Monday, January 18, 2010

Help for Haiti

It's so strange -- I was working on a post about the problem of evil and right before I finished, the devastating earth quake hit Haiti. I don't feel like it's appropriate or necessary to complete that particular post at this point. The most pressing issue is for everyone to come together, regardless of differences of colour, beliefs or geography, to give help the people who are desperately need it.

Here in Canada, a great place to donate money is the Red Cross. However, no matter where you are there are many charities and foundations working towards the relief effort.

Please do what you can to help out. I've heard a lot of people say that one of the benefits of religion is that it promotes charity. Let's prove that generosity and empathy are universal human values, not just religious ones.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

History lessons

Google is afraid of offending Islam?

Check out the link to the YouTube video above. I have always been a huge fan of Google (who isn't, really?) but this really put me off.

When you start typing anything into Google, automatic search suggestions come up based on popular searches that others have made. If you type in "Christianity is," you get a lot of automatic suggestions like "a religion," "bullshit," "a cult," etc. In fact, you get very similar results if you type in "Judaism is", "Hinduism is," "Scientology is" -- hell, any religion you can think of.

BUT if you type "Islam is" you get... wait for it... NOTHING. Nothing comes up!

In my mind, there are a couple of things at work here. First off, Google needs to grow a pair and treat Islam the way it treats every other religion. But beneath the surface, there is a larger issue at work. Why are people so afraid of offending Islam? Why do we tiptoe around behind the shield of political correctness, terrified that Muslims might get their feelings hurt. I think there are two reasons for this:

Reason 1: I might be wrong, but I think that a lot of people in the west have a little bit of a guilty conscience when it comes to Muslims. Maybe people feel like it counterbalances the automatic association with terrorism, racial profiling at the airports, and the majority of people's inability to discern between the average Muslim and a fundamentalist suicide bomber.

Reason 2: Religions are criticized constantly, and rightly so. But no other religion reacts to criticism the way that Islam does. You have the threats, the violence, and the lives lost over incidents that are often so trivial. You have "anti-blasphemy" resolutions passing through the UN that aim to put an end to the "defamation of religion" so that Muslims won't ever be offended, but really amount to the end of free speech. You have the non-fundamentalist Muslims claiming to object to all this, yet remaining silent time and time again when they should be shouting from the rooftops that they are not represented by these violent extremists. People of other faiths don't enjoy being criticized, I imagine; yet, I've never seen a Christian kill people because she didn't like the way that Jesus was depicted in a cartoon and I've never seen a Jew blow himself up because he felt his religion had been insulted.

Don't get me wrong here -- I am not a particular fan of any religion, and I do not have an inherent prejudice against Islam. But if even something as big as Google is afraid of pissing you off, you know you've got to be pretty scary. This obsession with being politically correct all the time is hurting our society by legitimizing the threats that already have too much power. Come on, Google! Do what's right! Next time I search "Islam is," I want to see the right words come up on my screen.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The bible and gay rights

The lovely and talented Ellen DeGeneres has been quoted as saying, "I believe that someday we'll look back on this and not allowing gays to marry will seem as absurd as not allowing women to vote."

Of course, to most people same-sex marriage should seem like a no-brainer, akin to racial equality and women's suffrage, as Ellen's quote suggests. However, while it seems to make sense on the surface, there is one essential element that unfortunately renders it impossible: religion.

As far as I know, there is nothing in the bible that specifically prohibits women from having the vote (although religion certainly does its part to prevent women from enjoying the same status as their male counterparts - but I digress). People who were opposed to the female vote didn't necessarily have direct biblical passages to quote, and no one can really prove that female suffrage goes against the will of god. But homosexuality is another story.

One of the scarier sections of the bible, Leviticus, does make mention not of same-sex marriage, but of homosexual acts.

Leviticus 20:13 states: "If a man lies with a male, as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them."

All those who oppose gay marriage can invoke these words and claim to have god on their side. An even bigger problem is how much political sway is given to these religious bigots. Same-sex marriage is legal now in Canada, but I don't see how America will ever get there at the rate they're going. Politicians in the US who even want to be considered for candidacy have to make loud, public proclamations of their (Christian) faith and end every speech with "god bless America". Evangelical nutjobs have massive voting power, and they know it. They are constantly being catered to, either because the politicians are religious themselves (a la George Bush), or because the politicians know whose ass they have to kiss if they ever want to see Washington.

So, with all due respect to Ellen DeGeneres, it is wishful thinking to hope that same-sex marriage will one day go the route of the woman's vote. So long as the words of the bible have influence on the public political sphere, there are people who will feel justified in their hateful, prejudiced, discriminatory ignorance. Yet another way that the beliefs of one group can infringe on the rights of everybody else.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Famously skeptical

Ever wondered which celebrities are atheists? Check out to see if your favourite star is still worthy of your respect. Just kidding. Sort of.

Because life without labels would be too confusing...

Wow, how did someone find a picture from my own childhood??

When children are labeled from birth with the religion of their parents, they don't stand much of a chance to develop their own religious and world views. I wonder what would have happened if this same kid was born in Iran... Still Jewish? Doubtful.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Just in case you haven't heard

If you don't already know about Pat Condell, please go straight to YouTube and spend some time getting to know him. His totally no-nonsense and unapologetic rants are both hilarious and frighteningly poignant.

One of the best things about religion (yes, you have to think positively!) is that it provides perfect material for comedy. Condell started in comedy clubs and then realized that the internet is a far more efficient way of getting his voice heard. He doesn't care about political correctness, which is refreshing.

Here's a link to one of my favourite videos; go to his YouTube channel to see the rest. Enjoy!

Work it out

There are a lot of people out there who are closet atheists. I think there is an even bigger population of people who might consider themselves moderately religious just because it's what they're used to, or who are merely ambivalent about religion, but who, if forced to really consider their beliefs, would concede that they had, in fact, been atheists all along. So, why are so many people content to remain in the closet, on the fence, or in any other undesirable state of indecision? Thanks to people like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, there has been a widespread movement to embrace atheism as something of which to be proud. Still, I think that one thing hindering many people's desire to "come out" is the fact that our present society is not built to be atheist-friendly. There are many examples of present institutions that, at the very least, don't even recognize atheism as a viable option, and at the very most, actively work to promote religious influence. In almost all cases, atheism is still seen as a bad word, carrying with it connotations of immorality and anarchical tendencies.

With all this in mind, my question is this: Is it acceptable to be open about atheism in the workplace, and if so, how can one approach this topic in a way that will keep shit from hitting the office fan?

I am a teacher and I work in a school with impressionable children. What I say will (I hope) have an effect on them. It is therefore my responsibility as an educator to be mindful of the language I use and the messages I impart. Technically, I know that religion should not come up at all in school (at least one that claims to be non-denominational); however, the reality is a little less cut and dry. Once, when I was a student teacher at a public school whose population was overwhelmingly Catholic, a student in my class asked me something about church and I responded by saying I was Jewish. The class was shocked and proceeded not only to tell me that I was the first Jew they had ever met (unlikely), but to ask me wildly inappropriate questions such as, "Does that mean that if I throw money on the ground, you'll pick it up?" Needless to say I was taken aback by their brazen ignorance and we had to have a discussion about stereotypes.

When I think back on this incident now, I have to contemplate why I told them I was Jewish and not atheist. The fact is, saying I was an atheist never even crossed my mind. It would have seemed completely wrong to mention atheism in the classroom. Even now, several years later and much more adamant about my distaste for religion, I feel comfortable telling students or other teachers that I'm Jewish (if they ask me, which they always seem to - why do they even care?), but I always steer clear of the a-word. Perhaps it is my fear of angry phone calls from parents demanding to know why I am attempting to corrupt their children. In any case, I don't think I am alone in keeping atheism quiet at work. All my friends and family know this is an important part of my life and of my identity, but at work it is still a secret. There are plenty of times when I've had occasion to bring it up. Everyone at work knows I'm Jewish and that isn't a big deal in the least (although I still received a surprising number of Christmas cards this season). I've never tried to push Judaism on any students and I certainly wouldn't try to convince them to be atheists. I don't know why I have this unshakeable fear that I might get in trouble if I'm open about my beliefs at work. While I feel a kind of responsibility in letting students know that there are other options out there besides believing in god, which is something that was never done for me, I'm afraid that the word "atheist" on its own is enough to get people up in arms. Language is a very powerful thing, and we need to find a way to give this particular word its fair place, even in the workplace.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Quote of the day

There is a daily prayer said by Orthodox Jewish men called "shelo asani isha". This translates into the following:

"Blessed are you, oh lord our god, king of the universe, who has not made me a woman."

The prayer also includes two other parts in which the men thank god for not creating them as slaves or gentiles.

I looked into this a little bit to see how Orthodox Jews could possibly justify something so blatantly offensive, and the result was a little disappointing, albeit completely unsurprising. The fact is, religion doesn't need to offer justification. Orthodox Jews don't care if they are offending your modern sensibilities because they are not trying to assimilate into modern society. Quite the contrary - they are resisting it with full force. Reform Judaism is the only sect that tries to pretend that men and women are equal under its tenants. But when you pick and choose what part of your religion to follow just so that some people will feel more welcome, the credibility of your faith begins to erode. In a strange way, I do at least have some respect for the Orthodox Jews who don't try to water down their beliefs just to move with the times. Still, this minute respect is massively overshadowed by how disgusted I am by any religion that remains completely unapologetic for its active misogyny.

Breaking the news

I've been gently hinting to my parents that I am an atheist for years, but I don't think they ever really listened or took me seriously. I honestly can't remember a time when I ever believed in god anyway, although I didn't find out about atheism until sometime in high school. Recently, I have decided to become more vocal about my criticisms of religion. Because my parents are very important to me, I wanted to share my views and have what I hoped would be productive and intelligent discussions about it. Wishful thinking?

My mother in particular is quite an interesting character. I have nothing but love for her and I have respected her choices for as long as I've lived under her roof. Still, she is about as close to being a typical Jewish mother as is humanly possible (coming by it honestly from my typical Jewish grandmother) and our recent conversations about what she calls my "life choices" have left me nothing short of distressed.

The following is an abridged compilation of some the finer moments I've had to experience in breaking the news to my parents that I am serious about being an atheist. Please enjoy.

MOM: Who will we invite to your wedding?

(I currently have no plans to get married. I'm not even engaged. But I'm 24 and therefore need to get going!)

ME: I have no idea. I'm not even engaged.

MOM: Do you think it will be at our shul or at your boyfriend's shul.

ME: I definitely won't be getting married in a shul because I'm an atheist, remember? No shul, no chuppah, and no rabbi.

(stunned silence)

MOM: No RABBI?????? What kind of Jewish girl gets married with no rabbi?

ME: Mom, I'm an atheist. Why would stand there and have a rabbi tell me that my marriage is blessed by god when I don't believe in god. I don't want to feel like a hypocrite on my own wedding day.

DAD: You know that if you don't get married by a rabbi, we will not be paying for your wedding. You'll just have to figure it out on your own.

(Ouch, dad.)

ME: What? I feel like I just told you I'm a lesbian and you said you'll only pay for me to have a straight wedding.

MOM: No, honey. I'd have no problem accepting you if you were a lesbian because that's not something you choose, it's just part of who you are.

ME: Did you choose not to believe in the tooth fairy? I can't choose to turn off my rational brain. Atheism is not a choice for me, it is part of who I am. I've read a lot about this and I know ---

MOM: Aha! So you think just because you've read some books you know what's what?

ME: Umm... your entire belief system is based on a book. At least I know who wrote the books that I've been reading. Plus, I don't know why you're so shocked by all this. I've been telling you I'm an atheist for as long as I can remember.

DAD: You didn't seem to mind when we were throwing you a big bat mitzvah.

ME: I was thirteen! All my friends were having them! I would take it back now if I could just to avoid this argument!

MOM: I just can't believe this. A Jewish girl that doesn't want to be married by a rabbi. I've just never seen it before. How will you raise your kids? You know once you have kids you'll change your mind. You just haven't experienced life yet so you don't know what you really believe. Things change when life changes. There are no atheists in foxholes. You'll see.

ME: I hate that expression. You're saying that faith is just an involuntary reaction to extreme fear. So is peeing in your pants. Both are uncomfortable and completely undignified. And no, I won't change my mind. Please don't patronize me by acting like I'm just going through a phase. This is not an act of rebellion. Why is this even such a big deal?! I just don't believe in god. You already know this about me.

(Dad has already walked away by this point)

MOM: Honey, I love you. But you can't just throw this kind of news at me and expect me to be thrilled about it. Not married by a rabbi? Not bringing up your kids Jewish? How did we raise you? I've just never heard of such a thing. It's hard for us to accept.

ME: I just can't talk to you about this. You don't understand. Forget it.

(By now I am in tears and a state of extreme frustration)

So there you have it. Trying to tell my parents that I am serious about atheism has not turned out the way I'd hoped. What I've learned is that it's going to be a slow process that may never come to any sort of agreeable conclusion. Because we live in a fairly secular household, I know that so much of their concern comes from fear of change and breaking with tradition rather than lamenting my lack of faith in god. I'm sure they're worried what people might think if their daughter isn't married by rabbi in a synagogue. But my parents' desire never to rock the boat is not enough to change the fact that my religious ship sailed long ago. Atheists can't make compromises just so religious people will feel more comfortable. Religion doesn't deserve that kind of special treatment.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Thank god for atheists

Faith is a bad word

I have been an atheist for as long as I can remember, but it's only in the past few years that I have become open and vocal about it. This blog is meant to be about the every day experience of being an atheist, reflecting on the joys, challenges and humour by which it is so often accompanied. Still, because this is such a new space, I also want to take some time to explore some different issues surrounding the religious debate in a more general sense.

By day, I am a high school English teacher, which is perhaps why I assign an enormous value to the power of language. Certain words or phrases can become so entrenched in our lexicon that we fail to question the effect they have. (War on Terror, anyone?) Today's word is one that I consider to be both perplexing and dangerous: faith.

In conversations about religion, faith is something that almost inevitably comes up. It seems to me, though, that faith is a pretty weak argument for someone to use, since it presents a kind of paradox that even the most devout believers would be hard pressed to deny.

One of the things that infuriates me about many religious people is what apparently constitutes as "proof" for them of god's existence. The bible, miracles, unadulterated ignorance, it's all the same. Here is where the cracks begin to show. If you have proof that gives you absolute certainty of god's existence, why all the talk of faith? Faith, by definition, implies a belief in something that cannot be proven, but in which you choose to believe anyway. By having faith, religion admits that a willing suspension of disbelief is required to swallow the b.s. they are feeding you. That is the perplexing part. Now on to the fun stuff - danger!

Why is faith dangerous? Mostly because when you decide that all you need for something to exist is to believe it does, you are opening Pandora's box to unleash a whole whack of crazy. I have faith in my ability to fly... perhaps I'll go jump from a tall building and see how that goes. And until I hit the ground, can anyone really convince me that I'm wrong? Believers will argue that atheists can't disprove the existence of god, therefore god exists. But absence of proof is not sufficient proof! I can't prove that Santa doesn't exist, although I'm pretty sure he doesn't. Faith implies a certain presumption and arrogance that I see all the time in religion: I have faith so I must have access to some kind of higher knowledge that people without faith just can't have. I have faith so I can answer the questions that others can't answer.

This is just silly. We should never presume to have all the answers to life's questions. Science prides itself on asking questions, doubting itself, and trying to improve its own findings. There is no need for faith to fill in the gaps, because the gaps are good! The gaps are what make the world interesting and they are what keep us searching for new knowledge. Let's replace faith with reason! Having faith in god and religion only serves to limit rational thought, scientific progress and enlightened growth. And remember to choose your words carefully.

Spread the good word

Our blog is new but I'm hoping to see it grow quickly. I know there are a lot of atheist blogs out there and I will continue to try and offer a fresh perspective on things. I've just received some exciting news -- Coming Out of the Covenant has just been added to the Atheist Blogroll, a community building service for atheist bloggers around the world. Check out the Atheist Blogroll in the sidebar and join Mojoey at Deep Thoughts for more info.

The more we read, the better!

Everybody's doing it!

Coming out as an atheist can be a scary, stigmatizing and sensitive experience. Part of what makes it difficult is the lack of understanding that many people have about atheism. Sometimes it seems as though it would be a lot easier if you could just believe in god like everybody else rather than try to swim against the current. Luckily, there are some brilliant people helping to bring atheism into the public consciousness and create a community in which atheists can share their voices.

The scarlet A is the symbol of The Out Campaign, started by Prof. Richard Dawkins. Dawkins is a scientist, author, champion of Darwinian theory and very public proponent of atheism. If you ever need a push to reaffirm your atheist leanings, just read "The God Delusion" or watch "The Root of All Evil?" on YouTube. This is a man who can articulate what most atheists are thinking with alarming precision. By posting the scarlet A, Coming Out of the Covenant will appear on his blogroll! Make sure you visit and join the Out Campaign.

The Out Campaign: Scarlet Letter of Atheism

Do not feel like you are alone in this process. Coming out is hard, so share your experience to help others. Stand up for reason, science, and logic against unquestioning superstition!

Monday, January 4, 2010

Can you be an atheist and still be Jewish?

Part of what has made my "coming out" process so complicated is deciding how much of my religion's cultural overtones I can hang on to without being a hypocrite. Naturally, it may seem as though atheism and Judaism are two points of acute contradiction, and of course, they are in nearly every sense. I do not believe in god and I categorically reject organized religion. Still, I identify myself as Jewish - at least to an extent. Confused? So is my mother.

Let me explain. There is something inescapable about the culture associated with this particular religion. While I can only speak from my experience as a Jewish woman, I don't doubt that other religions can claim their own cultural connections as well. Jews are often referred to as being a race of people in a way that doesn't necessarily apply to people of other faiths. While I definitely cringe at the word "race", my own experience does point to a strong set of mores, traditions and even personality traits shared by Jews that go way beyond religion.

Please forgive my gross overgeneralizations; while I don't presume to speak for all Jews, I'm just going to write as if I do. When you're born into a Jewish family, you begin to participate in a kind of shared experience that automatically gives you something in common with every other Jew on the planet (so to speak). The big dinners complete with bubbie's chicken soup. The enthusiastic "Mazel tov!" upon hearing any piece of good news. The nagging questions about why you're single and when you're getting married, plus countless unappealing offers to be set up with "my friend's grandson - a doctor!" The automatic sensitivity over historical marginalization, the Holocaust, and the state of Israel. The (infuriating) assumption that you will marry a Jew.

There is no doubt that Jews stick together; we are exclusive to a fault. One thing that I do appreciate about this members-only approach is that it is one of the few religions that does not attempt to proselytize. Unlike Christianity and Islam, Jews do not try to convert the masses just for the sake of making our numbers more impressive. Instead, Jews prefer to band together and stay that way. I'm pretty confident that this strange bond and resistance to outsiders reaffirms my theory that Judaism is more of a cultural identity than a religious one. Others aren't welcome because even if they go to synagogue on the right days and say all the right prayers, they still won't possess that ineffable quality that makes someone a Jew.

Unless you try to marry a non-Jew. Then he/she had better convert. ASAP.

In any case, whether you're Jewish or any other religion under the sun, it is very difficult to remove yourself completely from the influences of your upbringing. When I decided to tell my family about being an atheist, they were very afraid that by not believing in god I was also rejecting the values and traditions instilled in me. Is it possible to separate these things from a purely religious context? Can I be culturally Jewish but religiously atheist without undermining my core beliefs? Do I even want to hold on to the cultural ties that are born out of principles to which I am vehemently opposed? Most importantly, I am trying to figure out how to live my atheist life without alienating myself from friends and family... even if they do believe in god.