Tag Archives: atheism

On Pizza…and Refusal of Services

I’ll admit, I’ve been captivated by the spectacular firestorm that is Indiana this week. I’m endlessly amazed at how religious belief can be used to justify infringing on the rights of others, while at the same time crying bloody murder that any dissent is an infringement of that belief.

I think in analogies. That’s just the way my mind works – So I started wondering how this debate plays out in my own business, which just happens to be performing secular wedding ceremonies. Here’s what I came up with.

In my mind, a “business” should be able to select what it does, but not for whom it provides that service. If the pizza parlor in Indiana was asked (unlikely as it may be, I know, I know) to provide pizza for a “gay wedding” and they refused because the clients were two people of the same gender, that’s discrimination (wrong in my opinion). If they were asked to provide falafel, or shrimp fried rice, they can certainly refuse. If they were being asked to provide pizza for a wedding outside their delivery area, or on a day they aren’t open, pizza that’s kosher (if they don’t do that sort of thing), or if they have reached the capacity of pizza they can produce that week, then it’s fine to say, “Sorry, we can’t help you”.

In all of those cases, the refusal is tied to what they do and how they do it – not who the customer is. In business, it doesn’t matter who the person is. You serve them. Period.

Now as I’ve said, I operate a secular wedding celebrant business. Could I refuse my services to someone of faith? Absolutely not. It’s actually the case that the majority of the people I’ve married aren’t atheists. Most express that they have some supernatural belief, but for one reason or another (usually it’s discomfort with religious organizations, or the fact that their beliefs are different form their spouse or guests), they’ve decided not to put those beliefs on display. When I first meet with a couple, I let them know that I’m a secular celebrant (my certification is from the American Humanist Association, so I don’t have religious authority). I let them know that any ceremony I perform can’t have praying, holy texts or references to god.

Last year I was asked by a couple (in this case a man and a woman) to perform their ceremony. Very early on in the discussions, despite the thorough description of my business up front, the groom told me that they wanted a very short ceremony with “just a few bible verses and a blessing”. I explained to him that I wasn’t able to perform such a ceremony, and the couple found an alternate solution.

So why isn’t that discrimination?

I didn’t turn this couple away because they were religious believers. It turns out both were very devout conservative Christians but they didn’t want to attend the pre-wedding classes their church required in order for them to have a religious ceremony (which begs the question, “How do you choose which rules of your religion you will follow and which ones you’ll discard?” But that’s a discussion for another day). If the couple had been willing to have a secular service, which is what I provide, I’d have been pleased to marry them. My refusal was linked to what I do as a business, for anyone who would like to hire me.

Now, I might turn someone away because I’m unavailable for a particular date, or because they aren’t willing to pay my fee, or because they are looking for a wedding planner to coordinate their whole event (I don’t do that kind of thing) but the key here is that my decision is based on my business and what I do, and that I’ll do it for anyone, regardless of whatever groups to which they may belong.

And besides, I’m a Long Island girl. Pizza from Indiana? Probably just crummy round bread with crappy cheese and flavorless sauce anyway.

Jesus, Take the Wheel*

As most of my friends and readers know, I hold a strong belief that there simply is no god.  To me, such a belief is too improbable to consider.  I am vocal (and occasionally a little snarky) in my dislike and disdain for religion – but my quarrel is not specifically with belief in things that I personally consider irrational.  After all, people I love and care about believe lots of things I consider ridiculous – that they will win big at the lottery someday…that the chocolates they eat in the afternoon won’t interfere with their diet…that their loved ones who regularly hurt them will someday change…that Bono cares deeply about poor people (there’s that “snarky” again).  But the truth is my quarrel is not with belief in unlikely things in and of themselves.  I have many friends who hold beliefs in “higher powers” as well as the things mentioned above, who are honorable, giving, “good” people whom I love and respect.  I don’t necessarily think that we all must choose to live in the cold spotlight of absolute reality at every moment of our lives.

But some beliefs are dangerous.  I have known people, for example, who were certain of their ability to drive a car after consuming a large quantity of alcohol.  The confident belief in “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq, now discredited, is largely responsible for the deaths of nearly five thousand US soldiers (in Iraq alone) and over a million Iraqi civilians (although the statistics vary widely).  The point I’m trying to make here is that individual beliefs should be respected – to a point – and that some beliefs are too dangerous to be allowed to continue unchallenged.  If the chocolate you  are sneaking from the desk drawer each afternoon is putting you at risk of diabetic shock…if the loved one you cherish is physically violent and an imminent threat to your safety…if you are playing the lottery instead of paying your mortgage – your belief has crossed a line.  It has become dangerous to you and quite likely to others and it needs to be questioned.

The kind of danger I’m referring to was palpable to me when I happened upon this clip:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AJPcB9JMyu4&

For those of you without the patience to watch it through, it’s a montage from the recent prayer rally “initiated” by Texas Governor and (now) Presidential contender, Rick Perry.  Here’s what you’d see:

  • A football stadium chorus of people of many ages and races singing over and over “there’s no god like Jehovah”
  • A benediction delivered by a woman declaring “we pledge allegiance to the lamb, the true source of liberty and justice for us all”
  • Introduction of the “co-chairs” of the event, including such luminaries of intolerance and manipulative rhetoric as, Focus on the Family founder, Dr. James Dobson (if you aren’t familiar, here’s a primer http://www.splcenter.org/get-informed/intelligence-report/browse-all-issues/2005/spring/a-mighty-army#10 )
  • Multiple references to “our savior Jesus Christ” (at what was allegedly an interfaith rally), “lord and king”, “father god”, “our lord” etc.  and  Governor Perry himself telling the crowd that the “only thing you love more (than America) is the living Christ”
  • The last two minutes are the most disturbing as they feature a series of near hysterical teens beseeching their god to “send revival” especially to our schools to “save America”

You can find more about this event at http://theresponseusa.com/

So here’s where the rubber meets the road.  Do I think it’s okay for the people in this video to hold the beliefs they do, beliefs I consider improbable and ridiculous?  For the most part…yes.  Believing in a god, an afterlife, a creator, a metaphysical father watching over us – don’t, as such, represent an imminent threat to others (although I question if some of the young people at the close of this clip have actually been able to choose these beliefs, and they don’t appear to be affording much peace or comfort.).  But this is the governor of the second largest state in the US (by both square miles and population), a man who has announced his intention to become the leader of this nation (a nation founded on the separation of church and state).  This man denies, and cites religious evidence for such denial of both evolution, and of a human contribution to the warming of the planet.  He is a signer of the “Pre-natal Protection Act” which specifically includes fetuses in the definition of “human life”.  He has used his religious convictions as justification for signing bills forbidding state funding of Planned Parenthood health centers and for compelling women to view a sonogram prior to undergoing an elective abortion.  He has stated that he believes in the “inerrancy of the bible” and believes that all those who do not accept Jesus Christ as savior are going to hell.

Do I feel threatened by Governor Perry’s beliefs?  You bet I do.  Don’t you?  There’s an empty bottle of tequila on the lawn and Perry’s backing out of the driveway.


*with thanks and apologies to Carrie Underwood for “inspiration”.



My Own Personal Jesus

I am an Atheist.  I don’t believe in any supernatural deity.  I don’t believe in a god, and I don’t believe in Jesus, the son-of-a-god-who-is-really-god-too-by-some-technicality-I’ve-never-quite-grasped.  But I really like the Idea of Jesus.  In the gloominess of my Catholic upbringing, Jesus was a bright light.  Some of my earliest storybooks feature his kind, serene face and deep soulful eyes.  I loved the story of his birth in the manger (Oh how many times my poor baby brother had to be the infant Jesus to my Virgin Mary as I staged impromptu Christmas pageants!)  The “Sermon on the Mount” with its implied socialism (don’t tell Sarah and Michelle!) struck a serious chord with me early on.  Whatever else, religion might have imprinted on me, Jesus was justice and Jesus was love.

I think of him in the same way you might regard other literary characters – Jiminy Cricket, sitting on your shoulder helping you tell right from wrong, or wise Dumbledore, or Glinda, from the Wizard of Oz, explaining that you’ve had the answers all along, but that you needed to find them within yourself.  His “real-ness” has never diminished for me, what he’s supposed to stand for.  Losing my faith hasn’t robbed me of a belief that “do unto others” and the rest of what’s on his CV are pretty good ideas to live by.

And Jesus was a bit of a rebel too; getting snippy with his mom (the “didn’t you know I’d be in my father’s house?” incident when he went missing as a little boy) and trashing the money lenders at the temple for their greed and poor location choices.  He had a whole crew of guys he rolled with, but he wasn’t a snob.  He hung out with the lepers and the poor and the prostitutes.  Whatever your deal was…he was cool with it.  If Jesus lived on Long Island in the 80’s, he would definitely have worn a leather jacket.

I have a theory that adolescent Catholic girls form an early attachment to Jesus as the image of perfect manhood.  What could be more attractive to a flat-chested, bookish, twelve-year-old but to know that this gentle, handsome man knows you, and loves you for who you are?  For years, the life-sized statue of a crucified Jesus that hung above the altar at our church was the closest thing I’d seen to a naked adult male.  Despite the gore and the ashen pallor, those muscled biceps…the washboard abs…the long hair…I blame my years-long penchant for long-haired heavy-metal bad-boys on my early religious indoctrination.

Earlier this week as the vote for Marriage Equality loomed ever closer, and the arguments, on the street, in the media, and on the internet got more heated, I found myself completely swept up. The live feed from the senate was constantly playing on my computer.  I manically pressed re-dial as I called Senators over and over.  And I actually broke the Facebook app on my iPhone after five days of constant update- checking, and posting of witty and weighty answers to that eternal question, “what’s on your mind?”

And the thing that kept coming into my head, ironically enough, as religion became the defense of choice for intolerance, was “What would Jesus do?”  I mean seriously – which side would he be taking here?  Jesus was all about love, right?  He of the washing of the feet.  He who saved the life of an adulteress by insisting that the one who is without sin, cast the first stone (are you listening Archbishop Timothy Dolan?!?).  He who stuck the ear back on the Roman centurian who had come to arrest him!  I began to feel that a contingent of religious people had stolen Jesus from me and were misrepresenting him!

MY Jesus, the Jesus who occupies my secular heart would have been as ecstatic as I was when the Senate voted in favor of Marriage Equality late Friday night.  My Jesus would have voted yes for love, for commitment, for families, for security, for justice.  He would have been carrying a rainbow flag and singing in the halls of the capital all last week.  He would be at every single gay wedding, making wine from water, just like he did at Cana in the bible – and smiling.

My husband and I drove to Albany late on Friday evening to meet up with an old friend who was in town demonstrating.  We arrived just as the senate vote was made official and caught the wave of frantic reporters and jubilant spectators as they exited the capital.  Amidst horns honking and people shouting, we three walked up the street, going nowhere in particular, taking in the glorious weight of what had just happened.  We were stopped on our trek by a disheveled, middle-aged man staggering, from what was clearly the consumption of a large quantity of alcohol.  “Let ‘em do what they want to do.”  He slurred emphatically.   “I’m TELLING you… I said, this is BULLSHIT.  It’s crap.  Good Luck.  I’m not gay but who gives a shit.  That’s YOUR business.  What business is it to say you can’t do that? I’m down with it.  I’m GLAD you guys won.  I’m ALL good with that.”

MY Jesus would have shaken his hand.

History . . . all of it

Have you ever been watching television when you are joined midway by someone who hasn’t seen the whole first part of what you’re watching, and their experience of the program is totally different from yours?

I’ve been reading a lot of posts and blogs about the capture and execution of Osama Bin Laden and I’ve begun several times to write about it myself but,  every time I start, I’ve read something by someone far more eloquent than I, giving voice to exactly what I was thinking.  So I’ve waited and reflected.  And as several days have passed, I’ve tried to think about what unique perspective I might lend to the subject.

I was at my desk at work on September 11th, 2001 when I learned of the terrorist attack on New York, but this story begins in May of 2000…in South Korea.

That year, I traveled to Korea as part of a Rotary Foundation exchange program for young professionals.  We were four young, liberal, American women spending a month touring sites of artistic and cultural significance – a life-changing experience for me in many ways.   Our visit coincided with two major anniversaries.  First, the 50th anniversary of the Korean War, a conflict that twisted our histories with those of our hosts in an uneasy knot.   It was also the 20th anniversary of the Kwanjiu uprising.

Never heard of it?  Neither had we, although it was a fairly big story in the international press at the time it happened in May 1980.  In a nutshell, Kwangiu, the City where I was based for a month, was the site of a pro-democracy uprising after the new government took power in a coup, and imposed martial law.  Led by university students, the protesters occupied the city for nearly a week, until the army sent in paratroopers with machine guns and machetes and put the uprising down.  By its end, about 200 civilians had been killed.  It took thirteen more years for Korea to become a democracy but ‘May 18th’ is considered by many the most important moment in that struggle – the spark that lit the flame.

We had never heard of the Kwangiu uprising but it’s a well-documented event (Google it!).  When we were in Kwangiu, we visited ‘May 18th Park’ a newly opened memorial and historical center dedicated to the event.  There’s an interpretive building there with incredible footage of things like women with enormous pots of rice feeding the crowds of protesters; teen-aged girls in the hospitals giving blood to help those wounded; stolen school buses being used as roadblocks to keep the army out of the city; horrible graphic photos of those killed or maimed.

At the end of a long, dim, room, a grainy black and white newsreel is projected which loops over and over.  It’s a clip of three students on a tiny moped fleeing a heavily armored soldier with a machete.  The moped, not meant to carry more than one small person, is overloaded and moving too slowly.  The soldier is gaining.  The students are defiant, and they’re singing with gusto…in English…”We Shall Overcome.” The reel cuts off just as the soldier reaches them, machete raised over his head.

Four young, liberal, American women spending a month touring sites of artistic and cultural significance are suitably moved, and suitably outraged.  And they ask their hosts, many of whom are current government officials – many of whom were participants and leaders of these protests 20 years ago, many of whom spent time in prison as a result –  “But where was the American government when this we happening?!”  Our gracious hosts, a group of accomplished and educated men who had the daring to take on a well armed militia, all look at their shoes.  Our translator, a young man barely old enough to remember the uprising at all, takes a deep breath and tries to explain…

“You see,” Sunkyo explains haltingly, “The US has been in Korea since the end of World War II…and our military…we are…we must ask permission from your government before…to do anything….”

In the awkward silence that follows, I can feel my mind shift.  Something is now known that I suppose I had always suspected – but knowing is very different.  Here is what I now understand.  We allowed this to happen – condoned it, really –  to people.  And not just to any random people in a country far away.  To people in whose homes I am sleeping.  People I am sitting across the table with at breakfast.  People whose children I am visiting in school.  People who are talking to me about freedom and democracy with a reverence that would make Thomas Jefferson blush.  These are true believers.

I imagine the rationale.  The US must support the government of our ally.  Fear that if South Korea became unstable, North Korea might seize the opportunity to expand a communist state.  But aren’t we for “freedom”?  Don’t we support the spread of democracy as the gold standard of human behavior?  Am I so naïve that I still think this might be true?  Isn’t that what we’re told even now in two, maybe three wars in the oil-producing world?

There is a fine painfully fine and arbitrary line between “rebel” and “freedom fighter”.

And then the flood of realization completely overtakes me.  This isn’t an isolated event.  My government does things that I cannot accept, and does them over and over again, all over the world- and has for a very long time.  And those things have consequences for real people I may never know but who live and breathe and exist and want all the things I do.  The very lifestyle I lead is dependent on a history of conflicted choices, broad rationalizations, and rewritten history that allows others to suffer while I avoid any consequence (or even knowledge) of the compromises that allow me to live as I do.

So, on September 11th, as I sat at my desk and the news reports began to roll in about a terrorist attack in New York and Washington and Pennsylvania, I wasn’t shocked.  It was as if something that had been owed for a very long time had finally come due.  For me that day is so much less about horror and disbelief than it is about stillness…and resignation.

I certainly don’t mean to suggest that those who died that day deserved to be murdered.  I am as horrified by the suffering I witnessed then as I was in Kwangiu the year before.  But I have difficulty seeing September 11th as the beginning of anything.  That would be like coming in to the middle of a television program and guessing the ending.  For me, September 11th, is an inextricable part of a continuum of human drama that includes our government’s choices on May 18th, 1980 in Kwangui South Korea, centuries of colonialism in Africa, Southeast Asia and the Middle East, questionable strategic alliances during the cold war – and the arming and training of a young Saudi “freedom fighter” whose enthusiasm for driving the Soviet Union from Afghanistan proved a useful asset at the time.

On People of Faith

Two weeks ago, I posted a link to my new website on my Facebook page.  I was expecting some feedback on the template I’d chosen and the way I’d organized my content.  Many of my Facebook contacts are way more technically savvy than I, and I thought they might give me some pointers as I launched my first website and blog.

I didn’t get the kinds of responses I expected.

With the exception of my friend Anthony from high school who (very usefully) flagged me that my blog was not set up to receive comments, the feedback was not about the design and organization at all.  It was about the content.  Much of that feedback was super positive and encouraging – and it came mostly from my friends who have strong theistic beliefs.

It’s not that I anticipated hate mail.  I expected that civility would prevail.  I just hadn’t predicted the outpouring of support and encouragement that I got.   I am, after all, categorically rejecting something that these friends hold dear.  It really caught me off guard.

It shouldn’t have.  Most of these folks are people who I know well, and I know them to be tolerant, generous, accepting individuals.  The idea of secular ceremonies for those who want them isn’t threatening to what they believe.  Marriage equality is a right most of them value and support.  My own humanism isn’t a shock to any of these folks.  Some of them knew me back in my teens when I painted my finger nails black and claimed to worshhip the devil.  They’ve witnessed the journey.

I realize that there is a part of me that’s become so hostile to the idea of faith – because of how it’s wielded by a lot of other people – that I am less conscious of when it is practiced with restraint and openness.  It caused me to re-evaluate the copy on my website.  All in all, I think I was pretty even.  I did edit out one kind of snarky comment about “imaginary friends”.

I’d like to subscribe to a philosophy of ‘live and let live’ and I think that works on an individual basis.  I’m not so sure it functions beyond the circle of people one knows personally.  Sam Harris, whose philosophy I really identify with, suggests (and I’m paraphrasing here) that religious moderates provide a kind of safe cover for religious extremism.  By rejecting the intolerant and violent pieces of dogma, they’re sort of practicing a “religion lite” while still lending credence to the religion as a whole, and making way for those who have a more literal, and perhaps dangerous interpretation of the faith .

So can we believe different things and still share the world?  Do my friends believe they’re going to heaven and I’m not?  Do I believe they’re wasting time and energy on religious practice that could be better spent on tangible action?  Does that change the way we think about each other?  Should it?  By advocating what we believe, do we give license to those who would take those beliefs to unreasonable ends?

I’m still working through this…

The Dreaded Question . . .

I’m really excited about my new website and this blog – my very first. I’m a woman of strong opinions – and I love personal stories – so this is a format I am looking forward to exploring. I love to write, and I don’t usually have any trouble doing so, but I must confess that I found the prospect of writing my very first post a little daunting. Got to start out on the right foot….

Since this whole endeavor, becoming a celebrant, starting this business, beginning a blog, has been tied to my decision to be more “out” about my atheism and the issues that raises for me in daily life, I thought I’d write about a fundamental question I get asked from time to time:

“What if you’re wrong?”  Which really means…”What if there really is a God?  Aren’t you afraid you’ll be in…big trouble?”

I guess I’m sort of encouraged by the question, because the very nature of the way it’s phrased says as much about the questioner as it does about what they’re asking me. Those who truly believe don’t need to ask (they’ve already decided what awaits me in the great beyond), it’s those who are trying on un-belief for themselves, people who are questioning but haven’t been able let go of their own trepidation who ask question s like this. It’s an invitation…a request for permission…or ammunition. I usually answer it with a version of the following:

Measuring up – I’m far from perfect, but I do my best. I think carefully about the impact I have on the world and other people. I’m good to kids and nice to animals. I recycle. I give of myself when I can. I smile at strangers. Just because I don’t believe in hell doesn’t mean I take any delight in doing evil – quite the contrary – I do the right thing because I choose to, not because I’m afraid I’ll be punished if I don’t. Line me up alongside the “ten commandments” and I’d do pretty well. If there is an omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient deity watching over me and judging me (and I am confident there is not – but IF), I have to believe that my deeds will hold up next to the vast majority of humanity, however devout. I stand by my record. I’m actually pretty proud of it Following that same logic, if Heaven is really full of all the people who claim they’re going, I’m quite sure it’s an insufferable place where I don’t have any interest in spending time.

Declining the Invitation – And if there is a God, I’ve got his (her?) number. This God trawls about the earth causing, (or at least allowing) incredible suffering. Tremendous sorrow and deprivation abound on this little planet. And this is the entity in whose company I’m supposed to want to spend eternity? I can’t square endless reward as a justification for all the pain, malevolence and grief experienced in this world. And I can’t accept that any being capable of ending it would allow it to continue. I am so frustrated by believers who “praise God” for the lone survivor of a terrible accident – while ignoring the fact that if a God existed who was capable of saving one individual, that same God chose to allow all the others to perish. If that’s who God is. If that’s the bargain. If that’s who’s the host of the after-life party. I’ll decline, thank you. Heaven just isn’t going to be my kind of place.

If this is all there is… – I think the biggest reason I’m not afraid of “being wrong” has less to do with my un-belief and more to do with satisfaction I’ve found in what I already have. This world, and my life in it, are so unspeakably wonderful, that I am really OK if this is all there is. Music, art, literature, the beauty of the natural world, laughter, time spent among friend, a cat purring on the sofa next to me, the chance to do good work with people I admire, opportunities to help stranger, and make new friends. Sure I have plenty of days of frustration, even an occasional moment of despair – but I find it hard to sustain. I have so much that even as I struggle to experience as much as I can there is always more to discover. How could I possibly have all that I have – and expect paradise too when this life comes to an end? It seems exceptionally greedy and ill-mannered – Like eating a fifth dessert. I am surrounded by joy, right here, right now. I have no need for an extra bonus round when this one is over.

I’ve actually seen people cringe and look guilty when I say things like this – as though they were worried that their proximity to me would somehow render them sinners by association – or that lightning just might strike the spot I’m standing transforming them into divine collateral damage. I don’t mean to make light of it. Struggling to hang on to beliefs in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary is daunting (that’s a tale for another day). But I’m cheered that they’re asking questions. We should all ask more question.