Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Well, What Do You Believe In?

After explaining to someone recently that I simply did not believe in the existence of any gods, my companion confronted me—with a suggestion of smugness—by posing the question, "Well, what do you believe in?"
Tucked away in the question What do you believe in? is the insinuation that one must have faith in something beyond what the senses convey. To which we skeptics say, Why? How is it having faith in the unfathomable has become a prerequisite for finding meaning and purpose in life? Many would argue that acknowledging something greater than ourselves relieves us of our sense of self-importance, and that in so doing we achieve a genuine humility. Daring to speak for others, the entity greater than ourselves many of us skeptics look to is community—each other in the aggregate.
It seems the theist’s definition of “believe” implies that the object of belief must be beyond what our senses can convey and our ability to reason can affirm. Whereas, we who are constrained by rational thinking feel that anything worth believing in, by definition, should be precisely the things our senses can convey and our ability to reason can affirm.
In other words, my friend, I believe you are sitting in a chair across the table asking me questions. Why? Because my senses convey as much. I also believe that if I drop a stone from a tall building it will fall to the pavement. Why? Because I have reasoned that the effects of gravity suggest it is the likely outcome.
The feeling I so often get is that we who do not possess a blind faith in something beyond the rational are less deserving of the full complement of life's redeeming values, as if it were somehow morally advantageous to have faith in something beyond our ability to comprehend if not supernatural altogether. Yes, it is the morally condescending attitude so many religious people possess and convey that manages to infiltrate and disable our otherwise benign dispositions. Have faith in whatever you want, but understand that believing and knowing are two different things.
The closest thing to a blind faith I possess is what I believe about our capacity to love and our willingness to help those who have never been properly loved. It may be a stretch, but I do indeed believe love can make a difference. 

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Escaping Stockholm

In August of 1973 in the city of Stockholm, Sweden, two robbers held four bank employees hostage for six days. The hostages were strapped with dynamite and held in a vault. In an amazing twist, the captives became enamored of their captors and even defended them when their ordeal was over. The term “Stockholm Syndrome” was soon born, coined by psychiatrist Nils Bejerot.
The syndrome is marked by the denial of abuse by one’s captors and the staunch defense of one’s captors for all manor of psychological reasons. Oddly, an emotional bonding often occurs between captor and captive, abuser and abused; sometimes even between rapist and rape victim.
The Stockholm Syndrome dynamic could even apply to those who have been raised by overly zealous religious guardians. A blind loyalty to one’s religious manipulators often reveals a perverse bonding having taken place between these religious manipulators and their victims. When someone’s indoctrination into the cult of religiosity is so all-consuming it becomes the prism through which he measures all things in life, he may well come to value his deluded state so much he will go to great lengths to defend his intellectual and spiritual oppressors. And as long as the connection to his abusers’ religion undergoes regular maintenance through occasional church attendance, religious holidays, weddings, funerals, etc., he or she will want to continue to show his one-time captors loyalty and affection, thereby legitimizing his own status in the religious tribe otherwise known as family and friends.
Escaping this religious manifestation of the Stockholm Syndrome and its numbing effects entails the virtual deprogramming of the intellect. It also involves relearning—or learning for the first time—the value of independence and inquisitiveness in the free-thinking mind. This is no easy task. There’s a reason the Jesuits claim that if they have the attention of a child’s mind for the first seven years of life or thereabouts that child’s mind forever after belongs to them, and that reason is frighteningly clear: children want to please their guardians; they want the approval of those who feed them and clothe them—and ‘love’ them.
For a long time I was ‘stranded in Stockholm.’ Fortunately, my deprogramming ultimately succeeded, and I came to understand the nefarious nature of religious brainwashing. My captors, however, went on living the lie, believing it was their own failure that led to my escape. Little did they know, as long as they persisted in denying me intellectual freedom, they were destined to fail. 

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Dog House Days

Every once in a while I still manage to commit the kind of vile atrocities that will occasionally land me in that most dishonorable of destinations—the Dog House. It's a place we sometimes unthinking husbands and fathers are all too familiar with. Didn't start dinner before she got home? To the Dog House. Didn't do the pots and pans? Don't bark, just march. Buy something that cost more than fifty dollars without talking it over first? That's it. You're going to the Canine Coffin.
As undignified as being in the Dog House can be, the truth is it's not always such a terrible thing. The Dog House is, after all, a place only people who truly love each other will send each other to perform their penance. Why is that? Why the need for an imaginary prison where, despite the absence of guards, fences or attack dogs, it is every bit as secure as any federal Supermax facility? How is it that being sequestered in a fictitious penitentiary is actually a loving gesture? One reason may be that the affections we share—to say nothing of the oaths we swore on the day day we got hitched—preclude us from inflicting real abuse on each other when one of us crosses the line. For those who are disinclined to harshly castigate their partners—yet still feel the need to avenge their occasional dishonor—temporarily banishing them to the virtual abode of a lessor life form really comes in handy.
Whenever I have been adjudicated guilty of something grotesquely stupid, and Jami or Alycia sentences me to an hour in the Dog House, it is oddly reassuring. I wouldn't be exiled in such a manner if they had in fact lost all hope and truly didn't love me anymore. It shows they have hope for me and my rehabilitation, that I deserve another chance. As long as I am worthy of the Dog House, there's still hope the lawyers won't need to be called in and life won't go seriously sour.
On one occasion I committed the kind of crime the girls thought really deserved a scare. It seems I broke a promise not to play golf one Mother's Day, (like that's a crime), and when I walked into the living room there was a large area cordoned off by cardboard boxes and covered with blankets. Above the make-shift entrance was a poster with the words "Dog House" glaring back at me. When I saw Jami approaching with a doggie dish filled with water, it occurred to me that maybe playing golf on Mother's Day was a crime, after all.
I paid my debt to society that day with honor, remaining motionless in my doggie den for what seemed like hours. Finally, the warden and her young lieutenant consented to my release—just in time for dinner. Soon we were all laughing. It was a laughter permeated with love, and it felt good. Funny thing, though, I never played golf on Mother's Day ever again! 

Monday, October 18, 2010

Stephen, Remembered

It will soon be 30 years since he died, and yet Stephen's memory remains incredibly vivid. He was just 28 years young when sadness, sickness and hopelessness moved him to desperation. But despite the crude reality of Stephen's ultimate self immolation, his enduring legacy is poignantly life-affirming.
Stephen craved all that life was intended to provide: love, acceptance, belonging, and freedom from emotional pain. And though these longings went largely unfulfilled, there is beauty in the knowledge that he so valued the things that are good and right about being alive, he bravely—and desperately—searched for them right to the very end. It remains a mystery whether his last desperate act was one of resignation that he would never find the things that make life worth living, or one of anticipation where all that he longed for would be found in abundance in a life to come.
The scourge of religious delusion is a potent and sinister beast. If allowed to take hold and fester, it will possess even the most intellectually agile among us, which Stephen most certainly was. It tells us we are so powerless against the malevolent side of human nature that an unwavering deference to forces unseen, unheard, and otherwise unreal offer our only hope for finding joy and purpose. Stephen courageously defied the indecent ultimatum being offered him when he took his own life, but it should never have come to that. We did not answer his call for help. We should have. Doing right by each other isn't always easy. In fact, we know it to be difficult.
With hopes and dreams meticulously gleaned—and eventually dashed—by promises that could never be kept, Stephen fell prey to those who offered false hope, to those who told him the uncertainty of a life beyond was more important than living—to the fullest—in the moment one finds himself. And yet he managed to carve an identity, admittedly imperceptible to some, but plain to those of us who truly loved him and did our best to emotionally care for him. It was an identity rife with intelligence, armed to the teeth with potential, spiced with a deliciously caustic sense of humor, and weathered by immeasurable pain. This was hardly an empty life.
Stephen's memory will always provoke in me a kind of bifocal appreciation. On the one hand, he failed at the practical and the temporal; on the other hand, he seemed to succeed at the ethereal. He was at his best when immersed in the sublime. Very impractical, yet ever so engaging—ever so alive.
Some misunderstood you, Stephen; others strained to tolerate you; a few of us were lucky enough to get close to you. Believe me when I tell you: all of us—each in our own way—loved you immensely. Thank you for making it easy—all these many years—to find the joy. 

Friday, September 17, 2010

Dignity's Demands

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was—oh, who the fuck was I kidding? It was just another hot summer day in Connecticut, and Steve and I were out of beer. Not exactly a tragedy—but pretty damn close. Having discarded every meaningful human attribute one can cling to, it was our dignity alone that gave us hope, and even that was slipping away fast.
Our assignment for the day was to pick up Uncle Joe—on the mend from his latest bender—and drive him to his beach house down by the shore. Besides being late summer, Joe’s health was in general decline, so it was time to vacate the old summer home of its remaining personal effects. When we arrived in Niantic, several of Joe’s daughters were already at the house, no doubt to lay claim to the more valuable stuff. It was no skin off our noses. All Steve and I were hoping for was a chance to sneak into Joe’s wallet and swipe one of his $50 bills so we would have some fresh beers to sip on once we got back to 808.
After the family vultures picked Uncle Joe clean, we carried several boxes of his books out to the car, books being all Joe really cared about. There looked to be some fascinating reads among his treasure: true stories about Nazi hunters, war criminals, and prominent political figures from the old days when he was a federal prosecutor after the War. Yes, Joe’s list of accomplishments crawled up one arm and down the other. It was sad to see such a stately figure reduced to the ignominy of binge drinking as he neared old age. Not knowing when to give up the hooch was one lesson many a good Irishman failed to learn.
Aside from an approaching thunderstorm, the drive back toward Hartford began smoothly and without incident. It wasn’t long, however, before things took on an air of tension. Seems Uncle Joe was well aware of Steve’s cohabitating life style of the past few years. And being the upstanding Catholic—and personal lawyer to the Archbishop—that he was, Joe of course felt duty bound to call Stephen out for his sinful ways.
“So, I understand you’ve been shacking up these past few years,” Joe snarked in Steve’s direction. Sensing an approaching diatribe, Steve pondered his options, then decided to give the old man a little leeway—at least for the time being. Joe continued on. “You’re going to hell ya know, straight to goddamn hell.” I took my eyes off the road for a moment and glanced back at Steve. His expression was stern but poised. I knew he was only going to take so much of Joe’s crap. Joe’s voice was now a full and morally condescending growl. “You’re nothing but a whore, ya know, nothing but a goddamn he-whore. And that broad you’re shacking up with is no better.” Something told me Joe had just crossed the line. I felt a firm tap on my shoulder. Wasting no time, Steve decided he’d had enough. “I don’t have to listen to this,” he said. “Pull over.”
As soon as Steve instructed me to pull over to the side of the road, I knew exactly what his intentions were. Steve was not one to stand idly by while someone abused and castigated him just for being himself. But something also told me he was going to spare Joe the crude retort a lesser man would surely have been made to endure. As much as he wanted to give it right back to him, Steve nonetheless decided to defer to Joe’s lofty station and forgo the retaliatory assault he deserved.
By now it was pouring rain and a lightening storm was raging about. But that wasn’t about to prevent Steve, in his own way, from letting Uncle Joe know what he thought of him and his insults. He opened the door, turned up his collar, grabbed Joe’s latest copy of Barron’s Weekly to fend off the rain, and proceeded to hitch hike the remaining thirty miles. And with his silently abrupt, no theatrics exit, Steve said more to Uncle Joe than he would have had he stayed in the car and verbally flogged him the rest of the way home.
“Where the hell is he going?” Joe asked, looking rather stunned. “It’s the middle of the goddamn highway and it’s pouring rain out there.” I looked at Joe with a curious stare, then simply stated, “Steve’s going to keep his dignity, Uncle Joe. Something you seem to have lost for the moment.”
There was a pregnant pause. Then, under his breath—and feeling entitled to the last word—Joe muttered, “Well, he is a goddamn he-whore.” I turned my head and gave Joe the evil-eyed stare. He got the message. Not one peep came out of him the rest of the ride home.
It was nearly dark when we got back to Joe’s apartment on Prospect Avenue. Once inside Joe immediately removed his jacket—yes, the jacket containing his hefty wallet. The means and motive I already possessed; all that was missing was the opportunity. When Joe went down the hall to use the lavatory, the opportunity was suddenly golden. This heist was going to be easy.
As Joe made his way back to the living room, I was perusing some of his books. “Help yourself to a few books if you like,” Joe said. “Just don’t lose any of them.” Having already helped myself to his wallet, I didn’t see the harm in absconding with a few books as well.
“Thanks, Uncle Joe. I think I will. And don’t worry, I’ll be careful with them.”
“Well, what the hell are you waiting for? Take the goddamn books and get the hell out of here. I need some rest, for Christ’s sake!”
No further words were spoken. Joe never liked to end conversations with polite good-byes. He would usually just utter some vague vulgarity and expect it would be taken as a parting gesture—a habit he no doubt picked up from his days as a bare-knuckled County Commissioner.
When I got back to 808 with a case of beer in tow, Steve was there to greet me. “Well, I see you got into his wallet.”
“Of course I did.”
“How’d you make out?”
“There were seven fifties in there.”
“Let’s just say he’s down to four.”
“Not bad.”
“Fuck him. He deserves it—trashing you like that.”
“Do you think he’ll notice?”
“That’s why I took so much—to make damn sure he would notice.”
“Smart thinking.”
“You showed some real class back there today, Steve.”
“All I know is it wouldn’t have been pretty had I stuck around.”
“Here’s to keeping your dignity,” I said, raising my beer and offering a toast.
“To dignity,” Steve replied, raising his beer to meet mine and consummate the celebration. “To dignity.”

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Remembering Mary

Mary Eileen was special. Despite being dealt a difficult hand, she insisted life could be good. She worked hard not to let her chronic illness stand in the way of a meaningful existence. It was four years ago this month, in September of 2006, that Mary's earthly journey came to an end. She lived to be 57 years old, which was amazing in and of itself. Her zest for life was truly exceptional.
With bad lungs and an acute susceptibility to infection, sickness was Mary's constant companion. She learned—a lot sooner than anyone ever should—how to fight just to stay alive. Year after year, from one malady to the next, she went right on defying the odds, daring to soldier on in the face of adversity. Having to work so hard just to breathe in the air we all took for granted moved Mary to grapple with life all the more eagerly. The ups were triumphant; the downs were debilitating. Her laughter was captivating; her tears were abundant.
Mary also waged a brave battle against lifelong depression and anxiety, two creatures that often impose their iniquitous presence on those afflicted with chronic illness. It was a war of attrition; successes and failures came and went. But she held to her commitment of a better life, a healthier life, by searching tirelessly for the emotional insights she would need to find joy and accept her burdensome station.
As siblings, our relationship was a respectful one. Mary and I made allowances for each other whenever we met with disagreement. Our conflicts were usually modest and manageable. But sadly, such accommodations were difficult to achieve with everyone. Invariably, it was the pain many of us siblings were carrying that so often got in the way of our willingness to forgive and forget, and drawing lines in the sand—for some—became unavoidable. Mary loved those she didn't see eye to eye with, she just had a hard time saying so.
Mary Eileen died the way she lived, with grace and dignity. As the end drew near, she had the wherewithal to sense the inevitable and decided to take in—one last time—the company of those she claimed as her closest friends. They ate, they drank; they laughed, they cried; they loved, they said good-bye. By all accounts, it was the gathering of a lifetime.
Mary deserved that last joyful reunion with her friends. Her life was difficult. She gave us all the gift of herself. And when it was over, it was we who took a lesson from her about the preciousness—and brevity—of life. Thank you for being such a good sister.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Rape As Metaphor: Going Too Far? [Rated R]

Trivializing that which should never be trivialized is always a risky business. It would certainly be unwise to minimize something so ominous, so treacherous, as rape. In fact, to do so would be a kind of ‘crime’ in and of itself.
As writers we often use metaphors to help us tell our stories. A timely metaphor can transport a reader from a place he may not be familiar with to a place he instantly recognizes; or it can move one to imagine what he believes about one place and transpose those beliefs to another setting entirely. The possibilities with metaphor are endless.
Yet every now and again we come across a situation where our instinct to proceed is put in check, hindered by the very same sensibilities that urge us on. While it is only natural to have one’s creative impulses challenged from time to time, when these challenges take the form of suggestions that we censor ourselves, we are compelled to resist. Not because we are righteous, but because we respect what is good and virtuous about freedom and the creative process. The call to censor an idea simply to avoid offending a social or political constituency is not, as a rule, a good idea.
If I were to encounter criticism from feminists saying I could not know the pain of rape and that it would not be appropriate for me to compare childhood religious indoctrination with the crime of rape, my response would be (1) as a metaphor it is valid; (2) as a writer I must value the freedom to explore ideas above the feelings of those I might offend, as long as my disregard is measured and not wanton or reckless; and (3) as an ‘honorary’ male feminist myself, I would never betray the cause of feminism by committing the aforementioned crime of trivializing sexual assault.

The Rape of a Young Mind
My indoctrination into the world of religion was begun in earnest at the age of approximately 30 days with my baptism into the Catholic faith. As I was too young to speak for myself, I was unable to voice my opinion on the matter. From as early as I can remember, the concept of an all-knowing, all-powerful god-being lording over the universe was becoming the centerpiece of a well orchestrated assault on my intellect and my psyche. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, of course, but that was part of the nefarious allure of being captivated by these clever adult authority figures. As children, we relied on them for sustenance and approval, yet subtly—and disgustingly—their approval came at a price: conformity. These parents, guardians and administrators wielded so much power over their child minions, they could even engineer the conformity they demanded should they be met with a disagreeable or non-conforming expression.
Quite honestly, I sensed the inviolability of the intellect early on in life. There was something suspicious about having ideas beyond my ability to negotiate or comprehend ritualistically shoved down my throat. The reason for this ritual assault, no doubt, was to win my loyalty so I could serve my masters and propagate the planet with yet more inauthentic Christians. It reminds me of the “fruit from the poisonous tree” doctrine in legal circles. If one aspect of gathered evidence is deemed defective, hence inadmissible, then any evidence, or fruit, arising out of that tainted tree of evidence is also deemed inadmissible. Clearly, the entire enterprise of childhood religious indoctrination is morally corrupt. As such, these memberships in the Church are tainted as fruit from the poisonous process that made them so-called Christians in the first place. Many of these children are not freely and voluntarily who they say they are. They are automatons, bent on pleasing those who would dare to withhold their affections if their children did not abide by their dictates.
Several important things about this process give validity to the rape metaphor, and one in particular is especially instructive: the feeling of survival and recovery that time, distance and perspective gives to those of us who have managed to get past our cruel experiences. One continually recurring theme throughout my early years of counseling and therapy was the religious exploitation of my youth. The secular, human, and liberal values I later gravitated toward gave me a taste of the kind of intellectual freedom I instinctively knew had been missing; and because of this, I came to despise—for a very long time—those who conspired to deny me this freedom. Just as the body was meant to be free, so too were the mind and spirit meant to be free.

The first thing that happens before a person is raped is that his movements are restricted—arms and legs often restrained by being bound together. When a mind is about to be raped, access to rational, thought-provoking literature is restricted, intelligent books and periodicals bound together and thrown into the garbage as if they were evil influences. In a physical rape, the bodily orifices are violated by a sick and twisted human being who has lost his way. In the metaphorical mind fuck that is religious indoctrination of the very young, the orifice of the intellect is penetrated by the protruding ‘penis’ of a mindlessly imbecilic and fatuous dogma. In each assault the aggressor leaves his mark as a token of his narcissistic triumph, a sample with which to soil and taint his victim. After a real rape, it sometimes takes many years for victims to acknowledge their assault and get the help they need to work through all the painful emotions standing in the way of love, laughter and living well again. Amazingly, the virtual victim of the metaphorical religious rape has a similar journey to take. He must also come to terms with his transgressors, in order that he might find peace and live a full and rewarding life.

Ultimately, I am a writer—not a victim of rape. But when I told my therapist not long ago “it felt like my mind and my spirit were raped as a young child,” I was calling upon the powers of the imagination to conjure the vile essence of an actual rape, then—metaphorically—substituted mind for body. She understood completely and a door was opened. Along this path were many dark detours, but eventually they always led to wonderful places—places where understanding and forgiveness stood a much better chance of realizing their healing potential.
To rape victims everywhere: yours is a pain like no other, never to be trivialized. To the writers of the world: do justice to your metaphors, because every once in a while you may be asked to rationalize your use of one.

Monday, August 16, 2010

"Religulous": Easy Pickins

Movie Review: "Religulous"
Written by Bill Maher
Directed by Larry Charles
Released in 2008

Ever since AT&T tricked us into buying their premium TV package we've been getting all the HBO channels, and one of the best things on HBO is Real Time with Bill Maher. A few things about Maher's show I find very enjoyable: 1. he makes fun of conservatives; 2. he makes fun of religion; and 3. he does it all while dropping the occasional "f" bomb, which relieves my occasionally boiling psyche like nothing else.

Maher also wrote and produced the 2008 documentary film, Religulous. (See the 2-minute trailer.) The title of the film, cleverly, is derived from a combination of the words "religion" and "ridiculous", a word scheme known as a portmanteau. Religulous (See the full movie; 1 hr. 41 min.) is right up this irreverent comedian's alley. Maher tries to sit down and talk seriously about many of the teachings of the world's great religions with a number of their sycophants, but he can't keep himself from descending into sarcastic sniping and pot shot humor; after all it's who he is and what he does. He's so good at it in fact, more often than not those he interviews are made to look like idiots. Of course most of Maher's audience believes these interviewees to be total idiots to begin with, so it works out just fine. What makes these defenders of faith appear so pathetic is their dead pan seriousness in the face of Maher's dead pan humor, each incredulously bug-eyed as to the other's seemingly incomprehensible point of view.

From one encounter to the next, we are left snickering at the religulous and their preposterous utterances. When US Sen. Mark Pryor is asked to point out some of the benefits of religion, he notes that long ago primitive cultures were constantly at war. Yes, he really makes the blunder of suggesting that religion and modernism have made a positive impact on this front, and right on cue the producers fill the screen with scenes of Sen. Pryor's progress: bombs, missiles, tanks and warships—in all their modern, resplendent and exploding glory. Then there's the rotund, religious artifact salesperson who gives us as proof that miracles exist the story of the time he needed some water, so he got a glass, stuck his hand out the window and noted that it started to rain. A rather pathetic miracle. Now if it had rained frogs, as Maher suggests, he might have had a point.

Maher spends a lot of time taking aim at easy targets: the virgin birth of Mary, the resurrection of Jesus, Jonah surviving inside that whale, the earth being 6,000 years old, humans coexisting with dinosaurs, etc., etc., etc. He's not exactly looking for defenders of St. Thomas Aquinas and his five proofs for the existence of God so he can engage in high-brow philosophical debates. That would require real work. Instead, he has devised a product that needs no instruction manual and virtually sells itself: a religious bullshit detector in the form of an easy-to-open, watch-it-right-on-your-computer, two-beverage movie. It's not exactly Avatar 3-D, but for some of us it's a thrill nonetheless.

Religulous may not be the greatest movie as documentaries go, but it is smart and funny; it shifts, overlaps, and interjects scenes to great effect; and it moves right along. It also capitalizes in a very timely way on the growing acceptance of atheism, enhancing its cachet along the way. Much of the criticism aimed at religion in the movie is simplistic but effective. And for all its lack of nuance, Religulous nonetheless drives home the point that religions teach some pretty weird things, and put into positions of authority and representation some fairly unsophisticated people.

Religulous may be preaching to the proverbial choir, but to its credit there's at least a little something being offered up as food for thought: Is religion a benign contrivance that stands up to the normative powers of reason, or is it intellectually nescient and ultimately nihilistic, and as such, does it represent a grave threat to our very survival? In Religulous Bill Maher tells us where he stands, and has the cojones to ask us where we stand.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010


Personal Log—Star Date 0802-2010: "Reflexions"
Open file

Now that I am free from religious incarceration, I sense a call to duty, specifically a call to honor our first duty as thinking beings—our duty to the truth.

What truth specifically am I referring to? Certainly not the "truth" of atheism, insofar as it is said to represent a school of thought possessing enlightenment beyond all others. The average atheist claims no such ultimately enlightened perspective. Rather he prefers, and affirms, the rational over the irrational, the reasonable over the unreasonable, and the real over the unreal.

As to the contention many atheists are merely substituting one dogmatic curriculum for another, this is a hollow and indefensible claim with all the functionality of a smoke screen. It bears repeating that atheism and rationalism are not dogmas but rather methods of reasoning, and as such stand in stark contrast to the stultifying regimen of religious indoctrination. 

One hard truth is that religious thinking demands of its subjects they relinquish their natural desire to question everything and submit their intellects to the forces of slavery. Conformity and obedience are the pillars upon which the elaborate mythology of "god" is built. This blind submission represents the very antithesis to free thinking. Far from being intolerant, we atheists are merely being critical. It is intellectually dishonest to exempt any ideology from responsible criticism. Religion has enjoyed its privileged status far too long. It is merely one world view among many; and like all world views, it too, is wholly fallible.

I go to great lengths to avoid descending into disrespect when criticizing religious thinking and religious people. And if it is true some atheists are simply repeating the same crime of moral hubris and judgment so popular among believers, we can only hope ours is a better, more humane judgment, one deserving of its exercise. 

For me the emotional battle of standing up to generations of religiosity, though never completely resolved, has given way to what is essentially an intellectual pursuit, one that is challenging and rewarding. Any hostility we atheists may sometimes project is best understood in the light of our experiences. It is we who have been aggrieved, forced into religious concentration camps and compelled to relent in the face of grotesque psychological abuse. It is here where one's uniqueness is neither cultivated nor given refuge; where love itself is denied those who hesitate to submit.

The truth we humanists strive to expose is the truth about ourselves—our aspirations, our flaws; our resourcefulness, our limitations. To better understand, and improve, the human condition is our goal. We are caught up in the discernible and the accessible, not the indiscernible, inaccessible or ethereal. When held up to the natural light of realism, the construct of religion appears nakedly misguided.

Do atheists believe in anything? Of course we do. We believe in man's ability to use what his senses can convey—and what his ability to reason can affirm—to give meaning and purpose to life.

Close file

Monday, July 26, 2010

Bullying: Nowhere to Turn?

It's one of those things that's difficult to define, but we know it when we see it. Or do we? The youthful scourge of bullying has proven a very difficult monster to tame. It seems the more this phenomenon is studied, the more nebulous its core characteristics become, which is in fact where much of the problem lies.

Too often bullying is portrayed as a harmless right of passage in our pop culture media, laughing it up all the way while helpless nerd types are consigned the indignity of atomic wedgies, toilet swirlies, and the oh-I-didn't-mean-to-bump-into-you-so-hard body slam in the hallway. In the real world, however, bullying is more nuanced and subtle so as to camouflage its sinister essence and provide the offender with the plausible deniability he or she needs to avoid responsibility and consequences.

The difference between normal boundary testing among kids and the invidious institution of bullying is that bullying is used for the express purpose of hurting its victims; hurting, alienating, and subordinating are the objective, its willfulness the most defining trait. The everyday border skirmish between young personalities carries no such odious motivation and is much less likely to result in serious emotional injury.

There is also an unlikely and unwitting co-conspirator committing the ominous sin of omission when most bullying incidents occur: the nearest adult authority figure. Passively instructing an apparent offender to "knock it off" or "return to your seat" while his victim fumes with silent desperation reveals a profound ignorance about what is often really occurring. Even when a teacher does recognize serious bullying for what it is, he or she is sometimes met with an unsympathetic administration whose agenda often involves denial. So often the abused feel most disappointed by the very adults charged with maintaining civility and administering consequences. Not only will incidents be rationalized and minimized as mere misunderstandings, worse yet is the sense of betrayal victims experience when their emotional pain is not even validated by those in authority.

When those who have been repeatedly abused by their peers feel they have no place—or no one—to turn to for help, long-term consequences are all but inevitable.

These observations are informed, sadly, by the experience of having a child who was mistreated by her peers. As parents we, too, felt most aggrieved by the adults, the administration, guidance counselor, etc., who kept trying to turn the page without ever really reading what was on the page. One counselor had the effrontery to say, after our child was admitted to a psychiatric facility, that maybe 'in there' she would finally see some real suffering which would "snap her out of it." Inexplicably, this person did not even comprehend the seriousness of her plight and the reality of her already painful predicament.

Today my daughter is my hero. She is committed to turning the page, but knows full well the way to get beyond the pain is to work her way through the pain—not go around it.

The conspiracy of denial must end. It is time the bullies were sent to the school psychologist to gain some insight into their own behavior. Counseling should be part of a comprehensive approach to dealing with offenders. Bullies need to learn the craft of empathy. The consequences of not learning we know all too well.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Understanding the Coulter Culture (Redux)

Original Post Date: July 2, 2008

What is it about Ann Coulter? By her own admission, the things she says and does are calculated to provoke the most infuriating response possible. Which begs the question: Is she in the business of providing astute political commentary or pissing people off?

It occurs to me that Ms. Coulter rarely achieves the former and, in all likelihood, regularly achieves the latter. This is not to say she is not one of the best at what she does. It’s just that people can’t quite seem to agree on exactly what it is that she does do. Despite this conundrum, she remains all too predictable, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Larry King is the master of the softball interview, but at least we know that going in.

For pure entertainment value, Ann Coulter has few equals. With exquisitely good looks and a diabolically sardonic wit to match, she presents a formidable presence, to say the least. But this presence, including all the taunting cloaked as sublime articulation, is so painfully manicured it all appears to be little more than a “shtick.” I’m not sure even she believes most of the immoderate rhetoric (to put it politely) that comes out of her own mouth. With Ms. Coulter, controversy and self promotion are the objective, not changing the hearts and minds of us lost liberal souls. She is keenly aware that the more extreme her vitriol the more entrenched her ideological opponents become. Of all the tools she possesses, the fine art of persuasion clearly eludes her.

Listening to Ann Coulter reminds me of professional wrestling. Is it real, or is it fake? That depends. What it purports to be, human gladiators intent on maiming one another, is so fake it doesn’t pass the laugh test. What it really is, entertainment on a stick, is as real as it gets. So it goes with Ms. Coulter. As she ostensibly promotes the virtues of conservatism, she compels us to dismiss her as an observer of the political landscape precisely because she is doing it all for show (not to mention book promotion).

So good luck with your next guest spot on The O’Reilly Factor, Ms. Coulter. Or should I say—in the tradition of theater-goers—break a leg. Either way I’ll be watching the same way rubberneckers gawk at a highway inferno, unable to turn away from the resplendent carnage. After all, I am so easily entertained.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Fenway Park: Now That's Baseball!

It took me a long time to get there, but I can finally check off "gong to Fenway Park to see a Red Sox game" from my bucket list. No, I'm not really about to kick the bucket, but don't we all construct a sort of bucket list as we go through life anyway?

Being a Yankees fan, the legendary charm of Fenway Park is something we'd all heard about: the quaintness; the small arena; the rickety, aging architecture; the infamous Green Monster. As much as I despised my baseball fan nemeses, I kept secretly hoping to go to Fenway Park one day to see for myself what made it such a special place. The wait is over.

At the moment we entered the Park and the playing field came into full view, a chill went up my spine. As great as it looks on a high-definition television at home, being there in person is an experience like no other. Each and every fan is an integral cog in the wheel of the game experience: passing Fenway franks down the line to the person 12 seats over; smiling every time (well almost every time) someone needs to exit your row in a symphony of standing and sitting to accommodate them; becoming one with passionate cheer every time the home team makes a great play or sends a run across the plate. And the sheer determination of the wave initiators is something to truly behold. Like starting a cold lawn mower, waves tend to growl and fizzle a number of times before they finally come to life, merging the minds of the masses and giving us a wave so grand it would make the Beach Boys proud.

Something I really wanted to be treated to was a Green Monster home run, and in the sixth inning Bosox banger Kevin (You Kill Us) Youkilis obliged, lining a shot over the great left field barrier so hard it nearly tore a hole through the billboard above. And from where we were sitting in the right field grand stands, we could see this ball was still headed in an upward trajectory as it flew over the fans atop the monster! God I hate Kevin Youkilis. I have a recurring nightmare where it's the bottom of the ninth in game seven of the Championship Series and Youkilis is facing Mariano Rivera with two men on and trailing by one. I won't say exactly what happens next, but it ain't pretty and I always wake up screaming and crying.

There's a good chance the fans at Fenway will have a laugh or two during most games as well. Watching Big Poppy, a.k.a. David Ortiz, slam one toward the gap or off the monster—as he did twice on this night—usually brings with it the torturously funny spectacle of seeing him make the huge turn at first and approach second base as if it were a bridge too far. Somehow, Poppy gets there safely, though it often takes him a few minutes to get back on his feet. Even funnier is seeing him try to avoid being overtaken on the bases by a teammate who hits a gapper right behind him. My hunch is that Big Poppy has never scored from first base on anything other than a home run.

The Red Sox won the game last night 9-3, which is as it should have been. They were the better team. But more important, my family and I won a night we won't soon forget, and got to see baseball at its best. The beer was cold; the franks were tasty; the peanuts were salty and crunchy, and the grand old game gave us a thrill. Yankee fan or not, Fenway Park is one magical place to watch baseball.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Sharron (Always Looking for an) Angle:
Ill-Tempered, Ill-Equipped

There's an old adage in electoral politics about running to your wing to get the nomination, then running to the center to win the general election. Time and again this axiom has proved its worth as wise counsel. At the moment, there's a lot of running to the far flank by people who will probably find their bridges back to the center burned by their own intemperate arsenal of rhetorical dynamite.

Sharron Angle is one such person. Having scooped up the Republican nomination for US Senator from Nevada, Ms. Angle is already the unlikely beneficiary of another political self-immolation—that of former candidate Sue (Pay Your Doctors with Chickens) Lowden. When Lowden balked at backing down from her "chicken" solution to the health care crisis, Angle was right there to pick up the support of those who didn't have any chickens to pay their medical bills.

The thing about marching back to the center in time for November is that one must have the skill to do so without appearing to repudiate everything that has come out of your mouth up to that point. Otherwise, odds are you will be exposed as little more than a double-talking opportunist. Sharon Angle has revealed a desperation by staking out positions that are sure to rev up the far right flank allowing her to cakewalk her way to the party's nomination. But so much of what she calculatingly embraced during the primary process appears to be precisely what will ignite the C4 lining her bridge back to reality.

Let the double-talking opportunism begin: Dismantle Social Security. No, privatize Social Security. No, personalize Social Security. Get rid of the EPA. No, give the EPA a more defined mandate. Too much banking regulation ignited the Wall St. collapse. (No discernible retreat from that one yet. There may not be one that makes any sense.) If we don't get what we want at the ballot box, we may have to look toward Second Amendment remedies and take out Harry Reid! What I meant was take him out of office. (Yeah, with Second Amendment remedies? Charming.)

The foregoing represents a mere sampling of the kind of double-talk Ms. Angle has engaged in since winning the nomination and trying to traverse that treacherous bridge back to the center—one that is quickly becoming a bridge to nowhere.

Just weeks ago, Majority Leader Harry Reid's reelection bid was in deep do-do. Now, thanks to Sharron Angle herself, that may no longer be the case. In fact, Reid's most effective tactic for the time being seems to be that of just letting Angle drown in her own political oil spill. So out of touch are most of her positions, the best response is no response. The more she talks, the better Harry Reid looks.

Even if Sharron Angle morphs into something more palatable in time for the November election, my hunch is that she won't be able to hide her true colors, another wing nut will wither away, and Republicans will have to seriously examine whether all the tea they've been drinking is doing them any good.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Turning the Tables

What is it about my face that tells some people, "By all means, share your wisdom with me; tell me why I need a god in my life."

The parking lot outside my favorite coffee shop has long served as a sanctuary, a place where I can enjoy the splendor of a freshly brewed cup of coffee, a little NPR news, and a few moments of precious solitude. There are usually a few others basking in the same setting, each in a world all his own—unencumbered and imperturbable. Or so we thought.

The first time it happened I respectfully interrupted the religious sales pitch the same way I do when those annoying businesses call during dinner to tell you they are not selling anything and just want a few moments of your time: "Thank you very much; I am not interested." [Pleasant stare!] The second time it happened—just a few weeks later—I felt violated. "No, no. That's quite all right. You keep your Jesus magazine to yourself, and do have a nice day." [Not so pleasant stare!] I was beginning to think these people either had a quota or got paid by the soul.

As time went on, my guard instinctively went up whenever someone got a little too close to my car. I promised myself after the last run-in with the God Squad that the next person who approached me with a smile on his face and a book in his hand was going to get an earful. And sure enough, they came for me again.

In the past I had always believed their was no reasoning with these people, that they had their own way of thinking and it was pretty much out there. This time, however, was different. The closer this young man got to me, the more determined I became to turn the tables on him. The conversation went substantially like the following:

Hi. I noticed you sitting in your car by yourself, and I thought you might be interested in something.
—Really? What might that be?
—This magazine which explains how and why God needs and loves everyone.

—That's interesting, but do you mind if I ask you a question?
—Not at all.

—Do you believe in a god?
—Yes, I believe in God. Do you?

—No, I do not, but that's not important.
—Well, actually it is important.

—Sorry to burst your bubble, but trust me - it's not important. May I ask you another question?
—Of course.

—Do you claim to know that your god exists?
—Yes, of course. We know this to be true.

—Okay. Have I got your attention right now?
—May I explain something to you?
—By all means.

—What you have, my friend, is faith. You know nothing. You believe. There is a big difference.
—Let me ask you a question. What is faith?

—Faith is believing in something that the human powers of reason cannot sustain. You are, of course, free to do this, but understand - it defies reason, and by definition, things beyond our ability to reason cannot be known to be true. But beyond all that, do you know why I don't walk up to perfect strangers and tell them about all the wondrous virtues of life as an atheist?

—Because I respect other people. Do you respect me?
—Yes. I respect you.

—Do you respect the rights of others to think as they choose about these things?
—Yes, I do - very much.

—Allow me to disagree. By approaching me for no other reason than to gain my confidence for the purpose of converting me to your personal world view, you have shown me great disrespect. Do you understand this?
—I am very sorry. I did not mean to show any disrespect.

—(Determined to get in the last word) Well, you work on that. I have to get to work now. Remember - respect! Have a nice day.

While the foregoing may not qualify as reasoning with a religious person, it at least shows that having the last word is possible. It felt good telling an arrogant theist to get lost without using those exact words. In the past, whenever I thought better of engaging such an individual—and as much as I may have thought is was the sensible thing to do—it nonetheless felt as though I was squandering an opportunity, an opportunity to inject a little reason and common sense into the encounter.

Having tried the Plan B option for a change, I have to report, it felt like the right thing to do. That it likely fell on deaf ears is not important. Gently asserting one's self in situations like these is dignifying and empowering.

It seems the real difference between my deluded friend and me is that I do indeed respect his right to believe as he chooses; whereas, he apparently does not respect mine. Despite this, there is a mitigating factor diluting his culpability: only the insidious delusion of religious faith has the power to infect an otherwise agreeable and intelligent person to such an extent. The defective reasoning of religious zealots blinds them to their own malfeasance.

With a little luck, I will be spared any further assaults from those who want to save my soul. But if they come for me again, I will be ready.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Joe Scarborough—Constructive Conservative

A recent blog post on (Is Joe Scarborough Out of Touch with Conservative Ascendancy?) questioned whether the host of MSNBC's Morning Joe, former Florida Representative Joe Scarborough, is worthy of the conservative label or is merely cozying up to liberal East Coast media elites in order to sell his own watered down brand of conservative politics. In the ensuing thread of comments, there was both agreement and disagreement with this premise—some informative, some predictable.

As a regular viewer of Morning Joe, my take is that Joe Scarborough is not out of touch with conservatism at all; rather he has chosen to distance himself from the immoderate, rhetorical flame throwers who denigrate political debate. He is consistently conservative—even very conservative—on nearly every major policy issue. Yet he is cast as a kind of traitor to the conservative cause because he won't join in the profanity parade being grand marshaled by El Rushbo, Sarah Palin, Glenn (oligark!) Beck, and other masters of mayhem.

The sad part of this is that a perverse kind of litmus test is being administered by those who have come to believe they speak for the Republican Party. If you don't believe President Obama is out to destroy America, that his citizenship is suspect, that Nancy Pelosi was spawned by Satan, etc., you are simply not "one of us." The GOP is on the brink of being hijacked by demagogues—if it hasn't been already. Mr. Scarborough, on the other hand, understands that the resurgence of the Republican Party lies in its moderating influences and not in its wing nut flank.

Joe Scarborough's biggest contribution to the debates of our day lies in his commitment to civility. As an unapologetic liberal, I disagree strongly with most of his ideas. But I take from him the importance of operating from the premise that honorable debate in politics is infinitely more productive than the dishonorable practice of demonizing one's adversaries with little more than ideological vulgarities.

At this point it concerns me more that the tenor of political discourse be freed from its present state of dysfunction than it does who occupies the White House or holds a majority in Congress. When public debate is debased by intemperate rhetoric, extremists become less marginalized and more willing to offer up their own special brands of poison. That is the danger.

Joe Scarborough is just what the Republican Party needs. His voice lends legitimacy to the conservative cause. Those who disguise their bombastic rants as mere populist banter are the ones who are really out of touch. It just may take a while for them to figure it out.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Confessions of a Farmville Snob

As much as I loved my sister Mary, there was one thing about her that always annoyed me: she was something of a movie snob. If it didn't have subtitles or play at one of those out-of-the-way, artsy-fartsy movie houses, it couldn't have been a very good flick. Yes, Mary was bored by Lord of the Rings, and if she were with us today, I'm sure she would pooh-pooh Avatar as nothing but a teched-up, mindless fantasy without any meaningful characters. But, whether Mary is now lapping it up at that small, trendy Cinéstudio in the sky or has been consigned to the big multiplex down below, one thing is for sure: a bigger movie snob there never was.

The truth is, however, we are all snobs of one kind or another. Some of us are radio snobs, listening only to NPR of course. (Guilty!) Some are food snobs who wouldn't be caught dead consuming anything from a can or box let alone through the car window. And let's not forget the clothing snobs who think anything off the rack at Wal-Mart or Target is for the little people, don't you know.

Which brings me to the sordid image being returned from the mirror these days. Yes, judging by the disdain I have cultivated for those who mindlessly tend to their virtual farms on one of Facebook's most popular gaming apps, it is clear I am much too sophisticated a person to entertain myself with such drivel and have slowly turned into a total Farmville snob!

Could it be I am simply jealous of all the attention my wife gives to Farmville and not to me? Jami dotes on her virtual farm in a way she never dotes on me, meticulously cultivating crops, feeding animals and swapping chores with other Farmville devotees, all the while garnering enough points and prizes to keep her toiling away with no end in sight.

On the surface, Farmville appears to be little more than the codependency relationship from hell; the more friends you have sharing chores and gifts with, the more productive the output of your farm, which entices even more people to become friends, which makes you even more productive, which—well, you get the idea. Jami now has over 200 Farmville "friends" and is now competing with a gamer—who calls herself Monsanto Mindy—to become the most productive virtual landscaper in the farmosphere! I have a recurring nightmare in which these 200 virtual friends turn into real people and start coming over for cookout dinners and farming tips. I usually wake up right about the time the guests start marching toward me with their rakes and shovels a la Night of the Living Dead demanding I join them in tending to their farms.

Why am I above all this? Well for one thing it's much too juvenile in appearance for my taste, the cartoonish imagery seductively luring the child within to enter a world of make-believe and go for the gusto. Aside from the occasional Rocky and Bullwinkle rerun, I have sworn off cartoons, having graduated to more substantive and intelligent matters like trying to decipher Tea Party politics and the intricacies of the latest national disaster. Then there's the constant need to acquire new friends in order to successfully grow your farm. Excuse me but I have enough trouble with the two friends I already have in the real world. I don't need hundreds of strangers begging me to send them some of my virtual corn just so they can feed their virtual cows.

It's plain these people have little else to amuse themselves with. My life, on the other hand, is much too interesting and challenging to have any need for something as tedious as Farmville. I guess I just have to accept the fact that I am too good for Farmville and that—just like commercial radio—it is beneath me.

It's not easy being a snob.