian god instructed this harmful idiocy. You either believe these statements are correct and that god, in fact, did instruct His adherents to do these things—in which case you agree these statements, and any compliant actions resulting (such as murdering gay men) were actually justified by your Christian god (and therefore acceptable to you—if you are an adherent of this same god); or you think your Bible is incorrect when it comes to what it says god tells people to do, in which case, how is the book even helpful, as it’s admittedly untrustworthy?

If you believe your Bible is correct, and you agree with this content and worship this personality you think ordered the murder of these people as moral “law,” for the crime of not inheriting the most common phenotypic attributes of their overall populations, then as I said earlier, you are on the side of “pure, unadulterated evil.” You and your god are no more “moral” than another historic figure who also once decided that people with the “wrong” phenotypes should be removed from the human population.

Excerpts from a Conversation

I recently had an exchange with a fellow atheist, and wrote quite a bit about a lot of different topics. A few observations I made could be of interest on this list, so I decided to post one or two things from that dialog. Well, that and I felt a need to prove I can post a “normal sized” blog entry.

On Anti-Atheist Prejudice
We get regular letters from young people (and on occasion older ones) who say they’re afraid to “come out”–in the same way a child might be scared to tell his parents he’s gay. Or they say they’ve lost their faith, and now their spouse has withdrawn from them, and their relationship is frozen. People who believe don’t understand there is this deep-seated prejudice. They think “nobody’s forcing you to believe anything–stop your whining.” But they don’t understand their son or daughter is in their bedroom upstairs writing to a group of atheist strangers on the Internet they’ve seen on Youtube saying, “I think my parents will throw me out of the house if I tell them I don’t believe in god.” And the kid is writing to us because he can tell us about his deepest beliefs–but he can’t speak to his own parents about his thoughts and feelings. How sad is that, really? If I were a parent, I don’t think anything would make me feel more like a failure than to find out my child was confiding in absolute strangers rather than me, because I had convinced him through my comments and prejudices that I would despise him if he told me what he really believes or who he really is. But I can guarantee you that if these parents found these letters–they’d hammer the kid about contacting us, and not reflect on their own views that made their kid so distrustful of their capacity to accept and love him despite any ideological differences. This is the stuff that really breaks my heart when I read it.

On Missing the Forest for the Trees
[A particular theist] won’t move toward replacing [religion] with Humanism, because he accepts there is a god. In one conversation he defends the idea of considering it a miracle if there is a horrible plane crash where everyone, except one child, dies. Focus on the child who survived–not the 200 people who just lost their lives. This sort of microscopic focus is par for the course with religious people. I once likened the Intelligent Design argument to Wile E. Coyote’s inventions. The believer has this amazing capacity to focus on a few specks of things and make them meaningful–totally disregarding this ridiculously vast universe in which we float amid vacuums, and radiation, and supernovas and hurtling comets–just a mess of chaos held together through physical laws. Somehow they are able to drill down to “people” and say that demonstrates a “purpose” to the whole mechanism. That would represent one of the most inefficient designs ever produced–if people on Earth really are the point of this whole universe. All this for some speck of existence in some far corner? And yet they see this as crystal clear. If you believe god exists and is good, and you can discount 200 dead bodies (and 99.9 percent of the universe) for one child–what ratio of bad to good would it take even to get you to say, “Even if this god exists, what a monster”?

On Responsibility
I like that you break down Euthyphro briefly as well. Christians rarely break this down. They seem to just have some amorphous surface sense of getting morality from god/the Bible–but don’t really consider it as a question of how that mechanism would function. After talking to them, you get to a point where they assert basically that you can use your personal (presumably god-given) morality to judge god as good, but you can’t judge god as bad. In my own mind, if I can’t fathom how a command could be moral, then I shouldn’t follow it, regardless of who issued it. To do so is immoral because to do so is irresponsible–but that’s faith, right? Kill your own child if god requests it. What I would say is that I can’t take responsibility for a thing if I don’t understand what I’m being asked to do. “Just following orders” is not an example of personal responsibility. But the Christian sees a “responsibility to god” as being on a higher order. They see the atheist exercising personal responsibility as wrong–since the atheist is not shouldering his “responsibility to god.” We end up being “irresponsible” for wanting to know exactly what we’re doing and what the reasons and implications are for the action, before we’ll do it.

The skeptic, however, looks at it like this: If it seems bad to kill my own child, I need to ask for an explanation–and refuse to comply until I get it. If I’m going to commit an atrocity, I think it’s fair to at least ask to know why I’m being asked to commit it. To you and I, that’s reasonable. The idea anyone would object to it is mystifying.

However, the theist sees this as presumptuous and arrogant. I will admit there may be some good reason I hadn’t thought of that would get me to comply; but I can’t say I’m “taking responsibility for my actions” if I’m simply deferring to a fiat-style command with no personal understanding of what I’m doing. In no other context, outside religion, would either the theist or the atheist consider that a description of “being responsible.”

So, in Christianity, if you want to take real responsibility for your actions, by understanding thoroughly what you’re doing, you end up being labeled someone who “does what he wants” because he doesn’t like responsibility–you refuse to own up to your “responsibility to god.”

Summary
In the end, I added notes about what I posted previously–that the doctrine of total depravity makes it more “sensible” to trust people who say you can’t trust them, than people who consider themselves and others fairly trustworthy. And I noted how in the post on hymns, the idea of a brutal human sacrifice is trotted out as an example of unmatched love and mercy. Ultimately I ended the exchange with this thought:

What would it take to screw a person’s head on this “wrongly”? I submit it takes the first several years of their life spent in a Sunday School with mom and/or dad endorsing the entire process.