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.

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.

che

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.

Q&A Session

Apologies to anyone who has submitted a question to my ask box. For the past couple of months, I was under the false impression that I would receive a notification if anyone chose to write and send me a question. In the coming week, I am going to attempt answering the accumulated questions. (There aren’t many.) If you would like to add  to my available content, please feel free to take a moment and submit a question.

bloge1

Bandit pleads the fifth.

As long as the questions are appropriate and relevant to the content of my blog, I will try working through a thoughtful response. Remember: I stick to blogging about writing, dogs, and atheism. While I am interested in theological concerns and discussions, all the current questions in my ask box pertain primarily to atheist’s response. I would love to see some questions about writing, dogs, or other correlating topics.

Click here to access my ask box. All submissions have the option to remain anonymous. Thank you, dog-faced readers!

Religious Bullying: “I’ll pray for you.”

When I was younger, I used to say things like, “It’s easy to know if you are being bullied or not.” And I was wrong. With time, it has become exceedingly accessible to call people bullies, in the way that introversion and gluten-free diets have also turned into something more popular. Some people are taking the topic of bullying that affects a percentage of people and misapplying it to fit a broader range for purposes largely related to attention and the self. Now, anyone who disagrees with another person is a strong-fashion bully, just as how anyone who doesn’t like playing frisbee golf is suddenly an introvert.

In light of this aversion to the word bully, I want to discuss a phrase:

“I will pray for you.”

I have never been the type of atheist who grimaces at sayings like “Merry Christmas” and “God bless you.”

I hear the words “I’ll pray for you” or a paraphrased equivalent frequently. There are two ways this statement can be made. The first healthy way is to allow a person know that the speaker genuinely cares for the subject and wants him/her to feel relief. Prayer thus being the pursuit of healing (Part 1).

The second way a person can say these words is when the religious bully makes himself or herself apparent. When the religious bully says “I’ll pray for you,” that person is communicating two things:

1. I have a special relationship with God that you lack, because you are an outsider/sinner.
2. I will use my special relationship to see that you are forgiven or censured.

Both the religious and non-religious have heard the contempt behind “I’ll pray for you” at one point and the goodness behind those words at another. Sometimes, it’s difficult to know the connotations behind the phrase, and that is when discussion needs to occur and remove the gray area of assumption. When I tell someone I am an atheist and he/she replies with “I’ll pray for you,” I generally think those words are an unconscious statement of contempt in the guise of goodness; and that’s the thing to remember about contempt, it comes in many faces.

There are other equivalents to “I’ll pray for you” that include:

“I will hope for your eventual enlightenment.”
“Someday you’ll figure it out.”

These words are typically said when one person views another as lesser due to their lifestyle, views, choices, etc. At that point, “I’ll pray for you” or a similarly correlating statement becomes a verbal tool for judgement and personal denouncement.

So what exactly makes “I’ll pray for you” religious bullying then?

In this instance, the bully connotation comes from:

  • Creation of a power imbalance
  • Assumption of authority or precedence over another person
  • Establishment of an “outsider” group and subjective assignment of people to that group (also called, ‘social exclusion’)
  • Repetitive behavior
  • Gaslighting

The religious bully says “I’ll pray for you” with a dismissive tone to someone often seen as “in the wrong.” You, the subject, the nonbeliever, the homosexual, the recently divorced, the promiscuous unmarried woman, etc. do not know the path to God because of your identity, sexuality, situation, and so forth. My advice to the recipient of this phrase’s contempt would be to speak. Be indignant. Practice voice. Remind the speaker of their unnecessary verbal and mental abuse . Tell the religious bully why you are not in need of that prayer, because there is absolutely nothing wrong with you.

Positivity Week: Day 7

Positivity Week Prompt

Day 7: Those Who Are No Longer With Us
This last day is to remember someone (person or even an animal), that in some way had a positive impact on you. It can be more than one person and not even someone you were very close to or knew very long. As long as they somehow had a positive impact on you, share it here.

In 1994, my father was diagnosed with idiopathic cardiomyopathy. He needed a heart transplant. On January 23rd, my father received his donation from a beautiful Italian woman named Laura Pennisi.

laura

Without Laura and her family’s decision, I would have grown into a dramatically different person. A woman I never had the privilege of meeting changed the course of my life. My brother was born five years after my father’s transplant, and my subsequent atheist philosophy found its anonymous beginnings in the understanding of organ donation.

DL10

In past years, when attempting to better discern myself and develop my beliefs, I conducted presentations on Donate Life, participated in fundraisers for transplant patients, and wrote numerous informative essays on the importance of organ donation. People like Laura Pennisi and her family have started a subliminal chain reaction. Their decision and its outcome inspired me to speak about a cause. I cannot say if my early activist pursuits changed the minds of any audience member, but I do know that many of my childhood friends became organ donors after meeting my father and hearing our story.

Positivity Week: Day 1

Positivity Week Prompt

Day 1: Yourself.
Day 1 is simple. Write about yourself, write a small biography or whatever you want to do, but it has to be positive about yourself.

Being an atheist has shaped me into a more rational, appreciative, and morally responsible person. I have become too easily caught up in knowing what I am that I forget to slow down and reflect on what I like about being those titles. What do I like about being an atheist? A woman? A writer?

ayaan

“The only position that leaves me with no cognitive dissonance is atheism. It is not a creed. Death is certain, replacing both the siren-song of Paradise and the dread of Hell. Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love. There is nothing more; but I want nothing more.” Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Infidel

I love feeling a connection between my beliefs and the minds of others, like Hirsi Ali and Diderot and Chekhov.

One of the best things about being an atheist has been having both the ability and privilege to tailor my beliefs to fit myself rather than tailoring myself to fit my religion. I wear no other clothes than the ones I have created. I am naked and beautiful and longing, like the songbird after moulting at ease in its nest, perhaps too often viewed as cold.

Oprah and Diana Nyad: A Religious Trademark on Awe and Wonder

Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Diana Nyad is garnering popular criticism online. Oprah made some sweeping, and wildly inaccurate, statements concerning atheism. In essence, Oprah claimed atheists could not feel wonder and awe— these two qualities being thus tied distinctly to believers. Statements such as these are a big reason why my blog exists. Only, to be fair, Einstein said similar remarks a long time ago; Oprah’s sentiment is an all too familiar one.

Atheists are not incapable of awe and wonder. The most powerful experience of wonder I have had in recent days occurred earlier this month when I went swimming in the mountains. It was cold, and the mountainside was more empty than usual. I was the only person in the water. When I dove deep, trailing my fingers along the rocks, and looked up, I saw the sun reflecting against stone; I saw orange and red and yellow fallen leaves floating on the surface. The air in my chest, for a moment, felt like magic. I never wanted to breathe again.

While I could lament for paragraphs upon paragraphs on the wrongness and implications of Oprah’s interview, I want to briefly comment on three points: Redefinition, Bias, and Gender.

Redefining God & the Individual

In this interview, not only does Oprah redefine Diana Nyad’s religious stance, but she attempted to redefine God, not in a new manner per se, but in a relevant one. Oprah’s statements could be received as equally problematic for the believer. She seems to point out an inadequacy in contemporary religion by stressing awe, wonder, and mystery in contrast to a more traditional ideal. (Which, to me, sounds very atheist of her, but I digress…) If I were a believer, I would be skeptical of Oprah’s definition which seems to partner agenda. Perhaps more disconcerting is when Oprah refuses to accept Diana’s definition and instead succumbs to the ineptitude of label. Oprah used her own belief system to define someone else. Have we learned nothing from history?

Negative Bias

What bothers me most about Oprah’s statement is her obvious negative bias for the word “atheist.” She interrupts Diana and asks if she is an atheist with an agitated look on her face. (It was the type of look that borderlines, not disgust, but inconvenience.) Prejudice against atheists runs so deeply within Oprah that she didn’t even stop to think before saying atheists are incapable of feeling. Furthermore, when she learned of Diana’s ability to feel, she immediately revoked her identity as an atheist. To Oprah, atheism is not compatible with humanity. Intolerance to non-believers is dangerously apparent when it is not unacceptable to ask them if they feel human emotion.

Diana’s Gender

Atheism is largely man’s play. I admire Diana Nyad for what she said. I loved the way she emphasized tolerance and contradiction. Her illustration was beautiful. I cannot help but speculate; if Diana had been male, would Oprah have criticized her religious position so disrespectfully? Or would popular reaction to this interview have come about so strongly? I often think about how we come to the aid of women who do not need our help and what that says about our culture.

Paradox Lost

Though I will continue to focus on spirituality regularly, I wanted to immediately address the oxymoron spiritual atheist and why I consider myself one. The easiest responses are, “Well, the word ‘atheist’ just doesn’t cut it.” or the slightly more facetious, “Atheists can have adjectives too.”

I do not, in any sense, believe in a higher power or essence. Likewise, I don’t think a person must be religious or embedded in religious tradition in order to understand spiritual themes. There are as many secular ways (art, philosophy, nature, etc.) to enhance spiritual thought as there are religious.

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Painting by spiritual artist, Byron Tik.

I consider myself to be on the path of spirituality. I believe in balance, self-discovery, labor, tolerance, connectedness, and unlimited creativity. I want to grow in the direction of beauty, truth, and wisdom. In many ways, I share the goals of other spiritual people. I am on a similar journey. I have only taken a different path to meet them there.

All that being said, I do not believe that beauty, truth, and love are the children of any God, but rather humankind. To continue, for the sake of both contradiction and clarity, I do not behave entirely like the idealized spiritual person. I am too intense, too insecure, too inflammatory. Achieving stronger inner peace is a goal. Restraint is a practice. Dog-faced Atheist may, at times, read more like a pilgrimage than someone speaking from her destination.

We are surrounded by paradox. It’s part of what makes us human. To be humble and proud, to be rebellious and conservative, to be absolute and relative. Even traditionally spiritual people are in a state of paradox by seeking liberty through discipline. I am not nearly as interested in the acceptance or rejection of paradox as I am interested by its means of discovery and reception.  I don’t think I mind the curious looks when I confide to being a spiritual atheist, because I prefer a life in paradox to a life of prejudice.