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.

Leaving the New Atheist Movement: An Interview with Pat

Recently, a woman named Pat posted a quick message on her tumblr blog about how she left the New Atheist Movement. Intrigued, we began talking and what follows below is a transcription of our interview. Pat would like to remain (mostly) anonymous. Since her first language is not English, some substitutions have been made and designated in the bracketed dialogue below. This interview was our first time having an actual conversation aside from the occasional miscellaneous comment online.

[The interview was preceded by a short introduction of my blog and its purpose. Pat shared with me a photo of her dog, Monica, named after a character from the tv show Friends.]

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Interview with a Former Movement Atheist

Sarah: Before returning to the university, you had been out of college for almost five years. What made you decide to go back to school? Particularly as a student of theology?

Pat: My husband and Fidel Castro. [laughs] We moved from Florida to New York when Castro stopped being President in 2008. Or maybe right before, I can’t remember. Castro is in my imagination a lot. . . I wrote a paper once about how Castro is a symbolic figure for extremists. Some people go straight to Hitler in history. For me, it’s Castro.

S: Did your view on Castro have anything to do with your atheism?

P: Not really. I became an atheist, because I identified with that community. I didn’t like the term New Atheist very much, so I called myself a Movement Atheist. It’s more neutral. . . When I signed up for my first intro class, I was a New Atheist until I discovered the meaning of Movement Atheist. Really, I had been in the Movement the whole time.

S: What aspect of the community did you particularly find yourself drawn to?

P: Social justice, the more friendly part. That part [distinguished] itself from the misogynistic and racist parts of my life.

S: You said that you were a New Atheist before you “discovered the meaning of [a] Movement Atheist.” What drew you away from considering yourself a New Atheist? Was there anything specific?

P: As I took more and more course[s] in religious studies, it became clear to me that the New Atheists were largely ignorant of the work done in religious scholarship and dismissive of very real work done by theologians [who] are developing ideas that aren’t based on a face-value reading[s] of scripture.

S: I don’t want to misconstrue what you’ve said, but it seems like you developed a heightened appreciation for religion during your time as a student which is what ultimately caused your departure from atheism. Is this true? Or am I reaching too much with that statement?

P: No, this is true. Definitely. I appreciated what religion does for people, for the positive aspects, and for the ability of people to have spiritual lives outside of the monotheistic worldview. . . a more classical worldview. . . Learning about religious experiences led me to doubt more and more. . . I finally rejected believing things that have not been verified as a [moral] hazard.

S: I am actually glad to hear you mention the word ‘doubt’ in relation to atheism. Were there any professors who stuck out to you during your studies?

P: Yeah! [laughs] Having an atheist rabbi for a professor helped me a lot. . . There was also a Buddhist professor who said he didn’t believe in literal [post-mortem] rebirth.

S: Essentially, during your time as a religious studies major, you stopped believing in an empirically verifiable objective reality. Did either of those professors help you or push you toward that revelation?

P: I didn’t notice when it happened, so not really. Not them. . . It’s only looking back on it that I’m aware of it. This isn’t to say that I reject the scientific method or that I don’t believe in the possibility of objectivity.

S: You’re just more open to a subjective reality, then?

P: Exactly. Yeah. . . I believe in human existence being subjective. There may be an objective reality. I don’t know. Although, I think there is, but it is unknowable. . . I think that’s when the Movement began to look, well, really silly. Trying to deconvert people to a rational worldview was impossible, because a rational worldview was impossible.

S: What was one of your least favorite aspects of the atheist movement?

P: Mockery [of religion] as a way to advocate secularism.

S: What about your favorite part?

P: The community. The community was awesome.

S: I read on your tumblr bio that you now identify yourself as a “closet-case agnostic mystic.” Can you talk about that little bit?

P: These days I practice Zen Buddhism. Olaf Stapledon is why I call myself a mystic. I don’t know whether a personal God exists, but I doubt it. But I also believe there is a benefit in attempting to contact to the [ineffable.] I don’t know whether [post-mortem] existence happens, but I doubt it too. But I think that the time I’ve lived is some sense eternal. I don’t know a lot of things, and I think a lot of them either aren’t knowable at all. . . or maybe can only be known outside of words.

S: I don’t want this question to sound as if it has an obvious agenda, but I’m curious to know if whether you stopped believing in the possibility of perceiving objective reality before or after you began practicing Buddhism. I’m asking only because I think the direction of cause-and-effect could be interesting to consider.

P: I would say before, but I’m not certain of it. That is tough. Buddhism definitely strengthened my [conviction.]

S: Are you asked to speak about your religious ideas very often?

P: Not a lot. My husband asks. Not my family. . . I am rambly when I talk about religion. This is why I can’t be a teacher. [laughs] Or maybe I’d make a good one, who knows. I’m not very good at public speaking.

S: Are you able to pinpoint the exact moment when you weren’t able to regard yourself an atheist any longer?

P: I didn’t so much leave the Movement as I drifted away. . . It happened over several months, and I don’t think I can pinpoint the exact moment when I no longer considered myself one. But that’s neither here nor there.

World Book Night 2014

World Book Night was a blast. I gave out copies of Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire. (This is my second favorite Pollan novel, preceded only by The Omnivore’s Dilemma.)

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The book is sectioned into four topics: apples, tulips, marijuana, and potatoes. During the giveaway, we served snacks themed according to the book. Potato salad, apple juice, and caramel apple pie cookies. All that good stuff.

I re-read the passage about potatoes and the epilogue earlier this morning. I wanted to share a quote from the epilogue here:

“Sooner or later your fingers close on that one moist-cold spud that the spade has accidentally sliced clean through, shining wetly white and giving off the most unearthly of earthly aromas. It’s the smell of fresh soil in the spring, but fresh soil somehow distilled or improved upon, as if that wild, primordial scene had been refined and bottled: eau de pomme de terre. You can smell the cold inhuman earth in it, but there’s the cozy kitchen too, for the smell of potatoes is, at least by now, to us, the smell of comfort itself, a smell as blankly welcoming as spud flesh, a whiteness that takes up memories and sentiments as easily as flavors. To smell a raw potato is to stand on the very threshold of the domestic and the wild.”

Pollan’s book could be considered an inspirational tool for the average gardener. (Last year, when I was angry at my corn for shading my squash, this would have been a good book to read. An anecdote for the frustrated or tired.) This book makes me think about our distinctions between wilderness vs. nature and the Apollonian vs. the Dionysian. The way The Botany of Desire speaks in conversation with literature alone is in itself enough to keep me reading and returning to Pollan’s work.

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Check out World Book Night if you haven’t before! A number of my friends were givers this year, and I have loved reading the blog entries and social networking updates today about the strange and fulfilling encounters people have had while emptying out their giver’s box.

Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire Writing Prompts

– Michael Pollan’s subtitle for The Botany of Desire is “A Plant’s-Eye View of the World.” Write a short piece of fiction or poetry from the perspective of a plant. You may use one of the plants mentioned in Pollan’s novel (apples, tulips, marijuana, or potatoes) or choose your own.

– Pollan spends a large portion of the first chapter discussing the tale of Johnny Appleseed. Using the Johnny Appleseed legend as a model, write a similar story involving either tulips, marijuana, or potatoes.

– The third chapter of the novel begins begins by comparing the Genesis account of the apple’s “forbidden knowledge” with the contemporary forbidden nature of marijuana. Pollan concludes this first section with a method of questioning:

“Why in the world should this be sowhy should evolution yield plants possessing such magic? What makes these so irrestible to us (and to many other creatures), when the cost of using them can be so high? Just what is the knowledge held out by a plant such as cannabisand why is it forbidden?”

Write an essay comparing two forbidden topics, practices, objects, etc. while performing a social critique. (Or take two ordinarily accepted practices and make them forbidden.) The social critique should unfold naturally in your writing. Use Pollan’s questions to help guide the essay.

To those who asked for prompts, I hope these are somewhat profitable. I want to extend my gratitude to all who helped make World Book Night a success in Clarksville. Happy reading and writing, folks!

Poetry Friday: “Twisted Like Dogwood”

During my early years of blogging on Xanga, I remember “Poetry Friday” being one of my favorite weekly traditions. Sometimes, people posted their own poetry. Occasionally, I would come across T.S. Eliot or Wallace Stevens or Sylvia Plath in my newsfeed. I have been thinking about keeping up with this tradition on my blog, because I find myself more immersed in poetry these past couple of years than ever before. I am even dedicating myself to a study involving William Blake, which is beyond frightening.

Today, I want to share a poem called “Twisted like Dogwood” by Rebecca Latour published in the Kenyon Review. Dogwoods have been blooming here lately, and I found myself thinking of Latour’s poem this past week while buying red wine at a nearby liquor shop in a blue dress. An unusual experience.

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Twisted like Dogwood

by Rebecca Latour

Mornings he lies under the bridge
pretending the sky is black—
and when boys stand atop the bridge, making wishes,
eyes pinched closed,
flicking pennies into ripples of the river,
he dips his hand into the water to catch them—
and when a penny slides
through his fingers, slinking into sand,
there is no going after it.
Sometimes he sits on the bench
and begs under the dogwood twisting
through the concrete. And a boy sits next to him.
He asks, got what you wanted, didn’t you?
(even when there is nothing worth looking for)
and the boy says mister?
and he says well, as long as you got what you wanted.
And, together, the two of them watch
a woman, tall and beautiful, walk into
the liquor store on the corner, and walk out
with a bottle of red wine:
and her hair—black as sky, twisted like dogwood,
her eyes glistening like pennies.
And he says, you know that lady in there,
what’s her name, that little lady from the liquor store?

and the boy says it’s all on the other side
but the wind carries her off.
And he rolls back his head, the sun shining in his eyes,
as if it were the only answer
the world could give.

Aronofsky’s ‘Noah’ Adaptation: The Roar of a Heavy Shower

The US premiere of Darren Arnofsky’s Noah is upon us.

I have been thinking a lot about why people enjoy watching the depiction of religious figures on film. In some ways, cinema is just another medium engaging in the act of religious critique. Perhaps people watch these films to see the characters as more personable. Maybe some viewers have a white savior complex or merely wish to visually experience the human divine. The possibilities are endless and subjective.

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In the past few weeks, I have seen both negative and positive responses to Noah. Some Christians are excited for a high-budget, religious film while others are more hesitant. I can already foresee the critique on skin color. (It happened with The Hunger Games. It will happen again here, as it should.) Nonetheless, I understand the skeptics’ point-of-view. People do tend to be more critical when looking something that has been classified as a religious interpretation, and many have been very quick to write off religious films as a type of marketable Hollywood fetish piece.

My biggest apprehension when it comes to religious films is an underlying fear for the actors and actresses. By becoming the face of a contentious film, they are opening themselves up to a new type of ostracism and social commentary.

Even while setting my personal opinions about Noah’s story aside, I admittedly found Russell Crowe’s thoughts on the benevolence of Noah controversial. His ideas seem to cast Noah’s character in a more “negative” light. For me, however, Crowe is making Noah more humane by recognizing imperfection. Crowe addresses “the preconceived notions” of the story and describes Noah’s task as “the worst job you could get.”

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Emma Watson, who plays Ila the adopted daughter of Noah, describes the film as being similar to an “epic Shakespearean drama.” I am sincerely interested in what feminine voice and quality Watson will provide a traditionally male-dominated tale. Even Watson notes that Noah is a “dark story.” She carefully calls the film “all his [Aronofsky’s] imaginings” which points to the screenplay’s direct reliance on Aronofsky’s graphic novel, Noah. Thereby giving one reason to say that while Aronofsky’s film is influenced by the Biblical story, it is not an interpretation of the Biblical story at all, but rather a script conditioned and guided by Aronofsky’s graphic novel.

Many laughed at the film’s “untold story” claim, but Aronofsky says the film is about breaking expectations. He sought to delve deeper into the darker world that God wished to eradicate through the great flood hence the apocalyptic nature of the film. Aronofsky understood the delicate process of expanding Noah’s story, and he attempted to accomplish this expansion by surfacing the themes of righteousness and parenthood. Aronofsky immediately notes that the act of destroying creation is an inherently dramatic theme. While Aronofsky claims the film is “for believers and non-believers,” he does seem to have the “21st century [Christian] believer” in mind primarily. He described the film as not another one of “your grandmother’s Bible movie[s].”

Some critics have noted that the film carries a more environmental message than a theological one. Honestly, that just makes me want to see Noah more. I am interested in the landscape which was filmed in Iceland and the portrayal of the animals. I want to see how Aronofsky has balanced the theological with the environmental challenges present in Noah’s tale. As a side note, here’s to hoping the animators of the film actually get paid. (Looking at you, Life of Pi.)

I would like to see Noah at some point in theatres once the fuss is over and the crowds have dispersed. I can’t promise that I will write a formal review of the film so much as a meditation. If nothing else, at least there will be popcorn.

popcorn

Reflections on AWP

The internet can be an unusually lonely place.

This weekend, many of my friends are attending AWP Seattle. AWP (Association of Writers & Writing Programs) is the largest literary conference in the US. Last year, I had the pleasure of attending this migrating conference in Boston with Zone 3 Press.

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An AWP “swag” favorite –
mug purchased from Rumpus.

Even just scrolling through the AWP schedule can be an abundant source of inspiration. Though unable to attend the conference this year, the descriptions of sessions/panels has been similarly thought-provoking for me. In some ways, I think the schedule can be read like a series of brief reminders:

  • Find a quiet space, a sanctuary, for yourself and your writing.
  • Live an experience worth writing about.
  • Embrace peculiarity.
  • Memoir is about developing a deeper understanding of experience.
  • There are consequences that stem from our writing.
  • We owe something to the people we write about.

Out of all the sessions at AWP Seattle, I found myself most drawn to the panel titled “Peace Corps Writers Across the Genres.”

It’s easy to become lost at AWP. (Don’t get me started on the book fair shenanigans.) I loved attending readings or following around my favorite writers to their sessions. At the same time, I was often drawn to feminist topics, writing in relation to nature/yoga, religious writing, book reviews, short plays, sustaining a writing group, short story anything, etc. If nothing else, AWP provides a space to meet up with old friends. Many attend the conference for the drinks and good company.

AWP presented me with a type of psalm that I often experience at writing conferences; there is always more to give. We thrive in community unable to quite live without one another, after all.

A Winter Passing

I have been taking an informal break from blogging and answering questions recently.

In the last month, I learned that one of my dogs had died. The news hit me heavier than I would care to admit. I know I have mentioned my dog and shared photos of Bandit before (x). I took this particular photograph before setting out on the cold, bright morning of our last walk together:

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I have thought deeply about our last walk, tried to recall what thoughts burdened my mind that day or what birds we saw in passing, but I can’t seem to remember anymore.

During his final years, Bandit contracted pneumonia. He never fully recovered and stayed on regular medication during winter months. He also seemed to have arthritis though it was never formally diagnosed by a veterinarian. We watched him age in ways of peace. We watched him stop chasing cars and youth. Australian Shepherds, a bloodline of herders, the working cattle dog and time-honored instinct to nip ankles, a dog who could have defeated Achilles. We watched him shepherd closer to home as a porch dog in the autumn of life. My father told me Bandit died in his sleep on a Friday.

The sadness of Bandit’s death has hit me in different degrees. He was always a vocal dog. Bandit would howl at the sirens of ambulances veering down a distant road. He would say his version of I love you and pull back his teeth to smile, writhing all over, exposing both gum and chipped tooth, upon our arrival home. Bandit looked terrifying when he did this, and his mimicry made us  laugh more than anything else. For the first few nights after his death, I listened to the sirens in Clarksville and remembered his shameless howl. Even now, alone in my apartment, I struggle to write about Bandit, his adventures, and the all too familiar sentiment that it is hard to lose a friend.

I’ll close this entry, my study of grief, with what I think is whispered too often or sometimes not enough. A familiar phrase said across the living room couch during the night with my hand buried in the dark fur of his back: Lie down, lie down.

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!

Question: Cats vs. Dogs

[Dog-faced Atheist] Ask
I think it’s surprising that you consider yourself more of a dog person than a cat person. Why is this?

My love for dogs defies most logic. When I was younger, I was severely injured by a Shetland Sheepdog, but never developed a fear involving the animal. I think there are several things about dogs that people could stand to learn from, e.g. selflessness, perspective, and so forth. It’s all been said before. During workshops and discussion, I often slip into speaking about dogs in relation to writing and literature. Maybe it’s the Chekhov in me.

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I have owned cats over the years, and I like them equally. (I am particularly fond of manx.) One of my favorite writers, Haruki Murakami, has featured cats throughout the body of his work. For an example or solid read, check out his available short story “Town of Cats” in The New Yorker.

As far as my personality goes, I would presumably be placed in the category of a “cat person.” Stoic, introvert, intellectual, quiet, et al. Dogs, however, are good for people like me. They pull me away from isolation. They provide an excuse to go outdoors and become more visible. Have you ever thought about how walking alone has developed into a suspicious activity or signal for concern? (Cue: unavoidable damsel in distress analogy.) Frequently, if I am walking by myself, someone will pull over/stop, question what I am doing, if my car has broken down, etc. If I am with a dog or group of dogs, whether leashed or not, the activity becomes entirely normal. Just a walk in the evening.

Though I remain a skeptic by large of communities and their surrounding ideologies (a trait Murakami and I share), I am a person who believes in community and its inherent value to survival. Dogs push me further in that direction. As far as mental health is concerned, dogs are like a type of medicine or as writer Mindy Friddle would say “grump antidotes.”

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.