Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Prejudiced Future of Lifestyle Rationing

Imagine you're sitting in your doctor's office, waiting on what could be the worst day of your life.  I'm not talking about finding out that you've been diagnosed with stage four cancer, or that only twenty-five percent of your liver is still functioning, or that you have ALS, or any other diagnosis that assures the end of your life is near.  In my fictional scenario, you are already fully aware of the severity of your disease and you've had time to deal with the weight of your own mortality.

Imagine instead that you're sitting in a cold, hard leather office chair, re-reading your physicians diploma for the tenth time, nervously shifting back and forth as you wait for him or her to walk through the door just so you can find out if you qualify to be treated for your life-threatening illness.  The cure is available, but is your life worth saving?  For in the modern era of risk assessment and cost analysis, we are on the verge of lifestyle rationing, where a set of doctors decide whether or not you are deserving or undeserving of treatment.

Have you ever applied for a mortgage or a loan from a bank where you didn't know your credit?  Remember the anxiety and insecurity you felt as you frantically scanned through the memories of your personal finances?  Did the bank see you as a good investment?  What were they saying about you?

Now put yourself back in that leather chair.  Try to imagine a committee of doctors you've never met, or worse - a statistical analysis run by poorly written software, deciding whether or not your DNA or the choices you've made over the course of your life qualifies you for a medical treatment that will save your life.

When I think about the future of medical technology in an unregulated capitalist market, this scenario seems the most horrifying.  Mostly because everything that I've written here seems the most plausible given the current political environment; both in Europe and the United States.

Don't get me wrong, I absolutely understand the necessity of prudence when it comes to treatments - especially surgery.  For example, those that are extremely (or morbidly) obese.  Physicians have to weigh the current stability of the patient, the risks to the patient during the procedure, and finally the likelihood of the patient to survive the rehabilitation period.  These are all valid concerns, and they are all valid points of contention when deciding the best course of action for a particular patient.

But where do these medical trusts draw the line?  As our understanding of the human genome grows, who's to say these trusts won't use this data as well?  Take me, for example.  What if I needed a heart or liver transplant?  At five feet, nine inches in height and roughly 180 pounds, I'm considered overweight.  Sure, I exercise regularly, but already I have a risk factor.  Strike one against me.  Like every other male that I'm aware of in my ancestry, the DNA floating around in my cells has endowed me with hypertension, or high blood pressure.  Strike two.  I ride a motorcycle to work.  Red flag there; strike three.

You get the idea...

Sure, this story is currently unfolding in Europe, but I predict that in a matter of a few years, the United States will be knee deep in exactly the same controversy.

Is this the future of medicine?  Is this what humanity was destined to accomplish?  With all the public funding available to the various medical sciences, is our society willing to accept a workforce of physicians that only provides the peak of modern medicine to people that are low risk?  Or people that can pay?  Are we ready to define ourselves - as Americans - as a society that in one breath fights for the right to life of a blastula, and in the other condemns a living, breathing human being to certain death because they're too fat?

As I think about the next 30 years of my life and project myself at 70 years old, I wonder...

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Discrimination Right Here in Plano

About a month ago, the Dallas/Ft. Worth Coalition of Reason began their campaign called, "Our Families Are Great Without Religion."  The DFWCoR purchased several billboards as well as some pre-show advertising time and space on the movie screens at the Green Oaks Movie Tavern in Arlington.  The Movie Tavern summarily rejected the advertisements after early publicity of the campaign suggested that the DFWCoR was targeting kids (thank you, Fox News affiliates.)

Then, luckily, the DFWCoR thought they received some good news because a couple of days later another theater - the Angelika Film Center in Plano - agreed to enter into a contract with the them to continue their campaign on a local movie theater screen.  I remember feeling so proud of and so grateful to the Angelika, because a local group of atheists had finally found a business partner willing to accept them - right here in Plano.

Great news, right?  Wrong.

After the local Christian complaint machine inundated their office with nasty phone calls and emails, the Angelika decided that given the intolerant environment, the contract with the DFWCoR was cancelled.  The manager claimed that the decision to cancel the contract was made at the corporate level and they had nothing to do with it, as if that washes their hands of any wrongdoing.

It is worth noting that the Angelika Film Center has run many, many different advertisements from local churches and religious groups.  But the atheists were just too contentious...

If you'd like an idea of what the DFWCoR was running, here's an example of one of the advertisements that's been pulled TWICE:


The image is SO controversial, I know.  I mean, think of the children!

Well today, I found out via Facebook that the DFWCoR is getting some help - some legal help.  The American Humanist Association has warned the Angelika Film Center with a fantastic notification that it has violated federal law by refusing to run the advertisements according to the contract.  Take a minute to read the two-page letter - it's filled with little gems like this:
"This pattern of facts clearly indicates that the Theater refused to do business with the Coalition because of bias against its religious views."
And:
"Title II of  the  federal  Civil Rights Act of 1964 (the “Act”) prohibits a business establishment such as the  Theater from discriminating on the basis of religious views (such as atheism)."
And:
"Please note that under the Act it is irrelevant whether your decision to refuse to do business with the Coalition was based on personal or organization animus to the atheist views of the Coalition and its proposed advertising or whether it was purely a business decision intended to avoid controversy."

Am I the only one that hopes the AHA comes to the DFW metroplex to kick some ass?  Legally speaking, of course...

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The End of the Birth Canal

The Governor of Mississippi, Phil Bryant (R), signed a bill into law that will require all physicians performing abortions must have admitting privileges at the local hospital.  This has nothing at all to do with the safety of the woman and everything to do with keeping out of state, board certified doctors from being able to perform abortions in the state of Mississippi.

And truth be told, this was nothing but a pathetic political move by the Republican Party of Mississippi to use the power of the state government to close the only abortion clinic in the state.  The hypocrisy of the Conservative mantra of "small government" aside, Democrats realized the ploy and fought the bill politically.  Bryant then used their opposition in the most disgusting way possible.

Mr. Bryant states:
"Even if you believe in abortion, the hypocrisy of the left that now tried to kill this bill, that says that I should have never signed it, the true hypocrisy is that their one mission in life is to abort children, is to kill children in the womb."
First of all, we're talking about a fetus here, not a child.  One is a parasite incapable of life independent of the mother, with only the potential to become a human (assuming nothing goes wrong, that is.)  The other is a fully formed human being with a functioning brain, heart, liver, and other vital organs - assuming no other health issues prevented the proper formation of these organs.  The two are not equivalent.

Second, I realize that politicians have always tried to play to their base, but at some point these people should be held accountable for deceitful statements like this.  Nobody in their right mind would want to abort a fetus (not a child, a fetus), but if a physician is willing to travel to your state to assist women with their Constitutional right to their own health, then that, Mr. Bryant, is none of our business.

I could quote what the Bible claims about aborting fetuses, and how the Christian god deals with children it doesn't like, but that's not what this is about.  This is about the freedom of a woman to chose.  And the only reason Conservatives even know what a fetus is, much less that we can remove it before it comes to term, is due to modern science.  So stop moving the goalposts of your definition of life.

So give us all a break, Mr. Bryant, because we all know that, like most Conservatives, the end of the birth canal marks the end of your concern for human life.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Impermeable Cocoon of Denial: Don McLeroy

Last night on the Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert interviewed Don McLeroy, the former Chairman of the Texas Board of Education.  Following standard procedure for his show, Mr. Colbert used his unique interviewing skills of ridicule and courtesy to make it appear he agreed with McLeroy:




Listening to this fool is like nails on a chalk board for me.  Seriously.

So, McLeroy disagrees with experts.  Based on what?  Your world renowned curriculum vitae in the field of DENTISTRY?

And are people supposed to be impressed by his proclamation that he's going to stand up to the experts?  As I've said to others, this is not the 14th century, Mr. McLeroy.  Our society has scientifically verifiable evidence at our disposal; which means you are more than welcome to take it upon yourself to prove these facts (or theories) wrong.

I suppose he fancies himself a scientist with some real clout.  He states, "Frankly, if you look at the complexity of the cell... I'm a skeptic."  Whoa, slow down... Those are some real sciencey words, my good man.  Plus, I know I'm blushing here, but you had me at, "yes," when Colbert asked you about your, "scientific" opinion that dinosaurs and humans walked the Earth together.  They got them tracks in Glen Rose!  YEEHAW!!!

In all seriousness, statements like these from McLeroy point to a very deluded and dangerous mind that has been twisted into an impermeable cocoon of denial.  I've seen this in a couple of pastors that I know.  They were men of science, yet they tuck this little box in the back of their minds where they will not allow their faith to be questioned by science, reason, or evidence.  To these religious leaders, and McLeroy, it's the Bible or nothing.  Inflexibility like this has the potential to be very, very dangerous - especially to kids.

And what about this:
"Nothing is what a sleeping rock dreams of."
Huh?  I don't even know where to begin...  I suppose he's referring to Plato's definition of nothing as, "That which rocks dream about."  But the idiot couldn't even get THAT right.  Anyway, I've heard some corny religious opinions in my day, but this guy with his sleeping rock strawman wins the dumbass of the year award, hands down.

While we're poking fun at McLeroy, let's not forget his legacy and what the school board under his chairmanship did to our students, and our curriculum.  From an article in the Dallas Morning News:
"A majority of Texas high school graduates who took the ACT this year lacked the skills to pass introductory college courses in math, reading and science, according to a report on the college entrance exam..."
That's the kind of statistic that should be sending this fool back to his periodontal probes and dental burs.

Now to my last point.  If those who believe in creationism ever read this, there is but one thing I hope you take away from this post.  The word you guys are looking for is not Evolution, it is Abiogenesis.  The scientific evidence for the Theory of Evolution is so overwhelming that it is likely the most understood scientific theory in the modern age.  Abiogenesis on the other hand, has several possible models that range anywhere from the "primordial soup" theory, to the deep sea vent theory, to the clay theory...  You get the idea.  So, to be perfectly honest, we simply do not know the answer to the question of abiogenesis - YET.  If that's where you want to hide your god, so be it.

But please creationists, I beg you.  Make sure you know which scientific gap you're trying to squeeze your ever shrinking god into so that rational people won't have to hear the same, tired, nonsensical, and refuted arguments over and over.  Deal?

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Atheist Blogroll

It's time for a little self-promotion: the Rail Bender has been added to the Atheist Blogroll.  I've added a permanent link to the blogroll in my quick-links (on the right - scroll and you'll see it.)

But just for good measure, here's a link to the roll:

Looking ahead, I'm hoping to continue to find topics that provide help and advice to people who, like me, live in an area of the United States that places too much reliance on faith and religion.

I'm looking forward to more topic suggestions; and remember, critiques are always welcome.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Bullying: Do Not Neglect To Do Good

PREVIOUS:  For They Know Not What They Do

For their daughter's sake, my brother and his wife did the best they could to stay calm.  They hugged my niece, reassured her that everything was going to be fine, and told her that mommy and daddy were going to take care of everything.  Comforting her seemed to put her at ease, which subsequently made her outlook on the upcoming school day much more manageable.

My brother's day, on the other hand, had just taken a turn for the worse.  He was furious, and he'd had enough.  As much as he hated the idea of causing a rift between himself and the faculty of the school, he knew that his daughter's emotional state was far more important to him than worrying about making educators uncomfortable.  He knew that his next step was to contact his daughter's teacher.

Growing anxious over the thought of an impending confrontation with the teacher over religion, my brother approached me for some advice.  Needless to say, I told him much of what I have included in this series.  I said that what these kids were doing to his daughter was wrong.  His daughter is being bullied, plain and simple, and that he should contact her teacher immediately to schedule a parent-teacher conference.  Tell the teacher everything that his daughter told him.  If he can't make any progress with the teacher, then do not let it end there.  "Go straight to the Principal if you have to,"  I said.  "But make absolutely sure you have a pencil and paper when you talk to any of the faculty so you can write down everything that everyone says."

Obviously, I wanted him to be prepared for the worst.

As it turns out, my assumptions about the school, as well as my brother's, were completely mistaken.  We were both pleasantly surprised by the heartfelt reaction from his daughter's teacher, and stunned at how quickly she responded to his initial email.

"I am so sorry," she replied.  "This is unacceptable!  I spoke to the entire class about this kind of behavior at the beginning of the school year and I can assure you that this will not go unpunished."

My brother and I were both so grateful for the attention that this teacher was willing to demonstrate to us - mainly because we both had sorely misjudged the reaction we would receive from her.  Our preconceived notions born out of past confrontations with other religious people had led us to believe that no matter what these boys had said or done to my niece, their religious bullying would be overlooked simply because they weren't saying anything outside of messages that they had most likely heard during a Sunday sermon.

And yet, though we had prepared for the worst, the entire plan that my brother and I had concocted was nullified by one, three word sentence:  "This is unacceptable."

Sure, it is but one elementary school teacher... but that is progress.

Of course it is in your best interest to prepare yourself when you are expecting a confrontation with another person over religion, especially considering how many religious people view the atheist and agnostic community.  But the point here is that people oftentimes surprise you with their rationality - particularly when dealing with the emotional environment of a child.

I cannot speak for my brother, but I think it's safe to say that we both learned a valuable lesson.  Not everyone who considers themselves religious will be ready to stand behind kids that display this kind of aggressive and abusive behavior.  As a matter of fact, I would argue that there are far more rational people out there than I would normally give our society credit for.  Indeed, I'm beginning to believe that most people in my community will stand with me rather than against me, firmly opposed to all groups of students who exhibit any kind of malicious behavior toward another student.

So, keep your wits and keep your cool.  Because through your example, your child will learn strength and determination; so long as you make sure you're on the side of rationality, acceptance, kindness, and love.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Bullying: For They Know Not What They Do

PREVIOUS:  Tell Him His Fault, Between You and Him Alone

I've mentioned before that it seems highly suspect to me that children and teens who bully others in the name of religion would have had the idea originate from within.  Again, it is far more likely that religious kids are being manipulated into believing that when it comes to another person's immortal soul, as a follower of Jesus Christ it is their duty to be a brute.  Take, for example, Focus on the Family's "Day of Dialog", or the Center for Arizona Policy killing anti-bullying legislation.  These groups are openly opposed to anti-bullying rules and laws because they believe that any mention of "gay" or "lesbian" is promoting homosexuality.  And by putting on such frenzied displays, these religious groups are not only dictating public policy, they are also telling their children that if they are around a person that is openly gay, they get a free pass to exhibit barbarous, malignant, and antisocial behavior toward another human being.  It's no wonder that some kids raised in religion go on to verbally and sometimes physically abuse other children.  They have the luxury of literally running back to the primitive and cozy comfort of the anti-gay passages in their Bible.

This same behavior has manifested itself toward atheists as well.  Jessica Ahlquist and David Fowler have received threats of violence, rape, and death from other kids their age; all in the name of Christianity.

Perhaps it's easier for religious kids to justify this kind of atrocious behavior.  They have been taught to believe that being obnoxious toward sinful human beings is all for the greater good.  Most rational people will likely believe that this is completely absurd, but how else can we account for seemingly normal-minded people becoming so cruel and intolerant?  An even better question might be, where does the loathing of atheists and the hostility toward anyone who questions the existence of god originate?

From the parochial pastors of South Carolina to the high profile Evangelicals of Colorado Springs, I think the answer is obvious: religious leaders.

The atheist, agnostic and humanist community is currently caught up in the inevitable outcome of years of religious leaders pleading for their congregation to, "spread the word of God," and, "be soldiers for Christ."  This message has been perverted to such extreme proportions that the United States now has a sizable majority of children and teens, as well as adults, that either do not realize, or can't understand, that what they're doing to other people is wrong.  Their perspective on humanity has been so skewed by the religious leaders of their community, that they fervently believe that barbaric behavior is perfectly justifiable - so long as it's done with a Bible in their pocket.

Even Hollywood has noticed this phenomenon.  All anyone has to do is watch an episode of the very popular show, "GCB" to see what I mean.  (The social interaction and covert peer pressure between the women of that show honestly deserves a full blog post by itself.)  The characters, as exaggerated and superficial as the are, serve as a satirical lens into the twisted psyche of modern Southern Baptists.  And as funny as this show can be, I think the lessons of the emotional damage caused by bullying in the name of religion sometimes gets lost in the mockery.  Insults, stereotypes, and teasing are a way of life for the characters in this show.  As a matter of fact, the main character was once the "Queen Bee" in high school, who had the power to decide which of the other girls in the school were foxes or javelinas.  Now, I will admit that this episode was really clever.  But my worry is that most people do not realize that the indirect bullying and intimidation shown in this episode is not that far fetched for some high school students.

For example, here is a list of insults that have been given to me or said to me personally, provided in order from youngest bully to oldest:
  • "You're just mean"
  • "You're a bad person"
  • "You're going to hell"
  • "I hate you"
  • "You're a devil worshipper"
  • "You're just angry"
  • "You're a slut"
  • "You're shallow"
  • "You've disappointed me"
  • "You're immoral"
  • "You just lack character"
  • "You're depraved"
  • "You're a criminal"
  • "You deserve to die"
As you can see, the list progresses from fairly bland accusations to very hurtful and destructive statements.  Yet each and every day there are children and teens in our country that are forced to endure this kind of religiously motivated verbal attack.

The really unfortunate thing is that perverse people like this are not that uncommon.  If you are an atheist, you can bet that these are the words that you and your children are likely to hear from some religious people; that includes religious family members.  (I've seen it with my own family.)  On the other hand, you will find that insults do not have to be as pointed as the ones I've included in the list.  Most religious people - especially family members - will wrap their insults in phony concern, such as, "I'll pray for you," or, "I just worry about the souls of your kids."  But as we all know, this is simply a backhanded comment fashioned in an accusatory way.  They'll pray for you because obviously you're a heathen, and of course they worry about the souls of your kids because you have doomed them all to Hell.  And if you find that your family was successful in making you feel guilty, then you may have just fallen victim to indirect bullying.

As I said earlier, it is my conclusion that this is how an overtly religious person has been taught to handle non-believers.  Religious leaders have indoctrinated vast numbers of people, including children, to reduce atheists and agnostics to immoral animals in order to give themselves the right to intimidate and bully them into submission.

However, atheists and agnostics need not simply stand idly by as religious bullies try to put them or their family members into a position of submissiveness.  In fact, when it comes to our kids, it is our duty as parents to make certain that our children receive the support they need when it comes to dealing with a religious bully.  Take the initiative.  Contact all of the teachers in your child's grade.  Be prepared to escalate the situation to the school administration when necessary.  Write everything down; every name, every phone conversation, every meeting.  Show everyone that you will not stop until the bullying stops.  You cannot allow a playground bully to go unchecked at your child's school just because he or she happens to mention the Bible.

Keep in mind that as much as the religious demand it, their dogma does not automatically deserve respect.  You are allowed to speak up, so long as you know that the situation will not escalate to the point where your life, or the life of a loved one, is in danger.  Direct confrontation of a bully does have its merits, so long as you stay focused on your safety.

NEXT:  Do Not Neglect To Do Good

Monday, April 16, 2012

Bullying: Tell Him His Fault, Between You and Him Alone

PREVIOUS:  A Renewed Focus on Bullying

During a normal day at his after school care, my son and his friends were horsing around in the gym like any normal group of rowdy boys.  He was in second grade at the time, (he's in fourth grade now) which meant that he and his friends were starting to introduce each other to new games they've played.

One of his friends mentioned that he wanted to play a game that he learned at church.  I am not at all clear on the gist of the game, but it had something to do with the children pretending to be angels (or something to that effect.)  Confused, my son looked at his friend and said the worst thing he could have to a child who was raised in religion.

"Angels aren't real," he said.

Well, you can imagine what happened next.  His friends immediately began arguing with him over the existence of heavenly angels, of which they have absolutely no perspective from which to make an informed decision.  Granted, my son had no perspective on the matter either, but to me his view was the healthy one.

Nevertheless, due to the escalation of the young men's debate over the existence of tufted, biblical ethereal guardians, he and his friends were summarily escorted to the school’s office, where they all sat and waited for their parents to arrive.  And that's where I unknowingly approached a mild confrontation with my first overtly Christian educator.

Before I continue, I should mention that it would be a vast understatement to say that my son struggled with his behavior during second grade.  My wife and I became very well known in the front office, as did my boy.  So now you should understand it when I tell you that I’m quite sure when he saw me coming through the foyer of his elementary school, he honestly thought his entire world was about to collapse.

I passed through the foyer and entered the office.  I could see my poor son huddled in the corner… the felon awaiting his fate.  Even though the first thing that went through my mind was, "What has he done this time," all of that passed when I made eye contact with him.  The weight of his eyes seemed so heavy that it was as if holding up his own chin was impossible.  I immediately felt so much pity for him.  “The poor kid,” I thought.  “When is he going to catch a break?

I was subsequently approached by one of the after school teachers, whose appearance led me to believe that she had been crying.  “Great”, I thought, “this is going to be bad.”

She approached me immediately.  "Mr. Mathys, your son and a couple of his friends got into a very serious argument during a game they were playing in the gym.  We had to bring them to the office to separate them."

"Okay," I said, thinking that this was obviously the best thing for everyone.  Give all the kids a chance to cool off.  I asked, "Did he hit anyone else or something like that?"

"No," she answered.  "But..."  She paused for a bit, appearing to me to be searching for the right way to tell me something.

And then... there it was.  Tears.

"What in the world did he do?" I asked, frustrated.

At this point she was weeping as if her cat had been run over by a bus.  "He told his little friends that angels aren't real.  Then they started yelling at one another," she said, her voice crackling.  "One of his friends said that they were yelling at him because he said that God isn't real either."

There was so much heartache, so much anguish, and so much emotion spilling out of this woman; all over the angry arguments of a seven year-old child.

I immediately became upset and a little angry with her emotional display.  As politely as I could muster, I asked his teacher if we could move our conversation into the nurse's office since it appeared that the entire office had filled with other parents who found themselves helplessly eavesdropping on our conversation.  (Seriously, who could blame them?)

I closed the door, and as gently as I could, reminded his teacher that my son is a seven year-old child.  I do not expect him to have come to any definite conclusions about the existence of angels, or god, or anything else that she obviously held dear.  And neither should she.

I then asked her if she cried when the other kids involved were picked up by their parents.  She told me the truth, explaining that what the other boys said wasn't as upsetting to her as what my son had said.  Of course, that's when I had to take a deep breath and keep myself from blowing a fuse.  I made it clear to her that I thought it was inappropriate for her to be bawling like this.  It sent the wrong message to my son, and I won't have it.

She nodded her head, and told me, “I am sorry.  I’m just very emotional and sometimes it boils over.”  I accepted her apology and opened the door.  She and I left the nurse’s office without saying much else.  I checked my son out of school and made my way home.

I presented this situation because I believe it is a unique circumstance of a child being bullied with religion using two different methods.  The first is obvious: direct confrontation between classmates where a larger group of kids converges on an individual.  The second type of bullying, however, is not nearly as obvious.

My wife and I didn't pursue the confrontational bulling since we felt the after school teachers handled it appropriately.  The religious boys were explicitly told that at their elementary school, it is unacceptable for one group of kids to harass another child, no matter how he or she might be different from the rest.  All of them were told that no bullying, whatsoever, will be tolerated.  (My thanks goes out to the school administration and the after school teachers for staying consistent.)

This brings us to the second type of bullying in this situation: psychological bullying.  Whether she realized it or not, her repetitive tears and emotional outbursts made my son feel as if he had done something wrong by stating his viewpoint.  She put him into a situation where he had to sit in an invisible cage and watch her weep over what he said.  He knew it was wrong to make another person cry, so of course he blamed himself for disappointing her.  Not to mention his maturity level was nowhere near ready to deal with this kind of emotional pressure.  Furthermore, a child should be able to say something as innocuous as, “There are no such things as angels,” or, “I don’t believe in god,” without his world crumbling from beneath him.  I wonder… would she have reacted the same way had my son argued with his counterparts that there was no Santa Claus or Easter Bunny?

To me, this is a perfect example how adults can easily manipulate the mind of a child.  That constant display of grief, while he sat alone in a corner, was putting direct psychological pressure on my seven year-old son.  She was quietly and cruelly manipulating him into believing that what he said was far worse than any of the other boys.  Quite simply, it was an adult bullying a child.

So, after digesting and analyzing my scenario, I suppose my final question in this scenario is this:  Could I have prepared myself to be able to handle his teacher any differently?

I suppose my initial response to that question is... of course!  I honestly believe that I can (and should) always learn something from my experiences.  This, in turn, makes it unavoidable for me to second-guess my initial reactions to people, especially situations like this where I feel like I lecture another person.  When an uncomfortable confrontation arises and I regret that I got that frustrated with someone else, it's sensible for me to conclude that I probably could have been more prepared for this situation.

For example, when I saw his teacher crying, I was completely caught off guard with how deeply the words of a seven year-old would affect an adult.  I never would have dreamed that his words could have caused an adult that much anguish.  Perhaps I should have.  If I was better prepared for this kind of reaction, I'm quite sure I wouldn't have reacted with such barefaced frustration.  I probably wouldn’t have asked her if she cried around the other parents because now that I have time to look back on the confrontation like an adult, what she said to the other parents is really none of my concern.  A far better solution to this confrontation would have been to politely remind her that there are kids of all faiths in this elementary school, as well as some with no faith.  And I’m sure she would agree that each and every one of them deserves the same love and respect that they would grant to a child of Christian parents.

Even though I do not blame my son or the other two boys that were involved in this incident, I do approach this as an opportunity to learn from my actions and also so that someone else might be better prepared if a similar situation arises with his or her child.  Now that I have the luxury of hindsight, my advice for couples with young schoolchildren is to get yourself prepared for the inevitable confrontation.  Children hear, and process, far more than most people would ever imagine, and in time the topics that you discuss with your spouse or significant other will most assuredly dance across the lips of your child.  (And boy, did mine came far, far earlier than I would have ever guessed.)

NEXT:  For They Know Not What They Do

Sunday, April 15, 2012

A Renewed Focus on Bullying

On a typical morning a few days ago, my adorable 10 year-old niece approached my brother and his wife with something they never thought they would hear from her.  "I hate my life," she said.

Thinking that it was nothing more than a 10 year-old being overdramatic about her upcoming school day, my brother and his wife decided that it was best to stay calm, but make absolutely sure that she told them why she would say such a thing.  As I'm sure any parent understands, this kind of statement is something that cannot be easily dismissed.  So, after a few minutes of prying, they finally got her to tell them what was troubling her so much.

Frustrated and angry, she told them, "There is a group of boys that makes fun of me because I'm not a Christian."  She paused, and said, "They told me I was going to hell."

I cannot be alone here when I say that this type of behavior seems rather abnormal for children of a mere 9 or 10 years.  It makes absolutely no sense to me that these kids would be acting out with such fervent, religious conviction without some type of coaching from adults.  Pointing a condescending finger at another person and proclaiming that they are going to hell, at this age, cannot be anything but learned behavior.  Furthermore, we are talking about children in the fourth grade here, which in my mind suggests that these boys are nothing but a prototypical psychological window into their developmental surroundings.  Seriously, nobody in their right mind would say that kids are born with the idea of an afterlife, much less with the threat of an afterlife filled with eternal torture and suffering.  These boys were purposefully and maliciously taught to treat kids of other religions, or no religion, with hatred and cruelty.

All that analysis aside, I'm sure you can imagine how difficult it was for my brother and his wife to endure listening to their beautiful baby girl struggle with the toll of psychological bullying in the name of a particular religion.  An event such as this would make any parent completely nauseated.  I know I was.

Now, I should switch gears for a moment and admit that unlike many of my friends, I have the exceedingly good fortune of being related to very positive people.  That statement goes for just about everyone in my family, too, not just the ones I see frequently.  Also, I am extraordinarily lucky to be so close to my brother and his family, especially my niece and my nephew.  I absolutely adore those two kids.  It seems that each time I wave goodbye to them as they pull away in their van headed back to their home in Arkansas, I already miss all of them.  As a matter of fact, when their visits are over, I can't help but think how fortunate I am to be able to spend time with such a wonderful group of people.

Which is why it hurts me so deeply when I hear how cruel other kids can be to my niece.

The most troubling part of this whole situation is that more than likely, this group of boys knows nothing more than simplistic anecdotes of their parent's religion.  Yet at a mere 9 and 10 years-old, they are already boldly segregating themselves and hoisting each other up as superior to others.  Of course, I cannot say with certainty where these boys learned this contemptuous behavior, but judging by the opinions I have read about public school systems from religious fundamentalists, I have a very, very strong hunch where it's coming from.

But this topic is not meant to point fingers at their parents or their church, because I don't think fussing about religiously aggressive kids is very productive, and it does nothing to address the problem at hand.  It also feels a touch passive aggressive, and that really bugs me since I don't want to set that kind of example for my children.  Instead, what I'd like to do is cover a set of suggestions, based on my own experience (and my immediate family's experience), for the secular and non-religious families that have children going to school with religious bullies.


Just to be clear, these topics will not cover extreme situations like those of Jessica Alquist or David Fowler.  These two teens showed exceptional courage in the face of real threats of violence.  These situations are far beyond the scope of my experience, and the only advice I could offer is this: if you or a family member is in this type of situation, let the professionals help you.  Don't hesitate; grab your phone and immediately call the police, then call the Freedom From Religion Foundation.  Threats of violence to you, violence to a family member, rape, and murder should not be taken lightly, and the FFRF has lawyers ready to assist you at a moments notice.


What I will do, however, is spend several days covering different situations as well as provide suggestions from my experiences as a secular, atheist parent.  I plan on covering cases of verbal bullying (or confrontational bullying, like the situation my niece was put through), indirect bullying (lying or starting rumors), psychological bullying (playing on fears or other emotional states), and intimidation.


Please note: I initially intended this topic to be presented on my blog as one post.  But after working a few days on this project, I decided that due to the length of my essay, it would be better to break it up into several posts.  Hopefully this will help alleviate the annoyance of endless vertical scrolling, without detracting from my desire of raising everyone's awareness of this growing and disturbing trend of bullying in the name of Christianity.


I'll update this post with links to the subsequent posts as they are published.  So stay tuned...


NEXT: Tell Him His Fault, Between You and Him Alone

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Courage

You want to know what courage is?  Damon Fowler.  Damon stood up to an entire town when he discovered that they were all breaking the law by praying during high school graduations in Louisiana.

If you don't know his story, check it out...

We All Need To Speak Up

This was David Smalley's message to atheists and freethinkers, especially in an election year.

Great message!


Tuesday, April 10, 2012

God Really Needs to Speak Up

I suppose that at my age I shouldn't be at all surprised to read something that makes me shake my head in disgust.  Honestly, by now I should be used to all the junk science on the web and it shouldn't make me angry anymore; but I'm not and it does.

The most recent example of complete junk science comes from this article on the NPR website, which in terms of scientific evidence ranks just above the jewels one might find buried in the bottom of a full litter box.  I know that seems harsh, but I'm incredibly disappointed with NPR.  Normally I have such respect for the way they present the news; as a matter of fact, it's one of my favorite websites for news.  The problem is that I was under the impression that they would do a far better job of asking questions than this!

Following the standard format for NPR, the article is one part advertisement for a book, "When God Talks Back" by anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann (PhD), and one part interview with the author.  The setting begins with an evangelical church where several members of the congregation admitted that god had spoken to them - and spoken to them on more than one occasion.  (The article also quickly mentions that the church has 600 other branches across the country, so let's assume it's not your quaint little white church on the corner.)  And it was this personal auditory relationship with the almighty that Dr. Luhrmann examined in her book.

Let's get to it then, with a quote from Dr. Luhrmann:
"The way I think about it as an anthropologist, I don't have the authority to pronounce on whether God is real or whether God is not real."
Okay, I'll buy that.  I'm not in a position to pronounce whether god is real or not, nor would I ever suggest that I do.  However, I can pronounce that god is as probable as an invisible purple dragon in my garage.  Dr. Luhrmann continues:
"They learn to experience some of their thoughts as not being thoughts from them, but thoughts from God that they hear inside their mind.  They're also invited to pretend that God is present."
Now Dr. Luhrmann, I'm not an anthropologist, but doesn't the word, "pretend," raise red flags for you?  Surely you recognize that one of the things that human beings do really well is fantasize.  Whether it's dreaming about talking to god, or dreaming of schools of witchcraft and wizardry, or dreaming of a sexual partner you wish you had, the human mind is extremely effective at imagining very, very vivid representations of settings that are nothing but pure fantasy.  Given this fact, it seems telling to me that these groups are encouraging impressionable and unsuspecting people to blur the line between fantasy and reality by making the assumption that god really IS present.  This is, by definition, psychological manipulation.

Anyway, let's get straight to the heart of the issue here with yet another quote from Dr. Luhrmann:
"If you read Rick Warren's "Purpose Driven Life", it reads from one perspective very much like a cognitive behavioral therapy manual.  He's trying to get you to see yourself from God's perspective."
There it is.  We've officially reached the point where it's time to quietly and carefully step away from the crazy.  Give me a break.  Anyone that suggests that a Rick Warren book is worth reading, and that Rick Warren would have advice worth following, has officially lost my confidence in their subjectivity.  Seriously, the only thing that Warren has perspective on is how much money he's able to make off of gullible people.  Plus, it's starting to appear to me that the good Dr. Luhrmann is committing a cardinal sin in science: she's starting with a result she wants, and then goes looking for the data she thinks will support it.



Given my revelation about Luhrmann, I decided to see what Dr. Google had on people who hear the voice of god.  I was able to locate this, and this, among many others.  Note the following, taken from the Mental Health Foundation website:
"Hearing voices are still considered by psychiatry as an auditory hallucination and as a symptom of conditions such as schizophrenic disorders, manic depression and psychosis."
My sentiments exactly.

A group of evangelical protestants that suddenly proclaim that they are hearing the voice of god does not qualify as a proper basis for a scientific hypothesis.  Haven't you gotten the memo?  People have been making that claim for centuries, where god delivers either messages of love or messages of destruction.  Hell, we even have several very popular religious books that were written years ago that are FILLED with this kind of nonsense, right?  Not to mention that there are a number of obvious problems with Dr. Luhrmann's suggested, "theory of mind," new age garbage that the NPR article didn't even bother to ask.  For example:

  1. Is this a two-way conversation, or is god always the pitcher and a person always the catcher?
  2. Does god ever bother to provide anything useful, like a cure for cancer, or HIV?  Or is it always some vague sense of love, some vague message of peace, or some other standard religious cliché?
  3. Why is the voice of god not audible to more people at the same point in time?  In other words, do several different people report exactly the same message, word for word?
  4. As a scientist, how do you intend to collect data to reject the null hypothesis?
  5. Also, how is your hypothesis - that an evangelical person has trained themselves to perceive god's voice - any different from other similar notions from the past?
And so on.

I'll wrap all this up by presenting the one quote where Dr. Luhrmann and I agree:
"There were many different ways to be in the world, and Christianity then became a buyer's market. People chose if they were going to be Christian and what type of church they would join. And churches like The Vineyard see themselves as trying to offer a God that's quite different from the one who terrified poor James Joyce."
Well, no lie!  Churches are consistently losing their grip on people, and given enough time their religion will go the way of Zeus, Thor, and Ra.  So, of course they're changing their marketing...  Any good business understands when it's time to re-engineer the product.

So speak up god!  Your product desperately needs the celebrity endorsement!

(P.S. And is it me, or is that book cover creepy enough to make you hear voices?  <SHUDDER>)

Monday, April 9, 2012

Secular Saturday!

As if I didn't get enough from the Reason Rally and the American Atheist Convention, the DFW Coalition of Reason, the Secular Student Alliance, and the rest of the atheist community of North Texas are sponsoring an event that's almost right in my backyard.  This Saturday, from 9:00 am to 7:30 pm (tentative) at the Collin College’s Preston Ridge Campus, the North Texas Secular Student Alliance will be hosting a convention with scheduled appearances by Hemant Mehta of The Friendly Atheist, David Fitzgerald of "Nailed", JT Eberhart of the Freethought Blogs WWJTD, Matt Dillahunty of the Atheist Experience television show, and many more...

And guess who's going???  This guy!  WOO HOOOO!!!  I can't wait!

The only problem is that I'll be attending this convention solo; my wife has graciously volunteered to take care of the family responsibilities (baseball games and whatnot) just so I won't miss a convention so close to home.  I don't say this enough... but I'm a very, very lucky man.

Anyway, if you're interested, you can still buy tickets to the convention here.  The discounted tickets aren't available anymore, but who are we kidding, it's only $35 dollars and it's going toward a really good cause.  Also, the tentative schedule can be found here and a map of the Conference Center is here.


It's a really exciting and fantastic time to be a person living in reason, as there are more and more conventions popping up all the time.  If you're looking for a way to get involved in the movement, or just coming out and looking for like-minded people, give one of these conventions a try.  Believe me, you won't be disappointed.

Oh, one more thing.  If I don't get a chance to meet Hemant Mehta, I think I might sink into a bit of a depression.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

He is Risen!

My little contribution to the holiday weekend...


My photoshop skills suck, but this is good enough I think.  Enjoy!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

A Introduction to the Clergy Project

After a whirlwind of a weekend, I finally got a chance to sit down and write a post about something that I became aware of at the American Atheist Convention last weekend, which profoundly affected me to the point that I had to hold back tears.


Dr. Richard Dawkins gave the keynote address on day one, where he began with a worry that he had gone too far at the Reason Rally.  Had he been too confrontational when he told the crowd at the National Mall to, "Ask them what they REALLY believe"?  I think I can answer that for him: no sir, not even.


Then he moved on to talk about the Clergy Project, a confidential online community and support group for religious leaders who have realized that they no longer hold a belief in the supernatural (whatever the flavor of faith or religion may be).  Dr. Dawkins mentioned that there are currently over 180 members of the Clergy Project (the website mentions over 185), which to me seemed like a lot.  Either I was just too naive, or I never took the time to contemplate the idea that there is a substantial group of people who currently hold positions as leaders of a religious communities who no longer accept the tenets of their particular religious dogma.  And these people, who have devoted a substantial portion of their lives to an empty career, who are surrounded by family and friends that likely will not understand the struggle of unbelief, who are facing the loss of income or worse, their loved ones, need help as they endeavor to find a way out.  But all of this is why, in my mind, Dr. Richard Dawkins has changed all of mankind for the better.  He, and those like him, consider possibilities that the rest of us don't.

I had never heard of the Clergy Project until his presentation, and I was completely blown away as he explained the purpose of it all.  What a phenomenal idea this is!  In my mind, this project is the best possible use of Dr. Richard Dawkins' foundation and the resources of the American Atheists.  Because the worst possible situations generally stem from human beings that feel hopelessly trapped...

And then there was this:


We were told that yet another member of the Clergy Project was going to formally "come out" at the convention.  We waited in anticipation as a very professional looking woman with a pleasant smile approached the podium.  Embarrassingly, I had assumed that this person was there to introduce our surprise speaker, because being a child of the South, I automatically assumed it would be male preacher that was coming out.  Boy, was I wrong.  This remarkable woman came to the podium and introduced herself as "Lynn," the first woman to graduate from the Clergy Project!  As we all stood to applaud her courage, she proclaimed to the enthusiastic crowd if admirers that her name was Teresa MacBain, a Methodist Pastor from Florida, and that it was a relief to finally be able to tell the world her real name.  Can you imagine?  Needless to say, the entire convention floor erupted into wave after wave of cheer and emotion, with electrifying roars of applause.

Then Jerry DeWitt ran to Teresa at the podium, then Ernest Perce, and Richard Haynes, and on and on.  And the really touching moment - the moment I had the most trouble holding back the tears - was when Dave Silverman came running down the length of the convention floor, jumped effortlessly onto the stage, and opened his arms wide so he and Teresa could share a very touching embrace.

Like I said, it was everything I had not to turn into a blubbering idiot while I witnessed this "coming out' event.  My emotions ran from sympathy to elation as I listened to her talk to us about how she became an atheist.  Seriously, I don't think it's stretching the truth to say that there weren't too many dry eyes in the room.

Honestly, when I consider what Teresa has gone through over the past few months, I got some perspective.  Teresa's story forced me to reevaluate my own struggle with being an atheist; and more importantly being an atheist living in Texas.  She showed me how I can abandon my fear of offending the wrong person and find the courage to stand up for myself and my beliefs.  And if she can do it, then so can I.

Finally, it was just this week that I also found out that one of my favorite bloggers, Bruce Gerencser of Fallen From Grace, is also a member of the Clergy Project.  If you have some extra time during your work day or you need a break, do what I do, run over to Bruce's blog and listen to what he has to say.  His blog is as much of an inspiration as what Teresa MacBain did at the Atheist Convention and he deserves your ear.