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Do not quote the Bible at me.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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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.

How the Pro-Life Movement Lost its Soul

Whatever your religious or philosophical background, most of us fall for the idea that humans are special somehow, that we are more than the sum of our biological components.  Ok, you biologists out there may not agree, but the idea of the soul, whatever you may call it is an idea I sympathize with, if not fully embrace (I’ve studied a lot of biology).

Yet I do appreciate the sentiment, even so far as it reaches the unborn.  Maybe that spark, whatever it is, happens at the moment of conception.  Maybe that life is sacred, unique, suddenly, irreversibly human.  If the pro-life movement wants to argue that united gametes are life, it’s hard to argue.  We think in binary, after all, and if it’s not life, it’s certainly not death.  If there is a third category, defining it proves to be elusive. What if the spark comes first and the flesh just grows around it?

If the human soul is intangible, science is ill-equipped to disprove its existence.  That’s why it’s beautiful for us all to believe different things about the origins of humanness.  Problems occur, of course, when politics get involved.  Don’t they always?  I think the political movement claiming ultimate authority as to when life begins has taken on a life of its own.  And it all starts to fall apart when the movement fails to protect the very core of its belief system.  It fails to protect the soul.

When Donald Trump claimed last week that he thought women who had abortions, were they illegal, should be punished.  As distasteful as this idea may be, it’s not exactly illogical.  As a society, we generally accept that people should be punished for committing crimes.  But the pro-life movement responded immediately to disavow both the candidate and his statement.  He back pedaled, as politicians who speak before they think (or learn anything about the abortion debate) are wont to do, but not before being schooled on what the pro-life movement really stands for.

NPR’s Steve Inskeep interviewed Marjorie Dannenfelser of the pro-life group, the Susan B. Anthony list, about this very issue, and she made her feelings on punishing women for abortions quite clear.  “The pro-life movement has never, for a very good reason, promoted the idea that we punish women, she told Inskeep. “In fact, we believe that women are being punished before the abortion ever occurs. In other words, the early feminists believed this was the ultimate exploitation of women.”  Abortion, in other words, is punishment enough.

I hardly see this argument as pro-woman.  It implies that a woman is simply incapable of making the decision to terminate no matter how much she has thought through her options.  Apparently, Ms. Dannenfelser thinks all women should be treated like underage children, legally incapable of consenting to what happens to their own bodies.  Women should not even be respected enough to be held responsible for committing a crime.

But not only that, what about that spark we talked about?  That unique human soul that is created at conception.  The life that is so valuable that it is to be protected, even at the expense of the well-being or even the will of the mother.  If it is a human life equal to all others, how can we excuse women for being too stupid to know any better?  If a woman is convicted of killing her post-utero child, we expect her to go to jail.  So giving women a pass on abortion just illustrates that the spark, however special it may be, is not valued the same way as a human life.

I also take issue with those who try to offer compromises in terms of “exceptions.”  Many pro-lifers, trying to soften the image of absolutists, claim if a mother is raped or a victim of incest, then abortion should be allowed.  In other words, if a man was responsible for the pregnancy, then it’s ok to terminate it.  It’s only when a woman has consented to sex that an embryo is suddenly an irreplaceable human life.  Abortion is murder or it isn’t. And the pro-life movement just proved to me that it’s not.

I’m calling you out.  Your political stance is not about compassion.  It’s not about protecting babies, and it’s certainly not about protecting women.  It’s about control. And don’t bother to hide behind your religion.  Or at least not the part where it defines life as occurring at conception.  Where is that part exactly? I lost my bookmark.  Now, if you mean the part where women should be property used only for the purpose of begetting progeny, then carry on.

To those of you who do believe abortion is murder period, that egg and sperm, once united, are so special that no one has the right to end that spark of a holy zygote:  well maybe you and I can find some common ground.  Maybe we can work together to end the stigma of single motherhood, to provide evidence based sex-education for all our kids, to give every baby that is born love and a home.  If you are not willing to do that, then calling yourself pro-life is just a smokescreen for shaming and controlling women for making choices about their bodies

 

 

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?

 

 

 

 

 

Minority Report: An Evening of Being the White Chick

We had been dating well over a year when my boyfriend asked me if I wanted to go to an informal gathering of his college friends.

“Uh huh, sure.  Can I finish this chapter?”

“It’s later this month.”

“Yeah. OK.”

It wasn’t until he asked me for the fourth time if I was absolutely sure I wanted to go because he could just give the whole thing a skip that I realized I would be the only white person there.

Now, I had noticed  my boyfriend was black and knew he had gone to one of the well respected Historically Black Colleges in Mississippi, but usually we hung out with groups of mostly white people, or mixed groups, and I just didn’t think it through.  I had never actually met his family, but of course I was up for a college reunion.  The fact that I was at first unprepared just speaks to the comfort level of our relationship, right?  Or because sometimes, as he liked to say, I’m just really really white.  I am pretty sure this was a nice way of saying “oblivious.”

“Of course I’ll go,” I tell him.  “What would it say about our relationship if I wouldn’t do this for you? Really, I’m insulted.  Of course I can do this.”

“I don’t think I can do this,” I say to myself standing in front of the restaurant with my boyfriend and a classmate. Due to some massive misunderstanding, the three of us were half an hour early.  We’d already been standing there for 20 really awkward minutes.  She wouldn’t look me in the eye, and despite my boyfriend’s best efforts to include me in conversations, she managed to pretend I wasn’t there. The hostility burned the air and made it stink of ozone. This is what microaggressions are, I think.  She is punishing me for hundreds of years of white supremacy.  Should I tell her my people were sharecroppers? No, maybe not.  This is what she feels like all the time.  Ignored, looked over.  She’s making me pay for the sins of my ancestors.  Well, this is going to be a long night.

 Finally, she mercifully excused herself to go to the restroom.  It’s too bad, I think, that we didn’t hit it off. She has great taste in clothes.  I would totally wear that.  If we were besties, we could share a whole wardrobe.  We’re not just the same size, we actually have the same exact body which is odd–heyyyyy

“Heyyyyyy,” I said to my boyfriend, whacking him in the arm and hissing in his ear.

“Did you sleep with her?”

“Oh my God, how did you know?  I’m sorry. I should have told you. Shit.  How did you know?”

“Oh, it’s ok,” I said relieved.

“You’re mad?  It was right before we started dating, and….”

“I’m just glad she doesn’t hate me because I’m white.”

Fortunately, college friends my boyfriend had not slept with started to arrive, and the evening improved drastically.  His best friend from college turned out to be this 90 pound (not his type) drop dead gorgeous lawyer who worked in DC.  She ordered the chicken and waffles.

If you have never had chicken and waffles, you must.  If you are a vegetarian, you should try it with fake chicken and let me know how that works out or real chicken and I will never tell.  Fried chicken served on top of a waffle is a synergistic gastronomic experience of orgasmic proportions. It glows from some magic source created by the combination itself with golden light you can smell. And then you put syrup on it.  After grilling the waiter on the proper techniques of creating such a masterpiece, she looked at him very seriously and asked, “Does that come with fries?

Then she turned to me and laughed.

“I am so black,” she says.  

I love her.

I ditch my fish tacos and go with the chicken and waffles.  No fries.  I know my limitations.

We had a great time.  We went to her Dad’s place and watched TV. There was beer.  No one else treated me like I’d slept with her man.  Or like I was a white person.

 

Naked Selfie

I know selfie culture gets a lot of flak.  If you are one of those people who take selfies next to beached dolphins or on the edge of cliffs, you might need to rethink your priorities.  Please rethink your priorities.  Despite the legions of 14 year-old girls who are trying their best to master the duck face, for most of us who do not look like models, posting a selfie on social media is an act of bravery.  A reminder to everyone that this is what real people look like.  On bad hair days and bloated days and 2 hours of sleep days. And I feel even more brave if I post a naked selfie, that is with  no makeup.

Not wearing makeup-especially for a white woman in the South- is practically an act of defiance, and posting evidence of this decision makes it clear that it wasn’t because you woke up with a migraine or you left your Red Diva lipstick in the bathroom at Target, but because you actually look like this.  On purpose.

Let’s not pretend that makeup is anything more than a marketing scheme that sells you on the idea that painting your face makes you more attractive to the opposite sex.  Makeup is designed not just to make you look younger and blemish-free, but to mimic what you look like when aroused– eye makeup to make your eyes look bigger, blush to make you look flushed, lip stick to accentuate your mouth.

What is even worse is that this is somehow translated into a “professional look.”  Which profession are we talking about here exactly?  And it’s not just Women’s magazines (God, I hate  Women’s magazines).  Business Insider advises that “makeup helps you look more polished and professional.”  It even goes so far as to recommend brands as well as brush techniques.

Mint.com reports that the average woman (do they mean the average American woman?) spends $15,000 on makeup in her lifetime.  They also note that she spends 20 minutes a day applying makeup.  I assume it still counts if you do this in your car at stoplights.  (Do not judge if you are not a commuter.)   Women spend close to $2000 in their lifetime on lipstick alone.  What suckers!

I am such a sucker.  I carry makeup with me at all times.  About $120 worth of the good stuff-certified as not tested on animals, so if I lose my purse I won’t be crying about the cash in my wallet but about the Urban Decay Roach eyeshadow which I have 3 of in case they ever stop making it.   I haven’t been wearing it every day, though.  If I had a new job or some kind of important interview or was trying to impress a date, I’d put some on.  I am a minimalist when it comes to makeup, but I’m also a Florida girl and you need some serious foundation to cover up 45 years’ worth of sun damage.  The fact that I mostly don’t bother tells you what about me exactly?  That I’m a feminist, a rebel?  That I’m a slob, a frump?  That I really am 45 years old?

The truth is, I look better with makeup on.  So do you.  I don’t care who you are.  You do. And we all want to look better and feel better about ourselves.  There have been days when Extend a Lash mascara was the only thing that gave me enough confidence to face an entire incoming class of first year college students.  You might argue that we should all strive to look our best and that doing so makes us feel more confident and more productive.  But who decided women at their best means looking like we’re 19 and about to jump Hugh Jackman?

I suppose it is not a coincidence that the men I have dated don’t really care for makeup.  I’m really somewhat perplexed by men who like it and the women who love them.  If you can’t let your man see you until you spend 20 minutes primping in the bathroom, how are things going to go the first time you have the stomach flu? You need to prepare men for this kind of eventuality.  Even if it isn’t pretty. I have however, had a boss who called in a consultant to remind us that putting on makeup in the car on the way to work was not enough, and that we needed to touch it up during the day.  Then there was a Mary Kay party.

I’d like to not wear makeup without it being this grand political anti-capitalist statement.  Except on days when I want to make a grand political anti-capitalist statement. I’d like to not wear makeup just because I am feeling ok about myself today, and I just don’t feel like it, and maybe I will feel differently about it tomorrow, and I will want to pout with plum perfection. Today was not a plum perfection kind of day, though, and I took this selfie.  This is what I look like today.  Yes, that’s really me. I don’t look like a model, and I assure you Hugh Jackman is not in the next room.  My goal in this moment is not to be beautiful, it’s just to be me. And it’s ok if you see me like this.

 

 

 

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?