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!

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.

Screenshot 2015-02-09 at 10.02.10 AM - Edited

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.”

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.]

Nica1

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.

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.

Question: On Respect, Friendship, and Divergent Belief

[Dog-faced Atheist] Ask
Hey Sarah. I’m an atheist. When I finally come out to my friends about being an atheist and tell my religious friends that I respect their belief in God they like to dismiss what I am saying. It’s like since I don’t believe in God too that I am being immediately disrespectful of them. How would you respond to this situation?

Immediate Response

“I respect you too much not to respect your beliefs.”

It’s important to note the reaction many religious thinkers might experience at the discovery of your atheism. If you’re a former Christian or someone whom they believed to be a Christian, the immediate response might be one of shock, confusion, or disbelief. To deny acknowledgement of God could initially cause some believers to feel as if they are being told their belief is “wrong” causing their body language or conversation to inadvertently become more defensive or aggressive in order to regain their balance in the right. Your friends might not be dismissive of your atheism or respect; they might just not know how to respond or accept that belief initially.

Another unfortunate truth is that atheists are frequently portrayed like this:

comic_haha

An even more unfortunate truth? This comic is being spread by other atheists who deem its contents as appropriate or amusing behavior.

The atheist in this comic is clearly not speaking to a friend. In four short panels, the cartoonist has successfully communicated a type of misplaced arrogance- an atheist who is being both inconsiderate and disrespectful in light of another person’s question, i.e. laughter in the face of concern and ridicule in placement of an opportunity for growth and understanding. Comics such as this one can cause believers to feel ridiculed and help perpetuate the stereotype that all atheists are rampant jerks.

Secondary Response

“I respect your right to believe in God. I respect your decision to lead your life in correspondence with your beliefs. I simply do not subscribe to that belief system myself.”

Reaffirm your level of respect and  friendship with theists by communicating exactly what it is that you respect vs. what you don’t. Once these parameters have been discussed and defined, the issue of respect may dissolve with time and mutual observation.

respect11

There are always boundaries for respect, and everyone has the ability to cross those boundaries. Respect has to be cultivated. When it comes to friendships, it’s important to remember that friendships should be built on understanding rather than tolerance. Understanding and tolerance are not synonyms. Tolerance means just that, to simply tolerate something or accept its existence. The goal of a healthy friendship should be to understand the other person, to invest to him or her, corresponding belief system and all. You may not agree with those particular beliefs, but to commit to the journey of understanding is a sign of love.

Pedantic Footnote

Beware the word “regardless” when having a discussion about differences in philosophy. Have you ever heard someone say “I care about you regardless of…” or “I love you regardless”? The problem with the word “regardless” is that it typically accompanies a detail associated with flaw or the unfavorable. The word is laden with negative implication.

“I love you regardless of your atheism.”
“I love you regardless of your Christian beliefs.”
“I love you regardless of your yellow teeth, bad driving, crazy mother, et al.”

Yikes. It’s always a good idea to be conscious about the language we use, especially in matters of division and while on the path to understanding. “Regardless” is a good word to leave at home.