Friday, September 24, 2010

A Small Christian Parade

I had to run some errands around town today. To conserve fuel, I always try to let my errands pile up so that I can do many of them on the same trip. What made this particular trip worth blogging about was what I saw while pulling out of a parking lot and merging into heavy traffic on the main drag.

As I looked to my left before turning right to merge, I saw a man dressed in shorts, a t-shirt that was way too small for him, and a baseball cap. He was carrying a gigantic cross made of what appeared to be plastic over his shoulder and appeared to be straining from the weight. I'd estimate the height of the cross as at least 15-20 feet. The man was accompanied by one other person, the gender of whom I could not determine from my viewing angle.

The first thought that went through my head was, "Only in Mississippi." Here was a man carrying a giant cross down the side of the busiest street in town on a hot summer day for no apparent reason.

I really wish I had the time to grab my phone and take a picture, but I had already started to pull out when I saw him, and there was simply no way to stop.

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Friday, September 17, 2010

There Are No Secular Workplaces in the South

Secular HumanismAt work, I am surrounded by people who have advanced graduate degrees, function as scientists much of the time, and who are Christian enough that it seems to come up more than I think it should. Having an advanced degree does not mean that one is necessarily smart. But if one's degree is from a reputable program at a decent university, it probably means that one is at least somewhat intelligent and knows how to apply oneself. We know that level of education is inversely related to religious belief (i.e., the more formal education completed, the less likely one is to be religious). But there is no question that many people with doctorates and other advanced degrees are indeed religious. What are we to make of this?

The obvious answer is compartmentalization. Many people can maintain contradictory beliefs through compartmentalization. For example, one could function as a skilled scientist at work and a committed Christian at home. The dissonance we would expect holding contradictory positions to cause can be avoided or at least minimized through compartmentalization.

And yet, this explanation seems incomplete at best. My co-workers seem more likely to consider Christianity part of who they are and science as merely what they do. Many are perfectly willing to introduce their religious beliefs into conversations in the workplace. And whenever I question this, the answer is always the same:
This is the South. What do you expect?
I do not think I will ever find that an acceptable answer. I realize this where I am, but I have no interest in accepting the status quo.

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Friday, September 10, 2010

Burning the Confederate Flag is Not the Answer

The following post was written by dogsmycopilot. I really appreciate her contribution to this complex issue.

When the Mississippi Atheists blog announced Burn the Confederate Flag Day I was actually pretty shocked. Before that I would have thought the atheist community a bit more informed than that. But why? Why would I think that when over fifty years of indoctrination has taught people that flag = racism? In the words of Clyde Wilson, Southern gentleman and professor, “History gives you your symbols- you cannot make them up.” Modern day skinheads wear crosses, arguably a symbol of great torture and pain, should we burn them? To say the Confederate flag needs burning is to be ignorant of a huge piece of history and what that history really means to the people of the region. It’s too big a symbol for that narrowed treatment. And why this particular flag? Why not the Bonnie Blue, which flew above some of the first battles of the war. Or the Van Dorn battle flag, it too was used by Confederates?

BonnieblueWonder what the flag meant to the Marines of the Fifth Regiment as they raised the Confederate flag over Shuri Castle in Okinawa after an intense and desperate battle? I doubt they had racial implications in mind. Or the men aboard the USS Columbia, which flew the flag throughout combat in the South Pacific. Somehow I don’t think they were showing their solidarity with slavery or racism. What about Sheldon Vanauken? He often used a placard with the Confederate flag on it and “Confederates for civil rights” on the other side. What did the symbol mean to him? For me the flag is identification with ancestors and a symbol of the struggle to remain an individual against forces that compel compliance. What about Southern black people and their heritage (if they so choose to claim it.) Should they be looked down upon for embracing the flag? What about Mr. Earnest Griffin, a black man, who owns part of the land that once held the Camp Douglas prison. He flies the Confederate flag in remembrance of the some 6000 men who died there of various diseases, exposure, and neglect.

Few things have inspired the hatred and disgust that slavery and racism does. Neither of those things is native only to the American South. Slavery, unfortunately, continues to this day. It was never about race, either. Many a white slave was traded. Slavery was not at all uncommon in the American North, the northerners were not free of racism, and Lincoln did not free the slaves. All those are myths. If you are curious to read up on a better, more precise treatment of this than a blog post can manage I implore you to turn to Walter Kennedy’s Myths of American Slavery. The recognition that slavery is and was a horrid institution is not the same as understanding the entire story around it. The winners assert that the North fought for human equality while the South fought to uphold slavery even at the cost of the Union, but it’s just not the truth. Truth has been hidden in myth, a very successful myth judging by people’s willingness to burn that symbol as though burning it will wipe out that horrid institution. But it won’t. The best thing we can do for those who suffered slavery is to not let its real story be forgotten. Not a single slave ship ever flew that Confederate flag. Once we got free of Britain it was our American flag on those ships, ships that came and went from northern ports. The largest slave ports were up in Rhode Island where the slaves (and rum) built the economy. New York and Philadelphia were the largest trading markets, yet as early as 1774, the Carolinas had passed a law banning the importation of slaves. The subject of racism is even more complex. Most of the people who opposed slavery did not do so for reasons of equality.

confederate flagNone of this is new to previous generations of Americans. Only in the last fifty years or so has this concerted effort to rewrite the history of my fellow southerners been embraced. Only since the Dixiecrat Party of the late forties has this myth become firmly entrenched in the American psyche. It’s no great leap to say a war the size of the Civil War had no single and simple cause. Until the Civil War this country was based on a Union made up of people who chose to be in it. Some of those people decided that they no longer wanted to be in with the other people and tried to leave. That attempt to leave was met with an attack. Attacks that wrought destruction on blacks and whites alike. The very right to rise up and shake off the shackles of a government no longer embraced by the people and to form a new one, the very same right Madison and Washington took, was denied to the South. We are no longer a Union by choice and it’s that resistance that the Confederate Battle Flag represents to so many. Resistance against a government that is far away and hard of hearing.

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Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Secular Laws Require Secular Debate

Greetings from Oxford, Mississippi!

So I opened "The Daily Mississippian" (paper for the University of Mississippi) this morning and the cover story is titled "Selling on the Sabbath". There's a movement afoot to change the blue laws and allow the sale of alcohol on Sundays in our community. The story is from a mostly religious perspective, complete with a photograph and quotes from the pastor of the First Baptist Church here in Oxford. I wrote about this pastor here on Mississippi Atheists teaching hurtful things about homosexuality and the abortion procedure to suit his own political leanings.

Personally, I think it's silly to limit the sale of a product to 6 out of 7 days in a week for no other reason than to satisfy someone else's belief system. And I know there are several businesses in town that could benefit from an extra day of sales. This year alone, Valentine's Day and our Double Decker Festival landed on Sunday. This caused several local businesses to loose business due to the current laws. On the other hand, I'm sure people supporting the current laws might cite an increase in drunk driving accidents. The point is that this debate regarding secular laws should remain secular.

But the pastor at the local First Baptist Church wants to inject "spirituality" into the debate:
"Whether you're a person of faith or not, I still think it's a good thing to say you're part of a community that says spiritual things are important." -Pastor of the First Baptist Church of Oxford
As a person who does not have faith in anything divine, what the heck is he talking about? I don't recognize anything as being "spiritual". Spirituality is one of those "eye of the beholder" concepts: something is spiritual to you only if you say that it is spiritual to you.

He even tries to play this off as a discussion on love: "This is really about love, it's not about control or being a nagging parent." If he were really standing on the side of love, he would stand in support of homosexuals seeking equal rights and on the side of women who are in struggling situations where an abortion is simply their best option. And I think he should be doing his best to express his concerns without projecting his faith tradition's stances onto others.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Friendly Atheist in Alabama Details

According to the schedule he posted, here are the details of Hemant Mehta's (Friendly Atheist) visit to Alabama:

He will be at the University of South Alabama in Mobile on Saturday, September 11th at 6:00 p.m. in the USA Humanities Building — Auditorium Room 170.

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Friday, September 3, 2010

Thoughts on Coming Out Atheist in Mississippi

atheismI want to follow up PK's post with some thoughts about atheists in Mississippi choosing to remain closeted. Concealing one's atheism can be a lonely experience indeed, and it can be expected to take a toll on one's emotional well-being. Having said that, I agree completely with what PK said about how disclosing one's atheism should be made in consideration of how it might affect one's ability to earn a living. I think this holds true for many regions, but it strikes me as especially good advice here in Mississippi.

Even though I work in a university setting where somewhat greater tolerance of different belief systems is expected, I have little doubt that indiscriminately disclosing my atheism the way my Christian co-workers disclose their Christian beliefs (something the do at least every couple days) would lead to unpleasant consequences. I have heard enough anti-atheist bigotry at work to be cautious. In the minds of many people, there is a world of difference between "not being a religious type" and being an atheist. I can get away with the former without too much difficulty, but the later is a different animal entirely.

And yet, I recognize just how lucky I am to work in such a setting. I have heard plenty of horror stories about what others have faced in assorted work environments here in Mississippi - not for being atheists but simply for not attending church on a regular basis or for practicing a religion other than Christianity. In fact, some of the comments I have heard directed at Catholics make me think that even being Christian and going to church is not sufficient for some Mississippians.

The decision to remain in the closet or to come out is a personal decision that should be made carefully and with deliberation. It is also the sort of decision that is probably best thought of as a process rather than a one-time event. For example, since I have been in Mississippi, I have progressed gradually from "No thanks, I'd rather not attend church with you" to "No thanks, I am not interested in church" or even "No thanks, I don't have a particularly high opinion of religion." I'm to the point where I respond in the affirmative to people I know who ask me directly whether I was an atheist, but I'm not careless in my disclosure. My family knows, and my close friends know. For now, that is enough. I'm not hiding it, and I'm not broadcasting it.

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