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Thursday, April 5, 2012

My write-up for the NAP

The NAP is calling for our stories - stories of how we came to be atheists - stories of what happened when we came out to friends and family. Here is mine:

I grew up in rural Buhl, Idaho – population ~3500. I was raised Lutheran, dragged to Sunday school and church most Sundays in my early years. Later on I was forced to attend Confirmation classes (very similar to Catechism classes that Catholics make their children take).

I remember sitting in the first row of Sunday school when I was about 5 years old and the teacher was talking about being saved. She said that you had to accept Jesus Christ into your heart as your personal savior in order to have everlasting life and go to heaven (a good place). She said if you didn’t do this, you would go to hell – a place where you would be tortured forever. She also mentioned that it was our responsibility to go out into the world and tell our friends and strangers about Jesus so that they would also have the chance to be saved from this suffering.

I don’t remember too much else being said about hell. But, being five, I had quite the active imagination and it didn’t take long for me to become terrified of this place where I would tortured, any number or ways, for forever… and ever… and ever.

This church I attended, St. John’s Lutheran Church, was not a “hell-fire-brimstone-condemn you all” type church. It was fairly liberal, especially compared to others in the area. Hell was brought up rarely, and only in a matter-of-fact way. One thing was made clear – Jesus was the only way to avoid this horrible place.

It didn’t take me long to start doubting the existence of God. It basically started as soon as I got to school and was exposed to science (got some answers for how the earth and universe came to be) and history and geography (oh look at all of the OTHER religions).

The thing that bothered me the most was what would happen to anyone who never heard of Jesus Christ. Or, what happened if they had just heard about him, but died, before they were able to convert?  These questions, and questions like them, literally kept me up at night. (Is it any wonder that I have anxiety and insomnia issues?) These questions made me first question the benevolence of God, which then led me to question the existence of this god.

By the time I was in middle school I didn’t believe in God. I didn’t say this to anyone, but I did ask for permission to quit my confirmation classes. I was denied this opportunity. I found the classes completely useless, and in fact, I cheated in order to pass the memorization assignments that were due every week. I didn’t want to waste my time on crap, while I was learning so many interesting things at real school.

After I was confirmed, I stopped going to church. My sisters still had to go, and I did go to their confirmation ceremony. The pastor, (same guy that confirmed me just two years previously), had completely forgotten me, so I didn’t get my bread and wine. I was not impressed.

In 1997 my stepfather molested one of my sisters. This church, a church that my mom, my sisters and I had belonged to before he had even moved to Idaho, decided to stand by him instead of the rest of us. The pastor never reached out to us, and the entire congregation turned their backs on us. The child molester continued to be accepted into the fold. I can’t even begin to tell you how hurtful this was to our family. It makes me angry to this day. It was also another, and I believe final, nail into the coffin of my faith. It didn’t help my faith in humanity either.

That year was also the year that I graduated high school. I had planned to move away and attend a university out of state, but due my step-father’s actions, all of the money that was to go toward my education, ended up going toward his lawyer. So, I stayed home and attended a two-year college for the following two years.

During college, I was introduced to ICQ (an instant messenger), which would be key to escaping Idaho, and the literal hell that I was in. Six months before my final class of my second year I started chatting with Barry Walker – whose profile simply stated “Looking for my future ex-wife.”  One thing led to another, and the day after my last final, I hopped on a plane for Massachusetts to meet Barry in person. I never used the return ticket.

Before I left Idaho I was only honest about my non-belief with the people that I chatted with online. I don’t remember most of my coming out stories, but two in particular stick out the most.

The first is when I told my mother, which occurred about a year after I moved to Massachusetts and was living in Waltham. The first words out of her mouth were, “Well that’s what I get for sending you to college.” Never mind the fact she didn’t pay a dollar toward my education (It was all grants and scholarships. I owned my own car, paid for its insurance, and even most all of my own food at that point.)

And the second is when I was telling a new friend who turned out to be a fundamentalist Christian. We would be best friends for eight years, but you never would have guessed it from this conversation:
Me: I’m an atheist
Her: You don’t believe in God?
Me: No.
Her: Then why don’t you just kill yourself?
Me: ?!?!?!  Why would I want to kill myself when I believe that this life is all that I have? Wouldn’t it make more sense for me to make the most of it?

My mind still boggles at the thought process involved that would make you think that a lack of belief in God would make you think that THIS life isn’t worth living.

Since coming out to my family back in ~2000 I haven’t looked back. I do not hide the fact that I’m atheist from anyone. I have gotten some backlash, but it has been worth it. Even though I still grieve over the loss of my best friend – who took offense to my “Threatening children with a made-up hell is child abuse” picture on g-chat (three (or so) years after I had it on my profile), it is still worth it.

Being open with your atheism is worth it, because you can not put a price on living authentically. When you hide it, or outright deny it – you are doing yourself and others a great disservice. You are not allowing yourself to live as yourself, and you are not allowing others to know you for who you really are.

I hope that my story can help you make that choice to come out and be open as atheist or agnostic. You owe it to yourself.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Back to school - The coercive pressure of the Pledge and "Moment of Silence"

Today my son was recognized as January's Student of the Month for his class. As his parents, his father and I were invited to attend the assembly where he would receive his award. It had been a tough couple of weeks keeping it a secret from the kiddo and I couldn't wait to see him receive the recognition he deserved.

We took our seats and watched the kids pour into the gymnasium and I was struck with how different it was from when I was in elementary. My elementary school was for kindergarten through 5th grade, but Patrick's school was from pre-K through 8th. Where we would be lead into the gymnasium in an organized fashion, each grade separated into sections, each class separated into two rows - one for boys, one for girls; this school had children running around the gymnasium, no teachers were seen for the older children who came in first, and the lower grades' classes all sat on the floor in a disorganized group.

But that is where the dissimilarities ended. The first item on the agenda? The Pledge of Allegiance followed by a moment of silence. Everyone was told to stand until the moment of silence had ended. Now, back in elementary I had bought into Christianity and wasn't bothered by the Pledge - though, I don't think I really understood what it what it meant until at least middle school.

I know that they recite the Pledge every day in Patrick's class and I have told him countless times that he does not have to stand for it, and he does not have to recite it, and he says that he sits it out. However, today he stood. I was too far away to see if he actually recited it, and he's still in class now, so I can't ask... yet. His father and I remained seated during the Pledge and prayer moment of silence.

I'm not sure if he felt pressured because it was the principal leading the proceedings that made him stand at attention, or if he just tells me that he sits it out every day, but says it anyway. Whatever it is, I can't blame him or get upset with him for caving into the peer pressure. As I sat there while everyone around me, except for Barry, was standing, I felt extremely uncomfortable. I felt like an outsider - like I wasn't welcome. Oh sure, I could have blended better - I could have stood up, repeated the Pledge, or at least stood there "respectfully" - but why should I need to? Why should my son feel pressured in repeating something that he does not understand?  Why should children pledge allegiance to ANYTHING?!? Why should adults?

There are around 400 children in Patrick's school. Certainly, the majority are Christian, or at least, would consider themselves Christian, as the majority in this country is Christian. But not all of them are. Patrick is not - technically he would be an atheist, as he does not believe in a god - but he is much too young to have that definition thrust upon him. However, he is a child of atheist parents, and as atheists we are trying to raise him to be a rational, logical, decent human being.

Every child and adult in his school is protected by the constitution. A constitution that should protect him from a state sponsored religion. Coercing him into reciting something that states that this is a nation under God flagrantly violates those rights. By being neutral - by not stating the pledge, or by not having a prayer - or the prayer's legal substitute - the "Moment of Silence" - protects his rights and the rights of every person.

A public school's first priority should be education. Religion should be kept in your home, your churches, and your religious private schools and institutions. And, with the pledge, it's not just about religion, it's about nationalism and brainwashing children into accepting things that they do not understand. It is about conforming - pushing the belief that this nation is the "best" because it is protected by God. It leads to an unquestioning acceptance of the status quo - just look at the Jessica Ahlquist case, and look at how many people say that the prayer should stay "because it's been there for years". It is this mentality that NEEDS to change if this country has any chance in progressing and succeeding.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Sneaky Depression

My last real blog post was written back in November. Since then Barry and I have split and I have moved into my own apartment.

It feels weird being alone. In fact, I really don't like it. I feel like I should have all this extra time to do "what I want". And I could write a list of what I "want" to do:

Write more blog posts.
Grow the Massachusetts NAP.
Start sewing again.
Get back into my photography.
Read books that I've had on my list for months and years.
Get off my ass and exercise - I'd like to be able to run a 5K.

And yet, I haven't done anything. I don't feel like I do anything productive. I congratulate myself if I run a load of dishes. If I end up with some free time in the evening I just end up going to bed. I tell myself I should read, but I just can't bring myself to pick up the book.

In the past several months I have started multiple blog posts, but midway through the thought process fizzles and it just sits there in my drafts.

I have so many supplies for sewing and scrapbooking, but they sit boxed up. Unpacking them so that they would be usable just seems overwhelming. Also, my life has been so messed up the past couple of years that I don't feel like I have any photographs TO scrapbook.

Last year I was on cymbalta for depression for a good portion of the year and it was needed. I eventually felt well enough to get off of it. Cymbalta is a difficult drug to wean yourself off of - it took me about 2 months to get off of it.

Sadly, it looks like I will be starting back on it. I know I shouldn't feel ashamed of having depression and needing to take a prescription to keep it under control, but there's a real stigma to mental illnesses. By sharing my experience, I am hoping that others will feel safer in coming forward and talking about it. At the least, perhaps they will bring up how they're feeling with their doctors.

I'd like to look forward to seeing friends - instead of sitting at home - later kicking myself for not going.

At the moment, if I do have plans, it takes a lot of mental preparation to actually follow through with them. I have to talk myself out of just staying home and going to bed. It's a constant battle - and a battle I'm determined to win.

I am glad that I have noticed the signs earlier this time - lack of interest in hobbies, avoiding people, emotional eating, and constant exhaustion - it should be easier to get it back under control. At the moment it's mild and there's no way I want to be back to where I was at this time last year. So back to the drugs it is!

Anyway, this probably wasn't a subject you were expecting to read, but it's a subject that needs to be talked about.