A Few Changes Around Here

I am writing this from my sister’s car, so this will be brief. I just wanted to flag everyone to a few changes to the site. Mostly they revolve around improved search capabilities. To the left of the blog, you’ll find posts broken down by category and by religion. Also, on the Blog Library page, you’ll find a full list of posts  broken down by month.

Hopefully this will allow you to access past posts more quickly and efficiently. But if anyone runs into issues, or has suggestions for me, please don’t hesitate to speak up. I’m always grateful for the feedback.

Now: Back to bumper-to-bumper traffic.

What’s Wrong with a Nativity Scene Made out of Dead Cats?

When my mom was in college at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, she had a sorority sister who interned for the local newspaper. One day, the intern was rummaging through the morgue (which, in pre-Internet days, is where they kept old  clips) when she found a file labeled “Funny Brides.” The file was pretty self-explanatory; it was filled with stories about tasteless weddings and photographs of homely, unseemly or otherwise humorous-to-look-at brides and their grooms. Of course, she wasn’t about to keep this find to herself, so she brought the file back to the Sorority House, where the sisters pissed themselves laughing. And, thus, a tradition was born.

Today, some 55 years later, my mom and a close circle of her old friends have a Funny Bride Book of their own. It’s filled with clippings from newspapers around the country. Sometimes, it’s just the photos that are funny. But more often it’s details of the ceremonies that prove the most hilarious. One couple, for instance, were married in front of a water fall. During their vows, a rock flew out of the water fall and hit the groom in the groin.

“It was reported,” my mom told me, “that the bride and groom were able to consummate the marriage…. Now, isn’t that more information than you really want to know?”

It wasn’t just Funny Brides that caught her fancy, though. The Des Moines Register used to print “Funny Names” as a regular column. Both my parents have committed a great number of those to memory. Let’s see, there’s Tackaberry McAdoo, Munsing Underwear Johnson, and my least favorite of all of them, Mary Moist.

The point is that my mother’s fascination with goofy newspaper stories is why I have in my possession a 1999 article about a school-sanctioned high school nativity scene in Elizabethton, Tennessee, made completely out of cat cadavers.

The Elizabethton Star, Tennessee

The Elizabethton Star, Tennessee

 

I know, I know. Christmas was so last month. And yet, I couldn’t help but share this one with you. If you’re not able to read it, click here — where I found an online-version of the story. And here, you’ll even find a Letter to the Editor about the thing. Apparently PETA eventually awarded its annual Kind Student Award to the boy who was SUSPENDED FROM SCHOOL for daring to take the scene down. And what, you ask, would lead him to vandalize such a holy display?

Well, because it smelled bad, the boy said. And because it was disgusting to look at.

Sacrilegious little shit. They should have expelled him.

Favorite line from the editorial: “That students in Elizabethton placed a formaldehyde-soaked dead cat in a cradle as baby Jesus and inserted sticks into the rectums of cats to make them stand up as Mary, Joseph, and the wise men is shocking…”

Especially when superimposed over this line from the Elizabethton Star:

“The decorating contest ‘gave students an opportunity to work as a team with their homeroom teacher with a holiday spirit activity,” Alexander (the principal) said in a press release. He said most reaction so the cat cadaver display were positive.”

This Blog Has Been Flagged as Inappropriate

annetaintoryouropinionA couple of weeks ago, a Texas mother named Deborah Mitchell wrote a guest blog for CNN’s iReport that quickly became one of the citizen-journalism site’s most widely read pieces. The blog received more than 750,000 page views, 9,000 comments and 64,000 Facebook recommendations.

And as a testament to its controversial nature, the entire essay was flagged as “inappropriate.”

Well, you know, I like to stay on top of current events, so I decided to check out the story that was causing all this grief and strife over at CNN. I clicked on over and, well, what I found can only be described as outrageously offensive and ill-suited to any and all adult audiences. In fact, I had to take a couple of beta blockers just to get through the thing without vomiting or passing out. To me, the fact that CNN would print something so utterly disturbing makes me question whether people associated with CNN should be allowed to live in our country anymore.

Of course, I want to tell you what the story was about, but first, I need to give you some fair warning: This blog has been flagged as inappropriate. People who are pregnant, elderly or suffering from heart conditions may want to look away.

Deborah Mitchell’s report was… wow … hold on… breathing into paper bag…

Deborah Mitchell’s report was about being an ag—

An ag—

AN AGNOSTIC PARENT!

Deep breaths! Deep breaths, people!

Everyone still with me?

Oh, thank God.

So here’s the deal: Mitchell, who has a blog called Kids Without Religion, wrote about how she had decided not to “gift” her child God because she didn’t think the God that most people worship is much of a gift. Then she laid out seven reasons why the traditional notion of “God” didn’t do it for her. It’s an interesting take on the whole “to-God or not-to-God” debate, not to mention a flash of glitter in the often-overlooked world of nonreligious parenting.

If you aren’t one of the 700,000 who have already read it, be sure to check it out here.

Editors over at iReport have been quick to explain that some readers — not anyone from CNN — had flagged the story as inappropriate. But the reaction was clearly so out of the ordinary that CNN blogger Daphne Sashin felt compelled to report about the controversy for CNN’s Belief Blog — a story that itself garnered 14,000 comments.

Fourteen. Thousand. Comments.

Which is precisely why I will be flagging my blogs as inappropriate from now on.

A Newer (And More Laid Back) Brand of Atheism

Religiously speaking, this is an unusual time in our history. Secularism is clearly on the rise, and yet religion maintain a stronghold over our society and politics. That science has boldly answered so many “mysteries of the universe” has not stopped supernatural beliefs from influencing how most Americans think and live. Every day I read headlines about how God is on the way out; every day I read headlines about how God is on the way up.

For us nonbelievers, it’s hard to know where we stand, where the country stands — and what the future holds.

We are a nation that revels in extremes. We watch with fascination as religious zealots (Christian Fundamentalists, Islamic Fundamentalists, etc.)  duke it out with anti-religious zealots (New Atheists). But most of us — theists or no — thankfully reside in the broad in-between. We see no need for zealotry, and we certainly don’t support it.

As a person living during America’s “secular boom,” I personally have been accused of “turning away” from God. Many of us have. But the truth is, to say I have “turned away” from God is like saying I’ve “turned away” from rugby. I’m fine with the fact that other people play rugby. They seem to really enjoy it. It’s just not my game.

Now, of course, naysayers will argue that religion is not at all like rugby. Rugby is not known for hurting people, causing wars, embracing elitism, inciting hate. And I get that. But I’d just ask anyone reading this to picture a beloved friend or relative who also happens to be deeply faithful. We all have at least one. Someone we love not just despite his or her spirituality, but maybe even because of it.

That’s the rugby I’m talking about.

The atheists I know don’t wish to offend nice people or cause our families pain. We wouldn’t dream of trying to stamp out our grandmothers’ faith. We, much like Jesus, do not wish to throw stones. Much like the Buddha, we prefer a middle path. And much like virtually every major religion in the world, we strive to take care of our families, do right by our communities, and live by the Golden Rule.

Isn’t it a shame that this sort of narrative — a new and, dare I say, improved brand of ‘New Atheism’ — doesn’t garner more headlines?

And, now, this picture of a monkey — living the dream. Enjoy your weekend, everyone!

Squirrel Monkey, Costa Rica, photo by Wendy Thomas Russell

The Game-Changer: ‘I Have a Dream’

I saw Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech” for the first time earlier this month. I’d seen and read bits and pieces of it before, but watching it in its entirety was something quite different. I had always thought of King as a courageous man, but the Dream speech, given during the March on Washington August 28, 1963, reminded me of his extraordinary confidence and grace, as well.

It was his unshakable confidence that struck me the most. The way he spoke to all those supporters lining the National Mall, it was as though he was guaranteed to succeed where others had failed, as though his dream were guaranteed to come true.

Of course, King couldn’t have known what changes would come. And he certainly couldn’t have known that 46 years later — the day before the country celebrated his birthday — a black man would be sworn in as president of United States. King couldn’t have known that nearly 4 million people would flood the National Mall, the way his supporters had, to witness the event.

No, he couldn’t have known. But as forward-thinking as he was, I get this sense he wouldn’t have been surprised, either.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget casting my ballot for Barack Obama on Nov. 4, 2008, or seeing those election returns roll in. I don’t think I’ll ever forget how emotional I was to see the newspaper the next day, or to watch the new First Family greet supporters after the inauguration. Although Obama was the one doing most the waving and smiling during those first few days, the victory didn’t belong only to him. It belonged to Martin Luther King, Jr., too. And, in a way, it belonged to us all.

Sometimes it still seems like a dream.

This post originally appeared on Jan. 16, 2012

3 Must-Reads for Secular Parents

The last month has produced an incredible little selection of articles relating to secular parenting, and I wanted to make sure you didn’t miss them. The pieces are, in turn, educational, insightful, funny and heartwarming. And all of them are written by women — which seems significant because the secular community is, we are told, still dominated by menfolk.

[To read the articles, just click on the titles below.]

1. Why My 7-Year-old is an Atheist (And Why I’m Okay With That) by Carolyn Castiglia

Castiglia, a comedian, writes about her daughter’s “conversion” to atheism, despite her own rather open-minded approach to religion. The piece is very funny but also has some nice advice to impart.  A friend found this on Jezebel but it was originally posted to Babble. Here’s a particularly good bit:

The way I imagine God has changed over the years – He’s gone from being a person, a man, to being more of a Thing, a notion. Goodness. The Oneness of the Universe. With something female in there. The energy that keeps the whole thing afloat. God as I know it now when I know it is kind of a cocktail made from a shot of Buddhism, a shot of feminist activism and a splash of ginger ale (because that, my friends, is something you can always count on). My daughter, on the other hand, at the ripe old age of 7, is convinced that there is no God. Not even a god. Yup, my kid’s an atheist. And she pretty much has been since she was 5. It’s not for lack of exposure to God or god or even gods and spirituality, because she has attended Church and church and a UU “church” and it has made no impact. We’ve prayed together. I talk about God sometimes, in a good way. When I asked her recently why she doesn’t believe in God she told me, succinctly, “Because I know too much about science!”

2. Losing Our Religion by Katherine Ozment.

Ozment is a writer who turned her attention to nonreligious parenting in this fun and honest Boston Magazine piece. Many parents are sure to find her situation all too familiar. Here’s the nut-graph:

Like most upper-middle-class parents, my husband and I have worked out a strategy for every aspect of our children’s lives, from cord-blood banking and on-demand breastfeeding to extracurricular math classes and strict limits on screen time. Religion is the big exception. It’s something he (raised Jewish) and I (raised Protestant) keep meaning to address, yet year after year we manage to avoid it. Most days I can shrug this off. Who has the time? I think. And does it even matter? But as ambivalent as I am about organized religion, I recognize there is something to it. Participation in a religious community has been correlated with everything from self-esteem and overall hopefulness to the avoidance of substance abuse and teen pregnancy. So I worry: Am I depriving my children of an experience that will help shape their identities in a positive way and anchor them throughout their lives?

3. The Curse of the Herd by Gwen DeWar

This is not a story about religion, per se, but it may as well be. DeWar is a writer and anthropologist fascinated by the strong pull humans feel toward conformity. The focus of this piece, published by Psychology Today, is how this sort of conformity can and does affect our child-rearing — and not in a good way. She writes:

It’s disturbing, and it should concern everyone. Yes, social conformity serves some helpful functions, and many people believe in the rights of various groups to enforce their own cultural norms. If a community wants to reject science in favor of folk remedies, or to punish people for teaching evolution, isn’t that their prerogative? But unless this group is composed solely of adult volunteers, there is a problem. Children don’t volunteer. They don’t choose their birthplace. They don’t choose their parents or the cultural setting in which they grow up….Is freedom of thought a human right? Do kids have a right to learn about the tools of critical thinking? Our need to question and tinker may be as primitive as our need for food and love.

And while I’m on it, two other worthy reads are:

• Molly Worthen’s One Nation Under God, an opinion published by the New York Times, in which which she argues that “the temple of ‘my personal opinion’ may be the real ‘established church’ in modern America.” (So true!)

•  Picture Books for Strong Girls, a list of book recommendations published by No Time for Flash Cards. The list has some great suggestions, to which I would add Big Momma Makes the World, a book that tells the Biblical creation story, more or less — only “God” is a Southern Momma with loads of laundry to do and a baby to take care of. (Don’t worry. She can handle it.)

Big Momma Makes the World

 

An Interview with the Guy Who Named the ‘Nones’

Barry KosminThere was a time, in the extremely recent past, when Americans with no religion were “the others.”

For decades, religious affiliation has fascinated researchers. Countless studies and surveys show document a painstaking analysis of each minor population shift. A switch from, say, Methodist to Baptist or Catholic to Protestant has been marked with great interest, year by year. Sure, the numbers of Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists have remained relatively small next to Christians — but they, too, have been counted. Their numbers seemed to matter.

Always absent from these studies and surveys was a specific category for Americans with no religion. Those of us who didn’t “belong” in an established group — for whatever reason. We were simply the “others.” Too few to name, much less care about.

But that all changed in the first years of the 21st Century.

After a decade (the 90s) in which religious affiliation dropped dramatically — by several percentage points (and, yes, that was considered dramatic) — the country’s top researchers realized they needed a new category.

Barry A. Kosmin was one of them. As the founding director of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and a professor at Trinity College, Kosmin had been helping to conduct the American Religion Identification Survey for nearly three decades. Once they’d evaluated data from the 1990s, Kosmin and his team were determined to name a new category.

“Nonreligious” was a possibility. So was “non-faith” and “non-affiliated.”

But Kosmin rejected all of these. The “non” part bothered him. “Non-affiliated” would be like calling people “non-white,” he said. “We didn’t want to suggest that ‘affiliated’ was the norm, and every one else was an ‘other.’”

“Nomenclature,” he added, ” is quite important in these things.”

So Kosmin began calling this group the “nones,” a shortened version for “none of the above” — which is what people often said when asked to name their religion. He never thought the term would stick.

“It began as a joke,” he said, “but now, like many of these things, it has taken on its own life.”

Indeed. Today, “nones” are everywhere. Both in a literal sense and a literary one.

“Nones” now make up an estimated 20 percent of the American population — or 60 million people. And most major research groups have given in to the verbiage, at least to some degree. (Some still prefer “unaffiliated” in their official questionnaires.) Journalists, especially, have embraced the word.

“Nones form Biggest Slice of Obama’s Religious Voters,” said an October headline in the Huffington Post.

“The ‘nones’ now form the worlds’ third-largest religion’ reported the Religion News Service  last month.

The list goes on and on.

That’s not to say the word is without its critics. For many on the more spiritual end of the “nonreligious” spectrum, “nones” sounds too dismissive. They liken it to “nothing,” and sometimes the response is: “I’m not nothing!”

Still, like Kosmin said, the word now has a life of its own. Even Gallup Poll, which published  a report today, saying that the number of people who prefer “no religion” leveled off a bit between 2011 and 2012, put “nones” in its headline.

[Special thanks to Hemant Mehta who referenced this blog on his website The Friendly Atheist.]

Quick! What the Hell is Epiphany?

OK, y’all, I have to apologize. First, I’ve been traveling without my laptop for the last week and haven’t been able to update. Second, I’ve been really busy finishing up my book (!!) which has pushed the blog to the back burner lately. Case in point: My somewhat ill-thought-out previous blog post. Hopefully most of you got the gist of what I was trying to say, but if you didn’t, you can be sure you weren’t alone.

That said, today is a new day, a new week and a new year! And there’s been a new holiday, too: Epiphany! It’s not a major holiday (which is why I knew almost nothing about it), but it’s worth noting if only to understand this fabulous array of photographs published by the Guardian this weekend.

ukraine-epiphany-2010-1-19-18-44-35

Holiday: Epiphany

AKA: Theophany

Religion Represented: Christianity

Date: Jan. 6 (And/or on the Sunday that falls between Jan. 2 and Jan. 8)

Celebrates: The manifestation of God as a human being (Jesus).

On a Scale of 1 to 10: The importance of Epiphany varies by country. I’m guessing it ranks about a 2 here in the United States, but as high as a 6 or 7 in some other regions of the world, most of them in Eastern countries. (But if anyone knows better, let me know!)

Star of the Show: Jesus (always Jesus!) but also the Magi (AKA “The Three Kings”)

Background: Epiphany, which was first observed somewhere in the 4th Century, is a general celebration of Jesus as the incarnation of God. As such, it commemorates the birth of Jesus, his visit from the three Magi, all the events of his childhood, his baptism in the Jordan River, and his first miracle (turning water into wine).

Interesting Part: Despite the broad meaning behind Epiphany, most countries focus on only two narrow aspects of Jesus’ life: The arrival of the three Magi (preferred by Western churches) and Jesus’ baptism (preferred by Eastern churches).

Associated Literary Passages: Matthew 2:1-12; Matthew 3:13-17; Luke 3:22; John 2:1-11.

How Its Celebrated: Look at these 11 Guardian photos to get a visual. Epiphany celebrants sing carols, put on nativity plays and hold parades. Many churches hold baptisms, or bless homes or entire bodies of water. In countries that focus on Jesus’ baptism, water plays a central role. In Hungary, people dive into icy water. In Bulgaria, they dance and sing in it. (All these people are crazy.) Countries that focus on the visits of the Magi sometimes treat Epiphany as a mini-Christmas celebration. The Magi are said to visit in the night (ala Santa Claus) and bring presents for children. A Spanish woman I follow on Instagram photographed her daughters leaving wine for the Magi and milk for their camels, and then placing their little shoes where they wanted the Magi to leave their gifts. How cute is that?

Fun Fact: The Magi have names. They are Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar

Conveying Meaning to Kids: Use the holiday to teach kids the lingo! Epiphany, Baptism and Magi are all great words (and culturally important words!) with decidedly Christian roots.

another-good-argument-for-infant-baptism-5Epiphany: Kids are likely to hear people talk about epiphanies a lot in their lives — I use the word all the time! — so why not take a few minutes to explain the secular meaning of epiphany (a sudden realization or insight into something) alongside the religious one (the sudden appearance of a deity)?

574 lizbeth zwergerBaptism: Let your kids know that many Christians get baptized to show their devotion to God, and Christian parents often baptize their children because they hope and expect that their children will worship the same God. People who are baptized can be standing, sitting or kneeling. They may be inside a church or out in nature. They may be completely submersed in the water, or water may be sprinkled on their heads. There are lots of ways to be baptized, but all of them carry the same basic purpose and meaning.

magiMagi: The three Magi in Christianity are also known as the three wise men and as the three kings. They were thought to be astrologers and gentiles (that is, they were not Jewish). Almost any nativity book will include the Magi, and your library is probably full of them. (books, not Magi.) Oh, and don’t forget to read O Henry’s The Gift of the Magi! Here’s a great version for kids.

For other Holiday Cheat Sheets, click here.

 

 

Learning to Ignore Religious Reactions to School Shootings

Photo by RexI’m on the freeway, heading back home from a doctor’s appointment, and feeling morose. For the last five minutes, I’ve been contemplating the Connecticut shootings, just as I have done about a billion other times since last Friday. Right now, I’m thinking:

Life is unfathomably cruel. The human experience is an experiment in limitless love and staggering loss. To be blessed by one is to be cursed by the other. It’s not fair — it’s not anything, really. It just is. And it feels terrible.

These thoughts are not helping my mood.

I take a deep breath. I want to feel better. I need to feel better. I challenge myself to find some silver linings in the tragedy. I think:

Only 20 kids were killed when it easily could have been been more. Because the victims were shot multiple times, they probably didn’t suffer much, if at all, before they died. The victim’s family members will be able to band together and support each other through the difficult months ahead. Foundations will be established in the children’s honor, which will help the living in countless ways. Legislators may finally be motivated to implement real, honest change in this country’s gun laws.

They are flimsy consolations, I realize, but they do console me. A little at least. And for the first time since I got in the car, I feel my body lighten, my muscles unclench, my spirits begin to lift.

But the gun-law thought has opened up another neural pathway. Now I start thinking about all the recent articles and Facebook posts I’ve seen about how school prayer would prevent school shootings. I start to mentally formulate my response to this, which, in very short order involves words like idiotic and garbage, along with a whole lot of profanity.

I check in with my body: It’s heavy again, muscles clenched, spirits fallen. Instead of being sad, I am now angry. I think:

If I wrote a blog post about this, what would I say about this push to put God back in schools? How would I respond to people who say that praying would prevent the violence caused by mentally disturbed individuals, and that secularism is to blame for what happened in Connecticut? Could I get through such a post without using the f word? 

I’m still driving, mind you, and am about to turn onto the freeway exit near my home, when the answer occurs to me — as if by divine intervention.

There is no reason to respond at all. 

We, on the “state” side of the church-and-state issue, know instructing children to pray in school is wrong, but school-prayer proponents are never going to agree with us on that. Therefore, i.e., ergo… there is no reason to respond because there is nothing to say.

Don’t get me wrong, if my kid’s school was contemplating reversing its policy on school prayer, I would absolutely speak to the school board. But it’s not. And I would bet that very few schools across the country are. So what’s there to talk about? Who cares if people who are wrong say things that are wrong? It happens all the time. Does it matter? Are we so insecure in our own knowledge that we must try to convince the unconvince-able of the truth?

No. No, we’re not.

I am off the freeway. I’ve turned onto my block. I relax again. I think:

School prayer, like so many things, is a nonissue for me. From now on, I’ll ignore the articles and Facebook postsI’ll tune out radio and  TV commentary. And if anyone tells me to my face that schools should bring back prayer, I will simply say, ‘okay.’ And I’ll probably even smile.

Because my spirits have been lifted again. And I am home.

Discussing Death with Little Ones (Whose Deaths We Fear So Much)

Not since 9/11 has a tragedy so deeply affected our nation as the massacre of 20 first-graders and six school administrators in Connecticut on Friday. It seems to me, words were not meant to communicate this level of horror. Our capacity for emotional pain is so much deeper than our capacity to verbalize what has happened. Sometimes silence and tears are our only option.

Victims

But when it comes to children, we have a duty to discuss death and dying. It is an important part of parenting, and we mustn’t shy away from it. Yes, it’s hard. Our children might fear our deaths more than anything else, just as we fear their deaths more than anything else. That’s only natural. But there are things our children must hear, and they deserve to hear them from us.

Here’s a bit of advice, should you need or want it.

• Heaven Doesn’t Help Us: Talking to Kids about Death

• 12 Mistakes Parents Make When Talking to Kids about Death 

As for nonreligious children’s books about death, these are the best I’ve found so far:

When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death by Laurie Krasny Brown. I can’t say enough great things about this book, which is why I dedicated an entire post to it.

The Tenth good Thing about Barneywritten by Judith Viorst and illustrated by Erik Blegvad. This adorable classic is about a boy losing his cat. Such smart writing. “Barney is in the ground, and he’s helping to grow flowers,” the boy’s father says at one point. “You know,” the boys responds, “that’s a pretty nice job for a cat.”

About Dying by Sara Bonnet Stein. I’m crazy about this oldie, which is a book for kids and parents to read together, but also has some great information in smaller print off to the side.

When a Pet Dies by Fred Rogers. Did Mr. Rogers ever do anything that wasn’t awesome? No. No, he didn’t. This is no exception.

The Fall of Freddie the Leaf: A Story of Life for All Ages by Leo Buscaglia. The main character in this book is a leaf who is coming to terms with the fact that he will fall (die) at some point. It’s quite gentle and calming and would be great introduction to death, particularly for sensitive kids who may be prone to anxiety over the subject.

Now One Foot, Now the Other by Tomie dePaola. Okay, this one is not about death, but about the reality of growing old and getting sick. It is one of my favorite children’s books of all time — so sweet and poignant, it is guaranteed to make you cry. And it has a happy ending. My daughter loves it as much as I do. (DePaola’s Nana Upstairs & Nana Downstairs is really nice, too.)


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X