Monologue or Dialogue?

Discussions are two-way, usually. Debates are between two people that state their point of view and there is little attempt to understand the other side. The goal is to best them, verbally. Dialogues, on the other hand, are different. There is still the exchange of viewpoints, that there may be intense disagreement on, but there is more emotional intelligence involved.

There was an ongoing discussion between a Christian family member and I about my changed religious views. My goal was not to convince them to change their minds, but I thought it might be helpful for them to hear about my experience in order to better understand why I left Christianity. Hearing or reading about the experience of atheists you do not know is one thing. But hearing about that experience from someone close to you, is another.

However, the discussion isn’t going anywhere.

We both accept that the other person isn’t going agree with some of the statements we make. That’s good. But I can’t seem to break through the assumptions on their part that I am in “rebellion against God”. They also seem to be mostly interested in a monologue-type conversation (which isn’t a conversation at all): they say what they want, with little to no response from me. Unless my response is “You’re totally right” and I re-dedicate my life to Christ. There is also little understanding that their point of view about God and Christianity, was exactly my own point of view when I was a Christian. Hence, I am quite intimate from where they are coming from, but they seem to think I do not understand at all (even after I expressed that I did).

So on that note, I will more than likely drop the conversation. To be fair, I think they want to have a discussion…or think they should want to have one (you know, defending the faith and all), but it’s too much work. Responding to theological questions, many of which don’t have a clear answer, is time consuming. Frustration on their part sets in, there is lots of talk about their faith being strong and they wonder what the point of the discussion is. Perhaps I have a need or an agenda and not quite sure about this atheism thing, hmm?

I think discussions are always worthy. But not when empathy and compassion for people is not present. And when talking with some religious people, that is how it goes. There is more concern for the feelings of a invisible entity you cannot see, hear or feel, than for the person standing right in front of you.

Thoughts on ritual and mythology

I’ve been having a  discussion with a Christian family member about my atheism and trying to give them a clearer picture of what led me away from Christianity in particular, and then away from religion in general.

A lot of topics came up from this discussion and I plan to blog about a few of them that I have extended thoughts on. The first is the role of ritual in religion.

Relationship vs. religion

One common explanation from Christians about why their faith stands out is that Christianity is not about religion. It’s about a “relationship” with Christ. I used to think that made sense. But now, looking back, I think it’s a way to make your brand of Christianity stand out from other religions or denominations. It’s also a tacit acknowledgement that something is “off” with the rituals, rules and rigidness of traditional Christianity. This blog post from 3-D Christianity talks a little about that. In it, the writer points out that this viewpoint creates a false dichotomy that is made to point a judgmental finger at other denominations (particularly Catholics).

But what is most interesting, is an essay the 3-D Christianity blogger cites that talks about what that writer, John Suk, believes are the secular roots of the “relationship with Christ” viewpoint (read that essay here). He is very understanding on why people talk this way, but asserts that there is no Biblical basis for the idea of a “personal relationship” with Christ and that the phrasing actually causes confusion with both believers (who may feel they are not having as authentic an experience as their peers and suffer anguish over it) and non-believers (who won’t find any difference between this “relationship” with Jesus and spirit channeling) alike. Ironically, he blames “the pervasive influence of the language of secularity” on the metaphors comparing Jesus/God to a friend, parent or lover.

However, he says what causes the creation of these metaphors are the reality of feeling the absence of God and realizing, if just briefly, that the experience is not at all like when you spend time with a person you can see, touch, hear and feel. He suggests not ignoring that reality, but confronting it by seeing oneself as part of a larger whole and not focusing on the “personal” aspect. I am paraphrasing here, but be sure to read his essay to get the full picture of his points.

Myths and ritual

I think it’s a true observation that Catholicism is very heavy on ritual and rules, but that is hardly something that is  indicative of Catholics. All religions have had and still have certain ways in which they choose to worship and express themselves, largely based on tradition. However, it is a tradition that is very, very old, and often from a culture that is no longer with us or that has changed drastically. So is ritual and myth empty? I think the answer is both yes and no. Rituals, stories, myths and traditions start to feel inauthentic after a while when (after the emotional high has ceased) those things are not relevant to your life or culture. So trying to adhere to rules and norms created by people that lived many thousands of years ago is, to say the least, awkward.

James Campbell talks a lot about the role of myths, rituals and traditions. In this interview, he says “mythology is a validation of experience.” He offers the Jesus story as an example: he was crucified, buried for three days, rose from the dead and then rose back to heaven. Campbell points out:

“[We] know that going at the speed of light they would not be out of the galaxy yet. And you know what it means for a physical body to go up into the stratosphere.”

Of this, he says that image does not fit the contemporary mind, because of what we now know about the universe, saying:

You’ve got to translate these things into contemporary life and experience. Mythology is a validation of experience, giving it its spiritual or psychological dimension. And if you have a lot of things that you can’t correlate with contemporary nature, you can’t handle it.”

Campbell suggests “mythologizing” what we know today scientifically, so we can “validate our experience”. Part of the problem, as he saw it, are that humans need new myths. They need to be able to relate to a tradition or story. The superheroes of comic books and cult phenomenons like Star Trek might seem trite, but they are no different than the stories about Zeus or Poseidon. What is different, is that we can relate much better to the adventures of Captain Kirk or the X-Men, than we can to some ancient Greek (or Hebrew) god. These contemporary stories reflect our knowledge of the universe and what we can imagine being possible with space travel and natural explanations for extraordinary abilities (e.g., a genetic mutation).

So, I think stories, myths and rituals are good for us. The challenge, is taking what is useful and educational, without a belief in the stories being literally true, especially where there is every indication that it is not. Also, we need to resist the urge to go overboard in systemizing beliefs.


Introducing the subject of religion to kids

I grew up going to a mostly African-American Baptist church, was baptized at a young age and all I knew was that Sunday was for Sunday School and then church service. It of course never occurred to me that by the time I became a parent, our Sunday mornings would be a whole lot different.

My journey towards atheism started when my oldest son was a baby, after round of Bible studying, during long stretches of sitting while breastfeeding. At that point, we were living in a new state, were still trying to find the “right” church and I felt at some point, I need to be sending my kid to Sunday School. Or something. Right? Well, as most atheists can attest to, reading the Bible, with no filters (aka, Bible study books), real objectivity and an open mind, is the straightest path to atheism. By the time I accepted that I was an atheist and embraced secular humanism, I had kid #2. Fortunately, my DH and I were on the same page.

Now with a 5 year old and a 2 year old, I’ve recently begun thinking about how we will introduce the subject of religion to them. They have seen people pray over food and has heard my mother say, “Oh, Lawd!” at one of their funny antics. That pretty much sums up their religious exposure. But they will get older. They might hear one or both of their grandmas talk about God or Jesus. They could hear about the concept of hell. I don’t want them confused or frightened when these topics come up.

So, I’ve decided to get a Children’s Bible. Kids love stories and mine are no different, so why not just read them Bible stories? Except I am not burdened with the task of convincing them that any of the stories are true. We can freely critique them; laughing at the absurdities, rightly judging good or bad behavior of the characters (including God), or acknowledging a moral action. And if they don’t like the stories, we can stop reading.

I’ll be very interested in hearing my children’s honest impressions of these stories. In your secular family, if you read some Bible stories to your children, what did they think of them?



Letting children go to church with strangers

Ask an Atheist is a local (Pacific Northwest) radio show out of Lakewood, Wa. I listened to one of their most recent episodes in which the topic was parenting and atheism. They brought up the issue of allowing, as an atheist parent, your child to attend religious services.

My take is the same as one of the hosts (who is currently raising a child): I do not mind my child attending a church service with a trusted family member or friend, provided my child wanted to go. But sending my child off to church with people I do not know is unacceptable. Yet, I was reminded by the conversation during the show, that this is pretty common place.

The same host described this situation that happened to her: her son plays with a neighbor girl in their apartment complex regularly. One Saturday, the girl’s mother, whom she had never formally met, asks to take her son to an event “tomorrow morning”. She had to drag it out of her that this event was church.

The host said she had two issues: 1) not being up front about where she was asking to take her son, and 2) considering that they were barely acquainted, leaving her out of the invitation and only inviting her son.

A caller recounted a similar situation with her daughter, but it was much worse. Every Sunday, a van would come to the caller’s complex to pick kids up and take them to a local church. When asked by a neighbor why she didn’t allow her daughter to go, she said, “I don’t know anyone at this church or where they are going.”  The neighbor is shocked and says, “But it’s a church!” As if bad things don’t happen to children at church.

The church where I grew up used to bus kids (in a van) from a nearby housing project to attend Vacation Bible School during the summers. While some parents might have had friends or relatives that were familiar with our church (or perhaps even attended a service themselves), I know there were some that knew nothing much about us. And they, I believe now in retrospect, carelessly let their kids go to a strange place with adults they never met.

It is striking, the assumptions we make culturally, when any event is associated with a religious organization. This can be very dangerous, especially when it comes to children’s safety.


Homeschooling: Two weeks into Kindergarten

It’s going pretty well!

We’re focusing on many of the same subjects that I outlined for my oldest son’s last year of pre-K: science, math, reading/phonics, art, social studies, cooking and handwriting. We do two subjects a day, one in the morning and one mid-afternoon, after little brother’s nap. Structured lessons are for an hour each, max. Many times, we’re at 45 minutes. DH does handwriting in the evenings, and those are only 15 minute sessions. We are also part of a group of other secular homeschoolers and we plan on meeting twice a week for group activities in the areas of science, language, cooking and anatomy. We had out first “class” Monday, for science, and the kids had a ball with a color changing milk experiment.

At home, the materials we’re using are:

1. Primary Mathematics

I really like this curriculum. For those unfamiliar, this is Singapore Math, which teaches kids to do mental math. We’re using 1A level. It is very organized and and includes a textbook and workbook for the kids and an instructor booklet. Very easy to implement. Right now, we’re working on number bonds and it was the first week where #1 son didn’t quite get it all the way; about 30 percent. The beauty of homeschooling, of course, is that you take as long as you want until your kid gets it. No timetable. The second lesson on number bonds, I did a review and we did a game using a 3-compartment plate, numeral cards and goldfish crackers. This isn’t original, I got it off the interwebs (just google it). He seemed to get it a lot more: that 5 is the same as 3+2, 0+5, and 4+1.

2. Science is Simple

Haven’t done much in this yet. One lesson so far: we borrowed Suddenly! from the library and read that together. It’s a book they suggest to help kids make guesses about what will happen next in a story. Basically, practicing the scientific method.  This can be done with any story. This is one of the first lessons, but it has tons of fun ideas for actual science experiments.

3. Beginning Geography (social studies)

Also have done just a few pages so far. Learning maps, direction (up, down, right, left, N, S, E, W), land masses, bodies of water, etc. Came with two huge colorful posters we hung up in the playroom. #1 son likes the activities and coloring the pages.

4. Explode the Code (phonics)

While the main focus of ETC is phonics, it is very writing intensive. After a couple of weeks, we’re now skipping the last page in each lesson because it’s JUST MORE WRITING. We already have a separate curriculum for handwriting so it’s feel redundant. I appreciate some writing practice, but in my opinion it’s a bit much. Other than that, the lessons are good and I am still happy using it (although we might supplement with Hooked on Phonics at some point).

5. Draw Write Now (art)

Right now, #1 son is taking a 5-week art class at Masterpiece Art Studio (which he loves), but when that is over we’ll be doing some different things for art and this book is one. It gives you step by step instructions on how to draw different animals and it’s great handwriting practice, too. My son likes following steps for things if it’s something he likes, like art. We’ll also be using project ideas from The Artful Parent.

6. Pretend Soup (cooking)

My DH found this book and I like it a lot. The recipes are made to allow the kids to do as much prep and cooking as possible independently (with adult supervision of course). There are also two versions of directions: one with words for parents and one with pictures and a word or two for the kids. We’ve made one recipe so far, “Green Spaghetti”, which is basically pasta and homemade pesto. The kids enjoyed making it. My younger son tasted some and liked it, and my older son (who is VERY picky) just ate plain pasta with butter, salt and pepper. It was actually really good and I added extra garlic!

7. Now I’m Reading (books for early reader practice)

So far, very happy with these. The illustrations are engaging and there is an actual story with a beginning, middle and end. We start each book with just looking at the pictures, then I read it a few times, then he reads it alone when he is ready to. If he can read it by himself with no help, he can put a sticker inside the book.

8. Universal Publishing Handwriting Series

Had a hard time finding handwriting curriculums. Weren’t sure what style to go with. At first, we thought maybe italics were the way to go and not even getting into cursive. There are so many choices. But we finally realized readability is most important, so regular old printing is best (and easier to learn), with cursive instruction starting in a few years.

Finally, at some point I will buying a children’s Bible to help introduce the kids to Bible stories. I think this subject can be called religious literacy or maybe mythology? The Christian stories and traditions are very much a part of American culture, down to the idioms or sayings people speak (read here). The great part from our perspective is that DH and I don’t have to convince our kids that these stories are true. They are free to think whatever they want to think about them. And we’re not focusing on just Christianity; we will delve into other religious traditions as they get older.


A look at Ezekiel 16

One of the many books I am currently reading is called God against the gods: The History of the war between Monotheism and Polytheism, by Jonathan Kirch. In the first chapter, he quotes some passages from Ezekiel to illustrate the extreme fidelity the Old Testament Yahweh requires of the Israelites, and the pretty uncontrollable rage and resentment he feels when he doesn’t get what he wants from them. As most people know, lots of different imagery is used to describe Israel’s “waywardness” in the Old Testament, but one that is  very common is that of a husband and his bride, a bride who eventually turns into a “whore”. The passages quoted in Kirch’s book are from Ezekiel 16.

Here is a brief breakdown of the chapter:

1. Right at the beginning of the chapter, Israel is likened to an abandoned baby, a girl presumably, left to die. God (who I suppose can be likened to a rich, noble man) finds her and takes care of her, much like a father. But things get creepy because when the child matures, this father-figure all of a sudden wants to marry her. In this culture, at the time, most women had little to no choice in whom they married. And men with means saw most women and girls as potential wives or concubines. Using that imagery makes sense in historical context; but it is disturbing as hell.

2.  So the girl complies when offered marriage. But she is strong-armed and manipulated into the relationship. This rich man (God) saved her (Israel) from a perilous fate and made her beautiful and attractive (by his standards). Never mind that she didn’t ask to be saved or beautified. Or how questionable it is to do something for someone and use it as a means to control them. But in his mind, she owes him. And the payment he wants is her total fidelity to him only, no matter what. However, what happens when one is under someone’s complete control is that eventually, you get tired of it and start asserting your independence. That is what Israel does. But that independence is interpreted as “whoring”.

3. So because of all this “whoring”, he punishes her. By causing her lovers to jump her and hack her to death. Metaphorically, of course. But when she is down and out again, he’ll come back to her. What a gentleman.

In a relationship with anyone: it’s not normal to do something for someone and then expect them to be in a constant state of owing you. When someone asserts their individuality, unique personality and tastes, it’s not normal to shame them and force them, by emotional manipulation (remember what I did for you???), to conform to your personal  or preferred standards.

But, this is totally normal if God is doing it. 

This is one of the problems I have with Christianity: total abdication of “self” is seen as a virtue. Your wants and desires have to align with God’s wants and desires. You have to “be like” Jesus. You are commanded to love him. You are, in effect, expected to be a robot.

In addition, this “gift” of salvation being offered to you must be taken with love and gratefulness. Declining it is not an option, because you will be punished if you do so.

To me that seems tyrannical and controlling, not loving.

Religion and freethinking in the Islands

This interview was a treat to listen to. Local podcaster Alan Litchfield interviews Joy Holloway-D’avilar, a Barbados native who has been living in the U.S. for 20 years. She talks about her experience as an atheist/freethinker in the Caribbean community. I was especially tickled because my maternal great-grandmother was from Barbados.

One of the many excellent points she made were how reliant, and one might say co-dependent, the black community, particularly in the States, is on the various colonial religions, be it Christianity or Islam. She also talks about the basics of Rastafarianism; it is a good example of how people often exchange one set of mental slavery for another.


Black moms with biracial kids

I recently read an older blog post from Heidi Durrow, author of The Girl Who Fell from the Sky. She brought up the issue of how black moms encourage their biracial (or multiracial) children to embrace their identity. What are their perspectives? As a side note, she published that post when I was pregnant with my first son, :). Now, with two mixed-race sons, I have some experience  in this realm.

It seems, she says, that the multiracial agenda is largely set by white moms of biracial children. I think there is definitely some truth to that. In my experience, some black women who have mixed-race children are not particularly invested in their children embracing a mixed identity beyond acknowledging the biological fact that one parent is non-black. They are very adamant about their children largely claiming their “blackness” and other cultural heritages, while not invisible, are secondary; in fact, I’d say the black community at large generally carries this mindset. The fear is that if one doesn’t claim their blackness, then that means something is wrong with being black.

As a society, we’ve definitely internalized the one-drop rule, which, it should be said, has zero scientific evidence to back it up. But even though this social construct is not based on biological facts, the idea of “race” is still a powerful force in our culture. And that is why some black moms of biracial children feel the way I described above. I, however, don’t share that opinion.

As a secular humanist, I despise tribalism or nationalism of any kind. At the end of the day, we have to all get along and someone’s family or country of origin should be a point of respectful interest, not division. I am not invested in how my children racially identify. I do want them to be compassionate, empathic human beings, so they do not have to be considered part of a group before they feel moved to support or fight injustice against that group. That might be another fear some black people have: if you don’t consider yourself black, you won’t be invested in our cause.

These discussions are interesting and definitely needed as more and more people identify as mixed-race.


Annoying questions for atheists

This was a pretty good article from Alternet by Greta Christina on questions that some atheists may find annoying or downright insulting.

Our family has only recently become secular. With the exception of my mother and brother, we haven’t had many discussions with our other religious family and friends about that change. I imagine it’s a fairly uncomfortable subject for most. But I’m certain some of the questions on this list have occurred to those that know we are not religious anymore.

What stood out for me were the the questions about being moral without god and finding meaning in life apart from belief in a god. Both take a great deal of personal responsibility. It can be scary to know that it is solely up to you to make life decisions for yourself and to create meaning in your life. But, as many atheists who were formerly religious can attest to, coming to grips with that reality ends up being quite liberating. It feels like chains have been lifted from your neck, as you do not have to be guided by guilt trips to think a certain way or to make a certain decision. You can use reason, logic and true compassion, while looking at each challenge in life on a case-by-case basis. You can be comfortable changing your mind about something once you get new information. Which makes perfect sense!

Ca school district sued over yoga classes

A family has brought a law suit against the Encinitas, Ca school district over a yoga program. You can read the AP article here.

The lawsuit claims that these classes violate the separation between church and state. Why? Because yoga’s origins come from Hinduism; and this is true.

So, the question is this: are the teachers proselytizing Hinduism? Are they promoting the religious tenets of Hinduism?

According to the article, they are not. Teachers are simply teaching the children the movements of yoga, but not talking about Hinduism at all (which is the case with almost all Western yoga classes).

Based off that, it doesn’t seem to violate the separation of church and state, but we’ll see where the case goes. If this family is Christian (and the article does not state that), I suspect the problem they have with yoga is the belief that doing the movements means you are worshipping Hindu gods, thus sinning against the biblical God (or whatever god they worship).

My opinion, of course, is that movements cannot injure the pride of a god that does not exist. However, if the case rules that the yoga classes are legal, children whose parents don’t like the class will have to sit it out, like they have done since the classes started, apparently. But the parents complained that their kids weren’t getting the required amount of exercise set by the state. In that case, I suggest they do an alternative form of physical activity during the classes (such as walking around the school or something) with another teacher.