10 Questions for People (Still) Opposed to Marriage Equality Because Jesus

Written By: Godless Mama - Jul• 02•15

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It has been nearly a week since the Supreme Court of the United States declared that marriage equality is a constitutional right in all 50 states.  So far as I can tell the sky has not yet fallen, the mountains have not crumbled into the sea, and the sun has not gone supernova.  And still, that sound we hear is the continued gnashing of teeth and rending of garments of those who are unable to accept that gays are people too – at least as far as the law is concerned – and that the Constitution was not actually plagiarized from Leviticus.  I can’t help but wonder: What is the deal, people?

1. How has your life changed since the Supreme Court legalized same sex marriage?

2. How has your marriage been affected by the ruling?

3. What makes the biblical arguments against same sex marriage different from the biblical arguments against interracial marriage?

4. Do you take biblical prohibitions against left-handedness, adultery, fornication, shellfish, tattoos, or mixed fabrics as seriously as prohibitions against homosexuality? If not, why not?

5. Why, when homosexuality is not mentioned in the 10 commandments and is not one of the 7 deadly sins, does it occupy such a prominent position on the list of sins that you simply cannot abide?

6. Why does a loving commitment between 2 people of the same sex threaten “traditional” marriage more than adultery or divorce among heterosexual couples?

7. Why do you think someone else’s civil rights as an American citizen should be curtailed based on your own personal religious beliefs?

8. Why do you forgive Josh Duggar for molesting little girls when he was a teenager because he says he repented, but you cannot find it in your heart to forgive same sex couples for loving each other and wanting to get married?

9. Why do you think god will punish America for legalizing same sex marriage but you do not think he will punish America for allowing so many children to live in poverty, or for allowing so many to die by gun violence, or by locking so many up in prison, or for the hundreds of thousands of people (including children) who have died in the last 15 years because of the wars we have started, but not finished?

10. In what way is your religious freedom – your liberty to worship, believe, attend church, preach, or pray – infringed by the affirmation that your LGBT neighbors are entitled to the same constitutional protections that you yourself enjoy?

It would be great to get actual answers to these questions that don’t include the words “context” or “interpretation,” although somehow the supernova seems more likely.

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Why the Chapel Hill Shootings Don’t Say Anything About Atheism

Written By: Godless Mama - Feb• 12•15

The murder  of three young Muslims in their apartment in Chapel Hill, NC on Tuesday is an unspeakable tragedy. As a mother, I cannot and do not want to imagine what the victims’ parents must be going through, and my heart aches for them and their dead children. Like many other Americans I also feel an overwhelming sense of sadness and frustration at the plague of gun violence that rages unchecked in our communities, leaving lives shattered and families in ruins. Although at this time there is no evidence to indicate a hate crime, the fact that all three victims were Muslim understandably raises questions, and the police are right to investigate every angle. Also raising eyebrows: Openly atheist posts and materials on the alleged shooter’s Facebook page.

In a display of smug righteousness that in some cases borders on celebration, many are seizing upon the shootings as a victory for religion, a “gotcha” event that finally proves once and for all that atheists are amoral savages who have no conscience without god, or that they are just as willing to kill for their beliefs as anyone else. Aside from the absence of evidence of a religious motive and the fact that gloating over a triple murder is a callous and unseemly thing to do, the folks making this accusation are patently wrong for a number of reasons, the most obvious being that atheism is not a set of beliefs and that most atheists hold all religious belief in the same regard (which is to say, that it is all equally false and, to many of us, all equally harmful).

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An article in today’s The Daily Beast offers a different but no less wrongheaded (or perhaps even more wrongheaded) response, in which the author, Arthur Chu, seems to think that representatives of the so-called New Atheism are to blame for the attack. “We actually got to witness a miracle,” Chu crows, “educated white anti-Muslim atheists having to publicly, ritually denounce extremists in their ranks in response to negative press.” Chu describes the shooter as a “white anti-Muslim” and lashes out at “rationalist skeptics” for inciting the shooting with accusations of white male privilege which he fails to link to atheism in any meaningful way. He brands Christopher Hitchens a “cheerleader” for the Iraq war for having “waxed lyrical about the destructive potential of cluster bombs,” conveniently ignoring the point Hitchens was making about the elimination of Taliban targets with some degree of precision, which he reasonably saw as a sound wartime strategy for the reduction of collateral damage. He was not swooning over the allure of American military power or pumping his fist at the indiscriminate killing of brown-skinned foreigners; rather, his concern was for the safety and liberation of Afghan civilians from the brutal oppression of the Taliban. He similarly mischaracterizes Sam Harris’s thoughts on torture as a tool in the war on terror. Admittedly Harris can be a polarizing figure, including among atheists, but on this too Chu twists the truth. In fact, Harris was asking people to weigh the morality of torturing one undeniably guilty terrorist (such as Osama bin Laden) to avoid warfare that could claim the lives of thousands of innocents, including children, vs. eschewing torture at the risk of increasing collateral damage. While I strongly disagree with Harris on these points, his remarks were hardly a wholesale endorsement of indiscriminate torture of Muslims.  Chu even goes so far as to make the outright false claim that Timothy McVeigh was an atheist, despite McVeigh’s being raised and confirmed as Catholic and reaffirming his Christianity in a 2001 interview with Time Magazine.

We are presumably supposed to conclude from all this that atheists are a dangerous lot, at least as dangerous as those who would kill in the name of their god, and that this crime is a sort of comeuppance – a chance for Chu and others to delight in seeing atheists in the glare of the very scrutiny under which Muslims find themselves following every act of Islamic terrorism.

Let’s set aside for a moment the sub-standard journalism that assumes and disseminates a motive for a crime when the police as of yet have no evidence for such motive. Let’s set aside the entirely plausible assertion that the shooting was likely about parking, something for which the authorities in fact do have evidence. Just last month a Baltimore man was arrested and charged with fatally shooting two people over a parking space, and the news is rife with deadly shootings over similarly petty grievances, including loud parties, texting, and even unfriending someone on Facebook. There have been so many road rage killings that there are too many to link to here. It is therefore no stretch at all to think that this was just about parking. Finally, let’s set aside the fact that Chu seems strangely ignorant of the fact that the most shrill and outspoken criticisms of Islam in the US come not from high-profile atheists but from high– (and low-) profile Christians, not to mention the whole of the right wing media who have spent the last six years screaming about President Obama being a closet Muslim and the eight red-state (read: heavily Christian) legislatures that have passed bans on Sharia law.

What is most striking about Chu’s piece, however, is that he does to atheists the very thing of which he accuses them: Asserting that membership in a particular group is the default motivator for negative or violent behavior, and demanding that the entire group take responsibility for the actions of a single outlier. Chu makes plain his contempt for the atheists who have dared to publicly criticized Islam, many of whom have been (unfairly, in my opinion) branded racists and islamophobes, even though their criticisms of Christianity are equally harsh. “I take a certain gleeful schadenfreude in Richard Dawkins acting surprised and bewildered when he has to answer for the actions of someone who happens to share his belief system,” Chu writes, and then proceeds to lament the outrage that individual Muslims have been expected to – well, answer for the actions of someone who happens to share their belief system. He continues, “If it were repeated several dozen times within the next decade, I might even say that the world was becoming something close to fair.” Wait, what? Chu wants several dozen more people to be murdered so that he can paint all atheists as dangerous extremists? And what is “fair” about wanting to subject group A to the same injustice as group B so that they are both treated poorly?  Doesn’t it make more sense to remedy the treatment of group B so that everyone gets justice?

To be clear, I am absolutely not, in any way, criticizing the families of the Chapel Hill victims if they suspect deeper motives for this tragedy. Grieving parents are allowed to think and say whatever they want, and the only acceptable response from the rest of us is love and compassion. If it does turn out that religion played a role in this crime, then there is no difference between this shooter and any other radical who kills for his beliefs. But if it is unfair to say that unless your Muslim co-worker publicly renounces radical Islamists she must secretly condone them, it is equally wrong to insist that Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, or any other atheist publicly renounce this killer simply for being an atheist. I will continue instead to renounce all killers, no matter what their motives are.  And so should everyone else.

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Ten (More) Reasons Why Christianity Makes No Sense

Written By: Godless Mama - Jan• 19•15

When I published the predecessor to this article a few weeks ago, I received a good deal of feedback – the most frequent comment being something along the lines of, “There are only ten reasons?” Of course, I hadn’t intended it to be a comprehensive list; rather, it was a compilation of the things that I personally find the most perplexing, the basics that I simply can’t get past in order to ask more intellectual questions of ontology and theology. However, many of you raised valid and interesting points, leading me to proceed down my list of biblical things that make me go “hmmmmm.” And so, I present to you ten more things about Christianity that confuse the crap out of me.

1. God could have just forgiven us. If god is omnipotent, he can do whatever he wants for whatever reason – which, in the Old Testament, he pretty much does; the Book of Job proved that following all of god’s rules was no guarantee that he wouldn’t screw you over and murder your family just because he can. Possessed of the power and the will, if he wanted to absolve humanity of its sins, why not just do so? Better yet, why not just make sin disappear altogether, or make humans sin-free in the first place? Giving yourself a son with the express intent of torturing him to death and then resurrecting him as a way to show your mercifulness seems unnecessary at best, and it is certainly not merciful. Making matters worse, even after this gruesome spectacle there are strings attached to god’s so-called forgiveness because you are forgiven only if you accept that Jesus was the son of god – not a slam dunk seeing as how Jesus is as easily interpreted as a nutcase as he is a prophet. True to form, God declines to provide any actual evidence of Jesus’ divinity while simultaneously making his forgiveness contingent upon accepting that premise. The story of the crucifixion in fact strikes me as a lot closer to the story of Job – of mean-spiritedness for its own sake – than a story of love and redemption.
2. Pick a testament already. When confronted with the atrocities of the bible, Christians are quick to point out that it’s just the god of the Old Testament who was vengeful, and that Jesus created a new covenant, and blah blah blah. They then proceed to rail against homosexuality and erect Ten Commandments monuments in capitol buildings and courthouses. There’s either some serious cherry picking or some erroneous theology going on here. Or both.
3. The devil is a thing. An omnipotent, omniscient god would not have any rivals or equals – he’d not only have the power to defeat any enemy, he’d have the ability to simply not create any for himself in the first place. The bible itself says that god is the one who created evil, in which case he deliberately set a trap for humans with the foreknowledge that many of us would become ensnared, both by the evil tendencies with which he endowed us, and by the collateral damage such individuals create. God either created everything or he didn’t; he either knows all or he doesn’t. If he did and he does, then it is god who is in fact responsible for evil, and Satan is just god’s scapegoat. If he didn’t and he doesn’t, he isn’t much of a god.
4. And speaking of the devil, what’s the deal with hell? “Here is a list of things to never do. If you do any of them, you will be tortured in a pit of fire for all eternity where your organs will be slowly ripped out and eaten by jackals and your eyes pecked out by crows. Unless you grovel to me at the very last possible moment before death, in which case I’ll forgive you for doing the things I forbade you to do under penalty of eternal torment. Actually never mind, just do whatever as long as you don’t skip the groveling part. And make sure you believe in me – like, really, seriously believe, ‘cause that’s where I draw the line. I mean, a deity has to have his pride, right? So list-schmist, just be sure you suck up to me. Or I’ll burn your ass. Forever. Oh, and have I told you lately how much I love you?”

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5. Free will isn’t free. Other than the devil, Christians’ favorite rationalization of the ubiquitous evil and suffering in the world is free will. “He gives us a choice to accept him or not. If you choose not to accept him, then you are the one choosing to be evil / go to hell / condemn yourself / damn all of humanity.” Set aside for a moment that an omniscient and omnipotent god would already know who is and is not going to accept him because he is the one who decided for each of us whether we would or not. Set aside the questionable utility of creating people who are already doomed to hell before they are even born. Set aside the questions of disease and natural disaster, which are not brought about by human acts of will. Let’s say for the sake of argument that Adam Lanza, for instance, slaughtered 27 people including 20 little children simply because he was exercising the free will that god gave him. How does that absolve god of any responsibility? Sure, you could say that god didn’t make the murderer do what he did because the murderer had free will, but you can’t say god didn’t stand idly by and let it happen even though he had the power to stop it. If the price of free will is that it can be misused by some to inflict terrifying, painful, violent deaths on innocent children, and that is a price that god is willing to pay, what’s that say about your god?
6. The bible requires interpretation. If the bible is the word of god and if the New Testament is the holy scripture upon which Christianity is based, then that should pretty much seal the deal in terms of what Christianity is all about. “Here’s what god told us to do, now let’s go do it.” Except it hasn’t quite worked out that way, as evidenced by the thousands of sects of Christianity, and the millions of people who vaguely identify as “Christian” in spite of their rejection of the vast majority of what is written in their own scripture. Even more perplexing are Christian claims of bible passages being taken out of context or being allegorical. Conveniently, the parts that Christians often claim are allegorical are the parts that make god look like less than a wonderful, loving father figure, while the parts they claim are literal truth are the ones that resonate – surprise! – with their already closely held biases and beliefs. Intellectual honesty, however, requires that the bible is either all true, or all allegory. If it is all true, then Christians must embrace all of it, including the parts that are unflattering to their lord and savior. If it is all allegory, then there are as many ways of being Christian as there are humans on the planet. Many of us shake our heads at fundamentalists like Ray Comfort and Ken Ham, but in truth, by taking a consistent approach to their interpretation of the bible as a whole, they are more intellectually honest than so-called moderate Christians, who may be more reasonable but are the most egregious cherry-pickers.
7. You have a personal relationship with who? How do you have a “personal relationship” with a man who has been dead for 2,000 years? When you say you “love” Jesus, what emotion is it that you are experiencing given that you have never seen him, spoken with him, or even read his own words? Stranger still, what exactly are you feeling when you say that he loves you back? How is a personal relationship with Jesus different from a personal relationship with Elvis? At least I can look at photographs and films of Elvis and listen to his voice; I can objectively and scientifically prove that he existed, view artifacts that he owned or created, read things that he wrote, and talk to people who knew him when he was alive. From this perspective, a personal relationship with him is by far the more rational one.
8. It’s not fundamentally different from any other mythology. Powerful supernatural being creates world, invents humans, controls nature, lays down rules, arbitrarily disregards own rules, punishes humans for breaking rules, becomes irate at insufficient sycophancy, condemns bad sycophants in heinous ways, rewards good ones in this life or the next or both. Some of the finer details may change, but the basic story arc is more or less the same across the board. Given the overwhelming similarities and the fact that they all have precisely the same amount of evidence to support their truth – which is to say none – it is unclear to me why any one of them can claim to be more legitimate than any other.
9. Explain the holocaust. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
10. Take a look around. Imagine how great the world would be if an omnipotent and omnibenevolent god had made it so that people were kind to each other and behaved responsibly. No one would starve; children wouldn’t get raped or orphaned by war; animals wouldn’t get tortured for sport; natural resources wouldn’t be destroyed and depleted; no one would be homeless or exploited or otherwise suffer at the hands of fellow humans. Creating a world where your children can be happy and fulfilled, where they will never suffer or cause suffering, would be as effortless to such an entity as breathing, and would be the most loving gift any parent could bestow. The god of Christianity, on the other hand, decided to pack humans chock full of selfishness and bad intentions and then stand back and watch thousands years of war, violence, and other mischief unfold while simultaneously reserving his ability to intervene to occasional appearances on toast.  Well, okay, in fairness sometimes he appears in mold too.

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Ten Reasons Why Christianity Makes No Sense

Written By: Godless Mama - Dec• 28•14

When I discovered the online atheist community a few years ago, one of the things that astounded and humbled me the most was the scholarliness of so many activist atheists. I had never before been in the company of so many people so versed in scripture, so skilled in the arts of rhetoric and argumentation, so keen to identifying and deconstructing logical fallacies. I’m not going to lie: It’s often been intimidating to be surrounded by people whose expertise in such things is so far beyond my own, comparatively unsophisticated approach. But as time passes and I learn more and more about these subjects, I find that my basic issues with religion in general, and Christianity in particular, have not evolved to more abstract ontological questions, but have rather crystallized my inability to reconcile even the most basic and fundamental principles of Christian faith.

1. Jesus didn’t die. Christians are always going on about how Jesus died for our sins, but if he came back 3 days later then he didn’t die at all; more like being in a brief coma, which is a drag, but not exactly the ultimate sacrifice that the crucifixion is cracked up to be. And it wasn’t just his spirit that departed to heaven, but his actual physical being. If you go dig up a 3-day old grave, regardless of what you think may have happened to that person’s immortal soul, there’s still going to be a body in it. Jesus’ tomb, on the other hand, was empty, meaning that following his resurrection he was either a zombie or he was fully alive, neither of which is dead. Even more relevant is that when he was hanging there on the cross, Jesus knew that he was going to come back. He didn’t have to endure the fear of death that any other human being would have had to face or the uncertainty that presumably afflicts all but the most devout at the moment of death about whether there really was going to be an afterlife, or if this was lights out for good. Yes, he probably suffered physically, but he knew that death would be no more than a long nap and then he’d be up and at ‘em again. In short, he didn’t die.
2. Jesus didn’t have faith. Jesus was always rolling his eyes and scolding his disciples for not having enough faith. There are many verses to be found in the New Testament in which Jesus says some variation of, “Don’t trust your senses, don’t look for evidence, just accept it because I said so.” But if Jesus was the son of god, then faith wasn’t something he needed – he knew god and heaven were real because that’s where he came from, no faith required. How fair is it to command the rest of the world to believe something on faith alone, threatening eternal punishment to any who don’t believe it, when you yourself have no faith and all the evidence?
3. Jesus didn’t take away my sins. Or did he? I am no logician, but if Jesus died to take away the sins of humanity, then doesn’t that mean that once he was crucified there was no longer any such thing as sin? If his “death” was the absolution of the human race, which we are told it was, why do I still have to do what the bible says, or go to church, or even believe? Aren’t I already saved by his “sacrifice?” And if I am not, and there are still rules to follow and sins that could keep me out of heaven, then what exactly was the point?
4. Jesus wasn’t a very nice guy. American Christians talk a lot about so-called family values, but that concept doesn’t have much, if any, basis in the actual story of Christ. Jesus demanded that his disciples abandon their families and save all of their devotion for him and him alone – a rather narcissistic and not particularly family-centric expectation. Aside from seeming to be in direct contradiction to the commandment about honoring thy mother and father, abandoning spouses and children, while not against any commandments, still seems like a douchey thing to do, even 2,000 years ago.
5. Jesus’ dad was really not a nice guy. We all know that the bible is full of rape, murder, genocide, slavery, and every manner of atrocity – and not in a, “This is what our enemies do so don’t be like them” way, but in a “As long as you are one of mine, have at it” way. Then Jesus showed up and said, more or less, that the old laws still applied, and he wasn’t about to change them. Yes, he was willing to call out hypocrisy, and he did seem to care somewhat about social justice – at least with regard to poverty and leprosy – but otherwise he was still the enforcer of some rather distasteful rules. And don’t even get me started on Jesus being his own father – a concept that, in addition to making no sense, makes Jesus himself the very same god of the Old Testament that Christians like to dismiss as no longer relevant (except when it comes to hating gays).

Prayer

6. Prayer is contradictory. We are told that god has a plan for everything, but then we are told to pray – for our loved ones to get better when they fall ill, for safety in the storm, for the home team to win the big game. Does that mean god will change his plan if you pray hard enough, or the right way, or get enough other people to pray for the same thing? At the very least this seems to suggest he doesn’t really have much of a plan if he’s willing to modify it based on popular opinion or for those who ingratiate themselves to him, not to mention that it’s a rather arbitrary, if not capricious, approach to human suffering. Further, people often say they pray for things like inner peace, strength, understanding, the solution to personal problems, etc. I don’t pray, but I do a lot of introspection in search of those same things, and then I do either what my conscience tells me is right or what my objectivity tells me has the best chance for the desired outcome. I suspect that people who pray end up doing more or less the same thing but attributing their conclusion to an outside agency. If that is the case, how can they explain that atheists (or members of other religions) can get to the same place with no (or a different) agent? And how strange is it, anyway, to carve out your conscience, that innermost part of yourself, the very core of what makes you you, and say it isn’t you?
7. The bible doesn’t set the moral bar very high. Let’s face it: Don’t rape people, don’t own people, don’t hate people, and don’t hurt children are kind of no-brainers when it comes to morality. Our friend Jesus and his old man not only failed to make these things clear, but in many instances they encouraged, condoned, or commanded them. Sure, Jesus said a few things about loving your neighbor and being kind to strangers, but he also said that not believing in him was the worst offense a person could commit and that anyone who didn’t believe would burn in Hell for all eternity. And seriously, the Ten Commandments as a basis for all morality? Checking out your neighbor’s wife is worse than raping his daughter? Taking the lord’s name in vain is worse than owning slaves? Nice priorities. Add to this the fact that god himself does not follow his own rules, to which Christians respond that mere mortals cannot understand or judge the morality of god. But if the bible defines morality, and god has a different set of rules for himself than for humans, and we are not allowed to know or understand his rules except that we are expected to do as he says but not as he does, then how exactly does that provide any kind of moral baseline whatsoever?
8. Christian love is not very loving. We hear a lot about Jesus’ love and god’s love, and how god so loved the world that he gave his only son, yada yada yada. We already covered the part about him not really giving up his son, and enough has been said by people smarter than I am about the questionable necessity of having a baby, leaving him be for 30 years, torturing him to death, and then bringing him back to life a few days later as a way of forgiving humanity instead of – oh, I don’t know, just saying “I forgive you.” We covered too that this supposed forgiveness isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on if I’m still considered a sinner and an apostate and bound for hell for not believing. But if we set that part of the contradiction aside, how loosely are we defining love if we are applying it to the bible? “I love you so much that I will torture and murder my own son as a symbol of something I could just give you without the bloodbath. I love you so much that I will reward you with an eternity in heaven, but you have to suffer and die in this world first. Salvation is yours, so long as you swear your devotion to me and only me. And believe what I say even if it sounds like nonsense because I told you to. And admit that deep down you are a rotten piece of garbage who doesn’t really deserve my love. And if you don’t do all of these things you will burn in a lake of fire for all eternity. But seriously, I love you.”
9. Terrible things happen to good people. A quarter of a million people died in the tsunami of 2006. Twenty first graders and six adults were slaughtered at Sandy Hook. People die of starvation, are killed by war and disease, are raped or beaten by people who have power over them, and suffer in countless other ways. If there is an omniscient, omnipotent god who is also loving, as Christians would have us believe, why do these things happen? Why do children suffer and die? Why are there droughts and floods and famines and pestilences and earthquakes and wars? Why couldn’t god just make people nice? Why create natural disasters? Why didn’t he set forth better, clearer rules to eliminate ambiguity about how we are supposed to treat each other? God either intervenes or he doesn’t; god is either omnipotent or he isn’t. If he does and he is, then suffering exists because god intends for it to be that way. If he doesn’t and he isn’t, then he isn’t in control of anything, including the minutiae of how we live our daily lives. How is either a god worth worshipping?
10. It’s all just way too convenient. Got what you prayed for? He answered your prayers. Praise Jesus! Didn’t get it? He has another plan. Praise Jesus! Don’t have the answers? You’re not meant to. Praise Jesus! Figured out the answer? He chose you. Praise Jesus! Sad about the deaths of your loved ones? They’re in a better place. Praise Jesus! Sad about how much your life sucks? You’ll be happy once you’re dead. Praise Jesus! Honestly, when the answer to every question is exactly the thing that makes you feel best / most comforted / least in need of using your own intellect, should that not send up a huge red flag that maybe you’re not being completely objective?

These are not overtly intellectual, clever, or even particularly insightful observations, nor am I the first person to make them. But as someone who has lived an entire life without religion, the exercises of engaging apologists, philosophizing, or running ontological obstacle courses seem – perhaps naively, but seem nonetheless – to be almost beside the point when the most basic premises of religious belief are so deeply flawed. These irreconcilable contradictions explain a lot about why religious indoctrination is necessary at a very young age, and sadly, they explain a lot about why the world is in the sorry state it is: Because they make people adept at rationalizing the irrational, believing the unlikely, and justifying the immoral.

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God’s Plan

Written By: Godless Mama - May• 01•14

A close friend of mine recently lost her thirteen-year-old son to cancer.  He was a bright, creative, inquisitive, witty, beautiful boy who was like his mother in nearly every regard, from his looks to his talents to his sense of humor.  The world suffered a terrible loss with his passing.

At the wake I spoke to my friend’s devoutly Catholic parents.  Her father explained how difficult it had been to diagnose the boy, how his cancer hadn’t responded the way that form typically does, and how the child had been plagued with strange symptoms that the doctors hadn’t seen before, so they didn’t know if they were related to the cancer or not.  They did an autopsy on the boy to determine whether it was the primary cancer or these other symptoms that in fact ended his life, and to learn more about why this particular illness behaved differently.

“That to me is god’s plan,” the grandfather said.  “I think this boy is going to open up a new chapter in cancer research, and lead to new breakthroughs.  That is god’s plan.”  He paused and then added, sadly, “I have to think that, because otherwise it’s for nothing.  It’s just a wasted death.”

This remark struck me as nothing short of astonishing.  Here was this deeply religious and pious man struggling, in that very moment, with the most painful confrontation with his own cognitive dissonance.  By his own admission, the only way he could reconcile his belief in a loving god with the unspeakable suffering his grandson had endured was to seek an obscure and tenuous connection to some possible benefit in the distant future.  “It has to be that, because otherwise it’s meaningless . . . And god wouldn’t have done this if it was meaningless . . . would he?”

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Of course, the grandparents went on to talk about how certain they were that the boy is in heaven now, and that rather than praying for him they were asking him to pray for them, so that they too could go to heaven when they die to be with him again.  It was clear that this idea gave them some comfort, although I could not help wondering whether there was now a seed of doubt in this as well.  “He is gone, but I will see him again someday because he was a good boy and I have been a good catholic, and god wouldn’t have done this if we weren’t going to be together again . . . would he?”

As strange – and in some cases, borderline cruel – as the practices of organized religion can be with respect to death and mourning, I in no way wish to rob these people of the one thing that seems to be giving them solace in a time of bereavement which most of the rest of us can never imagine even if we wanted to.  But it is telling in the most fundamental way that even the most fervent believers in effect admit, in times of greatest sorrow, that the promises of their faith do not compute with the starkness of their reality.

For my part, understanding that there is no god and that as tragic and terrible as this boy’s suffering was, it was not scripted to serve any greater purpose, are much less painful than the crisis of faith of the bereaved believer.  They still must grieve for their lost loved one, and while they may look forward to being together again in the afterlife, they also carry the burden of trying to figure out why god allowed it to happen, what was his plan, could it have been prevented if they had lived a more pious life, and so on.  It is another reason why I am grateful for my atheism; life is filled with hardships we cannot avoid – of crosses to bear, as it were – so there is relief, and perhaps some wisdom, in not picking one up that you don’t have to.

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Did God Invent the Grass?

Written By: Godless Mama - Apr• 14•14

A while back I was smugly congratulating myself on a few choice victories in the secular parenting arena.  First was my 5-year-old daughter’s emerging and devoted love of science.  She is keenly interested in how all things work, what they are made of, what will happen when this or that is added or taken away, if it’s alive, and so on.  Being socially fearless, she enjoys nothing more than telling anyone who will listen, including strangers at the supermarket, that the sun is a star, the moon is just a big rock, and that lava in volcanoes is really rock that is so hot it melted.  We grow crystals, hatch “living fossil” triops (tadpole shrimp), create underwater volcanoes with cooking oil and baking soda, look at leaves and insects under a microscope, read books about dinosaurs, and collect rocks.  I will admit a selfish interest in this, as I enjoy these activities at least as much as she does – the triops in particular, whom she affectionately named Milo, was way cool and, for his brief lifespan, was featured regularly in videos on FaceBook.

Next was the habit my daughter has developed of fact-checking her father and me.  We say something that is silly but has a small air of plausibility, as parents are wont to do – something like, “If you don’t wash behind your ears dirt will collect there and you can grow vegetables.”  A beat passes, the eyes narrow, and she asks, “Are you kidding?”  The development and refinement of an effective BS detector is yet another source of pride, not to mention an asset that will come in handy to her for many years to come.

Then there was the incident with my mother-in-law, a self-described Christian, who mentioned our late family dog who was euthanized following a long battle with cancer.  “He died,” my daughter explained helpfully.

“And is he in heaven?” asked my mother-in-law.

In a turn of conversation very likely unexpected by her Nana, my daughter, with a tone and a look of discernable disgust, answered, “No, he died.” She didn’t actually say “Duh,” but it was pretty much implied.  Luckily I escaped the room before laughing out loud.

So there I was, happily patting myself on the back for raising a skeptic without ever mentioning my own beliefs or disbeliefs.  “This is easy,” I thought.  “All that is required to raise an atheist is the absence of religion.”

Enter other humans.

About a month ago, in the car following a play date, she and a little friend were discussing what good inventors they are, when one of them made the astute observation that pretty much everything we use and everything around us was invented at some point, “Except for the grass,” my daughter noted.

“No,” her friend answered, “god invented the grass.”  Insert sound of Mommy’s heart sinking.

My daughter took a moment to process this then asked, “How can he invent grass?”

“Because he’s god,” the friend answered, without hesitation or additional explanation.

blue_sky_green_grass-wide

I know, I know, there are lots and lots of people in the world, and eventually one of them is going to say something about god in front of my kid.  And I know she has no context for what that means, so it may not even register with her, just like the “under god” phrase in the Pledge of Allegiance never registered with me when I was a kid.  And yes, she is a critical thinker and a smart child.  But still, she is also only five, and at least at this age seems less inclined to fact check her friends than she is her parents.  We live in a state that is consistently rated one of the least religious in the nation, but in a small community labels and stigmas can stick, and while I will happily embrace any stigma that may arise from being an atheist for myself, I am uncertain whether or how her happy ignorance about church and Jesus will reflect on her or affect her own experience.

In the long term, I see atheism – or at least an upbringing free of religious dogma – as a powerful and meaningful gift that I am giving to my child that will far outweigh any small-minded snarkiness she may encounter from classmates.  My concern for her social well-being does not cause me to question my choice to raise her in a godless house, but it does present a potential future challenge to be navigated, for which I will need to have a strategy.  And part of that strategy is to continue doing all I can to instill in her a sense of skepticism and, even more so, a sense of self that is strong enough to endure the tests to which individuals and institutions will inevitably put her.

A few days after the aforementioned playdate, my daughter asked me, “Did God invent the grass?”

“Some people think so,” I said.

My daughter persisted.  “But did he?”

“Your friend thinks so,” I said.  And then, cautiously, I added, “But I don’t think so.”

She considered this.  “Then who invented the grass?”

“Well,” I said, “Science tells us that the grass evolved over a long, long time.  Things happened in nature to make it grow.”

And then off she went, on to the next curiosity, the next set of questions and things to learn.  She hasn’t asked about god’s inventions since then.  I think I’ll take the point for myself for this one too.

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The War on Atheists (and the World)

Written By: Sharky Byte - Mar• 14•14

I am finding a common theme among the fundamentalists in online discussion groups and it involves a argumentation style known as reductio ad absurdum. This argumentation is aimed at atheists in projections, epithets, insults, and used as justification for the poor treatment of atheists in general. Here is what I see:

Atheists are able to make sense of their lives using observations of the natural world. I am sure most atheists would agree. This is not to say that all of our observations are the same, but being as we atheists do not invoke magic to find answers about our world and ourselves, we must stick to what is observable using our senses. Using empiricism. The scientific method is the most well-developed product of empiricism. The scientific method does not permit a priori knowledge, intuition, or revelation. And so in this sense, science is immune to the effects of faith-based knowledge including supernatural claims. Science works whether we accept or reject the notion of there being a God, for example.

Because atheists generally accept the fruits of science to help them to understand our world, it follows that most atheists would reject explanations which require those things which science excludes such as a priori knowledge, intuition, and revelation. And especially that which is outside the realm of the natural world – the supernatural. For none of these things can be observed. That is to say, none of these things can be tested. Because most atheists reject the supernatural, people who accept the supernatural have a hard time understanding what it is atheists do think. And those people who accept the supernatural and concern themselves with atheists the most are theists.

Many theists, about 53% according to the most recent polls in the U.S., agree with the scientific explanation for the diversity of life on our planet. The other 47% either have no position on evolutionary biology or believe special creation is to credit for the diversity of life on our planet. Special creation means that the different species of life were created in their present form quite recently with only small variation appearing since the creation event. Evolutionary biology is a scientific explanation and special creation is a supernatural explanation. Because these ideas differ so much, there is quite a fuss over which idea is correct. Those who strongly adhere to creationism are fundamentalists.

On the science side, we have many fruits of our understanding of evolutionary biology which give rise to great promise for medicine, energy, food, and even the potential of growing very specialized raw materials. We are only limited by our imaginations. For example, through genetic engineering, we may be able to engineer life in such a way as to grow human habitats, fully formed, with unprecedented durability and natural insulation. Just move in your appliances and furniture and surfaces. Currently, scientists are working on genetically engineered bacteria that produce high octane fuel. The potential for genetic engineering is nearly unlimited.

On the creationist side, we see an explanation but no predictions which are not also supernatural. With special creation, life on this planet is divided between the ruler of the world, “mankind,” and the plants and animals placed here for his use (the other “kinds”). We are to take this world as-is and use the resources during a temporary stay that will be marked by a series of terrible human disasters which ultimately destroys the world so that the creator can create it again anew. And only those who believe these supernatural explanations are allowed to be a part of the newly rebuilt world. All the others will be excluded.

End_of_the_World_as_we_know_it

I can see why those on the side of supernatural explanations might be very afraid of those on the side of scientific explanations. On the science side, we see a very interesting future full of solutions and cures and prosperity using science. On the supernatural side, we see destruction and division of the human race. To the point of excluding one group entirely. If I were a creationist, I would be very concerned about the scientists making life better and undermining the final destruction required for the supernatural renewal. I would not want the world to be a happy place with people finding peace and prosperity. This goes against everything my beliefs predict. Also, I want all of this to happen in my own lifetime. Destruction needs to happen very soon.

But why would anyone want to choose destruction over prosperity? Well, if you were afraid to die and so therefore created an image of an afterlife, what would this afterlife be if there was no way to do something with it. So what they plan to do with this afterlife is to be reborn again on a new cleansed and perfect world with all their friends. It would not be paradise, after all, with their enemies there too. And so all the enemies must be killed and their afterlife essence sent somewhere else. Who are these enemies? The enemies are people who think differently. People like me.

So what to do? Well, if I were on the side of superstition, one way to ensure that my superstitions come to fruition is to create conflict. Conflict gives rise to war, war gives rise to destruction. Destruction gives rise to the end times that ultimately result in the best times – the New Perfect World. To do this, I must find ways to discredit science. And I must discredit those people who most closely adhere to science: atheists. All of these things are being done in the media, in congregations, and online in groups like this. There is an active campaign to vilify atheists and to put science into question.

So how do they put science into question?

Science is an easy target. Science doesn’t claim to have all the answers. And the process of scientific progress is… well… making PROGRESS. In other words, science has to start with what we know and we start with very little. And so our early conclusions are inevitably replaced with better ideas as we learn more. What this leaves behind is a history of some fairly ridiculous early conclusions. And this gives the fundamentalists fodder for their smear campaigns. For example, things like fake bones planted by scientists who wanted sensationalism and which were discovered to be fake by other scientists are used by fundamentalists to smear all scientists. They falsely teach their followers that there is this thing called “science” which is a single entity that makes all decisions and wants to trick the public. It is essentially a conspiracy theory. They also use the word “scientism” to give the impression that science is like a religion for scientists and people who appreciate science.

What fundamentalists don’t want people to know is that science is a group of people all working to disprove each other’s ideas. Punching holes in ideas is precisely how science works. Scientists don’t all hate each other. They do respect each other’s efforts. But they cannot allow bad information through or it could impede scientific progress. One bad idea can taint many different scientific disciplines at once. And this is very time-consuming and very expensive to clean up. Scientists work with limited budgets. They cannot afford for bad info to burn those budgets up. The scientific process of submitting scientific papers for peer review is essential to scientific progress for this reason. This way, other scientists who might also be doing the same or similar research can chime in with their approval or disapproval.

But the fundamentalists want it both ways. They want to disprove science while simultaneously claiming to DO SCIENCE! The Discovery Institute is a political think tank that came up with the Wedge Strategy which proposed to use the legal system to push creationism into schools as a competing “theory” to evolutionary biology. The sharp part of the wedge is the legal side. The wide part of the wedge is the “science.” So in order for the wedge to work, they need to create an illusion of doing science. And so the Discovery Institute publishes paper after paper to their website to help give other fundamentalists the illusion of doing science while not publishing one single paper to a scientific journal for peer review. They are giving an illusion of doing science while remaining comfortably outside of the scrutiny of the scientific community at large. They send out scientific sounding newsletters and have put up scientific sounding websites like EvolutionNews.org. As the title implies, they are giving “news” about evolution. Although this news is about how evolution is false. Nice trick. And this is what we get from this camp: lots of tricks. Including the magic trick of creation itself.

So how do they discredit atheists?

Well, first of all, you have to find some way to lump atheists all into one group. Atheism is not a religion or a club or even a shared world view. It’s just a position. What fundamentalists are doing is to try and establish that atheists all think the same way and that “atheism” is responsible for all the bad things in the world. When this fails – because it’s not true – they attempt to establish that a lack in a belief of God inevitable leads to certain undesirable world views – like nihilism. Nihilism is the view that life is without objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value. Moral nihilism is the view that morals do not exist. In extreme cases, nihilism claims that reality does not exist.

The atheist-to-nihilism myth is where we get the the reductio ad absurdum argumentation. Reductio ad absurdum in the case of atheism-to-nihilism is the attempt demonstrate that the statement “God is not real” is false because rejecting God inevitably leads to an undesirable outcome which the fundamentalists claim is an adherence to nihilistic world views. To get there, fundamentalists attempt to use the atheist’s adherence to science and rejection of the supernatural to establish an adherence to naturalism. And they attempt to use the atheist’s rejection of the supernatural to claim a rejection of the metaphysical to establish an adherence to “materialism.” Note that fundamentalists are referring to methodological materialism. Methodological Materialism is a view that excludes the immaterial and questions the value of thought and emotion which are immaterial things. Naturalism is the view that only the natural world exists. The fact is that there are atheists who are indeed naturalists and/or materialists. But very few are methodological materialists. They are mostly metaphysical materialists. The fundamentalists just use the word “materialist” so they can sneak in the methodological brand, thereby ignoring the fact that metaphysical materialism does take into account thought and emotion. And there are also atheists who are neither naturalists or materialists. So the first problem is the problem of category error. The fundamentalists cannot put atheists into a category other than those who don’t believe in deities. Not all atheists think the same things. The second problem is that an adherence to naturalism and/or both forms of materialism does not necessarily result in adherence to nihilism.

I am a naturalist, a metaphysical materialist (light) and a humanist. I agree with much of metaphysical materialism as I am aware of the metaphysical element of thought and emotion which I see as a manifestation of the material. This does not lead to nihilism. I see my body and my mind as parts of the same being. One does not exist without the other. Because I seek the impetus of life and thought and have found it to be rooted in matter, does not make life or thought any less significant. We are made of matter and that matter at its molecular level does not have emotion although clearly matter can be assembled is such a way as to facilitate emotion. We are all proof of that. I find this notion of “all we are is molecules” to be insulting. Do we say “all this diamond is is molecules” and reduce its value to nothing? Do we say “all this money is is paper” and reduce its value to nothing? No. We do not. We also don’t say that all we are is matter and devalue human or other life. At least the vast majority of us don’t. I think and therefore I am holds true for me. Although I also think about WHAT I am and not just WHO I am. I can recognize the fact that I am a collection of material things that produces immaterial things and not lose sight of my mind and my emotions just by knowing this. In fact, the thought of being the universe contemplating itself brings me great emotional satisfaction. Possibly no different than a theist contemplating their God.

In your quest to ruin another group of people for the sake of preserving a fictional utopia, you fundamentalists are being exposed time after time for your acts of aggression. Instead of agreeing to work together to make the world a better place, you would rather see those who expose your myths silenced so you can live a lie and eventually destroy all life on our planet if your dogma is to ever come to fruition. No matter if you are wrong and there is no new utopia afterwards, you are willing to take this chance with the lives of everyone and everything. And for this reason, you are more than likely the number one threat to life on this planet. Of all the forces which caused mass extinctions in our planet’s history, we now face the grim reality that the next one may be caused by life itself. But before you get your chance, there are people like me and many others who will risk everything to stop you. We are the people who care about other people and all life on this beautiful blue dot we call home. Yes… the very people you say are so evil are the best hope for true salvation from the dangerous superstitions which continue to plague human thought and ultimately threatens our very existence.

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Dangerous Laws “Protecting the Religious” Are Not About Religion

Written By: Sharky Byte - Feb• 21•14

Arizona is in the news once again for its intolerant legislators’ penchant for seeking to legally oppress others and thereby appease their zealot constituents.  As history has shown, it’s never a good idea to allow bigotry and hate to run amok in politics. The result of the immigration-crackdown law, SB 1070, in 2010, for example, was dismal with businesses refusing to do business with Arizona. It was not only harmful to immigrants, it was harmful to the Arizona economy. Now we have another dangerous bill, Senate Bill 1062, which was passed in the Senate by a 17-13 party-line vote. This bill seeks to do little more than to allow people to discriminate by refusing to do business with other people who do not share the business owners’ own personal religious convictions. The examples given are the refusal of businesses run by people with religious convictions to serve gays. Or the refusal to serve people of differing faiths like Muslims, or no faith at all like atheists. Arizona is essentially seeking to legalize discrimination. And the rationale behind it is purely religious. Or is it?

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I am not religious myself, but I do have friends who are very devoutly religious who would never dream of discriminating against me for being an atheist or against others for being gay. So by whose interpretation of any given religion are we basing these laws that claim to be protecting the right of the religious to live in accordance with their religion? It would seem to me that anything goes. I can claim a religion of my own and say that any people that bother me or disturb me or don’t fit my picture of “righteous” are threatening my religious freedoms by simply being around me. So by referencing this law, I can essentially incorporate my own personal prejudices and hate into part of my “religion” for the sake of LEGALLY actively discriminating against others in public. I, along with others, can turn my community into a virtual minefield of hate for certain other people who are so unfortunate to step into it. Wow!

So then how does religion actually play a part in this? If I were to enter into a civil case for being discriminated against in Arizona under this new bill, how would the religious person I am suing for discrimination prove that the threat to them from me – the reason they refused to sell to me or serve me – was religious and not just a personal hatred for people like me? Would they cite verse? Is the courtroom now going to become the place where we decide how to interpret scripture? And given the breadth of ancient taboo, what CANNOT be interpreted as a threat to “religious freedoms?” What I see here is not an effort to protect religious freedoms. The U.S. Constitution already does that. What I see is an attempt to legalize hatred in public and in practice. This latest embarrassment in Arizona  is not a bill for protecting religious freedoms. It is hateful people hiding behind their religions in order to justify – and in this extreme case PRACTICE –  their hatred through legally sanctioned discrimination. Shame on the people of Arizona for allowing such open and blatant hatred in America!

What I would like to see is ONE SINGLE CHRISTIAN get on the news and explain that this is not what they believe their religion to mean and it seems more like a matter of hate than a matter of religion. Where are these Christians?

 

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Hawaiian Vacation

Written By: Sharky Byte - Feb• 10•14

While cooking my son and his friends breakfast burritos this morning, a few things began to trouble me. I started to think about the arguments of creationists a few nights before in a live debate questioning the viability of Young Earth Creationism (YEC) and how these creationists are attempting to pit an unchanging collection of writings penned thousands of years ago with that which continues to be written as we speak. How can we possibly have a debate between a finite fixed declaration and a living growing testament?

To say that the Earth’s history is determined by the writing in a book is simply absurd. This history is determined in countless ways that we experience every day through observation. Earth’s history is not what writers say it is. It is what everything around us says it is. For writers to have any impact, they are simply confirming that which is evident. Like Pliny the Younger’s contemporary account of the eruption of Vesuvius. Even absent such account, scientists can conclude based on the remains in Pompeii and Herculaneum what actually happened. Of course literary history concerning specific human events does require us having recorded it. But this is not the kind of history in question here. This historical argument made by creationists is concerning the natural world and those things which happened in history long before humans began to record it.

First let’s make clear that there is no such thing as “historical science” and “observational science” in the context of geology. They are one and the same. You can’t examine a rock or a geological formation in any meaningful way without also considering when it was formed. The claim that they are separate was made in bad faith during that same creationist spectacle at the Creation Museum. More specifically, it was a debate between a creationist and founder of the “museum,” Ken Ham, who mostly impresses upon children his creationists ideologies, and a popular science advocate, Bill Nye (“the science guy”) who teaches kids of all ages about science. The claim that observation and history is separate is also the common mantra throughout all of the children’s educational materials sold by Ken Ham at his amusement park and his website. Children are taught in  creationist books and videos produced by Ken Ham to respond to scientific claims with “were you there?” as a way to negate scientific claims concerning any past event. His goal – as was made very clear in the debate and all appearances afterwards – is to establish science as being broken into “observational science” and “historical science.” And he does this without consulting any scientists which are not also creationists.

In the real world, history is the FRUIT of observation. Only through observing the world as it is can we know how it was. The past is not an illusion. It leaves itself everywhere. And we use it every day of our lives. We eat the past; we breath the past; we see the past; and we ARE the past. Our very genetics are a part of Earth’s history.

 

Hawaiian Island Chain

Hawaiian Island Chain

 

To better illustrate how history is observable, let us use the Hawaiian archipelago as an example. We will start with the NW most island called Kure Island. It is observably the oldest island of the chain. Other remnants of islands before Kure do exist further NW but they are submerged and no longer technically islands.

What can we describe about Kure through observation?

  • There is no volcanic activity on Kure
  • The island is much smaller than other Hawaiian islands
  • The island has far more erosion than the other Hawaiian islands.
  • The island is covered by a coral reef that took over as erosion nearly removed the island (it is an atoll rather than an island for this reason)
  • The island will eventually join the other islands to the NW which have since become sea mounts (underwater islands)

Kure Island’s younger sister to the SE, Midway Island, is an estimated 28 million years old. Kure is undoubtedly older.

The Hawaiian archipelago was formed by the Pacific (tectonic) plate shifting NW over a “hot spot” in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The hot spot is “fixed” as it extends into the Earth below the tectonic plate. As the plate shifted over the hot spot, it erupted several times, breaking through the plate and forming volcanoes. This happened over a very long span of time forming a chain of volcanic islands. If you look at a map of Hawaii, you will see that each island gets bigger to the SE. This is due to not only erosion of the older NW islands, but to the slowing of the movement of the plates which gives more time to each of the newer volcanoes.

 

Hawaiian Hotspot

Hawaiian Hotspot

 

The big island of Hawaii is technically the tallest mountain on Earth. Many species of birds and plants and fish and mammals only exist in Hawaii. When we observe this, we are observing history.

I don’t know why scientists never bring up Hawaii when arguing about creation myths and flood myths. In my view, Hawai’i vacates any argument for a young earth. And as for a flood, I wonder why Hawai’i has no fossils. Maybe because it is 100% volcanic rock. It stands alone as a very unique testament to a very recent geological formation – relatively speaking – which is in the tens of millions of years old. And never did it experience a flood which laid down “millions of dead things” as the science hack creationist, Ken Ham, so humorously puts it when speaking about the Grand Canyon and fossils in general. His claim is that all fossils died together in a great flood. Well, apparently this flood did not reach Hawaii.

At the end of the day, it does not matter if we were there when these volcanic islands were formed. They are here. And we are here. All we need to do is to observe the history to know it.  With that having been said, can I interest anyone who debates creationists to use the Hawaiian Vacation?

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God Rest His Soul

Written By: Godless Mama - Dec• 19•13

Three months ago, my beloved stepfather, Billy, lost a short but brutal fight with liver cancer. As you might imagine, his illness and death elicited the typical avalanche of prayer offerings, most of which I didn’t actually mind, understanding that for many people this is a conditioned way of expressing compassion. (We tell Christians to chill out this time of year when people say “happy holidays,” after all, because it’s said in kindness, so it would be a bit hypocritical of me not to take my own advice on this front.) So while I occasionally had the urge to respond with, “Thanks, and could you please tell god while you’re at it that his plan really sucks?” I bit my tongue and for the most part appreciated the caring intent behind the words.

Then there were the non-prayer-offering references to god’s role in our personal tragedy that were harder to swallow. Take, for example, my very sweet but intensely catholic aunt, who approached me after the funeral to say that “God didn’t want you working right now so that you could be here to help your mom.” (I had lost my job in a devastating way a couple of months before Billy died, so had spent a lot of time helping them both throughout his illness.) I smiled and agreed that I was glad to have the availability to be there for Mom, but the cluelessness of the remark settled squarely in my craw. Was she really saying I should be grateful that god cost me my job and risked my family’s financial security so that I could stand beside my mother while he tortured her husband to death? It wasn’t her intention to be insensitive, and I’m certain my translation would never in a million years have occurred to her – but alas, that is in effect what she said.

But wait, there’s more! My mother is also catholic, and though she had lapsed for decades, in recent years she and Billy had been attending mass on Christmas Eve, and then when Billy was diagnosed she started going every week. When he died she therefore wanted, and planned, a catholic funeral. Setting aside the rituals and choreography that comprise a catholic mass, which – let’s face it – are mighty strange if not downright cultish, the content of the service was almost more than I could bear. The parts of the mass that were mass-centric, as opposed to Billy-centric, groveled over Jesus’ greatness and mercy in a manner I found borderline undignified; I mean really, yes, he’s the bees’ knees, the bomb, da man. We get it already. The parts of the mass that purported to actually be about Billy called on the congregation to thank god for the good memories and for the fact that Billy’s suffering was over, and to take comfort in the “knowledge” that he was now in heaven in the supposedly loving embrace of our holy father. It took an active and not insignificant effort of will not to leap out of my seat and shout “FUCK YOUR GOD!” at the top of my lungs. As this would have been a wholly inappropriate and unhelpful contribution, something that even the most militant atheist should be able to appreciate, I of course did no such thing.

I can hear you now asking, “How can you be angry at god unless you believe he exists?” To which I respond that I am not angry at god because – wait for it – he doesn’t exist. But what does exist is a pervasive desire to trivialize human suffering as a way of minimizing our own discomfort, an irresistible need to believe that there must be a benevolent purpose to even the most horrific of circumstances so that we can maintain our delusions of invincibility and of the overall magnanimity of the universe. Can I understand these fears and desires from an academic perspective? Sure. But this wasn’t academic. This was, and is, deeply personal. People – most of whom had not seen what the cancer had done to my robust, loud mouthed, irreverent, hilarious, proud, strong stepfather – who had not seen how it tormented him, how it had broken him, how it had stripped him of his dignity – were actually giving thanks to the being that they believed allowed this to happen. Worse, they were asking ME to give thanks, to praise this being who they believed tortured Billy to death for having done him a favor. This is not a failing on god’s part, since there is no god to fail. It is, however, an unconscionable failing of humanity that what amounts to mocking a dead loved one’s suffering passes for compassion.

What happened to Billy was the result of biology, a pattern of unfortunate life choices made over many years, and perhaps some degree of random chance. He wasn’t being punished, or tested, or rewarded, nor were his illness and death part of some larger plan to teach my mother or me a lesson about something. It just happened. There was no greater purpose, no lesson to be taught or learned, and no reward to him for enduring it in the form of an eternal afterlife in heaven. The religious may not accept these truths, and in all frankness, I don’t care whether they do or not. But I do hope that the more thoughtful among them give serious consideration to whether their customs and rituals in the face of such tragedies serve to comfort the victims and survivors, or themselves.

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