Jesus Goes to Hobby Lobby

At my university, I manage a student organization for creative writers. In addition to workshops, readings, etc., we host craft nights that pertain to writing and literature. Since we are located in a smaller town with few available art-centric resources and since I am admittedly not always the best planner, I occasionally end up buying some of our supplies from Hobby Lobby, the begrudged craft store not far from campus. For example, the organization’s Writer’s Block Party required acrylic spray that would add a glossed finish to members’ works, and I (poor planner that I am) ended up at Hobby Lobby on the day of our event asking an employee to help find the product. Alas.

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Me with that damned Hobby Lobby acrylic spray. *pitch forks! fire!*
Someone! Quick! Mop that floor.

With a more liberal-leaning membership and support system, some people voiced concerns about purchasing products from Hobby Lobby. Our more conservative members were silent. They didn’t praise our “support” of Hobby Lobby. When asked, many of them said they didn’t care at all and thought the whole thing was being “blown out of proportion.”

The popular view in the media was that conservatives were going wild over the Supreme Court decision to favor Hobby Lobby’s charged mandate against providing female employees with contraceptive coverage. Hobby Lobby has claimed to be a reflection of Christian values. (I guess, this explains why I never see any snazzy Margaritaville signs in their stores.) Many conservatives who support the pro-life movement thought Hobby Lobby was making a crucial stand for their freedoms and quickly joined in the crusade by posting their opinions on social media websites. The most popular question being, “How can the Government make Christians pay for abortions?”

On June 30, 2014, the Supreme Court decision was made, and conservatives celebrated. Many considered this ruling to be a success for freedom of religion and began writing posts on Facebook and Twitter about a “rare triumph. . . in the war against Christianity.”

During all this yaysaying and war victory celebrating and liberal head shaking, we failed to see one simple detail:

“The most straightforward way of doing this would be for the Government to assume the cost of providing the four contraceptives at issue to any women who are unable to obtain them under their health-insurance policies due to their employers’ religious objections.”

Burwell v. Hobby Lobby

Who is “the Government” exactly? Well, taxpayers. Me, the conservatives and their pro-choice neighbor. In celebrating the rights of for-profit corporations to have religious freedom, many conservatives failed to see the scope of this detail. Corporations were the winner in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby. Not conservatives or Christians or protesting activists. Hobby Lobby decided not to pay their share and thus burdened taxpayers. None of this is a new story. Pacifists have long been paying taxes that go to military support. Atheists have shouldered a larger tax responsibility, because many churches are tax-exempt.

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Hobby Lobby sold its case as being a huge victory for the conservative pro-life movement to garner customers and higher sales. It made Christians believe that their corporation was carrying some huge burden for them on the front lines of the “war against Christianity” when really this court ruling was a huge loss for everyone but Hobby Lobby and other future corporations that could possibly pass off their fiscal obligations to taxpayers.

It does make me feel somewhat disgusted to find myself shopping in Hobby Lobby and to know that I will probably end up there again sometime in the next year, but it’s not because of my anti-religious leanings. It’s because of my feminist ideology. I am exhausted at women being treated like objects again in some sort of religious contest. I am exhausted at seeing the working class woman disproportionately affected by a demagogic corporation. I am exhausted by reading another ridiculous gender-based legislative act. Here is to hoping that we remain conscious of the disingenuous nature in these acts and the consequences of such ubiquitous crusades.

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.

A Skeptic’s Guide To Writing Contests

Earlier this morning, I submitted a short story to a popular literary journal’s writing contest, and I feel worse for it. I have never submitted to this type of contest before. Despite knowing fiction writers and poets who have won story and poetry contests, I have even advised other people against this practice. Writing contests have often rubbed me the wrong way. We can chalk it up to my inner skeptic. We can call it bad math. Writing contests? I just don’t trust them. But here I am, short another $20 looking at my Submittable ticket receipt, and drinking coffee like any other regular day in the life.

Many of my friends have entered contests with a reader’s fee. (Say, $20.) A journal would announce its contest, promise the winner $500/publication, and the runner-up $100/publication. This amount varies depending on the contest, journal, allotted reader’s fee, etc. In exchange for the reader’s fee, writers will receive a subscription to the literary journal.AQR Writers begin submitting their stories and paying the journal’s fees. A journal hosting the contest might receive 1,000 manuscripts during their reading period. That’s a lot of reading fees. $20,000 of reading fees. For a long time, that sounded like bullshit to me.

Maybe I’ve become a bit more amiable over the years, because I’ve met the readers and judges of these contests and heard their horror stories. Or maybe I’ve gotten an insider look into literary journals that allows me to see how difficult funding can be. I am saddened by a recent article and movement that’s been floating through the literary scene entitled Save the Alaska Quarterly Review. This article illuminates some of the obstacles faced by journals, and the hashtag #saveaqr is a painful reminder of these problems.

I realize I could just be saying all this to make myself feel better about spending that $20.

Originally, I felt like contests were money-making ponzi schemes. Highly successful literary cons. A darker side of my skepticism thought the judges of said contests probably had a small pool of favorites anyway. I disregarded reading hierarchies and anonymous submission/reading guidelines with the understanding that people talk. Writers recognize each other. I concentrated on getting published the regular way, and that has seemed to work pretty well. I operated under the golden light that my stories might receive awards after they’ve been published. In some ways, I felt like I was taking the “smart” route, but now, I’m not so sure. I have started to see contests as a necessary evil in the literary world. A give and take affair.

Contests are a viable way for journals to stay afloat financially. Some journals that have contests use that extra generated money to pay writers for their accepted submissions throughout the year. Other journals just want to pay their fucking rent. However, it’s still best to remain pragmatic when submitting:

  • Submit to contests hosted by journals you love.
  • Only submit exceptional material.

There are a thousand other people out there submitting their work to a contest. If your submission doesn’t stand out from your own pool of writing on your laptop at home, it’s not going to stand out in an even greater pool.

But here I am thinking about the different ways a person could spend $20—new pants, a bike lock, gourmet cheese, tote bags— and wondering if any of my friends secretly submitted, too.

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

On Writing Fiction Alone

A year or two ago, I wrote a story called “The Black Tiles on Split Road.” It was originally called something else at the time. Something with the color green. The story was about this man struggling with his alcoholism and anxieties about fatherhood. He is outside mowing the yard on a Sunday morning when he finds out that his youngest daughter has been involved in an accident at the church. After reading this story aloud, a man came up to me and told me all about his childhood mowing yards with his father and how the smell of cut grass made him feel sick too. He said his father had recently died and that “The Black Tiles on Split Road” had connected with him. He didn’t cry, but his voice had that edge to it. When he finished telling me about the funeral, he paused, then said, “Thank you. It feels good not be alone with it anymore.”

At the time, I couldn’t tell him what I was really thinking. I had never mowed yards as a child for money or had an abusive father. I had never struggled with putting a parent in a nursing home or keeping up the maintenance on a house of my own. I didn’t have children or a wife. I had never been divorced or had an accident at a church as a child. Very little in that story had happened to me, or someone I knew. I simply wrote it down.

Conversations like this have occurred several times over the years. It happened again this past weekend at the Mountain Heritage Literary Festival when a woman naturally assumed that I was married after a reading and told me that she didn’t like her husband’s teeth very much either.

I wouldn’t call my stories lies necessarily. They might not be true in a traditional sense, but they contain some grain of truth. A less empirical one. Maybe a distorted version of myself who has been persistently collecting voices and images and fear. If my stories are any good at all, then they relay some type of vulnerability or inner life about myself. The nature of truth that I pursue in writing fiction is occasionally a truth more readily adopted by the reader than by me. I think my writing reveals a collective, essential version of myself.

In my stories, I have been a number of people. I have written my way into characters a sailor, a widow, a moonshiner, a nine-year-old boy, a jazz musician, a speaker of tongues, a gay bartender, a bus driver, a Johnny Cash impersonator, an angel people whose lives I have never lived, but I believe in escaping the self when writing fiction. I think this fallacy about the empirical truth in fiction comes from the idea of “writing what you know.” I often feel like the more immersed I become in a story the closer I am to becoming like everybody else.

Though it might seem wildly cliché, I feel like I am layering masks onto myself, and beneath each mask is my face or some version of it. I imagine my body in front of my desk with the window’s white light pouring over me while I perform this intricate balancing act of metal and wood and carved plastic others piled on top of my cheek bones as I stare with my eyes barely open into the back of where another person’s eyes should be with my neck hurting, arms outstretched, and masks curving upward into the room like the smoke of a prayer’s candle, and then there’s me somewhere beneath it all forgetting for a moment the person I saw in the narrow reflection earlier that morning who sat down with a cup of coffee in front of a legal pad at some point thinking about words and those who have died. Sometimes, it’s just harder to recognize me.

Throwback Thursday

March 17, 2009 — Saint Patrick’s Day

I spent a lot of my childhood growing up in a nicotine-stained bowling alley, and it was there that we found our dog. Dogs were common  at this particular bowling alley. Even the owner frequently brought “her babies” to work with her— two Miniature Schnauzers and a Scottish Terrier. So, it didn’t feel strange at all to see a Labrador pup on the counter one day, and it didn’t feel strange at all sliding him off the counter and walking out with him either.

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Admittedly, I tried calling my mother before I chose the pup, but she wasn’t answering her cell phone. (This was a pretty normal occurrence, too.) I called her boyfriend, Steve, to see if they were together, but they weren’t. When I told him that I was about to be a new dog owner, he laughed and said: “It’s better to ask for forgiveness than for permission.”

My friend, Summer, and I sat in a truckbed drinking sweet tea from large Styrofoam cups and talking about names outside of the bowling alley. We made a diamond with our legs and let the pup play between us. Mostly, he just slept. The street lights hissed a brownish gold, and we could hear the men smoking outside the bowling alley door threatening and laughing at each other.

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I wondered then what this pup would be like when he grew old. I wondered if he would be like my family, become like us, strangely attached to our anger and pride and fear. I watched the sunlight drag across the pavement and wondered then too what it was like to take a child from a mother you’ve never seen.

Women (and Dogs) in Secularism III

I am finally back from the Women in Secularism III conference. You check out photos from the conference over at Bruce F Press Photography. (I am in the background of several of these shots. See if you can find me!)

When first talking to some of my friends about the Women in Secularism conference, I noted how odd and exciting it was for me to be attending a conference unrelated to literature or creative writing. One friend said, “Well, really, it’s all about finding your people.” To say the least, the women present at this conference were definitely my kind of peIMG_20140522_182447ople.

In addition to thought-provoking panels and discussions, there was unsurprisingly a dog presence at the conference.

Amy Davis Roth, owner of Surly-Ramics, spoke on multiple panels and sold some of her necklaces in the storeroom. She makes ceramic necklaces that feature science-orientated subjects among other topics. I bought a dog necklace (pictured above) and later found out that she even does custom pet designs over at her Etsy shop. Her jewelry features messages like “Think” and “This is what a humanist looks like” or art prints of microscopes, organic matter, fossils, atoms, space, Darwin illustrations, depictions of iconic artists, and more. Her jewelry and ceramics are the perfect gift for the pro-science advocate.

I couldn’t get over Amy’s inviting and vibrant personality. See, here is a photo of Amy measuring her personality:

panel1Source: Bruce F Press Photography (Panelists, left to right)
Melody Hensley, Amy Davis Roth, Amanda Knief, and Debbie Goddard

It’s huge!

Feel free to browse around her Etsy Shop, Surly, to look over her products, talent, and pricing. If you want to check out some of Amy’s paintings, you can read this article at Mad Art Lab that talks about her exhibit at the American Atheist Art Show.

Another inspiring speaker, Amanda Knief, was present at the conference with her dog, Sagan. (Carl Sagan fans, unite!)

Sagan12Source: Amanda Knief’s Twitter Account

Knief and Sagan were championing the table for American Atheists at the conference where Knief works as managing director. Come to find out, the American Atheists’ 2015 National Convention is in my back yard Memphis, Tennessee. The conference is scheduled from April 3-5, 2015 at the Peabody Hotel, and you can bet that I will be in attendance.

I will post more soon about the conference, which was an overload of inspiration. For now, I am going to settle in with a copy of Bright-Sided by Barbara Ehrenreich, another speaker present at the conference, and get ready to grill out some steaks. The Women in Secularism III conference was the perfect beginning to my summer.