Day one here
Friday, in the wee hours of the morning, right after I’d gotten to sleep, there was some sort of major commotion on the 8th floor of the Hyatt, very near to my room. I’m not sure what it was, but I was told hotel security was called and I definitely heard a man who’d been woken up scream, “Shut the Fuck Up!” I would have applauded, but I wasn’t so much for moving.
So, I was very tired when 7:30AM came around. And then breakfast was disappointing. How hard is it to have toast or oatmeal or something other than a very sketchy bready fruity thing? Everything was cooked fruit. How gross. (Note: I’m far too picky for people to take my food opinions seriously.)
We, the godless horde, strode over to the Capitol to meet with some staffers. Herb, Sharon and I first met with Tara O’Neill, who is a Legislative Aide (or LA in Hill Parlance) for Tim Scott. Tara, a Clemson grad, was very nice and polite and listened to all we had to say about HR 1179 2011 (patient rights) and Humanist Military Chaplains. But I’d like to give you some background on Tim Scott, so that you can understand exactly the lion’s den we three atheists were stepping into.
Tim Scott is one of the mythological Black Republicans, and he’s Southern, so he’s about as common as a unicorn. When he was on City Council he erected the 10 Commandments in the Council Office and the AU and ACLU proceeded to sue him to take them down. He campaigned on bringing Christian Values to Washington, and was endorsed by Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin. He opposes gay marriage, and probably doesn’t believe in atheists in foxholes.
He took $117,000 in campaign ads from an anti-union group and then proceeded to sponsor legislation that would deny FOOD STAMPS to anyone who had a family member on strike. HR 1135 2011. It’s very clever, Sheriff of Nottingham level villainy going on. “I want this brigand found. Starve them out, slaughter their… No, take their live stock. I want Locksley’s own people fighting to bring his head in.”
But enough about the life and legislation of Tim Scott, the staff was very nice — Tara and the UCSD student who greeted us and the gentleman in charge, who understood immediately what the SCA was doing. We were done there by 9:30 and then headed over to meet with Lindsey Graham’s staffer Jason Brown, who is now my favorite person in DC. On the way we walked past an armed guard who had an AK-47 — it didn’t look real, they should really make them look less like toys.
Our appointment wasn’t until 11, so we went down into the cool/creepy tunnels that run under the capitol, and went to a little coffee shop below ground. Then we went back up to meet with Jason Brown. The Senate offices are much, much nicer than the House offices. Graham’s office was decorated with a bunch of pictures and paintings of and by South Carolinians.
Jason Brown is a lawyer working as a Legislative Aide for Lindsey Graham and he took us to a relatively swank conference room and we talked primarily about the issue of Humanist Military Chaplains. He asked us some questions that implied an interest and definite understanding of why it was important to us. That was reassuring. Graham is an interesting character in terms of willingness to not toe the Republican Party Line at all times, and as someone on the Committee on Armed Services, he’s a good person to have on your side in this issue.
After that meeting, I went to Union Station, which is apparently just a large mall without a candy store, and met some others for lunch at Pizzeria Uno. At 2, the panel discussion were set to begin. Fred Edwords, who shall be Fredwords henceforth, the head of COR was the first to arrive. He is working with some people in Columbia to get some buildboards here as well as some media training for locals, so it was nice to see a face I’ve seen a lot of e-mails from of late.
The panel was filled out by David Silverman (American Atheists), Jesse Galef (SSA), and Sally Quinn (editor of On Faith, Washington Post). They spent some time talking about the rapture, which was supposed to happen Saturday, and how good it has been for the cause of Atheism. David Silverman had been on CNN several times, and Herb Silverman was fielding media phone calls all day.
Sally Quinn then spoke for a while, and she was interesting, though I’m not sure I agree with her or where she’s coming from — it could be a generational thing. She had some good zingers though.
You all look like you’re going to hell to me. Tomorrow.
The world is not going to end tomorrow, keep on flossing.
Not one person in this room will be elected president of the United States. There will be a woman, gay, and muslim president before there is an atheist president.
Effective media strategy is based on knowing more about faith than the other guy. This is what makes Hitchens so good, he makes them just give up. PEW says atheists are more knowledgeable about religion than the faithful.
Now, I have a little bit of a problem with the defeatist attitude towards the possibility of an atheist president. There are, of course, quite a few who argue that we currently have one. But an openly atheist president within my lifetime doesn’t seem like an impossibility to me. Maybe I’ll run in however many years til I’m 35.
Then they got into a discussion of when anger was appropriate, and the consensus was it was good when other people also got angry, like when children died of neglect because their family refused medical care because of their religious beliefs. Atheists should try to get in the news for doing community service and nice things, to help dispel the myth that Atheists are immoral or unfeeling. Fredwords echoed things I’ve heard PZ say, which is that you need the firebrands to get attention and the nice people to negotiate change.
And then this is where Sally Quinn really went off the rails for me (and Jennifer Michael Hecht), when she started talking about what the stereotypical view of an atheist is. Apparently Quinn thinks that the image people have in mind when they hear “atheist” is Madalyn Murray O’Hair who was fat, ugly, crazy and had a mustache and that what atheism really lacks is an ATTRACTIVE public representative. Now, I don’t think that our current representatives like Dawkins, Faircloth, Harris, and Hitch are unattractive, I’d be more likely to put them in the generally attractive categories, so I’m just not sure if she means there are no attractive female public personalities or that no one has overcome the O’Hair legacy.
The first doesn’t resonate with me because I’ve seen plenty of attractive women at atheist events. The second doesn’t resonate with me because neither I nor Omar knew what O’Hair looked like. So maybe this is an old-people-who-think-atheism-is-communism-because-they’re-old-and-stupid problem, because no one I know, and we’re people who are like into atheism so we know stuff about atheism, has any idea why anyone would care about O’Hair. Everything I knew about her before Quinn’s comment is that she was killed before I was old enough to know anything and she was also an atheist.
Basically what I’m saying is that I don’t think we’re going to change the hearts and minds of Glenn Beck’s 70 year old audience, we just have to let them die. Does anyone under the age of forty think that all atheist ladies have mustaches? If so, I would like to disabuse you of this notion. Many of us also have horns.
Then there was a lot more discussion about tone and tactics, which basically covered all the same ground over and over again, with various protests of various sorts from the panelist and audience members. The most interesting discussion was about whether to participate in interfaith groups, which were exclusive of atheists by name and nature.
The next panel was a team of legal experts, David Niose, Amanda Knief, and Mark Dunn. Their discussion really reflected the rest of the thrust of the meeting in that it was calling for more personal stories rather than more theoretical problems. To this end, they wanted to bring cases based on civil rights and equal protection, not on the Establishment Clause.
What it boils down to is this: when we make Tim Scott take down the 10 Commandments, we are absolutely right, but it makes us seem like assholes, but when we call someone out for violating civil liberties, like firing someone for being an atheist or refusing to allow them to form school groups or parents are denied custody because they aren’t religious, we seem like people who are just fighting to be treated equally. And we get to tell personal stories of how the religious bias has hurt us, and people respond more to that.
And then we got a two-hour break, which I filled with caffeine, and then it was time for the reception/dinner that evening.
Paul Provenza opened with a comedic talk which was very similar to his talk at TAM. He did have a good line, “Today we lobbied, or as I like to call it, fucked shit up.” After dinner, JMH introduced Sean Faircloth, and she reiterated the broad theme (poetic atheism) of needing to tell human stories, we may be rational, but people need emotional connection.
And then Sean Faircloth spoke, and it was very State of the Union. Lots of clapping, lots of broad, hear-hear sort of statements. Spontaneous standing O at the end. He thinks that Secular Americans are the next moral majority, a sleeping giant waiting to be motivated. Then he gave a list of ten goals:
- Our military will serve all Americans, with no fundamentalism or religious bias or conversion
- Any federal/state funded program will be based on science, not belief
- Healthcare providers have a responsibility to their medical duties over their religious beliefs
- The legislature will represent the non religious
- There will be one consistent health standard for children, no religious exception
- Medical and scientific progress shall not be impeded by religious bias ever
- Discrimination based on religion will not happen
- Marriage can be defined by an individual religion however it wants, but the government cannot use religion for its definition
- Government zoning laws will respect all faiths and non-faiths equally
- Youth won’t be subjected to religious bias in schools.
Then, we were kicked out of the room because it was 9 and that was as late as they’d booked it. I proceeded to join JMH and her husband and a few others at the bar, where she ordered a margarita, but couldn’t remember the word for salt. This was immensely amusing. Then there was a party in a room, and we went there. There were all sorts of illicit activities going on (clothes all remained on) and I shan’t be more specific, but it was really fun.
JMH then did a poetry reading for the party, which was quite entertaining. Because her poems are good, people were drinking, and it was so weird that someone would read poetry at a party in the first place. I felt like a Beatnik, but cleaner.
And then, 2000 words later, I went to bed.
Alright, admittedly, I made the mistake of clicking on a CNN headline about Newt Gingrich and "atheists". Atheists is in quotes there because CNN seems to only share that word when it's in quotes. I know better than going to CNN, and I know better than reading stories about Newt Gingrich, and I really should know better than to read any story about "atheists", but I couldn't help myself.
Ol' Newt is worried that the country is going to become a "secular atheists country" overrun by "radical Islamists."
Now, I know Newt isn't stupid, he's just a craven ass. And I'm allowed to say that because we went to the same undergraduate institution. Newt must know that being an atheist and being an "Islamist" are mutually exclusive positions. Unless he fears the domination of this country by those fundamentalist atheist Christianists.
On the other hand, it's refreshing to see how far we've come as a nation to think that being a Catholic is American and not indicative of a political devotion to papistry that will lead this nation into the fiery pits of hell. Because, as we all once knew, Catholics aren't proper Christians, and Merka is a Kristyen Nayshun.
I'm sorry, it's just the dumb appeal to the lowest common denominator. It burns. It burns because I know that it works. I know that someone is reading that stupid CNN article and thinking, "God, you know, that Newt Gingrich has a point. This country is under threat of Muslim Atheists. And hell, the only thing worse than a Muslim, is an Atheist, and the only thing worse than an Atheist, is a Muslim one."
Excuse me while I go weep.
Why are atheists so angry! Grr, they’re so mean and grinch-like and just plan Scrooge-tastic this time of year. I mean, they’re always snotty jerkwads, but man oh man, at Christmas time, they are just insufferable. With their constant demands to be… included at the very edges of society instead of just shoved off into an abyss.
I think probably the only thing that gets under my skin more than the country being overrun by religious stupidity (see: intelligent design, abstinence only education) is the persecution complex that so many Christians seem to have. 76% of American citizens are Christian, Christmas is a Federal Holiday, and there are hundreds of hours of Christmas programming on TV. And yet, there is a war on Christmas because some people would rather not make a quarter of their potential buying market feel excluded. The whole concept of “war on Christmas” is one of the most inane and fatuous beliefs I’ve ever come across.
What about the Christmas war on everybody else? The constant bad music on the radio and in stores. The overwrought shopping extravaganza that makes it impossible for godless assholes like me to drive anywhere near a place where goods are sold.
I don’t actually hate Christmas though. I really like some of the songs, for example, this is the song that most accurately reflects my feelings towards Christmas:
And, I quite like some of the more
tacky flamboyant Christmas decorations:
Sorry, I know, I’m being a bad atheist >_<
That incredibly long lead up is just sort of background noise for a different conversation entirely, one about billboards.
The evil, bad atheists have put up a billboard with a picture of a nativity scene with the caption “You know it’s a myth, this season celebrate reason.” Well, accommodationist atheists and uptight christians, neither of whom would I declare the majority voice, seem to be really upset with it because they think the intent of it is to insult Christians.
Aside from the fact that a story of the birth of Jesus only appears in 2 gospels and they don’t even agree on many of the fine details, so calling the nativity as celebrated a myth isn’t even necessarily contradictory to Christianity, I don’t really see it as an insult to Christians. It’s more like an encouragement for atheists to be more comfortable with acknowledging that they don’t believe in Christmas. The winter holidays (yule, solstice, whatever tacky hippie name I’m too embarrassed to call it myself) aren’t just for Christians, so, if you don’t believe in Christmas, you don’t have to pretend you do.
And even if this was to be interpreted as an attack on Christianity, which I would be OK with, I’d like to just show you the kinds of billboards I have to look at all the time and then I’d like you to reconsider exactly how insensitive the atheist billboard is.
Right, so, at its worst, you could interpret the atheist billboard as saying “Christians believe myths are true”. And what do the religious say about atheists? “God is an asshole, Jesus is a pervert, and they think atheists are going to destroy America and kill us all.” If I was a Christian, I’d be way more upset by the shit religious people said.
Today, Oct. 11, is National Coming Out Day for LGBTQ, tomorrow is National Atheist Coming Out Day. I have a lot of admiration for the reasoning behind these days — the more people realize that they know people who are different from them, the less different those people are going to seem. If you’ve never met an open atheist, you probably think atheists are weird creatures who all talk like Christopher Hitchens (I wish!), but when you realize someone you already know and like is an atheist, it makes you rethink your prejudices.
That being said, I don’t like Coming Out Days, on a personal level, even though I completely agree with the political agenda and logic behind it. That’s because I’m not a big fan of labels.
It’s a little easier with atheism, because I have a very clear idea of where I stand philosophically, and there are a dozen terms I could use for myself, though they don’t always make me feel totally at home. Skeptic, atheist, agnostic, nonbeliever, nonreligious, antitheist, freethinker, bright, rationalist, skeptic. None of those is inaccurate, but it always feels so reductive.
It is much, much harder for me when it comes to LGBT Coming Out Day. There’s a little box the HRC (don’t get me started) asks you to fill out to describe yourself: are you a straight ally, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer? And I don’t really think of myself as any of those. I don’t really think sexuality is one of those things that is very binary, and the idea that I have to reduce it to something that can be described in one word is just impossible.
I grew up in the gay community, I’ve always felt at home with the LGBT community in general. Except, there’s a little voice in the back of my head, so quiet as to be easily missed, that says “They think you’re straight. They think you’re a breeder. They think you aren’t one of them.” I don’t identify as straight, partially because I grew up hearing straight people not spoken very highly of, and partially because I find women attractive — I find people attractive based mostly on their personality and things that aren’t strictly based on their genitals. I know, that’s a radical thought — but, realistically, I don’t see myself in a relationship with a woman. It could happen, but I don’t think it will. Therefore, do I really want to call myself bisexual and have to deal with everyone saying that it’s either for attention or a stage on the way to gayness? That’s a fight I’m just not interested in fighting, because it’s almost never going to come up.
So, what then for the people on Coming Out Day who are like me? Who don’t have a label they understand as related to them? Shouldn’t I feel included in the movement? What about those people who are agnostics who really aren’t comfortable Coming Out as Atheists, shouldn’t they feel included too? Greta Christina posted about how the Atheist movement should really be working hard to include agnostics and secularists (secular ally?) because we’ve seen what happens in the gay community when you exclude bisexuals, and I think that’s true.
I hope there will be a day when the stigma is no longer attached to being atheist or gay, and I know coming out is incredibly important on that front, I just wish the price wasn’t having to reduce yourself to a label, to have to assume the responsibility of making a whole group look good, and to have people assume your entire identity is your sexuality or nonbelief. But I think there will be a day when Coming Out Day is completely pointless, because no one cares.
I went to the Unitarian Universalist Church in Columbia, SC, for the first time today. It was, well it was church, which is to say it was mostly boring. Someone recognized my name as being a blog, though, so that was pretty cool. And everyone was super nice, friendly, and non-proselytizey. Additionally, the minister laughed at something funny I said, so that was good.
I like the people who go to the church and what they stand for and the sermon was pretty interesting — I mean, the minister is an atheist, so it’s not really anything like church church, but it still involved the stand up, sit down, sing this, dunk the baby in water thing. Basically, all the rituals that made church seem ridiculous and boring when I was a teenager. It turns out, I didn’t ever grow out of this phase, to the shock of absolutely no one.
I grew up in the Episcopal Church, which I didn’t particularly like, though I have some respect for in terms of its politics and liberalness. Church involved getting forced to wake up early, wear uncomfortable clothes, sit in incredibly uncomfortable chairs and listen to things you couldn’t care less about with the constant threat of disciplinary action if you did something interesting like read or draw — and frankly I got enough of that at school. My instinctive feeling that church is similar to prison is, therefore, not working in its favor.
So what I learned is that church without the creepy Jesus bits is still pretty churchy.
However, after the service, I got to spend some time with a lot of the people there, and they are interesting, snarky liberals whose company I enjoy. And the thing I did like about the service was that it was a relatively small congregation, so it was sort of informal and absolutely nothing like going to a service at Trinity Cathedral (read: pompous). So, hopefully there are ways to get to know the people that don’t involve the hellish torture of listening to “If I had a Hammer” ever, ever again. Ever.
People assume, for some unfathomable reason, that because I’m a progressive, liberal type person that I am also into hippie-dippie, touchy-feely, hand-holding, peacenik circle jerks singing Kumbaya and saving the Earth by composting and like loving animals and nature. I am not that person. I think 90% of my dislike of service would be fixed if the music wasn’t… what it is. *shudder*
Not that church has ever been something I’ve missed or particularly wanted in my life, but it’d be nice to get to know some like-minded people.
I confess I cried watching it. I have a somewhat irrational emotional attachment to Christopher Hitchens, he has such an eloquent and engaging approach to writing and speaking. I don’t always agree with him politically, but I think everyone has to admire the honest way he’s approaching his own death.
AC: In a moment of doubt, isn’t there… I dunno, I just find it fascinating that even when you’re alone and you know no one else is watching that there might be a moment where you, you know, want to hedge your bets.
CH: If that comes it’ll be when I’m very ill. When I’m half-demented, either by drugs or by pain, or I won’t have control over what I say. I mention this in case you ever hear a rumor later on. Because these things happen and the faithful love to spread these rumors, you know on his death bed he finally well… I can’t say that the entity that by then wouldn’t be me wouldn’t do such a pathetic thing, but I can tell you that not while I’m lucid. No, I can be quite sure of that.