Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Dexter, Religion, and Mental Illness

I am just now catching up with season six of Dexter. On the episode we watched last night, Dexter was astounded to find out this season's killer was motivated by religion. "A killer with faith?!" was his exclamation. I wish T.V. writers would actually research their subjects a little before depicting them; walk into any psych ward and ask some of those folk about their relationship with some kind of God. Religion is a great (and popular) conduit for mental illness.

This complaint is lodged more as a person who works in the human services than it is lodged as an atheist.  I have stated previously that religious people can be perfectly healthy; often more healthy than non-religious people. This complaint is lodged even more as a fan of good T.V. than it is as an atheist or a human service worker. See? It's a trinity complaint. I am the trinity complainer.
Anyway, Dexter is still a great show, and Mos Def did a great job on season 6. Maybe I'll discover the message becomes more balanced towards the end.

Religion doesn't only interact with mental illness in a negative way. In fact, it can often act as a salve. The underlying trope that season 6 of Dexter seems to have bought into is that to engage in socially destructive and deviant behavior has some root in a lack of spiritual mooring. I agree that a person must have more than just a lack of belief in god/gods to guide them in this life, but atheism is far from a corroding influence. In fact for many non-believers--myself included--it is the first step towards a healthy worldview. Atheism can be a great corrective, and there is plenty of evidence out there that atheists care about their communities and families.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Writing, and Discovering Josephine

I have been writing lately, but nothing for the blog. I've written a couple of stories--one of them pretty long--and sent them off to different literary magazines. If none of them get picked up (which is probable) I will post them here. I'm also writing a manual for my job; so the writing is flowing, just nothing for the blog.

On another note, I've been looking into Josephine Baker lately, and am very impressed. What a sexy, talented, driven woman! I admire her tenacity, and the easy-going and fun aspect she managed to preserve throughout her life. She was way bigger than the time period that contained her, and she seemed to know it.

There have been so many interesting people on this planet.

Josephine dancing:

Josephine singing:

Josephine living:

Monday, November 19, 2012

An Aspect Of the 1950's That Conservatives Do Not Pine For

"Along the way, however, we’ve forgotten something important — namely, that economic justice and economic growth aren’t incompatible. America in the 1950s made the rich pay their fair share; it gave workers the power to bargain for decent wages and benefits; yet contrary to right-wing propaganda then and now, it prospered. And we can do that again." - From The Twinkie Manifesto, by Paul Krugman

Sunday, November 18, 2012


The times when you are suffering can be those when you are most open, and where you are extremely vulnerable can be where you greatest strength really lies. Say to yourself: ‘I am not going to run away from this suffering. I want to use it in the best and richest way I can, so that I can become more compassionate and more helpful to others.’ Suffering, after all, can teach us about compassion. If you suffer you will know how it is when others suffer. And if you are in a position to help others, it is through your suffering that you will find the understanding and compassion to do so.
Tibetan Book of Living and Dying

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Great Tragedy of the 2012 Election

I ate lunch yesterday with my grandfather and grandmother. During the course of our lunch at a local Mexican restaurant, My grandfather mentioned that he thought Mitt Romney was a lot like Richard Nixon. He meant this as a positive, because he thought both Romney and Nixon were 'People's Presidents'.

I told him I thought his comparison was funny, because I had also been making it pre-election, except as a negative. Mitt Romney reminded me of a teetotalling version of Nixon as portrayed in 'Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72', by Hunter S. Thompson. Always preening, always rolling out new versions of himself. Cynical to the core.

Then last night I had a dream about Hunter S. Thompson. He was a major league pitcher who was famous for pitching as many wild balls as he was striking people out. Baseball in my dream was different in that instead of a catcher, the pitcher threw balls at a drumhead, and each drumhead was decorated with an emblem that represented the pitcher. I suppose the gonzo symbol would have been appropriate for Hunter, but dreams have their own logic, and Hunter's drumhead had the silhouette of a woman's leg with a stylistic moon hovering over the top of the thigh.

I'm not a religious man, but I still have a lot of good old fashioned West Virginia superstition running through my blood--my mother's side of the family hails from Maetwan--so I thought maybe I needed to honor the demon and write about this man who keeps popping into my mind and conversation lately.

Hunter Thompson would have been great during this past election cycle. A young Hunter would have been great, I should say. One that was relatively near the beginning of his cycle of chemical self destruction. Reading his dispatches from the trail would have been wonderful, as would reading his caricatures of Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. Would he have found something hopeful about the community organizer from Illinois? I certainly would hope so. Would he have found something to Loathe in Mitt Romney? No doubt.

I did my feeble best to pay tribute to Thompson earlier on in the cycle (google Paul Ryan + Ibogaine to see what I mean), but no tribute is suitable.

I think Hunter would have benefited from this election as much as his writing would have benefited us.

Unfortunately though, suicides are never on time.

"Football season is over".

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Atheists Should Meet Theists Where They're At

We have a saying in social work: 'Meet them where they're at'. This means, essentially, that we know where this person needs to end up in order to be healthy, but they are currently participants in a lifestyle or worldview that only allows for gradual progress. Embrace the whole person, and pick your 'learning opportunities' wisely.

I endorse a version of this approach when it comes to interacting with the religious as well.

The difference between the version of this approach employed by atheists interacting with religious folks and social workers interacting with their clientele is first and foremost that a religious person is not necessarily unhealthy. In many cases, the religious person may be far healthier than the atheist. They may be far closer to self actualization, and performing far closer to their peak capacity. They may be more intelligent, happier, funnier, and kinder. Their worldviews are just couched in a falsehood.

The atheist has to ask themselves first and foremost, what can I learn from this other human being that I am interacting with? Their religious views do not discredit the entirety of their worldview, or reduce them to the content of their religious views. The first thing the atheist must do is to find what is human about the religious person they are interacting with. The faithful are often advised to 'look for god in the person', and this is essentially my advice, substituting the word 'god' for the phrase 'what is human'. Religion is a very human thing. It is an understandable human phenomenon. What leads a person to religious belief? Often it is a personal desire to have their life make sense in a holistic kind of way. Often it is the reaction to stress and uncertainty. Often it is simply a framework that is learned in childhood that evolves along with the person as they grow into adults. It is human, and it is something we as atheists should be able to identify with.

Why? Because we are meaning-seeking creatures too. Atheism, as I have discussed in the past on this blog, is not enough. We need more. In our own attempts to determine what that 'more' is going to be, we should be able to sympathize with folks who have discovered a 'more' that works for them, even if it is one that we view to be wrongheaded.

It is from the framework of the 'more' that we need to view our religious brothers and sisters. So they believe in a god and follow a religion. What does this god and religion compel them to do? Does it compel them to contribute to their community? Does it compel them to be kind to their families, their neighbors, and animals? If so, then their motivation should become secondary to their actions in our consideration.

If on the other hand, their religion can be seen to feed into negative and harmful traits, it will need to be confronted at its root. Religious views that lead people to view benign and natural human orientations like homosexuality as 'sinful', or views that advocate for the genital mutilation of children, or refusal to receive blood transfusions, or patriarchal and racist views, will need to be challenged.

First and foremost, we have to encounter each other as human beings, not as infidels in need of conversion or conquer. That M.O. is better suited to the religious fundamentalist than it is the atheist humanist.

I am writing this as much for myself as I am anyone else. I am a white male American. I live in the suburbs and am married to a woman. Atheism is one of the only traits that puts me in the minority. If there is anything that has become obvious lately, white male Americans living in the suburbs are uncomfortable being minorities. So perhaps in the past I have been overly aggressive (read: defensive) in my interactions with religious folks, and perhaps I've discounted many because of their beliefs. After I gave up religion, many of my friends went from being 'My friend ______' to 'My Christian friend ___________'.  That was wrong.

I don't believe in God. I am glad that people find cause to do good in their religion, but I think there are plenty of non-religious reasons to do good. I tend to believe that people do good because they are good, and that my religious friends--in spite of their insistance otherwise--would be good without god. Perhaps even better.

I also don't want to sound like I'm discouraging discussion. Discussion and debate are very important. I'm writing this--as much for myself as for anyone else--as a call not to lose sight of the human heart when approaching a person with a different outlook than your own. I can't tell you how many times I have heard my views cynically rationalized away by christians who would not allow for the fact that I have honestly arrived at the conclusions I have. I've been told I had made a choice not to accept God into my life. The idea that I had just discovered that there had never actually been such a divine invitation was just not something they could consider. I've been told I didn't properly understand christianity, and that is why I am an atheist. I've been told that I am 'taking the easy road'. All of these cynical responses to my belief system irk me, but really, how much more generous am I when considering the beliefs of the religious? Often, not much.

So yes, it would be great if all of this god nonsense was behind us. Evidence indicates that it's on its way to being so. In the meantime, however, do I really need to go around trying to beat it out of people? Leaving religion is a big deal, and it leaves a huge vacuum in a person's life. I can tell you this from personal experience. Is it responsible to try to take this core out of people and not stick around to help them rebuild something sturdier?

Better to seek common ground, I'm coming to believe. There are plenty of atheists out there whose sole concern is removing 'in god we trust' from our money, and making sure that there are no nativity displays on public grounds. I have much more in common with christians, jews, and muslims who are motivated to help the poor and homeless than I do these privileged misanthropes. Better to work with them--and my fellow atheist humanists also similarly focused--and actually make a meaningful contribution to the welfare of my fellow primates.

I'd rather role up my sleeves and build something with people looking in a common direction, and leave the theological discussions for pleasant post-project coffee talk.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

6 Completely Reasonable Conservative Principles

Conservative news outlets all agree: We are a 'divided country'. Funny, I wonder if that's the headline they would have gone with if Romney had won? Whatever the case, I want to work towards healing that divide. It's something we will need to do if we're going to move forward together. In that spirit, I've compiled a list of 6 conservative principles that I believe should be absolutely uncontroversial.

1. Don't Spend More Than You Take In

What could be more basic? I won't go into the data that shows Democrats have been better stewards of our national finances than have Republicans--this is, after all, an effort at ecumenicism--but whenever I ask a Republican, especially the tea party variety, what the most important role of Government is, this is one of their first responses. Really, it's not a point that can be argued: Debt equals enslavement to outside interests, and restricts personal and national freedom. The more self reliant our country is, the better.

2. Reward According To Merit

Another important, fundamental principle. Trophies for participation really grate on the conservative soul. It's a tough world out there, and it takes grit. Where does a person get grit? Well, by competing. By losing. By 'Failing forward'. 'Always make new mistakes', and all of those other corporate cliches.

But there is one caveat: in order to reward according to merit, the competitors have to be competing on a level playing field. Our society has been designed to promote the white, the male, the christian, the abled, the established, and the heterosexual. All of our institutions are geared towards the success of the aforementioned categories, and the more of those categories you can tick off, the more likely you are to succeed. Yes, there are plenty of 'rags to riches' stories out there, but the fact is, you are pretty much guaranteed to end up in the class you are born in. We also have to ask ourselves of those who went from little to a lot, was it worth it for them? The amount of work and game-playing a person has to engage in to succeed in this country are enormous. We do not treat human beings as 'ends unto themselves' in this country: we treat them as appendages of production, and capital and status accumulating machines. If a person fails at any of these things--or takes little interest in them--they are considered failures. We also have to ask of those who went from little to a lot, was the system fair? Did you have to work far harder than those who inherited their lot? The answer will always be 'yes', and if that is the case, then we really aren't rewarding according to merit.

3. Hold Others--And Yourself--Accountable

We should hold everyone accountable for their actions. The criminal must pay for the crime. Justice must be done.

So why are there more minority drug users in prison than there are white Americans, when more white Americans use drugs? Why are individuals experiencing tough times expected to 'pull themselves up by their boot straps', when corporate America gets a bailout after it commits gross malfeasance?

The inconsistencies go on and on, but the conservatives are right: We need to hold ourselves and others accountable. We also need to hold our system accountable, too.

4. Build A Strong Military

From the time I was sixteen to maybe twenty, I identified as a pacifist. I attributed my pacifism to my christianity, which has also since lapsed. I didn't understand how we are going to stop violence with violence: to live by the sword is to die by the sword.

But violence is a reality, and there are armed villains in the world that need to be kept at bay. Governments opress their people, and sometimes other governments need to step in in the name of justice. We have to have a strong military.

But do we have to spend as much money on the military as we do?

Let's go back to the first principle on our list. "Don't spend more than you take in". Is such a huge and expansive military really in keeping with this principle, especially when so many within our country are going without? Couldn't we have a strong military and still scale it back quite a bit?

5. Support Israel

Conservatives love Israel. I don't have a problem with Israel. They are an undeniable ally. We should support our allies.

But what we are involved with in Israel is more than a matter of a relationship with an ally: bronze age mythology absolutely colors the entire conflict between Israel and its neighbors, and especially its relationship with Palestine. We have to de-mythologize the conflict, or at least our involvement in it. We have to promote pragmatic peace, which will inevitably include a Palestinian state, and the permanent cessation of settlements.

6. Protect the Family

Maybe this one will seem a little tricky on my part, but it's not intended to be so. The family is the bedrock of our society, and it must be protected. It must be preserved and promoted. One of the best ways to do this, is to ensure that consenting, loving adults, regardless of gender, sex, color, or creed, should be able to marry other loving adults, regardless of gender, sex, color, or creed. The family promotes cohesion. Families fuel our economy. The more families we have the better, whatever those families are constructed of.

Another way to protect the family is to understand that capitalism destroys families. Capitalism does not respect the integrity of individuals. To capitalism, we are all just individual units of labor. It is becoming increasingly expensive to survive in this capitalist system that we have, especially for lower income families. Everyone must work. There are no stay-at-home moms and dads anymore in my end of the economic pool, at least very few.  We are all just exploited labor power, and it takes all of us working in order to make ends meet. That leaves more children to be raised by the system itself; a system that ultimately transforms them into yet more units of labor power, stripping them of their human integrity.

Yes, we must support the family. The only way to do that, however, is to outgrow the existing system.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

You Make Me Horny, Ohio

Last week, I wrote a blog post saying that I was very nervous about how my home state of Ohio was going to turn out for the President. The conservatives around me seemed very confident, and my fellow liberals and leftists...not so much.

The good people at Daily Kos who commented on this post gently scoffed at me, and I thought, 'These people have drank the Kool Aid."

I was 'tense and nervous', to quote David Byrne the night before and the day of the election. I posted the following on Facebook:
"So excited about voting: don't know if I'll be able to sleep. However nervous the American people make me, it is hard to be cynical about democracy. What an awesome tool. I Hope to see you all on the battlefield tomorrow."
I had gotten myself into a positive headspace by 4am:
"Enough sleep! Time to get showered, dressed, wake up the kids, get them ready, and get to the polls. We plan to be first in line...We've got a long day of protecting America from Mitt Romney ahead of us!"
Election day is like Christmas around my house. Presidential elections are like...Super Christmas. We took the day off to celebrate together. Here are my democracy warriors:

And then here we are, first at the polls:

Standing in line, I tweeted the following dispatch:
"I feel like Alvy Singer waiting in line for the movies with this tea party yahoo behind me giving the sparks notes version of the Glenn Beck show to everyone who will listen. I Hope Obama takes his guns away."
It was gratifying to know that an uber-leftist was the first in line in my conservative district, but the conversation in line behind me had me feeling like the dogs were at my heels.

We voted, and then went to breakfast. After that, we swung by Half Price Books, and then went to the grocery store to get preparations for our election night party. In between that moment and 7:30, I must have taken the dog for a walk about 10 times.

Troxell polling results headquarters:

Not long before our polls closed, I sent out the following message:
"I must have visited drudge, the daily kos, the daily dish, real clear politics, huffpo, think progress, the blaze, and NPR twenty times each today. You've got me sweating, America."
After Obama won Pennsylvania:
"It's all on us, Ohio..."
Then, finally, after the announcement that my aformentioned nervousness was for naught:
My boys had dozed off during the night, so I woke them up. They smiled wanly, and promptly went back to sleep.

We got Sherrod Brown, Elizabeth Warren, Barack Obama, Tim Kaine, Alan Grayson, civil rights for homosexuals, and legalized marijuana. I liked all of my liberal friends celebratory remarks on Facebook, and then liked Mitt Romney's page. I left him the following comment after his concession speech:
"You gave my candidate a good run, Governor. Thanks for a classy and open-hearted concession speech. I wish you and your family the best of luck."
And then I went to sleep a happy man.

Sorry I ever doubted you, Ohio. You're looking pretty good to me this morning. So much was on the line, and you came through. You done good, kid. Real good.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

The Sermon Under the Mount

 [I have been asked to deliver a sermon to the Unitarian Universalist Church my family attends at some point in the near future. I think this message--or some variation of it--is what I'm going to use].

I still don't know what to make of mankind, or 'manunkind' as e.e. cummings called us. George Carlin correctly identified the twin poles in our nature when he called his second book 'Napalm and Silly Putty'. On the one hand, we are capable of great levity, leisure, and gentle innocence. On the other, we have made chemicals that can burn the skin off of young children, and sear the lungs of anyone who breathes it.

Let's dispense with gods right from the start: we are alone here. Thankfully. We are condemned to freedom, as Sartre proclaimed, and there could be no fairer business. So this world is really what we make it, and oh, what we have made it.

We have in the U.S. a social system that turns human beings into appendages of the means of production, strips from them their ability to see in themselves and their fellow mean that we are all 'ends unto ourself', and prevents us from self actualizing. Capitalism is a great and vicious machine that must always be moving, and it is fueled by the churning out of alienated human bodies.

On the other hand, look at the human response to this calamitous system: we have social workers, faith groups, and individuals compelled by pity to treat their fellow man--their fellow sufferers as Schopenhauer would put it--with great kindness.  It is moving to see the activity of human hands motivated by human hearts that have managed to pry themselves from the sheer requirements of surviving in this law of the jungle society we inhabit.  I am constantly touched by a decency that seems to reside somewhere beneath the loads of paperwork, dirty laundry, and self flagellation that piles itself up on top of the typical American spirit. I see it daily in the work I do at the shelter I work at. The little old lady who makes sure our tables always have fresh flowers on them. The volunteers who come into our shelter during the winter to take care of the feet of our residents and give them new shoes. The children who come in to help their parents serve meals, who put smiles on many life-hardened faces. I am an unwavering atheist, but I have been touched by the various faith groups who have come into our shelter in various capacities to lift the spirits and the standard of living for our residents.

Let me go back to Schopenhauer for a minute. I feel like I'm in danger of over-quoting this excerpt, but it really has moved me and stayed with me. It has moved me so much in fact, that I named my Chihuahua after the great pessimistic philosopher, which--if you know what Schopenhauer's relationship with dogs was--is not the backhanded compliment it may seem to be.
He said,
"The conviction that the world, and therefore man too, is something which really ought not to exist is in fact calculated to instil in us indulgence towards one another: for what can be expected of beings placed in such a situation as we are? From this point of view one might indeed consider that the appropriate form of address between man and man ought to be, not monsieur sir, but fellow sufferer, compagnon de misereres. However strange this may sound, it corresponds to the nature of the case, makes us see other men in a true light and reminds us of what are the most necessary of all things: tolerance, patience, forebearance, and charity, which each of us needs and which each of us therefore owes."
Amen and amen. We are all born into this world screaming and frightened, naked and dependant. We die as alone as we do together, and as Hamlet observes in the graveyard, the worms feed upon the corpses of kings and popes as easily as they do those of peasants. In between, we make choices, choices which have been limited for us by our genetics, or circumstances, and the degree to which we accept and internalize our social conventions and taboos. We are a superstitious species, and we cling to certainty and treat inquiry as something of an extreme sport.

We kill one another. We leave 'the least among us' to die, to remain unsupported, to roll the stone of their lives forever up and down the mountainside. We leave our potential untapped, we fail to truly see each other, to love each other, to embrace each other. We take our angers and frustration out on the people we love the most.

But we also make love. We dance, we help, we create art. We listen. We share. We do things 'for the hell of it', which is the best reason of all to do anything.  We are patient. We are kind. We practice "tolerance, forebearance, and charity, which each of us needs and which each of us therefore owes".

We're not far out of the trees, and death is an inconvenient book end. If anything, that obelisk that stands at the end of each of our individual book shelves (I like to imagine that some of our shelves are composed of cook books, some photography, some literature, some pulp, some technical and instructional manuals, and some vast collections of pornography), should spur us on to do something, even if that something is only to read faster.

I don't know what to do with these different manifestations of the animal called man. I can see both seeds--the napalm and the silly putty--in my own character. I can feel them both very fully at different times, and at different times can take solace in both.

I wish I could end this piece on a more declarative note, but above all in my writing, I aim for honesty. So let's stop here.

Friday, November 2, 2012

You Make Me Nervous, Ohio

If I had to describe the collective mood of Ohio Republicans, I would say it is quietly confident. If I had to describe the mood of Ohio Democrats, I would say we are a little nervous.

The polls are close. There's a lot of talk about Romney leading among independents, but I'm not sure that's such a big problem for President Obama. Tea Partiers have taken to calling themselves independents lately, and I am convinced that this is why we are seeing so many 'independents' favoring Romney. They are repackaged republicans.

But it is still close. My chihuahua, Schopenhauer--or Schopey as we call him--is unmoved by the whole thing. To be as philosophical about human politics as a dog would be a great gift. My kids are invested, though. We're planning on making a day of voting; head to the polls as soon as they open, go out for breakfast, and then maybe take a trip to the zoo. We talked about heading up to Chicago if weather permits, so we could be there for either the triumphal celebration or the mass suicide.

This morning on his talk radio show, Glenn Beck gently chided and forewarned Ohio that this was all up to us, and that we could end up as hated by the right as Florida has been in previous elections if we gave Ohio to Brown & Obama. I'm pretty sure Glenn thinks his team has this one in the bag--via divine providence, and a great white suburban housewife awakening, I believe--but there's that twinge of doubt in the back of his mind.

 I would like nothing more than to incur the condemnation of Glenn and Sean and Rush and all of the tea party faithful who tell us we're throwing our country in the garbage disposal if we re-elect Sherrod Brown and Barack Obama. It would be joyous to turn on the radio the day after the election and hear the brute choir tell us all to go to hell.  Ohio is a difficult nut to crack. Either we are some of the most reasonable people in the country, or we are some of the most shallow and fickle. My hope is that our vote for President Obama and Sherrod Brown 4 years ago was actually a collective act of principle, and that we've been paying enough attention since that vote to realize that not only has the President done a substantive, good-faith job, but also that Mitt Romney is the most hollowed out and cynical presidential candidate since Nixon. The Republican party and talk radio has worked very hard to scare us. They've painted the road to a truly just, truly egalitarian society, with a robust and functioning safety net as the road to hell.

Let's do it: let's walk down the dark and twisted path of easier access to education, health care, expanded civil liberties, and responsible and competent exercising of global power that the right describes. I know all of these things sound scary, but really, your eyes adjust to the darkness once you've entered the cold and soulless cave of liberalism.  It is terrifying to imagine consenting adults in loving relationships being allowed to marry one another. The idea of women making the same amount of money as their male counterparts is totally Lovecraftian. The image of an American President not blustering around on the world stage like Donald Trump in...well, any environment you might find Donald Trump in...may have the same impact on the average voter as that video from the movie 'The Ring' had on the people who watched it.

Seriously though, I can't think of a worse transition. Handing the country over to Mitt Romney seems akin to someone returning to an abusive relationship. Handing Ohio over to Josh Mandel seems akin to letting your infant child change its own diaper.

Do the right thing on Tuesday, Ohio. Re-elect President Obama and Senator Brown.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Bow Ties Are Cool

Tonight is Drop Inn Center's Angels to the Homeless Gala, and I've decided to use the occasion as an excuse to finally try on a bow tie.

The problem is, before last night, I had never tied a bow tie in my life. After purchasing the strangely shaped piece of cloth from a local department store, I took it out of the bag and looked at it, dumbfounded. I figured there would be something intuitive about putting it on, but as I looked at the strange hour-glass shapes at each end of the tie, I realized I would need some help.

I went to You Tube to look up 'how to' videos, and what did I find? Bill Nye the Science Guy, giving a bow tie tutorial:

Pretty awesome.

So, I practiced and practiced. I'll let you be the judge of how successful I was:

Watch out, Gala.

If you're unable to make it to our Gala tonight, no need to worry. We will still gladly accept your money. Winter is coming, and every little bit helps. Donate here.