Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Weddings and Parades

Well! This is the first summer in recent memory that I don't have a wedding to officiate. Feels kind of weird. After my trip to California later this month, my summer's basically open. What should I do?

In other news, this past weekend, I marched with Center for Inquiry - Long Island in the LI Pride Parade. This is a wonderful annual event -- the biggest parade in New York state outside of Manhattan -- and if you can make it next year, I encourage you to do so. We had a lot of fun and met some great new friends!

That's all for now. Enjoy your summer!

Love,
Amy Frushour Kelly


Scott Miller, Julie Miller, David O. Miller, Ian Darson, and Richard Schloss at the LI Pride Parade.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

WHY I'M AN ATHEIST

Sean Moore posted a question on Facebook earlier today that touched me deeply:

“I’ve been thinking, as Atheists, we should all examine whether or not we are an Atheist because we were 'hurt' (use the term broadly) by a religion, and due to that we focus on anti-Theism, or if we want to abandon a belief/faith so that we have more of a chance of productivity in life.. any thoughts? ... by productivity, I mean going downhill all the way to abandoning morning prayers for making coffee or pop-tarts.. that's the lowest example, I think.. Hell, man, prayer is wasted time to me. So I make up for the time, even sleeping in.

I’m not a huge fan of anti-theism; at least, not when it’s manifested in mockery and derision (Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster excepted, ‘cause that’s just fun!). Still, theist dogma and culture have hurt so many people for so long that I can understand why a person would become anti-theist. But I am not anti-theist. Not pro-theist, either, for that matter.

Regarding productivity, it could probably be argued that there is good productivity involved in being a theist. Theism can inspire acts of compassion, magnificent works of art, and profound works of charity. It can also inspire unspeakable evil. The ratio of good to evil varies, depending on who you talk to.

I am an atheist for a different reason. Outrage was what provoked me to come out as an atheist, thirteen years ago, but that cooled. Which isn’t to say that religion and faith don’t sometimes appall me. They do, they do. But they’re not the reason I choose to be an activist.

A while back, Phil Plait argued that religion, like science, is a tool, a method, and as such, religion is essentially neutral.[1] I agree. Religion evolved as a way of explaining the universe; it went on to help structure civilization, and since then is often used as a means of subjugation. But its original purpose, explanation, continues to strike a chord in the hearts of many. They seek ultimate truths through their faith and/or religion. I, too, seek truth, and that is something I have in common with many of the faithful. The difference is the method I use to discern this truth. My methods of choice are reason and science. I suspect that many other atheists ultimately share this aspiration for truth in their decision to leave faith behind.

I frequently mention this when called upon to explain my atheism by theists. In my experience, admitting that we share a goal in seeking truth tends to establish a kinship that probably wouldn’t be achieved otherwise. It helps them to understand that, like them, I am trying to comprehend and appreciate the universe in the best way I know. And every once in a while, I’m lucky enough to be asked whether the theist could sit in on a Center For Inquiry discussion, or ask more questions about atheism.

At the CFI Leadership Conference in June, CEO Ron Lindsay mentioned that we’re not here to be “anti” anything. We’re here to engender mutual respect, responsibility, and compassion through science, reason and secular values. I think, as atheists, that should be our primary mission.

Many of us, myself included, have been hurt by religion. I think loss of productivity counts as a hurt, as well. I understand where anti-theists are coming from, I truly do. But it’s important to rise above the pain. There is a point when we must stop being victims and start being survivors. Remember, being a survivor doesn’t mean the wounds go away; it means that you get on with your life, scars and all. Anti-theism is a reaction to the pain, the suffering and misery, the losses of human rights. Secular humanism is a thoughtful response to the pain and loss—and maybe, just maybe, a solution.

Anyway, that’s why I’m an atheist and a secular humanist. How about you?

Love,

Amy Frushour Kelly

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Acceptance

Recently, I’ve been invited several times to “join” a Facebook group titled “Everyone Draw Mohammed Day.” Much as I appreciate the sentiment behind these invitations (and some of them are very funny!), I’d rather not be invited to join groups that ridicule people’s belief systems — however implausible these beliefs may be.

I’m more of a “kill them with kindness” type of freethinker. Making fun of people’s beliefs isn’t a practical way to open their minds or hearts. Gentle, respectful debate is much more in line with my humanist ethics.

Most of you reading this have heard Carl Sagan’s admonition to keep an open mind, “but not so open your brains fall out.”[1] On a recent episode of “The Big Bang Theory,” the character Leonard is arguing with his girlfriend, Penny, regarding her belief in psychics. Leonard is a skeptic, and she is hurt by his derisive remarks on the subject. By the end of the episode, he agrees to go visit Penny’s psychic with her, while Penny refuses to read a book debunking psychics. Leonard shrugs and says, “well, at least one of us can keep an open mind.”

That’s how I feel when I talk to theists. Be nice. If you’re invited to come along to temple or church with them, where’s the harm in going? It’s possible to respect the individual, even when you don’t respect their beliefs. In the same way, I’d rather not poke fun at personal beliefs. I encourage you to make an effort to understand the individual, to understand why they believe what they do, and make yourself available to them as a compassionate voice of reason, should they ask for your opinion.

Just my two cents. What do you think?

Love,

Amy Frushour Kelly



[1] Which Chris McDougal recently pointed out was first said by H.L. Mencken, another of my celebrity crushes.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Hot Cocoa

In many ways, my life... well, it sucks. I’m fortunate in that I’m an optimist at heart. I tend to look on the bright side; partly by nature, partly by choice. One thing I don’t look for is a theist god. If I did, I would probably melt into a puddle of despair, kind of like porridge, but not as tasty.

That’s what I was reflecting on as I shoveled my way through 21” of snow this morning. The snow was piled high against the house. I had to shoulder the storm door open just to get to my front steps.

The sky was dark. The forecast calls for clearing skies, but I haven’t seen any evidence to support that theory. I was just glad that the snow had stopped at last.

If someone else was out there, shoveling upwards of 50 cubic feet of wet, heavy snow from my walk, I would be busy inside. I would be heating up hot cocoa on the stove. Going to the door frequently to see that the person out there was okay, that s/he didn’t need a break, wasn’t having trouble breathing, didn’t need someone to take over the shoveling for a while. And when that person came in, I would have a warm blanket and the hot cocoa (or coffee, or soup, or whatever else s/he liked) ready and waiting. To me, it’s a basic expression of concern for the well-being of another individual, and gratitude for work done.

Last night, my car was stuck in the blizzard. I was dressed for a wedding, and stuck, freezing, for two hours with no heat. A friend came out and got my car started. I was thankful, and I paid him $20, all I could afford, for his kindness. He was very grateful. There was about 8” of snow on the walk when I finally got home. No one had shoveled. I had to pick gingerly through the snow in my three-inch heels, clutching my coat to my body. I slept like the dead till morning, when I came out to shovel. The amount of snow on the ground had nearly tripled.

I’m not a tall person or a particularly strong person, but I shoveled the whole walk, the steps, cleared off the mailbox, dug out access to the street. It took a long time, and it was cold. I don’t have a pair of boots at the moment, so the whole experience was kind of miserable. And there wasn’t a cup of hot cocoa waiting for me. I didn’t have the energy to make it myself by that point, so I wrapped myself up in a warm, dry shirt and huddled up, alone, on my bed. There wasn’t even any coffee for me, although I’d made a pot. Someone else had drunk it all.

Two other adults are in the house. One of them said “thank you” when I got back in. The other asked in passing if I was okay when I came in to use my asthma inhaler. Both these people are bigger than I am, and at least one is much stronger. But they’re not the same kind of person that I am. I think they were raised with a certain sense of entitlement. Maybe they should have done some of the work, or cared enough to do something nice for me. But they didn’t, and I was too exhausted to ask. Besides, I’m not their responsibility. Not really.

You see, I’m alone. I have a daughter, but she has rather severe special needs, and communication with her is often difficult. There’s no one to snuggle with at night, no one to wake up with in the morning. Life isn’t easy. I wish it were.

But I’m a good, kind person. I am thoughtful and considerate. I choose to be that kind of person. It has nothing to do with a “higher power” or ten commandments or any of that nonsense. It has to do with concern for my fellow human beings. Nobody’s going to fall down and hurt themselves on my front walk. No one will have to climb through mounds of snow, as I had to. Anyone who comes to my home will be safe and can enter without difficulty. And if I know they’re coming, there will be a warm drink waiting for them.

If I believed in a theist god—that is, one who creates the universe, listens for my prayers, intercedes on my behalf, and judges my actions—I’d be a basket case. I do my best, 24-7, to be the most loving, rational, responsible and respectful person I can be. I try not to judge, not to be hurtful, to afford every individual I meet with the same courtesy and dignity I would like for myself. But virtue is its own reward. There’s no heavenly choir waiting for me. And there’s certainly nobody waiting with a cup of hot chocolate. If a god existed and gave a $%*& about me, then I wouldn’t be cold and wet and miserable, shoveling snow for other people’s comfort and safety, with no reward.

Fortunately, I’m an atheist. And because of that, I don’t expect hot cocoa. I expect practically nothing from my fellow human beings. And yet, more often than not, I’m pleasantly surprised. Maybe I didn’t get a nice surprise today, but so what? My life sucks, yes—but it could be so much worse. And at least I have the comfort of knowing that every day, in some way, I’ve tried to make someone else’s life better. There isn’t an afterlife, that I know of. So I do my level best to make this life better. It’s all I can do. And it feels good to know that I’ve done it.

I’ve warmed up now. The walk is clean. I may be able to take my daughter out sledding later, and that will be wonderful. But that’s in the future, and I have something that I need to attend to now, now that I’ve warmed up and I’m feeling better.

I need to go into the kitchen and make some hot cocoa.

Wish you could join me. This is going to be a beautiful day.


Love,

Amy Frushour Kelly

Saturday, December 5, 2009

TREE OF KNOWLEDGE

For the third year in a row, the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia has placed a Tree of Knowledge next to the Christmas tree, menorah and nativity scene on the courthouse lawn of the town of West Chester (Chester County, PA). The Tree of Knowledge is a standard pine tree, decorated with book covers from famous scientific, philosophical and atheist authors. While the other three holiday displays pay tribute to religious figures and holidays, the Tree of Knowledge acknowledges a rich history of freethought and joy in learning.

The first year it appeared, the Tree was vandalized. Last year, it was left alone. Will it be vandalized again this year? Time will tell.

Margaret Downey, founder and former president of the FSGP, writes on her Facebook page that the tree is being met with obstacle after obstacle from town commission members.[1] Apparently, the commissioners are attempting to restrict which book covers can be displayed. This appears to be a clear violation of the First Amendment, but as of this writing, Downey and the commission are still trying to work things out, as detailed on her Facebook page. The commission also prohibited the FSGP from displaying a website address on the tree, as this was too similar to advertising for their tastes (as far as I am aware, none of the other displays included website information, so this may be a valid criticism).

Not surprisingly, many are offended by the existence of the tree, as well as its near proximity to the religious displays on the courthouse lawn. One local blog is quite adamant, proclaiming the tree “a grotesque and kitschy shrine to Godlessness.” Apparently, the separation of church and state doesn’t mean much to that particular blogger.

As for me, I am undecided. Frankly, religious displays on public property offend me. But a Tree of Knowledge on public property doesn’t thrill me, either. It seems a little in-your-face for my taste. While the FSGP makes an excellent point with their display — and I applaud their intent completely! — I don’t think that the way to persuade people of faith to open their hearts to freethought is to mock their displays. And I strongly suspect that most of the hardnosed religious types looking at those book covers are simply taking notes on which books not to read.

If the display were pretty, or didn’t reference a cherished Christian symbol, it would be harder for most religious types (let’s face it, they’re more concerned with aesthetic values than ethical principles) to oppose it. If it’s a thing of beauty that enhances the courthouse lawn, you’re not going to get as much of a fuss. Of course, a fuss may be part of what they’re looking for, if generating publicity for freethought is their goal. But to be honest, a lot of the publicity just seems to make them look like cranks. And they’re not cranks. They’re committed people who want to share their own brand of holiday spirit. Margaret Downey and the FSGP are making a heartfelt outreach effort with their Tree, and that’s more than most of us are doing.

I emailed Barry Karr, Executive Director of Committee For Skeptical Inquiry, for his personal opinion on the Tree. He wrote back: “To be honest, and I am sure this will offend a few of my fellow unbelievers, but I am not really a fan of the Tree of Knowledge idea. I know that the tree was appropriated from earlier pagans into Christian Christmas traditions, and I understand the symbolism they are aiming for with the bible story where God forbade Adam and Eve from eating from the tree of knowledge. But like it or not it is now a symbol associated with Christmas and I am not in favor of us trying to co-opt it as one of ours.”[2]

Mr. Karr makes a valid point. (And as long as we’re co-opting Christian symbols, I’d love to see a cartoon of the Three Wise Men, with the heads of Bertrand Russell, Richard Dawkins and Carl Sagan.)

Last year, my daughter and I decorated a tree in our dining room. We put up ornaments that we had decorated ourselves. Orbs with symbols of things we cared about. A couple of Darwin fish. Pi symbols. Hearts, peace symbols, ankhs, happy faces. The result was a colorful secular celebration of many of the concepts near and dear to our hearts. It was also a very pleasant way to spend a chilly December afternoon with our family. Yes, we had a tree, but Christians don’t have a monopoly on trees. I’m not saying our decision to have a tree of our own is the best choice for any atheist, but it was certainly a good choice for us. We will be doing a tree again this year.

I guess my point is that the holiday season is a time in which people try to open their hearts and make peace with one another, even if they don’t celebrate holidays. And while the Tree of Knowledge is a good idea, perhaps the holidays aren’t the best time for it to be up. I’m very interested to hear if anyone out there has alternative ideas for appropriate non-theist displays.

In any case, to all the atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Subgenii, adherents of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and everyone else reading this, I would like to say: no matter how good or loving or ethical you were in 2009, let’s all try to be a little more so in 2010. Let’s be more accepting of one another. Let’s all make an effort to be rational, compassionate, respectful human beings for the next year. That’s my resolution. I hope you’ll join me.

Love,

Amy Frushour Kelly



[1] I tried to contact Ms. Downey by email regarding the Tree this past week, but she did not respond.

[2] Please note that this is Mr. Karr’s personal opinion, and not to be considered as reflective of any organization in which he is involved.

I'm back...

Been quite a busy couple of months around here. I moved from Bay Shore, NY, to Lindenhurst, NY, wrote a few articles, had family visit from out of town, and lost a close friend. With any kind of luck I will be able to post more regularly from here on out.

Love,
Amy Frushour Kelly

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Imagine...


On September 11th of this year, I (among many, many others) was tagged on Facebook by Margaret Downey with the above image[1]. She asked people to post it on their blogs, Facebook pages, and email it freely.

It’s not the only icon of this sort out there. A friend of mine created and shared a similar one some time ago. The response when I posted the Facebook picture (and e-mailed it, to my mailing list) was pretty much what I’d expected: no response from most people; a positive response from my atheist, agnostic and freethinker friends; and a gentle, wry note from my friend Craig, one of the many Christians I know who really try to live by the spirit of the Gospels.

As I said, nothing unexpected, until an email arrived from someone I knew. I’ve had some correspondence with this individual, and regarded him as an intelligent, rational person. I was horrified to read that he interpreted my email as a “...type of intolerance and hatred,” and “this kind of prejudice and close-mindedness will not find an audience in me.” If you know me, or read my blog, you’re probably aware that this is the diametric opposite of what I’m trying to achieve. Could I have miscommunicated my intentions that badly? I replied,

“First, a heartfelt apology for offending you. That was not my intention. Frankly, I'm surprised that you accuse me of intolerance and hatred -- as you know, my primary goal in maintaining my blog and in my job (I'm a Humanist minister, after all) is to promote understanding and acceptance for all beliefs, theist or not.


“Second, I suspect you're reading into the picture (and I may be wrong in thinking this) that this is directed toward one belief system in general. It is not. Islam has many qualities to recommend it, as do most or all religions, and it was _never_ my intention to single out Islam. The picture (which was shared with me by Margaret Downey, and is widely circulating among atheist-agnostic-freethinker e-lists) depicts the World Trade Center as one example, but not the only example of atrocity perpetrated by members of a particular faith. It would have worked as well with an engraving depicting the Spanish Inquisition, or the Egyptians murdering the Israelites, or the Israelites smiting their enemies, etc, etc.


“Third, please understand that my circulating a picture presenting religion as the cause of this tragedy is meant to illustrate that without religion, the events of 9/11 would not have happened. ... The idea is to imagine a world without the intolerance and hatred engendered by religion. That's all.


“...All I (and I hope any Humanist) would ask is that the reader pause and reflect on the what the world could be without the influence of religion. Ethics based on reason and compassion, rather than fear of a god from ancient texts from ancient times.


“Lastly, I would not ban religion -- I am never in favor of any type of "thought-policing" -- but I think the world would be a better place if people would consider religion as something optional.”

I received another severe e-mail in response. I was accused, among other things, of committing “some rather severe intellectual dishonesty” and “making the depressingly common mistake of equating theism with religion.”

I beg to differ. It’s a petty point at best, but theism is not what caused the events of 9/11. Or the Inquisition, or anything else. Theism is more or less neutral; a conception of God as an external, intercessory creator deity who participates in the governance and activity of the world, including individuals.[2] Religion, on the other hand, is an organized, clearly defined belief system, with specified behaviors for its followers.[3] So one is a concept, but not a lifestyle; the other, a structured system of belief and behavior.

A concept doesn’t organize people to do evil things. A religion can, and sometimes does. A world without religion doesn’t have to be a world without theism or spirituality. Not that religion is bad in general. In fact, Phil Plait argues that both science and religion are neutral; they are tools for helping understand the universe.[4] He’s right, and I agree — in fact, I often argue that “faith [or religion] is a crutch, but if a crutch helps you walk and you don’t hit anybody over the head with it, it’s beautiful.” The problem is, when you’ve got a crutch in your hand, it’s awfully tempting to hit someone with it.

I would have liked to enter into further dialogue with this correspondent, but to be honest, I found his approach highly disrespectful. He claimed to know my thoughts and intentions, and accused me of backpedaling when I contradicted him. I wasn’t intending to be hateful or intolerant. When I made a good-faith effort to explain myself, he refused to accept it as the truth. It seemed that he would rather think of me as a deluded, intellectually dishonest person than think of himself as having misinterpreted my intent. His mind was made up, and nothing I said would cause him to decide otherwise. That in itself is irrational. I wrote a brief missive, telling him so, and haven’t heard from him since.

So that was very disappointing. There is a silver lining, though. I have tried earnestly these last few days to put myself into his intellectual position. It’s been a good exercise. And this experience has confirmed for me that an inflexible mental state is not where I want to be.

It’s always good to be reminded of that. Because I think we’re all guilty of it sometimes.

Love,

Amy Frushour Kelly