Sunday, January 27, 2013

A is for Atheism

     I recently watched an interview with Stephen Fry where he discussed a variety of topics, each beginning with a letter of the alphabet. This struck me as a wonderful idea for a series of essays. What follows is the first of such essays. 

     Apostasy can be defined as the total desertion of one’s religion. But losing one’s religion is not as cut and dry as simply saying one doesn’t believe in the supernatural. For myself, it took more than a decade to accept my doubts and realize these thoughts were nothing more than my mind not accepting an incredulous story. It was not an easy transition (and no worthwhile transformation ever is). But it was (and still is) one of the most important steps I’ve ever taken in my life so far.
     Apostasy has existed for the same length of time religions have existed and it has always been the minority of people who shirk off superstition. Numbers alone are not a measure of the plausibility of a particular belief, though. This leads to one making the argumentum ad populum, or the popular argument, a logical fallacy. Such arguments are relatively easy to dismantle by using something currently unpopular that was once popular (for example: slavery or the suppression of female voting rights). Another method of dismantling the popular argument is to further segment a given religious ideology into its inevitable subsects and movements, pointing out that such segmentation on the part of a religion effectively cuts off one from a larger swath of fellow believers. But as I mentioned, the popularity of one’s position should never be the sole determining factor in either abandoning it or clinging to it.
     My loss of religion could be said to have started in high school, that bastion of torment and the first doorway to self-discovery. It’s been said that the rest of adult life (in all facets) is simply playing out the dramas of high school on a larger stage. From my current perspective, I can see that my slide into apostasy began because I never challenged my beliefs. While never outright stated, I was quietly encouraged by my mother and church leaders to embrace the Bible as the ultimate final authority. I was encouraged to accept the creation myth as fact and that any “scientific” explanation was simply a deception conjured by Satan to fool the masses. I was also encouraged to accept a bloody human sacrifice (and I use the word “sacrifice” in the lightest possible way) as payment for slights against my loving (also used in a feather-like fashion) Heavenly Father.
     When confronted by alternative opinions, my faith wavered, in large part because I was a teenager with zero self-confidence. I was, after all, a despicable, dirty sinner who couldn’t help but engage in wicked, immoral thoughts. Not actions, mind you (with a few exceptions that I still remain regretful over committing), but simple thoughts and fantasies that every single teenager (and adult, for that matter) experiences. I was made to feel inferior by my faith in a way that I can now describe as utterly abusive. My relationship with Yahweh was a psychologically and emotionally damaging as any other abusive relationship one encounters in reality. I was constantly reminded by Christian music, books, sermons, etc. that I was a wretched human being (despite living a rather normal life) in need of salvation.
     The ridicule I received from the people I called friends served as a kickstart to my analytical mind but only on the subconscious level. I began to ask questions of my faith, legitimate questions that I had ignored for quite some time. Questions are anathema to proper observance of faith, in my experience. There are theists I have met of every flavor who claim that they openly question their faith. But are these questions seriously critical of the faith or are they softball questions meant to maintain one’s cognitive dissonance? Much of what religion teaches must be accepted on blind faith or else the entire house of cards falls to the floor.
     My first questions began simply enough: why were angels able to rebel against their master? Angels are universally depicted as lacking a soul, created solely for the purpose of serving Yahweh and lacking the ability to make independent choices. Even better, how could a being who can create a universe ex nihilo be incapable of subduing or destroying a rogue element among its servants? These distressing questions are all the more baffling when one considers that two of the primary characteristics given to Yahweh are omnipotence and omnibenevolence. Omnipotence defeats non-omnipotence every single time and an all-loving, all-good deity would see to it that such deviant beings were removed, lest a corruptive element be introduced into perfection.
     This questioning led me to reread the Bible from cover-to-cover repeatedly. What I can say for that experience is that it taught me that every denomination and sect in Christianity (and for the vast majority of religions with holy texts as well) engages in some form of cherry-picking. As a Christian, I focused on only those passages highlighted by Bible study books (with their own interpretation of the material) and my pastor’s sermons. These sources of interpretation tend to neglect or outright ignore the sections of the Bible that don’t agree with one’s personal ideology or personal moral compass. This is the reason one can have Southern Baptists, the Westboro Baptist Church, and First Baptists all claiming divine mandate for their particular point of view.
     But I didn’t stop at one read-through, as I mentioned. I found multiple versions and read through all of them. Each time my questions increased and became more persistent, more recalcitrant to retreat from my cacophonous protestations of belief. How could a perfect being create imperfect humans? How could a loving father willingly attempt to sacrifice his child to appease their master? Why does a human sacrifice make my sins null and void?
     These questions did not find purchase in Christian dogma. So while maintaining a nominal connection to Christianity, I began to investigate alternatives. Several of my friends at the time were (and many still are) neo-pagans and Wiccans. I delved deeply (as only a recovering addict can) into this previously taboo concept, embracing the concepts of magic, metaphysics, and energy transference (just to name a few ideas). And for a time such distractions kept me from examining supernatural claims too harshly. Even after I discontinued practicing pagan and wiccan rituals, I still identified myself with their ideology for years. Even now, after I cease to believe in any form of magic and supernatural energy sources, the respect for the natural world exhibited by many neo-pagans and Wiccans is still part of my ideas on the world.
     It was my reintroduction to education that brought about the final catalyst, specifically my growing love for the written word. I was introduced to Thomas Pain, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin, men who held indifference or irreverence for religion. I was also reintroduced to science and the vast evidence for a non-supernatural worldview. This was finally the last nail in the crucifix, so to speak. When one considers that the elements that make up one’s body and the Earth were once forged in the heart of a star, a god seems so small in comparison.
     Recently I came across a derisive meme poster of a fish in a bowel. The caption read “Atheism: Like a fish denying the existence of water”. Let’s examine this fatuous piece of internet piffle for a moment. Forget that a fish does not possess the mental faculties necessary to believe or disbelieve. It would be childish to assume that a fish would disbelieve its natural environment. This argument is specious for another reason: Water is quantifiable, testable, and physical. We know what makes up water: two parts hydrogen with one part oxygen. The composition of water is known to us through discovery, not revelation. If we’d waited until a holy prophet revealed the nature of water to us, we’d probably still think alchemy was possible.
     Atheism, to me as well as many others, is simply the rejection of all supernatural claims due to lack of evidence. Some will say that you will only find what you seek and my response to that remains the same: show me evidence. An extraordinary claim requires extraordinary evidence to support it. Christianity isn’t the only religious system I reject, though. I reject Islam, Paganism, Wicca, Norse myths, Greek myths, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc. And I’m not different than theists (save those of syncretistic belief systems like Vedanta) who are atheists with regards to the claims of other religions. All religions bear the onus to produce evidence to corroborate their claims. And evidence is more than holy texts. If holy texts were the final benchmark of whether a belief system was true then all of them would be true. If a religion cannot or does not produce said evidence, then the only logical step to take is to reject the claim.
     Rejecting the notion of all-powerful (but somehow fallible and flawed) deities is not the same as a fish denying the existence of water. The fish knows better than to dismiss what is physically right in front of it, what physically enters its gills, and what provides a good portion of the nutrients it needs to survive. Atheism is acceptance of all the elements (both fear-inducing and awe-inspiring) in the natural universe. To deny reality is to deny one’s place in that reality. After all (as Carl Sagan once eloquently put it) we’re all made of star stuff.
     I do not wish to replace religion with secularism, though. One could argue that this change is already under way. But as Christopher Hitchens pointed out during a debate with the Reverend Al Sharpton, religion is people’s favorite toy and will likely remain so for the foreseeable future. As long as our species fears death, there will be some form of religion. As long as our species has a streak of credulity, there will be some form of religion. My goal as an atheist is to minimize the negative repercussions of religious indoctrination and zealotry. There are plenty of good, decent, moral people who believe in some form of theism and they are welcome to it. I do not wish to be that type of person and I do not wish to have their theism forced on me for my own benefit.
     Being an atheist means that I can be moral without Big Brother watching over my shoulder telling me to be a good boy. It means that I am ultimately responsible for any actions I take. It means that I have to treat people properly the first time around because there is no vicarious redemption or retroactive forgiveness. The only way I can gain some measure of forgiveness is if the person I’ve wronged is kind-hearted or has memory issues. I am also responsible for ensuring the well-being of future generations because this life and this planet are the only guaranteed havens we have in an otherwise hostile and uncaring universe. And because I do not believe in an afterlife of any kind, I see war and the deaths that result from war as futilities that should be avoided unless absolutely necessary. For me, there is no glory or transfiguration in death, only oblivion. And while I do not look forward to dying, I am resigned to this ultimate fate in much the same way that I am resigned to the fact that the Earth is spinning around the Sun. And as an atheist, I am resolved to enjoy and experience life with joy because it is all that I can ever expect to have. 

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Union Rules -A Poem

Small levers work a big machine,
at least that’s what the little man
in my brain says
during his union-mandated coffee break.

there’s a break room
in my amygdala
with a coffee machine
that serves dreg coffee filtered
from salt water
refigerators that switch between arctic circle
and room temperature
and a foosball table
with both teams missing half their men.

I wonder where the microwaves are
for where the work crew
reheats leftovers from last night’s meals. 

Sing-Song Swan-Song -A Poem

She speaks like a queen, but not
the one you’re thinking of.
Think less Elizabeth the First and
more Ru Paul.
Trailing sequins and incense she came
into this world;
Trailing sequins and incense she shall
leave this world;
A smiling, singing, jester in a dress,
poking the breeders who cursed her
and being poked by breeder’s curiosity,
like an impromptu photo shoot on 7th street
in Ybor, in gaudy purple and gold,
with Japanese tourists who thought she was a goddess.

She was a deity, both on stage and off
with the eyes of hundreds watching,
like a bitch in heat strutting around caged males.

But now there are no more songs, no more
laughs or playful (sharp) insults
or nights of kisses
and “come fuck me” glances.

The world will be a little less beautiful today
when the funeral march ends. 

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Dark Fingers -A Poem

There’s an element missing from the periodic table of our relationship. It was there when we started and it had a half-life longer than uranium, or so we thought. This missing link evaporated over time, like a puddle does during a hot July day in Florida, the kind we used to go to the beach, or go to Picnic Island and swim in the waters of the bay, or even just lay in our hammock between the canopy of dark green fingers stretching from protective oak trees on the front yard. But the fingers are broken now and it’s November. Fall is the best time for a divorce, don’t you think?

Crowns - A Poem

new horizons
and fields of grain       made from holly
woods are lovely in the spring when you
see the dancing girls moving their hips and
drinking from the crowns
                                          of rich men that leave
             whiskey tips in garter belts.
Spin around the pole, darling. You know
the way daddy likes it.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Liquid Fertilization

Strips of flesh, like first-place ribbons
are what I see as I hold
the cat o'nine tails.
The Romans loved this simple tool,
used it to cleanse themselves
of troublesome people.
Unlike the Roman tool, there are no
bits of metal or bone
embedded like jagged ticks
in the leather studs at the end of each tail.

The straps wave back and forth
like leathery reeds in a soft wind.
She hangs before me, suspended by her
wrists, her purple-painted toes barely
brushing the floor.
Supple, pink-white flesh, a cultivated garden
of nerve bundles, like individual flower beds
awaiting a dose of fertilizer to grow.

But as I bring the cat down
and she squeals 
like a child on a sugar rush
all I can picture 
are strips of flesh.

It is the moment people like me fear,
disconnecting from the scene
 like a phone left off the hook.

Gist of Substance

The newspaper vending machine has a T.V. set inside
showing static
undulates into formless shapes.
I can almost make out
the gist, the substance through the filmy
fleeting glimpses of order,
like a trail of ants leaving the hill, scavenging
understanding from desiccated husks of bark.