My Regularly Scheduled Fireworks Rant

umair shuaib.Image via WikipediaI moved to Mississippi from the West Coast roughly 8 years ago. During the time I have been here, I have discovered some things I prefer about this area and many that continue to baffle me. At the top of the list of continuing sources of puzzlement are the widespread Christian extremism, anti-intellectualism, and pronounced social conservatism. Of course, I have come to realize in my time here that these three components are interrelated. Actually, that may just be an understatement. But I have another big pet peeve that has nothing to do with any of these components, and tonight is a perfect time to mention it: fireworks

I grew up in a state where the sales of fireworks was heavily regulated. There were two main reasons for this, both of which pertained to safety. First, there was the issue of individual safety. Each year, many people would be seriously injured by home use of illegally smuggled fireworks. The laws made it more difficult to buy fireworks, but all one had to do was drive to a neighboring state to shop. The second reason, of great importance during the month of July, was fire danger. Part of the rationale for the law was the protection of forests and homes by removing one of the common causes of wildfires.

I didn't really get this as a child. Like many boys, I wanted to blow stuff up. I thought it sucked that my friends in neighboring states could buy all sorts of fireworks that I couldn't. I had to settle for the official 4th of July fireworks display that the city put on. Boring but safe.

Other than the 4th of July, the only other time during the year that anybody I ever met would have even considered using fireworks was New Years Eve. Even then, we are talking about only a tiny number of people.

The common thread that characterized home use of fireworks on both holidays was that those using them were generally respectful of their neighbors. Nobody would have dreamed of using loud fireworks after 1opm. If they did, the police would put a quick end to it. Similarly, nobody would have launched bottle rockets into their neighbor's yard and left the debris behind to occupy their neighbor the next day.

Boy are things different in Mississippi! If there is a holiday that doesn't involve fireworks here, I haven't found it yet. I was treated to a full three days of fireworks around Christmas, going on past 1:00 am. If the last several years are any indication, I'll be in for the same tonight (probably until at least 2:00 am), on the 4th of July, Halloween, and who knows what else. There seems to be no consideration for people who don't want to stay up until 1:00 am or do not enjoy picking garbage up out of their yard the next day. Public parks and school playgrounds are littered with garbage while the available trash cans are ignored.

As an adult, there is no way I'd waste my money on fireworks. However, I would sure as hell be respectful of others if I were to do so. Mississippi has far more churches per capita than anywhere else I've lived. Somehow this seems to translate into something of a "I'll do what I want and fuck everybody else" attitude. And if it isn't fair to blame the churches, and it may not be, then what are they doing to counteract this lack of respect for others?

I guess that's my New Years Eve rant. It feels good to get that out of my system. Now I guess I better give my dogs the tranquilizers that will hopefully prevent them from barfing all over the house from panic.

Trouble in Indiana: Library Patron Faces Retaliation for Asking About Nativity Scene

German painting, 1457Image via WikipediaThere are plenty of obstacles to atheist activism, but the most important is that of fear. Atheists often fear social alienation, workplace discrimination, familial conflict, vandalism, and even physical assault simply for revealing their attitudes toward religion. It is easy to dismiss these fears as overblown or exaggerated, especially if you live in a large metropolitan area in a "blue state." However, rural America, especially in the bible belt, can be a different story.

Over at Atheist Revolution, I have posted the disturbing account of an Elwood Public Library patron, himself a librarian with an MLS, who is facing retaliation after he questioned the library's director about the appropriateness of a nativity scene prior to Christmas. A comment thread at elwoodindiana.org, which has since been removed (but is still available via Google cache) reveals the very worst of small town America.

As if all this was not bad enough, the complainant has been threatened and has had his library record published on a public blog in violation of Indiana law. How have the "good Christians" of the community responded? A local pastor organized a protest and petition aimed at keeping the nativity scene. As for the media, they are faithfully reporting what was likely a press release issued by the library, omitting any mention of the subsequent retaliation.

Same-Sex Marriage is a Civil Rights Issue

Newlywed male same-sex couple at Gaypride 2006...Image via WikipediaThere seems to be a great deal of confusion going around about opposition to same-sex marriage, bigotry, and religion. Fortunately, I think this can all be cleared up rather easily.
  1. Denying two consenting adults the right to marry on the basis of their sex is bigotry in the same way that it would be bigotry to deny the right to marry on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, and the like.
  2. Pointing out that one who opposes same-sex marriage on the basis of sex of the members of the couple is intolerant does not itself constitute intolerance in any way, shape, or form. Moreover, this remains true regardless of whether the person opposing same-sex marriage refers to any sort of bible or religion.
  3. To sum up, seeking to ban marriage among two consenting adults on the basis of their sex is bigotry; accurately labeling it as such is not.

A Non-Believer in Church: North Oxford Baptist

Buddy Jesus bobbleheadImage by _escalade328s_ via FlickrThis is actually my third time to walk through the doors of the North Oxford Baptist Church. Normally I write on the first visit. On the first visit I slept in a little and missed most of the sermon (and I was unaware of the meeting times) On the second visit it happened to be their annual Christmas music show with a large cast of performers. I took lots of pictures, but I have the suspicion that few would agree to having their picture posted on any website unexpectedly. Hence, a third visit was due.

The sermon was titled "The Coming in His Own Words: I Came to Serve". The supporting verses came from Mark 10:45. The sermon had an overriding theme: humility. It was pretty basic: Jesus was humble, so you should be humble.

Most of the sermon was the retelling of a story of an Egyptian man named Farahat who lost his expensive watch 1972. The garbageman finds the watch and returns it to the man. When asked why he returned the watch, the garbageman said that Jesus taught him to be honest. Farahat was so moved that he begins to study the Bible, becomes a Christian in 1978, and eventually a priest. The church that this man attends is currently a cave in Cairo, Egypt.

The story smacks of Christian propaganda, so I did a few searches. It turns out that this cave has a website and they retell this story on the site (scroll down to the section "The Gold Watch"). Do the stories match? According to their version, a watch was lost and a garbageman found it, but none of the other details match. The moral that I get is to be skeptical of convincing stories. To be honest, neither version sounds like a credible story.

In the view of this preacher, it is pride, selfishness, and arrogance that cause people to be repelled away from Christianity and humble servants that bring people to Christianity. This is certainly true for some, but I was repelled when I was allowed to challenge my beliefs on my own. I have witnessed some pride and arrogance during my visits to be sure, but that is a minority of my experience. Some of us require evidence rather than examples of good character.

So far, I've visited First Baptist, Second Baptist, Yellow Leaf Baptist, and North Oxford Baptist churches. I'm sure there are more. Is it just me, or does this small town have too many Baptist churches?

Reader Tip: Atheist Billboard Comes to Arkansas

I just received word from a reader that the Freedom From Religion Foundation has placed another one of their "Beware of Dogma" billboards in Little Rock, Arkansas. I realize that Arkansas is no Mississippi, but we're getting closer. Come on FFRF, Mississippi needs you!

Should Atheists Celebrate Christmas?

Textured (Christmas tree)Image by tanakawho via FlickrShould atheists celebrate Christmas, or by doing so, are we somehow selling out our beliefs? Has Christmas become so secular that it is possible to participate without even acknowledging the religious significance it still holds for some? How about Winter Solstice? Does it provide a viable alternative for atheists tired of all the Jesus stuff but still interested in celebrating? Below you will find an interesting video discussion of these questions by Tom Flynn (Executive Director of the Council for Secular Humanism) and Ron Lindsay (President and CEO of the Center for Inquiry).



New Atheist Group in Alabama

Alabame state welcome signImage via WikipediaThanks to Friendly Atheist for bringing this to our attention. A new atheist group has formed in neighboring Alabama, the Etowah County Rational Alliance. That is probably about as safe a name for an atheist group in the bible belt as I've heard, and I like it. More information about the Gadsden-based group can be found here. Their first meeting will be held this Sunday. I wish them great success and applaud their efforts.

Christian God Destroys Two Mississippi Churches

BILOXI, MS - JULY 26:  (FRANCE OUT)  (Top Phot...Image by Getty Images via DaylifeA recent article in the Hattiesburg American (Mississippi) reported on two Mississippi churches destroyed by the Christian god. I found it interesting that the author chose to credit "Mother Nature" with the damage. I expect that she may be the next target of a jealous god. Whatever happened to giving credit where credit was due?

According to the article, the Friendship Missionary Baptist Church in Hattiesburg was hit by lightning in May of 2007. Interestingly, church members had been in the midst of renovating the church when the building was burned by their vengeful god. I can only assume that they had deviated somehow from their god's specific demands for how churches were to be built. Or maybe a burnt offering was missed.

Next up, we have the Calvary Baptist Church in Petal. Nothing quite so dramatic as a lightning strike, this church was leveled during Hurricane Katrina. The congregation was just recently able to secure money for a new building and plans to break ground in March.

If you are reading this post from outside the state of Mississippi, you probably wonder what makes any of this sufficiently newsworthy to appear in the paper. You see, we in Mississippi are treated to this sort of thing every week. If it is about a church, it is inherently newsworthy. I just wonder why the paper chose to ignore the real story that the Christian god has been destroying churches.

Encouraging Children to Believe Falsehoods

Thomas Nast's most famous drawing, Image via WikipediaWhen an atheist argues that it is abusive for a parent to indoctrinate his or her children into a particular religious tradition, the atheist is basing this claim on the notion that religion is false. But the parent who is practicing such indoctrination does not see it this way. Such a parent believes in the truth of what they are teaching. Thus, while we can argue about whether the outcome of such teaching is abusive, it is difficult to claim that such a parent has any abusive intent whatsoever. Even if we consider religious instruction a form of abuse, we must recognize that it is a less serious form of abuse due to the absence of malice.

How would this scenario change if the parent in question taught the child to believe something that the parent recognized as false? This seems like it would necessarily be a more serious form of abuse because the parent would be knowingly lying to his or her child.

What sort of parent would intentionally persuade his or her child to believe things recognized by the parent as false? Santa Claus ring any bells? In teaching the Santa Claus myth, parents all over America are deliberately encouraging their children to believe something which they themselves fully recognize as false.

It seems like a real stretch to call this abusive in any meaningful way. To even have such a discussion, we would want to consider the parent's motive. Encouraging children to believe in Santa is supposed to be fun. It isn't like parents are trying to harm their children with such a practice, right? And yet, what does it say about a parent that he or she would knowingly lie to a child simply for entertainment purposes (i.e., because it is fun)? What does it say about the rest of us that we maintain the lie around children from other families simply because we find it cute?

Maybe the Santa myth is truly harmless. And yet, I can't help wondering how serious we can be about promoting education when we promote untruths simply for our own entertainment. If our education system was not in such dire straights, this would be little more than an interesting philosophical discussion. Sadly, the dismal state of Mississippi's system of public education does not allow us such a luxury.

It is not my point here to condemn families or other institutions who promote the Santa Claus myth. In fact, I think it could be used as a potent lesson for teaching children about similar myths. Rather, I encourage us to recognize that we use Santa for our own entertainment and possibly at the expense of our children. By teaching falsehoods, we undermine our own credibility and may inoculate against the sort of critical thinking we hope to inspire via education.



Demon Possession at Mississippi High School

SnappedImage by toekneesan via FlickrRemember high school? I've heard many adults complain about how unpleasant their experience was in high school, but mine was fantastic. Okay, the first year was a little rough, but the last three were a blast. I discovered the joys of learning, experienced my first real intellectual freedom, and did all the stupid, irresponsible, and even dangerous things that - whether we want to admit it or not - were lots of fun. Perhaps my experience has something to do with the fact that I attended high school on the West Coast and not in Mississippi. Students at a Pelahatchie, MS, high school must have a very different experience.

According to WAPT.com, Pelahatchie high school students were recently terrorized by a girl who spoke in tongues, made unpleasant predictions regarding his classmates, and behaved in other bizarre ways. As a high school student, I would have been concerned for this girl's mental health. The students at this Pelahatchie school did not need to waste their time with such concern, however. They knew what was wrong with Lashundra Clanton: she was possessed. They responded by contacting WAPT news to inform them that "an evil spirit had taken over Lashundra Clanton."

According to one student, "It made some students cry and leave school. Some have not returned yet." Yes, it seems that these high school students are very different from how I remember my peers in high school.
Sparks and his classmates said they think an evil spirit possessed the girl. They were so convinced that Sparks and his friends brought bibles to school and had a devotional.
The "possessed" girl claims that some sort of god was speaking through her, not something evil. In fact, she has what I am sure you will agree is a fairly solid argument to back up her claim that it was some god and not a demon.
"I didn't cuss anyone out," Clanton said. "If it was a demon, I would have tore that school up. I would have thrown desks and everything. I didn't say no cuss words at all."
Right. And how exactly do we know that this is how demons behave?

The best part of the WAPT's report concerned the school's response. Pause for a second and consider how a school should respond in such a situation. This school brought in counselors (excellent move and exactly what I'd recommend)...and a youth pastor (arg!). Yep, the school decided that bringing in a youth pastor to reassure students terrified by superstition with more superstition was a good idea.

Oh, the poor parents of these children! How difficult it must be to explain to one's children that...
Joyce Spann said she believes God is using her daughter to touch students at Pelahatchie High School.
I am becoming increasingly convinced that living in Mississippi is like living inside some sort of time warp to the Dark Ages. How can we possibly expect the plight of our state to improve when parents and schools promote such idiocy in our children?

Olive Branch Atheists' Solstice Party in Memphis

Location of Olive Branch in the State of Missi...Image via WikipediaOlive Branch Atheists are having a Solstice Party on December 21, 2008, at 4:00 PM in Memphis. This is expected to be a bigger event than their usual meetups because other atheist and humanist groups have been invited. To learn more and RSVP, visit their Meetup.com page.

What's the correct response to anti-atheist comments?

Former Arkansas Governor, Mike Huckabee, speak...Image via WikipediaI just had an interesting encounter with a real charming fellow at a hotel in Southhaven, MS (right outside of Memphis, TN). While I was sitting in the lobby eating my cinnamon roll an older gentleman came down, fixed his breakfast, sat near me and started talking about how the economy is all messed up, housing is terrible, etc. After a few non-specific pleasantries from me, he does a 180, and out of the blue says, "I think Mike Huckabee is right when he said [I should have known whatever came next was going to be a winner] that the atheists are welcome to stay in our country but they have their day, April first, and should leave Christmas alone. What they did out in Washington was terrible."

So what's the correct response to this? I'm minding my own business at 6:30 in the morning and get handed this gem. At this point The Wife has already gone back up to the room so it's just this mental giant and me in the lobby. So I tell him I'm an atheist and ask him what's so offensive about the sign out in Washington. He gets a little agitated and says, "It's offensive. It's horrible and they were rude for doing it. It's was horrible." I realized right there that this guy had never seen the sign. He'd just heard the Right Reverend Huckabee bitch about it and that was enough. So I asked him again, "This sign must have been pretty offensive to get you this upset. What was it that it said that was so bad?"

"It was offensive!"

I try one more time. "What specifically was said on it that was so bad? It was my understanding it basically said 'There's probably no God, but be Merry anyway' [turns out I was wrong. I had gotten it confused with the billboards]." For the record the sign he was referring to says:
"At this season of THE WINTER SOLSTICE may reason prevail.
There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell.
There is only our natural world.
Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds."
"No, no, no it was horrible. They can live here, but they shouldn't put hate speech up right next to a nativity! Look I think atheists should be able to say what they want but they shouldn't spread immorality."

I asked him what was immoral about it but he kind of hemmed and hawed around. I asked him if he'd mind telling me what denomination he belonged to. He replied "Catholic...I mean the Universal Church. You wouldn't understand that."

I replied that, "I have a Christian background and know a little about it. I'm a former born-again Christian." I barely had that out of my mouth when he bit back, "That's impossible." I get this a lot. A lot. I just kind of shrugged and before I could say anything he said "You were never a real Christian. Not if you're an atheist now."

There really isn't anything I could say to him at this point. Not that would have convinced him. So I smiled and said, "If you think so." By this time another man was sitting down and he switched his attention to the new guy. I got up and filled my coffee and as I was leaving smiled and told him "Merry Christmas!" He just laughed like I'd told him a joke.

So did I respond the right way? I know some of my atheist friends would have let him have it. Lord knows (rimshot!) that it would have been easy. This was the type of guy who brings a mental knife to an intellectual gunfight. But I'm more in the mold of The Friendly Atheist. I think our grandmothers were right: you catch more flies with honey. These people already have a preconception of the bitter, angry (not to mention immoral) atheist painted so vividly for them by their preachers and theologians. I'd rather show them that this picture they've been given is wrong and so is most of the rest of the blather that comes from the clergy. I prefer to demonstrate that you can be a happy and well contented atheist - because I am one. And I really do wish him a Merry Christmas.

How would you have responded to this situation?

Butch

Central MS Atheist December Meetup

Central Mississippi Atheists are planning to hold their December meetup on Thursday, December 18, 2008, at 7:00 PM at the Rainbow Co-Op Plaza in Jackson. For more information and to RSVP, visit their page on Meetup.com.