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.

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.”

Scientists Think They Know Everything

Occasionally, I hear a person say something like, “Scientists think they know everything.” I am always slightly off-put by these statements, because I think it’s the furthest thing from the truth. In many ways, ignorance is the motivation for scientific thought and investigation. Some scientists even believe the primary goal of a scientist is to remain forever uncertain. Whenever I hear people talking about “know-it-all” scientists, I think about a lot of things—ego, responsibility, indeterminacy, magic wells. Mostly, I think of this particularly amusing (somewhat controversial) TED talk by Dr. Stuart Firestein:

Firestein talks about the nature of science, knowledge, and even formal education. (And magic wells, which is likely my favorite part of the talk and probably also indicative of my reverence for Murakami.) Essentially, Firestein’s argument boils down to the idea that there is progress in “less pejorative. . . thoroughly conscious ignorance.” At the same time, I don’t think Firestein is saying that all approaches to knowledge are equal. He emphasizes the importance of Kant’s “question propagation” in how he talks about turning molecules into perceptions or even the oddities of robotics. Firestein isn’t dismissing the validity of science. He is simply expressing that scientific knowledge isn’t complete or perfect.

“There is no absolute knowledge. And those who claim it, whether they are scientists or dogmatists, open the door to tragedy.” ―Jacob Bronowski

Science that expresses an absolute knowledge becomes dogma. Dogmatic science, to me, isn’t science.

If you want to talk about uncertainty and how we grapple with it as a collective people, I can roll with Alan Watts and primary consciousness and the age of anxiety. Or we can move to John Keats and meander with negative capability. Then, we can play a hand of cards with Voltaire. This grappling is expressed in varying areas of culture from philosophy to literature to film. For me, it’s ludicrous to think that uncertainty theory exists only outside of science and in the pursuit of artist presence. I cannot help but wonder if this concept of factual knowledge and ego has trickled down from the type of “bulimic education” that Firestein mentions in his lecture, but maybe I will propagate a bit more on that after a cup of coffee, or several.

Question: Examining The Ten Commandments Controversy

[Dog-faced Atheist] Ask
What is one of your unpopular opinions?

Over the past ten years, there have been movements that attempt to extract the Ten Commandments from courthouses. I am against removing the Ten Commandments. I think we should add all types of philosophy to courthouses in no particularly hierarchical fashion. The idea of eliminating Ten Commandments monuments is essentially the removal of a type of literature, art, and philosophy. I think we should add quotes from the Quran, Torah, Tao Te Ching, the whole big shabang of holy books to courthouses. Let’s get crazy and add Benjamin Hoff’s The Tao of Pooh while we’re at it.

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In all seriousness though, I do think we should add more culturally diverse influences to the art and literature aesthetic of courthouses. This means expanding beyond just political quotes and portraits of dead white Presidents.

There are a couple of reasons that this might be considered an unpopular opinion:

  1. Adverse Public Reaction
  2. Separation of Church and State
  3. Arbitrary Decision Making & Favoritism

The repercussions of this idea have to be considered equally.

Adverse Public Reaction

In 2013, I remember reading news articles about atheists unveiling a monument in front of a Florida courthouse and feeling excited. However, my excitement soon faded. The protests against the monument didn’t stop for a time. Some bloggers were even criticizing the local news agencies for not doing a more accurate report on the public backlash.

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Photo Credit: Matt Stamey,  Washington Post

This is one of my biggest fears when it comes to introducing more philosophies inside (or outside) courthouses. It could easily invite intolerance. It’s the mindset of “How dare you desecrate the word of my God by putting that filth alongside scripture?” To some viewers, it wouldn’t matter if both sets of scripture were equally uplifting or viable as long as it came from a different faith system. Nonetheless, I don’t think it’s wise to view this idea of implementing multiple documents and art pieces as unassailable. Giving movements or ideas the title of “unassailable” is a dismissive practice. (I am looking at you, Salon reporters.) It gives oppressors the power to control someone’s actions. Civil rights, for example, were probably once viewed as being “unassailable.”

If you’re using the word unassailable right now, it better have an economic basis. And even then, I’m not sure that I will agree with you entirely. (Side note: Can you imagine reading this “Local Economic Professors Riot: Karl Marx Quote Engraved At Courthouse” as a news headline? Too funny. Finance junkies, unite!)

Separation of Church and State

When asked, a majority of my secular friends said they were for the removal of the Ten Commandments, because they wanted to keep the church and state separate. Having the Ten Commandments posted at the courthouse was thus an invitation for the church to enter the judicial system. This makes complete sense to me, but I don’t like the idea of removing literature or art from courthouses. It just sounds too much like something from a dsytopian novel. Likewise, only having one philosophy represented sounds a lot like a dystopian novel too.

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Conceptually, the idea of promoting diversity relies on acceptance and respect. This means understanding the ways in which everyone is unique but also the same. Courthouses, a model built on the idea of corrective education and justice, could become a venue for nurturing diversity. They could further develop into an empirically stimulating advocate for the promotion of understanding, moving beyond tolerance, and embracing the cultural richness of various worldviews and philosophies.

None of this is to say that I am espousing some flagrant ideas about adopting multiculturalism. Multiculturalism is a whole other ballpark, my friends.

Arbitrary Decision Making & Favoritism

Arbitrary decision making and favoritism is the argument that the people choosing the quotes from literature and soliciting the art pieces would only select ones that supports their personal ideas. A courthouse, for instance, might choose theologically-based rules or quotes that make people feel guilty. This repercussion can be seen in the ACLU v. McCreary County court case. A Ten Commandments display was challenged by the people, so the courthouse added more text that referenced religion and God. The display was later declared unconstitutional, because the County only chose documents that expressed favoritism toward religious mindsets. It didn’t include any type of secular representation.

At the end of the day though, all I’m really talking about are matters of interior design which makes me feel kind of silly.

If you would like to submit a question or blog topic, feel free to visit my Ask Box and fill out an anonymous form there. Thank you, Anon! This was a great question. Writing this blog entailed communicating with some old friends, and I appreciated reconnecting with them. All the love.
– Sarah Key

Question: Atheists and Oppression

[Dog-faced Atheist] Ask
Sarah, I have never considered atheists as an oppressed group. Would you consider yourself and others oppressed?

Whether or not an atheist is oppressed depends largely on his or her environment and means of expression. When it comes to thoughts about oppression, we may be dealing with a difference in, not only perspective, but also definition. I do not answer for a collective group, but represent only my thoughts and observations as an atheist living in the southern United States. Many would probably avoid the word “oppression” in regard to the treatment of atheists, and you’ll notice that even I lean more toward “discrimination” and other synonyms at times.

Where I live and grew up, atheists are the recurrent recipients of negative stereotype and prejudice. An open atheist risks being called “evil” or as with a past teacher of mine losing their job if their boss knew about their beliefs. The environment of fear is palpable.

Comparative Oppression

One of the past (and most frequent) arguments I have heard entailed a difference in visibility, particularly when comparing atheists to African Americans in the south. The premiere point being that one cannot tell if another person is an atheist by merely looking at him or her. The same cannot be said for African Americans or other people of color. Therefore, the atheist has a type of comparative privilege and societal camouflage. But what if an atheist was made visible in some way? (Recall briefly how Jewish people were made to wear the yellow star of David during World War II.) I would not, for a second, want to wear some type of t-shirt or other garment denoting my atheism and walk around my hometown adorned. I would risk subsequent ostracism and threats.

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Photo Credit: Rhodes Jewish Museum

To further comment on this comparison, I will say immediately address how silly I find this contest of oppression and its subsequent degree.

Person #1: I’m oppressed!
Person #2: I’m oppressed more!

So it goes.

At the same time, atheists tend not to be parallel to the same amount of physical violence as the LGBT community or the same level of economic oppression as women. Nonetheless, there is an astonishing amount of anti-atheist sentiment in the United States, and like these other aforementioned groups, atheists represent a minority within the general populace.

People have been oppressed for ages based on their race, class, gender, ability, sexuality, age and of course, religious connotation or lack thereof. The argument that atheists are not oppressed because of separation of church and state or freedom of speech is simply illogical. Just because the United States abolished slavery doesn’t mean African Americans aren’t oppressed. The same can be said for atheists.

Culture of Silence

I do not attempt to victimize myself by writing this response and have struggled greatly while trying to find structure within this defense. I often feel that if I raise the point of atheists as an oppressed group, then I may be accused of an emotional pursuit to garner sympathy. The result, therein, becomes silence. If I don’t speak openly about oppression, then again the result is silence. It’s the inherent Catch-22. Oppression runs deep within the culture of silence;  and through adherence to silence, I am being programmed into conformity.

In a future entry (or series of entries), I will attempt to relate atheism to the
various faces/types of oppression. Thank you for this question, Anon!

Q&A: A Series of Short Answers

[Dog-faced Atheist] Ask
How did NaNoWriMo 2013 go for you? Were you able to finish and what would you call the central theme of what you were writing?

For NaNoWriMo 2013, I worked on my title Adultery in the Guest Bedroom. I was able to hit the 50,000 word goal, but I did not finish the novel. There were several themes that I was going for in the project. If I had to choose a central guiding principle, it probably would have been: “Do not forget what it means to be a human being, whether this loss be out of fear, valid argument, or personal philosophy. Do not judge those who do forget, because not everyone is as strong as they would like to be.”

[Dog-faced Atheist] Ask
If you had to put a warning label on your blog…. what would it be?

Reading Dog-faced Atheist may cause eyestrain, deep thoughts (rare), raised eyebrows, furrowing of the forehead, and self-inflicted wounds caused by the proverbial facepalm.

[Dog-faced Atheist] Ask
Will you be at AWP this year in Seattle? Do you have any tips for newbies based on last year?

Unfortunately, I am not attending AWP Seattle this year. However, I have been working on a collaborative entry about “surviving AWP” for my blog. That entry should be posted around the second or third week of February.

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The line-up of featured presenters looks as impressive as always.  Annie Proulx, the keynote speaker, is sure to be an interesting panel. I would love to hear Sherman Alexie, Gary Snyder, and Tobias Wolff among others. I have met Richard Blanco, Ben Fountain, and Sharon Olds before. All great readings. Ben Fountain is a wonderfully funny guy if you’re looking for a laugh.

[Dog-faced Atheist] Ask
What are your thoughts on evolution?

I am not sure if I fully understand the intent or desired response for this question. To me, evolution is just another small battle in the proposition of moving in the direction of a more logical society. The idea that biological evolution should be taken out of schools in Tennessee is preposterous. Anti-evolution bills are as astounding as they are absurd.

[Dog-faced Atheist] Ask
Does your family know that you’re an atheist?

For the most part, yes. My family acknowledges my atheism in different ways and to varying degrees. For example, my dad doesn’t like the word “atheist” and prefers to call me “non-religious” instead. While my family does know about my atheism, I think the philosophy makes them notably uncomfortable. The dogs don’t seem to mind nearly as much.