Enter The Fragile Ego – No Bubble!

Since when did we lose our ability to hold complex discussions without acting like children? No really. It’s near impossible to have a real conversation anymore. When did that happen? There has developed a barrage of rules about when certain topics are forbidden conversation:

  1. Don’t discuss sex or politics at dinner parties.
  2. Don’t discuss politics or religion at the bar.
  3. Don’t discuss diet at the dinner table.
  4. Never discuss personal matters at work.
  5. No sex or race or politics or religion on Facebook, please. (Cat pictures only!)

With all these rules, when can we ever really, seriously talk about anything at all?

It seems one cannot bring up thought provoking topics anymore without someone else becoming offended or throwing around accusations. Dare you state the obvious, and you are just being mean. Dare to infuse racial-sociological context, and you are being a troll. “You’re talking publicly about your disbelief in my god – that’s RELIGIOUS DISCRIMINATION!” “How dare you analyze my personal experiences in a political context you contentious bitch!” We’ve become so afraid of rocking the boat that even calling oneself a feminist has suddenly become controversial.

It’s hard to pin down from whence this fragile egotism originated. Is this a product of the white, fluffy cloud concept of political correctness? Are we so motivated by etiquette that we feel the need to censor face-to-face, written, scholarly and even web speech? Or is this inane treading on the shallow end of conversation pool manifest of a collective need not to pop our own comfortable bubbles of correctness?

The dumbing down rampant in our education system (along with a host of other problems) could be partially to blame. When education funding is razed, the first education programs to disappear with that funding tend to be the courses that facilitate independent scholarly reflection: literature, art, sociology or current events. When people do not get the well rounded education needed to autonomously think outside the box, how can we expect people to approach complex social or political issues in a constructive way?

Where do we land at the end of this tryst with superficiality? The result is a bedazzled populace more concerned with who Miley Cyrus is twerking on than whether extending unemployment benefits is beneficial to our economy. Such is a populace that also avoids discussing the influence of racism on our social-economic institutions, or how the exaltation of female virginity degrades and hurts women.

A culture of avoidance facilitates ignorance. Ignorance breeds isolation. Isolation breeds extremism. And goodness knows we’ve already too much of that. It’s high time to take off the rose glasses, pop the comfy bubble, and commence with the discourse of our lives.

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Religion – It’s What’s For Dinner….. er, School Lunch In Pennsylvania?

Oops, they did it again.

Well, not yet. And I hope they will not do it again. Everyone’s favorite, zealous Christian Representative, Rep. Rick Saccone has introduced yet another bill in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives that blatantly disregards the Pennsylvania Constitution. His latest bill, House Bill 1728, would force every school in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania to display signage saying “In God We Trust” in classrooms and other areas in public school buildings

For the record, Rick Saccone is the same irreverent that successfully introduced legislation declaring 2012 the “Year of the Bible” in Pennsylvania. (I wish you could see my face every time I think of this.) And his newest Bill states outright that the bill is motivated by “The Great Christian Governor” James Pollock. You know I could not let this legislation stand without putting in my two cents.

Dear Representative X,

Last year, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives voted to name 2012 the year of the bible. As a non-believer, I doubt it within my ability to explain to you how disrespected and paltry that made me feel as a citizen of the Commonwealth.

Now, similarly flippant legislation has been introduced by the same person – Rep. Rick Saccone – to promote and display signs relaying Christian messages in our schools. I am shocked by House Bill 1728! I cannot believe that, contrary to the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, I and my children could once again be compelled to maintain such displays of religious nature. This bill is antithetical to everything that Section 3 of our Constitution stands for!

The Pennsylvania House of Representatives already spat all over Section 3 last year by establishing preference by law to an establishment of religion. I can only hope that you will not do it again. I urge you not to support House Bill 1728, and to vote against it if it should be put up for a vote.

Faking Persecution

Yes, bibles are allowed in public school. No, bibles are not banned from public schools. Anyone who tries to tell you bibles are banned is selling you something: that is a flaming bag of malodorous fakery.

idiotic bible meme

Bibles ARE allowed in schools. Just because a kid might feel embarrassed to bring a bible to school is not proof of any claim that the kid is prohibited from doing so. Peer pressure and prohibition are not the same things. Kids can have bibles in school. Kids can talk about religion in school as it may relate to history or literature. If such a discussion goes off on a tangent, I can see how a teacher would want to bring the discussion back onto topic. I can see how a teacher or other students might feel uncomfortable about talking about it. But that doesn’t make it against the rules.

Additionally, I hold that attributing the increased incarceration rate to lack of bible reading is not wholly truthful. Consider the role institutionalized racism has played in increasing the incarceration rate in this country. I believe that racism is the most influential factor in our increased prison population. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics‘ report “Prisoners in 2010,” Black men are imprisoned at 7 times the rate of white, non-Hispanic men. Black women are imprisoned at 3 times the rate for white, non-Hispanic women. Racism stymied education. Racism motivated the War on Drugs, which is singularly responsible for the imprisonment of nearly 20 percent of today’s prison population. Racism drives people to the streets and to crime to earn a living.

Racism is built into our social and government institutions. Urban centers with majority Black populations tend to have poorer schools, higher teacher-to-student ratios, higher teen pregnancy rates, and higher dropout rates. If one cannot get a job because because he or she lacks the necessary education, what does one do? Many people take the easy way out: sell drugs, become a prostitute, go on welfare, join a gang (all of which are arguable harder than taking the high road in the end). Sure, some people can and do turn to a church. But the church doesn’t have jobs for everyone. And joining a church won’t magically earn one a diploma.

Injecting religion into schools serves only to violate the rights of those – like me – who choose not to observe any religion as well as those who observe a different religion. The solution to every problem may seem simple when ones solution to everything is more religion. But religion doesn’t make racism go away. (Heck, religion even motivates bigotry in some cases.) And the fact that a simple claim of religious piety does not elicit the blind respect of yesteryear does not prove that our society needs to dump the First Amendment.

Personally, I’ve got no problem discussing the role religion played in shaping our society. But I draw the line at using lies to support giving religion a higher priority in public schools.

no bible meme

The Incredulous Assertion of Heaven

How many times have we heard that old story, “I thought I’d died and went to heaven?” Well,  Newsweek and academic neurosurgeon Dr. Eben Alexander wants you to think he has – literally. In a classic example of proof in spite of fact, Dr. Alexander is using an uncanny (but not uncommon) experience during his unfortunate brush with death as proof that heaven exists without actually offering any evidence at all. But that, of course, is subjective.

Alexander’s evidence that heaven exists consists of fervent hope, evocative imagery and self-praise. Alexander first tries to paint himself as an objective, skeptical observer writing,

“I grew up in a scientific world… I had always believed there were good scientific explanations for the heavenly out-of-body journeys…

“Although I considered myself a faithful Christian, I was so more in name than in actual belief.”

Alexander attempts several times to gain the trust of his readers by touting his own prestige as a neurosurgeon, as if that gives him an edge in authenticating supernatural phenomena.

“I’ve spent decades as a neurosurgeon at some of the most prestigious medical institutions in our country.”

However, his only explanation for his “out of body” experience is mere subjective story telling.

According to current medical understanding of the brain and mind, there is absolutely no way that I could have experienced even a dim and limited consciousness during my time in the coma, much less the hyper-vivid and completely coherent odyssey I underwent.

Um, yes there is Mr. Alexander. It’s called brain activity. Despite your claims to the contrary, you were not brain dead while in your coma. I doubt your doctors put electrodes in your brain to measure brain activity. Rather than risk further brain infection by introducing a foreign object into dome, they most likely attached EEG contacts to the outside of your scalp, which explains the lack of evidence when you were truly conscious and when you were not. The cortex does not “shut down,” except in death. And with the level of chemical activity experienced by your brain during this bacterial onslaught, your medical treatment and recovery, the fact that your brain relayed such vivid experiences is not unexplainable or unexpected.

There is no scientific explanation for the fact that while my body lay in coma, my mind—my conscious, inner self—was alive and well.

Suddenly Mr. Alexander has an intimate understanding of the origin and nature of human consciousness? Questions on human consciousness – how it materializes, what parts of the brain enable it, and where it goes when we are unconscious – has puzzled scientists for centuries. But one guy gets knocked out, wakes up with a personal epiphany, and we are suddenly to believe he can explain what consciousness really is? I’ve solved engineering problems in my sleep; but let’s be realistic!

“Out-of-body” experiences are today’s Rubik’s Cube: tunnels of light, angels, darkness – the near-death experiences run the gamut in variation. We don’t understand the brain well enough to pinpoint why they happen, but there are some very interesting theories of consciousness. Rather than take the word of a doctor with great hopes, I think I’ll keep my skepticism in tact.

For more perspective, check out Sam Harris’ take on these heavenly shenanigans.

Does your state discriminate against you?

Imagine you want to run for public office. Maybe the state senator for your district just went to jail for corruption charges, or has resigned amidst a scandal. Or maybe you are just sick and tired of listening to the incumbent gas-bag who always votes party line and refuses to collaborate with his or her counterparts in the legislature.

You have an impressive CV – B.S. and Masters of Science degree, decades of business experience, student government positions, volunteer work. Your platform? You are pro-choice, support paycheck equality, increasing education funding, investing in infrastructure and emerging markets, diversifying energy supply, protecting the environment, push for Medicaid and Medicare reform, preventing religious instruction in public schools, protecting religious freedom & etcetera. You get all the necessary signatures, file all the necessary papers, build a website, rent a headquarters, shake a zillion hands, kiss a thousand fat-cheeked babies and……

But WAIT! You are an atheist, meaning you do not acknowledge the existence of a god.

And then someone files a lawsuit to block your candidacy on the grounds you do not believe in their god. The Constitution of the United States of America states that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust.” The Supreme Court of the United States of America also reaffirmed in Torasko v. Watkins that the states cannot require a person “to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion.”

But that may not matter. Your candidacy could be rejected or your appointment or election to public office revoked. And then could follow the court battles.

It’s a simple equation. While laws affirming religios tests exist in state constitutions and laws, the subversion of atheists’ rights prevails. Arkansas, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas all prohibit atheists from holding public office. Freedom of religion also means freedom from religion.

We are not free.

Atheists Aren’t So Scarce

It’s a bit hard not to be annoyed when people make big religious scenes out of purely secular events. For instance, I went to a silent auction fundraiser at a local bar for a friend of my husbands who needed help. This friend was in the hospital; but, barring infection, was going to be okay. His family had lost everything. So local citizens organized the event. We donated money and housewares that were gathering dust in our attic. Somewhere in the middle of the event, one of the participants halted everything to “lead everyone in prayer.” I was annoyed, but just continued drinking my beer in silence so as not to offend the other people who believed in it all.

The prayer lasted FIFTEEN MINUTES! Fifteen minutes of annoyance and discomfort. It was more convenient for the ‘faithful’ to assume everyone in the bar shared their beliefs, rather than acknowledge that there were some people in the crowd who may feel uncomfortable with or even offended by the whole religious ceremony by keeping it short and on point.

And I wasn’t the only person feeling these emotions. While all the theists had their eyes closed and heads bowed, I was looking around. What I saw filled me with hope and encouraged me beyond… well, I don’t know what.

I knew one friend in the crowd who was also atheist. I was surprised to find nearly a quarter of the people close to me were also not participating! I don’t know whether it was the intransigence of myself and my friend that emboldened others to waive participation or whether it was purely an individually-driven moment of “No thanks.” for all of us. Maybe it was a case of birds of a feather sticking together. I can’t even know whether every one of the spectators was atheist like me. But it was encouraging to know that I was not alone, that someone else shared my feelings – or at least some of them.

Weddings Without Religion

Sometimes taking a stand is not really worth the conflict and rancor it could create.

If you are an atheist and were getting married, would you let someone – a family member, friend, spouse-to-be – inject religious speech or traditions into your ceremony? I sometimes revisit this question with myself. A religious ceremony was injected into my wedding ceremony at the last minute. And I frequently remember on it with dissatisfaction.

I certainly never wanted a religious ceremony when I got married. I wasn’t even sure I was an atheist back then. (Though I have always been highly skeptical of religion.) But, I certainly was not getting married by some religious cleric or in a church. Frankly, I was ready to enlist the local Justice of the Peace to marry us. One of my husband’s long time friends received some sort of credentials via the internet, so we had him perform the ceremony. I wrote the entire ceremony. He never once broke script.

There was music, poetry, wine, rings and the traditional vow making (sans religious references). But my “adopted” mom took me aside before the wedding and asked if we would let her say “The Lord’s Prayer” “for the troops.” How could I say no to that? I relented. She led everyone (except me) in the prayer, then read the Pablo Neruda poem I gave her. I was annoyed. But it didn’t really hurt me any. Except, it always comes up in my mind as something I disliked. A gray mark on my beautifully blue day.

I’m sure most atheists experience daily the annoyance of people who assume you want or just don’t care whether you want to participate in religious practices. In my opinion, some people are downright rude about it. For instance, if they know you are an atheist, they’ll post religious passages or prayers on your Facebook page. I’ve even had theists try to tell me that my own Facebook page was neither “the time nor place” for atheist talk. (The audacity!)

Pointless reminiscing aside, sometimes taking a stand is not really worth the conflict and rancor it could create. Flexibility defines those who live to a ripe old age. A philosophy of compromise can certainly relieve unhealthy tensions. But maybe other times, getting your way may actually be worth the fight.