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.

 

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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.

Why What’s on our Money Matters

If you’ve been following the news, you may have seen that a group of atheists are suing the Federal Government to have the words “In God We Trust” taken off of our money.

You’d  think they’d have a good case.  It’s a clear violation the Establishment Clause as well as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act which prohibits the government from burdening a person’s exercise of religion unless it furthers a compelling government interest.

I see no compelling government interest in putting other people’s deity on my money. But this legal challenge is by no means a sure thing. “ In God We Trust” became our national motto, replacing the lovely E plurabis unum in 1957 as one of many efforts to differentiate real Americans from Godless commies.

The Courts have already ruled that as a motto, “In God We Trust,” has a place of honor on our money. In 1970, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit stated:

It is quite obvious that the national motto and the slogan on coinage and currency ‘In God We Trust’ has nothing whatsoever to do with the establishment of religion. Its use is of patriotic or ceremonial character and bears no true resemblance to a governmental sponsorship of a religious exercise.

I have trouble following that logic, and I can’t help but wonder if it really makes people of faith happy to read that “In God We Trust” means nothing more than Yay America!  But so far, this decision has held firm.

In the interest of choosing your battles, I should be forgiven for thinking this one doesn’t really matter to me much.  Finding a $20 bill in my pocket does not make me feel oppressed.  It makes me do a happy dance.  And anyway, I hardly ever use cash.  Mostly it’s for the farmer’s market and the coffee kitty and spending money for my kids.  Maybe I should let this one go.  Maybe it doesn’t matter.  It’s only money.

But it’s not only money.  In the current culture wars, government officials are slapping “In God We Trust” all over everything.  Because they can. Take that, atheist scum.  Look at us sneaking God onto the back of our police cars and into public buildings.  What are you gonna do about it?  We’re just being patriotic.

Here is why we can’t just let them have their fun: In 2009, my state enacted a law that requires every public school classroom to display a poster like the one above that says “In God We Trust” on it, lest we forget who is in charge here.  So when my child refused to take one of the bibles being handed out at school or expressed dismay at being locked into a revival meeting in the middle of the school day, the principal just smirked and pointed to the not at all religious, very patriotic signage on the wall. Obviously, she told me to my face, this is perfectly legal.  Also her husband is a lawyer.

Happily, despite familial ties to the legal profession, the district has recently had its ass handed to it in court for church/state violations to the tune of thousands of my taxpayer dollars. You can read more about the hubris and downfall of my school district in this great article  by Friendly Atheist, Hemant Mehta over at Patheos.  I call it money well spent. But the posters stay. For now.  If the court rules that “In God we Trust” does not in fact receive special protection as our country’s motto, those signs will have to come down.  Then I really will do a happy dance.

 

 

 

 

No Heathens in the Halls

I went to this really cool event the other night called Women in the Halls.  It was sponsored by Planned Parenthood and is a movement to encourage more women to engage in politics.  With my state electing fewer women this year than last year, it’s a great time to bring attention to this issue.

The Boys Club of politics must go.  With women only making 70 cents for every dollar men make, with no paid maternity leave, with reproductive rights threatened at every turn, women need to step up and take on the embarrassingly misogynistic legislation in this country.

I am really excited about it.  More women in the hall!  More women with yard signs and power suits and campaign promises! More women introducing bills and voting for my prosperity!  More women’s voices in an overcrowded sea of men!  It almost makes me want to run myself.  After all, the political process is open to everybody.

Well, almost everybody. It is not open to me.

I live in one of seven states in which atheists may not hold public office.  Yes, you read that right.  SEVEN states prohibit atheists from holding office.  Well, that’s unconstitutional, you say.  Highly illegal.  Unenforceable.  Well, you’d think.  I assure you it’s on the books.

My State Constitution states:

No person who denies the existence of a Supreme Being shall hold any office in this state.

If you think no one has invoked clauses like this in the last half century or so, think again.  As recently as 2009, an atheist won a seat on the Ashville, North Carolina City Council, and an opponent challenged his win on the basis of his atheism.  That opponent backed down, but in 1997, a South Carolina man had to spend 5 years going all the way to the Supreme Court to protect his office of Notary Public.

Seriously, there are people who think you need God to be a notary?  Don’t be that surprised.  A 2012 Gallup poll found that 43% of American voters would not vote for an atheist for any office.  No word of how that number changes if you live in the Deep South, but I would guess it would be in the high 80’s.

The Openly Secular Coalition is working on this.  They are meeting with state legislators to address this issue.

In a New York Times article which you can read here, Todd Stiefel, chair of Openly Secular states:

 If it was on the books that Jews couldn’t hold public office, or that African-Americans or women couldn’t vote, that would be a no-brainer …You’d have politicians falling all over themselves to try to get it repealed. Even if it was still unenforceable, it would still be disgraceful and be removed. So why are we different?

We aren’t different, and I am greatly appreciative of Openly Secular for pointing this out because otherwise, as I understand it, the only way to beat this law would be for me to run openly as an atheist, win, and then go to court to challenge the Constitution.

I’d never win, of course.  In this area, many atheists are in the closet.  Open atheism would be political suicide.  For many, it would also be professional suicide and certainly social suicide.  If like my New England friend, you ask “how would they know?” I’m sorry to tell you that you’d never win an election here without declaring allegiance to a particular church, preferably a large one, let alone any particular flavor of religious preference. You’d need your pastor to vouch for you.  It would help if you were a deacon or something.

The lack of acceptance of atheists in this country is a problem to be sure. But it’s not a separate problem.  These laws may be outdated and ultimately unenforceable, but they matter.   How can we expect people to accept us if we allow this blatantly discriminatory law to stand?