Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Goodbye Christmas and good riddance

As a child, warmed by the glow of the fire, a pile of presents left by a magical fat man seemed like the closest thing I could experience to heaven. Then, when I was eight or nine, I figured out that Santa wasn't real. I'm sure it was depressing, but at least it made sense. How could one dude go to every single house in the world in one night? What about all the starving kids in Africa? Did they get piles of presents too? No, they got to continue starving on December 25th just like the day before. Still, I got presents, so it was pretty sweet.

Now I'm a grown man. I have a job, a house, responsibilities, and I'm an atheist. Does Christmas evoke the same feelings? No. Not even slightly. Christmas has become a joke to me, a sad joke, that very few people seem to get. "Jesus' birthday" is just the beginning. I learned young that Christmas wasn't really Jesus' birthday because my parents didn't feel the need to lie to me about that my whole life. In high school I did enough reading to know that Christmas had more to do with the winter solstice than most people thought. In college, in world religions class, I learned that Christmas had more to do with pagan traditions than Christian ones. And, as an adult atheist, I now see the joke that Christmas has become.

Christians don't know or won't admit that their precious holiday really has nothing to do with Christ. They also don't tend to know that Christmas wasn't a national holiday till 1870. They don't know that Christ wasn't born on December 25th or that there were no three wise men. They don't know that the tree, yule log, and mistletoe are all pagan traditions. Simply, they are as ignorant about this holiday as they tend to be about their own religion. I don't know why that's surprising, but it still is at times.

Then there's Santa. Or should I say Sinterklaas? Or Saint Nicholas? A magic fat man with a reindeer with a glowing nose? These are ideas that are modern, not ancient, but all this is a shock and somehow insulting to most that I mention this to. We are adults, we know there's no Santa, that he is just a creation for children, yet so many people I talk to fight learning more about this magic fat man's past. I'm "ruining the magic" or whatever.

Well, there's no Santa, December 25th isn't Jesus' birthday, and the holiday magic which, to me, is little more than ugly consumerism, does not impress. Now that I sound like a curmudgeon, I'll try to explain.

When I want to buy someone a gift, I do so with no expectation of a return gift. Generosity is good for generosity's sake; that's kind of the point, isn't it? I don't want to buy someone stuff for the sake of buying them stuff, I want to give the something they either want or I think they will love. One of the best gifts I ever got anyone was a key to my house for my then girlfriend; small and inexpensive and the best gift she got that year.

When I want to be together with my family, I want to be together with my family. Something as simple as a dinner at their home is enough. If you are someone I want to spend time with, I don't wait until a holiday to do so. Only visiting on holidays smacks of responsibility rather than desire, so I spend time with the people I want to spend time with not out of obligation, but because I want to.

If you'd like to wait for a holiday you don't truly understand to buy people hastily chosen gifts out of some archaic obligation that you never question and call that season magical, then by all means do so. But bear it in mind that your magical season is how I try to live my life all year round, so when you tell me I'm "ruining the magic", try to understand that there is no magic, and your archaic thinking limits the "magic" to a few days a year.

I prefer my way.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Atheism in the martial arts

I have been studying the martial arts since I was eleven. I have studied numerous styles; I have belts and sashes and cords from many styles, the highest of which is my second degree black belt in karate. Suffice it to say I am an experienced martial artist. What's interesting to me about that is, after my turn to atheism, the amount of my martial arts heritage I've had to leave behind.

Chi, ki, xi, prana, axé... All of these are "energy" of a mystical type I've run into via the martial arts. In some cases these are viewed as merely the energy that you get when you gather together with a group of people; in others, it is a literal energy flow that can be harnessed for various skills and techniques.

In karate, I was taught that by flowing my chi I could punch harder, use my attacks to damage internal organs without bruising the skin, even make getting punched hurt less. In kung fu I was taught many of the same things, as well as that specific sounds made with the mouth had specific effects on fighting. In taichi I was taught that it was chi, internal power, that made taichi boxers strong rather than muscles. In each of these cases, what I was taught was either exaggerated or just plain false. However, few question these unscientific ideas and accept the anecdotes they are given as fact.

The only energy that I can't argue with is axé, the energy said to gather when groups of capoeiristas get together to play together. I've heard it said that this is some kind of mystical energy, though in my experience it's just seemed to be used by "the group has a lot of axé today". Feeling more energy in a group is some kind of a real thing, I think.

Capoeira, however, isn't free of religious trappings. A lot of the songs we sing are just fun songs that don't say much, like "Si si si, nao nao nao", which is, literally, singing "yes yes yes, no no no" over and over again. However many songs call upon saints, ancient gods, Mary, and indeed the christian God. These are all part of the history of Capoeira, so I'm ok with letting them slide I guess. No one has made religion an issue with me yet, so letting it be seems like the best choice.

Knowing what I do know makes me curious about other martial arts that I haven't tried, but there isn't enough time in my life to learn all the martial arts that I'm curious about.

Do I look down on the religious?

Hrm, this is a hard one to answer without sounding like an asshole. Some religious people I look down on for certain; scientologists, diehard creationists, theists who openly and proudly use their religion for the purpose of bigotry, and the like fall in that category. However, some religious people I look up to, despite completely disagreeing with many of their beliefs: Martin Luther King Jr., Pope John Paul II, Mahatma Ghandi, the Dalai Lama, and other such people who, despite their flaws (sometimes extremely glaring flaws), definitely did something good with their lives far beyond anything I could hope to achieve. That, of course, leaves the vast majority of the religious people who are neither saints nor psychopaths. What about them?

I disagree with them, obviously. Their proof for god is usually limited to "because" or "God is love" or some other groan inducing bit of "proof". But these people can range from profoundly stupid to wildly intelligent in every possible iteration of lifestyles, experience levels, jobs, etc. Do I look down on them all? Certainly not. A lot of people were raised with religion and don't know any better. And, as I'm finding out, a lot of those who people know atheists are ok with them. They aren't necessarily saying I should marry their daughters, but when I ask them if they think I'm going to hell for disagreeing with them, they don't hesitate when they tell me of course not.

The next group of theists are the "you're going to hell for being an atheist" types. This group consists of another dichotomy: the people who feel bad that I'm going to hell and want to help and the people who are looking forward to watching me burn in hell from heaven. The people who genuinely believe I'm going to hell, but just as genuinely want to help me find Jesus to save me, really, I'm ok with. I will rip right into them if they start a religious argument, don't get me wrong, but I appreciate that compassion is what leads them. It's entirely possible that they, as rational human beings, have looked at the same evidence that I did and came to a different conclusion. That happens all the time. I don't think they're right, but that's not a reason to look down on them.

That leaves "holier than thou" theists who don't care about compassion. I have no problems telling you that I look down on these people. However, there's an an entertaining parallel here: these theists who say "I know better than you and therefore I am better than you" have mirrors in the atheist world. I have experience with atheists who say they look down on all religious people. I don't really like the "I'm smarter than you" atheists any more than I like "holier than thou" theists. As far as I'm concerned, they're all assholes.

So do I look down on the religious? Sometimes, but usually no.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Why I'm becoming more of an activist...

Why did I take so long to be convinced I was an atheist? Why didn't I just go "religion is clearly wrong, the proof for god doesn't exist, I'm done"? Why did I spend time being "non-religious" and call myself an apatheist? I didn't think I cared what people thought of me, yet I avoided what should have, in retrospect at least, been obvious. I am an atheist. I've been an atheist for longer than I realized it. So why didn't I admit it, even to myself?


Fear? What the hell was I afraid of ? That people would disown me? That my parents, my religious one at least, would be disappointed in me? That people on the street might complain if I wore a shirt that said "I think therefore I am an atheist"? Yes. Yes to all those things. It's unbelievable that I realize this now, and I mean just now, but I was afraid of calling myself an atheist. Now I'm angry.

I'm angry because it is unbelievable to me that I would let something as petty as a little fear keep me from being truthful with myself. I'm angry that what little religious experience I had when I was a child still haunts me to this day, and I count my religious upbringing as largely positive. Now it infuriates me that I realize I still feel like I have to walk on eggshells around certain people just because we disagree about something.

As an atheist I find I don't care what other people believe so long as what they believe doesn't actively hurt anyone. My Catholic friends who don't sweat the details are so far down the list from the people who mutilate and abuse women for religious purposes, I'm not sure I'll get the chance to worry about their beliefs in my life time. Yet to them, I'm the clear and present danger. I'm a threat to their friends, their families, their children... All because they believe something I don't.

This is lunacy. I'm worried about people a thousand miles away who can be stoned to death for something outside of their control and want to do something, anything to try to help. It feels like the people whose reaction I fear are more afraid of me than they are concerned about what religion is doing to oppress and kill people. If I bring that up, I'm the angry atheist.

It's time I stopped letting fear control what I do. I have something to say and it's damn well time I said it.

I am an atheist, and if you can't handle that because of your religious hangups, well that's *your* problem isn't it?

Monday, August 29, 2011

Richard Dawkins. I am not a fan.

It is almost heresy to call oneself an atheist and to not think highly of Richard Dawkins. He is arguably one of if not the most famous atheist in the world, his book The God Delusion is widely known and widely read. He widely respected both in his field of biology and as a writer both on science an atheist topics. Yet for all this, I am not a fan.

Dawkins chooses a aggressive stance when he argues his point. He has openly and forcefully stated that he believes that ridicule is an important part of his arsenal. He is well known for standing firmly against those with whom he does not agree, for his sharp tongue, and for his devastating wit.

You know what another word is that describes a man who ridicules people he doesn't agree with is? Asshole.

Yeah, Dawkins is really intelligent and a good speaker and writer and all of that. But he's an asshole, and that's not how I roll. The reason I think of PZ Myers and Greta Christina as the best leaders of the atheist movement is because they be firm and forceful without being needlessly insulting. Dawkins, in all that I have seen, can't. In fact, I think he likes being an asshole, and his actions do seem to prove just that, because his targets include his allies.

Phil Plait famously said don't be a dick. The message got two basic kinds of responses: "that makes sense" and "I like being a dick/being a dick is useful". In the first four minutes or so of this video Dawkins makes it clear that ridicule is more important to him than diplomacy and that he doesn't even think that ridicule will work on the person being ridiculed. I'm not saying I endorse everything Phil Plait says, but, when comparing him to Dawkins, I'd much rather listen to what Phil says.

I really hate to bring up Elevatorgate, I really do, but it's important to my point. Rebecca Watson said "guys, don't do that." Dawkins replied thusly. He ridiculed her for saying "guys, don't do that." This is a woman with whom he had been on stage with before and who was, theoretically, an ally and perhaps even a friend.

This is where the argument for ridicule falls apart. When you ridicule people who are your allies, who see you as a role model, you make a grievous error. You are shooting yourself in the foot. I almost began to give Dawkins the benefit of the doubt before this incident, almost seeing his point if from a more relaxed perspective, but this proved that listening to Dawkins is a mistake. He's an asshole because he doesn't care who he is ridiculing. When I ridicule someone I want it to be someone worthy of it, not a friend, not an ally. I'll pick my targets carefully thank you.

I've heard the argument that there's no one to replace Dawkins as the so-called "leader" of the atheist movement so we're stuck with him. I've heard that Dawkins is the past, that he and the other horsemen got us to this point and now we need to leave him behind. I don't care either way. Dawkins is famous for being an asshole atheist. If that still works for him, good for him. But as far as I'm concerned, he's not worth listening to. When I get into conversations with theists and they point out that Dawkins is an asshole and I'm all like, "I totally agree with you", that gets me points. Then they listen to what I'm saying more closely because we have a common dislike of the man. Who is more likely to change hearts and minds then? An asshole or someone with whom you can find common ground?

Dawkins is really one thing to me now: an example of what not to do.

Atheist inspiration

There were a number of factors that led me to atheism, but I want to talk specifically about the people who helped me to make that choice. None of them were family or friends; they were bloggers, youtubers, and musicians. I'm not sure I remember the exact timeline, but I have enough details to explain. It all started with the Skeptic's Dictionary and significant free time at work. I read the whole thing, from A to Z. Somewhere in there I found a link that led me either directly or indirectly to my first inspiration Pharyngula, which I started to read regularly.

PZ Myers was an inspiration in that he was the first atheist I found whose writing I liked. Unlike some of the other writers with whom I knew atheism was involved, PZ was a big softie. I liked his writing style and how approachable he seemed. I learned from him that I could be firmly against religion while still not being an asshole. Through PZ I learned about all of the other atheists to follow.

Greydon Square was my first black atheist and arguably one of the most convincing atheists as well. I found out about him through comments somewhere, and after looking into his music I downloaded The Kardashev Scale. I was hooked immediately. The passion and anger on the album were compelling. I've been following him ever since.

Greta Christina's blog, specifically her atheists and anger post really got to me. She made her point eloquently and forcefully. I couldn't argue with her on almost any point, and I was amazed at the sheer length of her article. She is one of the calmest and wisest voices in the atheist world but she can get just as angry as anyone else.

Last and certainly not least, AronRa and his Foundational Falsehoods of Creationism were a huge influence. I don't know what it is about AronRa, but his voice is so compelling and what he says so calmly hits like a ton of bricks. He doesn't need to talk often, but when he does it's very often worth saying.

If you want my four horsemen, these are them. Or, more accurately, these are the correct four horsemen of the apocalypse.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Dealing with the death of my grandmother

My grandmother never knew I was an atheist, and I'm glad of it. She was not a person I particularly enjoyed or respected. She was a racist, sexist, generally bigoted person. Had I told her I was an atheist, I'm certain she'd never have spoken to me again or spent her time trying to convince me I was wrong and to convert. Despite this, she was my grandmother, so I did what I could to interact with her in peace, biting my tongue when necessary.

Recently she died and I went to her funeral because that's just what you do. The funeral was Catholic. I'm sure atheists right now are rolling their eyes because they know what's coming. Before I realized I was an atheist I just found Catholic masses boring and at times aggravating. Now I see them for what they truly are: disgusting. I, silly atheist, thought that funerals were intended to bring comfort to the bereaved. Well, the only thing I got from that funeral was angry.

We weren't told we were gathered together in honor of my late grandmother, we were told we were gathered in faith and in Christ's name. Repeatedly. I think the priest mentioned my grandmother by name or indirectly maybe three times. He mentioned Christ enough times for me to lose track and that we were gathered in faith a similar number of times. But that's not the worst part. The gospel story they told was the story of Lazarus, you know, the person Jesus raised from the dead? It was implied that if we prayed hard enough we could raise my grandmother from the dead. It was also implied that if we didn't pray hard enough that she would burn in hell for eternity.

At. Her. Funeral.

Wow, suddenly I'm the enemy in the room since I'm not, you know, praying. I'm going to be responsible for my grandmother's eternal damnation by being present! But it wasn't just me that was unacceptable, but any person that didn't claim faith in Christ! And of course, not even only that, but any person who wasn't Catholic was pretty much told, you aren't welcome either. At least I wasn't alone in my rejected and denigrated status. So, as far as I can tell, the Catholic opinion on funerals is that Catholics should be comforted and everyone else can fuck off.

To me the biggest insult to my grandmother was that she was like a side show; the mass was the big deal, she was just kind of an convenient way to get a bunch of grieving people in one place to rub some Catholicism in their faces. I wanted to walk out. I wanted to make a scene, to argue with the priest, to protest the threats of hell. But I didn't. I didn't because the funeral wasn't for me; it was for my father, my uncle, my cousins, the Catholics who were grieving. Though it was repellant to me, this was how they wanted to say goodbye. So I sat there, gritted my teeth, and didn't move but to roll my eyes.

After the funeral my father thanked the priest; I considered shouting at the priest but continued to be quiet. I hoped that was the end of it. But, when we finally got to the grave, the priest came back one more time to mention my grandmother once, Christ and faith several times, and to put my teeth on edge again. The only part that gave me any peace was when the priest shut the fuck up and I put a flower on my grandmother's coffin and said goodbye.

Funerals are supposed to be sad affairs, and that I expected. I didn't expect the seething anger on my part or the utter disdain from the priest for any who weren't Catholic. Still further aggravating was that the Catholics seemed to think that it was a reasonable ceremony and none of the other non Catholics minded it enough to say anything.

I don't know no what I'm supposed to do about this. I don't know that there's anything I can do about it. For so much as mentioning the fact that I was uncomfortable I was given the "you shouldn't talk about that" comment already. The person whom I most want to tell this to is my father and I don't want to create any tension for him right now as he's just lost his mother.

I hate this. I hate feeling helpless. I want to do something, but I've nothing to do.

Lesson 1: Catholics don't give a shit about comforting anyone at a funeral who isn't a Catholic.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Learning to be an Atheist

I only recently learned that I was an atheist. I had been reading Pharyngula and other such blogs for some time, but I never called myself an atheist. It was Aron Ra's Foundational Falsehoods of Creationism that got me watching his videos, and it was his appearance on the Atheist Experience that ultimately got the point across to me that I was actually an atheist and had been for a very long time. I'm not new to the idea of atheism, but actually identifying myself as one, that I am new to. This is going to be my experiences as an atheist as I learn.

Honestly, I don't know how much love this particular blog will get, as I'm not exactly an atheist activist, but who cares. This blog is for me. The very act of writing helps me to think, and finding the right words to explain how I feel sometimes shows me that I'm thinking wrong. This is helpful. I'll try not to say too many stupid things, but this is a blog. They're made for saying stupid things.