I’m the worst atheist at Christmas

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Exhibit A: my many baby Jesus nativities

Exhibit B: I love the music, especially the really religious songs like Handel’s Messiah, Silent Night, and Away in a Manger. I also love the old-school Amy Grant Xmas album (as in, the one from the 80’s)

I also love the Sufjan Stevens Christmas album, which includes my very favourite hymn:

the practice of authenticity

Yesterday I was asked to speak on a panel at the Unitarian Centre on the topic of authenticity and community. It’s one of those topics that I love reading and thinking about, but it’s one that is daunting to be asked to speak to. It was only a 5-minute time slot I had to fill, and I decided to base my talk on a couple quotes that spoke to me about authenticity:

First, a couple quotes by ee cummings:

“It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.”

“To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everyone else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight – and never stop fighting.”

I opened my talk by talking about the authenticity that little kids have — how brave and bold and outspoken they are, right up until they start understanding the weight of their words and the cultural expectations they’re under. I wanted everyone to think about the different kinds of expectations we all face in our lives — from our family, our culture, our religion, professions, relationships, etc.

Then I put up this picture:

rebekahfamily
working the hipster glasses before it was cool

And talked about all the expectations that “Becky” had, growing up.

Which brought me to a couple other quotes, these ones by Dr. Brené Brown:

“Authenticity: the daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are.”

“The universe is not short on wake-up calls. We’re just quick to hit the snooze button.”

I then talked a bit about Dr. Brown’s idea that authenticity isn’t a personal characteristic, but it’s a practice. A practice that is both daily, and mindful. Authenticity isn’t something that is permanently achieved — it’s a conscious commitment that requires you to value being true to yourself.

I didn’t go into too much detail about my story, mainly because I wanted more to give the audience something for them to think about in light of their own life. What’s really interesting is that the service leader had specifically asked me to speak to the fact that part of my authentic journey was to reject the faith that I grew up in. Guess what I forgot to mention as I was talking?

Afterwards when I talked to the service leader, she brought up the fact that I forgot to mention my atheism in my little talk. And it’s interesting, as much as I identify as someone who isn’t “religious” anymore, I don’t really feel like that aspect of my life is as interesting to talk about — at least not in that Unitarian setting. Being a nonbeliever is just one small part of who I am, authentically.

on defying gravity (again)

Tonight on my hobble-walkI came across a playlist of show tunes on Spotify. Happily the first song that came on was one of my very favourites: “Defying Gravity” from Wicked.  I still remember the first time I saw the song performed in person, 3+ years ago. It was such an emotional experience for me (read: full-on ugly cry).

I love the retelling of stories from different perspectives: in this case, The Wizard of Oz from the POV of the wicked witch of the west, Elphaba. If you’re not that familiar with Wicked’s retelling, one of the reasons why the story resonates with me is its focus on social justice — Elphaba becomes a voice for the mistreated, in part because she can empathize with what it feels like to be so misunderstood and bullied. A lot of that I can relate to, on some fairly personal levels.

Elfie has an innate sense of justice and wants to help the oppressed, and thinks some good can be accomplished through working with the Wizard’s leadership. Of course, that’s not the case and the Wizard is corrupt and hypocritical. Hence, the song Defying Gravity.

When I first heard the song performed 3 years ago, I thought of how hard it was for me to “defy gravity” in my life and strike out away from the religious lifestyle of my friends and family (I wrote about some of that in this blog entry). I related to Elfie, because for so long I wanted to make things work within my belief system — but soon the hypocrisy and injustice I kept witnessing became too much for me, and I knew I had to get out, even if leaving meant taking a huge personal risk and facing relational loss.

Fast-forward to my life three years later. I’m now walking down an abandoned University Bridge, in the 7pm golden light of sunset, and this song pops up — and I realize that, once again, my life has *defied gravity*. But instead of walking away from my longstanding religious background, I walked away from my 10-year-marriage.

Part of the song’s lyrics state:

Something has changed within me
Something is not the same
I’m through with playing by the rules
Of someone else’s game

Too late for second-guessing
Too late to go back to sleep
It’s time to trust my instincts
Close my eyes: and leap!

and I know what that feels like. There was a point in our marriage when a corner was turned, and then there wasn’t any “going back to sleep” and pretending that everything was alright.  And as hard as it was to “trust my instincts” in that moment, I’m glad I did. I’m glad that I did what was difficult: I leaped.

I’m through accepting limits
’cause someone says they’re so
Some things I cannot change
But til I try, I’ll never know!

Too long I’ve been afraid of
Losing love I guess I’ve lost
Well, if that’s love
It comes at much too high a cost!

“Too long I’ve been afraid of / losing love I guess I’ve lost” — those lines hit me hard.  I remember when I heard that line 3 years ago, it was the love I lost of my friends and family who couldn’t accept me as a nonbeliever. And now, the love I lost 3 years later, was due to someone not fully embracing me for who I truly am. Both lost loves are devastating — and yet, they will no longer hold me back.

Which leads to the BEST PART of the entire song (and maybe the part I sang out loud to a couple times this afternoon on the trails):

So if you care to find me
Look to the western sky!
As someone told me lately:
“Ev’ryone deserves the chance to fly!”

And if I’m flying solo
At least I’m flying free
To those who’d ground me
Take a message back from me

Tell them how I am
Defying gravity
I’m flying high
Defying gravity
And soon I’ll match them in renown
And nobody in all of Oz
No Wizard that there is or was
Is ever gonna bring me down!

“If I’m flying solo, at least I’m flying free” — That’s me, today. I’m no longer happy being grounded — whether that means being a part of a religious system that forces me to compromise or in a relationship that doesn’t fulfill me. Nothing is ever gonna bring me down.

It’s a song that still feels so devastating and yet empowering — which is a lot like life, don’t you think? There can be moments when life knocks the wind out of you, and other times when you feel like punching the sky with happiness.

Today a dear friend told me that they admired my strength. And my response was that I didn’t think of myself as all that strong — but that I thought I was just strong *enough*.

And maybe being strong enough is all it takes to defy some of the gravity that holds you down in life.

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*I forgot to blog about the fact the surgery happened 4 weeks ago

“in Christian Love” #not

So yesterday I did something unusual – I listened to a sermon, specifically a sermon from my old church in Savannah. It popped up in one of my social media feeds, and being the curious grrrl that I am, I had to listen for myself.

The topic was on homosexuality and gay marriage – an issue that’s admittedly close to my heart. I suppose there was a part of me (a small part) who was hoping my past church had moved on past its discriminatory views that I remembered.

Of course I was disappointed.

I chose to listen to the sermon on my evening walk, so last night if you saw me muttering aloud to myself as I walked, now you know why.

The sermon is the last part of the “You Asked for It” series, where congregants wrote in topic suggestions for sermons. The minister delivering the talk is the same one who has been the pastor there ever since I was little.

If you check out the church’s Facebook page where the video is posted, you’ll see nothing but glowing comments about how “compassionate” and “balanced” this sermon is. Part of me is hoping that negative comments about it have been scrubbed, because I have a hard time believing that we watched the same sermon.

Here’s what I saw:

I saw a minister who abused his position of power. I saw someone who knows he is influential in the lives of so many who look up to him and consider him as a spiritual leader in their lives. And yet this leader can in one breath say that he “loves” you, but then quickly turn around to dismiss/discredit/destroy you. That kind of faux compassion is nauseating to witness (both in person and on tape).

[For example, in the midst of his homosexual shaming, there was also some slut-shaming also thrown in for good measure — In reference to his point on “addictive homosexual behaviour”, here’s an actual quote: “girls in every high school in our community are addicted to the attention that sex can bring, and they discover that lesbian behaviour will turn on guys, and they push that button. Like a drug user.”]

Also throughout the sermon I saw this minister cite shoddy research, more than once, to bolster his argument. In the beginning of his talk, there were huge generalizations made about vague scientific studies and psychological findings. The dismissive label of “urban legend” was tossed about when referring to any recent findings of genetic dispositions to homosexuality (though no sources cited to back this supposed legend).

Later in the sermon, as he started to cite specific research to back more of his more odious points, he cited research that was anywhere from 21 to 36 years old.

For example, one of his key pieces of evidence was that “only 1% of the American population is homosexual.”  What wasn’t mentioned is that this stat is at least 21 years old, as it comes from this 1993 NYTimes article.  And this decades-old statistic is the most recent research that’s cited in the sermon!

Other claims and sources used as evidence:

Of course when the pastor cites this research, it was never stated how old these findings were. Just how relevant are these results, decades later? A precursory google search reveals that several of these studies have questionable issues with them, but for someone who’s listening in the congregation, are they going to take the time to follow up on the information that is being presented? It is completely disingenuous on his part to present these findings as relevant facts for people to consider.

But beyond the large amounts of faux piety and substandard research in the sermon, what bothers me the most is the damage it will cause to people sitting in the pews who are in fact members of the LGBT community. Do you know what was the “solution” that was given to these individuals? Choosing to live a life of being single and celibate. Because according to this minister, sex isn’t a physical need, it’s just a desire – so, in order to be an accepted member of this religious community (and by extension, loved by the God of this community), you will need to reject and suppress intrinsic parts of yourself and your identity.

While I’m pretty good these days about leaving religious people alone with their beliefs, this is one place where I have to call BULLSHIT. Why would anyone want live under the weight of this kind of hurtful dogma, especially when there are real-life people who are being crushed in the process?

If there’s a bright side to be found in this situation, it’s this: I am so glad that views like these are being recorded and broadcast. These desperate pleas to maintain religious dogma at the expense of human beings are being more and more drowned out in our society. Having a sermon like this recorded for posterity is important — so when (not if, but when!) it’s a foregone conclusion in our society that LOVE IS LOVE and no government should stand in the way of same-sex commitments, we will be able to pull up these videos and remind ourselves of how hurtful some religious beliefs can be.

I don’t regret rejecting this belief system at all.

A new hope

(and for those of you who recognize the geek reference in the title, you win)

Earlier this week I ended up in a long online discussion with an extended family member about religion. Now if you know me at all, you know that I don’t stray away from tricky topics.

At one point, this person said:

You will never find true peace, confidence and joy until you see who God really is. It’s a matter of your eyes being opened….right now they are seeing what you want them to see. I will never quit praying for you.

Now while I know that this was said with (mostly) good intentions, it’s still a sentiment that I really push back against.  I push back not because it’s something I’ve never heard before (I’ve heard it countless times) — and it’s not like I’m an extra-fragile person who can’t handle being patronized to.  I push back against statements like these because I think people need to recognize when they’ve crossed a relational line.

I wonder if any nonbeliever would feel confident enough to say such a thing to someone who believes in God: “You will never find true peace, confidence, and joy until you stop believing in a magic man in the sky.”  While I know there’s always some assholes out there, I doubt you would find many atheists willing to make such a pronouncement — and yet, for many Christians, this sentiment is easily said aloud (or thought to themselves).

While my conversation with this family member ended up with me feeling frustrated and the family member entrenching herself deeper in her belief system, a happy coincidence brought up an old email I wrote to a friend, 4 years ago. I would have posted it in my online conversation, but it was definitely time to walk away.

Here’s what I wrote:

The question you ask [Where do atheists find hope?] is such an important one! If there’s one misunderstanding between believers and nonbelievers, it’s found here. A couple years ago at the funeral of Jerry’s grandma, I can remember how bad I felt when his minster brother made the statement that “those without God have no real hope.” I don’t think that statement is true, at all.

1613902_10154081761120134_7782833434266106439_nI guess the best place to start would be to define what you mean by “hope.” So much of my past Christian hope revolved around an all-knowing, all-loving God who was actively involved in my life — or at least, so I thought. I also had hope in an afterlife, which is hope for the process of death. Now that I’ve rejected my faith, and am agnostic as to whether or not there is a God, my hope has changed to more of what *this current world* has to offer, rather than invisible hopes.

So I have hope all around me. I see the world changing, in terms of new opportunities for my little girl, and that gives me hope. There are moments when someone unexpected gives me help or says to me words of support, and I have hope there. I get hopeful when I think of how science is advancing, of the technology that makes our world better, of how borders are getting smaller and the world isn’t as segmented as it once was.

What’s different now for me as an atheist, versus when I was a Christian, is that I have to look around me for hope. It requires more of an effort, and not just wishful thinking on my part. And, there are days that can be dark and sad — but another part of having hope in this current world is that I know these bad days pass, and they aren’t due to something I’ve done wrong (necessarily).

 

So much hope to be had! And without any dogma baggage.

Post-religious

One of the reasons why I’ve kept this blog running for as long as I have (11+ years!) is that it’s always served as a running artifact of my life since I’ve moved to Canada. In fact, if you dig enough in the archives, you’ll find chapters from all sorts of my life’s stages — from my changing political views, evolving cultural attitudes, and even different shades of belief and nonbelief.

And of course, there’s the infamous manifesto that Jerry and I wrote back in September 2007 when we outed ourselves as atheists to our friends and family. Maybe it’s time for me to revisit what I wrote in 2007 – because in some ways, I think I’ve moved past much of what it means to be an atheist.

Six years ago when we first identified ourselves as nonbelievers, there was a lot of issues for us to work through. There was some anger, some sadness, plus a whole lot of rejection from various friends and family members.

And then Jerry and I found ourselves an atheist community in town, and for a while, we were quite active in it. But after a few months it started to get tedious, arguing the same arguments and mocking the same religious foibles.  So we eventually left that group behind because it wasn’t filling what we needed in a community — I guess part of me felt like there’s got to be more to do than just mocking and arguing.

Which is one of the reasons why I started going to the local Unitarian congregation in Saskatoon. I had several friends who were already members, plus I wanted to find a community that would be a place for our family. I also wanted Emma to grow up in an intergenerational community where she could be exposed to lots of different people and ideas, apart from Jerry and I.

Emma, lighting the chalice in Children's Religious Education (RE)
Emma, looking fab while lighting the chalice in Children’s Religious Education (RE)

 

Today was a pretty important day for me in this community, because today I became a member of the Unitarian congregation.

Looking back on it, I think it’s funny how much I fought officially joining the Unitarian church. Granted, I’ve been volunteering with them for over 3 years now and am a pretty active part of the community, but initially there was something a bit scary in me taking that step to make my involvement official.

It helps to know that I’m a member of this particular congregation, and I’m not signing onto “Unitarianism” in general (hooray for congregationalist approaches!). And I think I’m ready for it now, especially since I’m starting to reconsider how I classify my “religious affiliation”.

These days I think I identify more as someone who’s post-religious. Sure, I’m still happy to claim the title of atheist, if only to challenge the misconceptions many religious believers have when they hear that label — but there’s a part of me who doesn’t like the term “atheist” as much, mainly because I don’t like to identify myself as being someone who’s in opposition to the religious. In part, identifying myself an atheist still inadvertently links me to religious belief, and really, I don’t want to be associated with it.

I first heard the term post-religous in an interview with the UK Sunday Assembly’s founders Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans. Here’s a part of an interview where they describe the SA and use the term:

How does Sunday Assembly bring together like minded liberal Christians who no longer believe in the supernatural or worship a Father God but like church community with humanists/atheists in a quest to live an authentic life?

Jones: We’ve got some people who love the Sunday Assembly who fit that description. If you start talking about living this one life as fully as possible, you can suddenly open the door very wide. I’d like to make this as un-atheistic as possible. Atheism is boring. We’re both post-religious. 

Evans: We don’t check anyone’s beliefs at the door but seek out people who are just happy to be alive. [my emphasis]

I love the ideas behind the Sunday Assembly: Live Better. / Help Often. / Wonder More.

I think, in some ways, I’ve made the local Unitarian Centre our family’s Sunday Assembly.  While I’m not usually a fan of the Sunday morning services (you’ll find me hanging out with the youth group instead), I do love the community we’ve found.  Emma will grow up learning about the seven principles, and when she’s old enough, can decide for herself who she’ll be and what she’ll do with them (and I’ve already told her she can change her mind 100 times!).

But if you were to have asked me, 6 years ago, if I’d willingly sign-on as a member of a “church,” I would have probably laughed. Isn’t it funny how things have changed — but I don’t mind so much now.

And I don’t mind if others think I’m crazy for being a part of the Unitarians, or think I’m hell-bound because I don’t believe in the particular tenets of their faith.

Take me or leave me, this is where I’m at today. I may be in a different spot tomorrow, a year from now, or 5 years later – and I’m okay with that.

grrrl meets mosque

Today I was invited to take part in an interfaith symposium on the topic – Religion: A Source of Conflict or Peace? When an organizer contacted me to ask if I’d be willing to be a part of it, it didn’t take me long to agree. I think it’s important for nonbelievers to have a voice in these kinds of events, even though we are not a part of a “faith” system.

Here are the slides I used for my talk:

I decided to approach the symposium’s question from a personal perspective, rather than outline all the ways religion has caused conflict all over the world (and throughout history).  My main goal was to get believers to think of atheists in a different, more positive light — so I made the focus more about the religious-induced conflict I’ve experienced in my personal life since I’ve come out as a nonbeliever.
And I think it worked.
It was interesting to watch how the women in the audience positively received my message. The majority of my audience was Muslim or Sikh, with only a few friends and Western-ized folks in attendance.  As I told my story, I could tell that many women could empathize with what it feels like to be discriminated against because of your philosophical (read: religious) outlook. Isn’t it funny how an atheist could build rapport with such an ideologically different set of people! But we did connect, and it was a cool experience.
And when it came to the question period, I had almost twice as many questions asked of me than the other panelists — I must have hit a nerve. I wish there could have been more time for the Q & A, since that’s when you really get to know someone.
As I left the mosque tonight, I wondered about if any evangelical church in Saskatoon (or elsewhere) would ever feel compelled to host an interfaith event like this. While I didn’t always agree with my fellow panelists on the issues (especially when it came to a woman’s role), I felt like I left today’s symposium with a better understanding of these different faiths. Would an evangelical church be comfortable to enable their congregation to consider other points of view when it comes to spirituality? Unfortunately, my experience in the church tells me no — and that’s really sad.