The Meanest Scientist I Ever Knew

Whether I am reading a book on the history of bees or looking at a particular map of the United States, traces of Charles Darwin continue to swell into conversation. For those who have a predilection for visually compelling forms of communication, here is an infographic on Darwin created by Charles Trujillo that has proven to be good reference material as of late:

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(Source)

Last summer, for admittedly the third time, I picked up On the Origin of Species and read it alongside The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins. Reading On the Origin of Species wasn’t necessarily a transforming experience, but there are passages that still surface:

“It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.”

When I read Darwin, I found philosophies referencing body positivity and anti-nationalism. Even the perhaps more boring paragraphs of the book did not compare to the outright tediousness of passages in the Old Testament. Tonight, I hope you look at your bodies and smile, because you are the vision of perfection. Or at least, you are in maddening pursuit. Happy Darwin Day, friends!

A Holiday Request

Morehead

I rarely find myself compelled to share online crowdfunding campaigns, but Sarah Morehead and her children are seeking help out of a horrifying reality. Sarah is a valued humanitarian in the secular movement and nothing short of an inspiration for many of us. I am particularly familiar with Sarah through her work on the Recovering from Religion Hotline Project. If you have the money this year (even a few dollars) or if you feel the holiday booze moves you, please consider helping Sarah and her family by donating here.

Holiday Shopping For Your Token Atheist Friend

The holidays can be an unsettling time for atheists. Once when talking to a family member who is aware of my atheism and verbal about it, she asked: “Does it bother you when you get Jesus stuff for the holidays?” The truth, yes and no.

As self-proclaimed resident holiday gift adviser, here are my guiding rules on how to shop for heathens:

  1. Don’t give your atheist friend anything religious.
  2. Avoid gifts that use “Christmas” or “Xmas.”
  3. Coffee is good. Atheists like coffee.

Most of the following gift ideas center around secular thought, reason, and science.

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Giftcards to Amazon.com or Target can be personalized by packing it inside a secular greeting card, such as this card featuring Charles Darwin or this “Axial Tilt is the Reason for the Season” card from Center for Inquiry. The Center for Inquiry and other secular organizations have a lot of great items for atheists around the holidays. Personally, I have always wanted this “Heresy Makes For Progress” t-shirt. (Size small, please.) T-shirts can be fun. Just don’t buy anything too outwardly offensive, mocking, or with Comic Sans. To play on the safe side, I would recommend sticking to humanist gifts around the holiday season, rather than the more antagonistic options.

I like to suggest minimalist gifts for the holidays, such as this “Freethinker” vinyl sticker or black-and-white Carl Sagan magnet. If you think your friend would appreciate some weird socks, check out these wicked Einsteins from Socksmith. (Who doesn’t appreciate weird socks?!) Skeptical coffee mugs and science-shaped cookie cutters are solid small gift ideas.

Literature can be either a good or a really bad gift idea. Many atheists have strong biases about who they like and don’t like in the realm of secular literature. Prominent atheist thinkers have come out with books in 2015, but not all atheists appreciate these writers. Secular anthologies can also be tricky for reasons involving representation. The best gift will reflect some aspect of the token atheist’s belief system. It’s entirely reasonable to ask your friend, “Which atheists do you look up to?” or “Do you have any favorite scientists or public figures?” This will allow you to narrow down potential shopping flaws. Unlike religious literature, there is no single book binding secularism or novelty edition of said book that can be given to an atheist. Finding the right literature will require careful thought and some background research.

If unable to narrow down a book specifically, I would recommend purchasing a yearly magazine subscription from a predominantly secular publisher. Maybe support the Skeptical Inquirer or Scientific American? Magazine subscriptions are wonderful for the shopper who has waited until the last minute to buy a gift. Some atheists are also touring right now in the United States. Tickets to hear Neil Degrassi Tyson locally or another secular thinker can be an excellent last-minute gift idea.

The Unemployed Philosophers Guild offers an array of religious and non-religious products that are ideal for both adults and children. (I can think of nothing that I would have loved more as a child than an Albert Einstein Little Thinker Doll, except for maybe another Australian Shepherd puppy.) Royal Bobbles has some neat stuff as well, like this glow-in-the-dark Marie Curie figure.

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For the secular art lover, consider making a purchase from Amy’s store, Surly-Ramics! Her work is high-quality and ships quickly. She also runs sales on a regular basis, so feel free to check out her facebook page for more information.

While this entry may seem rather silly or tediously materialistic, it’s important to me. The holidays are challenging for atheists as they are for many people. Having a loved one, relative or friend, give a gift that acknowledges your belief system, particularly a belief system that is adverse to the holiday season, can be one of the most uplifting things in the world. That copy of The Origin of Species may not seem like a big deal, but for an atheist who has felt outcast from his or her family around the holiday, just that small recognition can be an enormous gesture of inclusion and hope.

So leave that Dr. Bronner’s soap on the shelf, and order soon to get your packages before the holidays are here. What are you hoping to get this year for the holidays? Share your thoughts/wish lists in the comments section.

Superstition

Since moving to North Carolina, I have started teaching ESL to adults. At one point, I was teaching students five nights a week. It was overwhelming, and I wasn’t very good at lesson planning yet. One of my South Korean students has been dedicated throughout this process. He keeps an organized three-ring binder and shows up to lessons on time. His English has improved significantly since we first started working together.

My student and I were talking about families and cultures recently. I had created a discussion-based activity with an imaginary character for the exercise. There was a question in the activity that asked about religion. My student pointed to the question and shook his head. “I don’t understand.”

“Which word?” I asked.

He tilted the paper with his finger below the word “religion.”

“Christianity, Buddhism, Catholicism, and Hinduism are all examples of religions,” I said.

He immediately made the connection and nodded. Since we were talking in the context of family, he first answered for his mother and father. When I asked if he was religious, he said, “No, no. I’m not superstitious.” The word was awkward, more than three syllables, the /er/ sound muddled in his pronunciation. Never cross a black cat in the middle of a road. Don’t knock over the salt. Leave an apple on the tree at the end of the harvest. Hold your breath when you pass a cemetery. That was always one of my favorites. I would ride our horse through the cemetery near my grandmother’s home, pretending I was a character from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow or some unknown female figure from the American Revolution, and hold my breath the whole time, spurring the horse faster and faster and faster until we were both thick with sweat, wondering if we would ever get caught.

Superstition remains a compelling force where I grew up, and these superstitions and images from my childhood live somewhere in the back of my mind as comfortable rituals and absurd mysteries. Maybe I could argue that these memories opened me up to a richer world, or maybe I could argue that they are evidence of a culture deeply flawed and clinging to its own suspension of disbelief. Other days, I just try to see the magic in it and remember myself as a girl sitting on a hardwood floor next to my cousin during a lightning storm, lining up acorns on the windowsill, and thinking we were furthest thing from death.

A Dog-faced Return

I am finally back to blogging. I can’t say how good it feels to sit in front of a blank screen this morning and quietly ripple out into a larger digital world without pressure or time constraint. A lot has happened since my last entry in February, and there will be plenty of opportunities to comment on that in the future.

Lately, I have been thinking about this short Christopher Hitchens clip rather a lot.

When I talked to a friend about the above clip last week, she said, “Doubt is scary. To hear atheism talked about in such a way makes it too appealing for people like me.”

In secular news. . .

I have some interviews planned, forthcoming blog features, and I am accepting nominations for the Laika Spotlight. Enjoy your anarchy this Guy Fawkes Day, everyone. Another post to come soon!

To [read] aloud is very brave – (138)

During the past six months, I have been told that I read poorly aloud by multiple people. Never in my life has anyone said this to me so frequently.

When I was twelve years old, I started becoming interested in public speaking. (I say my interest starts at twelve, because I remember going to nationals for the science fair that year. I was more con artist than scientist affectionately.) I began participating in debate groups, dabbled in stand-up comedy for awhile, and even started recording myself just talking about things to see how it sounded. It’s something I still do. I loved standing in front of a crowd, but now I wonder if that love is leaving me.

I have been feeling down lately about it all. Even if my writing isn’t that great, I hope to at least read a piece well before an audience and connect with someone. In the last six months, I keep hearing things like:

“I can’t pay attention, because I get lost in your voice.”

“You sound robotic.”

“Stop reading that way. Just let me read it to myself.”

These words rebound in my thoughts too often. Just this past week, I was going to read a few paragraphs from Chris Offutt’s “My Dad, the Pornographer” to my student organization, a group that I am considerably comfortable with, and I hesitated before reading and became apathetic to a degree. I thought for a moment that I should have asked for someone else to read and spared them all the sound of my voice.

I like to think back to a moment in my Keats class last spring when a student said to me during discussion: “Sarah Key, I love it when you read aloud. It just makes things click.” I think back to my best friend and how she was the first person to ever tell me that she liked my voice. I think back to last summer when one of my students raucously shouted, “I love your voice!” over the drum of other oddities being yelled my way, and that stands out to me more than anything.

Lately, I hear the words robotic and stop when I begin to read aloud. I wonder if I am dragging my feet to submit an abstract to this forum or neglecting setting up certain local lit events, because I don’t want to hear my own voice at them. I wonder if I have stopped reading to myself in the mornings when I am alone for the same reason.

Blasphemy Law: Don’t Poke Your Nose

Taslima Nasreen is a writer and humanist who I was privileged enough to meet last year at a conference in Virginia. When I approached her after a panel, I thanked her for sharing and speaking, and we shook hands politely. Then, I walked away to the coffee stand, kicking myself for not saying something more important or engaging, and talked to an elderly woman about her dog. In all truth, I felt pretty humble in Taslima’s presence, not in the manner of intimidation, but rather a silent awe and respect.

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I was researching blasphemy in the United States recently and came cross an organization called End Blasphemy Laws (link) that Taslima supports. The website ultimately raised a lot of questions and good points for me. I was surprised to see that the United States was not highlighted on the website’s home page map and then further surprised to read about “blasphemous libel” in Canada, which is punishable for up to two years in jail. When looking at their map, I wonder if the creators of End Blasphemy Laws are simply doing a preliminary keyword search to find blasphemous law in global legal databases or what their research methods entail. For instance, I live in Tennessee and would consider Section 2 of Article IX in the Tennessee Constitution blasphemous law. The section reads:

No person who denies the being of God, or a future state of rewards and punishments, shall hold any office in the civil department of this state.

There are similar laws in the states of Texas, Mississippi, South Carolina, and others across the board. (You can see similar laws internationally in Pakistan, Ireland, India, and other countries. Even the United Nations has some notable complications in this particular field of legality and religiosity.) The Texas legal statement on public office is particularly interesting. The law reads:

No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office, or public trust, in this State; nor shall any one be excluded from holding office on account of his religious sentiments, provided he acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being.

I would consider these legal statements under the category of blasphemy law, but often these particular laws are considered “unenforceable” as well and thus dismissed from conversation.

My research into blasphemy law comes admittedly from the Charlie Hebdo internet movement and influx in media representation. My thoughts on Charlie Hebdo are complicated to say the least, too involved with censorship and then Islamic blasphemy law, and thus convoluted and perhaps even ill-informed as some opinions tend to be. And maybe, I am too late in on the conversation. Anyway, it’s blasphemy thoughts for today, readers. And I find that I am all too reminded when researching law of the familiar childhood phrase, “Don’t poke your nose where it doesn’t belong.”