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"… in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent…"

Posts Tagged ‘understanding

The Beliefs of a Non-Believer

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“An Atheist loves himself and his fellow man instead of a god. An Atheist knows that heaven is something for which we should work now – here on earth – for all men together to enjoy. An Atheist thinks that he can get no help through prayer but that he must find in himself the inner conviction and strength to meet life, to grapple with it, to subdue, and enjoy it. An Atheist thinks that only in a knowledge of himself and a knowledge of his fellow man can he find the understanding that will help to a life of fulfillment. Therefore, he seeks to know himself and his fellow man rather than to know a god. An Atheist knows that a hospital should be built instead of a church. An Atheist knows that a deed must be done instead of a prayer said. An Atheist strives for involvement in life and not escape into death. He wants disease conquered, poverty vanquished, war eliminated. He wants man to understand and love man. He wants an ethical way of life. He knows that we cannot rely on a god nor channel action into prayer nor hope for an end to troubles in the hereafter. He knows that we are our brother’s keeper and keepers of our lives; that we are responsible persons, that the job is here and the time is now.” – Madalyn O’Hair.

I am an atheist, a non-believer. To those more prone to angry terminology, I’m a heretic, a blasphemer. Those terms come not from ordinary people of faith, but from people who use their faith as a means to differentiate themselves from others, to hold themselves in higher regard than others because of their faith. Much in the same way some noted atheists often use their lack of faith  to believe that they are somehow better than the average faithful, who to them are merely delusional, misguided creatures. People are people, and no matter what they believe there are going to be those who are reasonable, and understanding of those that disagree with them, and there are going to be those that think of people that believe something else as somehow lesser beings. The average person of faith and the average atheist are both generally reasonable people, but the public perception of each is tinted by the divisive attitudes of people like Jerry Falwell and the Congressional Prayer Caucus, or Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins.

Faith is not something I often choose to talk about. I have none, and a great many people seem disturbed by that thought, so I mostly avoid it. But, lately I feel my own personal responsibility to clear the air on what being a non-believer means to me.

Religious institutions often try to paint non-believers as lacking in morals at worst, or just sad, pointless beings who think there is no meaning to life but themselves. While I can’t speak for the majority of non-believers, for myself nothing could be further from the truth.

I believe there is all the more meaning in life because of my lack of faith. I don’t believe there is any afterlife waiting for me to treat this life as little more than the entrance-exam. This is the only life I have, and it’s up to me to make the most of it, for myself, for those around me, for the future of the world in general. While people struggle with the immortal question of the purpose of life, I have a pretty good handle on the purpose of mine. I can’t imagine a greater purpose in life than to give just a little effort toward leaving this world better off for the next generation than it was when we came around.

The accusation that non-believers are lacking in morals too is absurd. It’s based in the belief that the Ten Commandments, or whatever any particular religion calls its basis of rules, were passed down from some divine being, and must be adhered to lest you provoke God’s wrath, and that anyone that doesn’t believe that has no fear of breaking those laws and thus nothing to lose by doing so. I find that belief insulting, and frankly, alarming. It suggests in the castigator a desire to do those awful things, that is only quelled by their belief that God will punish them for it.

I don’t have any desire to steal from someone, or to murder them, not because I fear repercussion from a God, or from police, but because the idea of bringing any kind of pain or suffering on someone else turns my stomach. I don’t do good things in the hope of getting a pat on the back come Judgement Day. I do good because it is right, and I stray from ill because to make someone suffer is unthinkable to me. The idea that a person must believe in a God to think that way is foolish.

I hold no animosity toward the vast majority of believers. I very much enjoy talking to my friends of faith about their faith and how they came to it, what it means to them. But those that would use their faith to cast a scornful eye on those that are different from them, in ideology or anything else, I have no patience for. To say more people have been killed in the name of God than anything else would be an understatement.

So, with that in mind, I ask that my readers of faith understand how much it insults me to read a letter several Republican members of Congress wrote to the President of the United States, chastising him for (get this) using “E Pluribus Unum” (English: Out of many, one) as our national motto, rather than “In God we trust” in a speech in India. Let me reiterate: they are angry because the president would rather quote our old motto, one of unity that perfectly encapsulates what the United States of America stands for to much of the world, with all its different types of people coming together for the common goal of their country, rather than the newer one that suggests people should mostly be united in their love for God rather than each other.

They go on to make clear, through their use of quotes by John Adams and Ronald Reagon, that they believe this country will somehow fail if we don’t go around the world professing our love for God, as if to even acknowledge that a sizeable segment of our population doesn’t believe and that it’s not the role of the government to make them is somehow a bad thing, as if to be a person without faith is a moral failing. As a non-believer, I never felt any great slight when members of the US government stood on the steps of the capitol building and sang “God Bless America”, or the litany of speeches from senators, congressmen, and presidents that ends with the same statement, but this group feels it is necessary to get angry simply because the president doesn’t mention God. Not that he doesn’t believe in God, he does, or that he actively campaigns against the teachings of God, he doesn’t, just that he doesn’t feel like he needs to talk about it. With all the things going on in the world today, how is that an issue for anyone?

I don’t do drugs because I believe to do so is a personal weakness. I’ve never cheated on a partner, because I believe to needlessly hurt someone like that is wrong. I don’t steal because I have no desire to have something I didn’t earn or have gifted to me by someone that cares. I don’t resort to violence to solve my problems, because understanding is the only way to truly solve anything, barring when violence is brought upon you. I donate what money I can spare to charities that help those less fortunate than me, and I am not a financially fortunate person. When I am capable of helping a friend or family member in need, I do because I like to. And I don’t believe in God because to do so doesn’t make sense to me, personally.

And yet, it is only that last statement that determines in the eyes of some, Michelle Bachmann, Paul Broun, Louie Gohmert, and the other 39 members of the Congressional Prayer Caucus among them, what sort of person I am.

There once was a day morality was the sole domain of religion. I believe that day is gone. It’s a shame that some are so closed-minded to think so little of people like me for such a trivial reason.

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Say WHAT?!?

So I’ve decided to start including a subsection to each piece, with different themes. This weeks subsection, “Say WHAT?!?” focuses on things someone in the media or government said that just defies all reason.

Some people like to do research about an issue before they rail against it. Others like to live on the edge.

And the first ever “Say WHAT?!?” award goes to Mike Huckabee, and it’s a two-fer.

Last month, the Huckster said President Obama likely had anti-British sentiment, which would be bad for a US president to have, because of his upbringing in Kenya, with a Kenyan father and grandfather. The first problem, of course, is that Obama wasn’t brought up in Kenya, and only ever visited the country in his 20’s.

That’s okay, though. Because, according to Huckabee, he only misspoke when he said Kenya, and actually meant Indonesia, where Obama did spend a few years of his childhood, after Kindergarten. That’s understandable. Everyone makes mistakes. I’ll even let it slide that he mentions Kenya multiple times in the interview. We’ll call it a recurring brain fart.

However, to actually believe that he accidentally said Kenya when he meant Indonesia means he also “accidentally” said the president would have anti-British feelings, when he must have actually meant he would have ill-will toward the Dutch, since it was the Dutch that had colonies in Indonesia; the British had them in Kenya. Also, he must have said Obama was raised with his Kenyan father and grandfather by accident, when what he must have actually meant was Obama never even knew his father, and only met the man on a couple of occasions. Unless, of course, he’s just suggesting that things like anti-British sentiment are just passed down through your genes. And, when he suggested the Mau Mau Rebellion, a Kenyan uprising against their British rulers, would have had a major effect on the young Obama, he must have actually meant… Well, he let’s be honest here. He meant the Mau Mau Rebellion, and when faced with his obvious inaccuracies didn’t have the spine to say he was just speaking without knowing the facts, and instead came up with a pathetic, obviously false lie. Because that’s what good leaders do, I guess.

For the second half of Huckabee’s lock on this award, he took a good, hard moral stand against someone whose really had it coming for a long time, if you ask me, and I’m glad someone is finally taking this person to task. So, clearly we’re talking about a whackjob politician, or an irresponsible member of the media, right? Nope. A tyrannical dictator in another country? Not even close. That person?

"No, Mr. Bond... I expect you to -die-!"

Natalie Portman.

That’s right. Natalie Portman, Harvard graduate, Oscar-nominated actress, and activist, is now a bad role-model for women, according to the Huckster. Why? Because she got pregnant without being married, and is apparently sending the message to women that being a single mother is cool, or something, and that’s dangerous because most women don’t have the resources Portman does to take care of a baby themselves.

First, let’s just get the obvious out of the way. Portman is a fantastic role-model for women. If you have a daughter, and she turns out like Natalie Portman, you’re going to be pretty happy, I assure you.

Second, does Huckabee really think that little of young women? What, they’re so caught up in fads and being like celebrities that they’re going to run out and get pregnant because all the cool kids are doing it? Apparently, and I know this comes as a shock to some, women are just as capable of thinking for themselves as men are. Unless, of course, you compare Natalie Portman and Mike Huckabee, in which case the ladies obviously win.

I give you Mike Huckabee, folks, whose mouth has long-since lapped his brain.

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The Power in Words

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“I have a dream today.” Martin Luther King spoke and a nation listened, began its slow march to change. His words spoke not of new ideals, new ways to approach life, or anything of the sort. His words merely echoed those that had already been put to paper, in the Constitution of this nation, in such a way that they would be more easily understood, and could absolutely not be denied. The purpose for Dr. King’s speeches could be easily summed up in the words of Thomas Jefferson, speaking to the purpose of the Constitution: “Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent…”

These are two men separated by nearly one-hundred fifty years, and yet they both understood that words had the power to change the world. One crafted the birth of a nation that would go on to be the greatest power in the world, the other charted a course for the liberty of an entire people. Both commanded the attention they needed to achieve their goals through their words.

Robert F. Kennedy was set to give a campaign speech in Indianapolis the night Martin Luther King was killed in Memphis, Tennessee. Instead, it fell to him to announce the tragedy to the gathered crowd. He did, at great personal risk to himself, and went on to speak eloquently about the need for understanding in the United States, the need for everyone to make a greater effort. As riots raged and fires burned throughout most of the major cities of the US that night, as all across the country frustration and bitterness swept up into the dangerous realm of hate, Indianapolis was quiet. The power of Kennedy’s words, beautiful and wise beyond what the moment should have allowed, brought some measure of solace to the aggrieved, and hate could not stand against it.

When Ronald Reagan stood before the Brandenburg Gate and said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” the world listened, and later a wall that had for so long divided fell. The power in his words, their strength along with the unquestionable right in them, changed the world. And yet, when Reagan spoke at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, of the tragedy of all the lost life there, the words of another penetrated his otherwise impervious demeanor. As the Republican president read the words of Anne Frank, “It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything, I still believe people are good at heart,” his voice faltered, overcome by the profound meaning in the words of a young girl: faced with even the worst hatred, which destroyed millions of lives, hope still lived on. And those simple words moved a man who would dare to topple a great symbol of oppression.

The hatred that claimed the life of Anne Frank and millions of others whose only crime was to exist, was born in the twisted mind of Adolf Hitler. Today, only the most marginalized sections of society would openly embrace Hitler’s doctrine, but in the first half of the twentieth century he’d built an empire that took a great alliance of nations to defeat. He did not do this by hiding his beliefs, by hiding the awful truth of what he wanted to achieve. Instead, he used his great power for words to convince others, a great many others, that their neighbors were inferior to them, and that their very proximity was a threat. The heartless executions of nearly twenty million men, women, and children could never have been carried out by one man alone, no matter the depths of his evil. Instead, powerful words of hatred shaped the hearts and minds of a great many people to believe there was some noble purpose in the most heinous acts.

Words have forever changed the course of the world, for good and ill. They have moved nations toward progress as well as ruin, moved people toward freedom as well as destruction, moved individuals to stand as beacons of hope for order in the world, or as agents of its demise.

It is with this knowledge that I have to question why, in the wake of our latest national tragedy, the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and the deaths of several innocent bystanders, those who spread the rhetoric of hate and divisiveness have been given a pass. There is absolutely no way a person can say anyone’s words inspired Jared Loughner to do the horrible thing he did, but for any and all criticism of hateful rhetoric to be shoved aside, for the media to allow such criticism to be branded as nothing more than political attacks just as hateful in their own right, is a travesty. It is acceptance for corporate-sponsored hate speech.

Today, political pundits are available to audiences twenty-four hours a day. They appear on cable news around the clock, they harp on talk radio for several hours a day, and they blog online. They are more readily accessible to the public than our leaders, and their words travel farther, faster. They must be held to the same standard for the consequences of those words as the men and women they decry on a daily basis. If confronted with accusations of bias, any pundit will fall back on the defense that they are not newspeople, and thus are not held to the same standard. As such, they should not be granted the same freedom of the press.

Some would say this is an issue of free speech, rather than press, but I don’t think it applies here. A man is allowed to say whatever he chooses to say, so long as it doesn’t endanger anyone. Nobody is allowed to shout “fire” in a movie theater, because it puts people at risk in a panicked situation. Too, while a man certainly is allowed to voice his beliefs, no matter how twisted and hateful they may be, the first amendment does not grant him corporate-sponsored means to spread his hatred.

When, following the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords, Rush Limbaugh said the Democratic Party “… openly wishes for such disaster in order to profit from it,” he made a conscious decision to forego benevolence in favor of belligerence, to continue his ongoing message of divisiveness, the “us versus them” mentality that RFK so eloquently decried as wasteful and beneath us. And the outcry against his message never came.

Glenn Beck has called the President of the United States a fascist, a communist, a socialist, and said that the beginning of his presidency was reminiscent of Adolf Hitler. He’s said that Democrats and liberals want to come into your home and take your guns away from you. He’s said that people have to stand up and resist these efforts. It’s not hard to see how, subjected to these messages five days a week, for the several hours a day Beck is on radio and TV, someone who is even only a little unbalanced could be moved to believe there would be cause for them to do something terrible. And yet, any mention of this in the public discourse is immediately shouted down as politically motivated.

Sarah Palin wrote in an e-mail to Beck, “I hate violence. I hate war. Our children will not have peace if politicos just capitalize on this to succeed in portraying anyone as inciting terror and violence.” Those words are not a condemnation of dirty politics or hateful rhetoric, not a call for people to join together for greater understanding. They’re a political defense. Six people lie dead but she did not call for reason in the political debate, dared not admit that some tactics in the political realm go way over the line and that it may help some already disturbed people justify awful actions. Instead, she looked out for her own political image and future, because that’s how we pay respect to the dead in today’s world of politics.

Words have always had great power, and always will. We must hold ourselves responsible for the consequences of our own words, and too I think, we must hold public figures responsible for theirs, because they will clearly not shine that divining light upon themselves.

I choose not to accept words of hatred, not to allow them into my heart. And, because of that, I choose to end with another passage from Anne Frank’s diary.

“I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness. I hear the ever-approaching thunder which will destroy us, too. I can feel the suffering of millions, and yet if I looked up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty, too, will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.”

Eight months later, Anne Frank was killed, but in her words lies the dormant hope in us all, waiting to be awakened, that things can be made better, that good can win out over evil, and that understanding can overcome hatred. From words, hopeful or hateful, unifying or divisive, action is born.