Is the TV on?

There is a new study being reported in the Huffington Post : “New Study Suggests U.S. Has A Lot Of ‘Closet’ Atheists” “Atheists may have been drastically undercounted because of reluctance to honestly answer poll questions.” I lived through the closeted years of the early gay rights movement so I have some thoughts on the matter.

This study uses an oddly cumbersome series of unrelated questions to derive a conclusion because they don’t trust people to directly acknowledge atheism with a yes or a no. For example, “I’ve been to the South Pole” is one such statement that requires respondents to answer true or false. By asking a series of these types of questions they attempt to deduce whether the person is an atheist.

“I prefer wieners to tacos” T or F would have done little to reveal my closeted gay status back in the sixties. Visiting a frozen pole apparently indicates more about a relationship with god than long hot tubes of steaming meat relate to sex! Cold poles and hot dogs, science can be such a mystery! All joking aside the study sounds intriguing and viable to me, but then again I’m an artist.

The problem with so many of these ‘do you believe in god’ studies is that they are merely asking which channel you like best on the Godbox. They begin with the assumption that there is a THEO-TV. The assumptions continue: THEO-TV is turned on, has electricity, can provide viable theological programing, has multiple options, each option makes enough quasi-reasonable or fantastical statements to develop a following of viewers. The Catholic channel doesn’t like being next to the Voodoo channel; the Hindus want a separate channel for all 330 million of their deities although negotiations are trying to keep the number down to 33.

Some of these studies provide a questionnaire asking you to check the box next to your religion. If they include a listing for atheist it is offensive to some on both sides because atheism is not a religion per se. The computer won’t let you go on to the next question until you check a box so freethinkers are stuck choosing either ‘Atheist’ or ‘Other’; both choices force you to choose a channel/religion on the Godbox. You’re going to be pigeon-holed into some mystery/faith system one way or another.

We all know individuals who really want a god-based flow of information/mystery/comfort to sooth their sin-sick souls: The Balm of Gilead only $25.95+S&H. Oddly enough, to those folks anyway, many people survive perfectly well without Godbox thank you very much. We exist in a world where the common assumption is: everyone has a Godbox, and everyone will select one or more of the channels on it. The assumption is so strong that even our computers are programed to accept no variation from this premise.

The basic flaw here is, however, that the question of god’s existence or nonexistence has nothing to do with the programing or channels on the Godbox. Non-theists don’t even consider it an option. As furniture, a Godbox serves no purpose. There is no reason to buy one, plug it in, or turn it on, much less choose one channel over any other channel. Answers aren’t found in a box.

For atheists and non-theists there is a great deal of pressure to conform to the Godbox lifestyle. It is an omnipresent element of culture. Our money declares it, and public gatherings begin and end with ceremonial homage to it. No wonder people lie on questionnaires, the contexts of our culture forces them to! Just look at the change in our pockets.

Scientists trying to calculate the number of atheists who exist must also dispense with the word “atheist.” It has a built in prejudice. In the early gay rights movement the hot research topic was, “What makes someone gay?” Progress wasn’t made until the question got turned around to ask, “What makes someone straight?” That leads to, “What factors influence sexual expression?” We still don’t have a count on the number of gays, but we do have new understandings hundreds of variations of sexual expression and a vast body of knowledge.

Any questions about how many atheists there are must be based upon this contextual frame:

1. The first premise should be that humans are born non-theists; religion is not genetic but it is often geographic.

2. People separate themselves from the natural non-theist state by becoming theists – supernaturalist believers of the many subsets of religions. (this group owns a Godbox)

3. Some of the set of religionists may eventually choose to rebel against or reject religion and so become atheists. (They still have Godboxes tuned to the atheist channel.)


So, basically, you can’t be an atheist until you have a supernatural/mystery belief to react against. When researchers go looking for the number of atheists who exist in a place they often ignore the original set of humans for whom the construct of god has no relevance. There is no word to describe those who have never fallen sway to a mystery-based fantasy. “A” means “against or without,” “theist” means “god or the concept of a god,” atheist means ‘against god’. How would that original group of humans respond to a statement so far removed from the context of their lives? They can’t be atheist because “theist” means nothing to them: “against nothing” is a non-sequitur.

I like to use the word ‘non-theist’ to describe my position. It exists in common usage for the same purpose as atheist – to show an opposing perspective of a god (and pretentious followers). “Non-”  means ‘not’ in Latin. A nonbeliever does not maintain a particular belief but a non-theist does not even address belief by simply stating that: the phenomenon called “god” does not exist.

Non-theists declare there is not a god.

Atheists declare themselves to be against something that exists or has the potential to exist. If god did not exist opposing it would be senseless. So, logically, the word would be pointless.

[ Note: this was the first in a series of discussions about religion, art and morality. It is rather lengthy so I have not posted much else while I compile this diatribe.]

Dual-Fact Nation Part 2

Adam & Eve have no lower bodies and conveniently draped hair.

Dismediation is a new word for me I found it in a Religion Dispatches Newsletter article by Christopher Douglas. I should have mentioned the article in my last post since I divided the whole topic into two posts . Dismediation is a process using a medium to tear down that very same medium. So, if you use the TV news to complain about TV news coverage you are dissing the media covering you which academic folks label dismediation. It is a rhetorical technique similar to the one where you begin your speech by saying you are not going to talk about a particular topic; which you have obviously just done by mentioning the topic. “I refuse to discuss my opponent’s vile policies on strawberry flavored toothpaste, I will, however discuss the joys of mint toothpaste which I support wholeheartedly.”

Dismediation is not like those cartoons where the bridge falls apart piece by piece just as the last wheel of the caboose passes by. The bridge must remain an essential carrier. It’s more like complaining about the medium of news for doing what the speaker relies upon it to do, report the message. Trump constantly portrays the news media as being liars thereby discrediting the medium he needs to get his message out. He expects the bridge to remain available after his caboose has passed by so he can use and abuse it repeatedly. The news becomes a straw man that can be attacked repeatedly while whittling away at its viability. If you can convince enough people that the tracks are unsafe then fewer people will travel on the tracks ultimately destroying the effectiveness of the railway system.

The goal of “fake news” and “alternative facts” goes beyond providing different data. Their purpose is actually to destroy the notion that there could be impartial news and objective facts. Maria Bustillos calls this endgame “dismediation,” “a form of propaganda that seeks to undermine the medium by which it travels.”

The people most vulnerable to this rhetorical trap happen to be Fundamental Christians. They have been conditioned to do so by a lifetime process of indoctrination. It begins with an attitude of dislike for the elite, know-it-all, educated class that comes from family influences as well as social interaction with fundamentalist churches. Here, they learn of the inerrancy of the Bible, a blind obedience to its teachings and dis-trust of those who don’t share the same belief. There was little infrastructure to support this back in the late seventies when the fundamentalist evangelicals began their forays into politics through one particular luminary, Anita Bryant and her anti-gay campaign to Save the Family. Anita was not afraid to call gay folks names. Pick any, or all, of these descriptive terms found in The Anita Bryant Story:

Evil, sinners, perverted, an abomination, those with vile affections, reprobate minds, unnatural, deviant, flaunting, afflicted, regrettable, sad, tragic, apart, distorted, abominable, effeminate, ashamed, reproof, abhorrent, disgusting, licentious, lacking legal or moral restraint, marked by disregard of the rules.

If you want a complete list you will have to dig up her book because all this came from just one small part of one short chapter.I had to stop writing them down, it was too stressful.

Anita Bryant capitalized on her orange-juice spokeswoman fame and wrote several “Christian” books. She became both the beacon of her movement and its lightning rod. Jerry Falwell joined her and it became a launch point for truthiness and faux-scholarship of the bigoted religious. You see, she wrote a best selling book. A BOOK. If its in a book its got to be true! If it quotes the Bible a lot then its even more true. So, a whole slew of other anti-gay people started quoting her books as a credible source. They learned about footnotes and endnotes and citations and all those other image-enhancing rip-offs of credible writing. That lead to other bigot’s books quoting this “highly credible” authority (she wrote books you know); one who uses language that would make the Ku Klux Klan folks blush. Once this body of scholar-less-ship dismediation came to pass, evangelicals and fundamentalists started to realize there’s gold in them there books. If the Bible is quoted enough, then academic scholarship is not required. They would, of course reference one another’s work and soon there was a whole library of this stuff. In Christian schools a homogenization process of real and faux scholarship, religious ideology, and the Creation Museum hoopla all merged into “alt-reality” as we call it today.

Christian fundamentalist Bible colleges and universities, publishers and bookstores, newspapers and magazines, radio and then television shows, museums and campus ministries, together formed a set of institutions that resisted elite, secular expert knowledge. Recognizing the power of expertise’s infrastructure, Christian fundamentalists created this counter-infrastructure to cultivate and curate its alternative forms of knowledge. This alternative knowledge—the forerunner of today’s alternative facts— took the form of creationism and an alternative Bible scholarship demonstrating the Bible’s inerrancy and traditional authorship.

I’ve watched the Anita effect influence society in negative ways. Once, I took my students from the Gay Student Club I helped create at Bloomsburg University back in the ‘80s to hear a highly publicized Campus Crusade for Christ anti-gay speaker. We had a stake in this game but were naive as to the effect it would have on all of us. The speaker used a new rhetorical trick to enhance his credibility; it was the unkindest cut of all. He knew his audience would already be on his side, but just to foil the opposition, us, he made a big deal about how all his facts were well supported by references and documentation. He had a three-page list of those references available for all to see if we needed proof. His speech was as evil as Anita’s book and included all sorts of “studies” proving his points. We asked to see his references at the end, but he had unfortunately (read conveniently) left them at home while on his speaking tour. Was there credence to what he said in the speech? Well, it didn’t matter since it had already been given.  There was nothing he could prove and nothing we could do but disagree. We didn’t bring our list of actual studies and scholarship either so nothing we said would have convinced the audience who came with preconceived opinions at the start. It was despicable and cowardly and dishonest and oh-so-typical of the alt-mindset theology: “a lie for God’s side is not a sin.”

Dueling Dual-Fact Nation 

Get used to a dual-fact society. It’s not going away anytime soon. The election of Trump legitimized alt-fact/alt-reality folks as coequal players in the world of political leadership. It all started back in the seventies with the Christian Evangelicals, the Pat Robertsons and Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority. Those who undermine ‘reason’ have been stocking up an army of strength ever since. The Evangelicals have raised a generation through home schooling, Bible memorizing madrasas, religious Colleges and Creation Museums. They feel entitled to dominate because their triune god says so in the first chapter of its holy book.

With a full string of radical fanatics competing in the last Republican Primary it took the perfect storm of anti-science Christians, and alt-right bigots to put Trump over the top and into the Oval Office. The New American Order has removed civility and replaced it with what Hillary called deplorable, an adjective the right wore with pride.  On the left are the well educated, civil, open-minded, fair, but apparently arrogant and condescending, multi-racial, multi-gendered varieties of humanity. On the right are some stranger bedfellows: Christian Evangelical, alt-thinking, frightened, poor, uninsured whites, oddly coexisting subserviently with the wealthy 1% overlords. The right is a coalition of polar opposites.

We’ve created a new kind of class warfare: the reasoning class vs. the alt-thinking class. Most free thinkers understand a reasoning mind-set, while the Alt-Thinking crowd takes some exploration to suss out. We really need to understand them better. We should be the adults in this situation and make the effort to find a resolution. We can’t just say, ‘we’re here to help you poor deluded people’ because, you see, they tend to stick up for their version of the facts. They would say the same thing right back to us, so it’s a pointless approach.

We must find a way to accept the adherence to irrationality, and prejudice, then give it the respect it deserves. This shouldn’t be too hard since we do it every day: the Mormons get a planet when they die, Muslims get a slew of virgin wives when martyred, and Christians, well, they’re monotheists with three gods in one, somehow unlike Hindus with multiple gods. There’s Rastafari with their un-cut hair and use of ganja whom I enjoy. I mean the Rasta not the ganja of course, although once in a while… but you get the point. If we can muster the fortitude to deal with this sometimes fanatic array of ‘mystery’ then we should be able to cope with the alt-right’s alt-reality.

Perhaps a ‘bubble’ metaphor is needed: if we think of followers of these mystery-based belief systems and bigoted entities as living in a bubble we can visualize the situation better. In a group, say at church, they are encompassed by a big bubble. When apart from the group they wear a smaller version of the bubble around their head. The bubbles of each group are decorated with the appropriate imagery; for example Christians use the symbol of an ancient torture device that one-third of their god(s) didn’t really die on – the cross. Bigots use a differently shaped cross – the swastika. Now, there are some people who don’t wear bubbles at all – those without mystery-based ideologies or prejudice.

Non-Theists and rational free thinkers breath the air without the filter of a bubble. They are free from the distortions of the interfacing film of a bubble. Their air is fresh and every scent and sound and sight is clear and direct. Nothing intercedes with their perception. That individual is not bound to a dogma nor restricted to another’s code.

So, a typical gathering of people includes a variety of bubble-wearing people and a variety of non-bubbled folks too. We all seem to get along fairly well in the collaborative environment. Work situations like corporations or the service industry have the bubble people suppress enough of the distinctive elements of the bubble to prevent it from interfering with the task at hand. It needn’t be removed completely to work together. This is where the problem occurs in our current political crisis.

With Trump in charge the more marginal of the bubble people feel emboldened. They wear their distinctive elements with pride, and no longer feel the need to take the societal steps necessary to coexist collaboratively. One journalist observed a proliferation of anti-gay language and hateful attitudes in the smallish crowd at Trump’s inauguration. Hate crimes against Jews and others are on the rise nationwide.

I personally believe that truth is not an absolute thing.  There is, however, a zeitgeist of shared understanding amongst the collaborative members of society. It is the closest thing we have to comprehend “truth,” the working principles and facts of life and knowledge, if you will. This “truth” is a living abstraction that changes as life and knowledge expand and grow. Free Thinkers are comfortable in this abstraction as are those bubble-wearing people who work collaboratively.

The alt-right/alt-fact/alt-reality crowd has been actively working in opposition to this zeitgeist. They don’t intend to collaborate or even tolerate. They are Dominionist entitled to dominate because it says so in the first chapter of Genesis. Trump has been merely a convenient stooge who could gather a sudsy collection of off-beat bubble groups large enough to win power. Christians sold their soul to this devil in a faustian bargain, because they wanted power obsessively.

Evangelicals have had a long row to hoe to get here. I remember in the early eighties when they were giving their pious spokesmen elementary advice such as, ‘don’t wear white socks with black or brown dress shoes, it makes you look like a hick.’ They are still hicks in dress socks now, but their persistence paid off. Once that buffoon devil, Trump, is gone, Pence, who wears the bubble of Dominion Theology, will ascend and he will act accordingly.

Is there a way for truth and alt-truth to coexist? Dominion doesn’t mean collaborate, it means dominate. It is the ultimate example of the description: authoritarian. If they succeed we will see a restructuring of society in accordance with their interpretation of Biblical law, Christian sharia. They are as serious as a jihadist suicide bomber while we are still blinking our eyes, astonished, and going – WTF?

So, since we are trying to be the adult in the room while the opposition is fanatic about winning isn’t it our obligation to match or exceed their fanaticism? The other choice seems to be submit, since compromise and collaboration are not part of their vocabulary. It’s time for aggressive action from our offense. Do we have one?

Death Rituals and Religion

Reading Mano Singham’s discussion of fearing death the other day brought some thoughts on death rituals and religion to mind.

My perspective here comes from my youth, having lived in the upstairs apartment of my family’s fifth generation funeral home. It was directly across from the church we attended. The two facilities provided conflicting impressions of death. At home it was a daily reality that involved two parts: a thing – the lifeless body –  along with the humans who loved the living person. I consider the body an object because there were matter-of-fact tasks and duties associated with the body, while the living survivors were the major concern. They existed in the most stressful emotional state that one can experience. Every emotion we own is brought to bear in the experience of death. Funerals Directors attempt to formalize the details in harmonious conjunction with people who are in an emotional state where no one is ready to do so. The body is always respected, but the various religious rituals of the funeral service itself often show little regard for the living in spite of the intent. Religions take the reality of death and transform it into a fantasy story. Many people find comfort in that, but it is such a blatant distortion of nature as to insult others who are also grieving, as well an insult to the memory of the deceased.

In my old Presbyterian church, where emotions are more subdued, the fantasy of an afterlife dominated by a three-in-one god is proclaimed.  Just like a theatrical play, a willing suspension of disbelief is required to appreciate this manufactured delusion. The pretense of church with its dress clothes, politeness, shared fantasies, pretend holiness, and its goody-two-shoes ambiance seems artificial in contrast to authentic death. This comparison makes god seem contrived and gives all credence to nature. Death is real with genuine emotions. The most passion I have ever seen at church activities was the interfaith softball league games; now that was something people actually cheered for.

My bother-in-law’s brother died of AIDS/HIV. He wasn’t the least bit religious and he was gay in the small community where we lived. He had more than his share of tragedy in life. His large family accepted and supported him through it all, but when the time came they didn’t know what to do except call a preacher for the funeral. It’s what’s expected. The whole event became a farce as this stranger tried to say something he deemed appropriate. Every ‘Jesus this’ and ‘Jesus that’ brought us a sad ironic grimace that flashed anger. Many faces of those attending were expressing the thought: “This is wrong”. If it weren’t so painful it would have been laugh-out-loud funny.

The best funeral service I ever attended was for the above-mentioned brother-in-law, they seem to die young in that family. My sister planned it and conducted it, which surprised me given her husband’s sudden demise. There were hundreds of people there, My sister simply asked the crowd to come up and tell stories about her husband. One after another got up and told funny anecdotes and sad stories revealing our fondness for him. The laughter was intense and so were the tears. We left that event having achieved a catharsis that no religion-based service could possibly match. This is the service we should all wish to have.

His friends and family happened to be good storytellers and unabashed hams, so the technique may not work in all families. But, there was no pretense of a fairy-tale heaven or other spiritual concept. We loved him when he was here, and now we are sad he is gone – we shared that discussion and it was all we need do.

People in the throws of loss and its confusion go for the default option. Funeral = religious shaman is the pro-forma course of action. Death requires prayers. They are glad to have the ritual in the hands of a professional, but half way through they realize the pro’s ritual has its own purpose, it’s for something else – the default god – and not really the loved one. That priest only knows the deceased through a cursory description, so the rote service is sprinkled with impersonal ‘facts’ from a background document. The service intended to ‘honor’ an individual has no honor in its form or structure. The god of this event is false. It is fake religion and a cheap shot used to interject the big con into everyday life through everyday death. It takes advantage of the weakest at their most vulnerable.

I have a theory about religion and human emotions that shows those two things have little to do with one another. Certain emotions of the individual are not the concern of the church, to play on the first line of the Pope’s Exhortation on Love. Human emotions are something to be harnessed and controlled by the church. The church makes rules addressing emotions and assigns them moral value. Those who value certain emotions that the church doesn’t, are condemned. The Pope’s exhortation on love is a perfect example of legalistic language delineating those acceptable and non-acceptable emotions.

Why does it take a lawyer to write god’s rules for love? Well, if you think about it, a lawyer’s job is to strip out the emotion from a circumstance and create a precise code. The law that results has no human emotion and presumably thrives independent of emotion. It is the George Bush ‘either you are with us or you are against us’ perspective. Lawyers define ‘with us’ and ‘against us’. The Pope’s legalistic exhortation pretends that the church is an essential component of love as the first line says: “The Joy of Love experienced by families is also the joy of the Church” which means: without the Church and its lawyerly rules there is no love.

The Sorrow of Death experienced by families is also the sorrow of the Church. Do you suppose this would be a Pope-approve statement too? Think of the ramifications. The rules of love include heterosexual marriage and make a point of excluding same-sex love.  The legal interpretation excludes gay couples from the church. So, the sorrow of death in a gay family is not the sorrow of the church. Why hire a priest to lead the ceremony? Sure, he is likely to have sympathy for the sorrow of death, per se. But the rules of exclusion still apply. Technically, legalistically, that family is excluded from the exclusive club of Catholics.

I use the Catholics as an example but the same circumstance can be found for many reason in most religions. They are exclusive organizations thriving under the universal propaganda that religion is inclusive and good. That simply is not true. People dealing with death are just like little kids who are becoming old enough to realize Santa Clause isn’t real. They know the truth but they just don’t want it to be true. Hoping is much nicer than knowing! “We’d better play it safe, just in case He is real.”

Secular services are available; if people were more prepared for death they wouldn’t fear it as much and wouldn’t rely upon the default.

Guilt, Absolve – Rinse and Repeat

I don’t mind reading David Brook’s columns in the New York Times. I kind of like his format, he starts in the first two-thirds of the article providing context and background on his topic, with which I often agree. It’s the last third of his articles that makes me groan. He has a way of taking all that agreeable stuff then twisting it into something unrecognizable and conservative. Last week’s article,The Strange Persistence of Guilt  is based upon the assumption that secular society is in trouble due to a loss of influence by formal religions. He suggests they have the required proficiency to address this growing guilt glut. I don’t see the problem myself, but he says it is there.

If one accepts his premise: that massive volumes of guilt have no place to go because religions have a diminished role in society, then there is work to do.  We must repair the damage. I accuse guilt-inducing theologies – they manufacture the stuff faster than anyone. The two main functions of religion have always been to: 1. create an elite set of membership rules that exclude “others,” and 2. induce guilt through shaming those who don’t follow those rules (sin). Once a follower has been shamed sufficiently, the inducers of guilt offer absolution from the pain they’ve caused, often at a price. Religions spin this vicious cycle of guilt/absolution, but they don’t actually solve anything of substance. The thrill of sin, the guilt, then the joy of absolution become the ultimate cocktail of spiritual highs provided by that old dope peddler, religion. Sin, absolve, rinse and repeat – its almost orgasmic.

Sin is a stain, a weight and a debt. But at least religions offer people a path from self-reflection and confession to atonement and absolution.

David Brooks introduces the idea of sin and justifies religion (in the last third of his column) with the back-handed argument: “at least” they offer “absolution.” He also places self-reflection as the beginning point to achieve the endpoint of absolution. I would argue that self-reflection is both the beginning and the end point in a healthy secular mindset. Self-reflection requires an honest appraisal of the situation, make use of due diligence and research, deliberate the options with oneself and perhaps others, derive a conclusion, then stand by the conclusion with consistency. The key word in this is honesty. Without honesty the process does not have merit. Secular society expects its members to maintain their integrity.

The natural devolution of religion’s influence in our secular society will take time. Guilt exists as a problem because they have done an excellent job of magnifying its normal potency. The sin/absolution cycle is addictive, it should be kept away from the addicts.