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Do not quote the Bible at me.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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When Trump is Your President

Close elections are tough.  Close elections where the majority of people who voted actually lost are brutal.  If you are like me and in the majority, you’re upset right now.  I understand.  You feel personally betrayed by every neighbor, friend, colleague, and relative who voted Donald Trump. You blame the media.  You blame the DNC.  You blame the RNC.  You blame third party voters.  You blame Bernie Sanders.  You blame Hillary Clinton.  You blame your racist uncle.  I’m with you.  You are genuinely fearful of a new era of discrimination against people based on their gender, their race, their religion, who they love, or where they pee.  I think your fear is justified.  You lay awake thinking about the nuclear codes in the hands of a man with the emotional maturity of a four year old.  A period of mourning is appropriate.  But let’s not be paralyzed by the apocalypse before it happens.

Look, I’m not here to tell you that everything is going to be ok.  I’m not going to say it doesn’t matter who is president because that’s not true.  Besides it’s nihilistic.  The first order of the day is to fight back the existential dread of the dawn.  Some of us do this every day anyway, but if you’re new, I’ll give you a minute to catch up.  I’ll even wait until you finish that bottle of tequila.

I’m certainly not going to tell you it will be ok because you are a good person, and God is in control, and you are in his favor, and everything happens for a reason.  That’s nihilism too.  Dressed up like a big red poppy. If you are a person of faith, I hope your faith gives you enough strength to accept the hard truth that religion is, by design, the institutionalization of complacency.  If it guides you to action, great.  If you give away your personal responsibility to a higher power, then get out of my God Damn way.

It is perfectly ok to throw one hell of a tantrum.  Scream, curse, drink, smoke, run, cry.  You’ve got about 3 months to do it.

But you may not spend the next four years prostrate at the grave of your dreams.  I guarantee you Hillary Clinton won’t be.

You may not renounce your citizenship.  How dare you?  The democratic process is not over because you got an I VOTED sticker.   You don’t get to stop being an American because your candidate didn’t win.

And let’s just stop right here for a moment with the jokes about how we won’t need a wall because immigrants won’t come here under a Donald Trump presidency.  It’s not funny to imply that watching your children die of starvation due to US trade policy is somehow a worse fate than a Donald Trump Presidency.  It’s not.  It’s not worse than living in a dictatorship either.  The fact that you do live in a democracy is a privilege most people don’t have. So get a grip.  You have duties.

And don’t say Trump is not your president.  Because by doing that, you absolve him of accountability.  It is only because he is your president that you have the opportunity to hold him accountable.  And he must be held accountable for each and everything he does from here on out.  Held accountable by you.

You don’t have the luxury of saying there is nothing more you can do.  Do you know who your senators and congressional representatives are?  They are your allies, no matter who elected them.  They do represent you if you voted for them or not.  Do you know their email addresses?  Their phone numbers?  Do they know you by name?  If not, then you have plenty of work to do.  You must demand that they mitigate the Tump presidency.  That’s your job.

Everyone mourns at their own pace.  Take some time.  But then pick yourself up and pull yourself together.  Be an American.

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.

Don’t Call Me Miss Daisy: In Defense of the American Dream

Most places I go, the way I talk identifies me as a foreigner. Someone who was raised elsewhere.  Every time I have my hair done, I get “You’re not from around here, are you” as soon as I open my mouth.  And just fyi, saying you have a “rat’s nest” in your hair, meaning a particularly stubborn tangle, does not go over equally well everywhere.

People who study dialects and the computer programs they write can usually place me right where I grew up, on the East coast of South Florida.  This particular test also guesses Orlando, Atlanta, and what looks like Albany, NY as possibilities, which I assume reflects migration patterns. But I’ve taken others that can pinpoint the county where I spent my childhood.

That’s pretty specific, but unless you happen to know someone else from that area, and they’d probably need to be anglo, you are unlikely to recognize my speech pattern other than knowing it’s definitely not a southern drawl.  In other words, while I have spent most of my life in the South, people think I talk like a Yankee.

This means waiters try to explain to me what grits are.  Saying, “y’all” does not come naturally to me, nor do the “yes sirs” and “no  ma’am’s”  that are expected in the south.  I’ve tried to pick up some idioms.  People here say “red light” to describe any traffic light.  They ask you “where you stay” as opposed to “where you live.” My personal favorite is “to fall out” which means to collapse.  As in,” Get Miss Daisy some lemonade; she looks like she is about to fall out.”

If that last sentence brought you back to plantation life for just a minute, your Yankee is showing.  The practice of using Miss plus a woman’s first name is alive and kicking (I also hear the male equivalent with Mr., but less often). I am not adjusting well to the deference I don’t feel I deserve. Grown adults, both black and white, who perceive me to be older or of higher status call me Miss Daisy all the time.  I can’t stand it.  I find it terribly uncomfortable, yet it is clearly meant to be respectful.

If it takes me back to being the white lady holding the pitcher of lemonade on a cotton plantation, that’s clearly my problem.  I’m the one living in a foreign culture.  The fact that black women are also addressed this way does not seem to make me feel better.  It bothers me enough, I have started asking people not to call me that.  And if I apologize and tell them where I come from it comes out sounding racist, they are usually sufficiently horrified to remember my preference.

Maybe, like the flag, it is past time for this vestige of southern gentility to bite the dust.  There are many ways for us to show our respect for each other without designating class distinctions in the way we address each other.  Maybe that’s why it bothers me.  I still believe in the American dream that tells us that class is not a foregone state, it is mutable.  You are not trapped.  You are temporarily poor.  Hard work and education can change your lot. Addressing someone by class dismisses the dream.  You are who you were born to be.  And you will forever be addressing your elders and betters in a way that reminds you of this.  Has the South given up on this dream?  Have we all?

This is Not a Burning T

Someday, I think Southerners are going to look back on the whole confederate flag controversy with a good deal of chagrin and embarrassment.  And there are plenty of us who already find the flying of the confederate flag over state buildings to be antiquated and unnecessarily divisive.  I find it somewhat overwhelming that this simple symbol is so pervasive in the post-Civil Rights era, and that we can’t just take it down with a minimum of fuss.

Mississippi is the only state in the union that still features the Confederate Battle Flag as part of its official flag.  Georgia, that bastion of liberal ideology, adopted a new flag in 2003.

Changing the state flag sure seems like a no-brainer, but instead of enacting any of several proposed laws to remove the Stars and Bars (as well as rejecting proposed legislation that would withhold funding from Public universities who refuse to fly it), the Governor has instead proclaimed April Confederate Heritage Month.

This was followed several days later by some good old-fashioned anonymous cross burning.

Reactions to the little bonfire were very telling. “Who would do that?” asked some of my white friends, incredulously.  “I can’t believe anyone would do that.” There were even some protests that it wasn’t a burning cross at all, but a burning “T.”  Mounted in a posthole.  Spontaneously combusting.  In the middle of Mississippi.

The great shock that some white people feel over the burning of the cross is a special kind of racism born out of a possibly benevolent effort to forget our past.  Stories of hangings of family members in downtown Jackson get passed down to younger generations, but white families do not share these stories.  Whether this is about shame or about a war they have lost may depend on the family, but either way, there are real trees here that had real bodies hanging from them not so long ago, and it is my privilege that I tend not to think about that when I stand in the shade.

This does not excuse me from speaking out against the flag, but frankly, those who believe confederate heritage, and by this of course they mean white confederate heritage, is somehow more important than a small gesture of reconciliation are beyond my reach.  I don’t have a lot to say to them.  Instead, I must appeal to the apathetic, those who don’t think it really matters either way.

This is a harder sell than you might think. In 2001, a non-binding referendum was introduced that gave Mississippians the opportunity to change the flag, but only a third voted to get rid of the confederate symbolism.

Things have changed since then, of course.  After the June church shooting of a Historic AME Church in South Carolina, new attention was brought to the fact that the confederate flag is used as a symbol of racial hatred.  Why this was news, I’m not sure, but Dylann Roof, the alleged murderer, was found to have quite a collection of pictures of himself with confederate flags displayed like status symbols, and this hit a chord in some people.  This is not who we are.

Still, while a vocal minority cry out in protest, others refuse to budge.  “Why are my black friends not angry about this?” Complained a facebook post.  Well, maybe it’s because that just because it has finally occurred to white people that the flag is racist, this doesn’t mean that black people are suddenly obligated to change their priorities in their fight against the 72 other racist things they need to deal with before breakfast.

I still think it’s important.  That it matters. It matters because people are still burning crosses, and we need to take a stand that this is no longer acceptable behavior no matter what side of the war your people fought on. The flag has to come down.  And it will come down.  This question is when, and what has to happen first to facilitate its removal?  Will it go quietly?  Will the government respond to threats of economic boycotts from outside companies?  Will we have another opportunity to vote on how we want the state to be represented?  Will public institutions and private businesses, one by one, simply choose not to fly the flag?  Will the courts be involved?  What will it take for us to simply do the right thing?