Tag Archives: atheism

Godless Neighbor


We got one of those church mailers the other day. You know, envelope written out by hand, and inside there’s a brochure with a smattering of scripture and a blurb about the church, usually with a little note like “hope to see you there!” These I put directly into the trash.

At least, that’s what I thought this was. In this one, however, was the obligatory brochure, but also inside was a little handwritten letter. “in these trying times…” “need for community more than ever…” “God’s love will provide…” all that stuff.

And, I dunno, maybe because my neighbor went to the trouble of sitting down and writing out this letter (and for goodness’s sake, I imagine he wrote out hundreds — our neighborhood is huge), I felt compelled to read it.

And because I’m a godless heathen, I also feel compelled to respond.

Here is the letter I will not be sending in return.

Dear neighbor,

Thank you for your invitation.

I will not be attending your church. I do not think you should attend your church anymore either. You rightly point out that the world is in disarray and that we are isolated due to Covid. If you think that God is the answer to all these problems, I must ask you — where has God been up until now? Is it not Her will that all this should have transpired exactly as it has?

Are not the 200,000 American deaths from Covid part of God’s handiwork? If not, why has She not saved those who have died, or answered the prayers of those who have lost friends and loved ones? Is not the animosity so many Americans feel for their countrymen of a different political persuasion exactly as God intended? If not, an all-powerful God could surely unite us. Is our isolation due to the outbreak not God’s will? If not, why has She cursed us with such a deadly and highly contagious plague?

And is it God’s will that we now congregate, in an enclosed space and in great numbers, to aid in the transmission of this plague, to our entire community?

God is not the answer to our problems. Only we can help ourselves, and I will not bring my family to a super-spreader event to hear tales and celebrate the glory of an invisible creature who “loves us” but who also visits such terrible suffering upon us. I advise you likewise to abstain from such endeavors.

Yours,

Your godless heathen neighbor

Ahem.

My dad told me recently that I sometimes lack tact.

But if somebody’s gonna send me a hand-written letter, I feel like they at least deserve a response.

Rest assured, I will not send this letter. But it is what I will be thinking when I compose something a little less harsh.

Slightly off-topic: I know *I* see these things and simply toss them in the bin, and think no further about it. I imagine most people do the same. I wonder what the sentiment in my neighborhood would be if I put out an Atheist brochure of the same tenor?

Something tells me it would not be nearly as charitably received. In fact, I wager I might have some God-loving souls knocking on my door or complaining to the HOA.


No Thanks, We’ll Just Hope and Pray


They say that God laughs while you’re making plans.

What has been particularly frustrating to me in the United States over the past few months has been watching other nations not only not be affected as gravely as we have been by the pandemic, but watching them get the outbreak under control in relatively short order. This is actually painful to me. It paints the stark picture that things did not have to be the way they are… a thing that’s always true but which is thrown into particularly sharp relief when things in your neighborhood are, to put it bluntly, crap.

And let there be no mistake; things are crap, here. Cases and deaths are at their highest levels and show no signs of slowing. You can’t even say we’re in a second wave; the first wave never stopped, it only slowed down a little bit.

But worse than the way things are is the way people are acting.

I don’t know how it is in other countries, and I am well aware that jerks are in short supply exactly nowhere when humans are involved, and entitlement is by no stretch an American disease. But here in the States — and, I would argue, especially in the South — we have a lot of entitled jerks that are making things very hard for the rest of us, and making it impossible for us to get a handle on the disease, much less get the stranglehold on it that we need for life to go back to normal.

And that’s been the thing. We hear so much and talk so much about things going back to normal, but there are so many problems with that. Two major ones, as I see it.

One is, “normal” is subjective, and whatever “normal” we get back to is not going to be the same “normal” that we left. Yet so many people seem to think that we’re just going to go back to living our lives exactly the same way we were doing in 2019. But we can’t. Even when we get this disease under control (and I’m now convinced that, in America at least, “under control” means we have a reliable vaccine, but we’ll come to that), nobody’s going to forget how quickly and catastrophically things spiraled out of control. Even if you take the factor of the disease out of it, we now have a really good look at how fragile the economy is, how unstable several job classes are (look at all the restaurants closing their doors), and what a rift this has opened up between people socially. “Normal” post-COVID will not look like “Normal” pre-COVID. It just won’t.

Two is, we want to get back to normal, but apparently we’re not willing to work to get back to normal. This may be kind of obvious, but it’s the sort of thing I key in on as a self-proclaimed storyteller and student of character. Look at any story. The hero wants a thing, and that want causes them to do things. Luke wants off his backwater planet, so he leaps at the chance to leave it. The Dude wants a new rug, so he seeks out the other Jeffrey Lebowski for compensation. The progression is usually pretty straightforward, and it usually makes sense.

Here in America, and especially in the South, we want to get back to normal, but so many of us — too many of us — don’t actually want to do anything to make it happen. Again, this is perhaps more of an American problem than it is for many other places in the world, but we are especially concerned with “freedom”, and there is a subset of our population which is not only concerned, but obsessed with freedoms at the expense of anything else. So even though science shows pretty definitively that some measures can be pretty effective in halting the spread (wearing masks, staying home, etc), there are a lot of people (more than I would have guessed) who simply won’t be told what to do. And because these people vote, and mobilize others to vote, very aggressively, we have leaders who think the same way, or who at least perform as if they think the same way (which might as well be the same thing).

Which leaves us with a string of pathetic half-measures against this disease as opposed to forceful, definitive action. Here in Georgia, we don’t require masks to be worn out in public; we only strongly encourage” their use. But you don’t have to be a genius to know that if it’s not required, lots and lots of people aren’t going to do it. (Consider what the roadways would look like if the speed limit were not a legal requirement, but was only “strongly encouraged”. Or if stop signs were only a suggestion.)

And now we are on the precipice of opening schools up again (even though figures in virtually every state are worse than they were when we closed them down back in march). And we get more half-measures. I can only speak for my own area, where we are opening on-schedule, with virtual learning an “option” but not a requirement (most students will be in class a week from today). Masks are “recommended”, but not required. Social distancing will take place where it is “practical”. Fine Arts programs are essentially shut down — chorus classes are not allowed to sing, band classes not allowed to play instruments — but sports are going full-speed ahead. Contact tracing is limited and on the honor system (the county is not doing any testing; if a student feels ill, it’s up to them and their family to get tested — or not, if they don’t feel like it!)

But we are opening up regardless — because we are determined to get back to “normal.”

Problem is, this isn’t normal. School with all these caveats and hedges and limitations isn’t “normal”. This is a patchwork of half-measures, a cavalcade of procedures and guidelines which might sound good on paper or in a sound bite but which begin to fall apart under the slightest bit of scrutiny. Any teacher or parent knows that even under the best of circumstances, a school is a petri dish and students are walking bacteria.

We’re not doing the things that would help us to get what we actually want.

What we are doing is waiting for a miracle.

But I, as a teacher of drama, can assure you: waiting is not action.

Hoping and praying is not action.

Newton’s laws are definitive for describing motion in the universe, but they tend to be true for people too: an object at rest will stay at rest, and an object in motion will stay in motion, until acted on by an outside force.

Waiting, and taking half-measures, is simply wasting time until something bigger and stronger takes action instead of you.

They say that God laughs while you’re making plans.

But while we’re waiting for a miracle, this disease is cackling its head off.


The Obstacle Is the Way


I got my world rocked this week, reading up on stoic philosophy.

The stoics are awesome. I don’t even know all that much about stoicism except to say that this is the philosophy of the ancient Greeks — the really smart ones, not the ones who just lounged around in togas all day slathering themselves in oil and lusting after young boys (I mean, okay, the stoic philosophers probably did that too, but they didn’t just do that) — and when you ponder on their wisdom, you figure out that they really had this life thing figured out.

They weren’t religious. They weren’t spiritual. But they also weren’t despairing or existential as you might expect from people lacking religion or spirituality. (I’m not saying lacking religion or spirituality makes you bleak or dark or depressed or depressing — that just seems to be the perception our culture has for some reason, because y’know, a life without belief in fairy-tale creatures in the sky must obviously be a life devoid of joy — but I digress.) To the contrary, the stoics held that because life is devoid of magic and higher powers and providence, it falls to each of us to create our own joy, to create meaning, and to work for the betterment not just of ourselves, but of everybody around us.

This is powerful stuff, perhaps most powerful when combined with certain doses of certain substances and prefaced by sentences like “you know, man,” or “dude, I just realized” spoken at three in the morning. But still powerful enough when consumed in bite-sized quotes from the internet or delivered daily to your face by your magical pocket-sized telecommunications device. (I have an app called “The Stoic” that serves up a quote from a stoic philosopher every day. Yes, I am a nerd. I love it. Today’s nugget, from Marcus Aurelius: “The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts; therefore guard accordingly.”)

Anyway, all this is to return to my original point. I got my world rocked by a central tenet of stoicism: The obstacle is the way. I read that and I realized that it’s perfectly in line with my thinking of late, with my recent productive streak, with the through-line of all the nonfiction books I’ve been reading lately about the way we think, the way we connect, and the way the world affects us.

See, we think of obstacles as bad things. I want to go a certain place, do a certain thing, and this other thing is in my way. This other thing is keeping me from the thing that I want. How could that not be a bad thing?

But it’s not a bad thing. It’s just life.

Because the things we want are, by necessity, on the other side of things that are unpleasant. Put another way, if there weren’t unpleasant things in the way of the things we want … we’d just have them. We’d go over there and get them and there’d be nothing stopping us. To put it in concrete terms: I want to publish a book. (Preferably, books, plural.) But first I have to write it, edit it, make sure it’s good, get it into the hands of an agent, then to a publisher. It’s gonna take work. A LOT of work. Hours and hours at the computer, hammering the words into shape and arranging them just so. I also want to be healthy and strong for my family, so I can live a good long time and annoy them for decades to come. That, too, takes work: it takes thinking about what I eat instead of just shoveling donuts down my gullet (which I would prefer!), it takes making time to exercise (which in my case means waking up at five in the morning to get it done before anybody in the house is even awake). Not easy. And while I’m at it, I’d like to ensure my job security, which means challenging myself at work to be not just a decent teacher but a good one, which means improving myself and investing in my students and a bunch of things it would be easier not to do.

We have all these things that we want, but the path is littered with these obstacles. Big or small, minor inconveniences or major heckin’ setbacks, some struggles you can work past in a day or even an hour, others you can’t even see the end of from where you’re standing. The obstacles are out there, and they’re not going anywhere. My books aren’t going to write themselves. I’m not magically going to discover an extra hour during the day to work out on my own time. I won’t become a better teacher by doing the same things I did last year and the year before.

And that’s enough to keep some people from doing these things. It’s easier not to face those obstacles, to keep things as they are, to accept what you’ve got and be complacent. (I was going to write “content” instead of complacent, but there’s a big difference in those words. And there’s something to be said for feeling “content” with what you have, but it’s another thing entirely to be “complacent”.) I mean, I lived with my parents until I was thirty. Because it was easy. I’m not particularly proud of that, but it did lead me to the path I’m currently on, which makes me thankful for it, even though I now lament how much time I wasted.

But the path to Better is laden with obstacles. Which means that the obstacles are the way forward.

Image by skeeze from Pixabay

When we can view the world in this way, the obstacles become less scary. They cease to be bad things, they cease to be things to be avoided. Viewed this way, obstacles become welcome. They become necessary.

And when you tweak your brain enough, you can even begin to view obstacles as a good thing.

The obstacle is the way.

Are you on the path?

This post is part of Stream-of-Consciousness Saturday.


Terrible Reviews: Everything is F*cked


I picked up Mark Manson’s latest offering, Everything is F*cked, at my local library on the New Releases rack. Readers of the blarg will know that I love profanity, especially when it pops up in places it doesn’t belong (like a book title!). So I was intrigued. Of course, I also quickly realized that this is the same Mark Manson who wrote The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, a book whose title also pleased me mightily but which I never bothered reading because I figured — I’ve kinda got that covered. I’m notorious — and it drives my wife nuts — for not caring about what other people think, for giving the metaphorical finger to social niceties, for just putting my head down and minding my own business. But after reading Everything is F*cked, I’m rethinking my decision not to read The Subtle Art, if for no other reason than that I want to hear more of what Mark Manson has to say, on virtually any topic.

Anyway, I got the book and immediately began my campaign of defacement of public property, i.e. dog-earing the hell out of this book. Almost every page featured a passage or two that made me sit bolt-upright, the gremlin in my brain shouting “YES” at the top of its lungs, so this book took a beating. A loving, well-meaning beating (Dog-earing books shows them you care!), but a beating nonetheless.

Because I loved this book. I loved it so much that I had to read it slowly, digesting its insights and offerings over time, like the Sarlacc devouring its victims over thousands of years.

The thrust of the book is that Life is Pain, and the better we can understand and embrace that fact, the better off we will be.

Image result for life is pain gif

While this isn’t particularly surprising news for an atheist at least passingly acquainted with cosmology and the physics of the universe, it does rather put things into perspective.

Rather than try to review the entire book, I’m just going to provide some quotes from its pages, for your own edification and mine.

The Feeling Brain drives our Consciousness Car because, ultimately, we are moved to action only by emotion. That’s because action is emotion. (33)

Much of the first part of the book is given over to the dichotomy of Thinking Brain / Feeling Brain, and how we think that we live our lives with the Thinking Brain behind the wheel, but we really don’t — the Feeling Brain is always driving. Anyway — this quote in particular is relevant to me because this is a concept I’ve attempted to communicate to my Acting students, if never in such succinct language. So I’m gonna be assimilating this quote for future use.

… silencing the Thinking Brain will feel extremely good for a short period. And people are always mistaking what feels good for what is good. (37)

I don’t have a whole lot to add here, except to say that this phenomenon is probably responsible for a lot of the tribal behavior we see these days. You know. Politically. And so on. Ahem.

The pain may get better, it may change shape, it may be less catastrophic each time. But it will always be there. It’s part of us.

It is us. (106)

If the first half of the book is an examination of how our brain deceives us, the second half of the book is an exploration of the thing that drives us — which is pain, and more to the point, an avoidance of pain. We’ve sort of become slaves to the idea that we’re supposed to be happy all the time, that pain is this thing that crops up from time to time, but with the right outlooks and attitudes, we can avoid it or fend it off completely. Nonsense. We are defined and created by our pain, in the same way that the application of fire and heavy blows from a steel hammer create a sword.

Children are the kings and queens of antifragility, the masters of pain. It is we who are afraid. (230)

Antifragility is this concept Manson deals with a bunch in the final quarter of the book: in a nutshell, stress makes an antifragile thing (person, structure, idea) stronger. And because most of us try to hide from pain, our bodies and minds lose this quality. But kids, who haven’t yet been beaten down by the world, don’t know enough to hide from pain, so they run towards it — and this has the paradoxical effect of making them stronger.

The book is a fascinating read, and for a guy who has been sort of wracked by anxiety over the past year or so, it was an empowering and enlightening read.

It also gave me the best summation of my feelings as a writer that I have ever read:


Accidental Philosophy: Tie Up Your Camels


When I read books, the best quotes go in an ever-growing Evernote file. Sometimes I reach into that file and ruminate on a passage or two. The result is “Accidental Philosophy.”

I recently finished Dan Harris’s 10% Happier, which I’ve mentioned once or twice ’round these parts. It’s a bit of a strange bird: a book about meditation which is somehow riveting. A great skeptic’s look at a practice that, from the outside, seems to be dripping with woo. If you’re considering the practice of meditation, or just curious about it, it’s worth your time.

But today’s words aren’t about the book, they’re about a single passage within it. Which is actually a quote of something else. So I’m quoting a quote about another quote. Anyway:

The Sufi Muslims say, “Praise Allah, but also tie your camel to the post.” In other words, it’s good to take a transcendent view of the world, but don’t be a chump. (201)

camel-3540678_1280

Let the record show, then: good ideas can come from religion!

I love this quote, and here’s why: we rely too much on faith. Even those of us who are decidedly not people of faith lean too much on faith at the expense of our common sense.

Faith in our own abilities. Faith in other people. Faith in society. And, yeah, for those who swing that way, faith in higher powers.

And that’s not, in and of itself, a problem, or even a mistake. Sometimes we do estimate our own abilities appropriately. Sometimes other people do live up to the hope we hold for them. Sometimes societies do the right thing.

But certainly more often than “rarely” those things don’t happen. You overestimate yourself and get in over your head. A person you trust lets you down. Society disappoints you. (Oh lord, how society has disappointed me these past two years.)

This quote, then, is a little reminder, a little prick in the pocket, to stay skeptical. To not rely too much on faith. To hold nothing so sacred that you give no thought to the consequences if it doesn’t deliver.

In other words, tie up your camels. Tie ’em right up.

And then keep your distance. I hear they spit.

llama eating GIF

This post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday.


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