Saturday, February 22, 2014

A Secular Government By the People and for the People

Thank you, Arizona State Representative Juan Mendez, for publicly advocating for my atheist community and my LGBTQ community--and for all others who are harmed by religious intrusion in secular government. There were many outstanding state representatives who fought hard against Arizona's Religious Tyranny bill (SB1062/HB2153), but hearing my many minority identities validated and so powerfully defended by Representative Mendez was incredible.

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Monday, August 22, 2011

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Loving the Humanist Body

My daughter was the fattest baby I’ve ever seen. I’m not kidding. She weighed 20 lbs by the time she was three months old. And no, we weren’t feeding her bacon; her diet was 100% breast milk. Once she started walking, she began slimming down and is now perfectly proportioned, but for quite awhile during her toddlerhood, she was the rolly-polliest-looking girl around. The thing I remember and love the best about my daughter’s fat toddlerhood is how she used to mock me about it. She’d stick out her belly and pat it and say, “Daddy and I both have bellies! YOU DON’T HAVE ONE! HA!” She loved her body, and loved that she and her daddy were both members of a club I didn’t belong to.

Both of my kids have belly fetishes. My two-year-old son in particular likes to climb up in my lap and rub my stomach under my shirt. Sometimes he just walks up to me in public and yanks up my shirt, with no inkling whatsoever that maybe I don’t want the whole world looking at my flabby, stretch-mark-ridden stomach. This happened to me recently when we were hanging out with some other moms and, responding to my clear embarrassment, one of the sage moms said, “Isn’t it beautiful how our children love our bodies?” And that sort of shocked me. Because it’s so simple—and so lovely and true. Our children DO love our bodies because our bodies are the tools we use to hold them, to nurture them, to protect them. And my body is really, really good at doing those things. My body is a wonderful, capable mother-body…stretch-marks and all.

Several weeks later, I ran across this video, which was made by the students of Arts and Ideas Sudbury School:

I was in tears within the first few seconds. It’s so obvious! What are our bodies for?! For aesthetics? Sure, a little—but for the vast majority of our day, we are using our bodies for more tangible things: to be creative; to think; to work; to play; to have sex. When we’re unhealthy in a way that limits our abilities to do these things, we need to take better care of our bodies. But the way we nitpick things like stretch-marks and crooked teeth and wrinkles…what the hell? It degrades the amazing wonder of the human body. It degrades the glorious things we can do with our bodies.

The Humanist philosophy is a joyous worldview that celebrates what human beings can do. When we allow ourselves to get hung up on the aesthetic aspect of our bodies to the exclusion of all the other marvelous things about the human body, we are doing a poor job of living out that philosophy. Of course, having this realization doesn’t mean I’m going to immediately be completely comfortable with the way childbirth has ravaged my body, but I can at least choose to spend more energy focusing on the ways my body serves me—and the world around me—very, very well. So, maybe it’s a little cheesy to say we should love our bodies, but it’s an important message. Our bodies carry us through our lives; they are the way we experience life. Our bodies allow us to exist. We spend too much time thinking about what’s wrong with the way we look and not enough time thinking about how the marvelous experience of being alive is facilitated by our marvelous bodies.

For the way it provides me with the ability to solve problems, to care for the people around me, to type a blog, to make love—for all these things and many, many more, I love my body! And I love the bodies of the wonderful people who are using their own bodies to improve the world around us.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Making Peace with Religion (gasp!)

I spent a lot of time in the atheist blogosphere this week and really enjoyed the diversity of voices within our movement, the exposure to new ideas and approaches, and the passion of those (particularly the young people) who are out there doing things and writing about it. But I also grew tired of reading about how much we have to hate religion if we want to be good at atheism. I struggle with the way Sam Harris-nicks advocate that we speak out against all religion, period.

It is not specifically religion I oppose as an atheist. I oppose fanaticism—and the way certain kinds of religious tenets seem to make people more vulnerable to it. I oppose spreading the idea that knowledge is gained by authority or revelation to the exclusion of the scientific method. I oppose the dehumanizing in-group versus out-group dynamic many religious communities create. But if a progressive religion (Unitarian Universalism or Ethical Culture, for example) does not entail that kind of thinking, then I fail to see how its existence perpetuates the kind of harm fundamentalism does. In fact, such progressive religions are in a unique position to criticize the harmful aspects of wrongheaded religious thought. This is a vitally important role.

Further, many religions are moving toward more critical, reason-based thinking in general, and I support that. United Methodists, for example, emphasize a fairly balanced approach to belief that involves weighing experience, scripture, tradition and reason, and are doing a better job of being engaged in the world in an ethical way as they continually re-evaluate their conclusions using this method. This is not so different from the way I approach my beliefs about the world—particularly in ethical decision making. I often begin with having an emotional experience that tells me something feels wrong about the world. I’ll read more about it—not from religious scripture, but from writings I find authoritative (such as particular philosophers, scientists, or humanitarians whose credibility is evident in their work). I look at history and how progressive people in the past have responded to various ethical challenges (these progressives constitute my tradition) and then I make, as best I can, a reason-based assessment. If more people adopted this kind of well-rounded analysis, it would benefit our world. And I do not think it would matter whether those undertaking such analysis were religious or otherwise. As atheists, we should be clear about what we oppose within religion, and not seek to oppose all religion simply because a community of people chooses to use the word.

I am particularly concerned about the baby-out-with-the-bathwater tack because we are clearly damaging our ability to effect change when we refuse to work with progressive faith communities. We need to stop being antagonistic to all people of faith and to all values that motivate people of faith—and in fact, where those values align with our own (and they often do; we are all people, after all) we should find ways to work toward living out those values together. Obviously, where religious people advocate for ways of thinking that cause detriment to the well-being of our human family or our planet, we need to boldly speak out. If someone is doing something good and is motivated to do so by religious values that themselves cause harm, we cannot ignore that harm. For example, while the Catholic Church does some of the most amazing, compassionate and effective charity work on the face of the planet, the Church also teaches ways of thinking and ways of viewing oneself as a human being that cause serious pain and damage. And when evangelicals do compassionate charity work but at the same time lobby to keep real science education out of schools, thereby undermining the ability of the future generation to cope with the major challenges they will face (climate change, overpopulation, poverty)—challenges that cannot be solved without creative scientific thinkers—we cannot allow the religious perspective that empowers the erosion of science to go unchallenged.

But when we are willing to work with people of faith, we gain a credibility with them that allows us to speak out against the harmful aspects of religion—and religious people are willing to dialogue with us in ways they would not if we wrote them off entirely. When we become utterly dogmatic in our anti-religious stance, we are undermining our own values of reason and compassion. And we are undermining our ability to see religious human beings as human; the dehumanizing “us” versus “them” mentality causes too much harm to the human family for us to entertain it. We can do better—but we have to be willing to think clearly and compassionately and perhaps even take some risks in trusting that religious people, if we give them the opportunity, can do better, too.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

More of the Same Difference

Sometimes, I just get mad. This afternoon, The Center for Arizona Policy (CAP) posted on their Facebook page an AP article about the FFRF lawsuit opposing the National Day of Prayer on constitutional grounds. Underneath the article, someone posted the comment, “Humanism equals satanism. Period.” And for some reason, I’m taking it personally.

Humanism means something to me. It’s positive. It’s compassionate. It’s infinitely hopeful. Humanism is not some sort of evil, self-indulgent, depraved cult—and when people make the assumption that I am motivated by something so ridiculous, it deeply offends me.

I try very, very hard to dialogue and collaborate with people of faith. I often defend interfaith projects and religious people against the more militant nontheists who believe we’re perpetuating something immoral when we engage positively with religion in any way, shape or form. So when I’m called a satanist and no religious person says, “Hm. Perhaps we should look at where the disagreement lies rather than making disparaging remarks based on perceptions that might not be entirely correct…” it pisses me off—because I would have defended that person of faith against a disparaging remark from a nontheist.

Despite the thousands and thousands of years we’ve spent as a species communicating with one another, we’re still pretty terrible at separating a difference of opinion from a difference in the quality of our character. We can disagree about ideas and still validate the inherent value we all have as human beings—and the fact that we are all human beings means that we have much more in common than we have separating us. Doesn’t it?

Back to Reality (In Which Serah Returns to Arizona after Five Amazing Days in Cambridge)

I just spent the most glorious five days in Cambridge at the American Humanist Association conference this past week where I met hundreds of high-quality Humanists, listened to diverse voices creating a vision for our movement, and was constantly inspired. There was something particularly magical about spending time with a huge group of people in which nontheism was the standard—where it was celebrated and affirmed as both beautiful and true. And then I came home.

It took about three days for the culture shock to set in, but it happened. After getting back to the grind of facing (with SC Arizona) the harmful, religiously motivated legislation that is raining down on our state like a flood straight out of Genesis, of once again waking up to the realities of living against the grain in a religiously conservative town and state, of knowing my nontheism is always going to be a fight here…I’m quickly dropping off of my conference high.

It is not as if I am hopeless—how could I be? I met dozens upon dozens of young, talented, motivated student leaders at the conference who are working hard for change all across the country and who will guide our movement into a more compassionate, more rational future. I met older leaders still fighting hard for our ideals with no signs of growing tired. I heard new ideas, new strategies combined with seasoned wisdom and a mature clarity—an intergenerational dynamic that creates a wonderfully hopeful vision for Humanism. I have great confidence in my colleagues and what we can do together.

It’s just that….it’s hard. And, in my conservative town in Northern Arizona, it’s sometimes lonely. So now, I’m back to the lonely, hard work. Back to building my loving, nurturing, social-justice-seeking community on an island of reason in the Arizona sea of religious ideologues who aren’t afraid to tell us we’re going to hell. But I’ll do it knowing that there are brilliant, competent, idealistic leaders doing the same work all across the country and that, while we’re divided geographically, our goals are transcendent in that they belong to all of us and they unite us. We are building something shared—a safer, saner, more satisfying world for all of us. I have a sadness that the culture of reason and compassion I experienced when all of these wonderful Humanist minds were in the same place at the same time isn’t the dominant culture—and I miss it. But it was so beautiful, so very much what I want our world to be like, that I will work more passionately for it—and I know I am in good company.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

It's My Party and I'll Cry if I Want To (An Atheistic Approach to Grief and Birthdays)

The circle of life is not a beautiful gift from the universe. It doesn’t illuminate some secret about the meaning of existence or justify the pain of loss. The circle of life is a poetic reframing we use as a tool to deal with a world where we’re constantly losing what’s most important to us while at the same time trying to enjoy whatever we’re left with.

As if the universe has a mind (which it doesn’t) and is trying to give me a message (which it isn’t) my Grandfather died this morning, on my birthday, on a day when I woke up enraptured with the fact of my existence and grateful for the ineffably beautiful experience of being alive. The universe isn’t trying to teach me a lesson about symmetry or cycles or anything else. It’s just a universe. It’s not a mind. But I am a mind, and even though there’s no message, I have the amazing, enlivening ability to make meaning from whatever happens to me in the mindless universe.

There is a symmetry to all of this for me. My body hurts, feels pushed down by the weight of grief. I want to call my mom and tell her everything, to cry with her, to hear her voice...but of course, she’s dead, too. So I take this pain, and I do what I do with pain: use it to remind myself that I can only know how painful it is to be alive because I am gloriously, inexplicably alive despite the overwhelming odds that say I should never have existed at all. And knowing that all human beings experience pain much like I do, I can use my life to eliminate as much of that hurt from the world as possible so that this wonderful life can be a little better for everyone.

Thirty-two years ago on this day, my mom was giving birth to me, holding me for the first time in her arms, smiling and thinking about all of her hopes for my life. And what a life! I can’t tell you how much I love my life! I love all of it, every inch of it. I love simple experiences like food and wine. I love complex experiences like falling in love and mothering contrary children. I love the part where I’m knocked off my feet by the hurt of losing my Grandfatherbecause it is entailed in the fact of having a Grandfather. And I had the best, the very, very best Grandfather. He filled my life with an impossibly huge amount of love and blessing and care. He and my Grandmother were instrumental in raising my little brother who is my very best friend and one of the most hard-working, talented, compassionate people on the face of the planet. My Grandfather loved and nurtured my aunt and uncle who in turn loved and nurtured my outstanding cousinsall of whom improve the world by being in it. I love all of this. Of course, it is hard; it hurts very much to be alive. I hate being motherless. I need my mother. I hate that I’ve lost friends I need. I've lost my Grandparents. And I’ve lost opportunities and hope and dignity and ideas about who I am and what I'm capable of. I am not grateful to the universe for its mindless, unrelenting greediness for things I want to keep. But how I love that I can hate the universe for this! How I love that I exist to love every inch of my life!—to love even the experience of hating.

And so, here I am on my 32nd birthday, a puddle of joy and tears and birth and loss and enveloped in a profound sense of awe at the majesty of being.