How to Handle Heathens in the Deep South

If you are not from the Deep South, you might find it odd that blessings are bestowed upon you when you are buying french fries at the McDonald’s drive through, but I assure you it is considered proper manners here.

What seems to really stump people is dealing with those of no faith.  I have yet to find an etiquette guide to help handle heathens in Dixie. I thought I might offer some pointers to you good people because I am not the only atheist you know. I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but next time you are at a secular event where you are supposed to bow your head during the illegal Christian prayer, you know in the next few days, look around and see who is looking around to see who is looking around. I’m never the only one.

Do not say you’ll pray for me.  Look. You can pray to whomever about whatever in the privacy of your home for as long as you like.  But when you say you will pray for me, you’ve just found a really easy way (for you) to tell me everything I think and feel is morally wrong, I am irredeemable, and you’re telling God.  Nobody likes a snitch. “Have a blessed day,” is a habit for you, I know.  But it’s really no better.

Do not say you want a dialog and then just preach at me.  I know the difference. And none of that How to Convert an Atheist in 10 Easy Steps shit.  I hope you didn’t pay money for that book.

Do not quote the Bible at me.  Yes, I have read it. Damn.  Almost as long as The Stand. And a whole bunch of other books, too.  Interested in book club?

Do not assume I am angry at God.  Are you angry at fairies?

Do not tell me this is why I am single. I’m doing fine, thanks.  Actually, I usually date other atheists.  There are more of us than you know.  We have parties and listen to death metal. Naked.

Do not ask me if my life is meaningless or dark or filled with fear of death.  I assure you it is not. If I told you it was, would that validate your own belief that God is necessary?  Do you really need that?

Do not ask me to go to church with you.  I know you think your particular church and your particular minister can teach me something I don’t already know.  They can’t.  If you’d like to spend time with me, I’d love to go for Chai.

Do not tell me I should believe “just in case” so I have insurance against going to hell.  I am going to respect you enough to assume the threat of hell is not the only reason you believe.  Why should it be mine?

Do not ask me why, if I have no fear of eternal damnation, I’m not out there killing people.  Seriously, do not ask me that.  It scares the shit out of me. You please keep going to church. Do that Wednesday thing, too.

Do not start in on evolution without realizing I have an anthropology degree, and I will nail you to the cross in your living room.  I do not have time for your why are there still monkeys crap.  Read a book. No. One of the other ones.

Do not put crosses up all over my children’s public school.  Unless there is a vampire problem.  Then it’s fine. Student safety should be everyone’s first priority.

And don’t tell me I am sending my children to hell; they tell me that every time they get in trouble and I cut off the internet. It’s not working for them either.

Lastly, just be aware that not everyone around you is a believer.  Most of us atheists look pretty normal. The universe is not your own private house of worship.  It would be especially polite if you remembered this when you vote.

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I Cannot Vegetarian Today; Maybe I will Vegetarian Tomorrow

Someone once accused me of being an atheist because I just wanted to sin all the time with no repercussions.  “No,” I said.  “You are confused.  That’s not why I’m not a Christian.  That’s why I’m not a vegetarian.”

In the spirit of just because you CAN do something doesn’t mean you SHOULD do something, I object to using our planet’s limited resources to feed myself through the broken, dirty disgusting industrial animals for food complex.  Like maybe if I had my own chickens, and I cut their heads off and ate them, that would be ok.  But I suddenly do not want chicken so much after all.  And also I am a big wimp, and left to my own devices in the wild without a vending machine for more than four hours, I would die.

It’s not just the ethics of eating things with faces.  It’s not enough to address the whole question of  using animals for food when we don’t have to, what conditions farm animals should be allotted if we are going to eat them, and how long we before we all die from the superbug created by feeding livestock preventative antibiotics.  We really should question where all out food comes from.  Is palm oil destroying the rain forest?  Are almonds contributing to the drought?  If I really thought about where my food comes from, the origin of the seeds, what was sprayed on it, who got paid how much to pick it and under what conditions, what economic systems were effected by what subsidies, and whose corporate headquarters’ have shitty family leave policies every time I put something in my mouth, I probably would be really skinny. I gave up Chick-Fil-A.  What do you want from me?

I have cut most meat out of my daily life with the exception of all the lovely Asian broths and sauces I keep in my cabinet. I mean shrimp paste really shouldn’t count anyway because shrimp are bugs.  And fish sauce?  Well, I think they make that from squeezing ethically sourced sardines into a jar.  I’m pretty sure that’s how they make that.

Eating out is a different story, though I tend to stick to seafood.  I can’t quite remember the last time I had a big piece of steak or fried chicken or something like that.  Yet, the strength of my convictions is weak. And the tests are many.  One might argue that adopting a fully vegetarian lifestyle eliminates having to make these ethical choices over and over again. You simply adopt new habits supported by that one lifestyle choice.  But I am only a vegetarian on a case by case basis because I just really don’t want to miss out on anything.  Like Thanksgiving.  Or tamales made by someone’s grandmother.  Or drinking beer and sucking the heads of crawfish.  You really should try that at least once.  Really.

I have recently discovered Vietnamese food (I know I’m pretty late to the party).  My local establishment is happy to make me vegetarian banh mi, and menu options include both fried egg and tofu for your sandwich. That’s great because I am also open to trying out new vegetarian options.  (I strongly advise against tofurky.)  But I tried the pork banh mi.  Because I want to know what pork bahn mi tastes like, just once.  And Pho, just once.

Ok, not just once.  I want to eat Pho broth every day all day forever and ever.  What do they put in that stuff?  Apparently, it is the very souls of various dead animals stewed together for several days and strained out so you could pretend it comes from a very flavorful carrot if you want to. I think I might just do that.  I’m tired.  I cannot save the world today.  I am only a vegetarian like 70% of the time, and I feel bad about it.  Am I a worse person for believing it is unethical to consume meat and not following through, or a better person because I eat considerably less than the 125 pounds of meat the average American consumes in a year?

God did it! Prayers Answered in Mississippi

People believe some crazy shit in the name of religion.  Whether or not you think magic underwear is more crazy than talking donkeys, dragons, or the sin of mixed material fabrics is largely a matter of cultural indoctrination.  We all have family legends and local superstitions that probably look nuts to outsiders, but that’s ok.  We should all be able to get along even if the particulars of our irrational belief systems don’t always match.  As long as these beliefs don’t become a matter of public policy.

Here in Mississippi, it’s always a matter of public policy.  The South is known for being particularly religious, to be sure, but I’m not sure that means Southerners are more pious, that their faith goes deeper.  It seems to mean, instead, that they make more appearances at church, and they simply refuse to acknowledge the separation of church and state.

Principal Lowanda Tyler-Jones crossed a line when she anointed desks, pencils, doorways, and students’ heads with holy water as she prayed for them before a standardized test.  Maybe this is acceptable behavior in Clarksdale, but it is a clear violation of students’ rights not to be anointed with holy water by a batshit crazy person. Somebody call the ACLU!  The ACLU Is very busy here, by the way, and is being helped out a lot by the Appignani Humanist Association which handles the regular lawsuits against my kids’ school for locking children into revival meetings in the middle of the school day.  You know it’s only the lawyers that win in these situations.  I feel marginally ok about this because I get invited to their pool parties.

But wait!  You will never guess what happened!  Her prayers were answered! The test scores were great!  Maybe the holy water is the key ingredient you’re missing if your prayers are going unanswered.  Can  you can get it on Amazon?

I wish she had been more careful in what she had asked for, though, because the students did not become more academically proficient in the long term. They performed very poorly the following year when they aged up to a different school.  Also God did not give them the right answers up front.  According to an almost $250,000 investigation by an independent company paid for by your tax dollars, God had to erase a lot of wrong test answers.  You’d think God might understand that Tyler-Jones meant she wanted the kids to KNOW the right answers not just GET the right answers.  God must be a literalist. Or possibly an ass.

Further investigation revealed that Ms. Tyler-Jones instructed teachers to coach students and change their wrong answers.  God helps those who help themselves. The principal is in plenty of hot water over this, and it doesn’t look like her prayers are going to keep her out of jail, but what I want to know is why didn’t someone say something when she was running around sprinkling scantron sheets with the blessings of the pope?  Did no one think this might be a warning sign?  Is this woman even Catholic? It’s more of a Southern Baptist kind of place.  If she is Catholic, is she more justified in using this tactic?  Catholics please weigh in.

We shouldn’t be surprised if people think that they can justify their own behavior as long as they invoke the name of God. Not if that’s what’s being taught from the pulpit. This is the same state where the Mayor of the Capital City has publicly admitted he believes praying for our potholes to go away is an actual solution to our infrastructure problem.  I keep thinking that must be taken out of context, or he meant it sarcastically as in, “People, we only have so much money, so all I can do is pray until y’all cough up a tax base I can work with,” but it turns out, no, he does really mean it.  After all, he said, “Moses prayed and a sea opened.”

I’m not going to weigh in on the theological implications of prayer or even on the psychological effects.  I would appreciate it however, if officials refrained from praying instead of doing their jobs.  That’d be great. Thanks.

 

Crime Against Humanity: Blood on Your Hands

In the movie Blade Runner (and also in the Philip K. Dick novel on which it was based), professional replicant hunter, Rick Deckard, administers a test called the Voight-Kampff.  The Voight-Kampff is a machine that measures minute changes in the pupil in response to various hypothetical situations. To fail this test is to be declared less than human, merely a replicant of a human.

This machine, it turns out, did actually exist at one time.  Only instead of determining if you were a replicant, it was designed (and not very well) to determine your sexual orientation.  It was called, I kid you not, the Fruit Machine, and was used during the McCarthy-era Lavender Scare.

Like a replicant, the fruit machine has been retired.  It is no longer an acceptable practice to strap people to chairs and show them sexually explicit pictures like in Clockwork Orange.  Maybe it is not surprising that over 90% of LGBTQ adults in a Pew Research study say society has become more accepting of them in the past decade and they anticipate it will continue to become more so.

Do not congratulate yourself.

In this same study, nearly 40% of respondents reported being rejected by a close friend or family member because of their sexual orientation.  These families are more likely to be Southern, and they’re more likely to be religious, and their children are more likely to commit suicide.

As many as 40% of LGBTQ youth have been reported to attempt suicide.  And the reported number is certainly low.  Let that sink in.  Four out of every 10 LGBTQ youth attempt to end their own lives.  So no, do not congratulate yourself.

Let’s be clear. The high suicide rate among LGBTQ teens is not caused by homosexuality.  The high suicide rate is caused by homophobia.   It is because our children have been harassed, physically threatened, taunted, and beaten.  It’s because they are kicked out of their homes and lose their jobs.  It’s because they face obstacles marrying their partners or adopting children.  And here in the South, it’s because this is all considered acceptable behavior in the Christian Church.

Not all Christians believe this of course.  Archbishop Desmond Tutu called homophobia a “crime against humanity.”

“We treat them” he said of gays and lesbians,   “as pariahs and push them outside our communities.  We make them doubt that they too are children of God—and this must be nearly the ultimate blasphemy.”

This is quite a contrast to those of you who consider homosexuality an abomination, considering you all claim to get your morals from the same God and the same book.  I know there are also some who try to take the middle ground, who are content to let God sort out the fags, who profess to hate the sin and love the sinner.  You would never lift a finger against a gay person and even refrain from the playground level slurs the LGBTQ community must endure every day. Then you sit in church and nod as your preacher condemns your neighbors, your friends, your children for how they were born.

That’s not good enough.  That’s not nearly good enough.

If you support a church that preaches hate, and you do not stand up in some way to object, there is blood on your hands. Period.  Every one of the more than 10,000 annual suicides by gay youth, they’re on you.  Because you have declared a human to be less than human.  I hope your God can forgive you because I will not.

If you are a young person dealing with the pressures of a non-conforming gender identity, it’s ok to ask for help.  Visit the Trevor Project or call 1-866-488-7386.

Political Protest in the Deep South: Sorry, I forgot my Bible.

Being politically active in the Bible Belt is a whole different basket of fishes and loaves. Political rallies are often led by preachers, and even if they are not, they open and often close with a prayer.  I personally am not one of those atheists that are offended by every display of faith, but I will admit to feeling a bit excluded.  I show up to support fully funding public education, and everyone assumes I’m a Christian. Well in this town, I show up to buy shoes, and everyone assumes I am a Christian, so I should not take it personally. But what really bothers me is the framing of every issue against the backdrop of guessing what it is God really wants.  Progressives and conservative alike claim the support of the same God.  I’m not sure where that leaves me.   All I can say is that if one group of people claim the Bible says that homosexuals should be treated like their straight peers and another group of people claim the Bible says homosexuals should be shamed, persecuted, and beaten, maybe the difference of opinion is not about the Bible.  Let’s quit pretending Christianity is a unifying belief system. It’s a crutch at best; at worst it is no more than a pathetic excuse for the need to hold onto white male heteronormative cisgender power. Or a ploy to push forward the gay agenda.  Take your pick.

I stand with my Mothers for Choice sign, listening  to public prayers that include not just the usual praise and requests for blessings, but pleas that the opposing side will see the light, that their hearts will be softened, that they will come to understand that they are not doing God’s will.  As I recall, this did not work on the Pharaoh any better than it does on Mississippi legislators.

So the problem is not that some people are greedy, or conservative, or misogynistic, or Republican.  The problem is that some people are not interpreting the Bible correctly.  They are bad Christians.  No. That’s not right.  That’s not what Christian Progressives call them.  They call them “not true Christians.”  It would be interesting to find out if the political right uses this same terminology when describing the left.  It wouldn’t surprise me.

Since you cannot get elected if you do not call yourself Christian in Mississippi (you can’t even legally hold office if you are an atheist), it’s pretty clear that all of our State leaders are Christians at least in name.  It even tells you which church they belong to in the official directory. Did they simply exercise free will and choose the wrong denomination? Are they lying?  Influenced by the devil?  Motivation matters here.  If Republicans are all wearing invisible demon horns, that’s a whole different fight than if they just need an education about the science of Climate Change.

What do people mean when they say that those with differing political opinions are “not true Christians?” If you are a false Christian does that not imply some intent? As if you have studied the teachings of Jesus and chosen to reject them while still professing to be a person of the faith? Have you made a Faustian deal with the Devil for political power while pledging your soul to the dark side?

That’s a pretty serious accusation, and it leaves very little room for further political negotiation.  How can we reach common ground once I have accused you of purposefully denying your own faith?    I was not prepared to fight Satan himself when I took to the steps of the Capitol on the issue of transgender rights.  I have aligned myself with a movement which creates an impasse by framing political differences as no less than a war between good and evil.  I just want to make sure everyone can pee where they want.

To Forgive is Divine

Although I am not a Christian, I think I do understand the idea of God’s forgiveness. We are all children in the eyes of God, and we are imperfect and make mistakes.  If we learn from these mistakes, in other words, repent, our relationship with God remains intact.  I think this can transfer to the secular realm as well.

When I was in kindergarten in the mid 1970’s, our school had a handicapped class.  I think that’s what it was called, the handicapped class.  I was aware that it was there.  I’m sure I didn’t give a lot of thought to the pros and cons of mainstreaming those with physical differences.  Maybe I felt a little curiosity, maybe a little compassion.  I must have been told they all went to class together where they could get extra help, where they could be with other kids like them, so they didn’t have to feel isolated or different.

One day I was with 20 other kindergartners standing in line in a hallway while our teacher ducked into the office.  The handicapped class made its way down the hall coming from the opposite direction.  They were noisy and slow as braces clanked, walkers scuffed, wheels squeaked.  I don’t know how it started.  Maybe it was just one kid who had never seen anything like it before, one kid who thought the parade of painful gaits was funny, one kid who laughed.  And then they were all laughing, every single kid in my class was laughing.  It was so loud. And it seemed to last for hours as they went by so slowly. I wanted to cover my ears because it was so loud.  I didn’t think it was funny.  I didn’t know why they were laughing.  But obviously, I was supposed to laugh, wasn’t I?  I didn’t quite know how.  It came out like a throaty bark, a strangled dog trying to get air.  But I gave it my best shot.  I laughed as loudly as I could to drown out all the other laughs so I wouldn’t have to hear them.

Our teacher came out then, and she was furious.  I wish I remembered what she had said to us, if the teaching moment to end all teaching moments was fully realized.  But I didn’t hear a word she said because I was crying.  It was the first time I remember feeling really bad about myself.  I’d done something awful, and I had known better.   It was the first time I had done something truly unforgivable.

But was it unforgivable?  Do you think less of me?  I was five.  And I immediately repented.  In the eyes of God, I would be forgiven. And I hope you forgive me too.  But I wonder about that class full of children who struggled just to make it down the hall.  How many of them, now in their 40’s, remember that day?  How many of them forgive us?

And that’s the thing.  We are not God.  We are slighted and hurt and gravely wounded by those around us.  We are scarred both by accidental slights and malicious intent.  And we inflict pain on others and still walk around thinking we are decent human beings.  Is that why we say we forgive?  So that we can expect others to forgive us?

Once, many years ago, I was picking up my kid from preschool.  Somewhere between the two car seats and the diaper bag and the sleep deprivation, I managed to hit the minivan next to me with the car door.  I rolled down the window and looked for damage.  I saw a microscopic ding, nothing anyone would ever notice.  Crisis #412 of the day averted.  I was still getting everyone buckled when a hugely pregnant woman came barreling towards me.

I AM VERY DISAPPOINTED THAT YOU DID THAT, she snarled quietly.  All I could think was that this woman was not only hormonal, but also clearly had chronic rage problems for which she must have received a great deal of therapy where they taught her to say I AM VERY DISAPPOINTED in the scary quiet voice  instead of cursing people out in the middle of parking lots full of toddlers.  I stammered, red faced, embarrassed.  I started to pull out my insurance card and my checkbook, but she would have none of it.  She slammed her car door in my face and spent the rest of the school year avoiding me.  She wanted me to know I was not forgiven.

I didn’t exactly lose sleep over this.  But I am a little concerned for this woman’s children who probably pissed her off regularly.  Maybe that’s another reason we forgive, to let go of anger. Being angry at someone indefinitely is taxing.  It’s stressful.  And as far as vengeance goes, it’s not particularly fulfilling.  Holding a grudge, according to Buddha, is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.  So having this vehicle of forgiveness is a handy out to have.   It’s an acknowledgement that every hit you take is in the end about how you handle it.

I thought about this a lot when the relatives of church shooting victims in South Carolina came forward to publicly forgive the killer for his act of unspeakable violence.  There were those who criticized them for doing so, but if it brought them peace, who should dare take that away from them?  I could only imagine how I would feel if it were me.  I think anger might be the only thing that held me together.  Maybe it would consume me.  Maybe I would be unable to forgive. And that would just be a tragedy on top of a tragedy.

Fill your Freezer for Girl Power: Ten Reasons to Stock up on Girl Scout Cookies

  1. You are really going to wish you had a thin mint straight out of the freezer in July.
  2.  Girl Scout cookies go well with beer. Here is a handy beer pairing guide.
  3. Because 19 and Counting patriarch, Jim Bob Duggar, is calling for a boycott due to the inclusion of all children who self identify as female. You can read about Jim Bob’s ire here.  Contributing to Jim Bob’s ire should be an important life goal for all of us.
  4. Your money stays local. About 75% of the price of a box of cookies goes to the Girl Scout Troop and its local council. That’s right.  75% of the purchase price, not 75% of profits.  So if you buy Keebler instead, all that money just goes to those greedy little elves.  (Actually, Little Brownie Baker, one of the only two companies that makes Girl Scout Cookies, is owned by Keebler.  You might want to keep this in mind if you need a particular cookie off season, but you won’t.  You have a deep freeze, right?)
  5. The Girl Scout programs you support with your purchase include camping, horse-back riding, and field trips.  But did you know you will also provide opportunities for career exploration, particularly in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math)?
  6. Because anti-choice organizations are desperate to link your Do-si-dos with Planned Parenthood. Look, they are both kick-ass feminist organizations, and they are bound to rub shoulders, but if the best you can come up with is to whine that Girl Scouts endorsed Wendy Davis as an “Incredible Lady of 2013,”  you cannot expect people to take you seriously.  For the record, on matters related to sexuality, GSUSA clearly states, “Girl Scouts of the USA (GSUSA) does not take a position or develop materials on these issues. We feel our role is to help girls develop self-confidence and good decision-making skills that will help them make wise choices in all areas of their lives.”
  7. To help girls learn they can support themselves. Unlike the Boy Scouts, whose funding is heavily tied to the Methodist Church, Girl Scouts rely on those cookies to the tune of $700 million per year. This has allowed them to grow in the ways the Boy Scouts have not, developing religious recognition programs for all kinds of religions including Islam.  They’ve also made the phrase “to serve God” in the pledge optional.  The Boy Scouts are never going to do that.  You know why?  No cookies!
  8. To support the LGBTQ community. Other boycotts have focused on the organization’s promotion of lesbianism. I don’t recall any lesbian lessons around the campfires of my youth, but I did learn all about inclusiveness when the Girl Scouts, again unlike the Boy Scouts, refused to exclude either girls or leaders who might happen to be gay.
  9. To support girls who are developing leadership skills. The Girl Scouts have a long history of helping girls reach their potential in leadership positions, and selling cookies is a part of that.  If you don’t think sales skills are important to future leaders, just ask former Girl Scouts like Lisa Ling, Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Dole, Madeline Albright, Janet Reno, or Sandra Day O’Connor.
  10. Because you will be popular at office parties. Especially if you bring the appropriate wine. Check out this wine guide.

If that doesn’t convince you, how about this: you can make fried shrimp out of samoas (pictured above).  How outrageous is that? In fact, there are all kinds of Girl Scout Cookie recipes.  Buy some cookies and try one.  Don’t forget to invite a Girl Scout to help you cook.  That would include me.  I bleed green.