Atheists Are (Perhaps) Us…Or Not

There was a time in this country that an open admission of atheism could get a person severely hurt in any given community.  Ostracism, mainly, which over time can be very damaging.  But like so many other “out of the mainstream” life choices, this too is no longer the case.

According to this article in the New York Times, “No Religion” has more than doubled on surveys in the past ten to twenty years.  Now, that does not mean all these folks are atheists or agnostics.  It means, quite specifically, that they align themselves with no organized religion.

Some folks might wonder at the difference.  What is having faith if not in the context of a religious umbrella?

When I was fifteen I left the church.  I’d been educated in a Lutheran school and received a healthy indocrintation in that faith.  After entering public high school, I found myself growing less and less involved or interested.  There was in this no profound personal insight or revelation.  It was adolescent laziness.  I’d never been a consistent Sunday church-goer, and although there had been a year or two when I actually practiced Testifying, born out of a powerful belief in Christianity, other factors managed to draw my interest away.

I stopped attending church at all.  I didn’t give it a lot of thought—some, but not a lot—until some visiting teachers showed up at my door from my church.  They were nice, they were concerned.  I’d been receiving the newsletter and so forth.  They wanted to know where I’d been.  I handed them some sophistry about finding another path.  At that point, I still believed in god and accepted Jesus and all that.  And in truth I had begun to suspect that the whole church thing had some serious problems.  But basically, I just didn’t want to be bothered, and all my new friends came from other backgrounds and didn’t go to that church.  I hadn’t especially liked the whole school experience there (having been bullied, mostly, till almost 8th grade) and didn’t have much motivation on that score to go back and make nice with people who had basically treated me like shit.

They accepted my explanation and went away.  A few months later I received a letter from the P.T.L. and church board telling me my soul was in jeopardy if I didn’t return to the fold.  It took two pages, but the bottom line was I needed to get my butt back to church and beg forgiveness (and pay my dues) or I’d end up in hell.

I was furious.  My father read the letter, laughed, and pronounced that they were obviously hard up for money, and suggested I ignore it.

I did for another nine months.  Then I got another such letter.  Shorter, more to point, and the financial aspect was sharper.  This time I didn’t ignore it.  I went to the next open P.T.L. meeting there and when they asked for questions from the floor I stood up, read the letter, and then told them that this amounted to harrassment.  I didn’t care if they needed money, this was a threat and if I heard from them again, especially this way, they would hear from my lawyer.

I never heard from them again.

My anger did not subside.  It drove me into a frenzy of religious questioning.  Over the next two years I visited dozens of churches and more than a few off-the-wall sects (even the Church of Scientology), looking for…something.

I found bits of it here and there.  Being a rather idealistic youth, having not found a satisfying answer in any of them, I opted to have faith my own way and to hell with all of them.  I was done with Organized Religion.

And that’s how I felt about it for a long time—that it wasn’t god I didn’t believe in, but the church.  The more I studied the more I came to see how the church had become an institution that looked out for its own interests and my personal moral salvation was but a product sold to make sure the slate roofs didn’t leak and the clergy could dress well.  It wasn’t until I almost married a Catholic and went through some of the courses offered that I came to my final revelation that it was all just an extra-governmental method of social organization and control and had no real connection to anything holy.

Whatever that might be.

For several years I was militantly anti-religion.  I’ve mellowed.  All that I felt then about the church I do still feel, but not to the exclusion of much else.  I no longer view “church” as evil or even remotely culpable in social ills.  I’ve come to feel that many individual parishes and congregations have staid the tide of harm that sweeps over communities periodically and that without them communities would suffer more because frankly there isn’t anything else that does what a church does.  I believe that if all churches vanished tomorrow, by the end of the year there would be new ones, because people seem to need them.  They might not be called churches, but, like the organization in the Times piece, would serve all the social functions of one.

I also feel that belief in god is not something that will ever go away.  There is a connection people need to feel to things larger than themselves and for many the amorphous thing they call god is it.  I dropped that notion when I realized that I felt exactly—exactly—the same feelings I’d felt toward god when in the grip of great music or in the presence of great art.  It is, in any of its manifestations, a human thing that takes us out of ourselves and shows us what the universe can mean, and there are many ways to tap into that.  There was a time when for the vast majority of people the Church was the only place to go to find that.  Seriously.  In one place, people could stand in the presence of grandeur that took them out of themselves and connected them to a larger realm, through the architecture, the music…and the stories.

We live in a time when all those things can be experienced by many more people than ever before and in contexts shorn of the rather monopolistic trappings of religion.  Perhaps people do not consciously make that connection, but I think more and more people find that they are, for lack of a better term, spiritually fulfilled in the course of living a full life than was ever possible before.

So I am careful about associating labels that may not be exactly correct to this growing phenomenon of people rejecting churches.  They are not all atheists.  Many may not be agnostics.  But all of them have discovered that the thing they sought in religion can be found without it.

The best thing about this is that for all these people there is no one who can write them a threatening letter about hellfire and make them dance to a tune they no longer find danceable.

I Do Not Look Like This Anymore

I’m a bit vain, I admit it.  I like looking…well, it’s hard to pin down.  I have never considered myself “good looking” by any popular standards.  I have my own and I have frankly never lived up to them quite.  But I have a care for my appearance, which drives me to the gym and to trim my beard and to dress well when I can.

It’s a struggle against entropy.  It won’t destroy me to lose it, but to do my best without killing myself is important.  I’m not vain enough to do liposuction.  If my hair falls out, I’ll shave my head rather than wear a “laurel wreath.”  Mainly, I try to keep the muscle-to-fat ratio at an acceptable level, make sure my teeth are clean, and watch my posture.  Let the rest go where it may.

I had this photograph done back in the mid-90s, when I thought I was on my way to being some kind of Big Time Writer.  I’ve used it a few times.  It is now quite dated.  The beard, for instance, is now almost all white.

I can still get into the mesh shirt though…


To Explore Strange New Worlds….

The number of stars discovered having planets in orbit has grown over the years since we figured out how to find them.  Mostly, though, the planets in question have been big Super Jovians, basically failed stars that, had they been a bit more massive, probably would have ignited and turn their primary into a binary or even trinary star system.  Smaller planets— say, like Earth or Mars—are by definition harder to find.

But find one we have.  Check this piece at Panda’s Thumb.

The possibilities inch toward probabilities that there is life—rich life, complex life—elsewhere, not just here.  This is a really cool time to be a science fiction fan.

Or maybe not.  Once the fantasy becomes fact, will it have the same kick?  It’s a question prompted on a much smaller scale by SF stories that have dated badly.  Technology or even basic science has passed them by and rendered them incorrect, obsolete in their premises.  I’ve seen it suggested that such stories be treated as alternate history, which is a good way around some of the pitfalls.  A lot of Arthur C. Clarke falls into this category.  Most of the apocalytpic tales that had us living in ruins before the 21st Century.  Putting a date on the events in a story can have a detrimental effect in terms of its viability in the future.

This doesn’t bother some people.  I have a hard time with it and I admit it’s a personal thing with me.  When I read a novel that was published in the 50s or 60s about events in the 90s and those events are, necessarily, wrong, my suspension of disbelief goes out the window.  But mainly if the events of the story are sufficiently large scale—like the Soviet Union winning the Cold War or the advent of a nuclear holocaust or a moonbase or major shifts in geopolitics.  If the story is personal and doesn’t require that kind of overall rearranging of the landscape, it works just fine.  But then, is it science fiction?

Alternate history really would be a good way to view a lot of old SF.  The exploration of strange new worlds we never found…

In the meantime, we have some real ones that have been found.  How cool is that?

On Knocking ‘Em Dead

By now I think everyone on the blogosphere has heard the story of Susan Boyle.   It is an amazing moment and I hope she goes on to do more, because this woman has the fire and the talent.

You can tell, when you watch the video, that everyone in the audience and the judges thought this was a joke.  Here’s this dowdy, middle-aged woman with no looks and from a small town and with no creds who claims to want to be great and is going to sing a sentimental song from a musical and, well, shame on them and shame on us, she looked like she was going to croak like a frog.  So many people of like appearance do.  They step up on stage at the karaoke lounge and bellow or whine and it’s terrible and embarrassing and one hopes everyone was drunk enough not to care, but expectations get set.

To be clear, people who look like that ought to have this kind of talent sound like frogs, too, but somehow we don’t characterize them that way.  We keep expecting beautiful people to be beautiful in everything, or at least to have the good taste to not try what they can’t do.

One of the judges said that Susan’s performance was a wake-up call.  Indeed.

I can’t sing.  I know this.  Even though, on occasion, with the right amount of brandy in my belly, I’ve been known to surprise a roomful of people, this is not a talent I have in any reliable measure.  And when I get nervous, it gets worse.

But I can play piano and guitar and from time to time I’ve actually pulled off a minor coup in public performance.  The hindrance is always the nerves combined with my expectations.  I want to be great.

And I know I’m not.

I’m okay with that, though.  As much as I love music, it is not my first love, and playing okay is, well, okay with me.

But it’s the guts to actually overcome self-consciousness enough to do what you know you can.  Susan Boyle has that.  I have no doubt there are many people who go onto those kinds of shows who really do have talent and blow it because, standing there in front of that audience and those judges, the little troll in the back of their brain tells them they can’t.  It is as much a talent and an ability to ignore that little shit as it is to then perform.  To some extent you have not care.

But how do you do that when really you care so much it’s painful?

The only way to shut that troll up is to do this kind of thing at least once.  And then again.  And again.  And so on.

There was a girl in my grade school, a couple years behind me, who was the epitome of wall flower.  She could never manage to keep her hair combed right, her clothes never fit the way they should, and she muttered in class.  I found out later that she got straight A’s all through school, but she as unremarkable as they come.

Because I was bullied through most of grade school, I made a deal with the teacher one year to be allowed to come in and play piano during recess.  I did this for a few months until I got in trouble for playing Never On Sunday (it was a parochial school).  A few others would come in, mostly girls, and listen.  I was not a great player by any stretch of the imagination then, but I was 12 and I could play I wasn’t playing hymns, so it was special.

This girl came in a few times and once she asked if she could try.  There were giggles, but I slid aside and she sat down.

She was 10 and proceeded to play Claire de Lune almost note perfect.  I recognized it because we had a lot of classical records at home, but the others didn’t.  Still, for about three minutes, it was mesmerizing.  Small hands, they nevertheless flew over the keys during the latter sections of the piece.

When she finished, I said “That was terrific!  What else can you play?”  Whereupon she turned a brilliant red and ran from the classroom.  I never heard her play again.

Now I hadn’t thought of her till I saw Susan Boyle.

Never underestimate the power of human potential.  People will surprise you every time.  If they get a chance.  If they get a shot at living a dream.

And we should never, ever laugh at someone’s dream.

It’s The Women, Stupid

And now for a romantic interlude in the otherwise dangerous realm of Afghan social morays vis-a-vis the Taliban.  A young couple whose families disapproved of their union ran off to get married.  Married, mind.  Not live together outside wedlock or anything so dramatic, but married.  The result?  They were shot outside their mosque after a tribunal of mullahs condemned them.  Here is the story.

It is difficult seeing this to remember that this sort of thing is really not consistent with mainstream Islam.  But, just as with certain splinter groups of so-called christian sects, the Qu’ran is continually used to justify the persecution of women.

Yes, women.  Even though the young man was also killed, it is fairly clear that the main issue the Taliban and other groups like it embrace is the control of women.  They bar them from school, they bar them from conversation, they bar them from public view, they bar them.  All, it seems, they want from women is to be sex slaves for the males selected to possess them and anything—anything—that threatens that is condemned and, as usual, the women pay the price overwhelmingly.  There are other issues covered by strict Sharia Law, but we hear little about that, probably because a lot of it is also covered by more tolerant, liberal interpretations of the law.  The dividing line is over the women.  It is over giving women a voice, a choice, any freedom at all to say no, and defenders of this who deny that it is a mysoginist pathology seem either to not Get It or are lacking any comprehension that women are people.

To be clear, as I stated, christian groups do this, too.  Maybe they don’t kill them in the street, but that’s only because in the West, the police really will arrest them for that.

To paraphrase James Carville, “It’s all about the women, stupid.”

There is no compromising on this, as far as I’m concerned.  To allow this is to make all of us a little less human.

Titles That Amazon Has Stripped of Sales Ranking

A sample of some of the books that have been stripped of their sales ranking by Amazon’s (now disclaimed) Adult Content Policy:

  • Fiction:  E.M. Forster’s Maurice, D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle, Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges are not the Only Fruit, Manuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spider Woman, Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain, Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet, and books by Nicola Griffith, among others.
  • Biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs:  Randy Shilts’ The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk, Dan Savage’s The Committment: Love, Sex, Marriage and My Family, Quentin Crisp’s The Naked Civil Servant, and Gerald Clarke’s biography of Truman Capote.
  • History: David Carter’s Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution, Vito Russo’s The Celluloid Closet, Louis Crompton’s Homosexuality and Civilization, and Tin’s The Dictionary of Homophobia: A Global History of Gay & Lesbian Experience.

More books that have had their rankings stripped.  Regardless whether Amazon backs off of this, people ought to continue raging against them.  They’ll try something else in future if they think they got by without serious damage.

Look What Is Doing has just initiated a new marketing policy. They are stripping away the sales ranking of any book with so-called Adult Content. Here’s their little explanation:

“In consideration of our entire customer base, we exclude “adult” material from appearing in some searches and best seller lists. Since these lists are generated using sales ranks, adult materials must also be excluded from that feature. Hence, if you have further questions, kindly write back to us.

Best regards, Ashlyn D Member Services Advantage

What this mean in effect, however, is that books primarily with gay and lesbian content are being singled out for exclusion from database searches. It is being applied in a bigoted and surprisingly hamfisted manner to conform to someone’s standard of what constitutes Offensive Material. Adult Content generally means anything with more than coyly suggested sex in it.

However, as a sample of the books not having their sales ranking stripped away, consider these:

–Playboy: The Complete Centerfolds by Chronicle Books (pictures of over 600 naked women)

–Rosemary Rogers’ Sweet Savage Love” (explicit heterosexual romance);

–Kathleen Woodiwiss’ The Wolf and the Dove (explicit heterosexual romance);

–Bertrice Smal’s Skye o’Malley which are all explicit heterosexual romances

–and Alan Moore’s Lost Girls (which is a very explicit sexual graphic novel)

These book sell very well, generally, so it’s obvious that there’s a dollar connection to this new policy. Midlist—the vast majority of books—will be targeted. Why is this important? Because this will delete titles from amazon search engines. It will make a dent in writers’ incomes. It will render invisible Those Sorts of Books. This is 1950s Era censorship and it is a threat to livelihoods as well as the general public’s right to choose what to read.

Here is a cogent article about this.

What I want to say right here has to do with the whole notion of isolating Adult Content to appease the screeching of those who would defend us from our own choices. We see this time and again and it is always the same appeal to Family Values, often expanded with a plea to Protect the Children. I see billboards in certain parts of the country now that declare that Pornography Destroys Families. We are meant to hide that part of ourselves from any kind of public display in the name of some sort of imagined “purity” that must be preserved among children so that they aren’t “damaged” by early exposure to human sexuality.

I’m tired of it. It’s absurd. Not that I think kids ought to be exposed to pornography—not at all—but the whole idea that adults do not have a right to indulge in adult things, without being ashamed of it, from fear that junior might see something he or she is too young to deal with. It does not proctect the children, it makes adults self-conscious, and it falsely assumes that Adult Content is about things none of us should indulge or admit to indulging. It is the age old game of trying to shame people into denying their own sexuality because some people can’t deal with their own.

And in this instance it has serious consequences for writers and publishers. is an enormous source of income for the publishing industry. Along with the mega-chain booksellers, they have the power to influence the acquisition choices of publishers. Which means that something like this can have a direct impact on the kinds of books that get bought and published.

This is an offensive against a wide range of subject matter, topics, authors, and sensibilities. Not to mention that it is hypocritically applied. There is a petition here.

To be sure, we are not talking exclusively or even largely about pornography. We are talking about work that addresses topics that include matters of adult concern regarding sex. By rights, this kind of policy would once again cast Catcher In The Rye back into the shadows of censorship. Censorship.

It is illegal when the government does it to an already published book. But this is private industry and they set policy any way they please.

However the power of the purse ultimately is in the hands of the consumer. We have been in some ways tyrannized over the last three decades by the persistent sensitization of protecting children from adulthood. We have been inundated with the suggestion that the private proclivities of some adults are too odious to be revealed or publicly discussed. In the seventh grade I was caught in class reading Harold Robbins’ The Carpetbaggers. The principle thought this was serious enough to call my mother in for a conference. He made it clear by his word choice and body language that he expected my mother to be appaled at my choice of reading material. Instead, she said that she never censored what I read and that if I couldn’t handle something I wouldn’t read it and she would appreciate it if in future he would not censor me.

She was largely correct. Most of what I read in that novel then went right by me. I don’t advocate handing out Harold Robbins novels to 14-year-olds, but I believe our readiness to panic over such things is ill-advised. Better to discuss these things with kids rather than slap them down or, worse, pretend such books don’t exist. But most importantly, we have to stop behaving as if becoming and adult and embracing adult things is somehow a degradation. I have said before, quite simply certain things are just not for children.  Parents should deal with it.  I do not accept for an instant that the world ought to be ordered exclusively for their level.

I will not say for their benefit, because people who engage in this kind of idiotic social engineering are not, by and large, doing it for the children—they’re doing for themselves, for what they think the world ought to be like. Using the children is just an excuse.

I’m tired of it. I think we should all be tired of it.