Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Stermy Awards for December 2007

Because the next few days will be taken up for me by (1) entertaining an out-of-town guest, (2) the annual Christmas Bird Count, (3) a five-hour trip to and from a not-so-nearby airport, (4) New Year's Eve festivities, and (5) New Year's Day festivities, right now may be the only opportunity I have to bestow this month's Stermy Awards for Exemplary Writing in the Atheosphere.

In the month since I came up with the idea for these little nods of recognition, I've given further thought to the "rules." Here's what I've decided:

  • Exactly five Stermies will be awarded each month.
  • The awards will be announced on the 28th, 29th, 30th, or 31st of the month, depending on my mood and schedule. Judging for the following month's Stermies will begin the nanosecond after my post is published.
  • No blogger may win more than one Stermy in any month, but a blogger may win Stermies in consecutive months. That would really upset my sensibilities, however, so it will happen only rarely, if ever. And the second month's post better be a real doozy.
  • The Stermy is an award for Exemplary Writing, so a straight graphic, no matter how great, will probably not be eligible, unless I decide it is, which I won't. On the other hand, a scripted video might get consideration, but only if it's fucking fantastic.
  • The subject matter of a post does not specifically have to be atheism for it to be in contention for a Stermy. However, the blogger must be a known atheist.
  • Guest-bloggers are eligible. However, when a guest-blogger earns a Stermy, the blog's proprietor will be disqualified for that same month.
OK, I'm gonna say something here that should come as no surprise to my regular readers. I hate rules of any kind, but particularly arbitrary ones. So fuck the guy who decided only five Stermies would be awarded each month. Here are the Stermy Award winners for December, listed in alphabetical order by name of blogger:
Babs at Flumadiddle
for Dueling Deities
There are deities for thunder, deities for rain, deities for comfort, deities for pain. Deities for hunger, deities for wars, or maybe you would rather choose the deity for whores. Deities for justice, deities for wine, deities for cattle, deities for swine ... So I thought a list of deities might help you get things kickin'. There's over one thousand listed here. Are you ready to start your pickin'?

C.L. Hanson at Letters from a Broad
for The "War on Christmas" and the war on being considerate to others ...
Call me crazy, but to me well-wishing should have some sort of (theoretical?) connection with actually wishing the person well. And especially during the holiday season, what's wrong with a little goodwill to all? Even to those people who are **shudder** a little different from yourself.

Phillychief at You Made Me Say It
for As the Wolves Feast
What I see from everyone involved is, like the video above, a scene of vicious predators tearing into fresh meat to feed themselves. So many rush in for their moment to exploit the situation to advance their goals. Frankly it sickens me almost as much as the thought of the shootings itself since, for my list of douchedom, those who can exploit the misery of others are merely a hair below those who actually inflict the misery on others.

Ric at Grumpy Lion
for Romney: Empty Suit Pandering
Well, no, Willard, the debate is not about preserving American leadership. The debate is about getting that little sot and his friends out of the White House and regaining at least some of the credibility and respect the Republicans have completely trashed for the last six years in the world community. And the religious beliefs of so-called Christians have had a lot to do with driving this country down into the trash heap of immorality and illegality.

Spanish Inquisitor at Spanish Inquisitor
for Make Believe Super Santa!
The point I’m getting at is that the idea of Santa, even though we know it is pure fabrication, is benign when viewed in the limited setting it’s placed - childhood. Childhood, that short period of time where everything is possible, where logic and reason don’t need to exist, where fantasy is welcome, even if fleeting. We grow out of it, we learn the truth eventually, we grow up. No harm, no foul, despite the fact that the entire human population over the age of 10 is engaged in a massive conspiracy to dupe us into believing something that is not true.

the chaplain at An Apostate's Chapel
for I Weep for the Children
As the pastor recounted that story, I had to suppress a shudder. I could not help thinking, “The child is seven years old! What sins could she possibly have committed that would require repentance and divine forgiveness?” I also realized, to my horror, that in order to have learned something about the doctrines of repentance, forgiveness and salvation, Chloe may also have learned something about the corollary doctrines of human depravity and hell.
Once again, I remind everyone that these awards reflect my taste only. There's nothing objective about them. So don't even think about suing me.

I'd like to remind everyone that I'd appreciate a heads-up if you see a post that you think might be Stermy-worthy. If I've left a comment about that post, though, I've seen it already. But if you happen to find exemplary writing that you think I might miss, please do let me know. Thanks.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Happy Birthday, Jesus and/or Santa

Well, you may think they're both nice,
but he has a definite preference for the left one.

All right, so let me get this straight.
We ask for Grand Theft Auto for me, Resident Evil for you,
Hitman: Blood Money for cousin Max, and peace on Earth for the cow?

You're crazy! He looks just like his father.

And what do you want when you die, little boy?

Forgive them, Father, for they ho-ho-ho not what they do.

Friday, December 21, 2007

An Atheist's Christmas Memory

So many atheist bloggers have written about their Christmas memories, leftovers from the days when they were believers. As I’ve mentioned many times, I was never a believer, and even if I had been, my family was Jewish. For my ancestors, the arrival of a bearded Gentile in a bright red uniform, laughing maniacally and swinging a heavy bag, would not have been a pleasant sight; it would have been another pogrom.

Still, though, I actually do have some fond recollections of the season, not the least of which is my yearly excursion with my grandmother from the Bronx into the heart of Manhattan. When I was a boy, Nanny took me every year to see a nighttime Christmas Show at Radio City Music Hall. This was back in the days when the alleged main attraction was a big-budget first-run movie. But there was also a live stage show and the usual assortment of cartoons, shorts, and newsreels. The full program lasted at least three hours, and was well worth waiting for. And half the world seemed to think so.

We’d stand, Nanny and I, excited and freezing, outside the theater for an eternity, sometimes lasting almost two hours. The long line we were in would snake up and down and around the block, moving just a few feet every now and then until the movie or the stage show had reached an end. Then, as Nanny would say, we’d make “some serious progress.” If we were luckily unlucky enough to be stuck near the back of that line — and we always were — we’d have a great view of the hypnotic Rockefeller Center Tree. I found dozens of ways to stare at those lights to make them look different. I squinted. I turned sideways and peeked out of my peripheral vision. I pulled down my upper eyelids to create a curtain of tears. I closed my eyes really tight until I could see shapes, and then I opened them superfast to find those shapes floating on the tree. I tilted my head all the way over till it touched my shoulder; then I repeated that action in the other direction.

Even Nanny tried to embellish the view. She always wore a hat with a veil, and she’d stare through it at the lights. After a while, she’d lift the veil and gaze at the tree again. When she thought that none of the million other people were looking at her, she’d alternately lift and drop the veil quickly for a few rounds, as if she were playing a frenzied game of peek-a-boo with a giant plant.

Every three minutes or so, she’d ask me, “You warm enough?”


“No, you’re not.”

“Yes, I am.”

“How can you be warm enough in that shmatta coat? You need a heavier one. Or something under. Whatever happened to that nice cardigan I crocheted for you?”

That cardigan would be home in my closet because, as Nanny whispered to my mother once, “I’m not from the measurers.” This was her way of saying that the sleeves ran from my apartment in the Bronx all the way to New Hampshire. She sometimes claimed that she made these things a “little long,” so I could grow into them. But I never did. Even if I’d gotten so big that the bottom of the sweater was up around the middle of my chest, there was no way the sleeves would fit anyone other than King Kong.

Finally, she’d say, “Awright. OK. Be cold. Do what you wanna, just don’t come crying to me next week when you’re sneezing and coughing. If I was your mother, you’d have a cardigan on, believe me. So what if you have to roll up the arms a little?”

Then she’d produce a thermos from the laundry bag she called her purse. “Here,” she’d say. “You’re cold. Have some cocoa. But only if you’re cold.”

“Well, I’m just a little bit cold.”

“So you are cold. Didn’t I tell you you were cold?”

She’d unscrew the lid from the thermos, and turn that lid upside-down to transform it, magically, into a cup. Steam would come rising up, warming my face as I stuck my nose as close as I could to the chocolate-scented mist. Then Nanny would pour some of the piping hot liquid, and take a healthy sip, leaving a smear of bright, red lipstick on the rim. When she’d pass the cup over to me, I’d use my gloved fingers to wipe off as much of the lipstick as I could.

“Whatsa matter? You’re afraid of my mouth? I’m your grandmother, f’heavensake. Drink from the other side if you’re so scared of germs. Believe me, in this dirty air, the other germs wish they could be as clean as mine. How come you’re not so scared of germs when it comes to wearing a nice cardigan?”

Nanny had a fakir’s tongue that could dance across hot coals. But when I’d sample some of the cocoa, I’d burn my lips. Then I’d start blowing furiously into the cup.

“Is the cocoa hot enough?”

“Yeah,” I’d say. “It’s boiling.”

“It’s not hot enough. But drink it anyway.”

As the line would move along, I’d become one with the billions of city lights flickering on and off in the surrounding buildings, reflected in car windows, glass doors, people’s glasses; the sound of Salvation Army bells ringing urgently all around me; the smell of chestnuts from the vendors’ carts nearby, the bite of a cold gust sneaking under the earflaps on my hat, and the taste of cocoa mingled with lipstick. It never occurred to me back then that there were unfortunate boys elsewhere in the country whose grandmothers took them to see movies at places where they walked right up to the ticket window, paid their money, and went in.

When Nanny and I finally got all the way to the main lobby of Radio City, she’d grab my hand and lead me up the enormous staircase to the balcony, which in those days was also the smoking section. With the help of rows of little lights shining from the backs of the seats, we’d find our way to the best place. Nanny always picked a seat right behind the one that would soon be occupied by the woman with the most gigantic hat ever seen. When that villainess would finally show up, Nanny would tap me on the shoulder and stage-whisper, “Uy. Y’see this hat? It’s a wonder her head isn’t crushed.”

“What hat?”


“Just tell me, what hat are you talking about?”

“Shhh. I’ll tell you later. Can you see all right? Or is it BLOCKING YOUR VIEW, TOO?”

Nanny would grumble about the lady in the hat for a while, and maybe even throw in a few nasty remarks about the tall fidgety teenager behind her who kept bumping her seat with his feet, or the old bald man sitting next to her who couldn’t stop passing gas.

But I never noticed them, because there was an exceptional holiday glow in this elevated region, a shimmering constellation of yellow chair-lamp beams and vivid orange dots emanating from hundreds of cigarettes. Candy wrappers crinkled everywhere, including in my seat, because Nanny never forgot to load her bag with a giant-size Hershey bar with almonds and enough sucking candy to moisten the throats of all the children and grandmothers in the tri-state area. The air was thick with smoke and perfume and peppermint and just a tiny bit of resisted slumber, and, although I didn’t know it at the time, I was about as contented as I’d ever be.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

What I Whistle While I Work

Ordinary Girl has tagged me with a meme that asks for a list of my 20 favorite albums. That’s really impossible for me to answer, because I listen to all kinds of stuff all the time. I decided not to include any classical, opera, or (with one exception) instrumental jazz recordings. So I’m limiting myself to the stuff with which I sing (or hum or whistle) along — without doing too much injustice to the original. (I often hum along to classical, opera, and jazz recordings, but it’s artistically criminal when I do so.)

Here, then, are the albums or artists I listen to most often while I work, drive, do puzzles, or just lie in bed. These would not necessarily be included in a list of my best albums, which I would never compile anyway. I guess this list is my desert island CD set. No explanations, though; I’m not gonna expound on or justify my taste. I’ll just say that each album listed below is a pick-me-up for me. They all make me smile.

I’m listing only one album for each artist, which accounts for the many compilations.

Louis Armstrong (from Ken Burns Jazz)
Starring Fred Astaire
Rubber Soul: The Beatles
Heartbeat City: The Cars
Blue Rose: Rosemary Clooney & Duke Ellington
Goin’ Back to New Orleans: Dr. John
Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Song Book
Thriller: Michael Jackson
Pop Pop: Rickie Lee Jones
The Essential Cyndi Lauper
Mink Jazz: Peggy Lee
Legend: The Best of Bob Marley and the Wailers
Timeless: Sergio Mendes (and Various Artists)
Louis Prima Collectors Series
Hot Rocks (1964-1971): The Rolling Stones
The Best of Frank Sinatra (the Capitol Years)
Fear of Music: Talking Heads
The Best of Bond – Songs from the James Bond movies: Various Artists
The Buena Vista Social Club (Soundtrack): Various Artists
The Colors of Latin Jazz – From Samba to Bomba: Various Artists

I’m not tagging anyone. If you want to make a similar list, go ahead and post one on your blog. By all means feel free to write comments here about any of your favorite albums or even songs.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Not-So-Magnificent Seven

Well, Philly tagged me with this meme in which I’m supposed to list seven unknown, weird, or unusual things about myself. Thinking about it, I decided I’m alarmingly ordinary. But here goes:

1. My mother was the world’s worst cook, and I was an extremely skinny child. I’m still not sure if these two facts are related. But friends’ parents felt some kind of holy obligation to try to fatten me up. I never turned down an invitation to dinner, of which I received at least two a week, because there was no doubt that it was going to be better than the underdone chicken and burnt canned stringbeans my mother would serve. When I’d get home, my mother would make me describe in glorious detail every single thing that had been ladled onto my plate, and she’d say, “Boy, were you lucky. Why didn’t they invite me, too?”

2. My Jewish-Russian grandfather told me his favorite joke in broken English every single time I saw him when I was a child. He would laugh uproariously when it was over and wait for me to respond accordingly. Here’s the joke, exactly as I heard it: So vwatz de deef’rens bitveen meshed pittaytahs en’ pyee soup? I don’t know, Grampa. What IS the difference between mashed potatoes and pea soup? You ken mesh pittaytahs ... [long, long pause, while he got his finger in perfect position to emphasize the punchline by poking me in the chest] ... but you ken’t [poke] pyee [poke] soup [poke]. I still find that funny nowadays when I think of it, and it hurts a lot less.

3. My first hero was Davy Crockett. My second hero was Perry Mason. I haven’t had a hero since then.

4. I always get teary during the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. It moves me so much, but for reasons I can't verbalize. That's saying a lot, because, obviously, I have no compunction about verbalizing at great length on most other subjects.

5. My last full-time job was as the “fine arts” writer and reviewer for a rag in a cultureless small Southern city. I complained all the time about the general lack of standards for theatrical and musical performances, and was kind of infamous in town as “the guy who never likes anything.” One fall, when I was ordered to write a chirpy news story previewing the upcoming “arts” season, I did so — except that the first letters of the sentences, when read in order, spelled “Help! I’ve been lobotomized! Help!” (The “Z” was “Ziegfeld,” as in “Ziegfeld, himself, could never even ....”) I was so proud of myself that I made sure everyone in the newsroom heard about the joke. Oddly enough, I was not fired over this incident, which I think disappointed me. I heard very recently that now, thirteen years later, the legend is still repeated at the newspaper. But the people who tell it, none of whom were there at the time, claim that I’d spelled out “Fuck this shit.” That’s not clever at all and I’d have considered it beneath my wordplay skills. But I must admit, it’s not completely out of character.

6. I’m afraid of heights. My wife is afraid of enclosed places. We did very poorly as a couple when we stayed at a hotel with an elevator attached to the outside of the building.

7. I lied once in a post on No More Hornets, just for humorous effect. The truth is: I actually like Brussels sprouts. They’re not my favorite vegetable by any means, but I don’t hate 'em. However, try to understand. It’s much more fun to say “Brussels sprouts,” than French-cut canned stringbeans (although now that I read it aloud, I realize that FCCS is a pretty funny term, too). Anyway, that’s the only vegetable I really hate. On the other hand, I stand squarely by what I’ve always said: There is absolutely no dessert in the world superior to a Hostess Sno Ball.

I really hate tagging people. I think the original version of this meme asked the writer to pass it along to seven others. Fortunately, the half-assed version that came to me from Philly via chappy (who shamefully neglected to tag her own husband) seems to require only three. I’m gonna further whittle it down to one.

SARGE, I hope you’re reading this, because YOU'RE IT! You can leave your response as a comment here, or as seven separate comments, one for each thing. Get busy, buddy.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Sparrow and the Large Steel Pipe

I don't like small birds. They hop around so merrily outside my window, looking so innocent. but I know that secretly, they're watching my every move and plotting to beat me over the head with a large steel pipe and take my shoe.
Jack Handey

In fact, I do like small birds. But since the sparrow is a small bird, and since reading The Sparrow is like being beaten over the head with a large steel pipe, I thought the quote was apt.

I don’t even know where to start explaining how much I loathed this book. I suppose the tiresome theme is as good a place as any. Characters don’t just look in a mirror in this novel; they study themselves and think about whether there’s a god or not. They don’t just stare out a window; they look at the landscape and think about whether there’s a god or not. They don’t just go to sleep; they lie in bed and think about whether there’s a god or not. They don’t take a walk, or have a meal, or fly through space in a hollowed-out asteroid, or get forcibly fucked up the ass by carnivorous aliens, without missing an opportunity to think about whether there’s a god or not.

If the writing were good, or even acceptable, that kind of endless contemplation might be interesting to follow. But years ago, in Mary Doria Russell’s Composition 101 class, someone must have told her to “describe what you 'see.'” She apparently took this to mean: “Describe whatever you 'see,' using as many similes as possible, the more unrelated to the content, the better.” So she piles irrelevant detail on irrelevant detail on irrelevant detail until you wish you had a sharpened blue pencil at the ready, either to start editing ferociously or to rouse yourself out of your stupor by stabbing yourself in the forehead.

Here’s the kind of stuff I mean:

He was not handsome. The nose was too long and no particular shape, the eyes too close together and set deep as a monkey’s, the semicircle smile and the red curling hair like scribbles in a child’s drawing.
This just reeks of phoniness, and half the words are extraneous. He’s got a long nose, close-together eyes, and curly red hair. The shape of his nose, the monkey business, the semicircle smile (what else would it be, a hyperbola?), and the child’s scribbles don't help us picture the guy. And they have nothing to do with plot foreshadowing, character analysis, mood, anything. They’re just stuffing.

Dialogues, of which there are many, are endless. That’s because Ms. Russell includes a description of every single “reaction shot.” No one ever just speaks; no, they brush their hair out of their face, kick at a rock, walk around the room, touch or wiggle or scratch various body parts. If a character makes a wisecrack, the author feels obliged to show us how the others react to it. If a character shares an intimacy, the author must tell us about the listeners’ facial expressions, and explain exactly what they were thinking about right before, at the moment of, and immediately after the revelation.

Here’s an example of a short conversation. I’ve substituted blah's for the actual blah dialogue, but I've included the endless descriptions of the participants. The words and phrases in blue are padding.

Blah blah blah blah blah....” Emilio ran his fingers through his hair, a nervous habit he had never been able to break. He let his hands fall and rested them on his knees. Blah blah blah blah blah.... Blah blah blah blah blah....” Jimmy said nothing, so Emilio went on, voice quiet, face and eyes serious. “Blah blah blah blah blah. Many more sentences of blahs.”

Jimmy was quiet. He looked at the grave and unusual face of the man opposite him and when he spoke, he sounded older, somehow. “Blah blah blah blah blah?”

Unexpectedly, Emilio’s face lit up and he seemed about to say something, but then the fingers combed through the dark hair again and his eyes slid away. “Blah blah blah blah blah,” was all he said.

Oh, did I mention that about half the book takes place before and during the trip to another planet, and about half of it takes place after? But the time sequences are all mushed together, so you jump back and forth. When an artist like Faulkner does this in The Sound and the Fury it's beautiful, evocative, mysterious. When a talentless hack like Ms. Russell does it in The Sparrow it's a chance to telegraph and foreshadow like crazy. The effect is that any time something actually happens — which is a rare occurrence what with all the descriptions, and reactions, and wondering about god — you've already had dozens of hints about it in "the future."

The plot? Here it is: A bunch of people, including some Jesuits, decide to go to a distant planet, much in the same way that Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney used to decide to put on a show in someone’s barn. Before they leave, though, they have to talk and think a lot about whether there’s a god or not. They finally get to the planet, where they continue to talk and think about their favorite subject. All of them die, some of them by being eaten, regardless of whether there’s a god or not. Except one. Luckily for the author, he’s a Jesuit priest, who, having nobody to talk to, merely obsesses over the god thing. This character is, as I said before, forcibly fucked up the ass by carnivorous aliens, an event which, although it lasts for only one or two pages worth of text, is just about the only action in the novel. And which, really, should have pretty much given him the answer to his question. But, no. He eventually comes back to Earth, at least physically, where he continues to talk and think about whether there’s a god or not.

Spoiler Alert: The author thinks maybe there is.

Of course, it’s obvious to the reader that there isn’t. The Sparrow, itself, furnishes the proof. If there were a god, would this terrible book have gotten published?

Friday, December 14, 2007

Yes, Virginia, There Is a Nonbelieving Literati

DEAR EXTERMINATOR: I am 58 years old.
Some of my little friends say there is no Nonbelieving Literati.
Papa says, 'If you see it in NO MORE HORNETS it's so.'
Please tell me the truth; is there a Nonbelieving Literati?

Yes, Virginia, there is a Nonbelieving Literati. It exists as certainly as freethinking and literature and intelligent conversation exist. In fact, Virginia, the discussion of The Sparrow will begin tomorrow. In the next few days, John Evo will announce a new selection.

Not believe in Nonbelieving Literati! You might as well not believe in John Evo, and Spanish Inquisitor, and Ordinary Girl, and Enonomi, and Sacred Slut, and Yinyang, and the Ridger, and Ute, and . . .

No Nonbelieving Literati! A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay 10 times 10,000 years from now, as long as some server continues to hold every stray thought and piece of drivel launched into the Atheosphere, Nonbelieving Literati will still be around to lay a guilt trip on those bloggers who haven't finished their reading on time.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Christ's Christmas Gift from the House

You may have seen the following in the Atheosphere already. If you have, it's worth reading a second time, particularly if you like horror stories. If you haven't seen it yet, you'd better read it twice, carefully. Then go look at yourself in the mirror to check if your hair is standing on end.

It's H. Res. 847, which passed in the United States House of Representatives yesterday by a vote of 372 to 9 (you did not read that incorrectly). Friendly Atheist, where I first learned about this piece of crypto-theocratic garbage, lists the names of the brave nonet who voted against it.

This is a resolution, which does not have the force of law. Technically, it's just self-serving babble by the 195 Democrats (stop doubting yourself; you read that right, too) and 177 Republicans who voted to pass it.

However, the House has now formalized, in whatever small way, four very scary ideas. They're not stated explicitly, but implied, although the meanings are clear nonetheless. In the following list, the numbers correspond to the highlighted portions of the document that support each idea. (The highlighting and numbering are mine.)

Idea 1:
America is a Christian nation: 1, 2, 3, 5
Idea 2:
America was founded as a Christian nation: 3, 5
Idea 3:
Christians in America are being assailed by secularists and need support: 4, 6
Idea 4:
The United States has a mission to defend worldwide Christianity against its enemies: 2, 6, 7


Recognizing the importance of Christmas and the Christian faith.

Whereas Christmas, a holiday of great significance to Americans [1] and many other cultures and nationalities, is celebrated annually by Christians throughout the United States and the world;

Whereas there are approximately 225,000,000 Christians in the United States, making Christianity the religion of over three-fourths of the American population; [2]

Whereas there are approximately 2,000,000,000 Christians throughout the world, making Christianity the largest religion in the world and the religion of about one-third of the world population;

Whereas Christians identify themselves as those who believe in the salvation from sin offered to them through the sacrifice of their savior, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and who, out of gratitude for the gift of salvation, commit themselves to living their lives in accordance with the teachings of the Holy Bible;

Whereas Christians and Christianity have contributed greatly to the development of western civilization;

Whereas the United States, being founded as a constitutional republic in the traditions of western civilization, finds much in its history that points observers back to its roots in Christianity [3];

Whereas on December 25 of each calendar year, American Christians observe Christmas, the holiday celebrating the birth of their savior, Jesus Christ;

Whereas for Christians, Christmas is celebrated as a recognition of God's redemption, mercy, and Grace; and

Whereas many Christians and non-Christians throughout the United States and the rest of the world, celebrate Christmas as a time to serve others: Now, therefore be it

    Resolved, That the House of Representatives--

      (1) recognizes the Christian faith as one of the great religions of the world;

      (2) expresses continued support for Christians in the United States and worldwide; [4]

      (3) acknowledges the international religious and historical importance of Christmas and the Christian faith;

      (4) acknowledges and supports the role played by Christians and Christianity in the founding of the United States [5] and in the formation of the western civilization;

      (5) rejects bigotry and persecution directed against Christians, both in the United States and worldwide; [6] and

      (6) expresses its deepest respect to American Christians and Christians throughout the world. [7]

Now that you've read the resolution, I urge you to go back to the third paragraph and look at the number of yea votes given by members of each party. Please remember those numbers the next time you're tempted to spout off that Democrats are somehow safer for atheists and other secularists than Republicans. While Democrats may not be pushing forward such blatant theocrats as Romney, Huckabee, and Paul as presidential choices, many a Democratic heart still beats with the same theocratic zeal that made William Jennings Bryan the party nominee three times.

Be warned: Take nothing for granted.

Monday, December 10, 2007

I Saw Romney Kissing Santa Claus

Santa Claus Endorses Governor Romney! OK, I hate to do this to you, but you're gonna have to click on that link and at least watch the video (not the one to the right of the post, but the one embedded in it) before you read any further.

All done? Now maybe you're prepared to sing along:

I saw Romney kissing Santa Claus,
Underneath the chimney flue this year.
That Santa, what a creep,
In his bag reached really deep,
And handed up a gift to Mitt for
Luring in the sheep.

Then I heard Romney telling Santa Claus,
“'Under God' is what I love to hear!"
Oh, what a tragedy it was
For secularists becuz,
Romney’s kissing ev'ry fundy's rear.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Making a Great Noise about Religion

[NOTE: This post is expanded from a comment I left at my friend Chuck Blanchard’s blog, A Guy in the Pew.]

Mitt Romney’s speech the other day was despicable, and it’s getting attention all over the Atheosphere. It’s also being criticized on the Web sites of the many believers, like Chuck, who are strong advocates for the separation of church and state.

But I’m not sure we can, or should, make a distinction between Romney’s blatant “Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom” and all the other presidential hopefuls’ incessant professions of faith. Not one of those candidates, of either party, has come out unequivocally to support the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. Nor have any of them argued strongly for the continued separation of church and state in all situations — including the courting of votes.

Oddly enough, some of the most vociferous early proponents of separation were Baptists. Today’s fundamentalists, many of whom themselves claim to be Baptists of one denomination or another, forget or ignore how vehemently their church forebears championed the clear division between religion and government.

Here are a few quotes from two notable Baptist preachers:

Isaac Backus (1724-1806):

[When] church and state are separate, the effects are happy, and they do not at all interfere with each other: but where they have been confounded together, no tongue nor pen can fully describe the mischiefs that have ensued.

Religious matters are to be separated from the jurisdiction of the state not because they are beneath the interests of the state, but, quite to the contrary, because they are too high and holy and thus are beyond the competence of the state.

John Leland (1754-1841):

The notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever. ... Government should protect every man in thinking and speaking freely, and see that one does not abuse another. The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence, whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans and Christians.

Every man must give account of himself to God, and therefore every man ought to be at liberty to serve God in a way that he can best reconcile to his conscience. If government can answer for individuals at the day of judgment, let men be controlled by it in religious matters; otherwise, let men be free.

I’ve emphasized a section of this next Leland quote with boldface. It could apply to every politician in the United States today.

Never promote men who seek after a state-established religion; it is spiritual tyranny the worst of despotism. It is turnpiking the way to heaven by human law, in order to establish ministerial gates to collect toll. It converts religion into a principle of state policy, and the gospel into merchandise. Heaven forbids the bans of marriage between church and state; their embraces therefore, must be unlawful. Guard against those men who make a great noise about religion, in choosing representatives. It is electioneering. If they knew the nature and worth of religion, they would not debauch it to such shameful purposes. If pure religion is the criterion to denominate candidates, those who make a noise about it must be rejected; for their wrangle about it, proves that they are void of it. Let honesty, talents and quick despatch, characterise the men of your choice. Such men will have a sympathy with their constituents, and will be willing to come to the light, that their deeds may be examined.

Modern-day evangelicals have tried to spin these kinds of quotes to mean that the government, while not allowed to recognize a specific religion, ought to recognize religion as an innate value. But I think it's pretty clear to anyone who reads English that neither Backus nor Leland meant to say that. They meant to say the same thing that many of us mean to say now: There should be absolutely no crossing of the line between church and state. Guard against those men (and women) who make a great noise about religion.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

My Own De-Conversion Story

I’ve been reading some recent de-conversion stories lately, chaplain's, JP's and Lifeguard's. In their way, they’re helping to inspire me to complete my own de-conversion.

The god I’m trying to leave behind is ... well, please keep reading. I’m getting something off my chest here; this is a cathartic ramble for me. I'd love to have you come along to keep me company.

My god is a god of wrath, one that commands obedience to its will. Sometimes, I take great joy in my god, or even solace, but those feelings are short-lived. Mostly, my emotion is fear: How can I live without my god? Who will then comfort me when I need consoling, fortify me when I need strengthening, spur me to action when I need prodding?

I grew up in a family in which that god was taken for granted. Although ever-present, we never talked about god much. My father worshipped often. My grandmother was a great believer, too. They had slightly different interpretations of their god, and swore by their own choices. As a small child, I saw no difference; I figured that when I got old enough, I’d form my own opinion.

And I did. When I found god, it was a different one than either my father’s or my grandmother’s, similar but not exactly the same. Each of our gods had a slightly different message, and I found one I responded to.

As I aged, I began to read science that contradicted everything I thought I knew about my god. Not only that, but my own experiences planted seeds of doubt. After communing with my god, for instance, I almost always felt awful, as if I’d been betraying myself. Why would a benevolent entity allow that? I also worried constantly about my relationship with my god. Why did I need my god so often, when I got nothing in return? And I began to wonder: have I been misleading myself?

So I became, essentially, an atheist for a while. But I still thought about my god often. Even though I was no longer practicing actively, when I dreamed about myself, I was a believer. And I knew I'd be returning to my god someday.

Clearly, I was not ready to give up on my delusion. A spiritual friend I knew introduced me to a ritual common among Native Americans. I tried it. Occasionally I’d see the light, but it flickered off more often than not. Then, another friend inspired me to seek out the “true” god in its many manifestations; that was a rewarding effort for a time, but it left me drained of both energy and finances. In order to participate frequently in the higher forms of mysticism, particularly when they're well-publicized and have become almost "chic," you need plenty of cash.

So I returned to my original fundamentalism. Various state governments, in the meantime, had made it more and more difficult to worship. They’d passed laws that forbade open displays of my religion in public places. That only made me even more stubborn. After all, many of the founding fathers had the same opinion of my god that I did. Although that god is not mentioned directly in the Constitution, it’s clear to me that many of the framers, particularly those from the South, had my god in mind.

I continued to worship for years, still harboring enough doubts to get more and more depressed about my reliance on faith rather than reason. But I was never able to break free of my basic belief that my life would be meaningless without that higher power.

Recently, I promised myself that I would once again embrace my skepticism and follow my intellect wherever it leads. This time, I was determined to leave my superstition for good. I sought out help from scientists and other rationalists I knew, all of whom had a lot to say. I got plenty of encouragement; but, in the end, each person’s difficult mental journey is his or her own to make.

I discovered that there’s actually a pill I can take, twice a day, that may help me let go of god. It’s not fool-proof; a fool will still find excuses to revisit his or her beliefs. And the pill isn’t cheap, but it’s not as expensive as dropping more than forty bucks into the collection plate each week.

Armed with my pill, I decided to cut myself off from my nonsense completely. Last Sunday was the first one on which I didn’t head for church immediately after I woke up. But by the end of the day, though, I had prayed — more than once. I also worshipped in a somewhat abbreviated way on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, although I felt both guilty and dirty about it. Today, I haven’t prayed yet. I find that I’m thinking about my god all the time; the longer I don’t pray the more insistent my god becomes. But I’m hoping that as the minutes, hours, and days pass, my thoughts of my god will fade, slowly, ever so slowly, but increasingly, too.

I want my mind to be free. I'm hoping for the end of Nicotine. It's time to shake off my Smoking delusion. Tobacco is not great. Cigarettes poison everything.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Attention GodMart Shoppers

[NOTE: Vjack has a post today linking to a story at Democracy Now! that tells about Christian retailers and churches in the United States selling crucifixes produced by Chinese sweatshops. That information helped me understand the following announcement, which I heard this morning while doing my Christmas shopping.]

I can't get this fucking mike to turn ... ATTENTION GODMART SHOPPERS:

We are removing all Buddha Bob brand crucifixes from our shelves due to the potential for lead poisoning. If you have one in your cart, please pray to it for one last time and then return it to the display where you found it, in front of check-out aisle 666. You may also give your cross to one of our many in-store elves who are wearing protective gloves and mask.

Copies of the Christian Poor Editing Society’s Bible are being recalled because the word “not” has erroneously been omitted from Exodus chapter 20, verses 2 through 17 and Deuteronomy chapter 5, verses 6 through 21. These passages are commonly known as “the Charlton Heston Movie.” We apologize for any inconvenience the typos may have caused you, your neighbor, or your neighbor's wife. The Bad News for Morons New Testament is also slightly flawed in that our Lord’s name has been spelled throughout as C-R-S-H-I-T. You may return these books for a full refund. Or pick up a free Santa’s List marker and make the corrections yourself.

Please be advised that our Fisher-of-Men candy canes are, in fact, intended to taste like sardines. The management regrets that it cannot accept returns of unwrapped or licked candies. We will, however, allow you to trade those candies for any of our other wonderful unwrapped or licked food products.

Customers wishing to buy the Rolling Eyes Baby Jesus should be warned that the removable rolling eyes are a choking hazard for children under three as well as for inebriated adults. Note, too, that the odor from the frankincense accessory available as a separate purchase for your Three Magi Gift Set may induce vomiting, and is not advisable for use by any persons allergic to peanuts, shellfish, or camel dung.

Our weekly special on the Silent Night Ambient Sounds Sleep Machine has been suspended after customers pointed out that the item didn’t make any noises whatsoever when plugged in. We thought this would be evident from the name of the device, but once again we've overestimated your intelligence. Your machine may be exchanged, no questions asked, for the Manger-Smell Aromatherapy System.

We’re sorry for the misunderstanding at the factory producing our lovely Rudolph Visits Bethlehem paintings on velvet. Apparently, the foreman had red-green colorblindness. Substitute, self-sticking noses are available by mail from the manufacturer. Be warned, though, not to lick the adhesive, since it tastes like sardines and is made from non-sterilized reindeer hooves.

Unfortunately, we have to report that the Virgin-Mary Pop-Out-a-Baby Doll is no longer available. But we're pleased to announce that the store still has a large supply of Joseph "Who-Did-It?" talking action figures and Make-It-Yourself Flying Invisible Penises. Be aware that the FIP kit may appear to be missing a small piece, but that omission is intentional.

Any volunteers wishing to roam through the store shouting “Merry Christmas” at our patrons are encouraged to do so. The “ability to smile” requirement has been relaxed. We do continue, however, to urge our volunteers not to punch anyone.

Thanks for shopping at GodMart, where you can follow the star ... to savings.

All right, now how do you turn this goddamn thing ...

Saturday, December 01, 2007

My Friend "Fuck": A Tribute

[NOTE: I’m not gonna lay responsibility for this post on anyone, although some flippant conversations in various comment threads over at Flumadiddle had a lot to do with it.]

OK, let’s start with a kinesthetic exercise. Pull your lower lip up and over your lower teeth. Almost simultaneously, bite down as hard as you can stand it with your top front teeth, trying to get them to crunch against their toothy siblings hiding under that labial covering. Propel your entire skull forward quickly as if you were beginning a head-butt against the world, and at the same time snap your top teeth upward, opening your mouth wide to scream silently; if you hear a slight explosive sound, you’re doing it correctly. As you do this, pretend that you’ve been punched by the entire cosmos hard in the gut, and react with a pained “uhhhhhhhhhh.” After a while, bring the back of your tongue up to the place where your hard palate meets your soft palate, and then force the tongue and the roof of your mouth apart by propelling a compressed, but noisy and disgusted, loogie of air forward.

Isn’t that fun? Try putting it all together, and doing it faster. Short of putting your fist through a wall, can you think of a better way to express anger, or annoyance, or exasperation, or extreme disappointment? It made you laugh, too, didn’t it?

Congratulations. You’ve just said “fuck,” a word allegedly frowned on by polite society. If you like saying it, you can turn it into an adjective: “fucking” or the Noo-Yawky “fucken.” You can follow it with a preposition to express an action: “fuck up” or “fuck off.” You can merge it with other words to make composites: “fuckface” or “fuckwad.” You can use it to emphasize a simple yes-or-no answer: “fuck, no” or “fuck, yeah.” You can throw a pronoun after it to make a complete sentence: “Fuck it!” or “Fuck you!” You can play with it by adding any syllables that sound good to you and/or by repeating it a few times: “fucka-fucka-fucka” or “fuckety-fuck-fuck.” Or you can just bang it out as many times in a row as it takes you to calm down: “fuck fuck fuck fUck fUCK FUCK.”

Technically, of course, the word means “to have sexual intercourse with.” If you look up “fuck” on Wikipedia — and I’ll bet some of you have already done that just for fucking fun, haven’t you? — you’ll find all sorts of bogus derivations, none of which makes a fuck’s worth of difference in the context I’m discussing here.

Some fuckwit blogger who pretends to understand sociology, psychology, culture, and linguistics wrote this:

Americans prefer to think of themselves as a classless society, but in fact there are some pretty clear distinctions along linguistic lines. If you take the number of "fucks" spoken by a person in their daily conversation and divide it by the total number of words they speak, you will come up with a stable fraction that could be called that person's "fuck quotient." Statistically, a high fuck quotient corresponds to low education, economic opportunity and social standing. In some inner-city neighborhoods, "fuck" may be one of the most-used words; in posh suburbs, it is hardly ever heard. Occasionally, people of high social standing will use "fuck" to indicate theatrically that they are street-wise, but a high fuck quotient usually signifies frustration and powerlessness. You wouldn't have to use it if you were respected and getting what you wanted.
Now, I don’t know what “posh suburbs” this jerk has been hanging around in, but I’ve heard “fuck” everywhere. In fact, I’d guess that the use of the word is not class-rooted, but rather, education-based. (By “education,” I ‘m not referring only to classroom stuff; I mean the mental activity we call “learning.”) People with the lowest levels of education use it a lot because of its “magical” properties; “fuck” and its variants help them get their mojo on. People with the highest levels of education use it a lot because it’s so much fucking fun to say; they realize that words, in and of themselves, have no dark, mystical powers; and they have big enough vocabularies and sufficient linguistic awareness to know that English lacks a suitably forceful synonym to express their strongest emotions.

Steven Pinker addresses some of his ideas about “swearing” in his new book, The Stuff of Thought. Usually, my lack of knowledge about a subject doesn’t keep me from spouting off about it, but I have so much respect for Pinker that, since I haven’t read his book yet, I won’t comment on it. I did find a quote from an article (now, alas unavailable for a link) Pinker wrote for “The New Republic.” He said:
When used judiciously, swearing can be hilarious, poignant, and uncannily descriptive. More than any other form of language, it recruits our expressive faculties to the fullest: the combinatorial power of syntax; the evocativeness of metaphor; the pleasure of alliteration, meter, and rhyme; and the emotional charge of our attitudes, both thinkable and unthinkable. It engages the full expanse of the brain: left and right, high and low, ancient and modern. Shakespeare, no stranger to earthy language himself, had Caliban speak for the entire human race when he said, "You taught me language, and my profit on't is, I know how to curse."
(You can also listen to this short excerpt re this subject from a Guardian Unlimited interview with Pinker.)

The problem I have with Pinker’s take on “fuck,” at least from what I’ve seen and heard so far as representative of his position, is that he lumps that delicious nugget of language in with other so-called “swear-words.” He does say: "Since swearing involves clearly more ancient parts of the brain, it could be a missing link between animal vocalization and human language." But he doesn’t seem to focus on how terrific you feel, physically, when you drop, specifically, the f-bomb. But saying “fuck” is different, somehow, from intoning “shit,” or “hell,” or “goddammit.” Those latter words are all expletives derived from unpleasant associations. But let’s face it: most of us enjoy the act of fucking. It’s not unpleasant at all, unless you’re doing it wrong. Even then, it’s probably better than lots of things you’re doing right. Religions may frown on fucking in many contexts, but that doesn’t keep humans —even devout ones — from taking indescribable glee in jumping on one another’s intelligently designed bones whenever and wherever they can. Yet, none of the other synonyms for “fuck” has been classified in quite the way that “fuck” has. Sure, you might say, “Screw you!” or “Go bugger yourself,” but they’re not the same, are they?

So why this long testimonial to “fuck”? Because I’ve noticed — and you’ve probably picked up on this, as well — that it appears a lot in comments throughout the Atheosphere. We freethinkers really like to say it. What’s more important, though, is that we’re not afraid of saying it, we’re not restrained by a need to make a hypocritical nod to convention, we don’t feel that we’ve demeaned our ideas by seasoning them with some verbal salt and pepper. Not only do we not believe in any gods, we also don’t believe in ridiculous “standards” of speech and behavior that have no moral basis whatsoever.

So we use “fuck” for emphasis, humorous value, expressing irritation, and just plain for the fuck of it. And the simple usage of that word is sometimes sufficient to enliven a piece of writing. You can’t just read “fuck” with your eyes. In order for it to have any effect, you have to hear it in your head, or, better yet, say it out loud. Inserted into a text at the right point, “fuck” adds an intimacy and conversational quality to even the driest argument. At that very moment, the writer is speaking directly to the reader; he or she asks you to listen to that “fuck,” and maybe even sing along.

So should you use “fuck” all the time? No, please don’t. It gets boring after a while, like too many episodes of Seinfeld back-to-back; it starts losing its flavor, like the sixth glass of fancy wine during dinner.

But by all means, use it when it feels right, when your emotions need that kind of bang for their buck (or fang for their fuck). The Atheosphere is about freedom from religion, but it’s also about freedom of speech. Nobody’s gonna call “foul language” on you for saying whatever you want. In fact, I’d guess that many of you, as I do, enjoy reading “fuck,” writing “fuck,” hearing “fuck,” and saying “fuck.” As I noted at the beginning of this post: it’s fun. In fact, it’s the funnest English word there is.

This episode of No More Hornets was brought to you by the word “fuck.”

Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Stermy Awards for November 2007

The other day, SI left a comment here that has impressed me more and more the longer I've thought about it. Talking about atheist blogging, he said: I think on the whole, we do it quite well. Even if you don't agree with us, generally, we do say it with style, panache and savoir-faire.

He's so right. There’s some excellent, even exemplary, writing in the Atheosphere. I’d put it up against some of the very best magazine articles and newspaper columns.

Let’s get this straight: I’m not saying that we produce copyedited, ready-for-publication pieces. As a pedantic prig and a grammar nazi – and a sometime professional editor – I’ll tell you that much of our output is far from perfect in terms of mechanics. We make grammatical slips, spelling errors, even punctuation faux pas. I embarrass myself sometimes when I notice that I've written a particularly ungainly sentence, or used an ill-chosen word. But that kind of stuff is all fixable with a blue pencil or its electronic equivalent. It’s not hard to sneak into a post to correct misspellings or sloppy syntax; I do it all the time.

I’m not talking about content, either. Yes, I think content is very important, but to tell you the absolute truth: I’ve been an atheist all my life. There are very few arguments for or against freethinking that I haven’t already heard hundreds of times. And when one of us posts about a breaking news story, it multiplies like an amoeba, spreading all over the Atheosphere in nanoseconds. Hot YouTube Videos, cartoons, jokes – they all appear in dozens of places simultaneously. So content alone doesn’t make writing great for me.

What I'm referring to is a quality that’s hard to pin down, an urgent shoulder-grab by someone who just has to say something important or hilarious or informative or so interesting it demands to be shared, a feat of linguistic magic that breathes into mere strings of words a life of their own, a mind-meld you're powerless to resist.

And so, I’m going to inaugurate the Stermy Awards for Exemplary Writing in the Atheosphere (with a hat tip to Evo for coming up with the name – although in a different context). I’d like to say that the Stermy Awards Ceremony will occur near the end of every month, without fail, but who am I kidding? We’re talking about blogging here; sometimes real life – or a bad mood – intrudes.

For this first presentation, I’ve decided not to honor any of the writers I singled out recently as being among the ten bloggers I'd most like to break open an expensive bottle of wine with. Not that their writing isn’t great, and not that I don’t expect them to "win" plenty of Stermies in the future. But just for this inaugural post, I decided, pretty much arbitrarily, that I’d already given them a blanket award which they can wrap themselves in at least until next month.

Below, in alphabetical order by author, are the posts that impressed me most this month. I've included a very small snippet of writing from each one, just to give a quick taste.

So, drum roll, please:

EnoNomi at EnoNomi
for Serving Size: One Entry
I love the word Atheist. I love the way it feels in my mouth and rolls off the tongue. I admit to loving the in-your-face-ness of the word, because most of the time I’m not really interested in having a dialogue.

The Lifeguard at The Meme Pool
for Draining the Meme Pool
As I came to realize how faith permeated so much of my own life and the life of those around me, I became entirely too aware of how shocked my loved ones would feel when they heard I had become an atheist. Would they accept it? Would they know I am the same person? That I am still a happy human being? Will they still relate to me? Will I relate to them? How will this all work out? All of this left me very frightened and confused, and I spent a lot of time thinking over my newfound atheism and wondering if I might even find a way out of it. I felt that ashamed and anxious about it.

Lynet at Elliptica
for Penelope
While her husband's in the water
the coxcombs crowd like butterflies.

ordinary girl at tales of an ordinary girl
for More Emails
It seems to me that for you it comes down to likability. What would it take for an atheist to be likable to a theist? Could an atheist feel free to talk at all about atheism and still be considered likable? Or does that make the theist uncomfortable and thus make the atheist unlikable.

Ute at An Atheist Homeschooler
for Homeschoolers are Weird
The thing is... homeschoolers can never do it quite right for society around us. We face expectations that can't be met. Our kids need to be smart, really smart, but when they are, then something is wrong... "You're probably doing nothing but school work all day." (Right) If their intelligence doesn't meet Mr. Smith's expectations then he feels confirmed in his belief that homeschooling is good for nothing.
Although I don't think it's necessary, I will emphasize that these awards are totally subjective and reflect only my own taste. The decision of the judge is final. No animals have been harmed in the presentation of these posts. My name is The Exterminator, and I approve this message.

I can't read everything out there in the Atheosphere. If anyone would like to nominate a December post for the next Stermies, please send me an email with a link to your specific selection. You may even try to lobby for one of your own, but – as I hope you've seen – it better be damn good.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Quazy Quistian Question # 3

Today's installment is not just your everyday inane query. This one is actually seasonal. I hope my ideas will be easier to follow than a mythological star.

So my wife and I were sitting around on Saturday night, reading, watching TV, munching on various unhealthful snacks — we’re famous in our social circle for being able eat our way through a family-size bag of Crispy Cheetos in less than an hour — and just generally relaxing after the pig-out of Thanksgiving and its aftermath. At one point, although I didn’t notice it, my wife must have checked her watch. Sure enough, it had been a few hours since I’d last been given a chore. She likes to suggest little projects for me just to make sure that I don’t wind up starving on the streets like the rest of the deadbeats who hate doing dishes. Anyway, she looked up and said, “Why don’t you jump in the car and go get a few lottery tickets?”

What I should have said was “I don’t feel like it; I’m comfortable.” But, through long experience, I’ve learned: A response like that doesn’t work. My comfort isn’t an issue.

So I needed a good, rational excuse. “I don’t want to give any more of my money to the state than I have to.”

My wife rolled her eyes. That’s when I made my mistake. Like the smart-ass I am, I quoted the bible. “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s. Caesar isn't really entitled to those four bucks I’d spend on some stupid game.”

To which my wife, an atheist like me, said, “Well that money sure as hell isn’t god’s.”

That’s when I decided to run out the clock. There was only a short time left in which to purchase chances for that day’s drawing. I said, “Well, buying lottery tickets is like an act of faith. We don’t want to start being religious all of a sudden. Do we?”

She said, “You have ten minutes.”

As I was driving to the nearby Jiffy Spend, I found myself still chuckling over the Caesar-god dollar dichotomy. Then, as I passed a group of holy-shit-not-already! Christmas lights, I had a thought: According to the Christian fairy tale, the three wise men presented the baby Jesus with gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Today we know, of course, that those things should have cautionary labels on them, stating that they’re choking hazards for children under 3. But this was back in the day when parents actually watched what went into their kids' mouths.

Anyway I started wondering: What did Jesus — or his folks — do with those things? The three wise men came from afar, traveling for days over hot desert sands by camel, without air-conditioning, to bring gifts to a tot they thought was the king of kings. There must have been desert-boatloads of the stuff they brought. They were no dopes, remember. So if they really wanted to ingratiate themselves, their presents would have been pricey. We’re talking about major expenditures.

I’m supposing the Jesus family burnt all the frankincense and myrrh over the course of the next few years to make their humble home smell a little less like donkey. But what about all that cash? Did they put it into a college fund for Jesus so he could go study theology, or worse, Aramaic lit? Did they invest it in Joseph’s carpentry business? (“Need a new table or bed? Crazy Joe’s prices are heavenly!”) Maybe they used it to buy toys and clothes for the child? (“Jesus! That’s the fourth pair of gilded sandals you’ve outgrown this year.”) Or did they just piss it away on lottery tickets?

Whatever they did with it, the gift sure set a lousy precedent. Nowadays, Christians still throw money at Jesus in an effort to suck up to him. They do it indirectly, maybe, by supporting god’s houses and his allegedly good works. But most of them feel, somehow, that they’re handing their hard-earned loot over to their lord. And Jesus’s collection agencies sure rake it in.

But why can’t god just take care of his own business without having to resort to cash, checks, and credit cards? What could money conceivably buy for him that he can’t just make for himself? How come he can’t finance his houses on his own, and pay for his ventures without having to ask for handouts? And where does he keep his assets? In a bank? In an offshore trust? In an omnipresent wallet in his omnibenevolent pocket?

Quazy Quistion Question # 3:
Why does god need your money? Explain your response.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

A Challenge to Just 30 of the 130 Million

I’m going to begin my little sermon today with a disclaimer. But even before that, I’m going to beg pardon.

Begging Evo’s Pardon

Well, this is a first. But, seriously, I’ve jumped off from a thread at John’s place (see the link below), and, to set the stage, I’ve quoted from a few of the comments. I didn’t feel as if the debate had been properly framed over there, since it was sort of a digression from the main post; I think, though, that we should focus on the ideas and toss them around. Since the coming challenge emerges out of my viewpoint, with which, I believe, John disagrees, I thought it was only fair to issue it here, in a full-fledged post for which I take sole responsibility. So I ... umm ... stole selections from a few comments to toss them out below.

The Disclaimer

In the course of writing this post, I’ll be referring to the ideas of some of my fellow bloggers. If I’ve misinterpreted what you’ve been saying, do jump on me in the comments and correct whatever opinions I’ve wrongly attributed to you.

OK, now that we all know I’m fallible ...

The Background to the Challenge

John Evo wrote a nice, post-Thanksgiving, warm-‘n’fuzzy post that essentially reminds all of us “veteran” atheists to reach out to recent de-cons. He urges us to actively seek out their blogs, and to invite them into our sometimes rowdy community. I couldn’t agree more. There are probably dozens of new atheists out there who may not be fully comfortable mouthing off in some of the aggessive, confrontational comment threads spawned by our essays. Some of these people may not be used to the kind of raucous give-and-take — complete with jokes, friendly insults, and weird digressions — that occur daily in the Atheosphere. As has been said many times, we freethinkers are most definitely not in lockstep wth one another. We disagree often. That’s one of the pleasures of being an atheist; you can argue about details, sometimes heatedly; nobody has ever been thrown out of the loose community of skeptics because of heresy.

In the course of the comment thread over at Evo’s place, infidel753 pointed out that a recent poll reveals this fact: about 130 million Americans are "adults who describe themselves as Christians, but who are Christian in name only." Infidel goes on to say:

Many of the latter are clinging weakly to the tattered remnants of a religion which they hardly really believe in any more, but which they have never heard seriously or intelligently challenged. These people are reachable.

I disagreed.

If they've never heard their religion seriously or intelligently challenged, where the fuck have they been lately? There are atheistic spokespeople being interviewed on TV and on the radio. There are dozens of skeptical books available in the chain bookstores. There are newspaper and magazine articles about the "new" atheism. There's an entire Atheosphere engaging in dialogue every single day. Quite a few atheist bloggers seek out fundies to debate. And there are even some moderate Christian bloggers who speak of atheism with tolerance and write about it. So you have to be brain-dead not to have heard that there are a few people out here in the world challenging religion.

I'm dubious that those people are reachable. Those people are not seeking answers, as most de-converts begin by doing. No, they remain Christians because it's easy to do so; they don't have to think. I see no indication that they'd like to start.

Evo weighed in.

Even if Infidel's numbers are too optimistic, it seems likely to me that there are millions of people out there who could potentially change their positions on religion. Let's look at the 130 million number he tossed out there. I fully agree with you that the vast majority of those are not on a "quest for knowledge". But say 5% of them are.

A Response to Evo ... and the Rationale Behind the Challenge

So John urges me to “say 5% of them are.” But why should I say 5% of them are? Why not say 55% of them are? Or 95%? These are all made-up numbers, anyway. Does he present any data?

My strong suspicion is that de-converts come from the ranks of the active practitioners of religion, not from the mentally numb 130 million. Three recent de-cons we’ve been thrilled to welcome into our nay-borhood are chaplain, Lifeguard, and JP. I believe that all of them came from among the serious church-going population. As I've been learning from them, the process of de-conversion takes a lot of time and some deep thought about philosophy; a person must be willing to wrestle with his or her "cherished" beliefs. I think the people most likely to want to expend that kind of energy are the ones who already channel their efforts into thinking about "life, the universe, and everything."

In the past, I’ve argued adamantly against both Philly and SI about the value of engaging fundies in blog debate. Philly recently pointed out to me, however, that while he may appear to be debating with one or two stubborn religionists, he’s actually hoping that the lurkers — those who don’t take an active part in the smackdown — will benefit from hearing a rational viewpoint. I’d like to solicit our recent de-cons’ take on that point; it makes sense to me. So maybe Philly and SI are right. Unlike Christians, I’m happy to switch opinions when a preponderance of the evidence shows that I’ve been wrong.

I'll bet, though, that most, if not all, of those silent readers are either practicing or ex-religionists, active in their churches either now or in the past. Somehow, I can't see a single one of those uninvolved 130 million bothering to read arguments for or against Christianity. Which brings me back to Evo and Infidel, and leads me to my challenge.

The Challenge

OK. There are 130 million people in this country claiming to be Christian but who are actually indifferent to their religion. John’s 5% of that would be 6.5 million (and not 65,000, as I originally wrote here — Yikes! — before he corrected me). But I’m not gonna ask for 6.5 million. I’m not gonna ask for 65,000. Why, I’m not even gonna ask for 6,500, or a measly 650, or half that amount. (Oops. I've been watching too much TV again.) I’d like to hear from a mere 30 of them who have recently been de-converted by cruising the Atheosphere. The response has to be from the person him- or herself, not via some second-hand anecdote. I trust my regular readers to help me keep count.

There’s no reward for taking the challenge except a warm welcome into the Atheosphere, and a chance to speak out freely about what you stand for.

But isn't that a great prize?

Frequent Updates for Those Keeping Score

Of approximately 130 million adult "casual" Christians in America today,
we've identified 1 de-convert so far.

Friday, November 23, 2007

No, Virginia, There Is No Sanity Clause

OK, now that Thanksgiving’s over, we’re entering loony time.

Each year during the Christmas season, I have to face my atheistic conscience. The truth is: I think Christmas is a huge hoot. I love shopping in crowds for presents, singing and listening to carols, ooh-ing and ahh-ing at the lights, boozing it up with good company, and gorging on excessive sweets. If you take Jesus out of the mix, the rest of it is fun.

Philosophically, I find the idea of Santa Claus revolting; it’s like adding training wheels to the broken-down bicycle of Christianity. But, honestly? I can’t resist smiling when I overhear little kids talking about what they hope he’ll bring them. They’ll soon grow out of that belief, at least, so what’s the harm, really? Children – as opposed to adults – are supposed to have a little fantasy in their lives.

I adore Dickens, and I take great pleasure in rereading A Christmas Carol every year. It’s not a religious story; it’s a parable about greed and mean-spiritedness. No one accuses Scrooge of being a miserable person because he doesn’t go to church; they accuse him of being a miserable person because he doesn’t know how to enjoy the life that he has, doesn’t understand that it takes very little to enhance the lives of those around him. It’s a good, if sappy, lesson for all of us. Yes, the very last line is Tiny Tim’s “God bless Us, Every One,” but so what? The author doesn’t claim that a heavenly miracle is going to cure the kid’s lameness; Scrooge’s money and trained doctors will take care of that.

I don’t even mind if salespeople wish me “Merry Christmas.” It’s how they do it that does or doesn’t piss me off. If it’s said in an offhand manner, just a pleasant kind of mantra, I might even say it right back. But if there’s a meaningful something slogging home the word “Christmas,” I always reply, as condescendingly as I can, “Well, I’m not Christian, myself, but do enjoy your little holiday.”

On the other hand ...

I don’t want to be forced to pay for a public nativity scene or decorated tree. I don’t want to have to detour around the main street in my town during its holiday parade funded by taxpayer dollars. I don’t want the baby Jesus rammed down my throat by proselytizing strangers when I go to buy my groceries. I don’t want United States postage stamps to be emblazoned with religious iconography. I don’t want casual acquaintances and distant relatives sending me biblical verses through the mail. I don’t want my hypocritical elected officials talking about “Christ’s message of peace.” I don’t want to be reminded every damn time I turn on the TV or open a newspaper or read a magazine or surf the Internet of what a petty, materialistic, greedy society we are. I don't want to hear theocrats spouting off about "the real meaning of Christmas" while they obliterate the real meaning of the Constitution. I don’t want to watch my fellow Americans substituting ersatz holiday cheer for the profound joy of freedom that we’re slowly being robbed of.

And most of all, I don’t want to be bopped on the head with Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, Christmas every waking hour of every fucking day between now and December 25.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

An Atheist's Thanksgiving Hymn

Sing along with the Exterminator:

We gather together to ask for more dressing,
Potatoes, tomatoes, and turkey piled high,
And plenty of vino --
Let's end with cappuccino.
Sing praises to the cook,
Who forgets not the pie.

[Revised Version: 11/22/07, 10:00 a.m. EST]

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

All Right, So Make it the Bronx

I’m not a big fan of blogging memes, because – let’s face it – they’re not really memes. Also, ever since I’ve started being hit with these things, I’ve been dying to use the pun title Meme Me in St. Louis. But the fact that I’ve never been to that city makes the gag seem inappropriate.

Still, I’ve been tagged by both OzAtheist and ordinary girl to take part in the “memory meme.” Since I put off my good friend OG the last time she tagged me, I’m not gonna snub her again. Ozatheist, a more recent acquaintance, gets a free ride on her coattails.

Anyway, The rules are:

1. Describe your earliest memory where this memory is clear, and where "clear" means you can depict at least three details;
2. Give an estimate of how old you were at this age; and
3. Tag five other bloggers with this meme.

I’m gonna tell you in advance that I won't be tagging anybody, so don’t go scrambling to find your name at the bottom of this post. If you haven’t been tagged already, and want to be, either consider yourself so, or send me an email and I’ll make the tag formal for the Atheosphere record books.

At my age, I sometimes have difficulty remembering what I did yesterday. So it’s almost impossible to sift through the mental clutter of my childhood, filled as it is with breakfast cereal jingles (all of which I can still sing on a dare), the tastes of sweets long ago taken off the market, and numerous instances of being told not to talk back. The child is father to the man, and I must admit that I still love to start the day with a bowl of crunchy goodness, stuff my face with cookies and candy and snack cakes, and talk back, not necessarily in that order.

I'm not able to pinpoint a specific incident that I can authoritatively say is my earliest memory. In general, though, I mostly remember watching a lot of TV. I mean a lot. This was back in the early 50s, and television was an amazing new toy. It was on constantly in my house.

When I was just four years old, in fact, I starred on my very own TV show. Hardly anyone knew about it except me. That was fine, though, because I was the only audience I cared about. From the time I woke up until the time I fell asleep, I kept up a running commentary for my sole viewer. "Notice the firemen on my pajamas this morning. Can we bring the camera in for a better look at them? Let's see if they've moved at all from where they were last night."

I was casual and personable, like Arthur Godfrey, who was ubiquitous on television and radio in the early '50s. Mom and I watched and listened to every one of his programs. Arthur Godfrey had a talent, rare in those days, of making housewives believe that he was talking directly to them. Mom sometimes answered questions that came over the airwaves. "I bet you like Lipton tea, doncha?" Arthur Godfrey would ask. "Not really," Mom would tell him, as she sipped her fifth cup of coffee.

I also asked questions during my continuous broadcast, and responded to them, too. "I bet you like chocolate milk, doncha?" "Oh, yeah, you can say that again."

Mom was entertained by this schizoid behavior. Occasionally, she allowed herself to appear on my show as what I called a "special guess."

"Let's ask Mom if she remembered to buy me Sugar Jets, shall we?"

"Well, Mr. Exterminator," she'd say, talking into the microphone that was my fist, "I think Sugar Jets are swell. But Rice Krinkles were on sale this week. I hope that's OK with the folks at home." Then she'd add, "Are you gonna sing something for us?"

Now and then, even Dad could be prevailed upon to make a cameo appearance. My father had aspirations, at one time, of being an opera singer. He had a wonderful tenor voice, but his dreams fell by the wayside when he had difficulty memorizing any aria other than "Vesti la Giubba" from Pagliacci. I liked hearing him sing that because there’s this “laugh, Clown, laugh” moment in it, where the grieving singer bursts into an ironic “Ah-ha-ha-ha-ha.” My father could really milk that sucker for all it was worth.

Anyway, he’d usually oblige me. When he was finished, he'd shout into my hand, "Did you like that, folks? Did you? Well why don't you give me my own damn show, f'cryinoutloud! All I need is a coupla cue cards and I could be a star!"

This always got me annoyed because I thought it was inappropriate to compete with me during my personal airtime.

"Just kidding, people," I'd say.

"Are you apologizing for your father?" Dad would ask, actually getting angry. "Y'know, when I was a kid, if I ever apologized for my father, he'd give me something to really feel sorry about!"

"Honey," Mom would explain, "it's not a real show."

"Do me something, Baby," Dad would yell, "but real isn't an issue here. You don't apologize for a father. Ever! Not just on TV. Ever!"

Mom and Dad weren't the only ones who got into the act. Whenever Nanny, my mother’s mother, visited, I'd introduce her to my viewers. "Well will you look who's sitting in our studio audience, ladies and gentlemen? It's Nanny. Why don't you stand up, Nanny, and take a bow?"

She'd cover my little hand/mike with her palm so nobody else could hear. "Do me a favor, and tell them: I hadda stand on the subway the whole ride here, my feet are killing me, I'm not that big a celebrity they need to make such a fuss. I'll just sit and wave."

"Nanny, everyone!" I'd cheer.

Mom would applaud. Dad would shake his head and mutter, "That's some pffffffff program you got there. " By “pfffffff” he meant “fucking,” but I didn’t figure that out until much later, long after the network of imagination had cancelled my show.