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The Power of Dissent Part 2

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Recently, I read Lawrence Wright’s incisive and highly provocative essay entitled “The Apostate,” which was originally published in The New Yorker in 2011. Wright’s essay, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in the rise of new religions, takes a look at the practices of the Church of Scientology – and in so doing, forces us to consider the early origins and evolution of all religious or ideological institutions. In his essay, Wright offers evidence that Scientologists may be actively engaged in a calculated and controlled form of ideological inculcation by way of a variety of traditionally disparaged methods, some of which are discussed below, but all of which lend to the creation of an environment in which critical and independent thought fail to thrive. Although the practices of the Church of Scientology have been subject to worldwide ridicule, they do not differ so much from the early historical practices of several now established world religions. When examined together, these practices help us to better understand the workings of many organized religions, ideologies, and world views.

In many cults and religions, whether old or new, dissent is only tolerated in varying degrees, and in some cases, not at all. Dissent may be passively discouraged by established religions, but in cults and in new religions, it may be actively suppressed. Non-believers or those who are critical of the established order may be ostracized in one way or another. At one extreme, dissenters may be tolerated or simply ignored. At the other extreme, defectors or “heretics” may be manipulated, bullied, physically abused, and/or separated from their friends and family. According to Wright, Scientologists engage in a common practice called “disconnection” in which believers are encouraged or forced to suspend communications or contact with friends and family members who don’t believe, or who have otherwise offended the church.

Depending on the religion or cult in question, social pressure – also in varying degrees - may be brought to bear on its members to ensure conformity with acceptable standards of behavior. To minimize dissent, members may be inducted into the religion or cult at an early age by way of an education system that is either funded or supported by the organization itself. All members, children and adults alike, may find themselves immersed in a social environment where most – if not all – of their friends, family members, and co-workers are of the same faith. Because children are often brought up in religious schools and are surrounded by friends and family of the same faith, they are inevitably isolated from any opportunity to exercise dissent. In fact, entering a cult or religion is often done with a parent’s consent, blessing, and even encouragement – and in some cases, by force.

Many religions and cults unite their membership through allegiance to a set of scriptures, an originating tale or creation myth, and/or a sacred text that contains the founding principles of a religion. No matter how ridiculous or illogical the myth, which often involves tales of reincarnation, revival from death, and other supernatural stories, there is a tremendously high incentive to believe that the “sacred text” or originating tale represents the truth, since logic dictates that otherwise, the entire belief system must fall. In many cases, adherents naturally find it easier and more convenient to believe the originating tale or to make any necessary logical or intellectual accommodations – regardless of the fact that the organization itself might make some truly spectacular claims.

In October 1985, former members of the Church of Scientology, as part of two separate actions against the church, filed materials in court that purportedly contained the organization’s secret originating myth. Despite attempts by Scientologists to block access to these materials, the Los Angeles Times obtained a copy and printed a summary, which Wright described as follows:

““A major cause of mankind’s problems began 75 million years ago,” the Times wrote, when the planet Earth, then called Teegeeack, was part of a confederation of ninety planets under the leadership of a despotic ruler named Xenu. “Then, as now, the materials state, the chief problem was overpopulation.” Xenu decided “to take radical measures.” The documents explained that surplus beings were transported to volcanoes on Earth. “The documents state that H-bombs far more powerful than any in existence today were dropped on these volcanoes, destroying the people but freeing their spirits – called thetans – which attached themselves to one another in clusters.” Those spirits were “trapped in a compound of frozen alcohol and glycol,” then “implanted” with the “seed of aberrant behavior.” The Times account concluded, “When people die, these clusters attach to other humans and keep perpetuating themselves.”” (p.55)

Many religions and cults promote and cling to a literal interpretation and application of originating principles or tenets, and may – at their discretion – manipulate these originating principles to their advantage, despite the intentions of the religion’s original founders. Often, adherents do not read or fully grasp the meaning of the original text, believing that others higher up understand things better than they do. In some cases, adherents also display a lack of knowledge regarding the originating principles themselves, in which case they choose to subscribe to another person’s interpretation – a person who is reputed to be smarter, more talented, more credible, more enlightened, more educated, or more “special” than anyone else. Sometimes, this person may be the organization’s charismatic, intelligent, and much loved leader, about whom stories are told of a mythical - and sometimes questionable - past. As such, his ascent to power or popularity takes on legendary proportions. Subsequent generations may invest considerable efforts towards creating a myth around this leader – that he or she is infallible. And they may protect this myth at all costs.

In many cases, and especially at the very beginning of a religious organization’s life, a church’s ideology will contain some legitimately inspiring guiding principles. According to Wright, science fiction writer and Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, for example, said that individuals have a duty to act when they know the truth. (Not a bad principle to live by, since this statement appears to actively encourage dissent.) But like most historical attempts to codify human behavior against a changing backdrop of mores and values, subsequent generations are likely to re-interpret these positive guidelines to serve their own purposes, to say “he didn’t mean to say that dissent should be allowed.”

Members may find that they are drawn to a cult or religious organization after experiencing personal or emotional challenges. After adopting the religion’s guiding principles, they may feel that they have experienced a revelation, or a substantial positive change in their lives. These revelations may take the form of testimonials that are shared within the organization, and that are eventually used to attract new members. When an individual is facing personal challenges of his own and is in a vulnerable state, the organization is quick to offer various forms of support, including affection, friendship, community, and guided therapy, meditation, or course work to help the member on his path towards enlightenment.

In many religions and cults, a path to spiritual enlightenment is offered to its adherents, at the end of which there is the promise of some kind of divination, revelation, or “secret” that will be divulged only to those who have demonstrated a commitment to the organization for an extended period of time. This path to enlightenment, however, requires the investment of considerable time, effort, money, or resources. In the case of the Church of Scientology, Wright informs us that members commonly paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in exchange for course work, “auditing,” and other services – through which, they are told, they will eventually have access to “the bridge to total freedom.” As such, the incentive to believe among members is high. Whereas the path to spiritual enlightenment leads to some form of divination or revelation – usually towards the end of one’s lifetime – exclusion or ex-communication from this path results in some form of eternal suffering, damnation, or spiritual hell – to which most, if not all, non-adherents are doomed.

Although, depending on the maturity of a cult or religion, there are varying levels of tolerance for dissent, in some cases, there is no room for dissent at all. Dissenters and defectors face expulsion from the church for so-called moral transgressions, or for behavior that is in any way critical of the organization. Often, there is a tradition of “confessing,” which requires that adherents disclose their transgressions to another higher placed member of the organization. In the case of the Church of Scientology, despite the leaders’ reassurances that these confessions are confidential, it is tacitly understood that the Church may wield this unspoken power of disclosure over you.

As witnessed in Communist China and in other controlling, absolutist regimes, religious adherents may be required to write “success stories” in which the believer attests to the veracity of the success of the organization’s teachings. These success stories are then read aloud, disseminated, or otherwise published for the benefit of others so that all members have an incentive to celebrate, whether artificially or not, the successes that have been made possible by the religious organization. Despite an adherent’s intuitive belief that “things may not be as they seem,” the incentive to embellish or fabricate to confirm the organization’s version of events is high – since the adherent has invested so heavily in the organization, and since his or her social circle is made up almost exclusively of fellow adherents. The barrier to entry into an organization may be low, but the barrier to exit is very high.

While the organization may say that it values egalitarianism, democracy, freedom, and human rights, its interior structure shows favoritism for the wealthy and successful, with considerable privileges bestowed on those who are obviously more valued than the others, creating a bizarre, yet overt kind of elitism. There is often some kind of hierarchy in the cult or religion, which through many years of devotion and practice, one can ascend. Success usually awaits those who manage to navigate through a list of challenges, trials, and ordeals while adhering to a code of conduct required of all of the organization’s members. Within this membership hierarchy, the lowest ranking members may obtain very little benefit – financial, emotional, or otherwise – from their sacrifice or loyalty, but are told that they are working for the betterment of humanity or in pursuit of some larger purpose. Despite the organization’s claims, its leaders may lead luxurious lifestyles - or its historical leaders may have led luxurious lifestyles in the past - despite legal or moral provisions against inurement.

Successful cults and religions tend to demonstrate impressive marketing skill, especially in their ability to recruit adherents – sometimes even celebrities - who are intelligent, articulate, and ambitious - and who are happy to communicate the religion’s benefits to others by way of testimonials: “When I found God, my whole life changed…” New recruits and long-time adherents come together around a repressive historical event that creates a tight, almost unbreakable emotional and psychological bond among the organization’s membership. Adherents are united by these historical events, raising their voices in a rallying cry against oppression and injustice. Members may feel that they are siding with the marginalized and the oppressed, that they are clearly on the “right” side – despite the presentation of evidence that shows that the organization itself may have, at some point in its own history, participated in the marginalizaton and oppression of others.

In the case of the Church of Scientology, a 1985 court challenge was brought by former member Julie Christofferson-Titchbourne “who argued that the church had falsely claimed that Scientology would improve her intelligence and even her eyesight.” (p.55) This case attracted Scientologists from around the country who “carried banners advocating religious freedom and sang ‘We Shall Overcome.’ Scientology celebrities, including John Travolta showed up; Chick Corea played a concert in a public park.” When a mistrial was declared, this event became “one of the greatest triumphs in Scientology’s history, and the church members who had gone to Portland felt an enduring sense of kinship.” (p.56)

United by a homogeneous set of values, a rallying cry against oppression, a cohesive vocabulary, a common originating myth, a charismatic leader, and a set of policies and practices that have the effect of sublimating, if not suppressing dissent altogether, some cults and religions manage to become self-sustaining organizations that can withstand the test of time. As the organization matures even further, and finds a way to generate funding on its own, it begins to amass wealth. Over time, it may even develop a system that encourages and rewards substantial donations to the cause. With so much amassed wealth, the organization has the ability to suppress the truth and to manipulate the facts to its advantage. If these organizations, for example, engage in civil rights violations or support individuals or organizations that breach the civil rights of others, these are often cloaked or excused based on a purported right to “freedom of religion.”

In addressing basic human needs, many cults and religions have been very successful at providing comforting answers to the larger questions of human existence. They have provided a community or support network to their adherents, as well as sufficient incentives to remain within the organization, and to fundraise on its behalf. They have ensured that their adherents’ children remain faithful to the cause by building religious schools or by inducting members into the religion at an early age. In an effort to survive and prosper, the organization will, in many cases, discredit other faiths and religions, claiming to be the one true religion – and encouraging its members to believe that they are somehow superior to those who do not subscribe to the “right” religion.

Although the organization may be historically riddled with allegations of physical and psychological abuse, and sometimes by stories of grossly disturbing and abusive behavior, it handles these allegations well – often by attacking the credibility of those who attempt to speak up against it. It begins to gain a certain expertise at denying credibility to anything or anyone that is external to the religion or cult itself, or that is critical of the organization’s world view. Members may display a reluctance to seriously consider those who are critical of the church’s practices, and may even be offended by evidence of any kind that questions the organization’s founding principles, thereby creating a propaganda machine that, by necessity, believes and reinforces its own lies.

In the case of cults, the leader’s word becomes increasingly absolute, and followers may begin to display a desire to impress their superiors. The cult leader does not tolerate challenges to his or her authority. Followers are required to be deferential. In an effort to renounce all doubt among its still precarious membership, the organization takes itself very seriously, and is characterized by an inability to laugh at itself – presenting a straight-on, unambiguous, unambivalent world view, in which adherents march triumphantly towards enlightenment and salvation. Defectors may express that they have experienced a phenomenon akin to brainwashing, in which they felt that someone else’s thoughts had been superimposed upon their own. Defectors may even report that they had been subjected to a justice system which applied laws created by the religious institution or cult itself.

In the case of cults and new religions, organizations may derive considerable support from “orders” like “Sea Org,” which – according to Wright’s essay - performs the mundane tasks of keeping the Church of Scientology alive. In this religious order, sexual behavior and marital affairs are regulated to ensure that members are devoted to the cause. Members may be inducted into the order at an early age, with the parent’s consent and encouragement. Given that early inductees are deprived of formal education and training as children, they may not have viable employment options when they reach adulthood. They become dependent on the cult or new religion for all things, including financial and emotional support.

In an effort to ensure dedication and long term loyalty, the Church of Scientology, for example, requires child members of Sea Org to sign “billion year contracts” in what amounts to indentured servitude to the organization. According to Wright, defectors have stated that they were made subject to a practice equivalent to extortion, in which religious course work and benefits that were supposedly provided free of charge to the child inductee were suddenly charged to the inductee when he or she expressed a desire to leave the order. Defectors have attested to the fact that emotional, spiritual, psychological or physical force have been used to reclaim Sea Org members, and that Scientologists resort to a procedure called a “blow drill,” thanks to which former head of security, Gary Morehead, estimated that he and his security team “brought more than a hundred Sea Org members back to the base.” According to Morehead, when emotional, spiritual, or psychological pressure failed to work, “physical force was sometimes used to bring escapees back.” (p.84)

As in many absolutist organizations, defectors have explained that control was brought to bear on the reproductive rights of female members. There also appears to be evidence that cults rely on a finger-pointing system that requires others to turn in dissenters and non-conformists for non-sanctioned behavior, and that encourages its members to make public declarations of error. In the case of the Church of Scientology, individuals who are considered troublemakers are labeled “Potential Trouble Sources” (PTS) or “Suppressive Persons” (SPs), and friends and family members are required to dissociate themselves from such publicly maligned individuals. Anyone critical of the organization is immediately denounced. Dissenters and defectors are discredited. Cult followers may find that their thoughts and behavior are being closely monitored. In the case of the Church of Scientology, it has been reported that an instrument called an “e-meter” – often compared to a polygraph - is used to monitor members’ thoughts and emotions during “auditing” sessions. The cult holds the key to the individual’s salvation, and wields the power of eternal life and death over its members. Any betrayal of the cult is considered treasonous.

(To be continued…)

Image Credit: Istockphoto

Image Caption: The red pawn, representing dissent, takes the queen

References:
Lawrence Wright. “The Apostate.” Published in “The Best American Magazine Writing 2012,” Edited by Sid Holt for the American Society of Magazine Editors. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012. Originally published in The New Yorker in 2011. Retrieved on October 22, 2013 at http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/02/14/110214fa_fact_wright

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The Power of Dissent Part 1

by Sam Lee

I would like to put atheism aside for a moment to discuss something about which many theists and anti-theists would agree. Whether or not we believe in the existence of a god, few of us would disagree that some, if not many, political, religious, business and other organizations have - at some point in their history - proven to be morally corrupt and impervious to external scrutiny. These organizations have reportedly used manipulative tactics to threaten, frighten, and coerce individuals into acknowledgment, conformity, or adherence to a particular faith, philosophy, subculture, or world view. In our desperate attempt to find solutions or comfort in times of existential angst, humans – over the course of history – have happily endorsed what now appear to be questionable ideologies and antiquated myths, religious or otherwise, turning a blind eye to the abuses for which these ideologies and myths are responsible. Atheists are widely criticized for spending so much of their time debating the existence or non-existence of a god, but this is – in large part – a misconception. By and large, atheists are freethinkers who uphold the value of critical thinking and who are primarily concerned about the proliferation of blind faith – in all aspects of life - at the expense of reason, compassion, morality, justice, and human rights. The general public is always quick to draw attention to the endless, entertaining, but often necessary debates that are pitted between believers and non-believers, and use these opportunities to paint atheists as raving proselytizers of a faithless world view. In reality, most atheists are not at war with any particular religion or religious institution, or with any one particular set of beliefs. Rather, our primary objective is to elevate the value of reasoned and critical thought in a pseudo-secular society that has carelessly depreciated the importance of independent thinking across the board, including in our schools, our work establishments, our governments, and in our interpersonal relationships. Our concern stems less from a resentment of existing religious institutions, and more from a deeply held and scientifically based conviction that any homogeneity or uniformity of thought has the potential to transform into an insidious and destructive force in our world community, leading to widespread abuse, cruelty, violence, and war. Atheists are not attempting to convert individuals to their own particular brand of atheism. Our Prime Directive – to borrow from Star Trek – is to stimulate the development of critical, reasoned, and individual thought in society, to fearlessly pursue the truth regardless of emotional or psychological discomfort, and to contribute to the betterment of society by applying a self-imposed, self-created, and self-directed set of ethical principles or guidelines. In short, despite the way we are portrayed in the media, atheists are less concerned about debunking the god mythology than we are about bringing attention to the unprecedented importance of critical thought in a post-modern society. Contrary to public opinion, most atheists are not interested in whether or not you agree or disagree with some or all of the things we say. We are concerned about HOW you arrived at your conclusion, and whether you applied independent critical reasoning in coming to your conclusion. For most atheists - and I certainly don’t purport to speak for all of us – the answer “because so-and-so said so” or “because this is the way it’s always been” or “everyone knows this to be the truth” ranks among the least credible responses to any question, religious or otherwise, including to that most taboo of questions: “Why do you believe?” As atheists, we are comfortable with the knowledge that there might not be any definite answers to some of life’s greatest questions. We also know that – with respect to some of life’s smaller questions – the answers might be variable, and that they may shift over time, depending on the current state of our scientific understanding of the world. In fact, atheists embrace and welcome this knowledge, because they understand and accept that their lives are self-directed, that their thoughts and opinions are entirely within their own control, that they have the ability to affect positive change in their own lives and in the lives of others, if they choose to do so. A plethora of choices is always at their disposal, and although they know that certain things are right and that certain things are wrong under any given set of circumstances, they also understand that the assignment of such normative values has been accomplished by way of millions of years of human evolution and adaptation, as opposed to the arbitrary declaration of one or many external deities. Atheists appreciate that our existence on this planet may be a completely random, yet spectacular product of biological circumstances that came together to create the perfect environment for human, animal, insect, and plant life to flourish and thrive on this planet. Our minds are open to constantly refined scientific explanations that help us understand the nature of the air we breathe, the water we drink, the chemistry and physical principles that govern our genetic make-up, our movement, our senses, and our ability to communicate with one another. We understand that even well established scientific principles – like all forms of human understanding – are subject to challenge as new discoveries are made on a daily basis, as we continue to feel our way around this earth, learning to adapt to our ever changing environments, using the tools, funding, information, and resources that are at our disposal. Atheists are critical thinkers, first and foremost. We are comfortable thinking “outside the box.” Although many of us have been raised “inside the box,” something within us balks at the limits and constraints that have been imposed upon us. We search hungrily for that rarest of substances called “truth” – without which we feel we cannot breathe, without which we feel quite passionately that our ability to lead authentic lives would be severely compromised. Unlike those who may be repelled or intimidated by the facts that govern our existence on this planet, atheists find comfort in the simple knowledge that there is some truth out there amid the chaos – though this truth, in its most honest and naked form, may be chaos itself. (To be continued…) Image Credit: Istockphoto Image Caption: Independent young woman walking away from the status quo References: Lawrence Wright. “The Apostate.” Published in “The Best American Magazine Writing 2012,” Edited by Sid Holt for the American Society of Magazine Editors. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012. Originally published in The New Yorker in 2011. Retrieved on October 22, 2013 at http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/02/14/110214fa_fact_wright

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The Power of Dissent Part 3

by Sam Lee

Truly independent and critical thought is a rare and precious thing. For it to flourish, individuals must have access to an environment in which freethinking is not only tolerated, but actively encouraged. Our ideas and thoughts are naturally affected and influenced by the ideas, people, and projects that surround us on a daily basis. They are shaped and stimulated by a wide variety of external events, and as they bump up against other ideas and discussions, they have the power to mutate into something new, different, and altogether revolutionary. In a stagnant intellectual environment, where the same ideas and thoughts are circulated and re-circulated ad nauseum to a whole new generation of children who have been raised to accept rather than question – to defer rather than challenge – to acknowledge rather than dissent, there is little opportunity for freethinking. Individuals may privately question some aspect of a cult or religion, but without the internal strength and courage to express themselves honestly and openly, in defiance of an established order or authority figure, this instinct “to disagree,” to question, to criticize, and to search for the truth - collapses. From an evolutionary point of view, humans are primed for survival, and we are – as a result - always on alert for anything that we believe may challenge or threaten our future as individuals and as a species. In a world that values homogeneity and uniformity of thought above everything else, any deviation from the norm must necessarily be destroyed. Free and independent thinking must be suppressed, or at the very least, discouraged. Difference must be sublimated, or at the very least, not valued. In our schoolyards, classrooms, workspaces, offices, families, and communities, we see evidence of our evolutionary inclination toward uniformity of thought on a daily basis. For those of us who have been raised in an environment in which truly independent and critical thought has been actively discouraged or even suppressed – the likelihood that any kind of freethinking will survive is low at best. As such, it must be recognized that true independence of thought requires considerable moral courage and strength on the part of the individual. It requires the ability to speak one’s mind regardless of the consequences. It requires the courage to navigate a difficult emotional path on one’s own, often without the support of a network of friends and family who are constantly endorsing one’s point of view. And it requires a substantial amount of intellectual conviction and outrage to speak out against the injustices and abuses that have been meted out for centuries in the name of a god, a religion, a political regime, or an ideology. In a progressive, compassionate, post-modern society, dissent must be actively encouraged. Critical thinking, scientific reasoning, and independence of mind and spirit must be valued over homogeneity or uniformity of thought, and environments must be created to ensure that fresh new ideas and solutions can proliferate, even if it means that older antiquated ideologies - religious, political and otherwise - have to be set aside to make this possible. As humans, we find ourselves at a crucial point in our evolutionary history. Although it may be easier to give in while a wide variety of diverse human thought becomes sublimated into a homogeneous blanket ideology, morality, or world view, with few detractors or dissenters - we hold in our hands the opportunity to create a different kind of future for ourselves and for our children. In this alternate future reality, beautiful new original ideas will develop, co-exist, and thrive in pursuit of concrete solutions that will benefit humanity as a whole. Freethinking and all forms of independent, creative enterprise will be encouraged and promoted, and the vestigial ideological remains of our past will crumble into dust, locked away in cavernous long forgotten museums to remind us of our once backward, superstitious ways. Image Credit: Istockphoto Image Caption: Young woman thinking about the future References: Lawrence Wright. “The Apostate.” Published in “The Best American Magazine Writing 2012,” Edited by Sid Holt for the American Society of Magazine Editors. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012. Originally published in The New Yorker in 2011. Retrieved on October 22, 2013 at http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/02/14/110214fa_fact_wright

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Coming Out as an Atheist

by Dirk Ellis

We are pleased to bring you an interview with Dirk Ellis from Burbank, California who has recently published his coming out story entitled “MY STORY 1: Coming Out as an Atheist” on his YouTube channel DiglahProductions: “I create comedic and dramatic short films for entertainment, as well as films based on thoughts I have about life in general, and on questions that I feel everyone wonders about or struggles with.” When I asked Dirk why he decided to publish “Coming Out as an Atheist” last year, he replied: “One thing I love doing is inspiring and entertaining people, and I enjoy having deep conversations about things I'm passionate about. I had been thinking about posting a video for a while. Then I saw a Facebook page called Atheist Jesus. They had posted a status saying they wanted all of their members to make a short video describing what it was like to come out as an atheist, and to offer advice for other people who were trying to do the same thing. I thought this was a perfect opportunity.” By trade, Dirk is an actor, stuntman, drummer, and filmmaker. He grew up in Texas and has lived in various parts of the world, including Hong Kong and Singapore: “I lived the first twenty-three years of my life in Texas. I was diagnosed with ADD at a very young age, and I definitely continue to feel the effects of ADD today. I started working at seventeen and would go through three jobs a year. Not because I couldn't hold on to a job, but because I would get so bored and unhappy doing the same thing everyday. I did everything from stocking, to construction, food service, babysitting, and door-to-door sales. I was even a prison guard for a while. It wasn't until I moved to Florida in 2005 and began working as an entertainer for Disney World that I really began to understand what made me happy in life. After seven years of traveling the world, I’ve finally made it to Hollywood - where I’m pursuing the big dream.” In our interview, Dirk told me that he was raised in a very affectionate and close-knit family – that could be characterized as semi-religious at most: “I don't know of another person who is closer to his or her family than I am with mine. I am so lucky to have been born into a family who raised me the way they did. My dad is the strongest, toughest, most knowledgeable and decent man I've ever known. He instilled a super strong work ethic in me. He can teach you how to out-work anyone, all with a big smile on your face. My mother is the sweetest, most fun and open-minded woman I've ever met, and my sister - who was born with Down syndrome - is simply blind to negativity, and is the friendliest person. They are my world.” Dirk reflected on his childhood experience with religion: “My dad never really spoke of God, to my memory, though he does seem knowledgeable about the Bible. However, recent talks have led me to think my dad may believe in an afterlife and a higher power, so perhaps he’s agnostic. I honestly don't remember my mom bringing it up much either, but she was the one who took me to church every once in a while. I recall going to a Baptist church and to a Christian Methodist church. Maybe a couple of times a month at most. Very recently, my mom has also admitted she thinks she’s agnostic.” “As a child, I remember that I believed in God, because it was what I was told, but there were many times I didn’t understand what I was doing or why I had to believe such things. I remember I was always either bored with what the pastor was preaching, or scared because he'd be very loud and passionate, and I was afraid he was mad or something. I had really bad ADHD too, so I remember that to keep myself occupied, I would play with my Ninja Turtles toys while the pastor preached on.” “I also remember questioning stories in the Bible like ‘Jonah and the Whale,’ and asking why I was drinking the ‘Blood of Christ’ when it was only grape juice. The final straw for me came when I was a mid-teen. I asked my mom ‘if there is only one god, why do hundreds of other countries worship different gods?’ I thought, ‘According to the Bible, God created the whole world in seven days, therefore there should be absolutely no confusion and everyone should worship him.’ My mother didn’t know what to say. She said that was a question for my dad.” Since Dirk was not raised in a very religious household, I asked him whether, as a child, he was influenced or inspired by any particular spiritual or philosophical worldview: “It seems that back in my younger days, people only brought up religion when I was at church. Surprisingly, I was raised in Texas, but I don't recall there being constant talk about God 24/7. However, I do remember being surrounded by the Bible Belt's religious power, and at first I didn't feel the need to question it. It was just what was accepted and not challenged. When I did start questioning the beliefs I was taught, I remember feeling smothered by religion, and by the churches and people I grew up with.” “When I did believe, I would pray often. And I would ask for forgiveness often. I remember one time, I thought this huge tree in our backyard could represent God because of how big and perfect it was. I also strangely hoped and pretended that reincarnation was real, as if everyone who dies turns into an animal of their choice. I had a crazy imagination. I was definitely influenced by animals.” “I was also heavily influenced by science and the study of dinosaurs. I probably watched Discovery Channel more than I watched cartoons. I remember having dinosaur books and stacks of magazines about existing and extinct animals. I was really big into art as well. I competed in many drawing contests and took first place in everything I entered. I couldn’t get enough of movies either. The quality of movie acting, the music, the special effects - it was always captivating to me, even as a child.” ***** Dirk openly identifies himself as an atheist and as an anti-theist: “I definitely describe myself as someone who’s against the idea of a god watching over us and controlling our lives. I have to give that credit to Christopher Hitchens. When I was much younger and believed in God, I still had lots of questions. When I moved out of Texas to Orlando, Florida at the age of twenty-three, I was finally able to say, “I really don't know if there is a god, but I have my doubts.” When I moved out of the country five years later, I was able to say, “I honestly have a very hard time believing in any god.” Then in January 2011, I came across Richard Dawkins - and I immediately became a self-proclaimed atheist. All I needed to hear was someone who was brave enough to stand up and say, “These ideas are silly, and can't be proven.” When I trashed the idea of any god, my life became weightless – and so much more free. I felt I had discovered the final missing piece to knowing who I was.” Dirk describes his worldview as follows: “We are all evolved primates commonly known as humans beings. At the end of the day, at the end of every political rant, at the end of every religious battle against homosexuality, at the end of every argument, fight or attack spurred on by racism or by religious, cultural or ethnic differences - we are all humans beings. I believe in three very important things. Do what makes you happy, take care of your body, and treat others with kindness. If everyone lived that way, the majority of this world would be much happier. I think that anyone who has rejected the idea of religion, who realizes that a Christian and a Muslim are both humans, and can look past their outward cultural appearances - has possibly taken a step forward in the progress of humankind, and has adopted a greater, more evolved worldview.” ***** Dirk explained that some of his friends and family are supportive of his atheism: “Most of my good close friends are very supportive of me. Some - take my mom for example - say they look up to me because they consider me brave enough to proclaim my atheism and to have researched the topic enough to back myself up when needed. I have some family who are more religious than others, and probably don’t agree with all of my views, but they also rarely bring it up during get-togethers. Though we may not see eye to eye, no one has ever pushed religion on me. The one time someone in my family tried to bring the issue up for discussion or debate, I found it to be a bit awkward, and the timing slightly inappropriate. It was the night of my grandmother’s funeral two years ago. Out of respect for my deceased grandmother and because I thought this might have been my family's way of dealing with such a personal loss, I didn't argue with them, and bowed out of the conversation.” Dirk welcomes debate and discussion, especially on issues relating to human rights – but admits that he’s had to pay the price in the way of lost friendships: “I've lost some personal friends, a couple of handfuls on Facebook, and usually that happens because of quarrels over the Internet - about equality. I’m for it. They're not. Pretty simple. I tend to not stay so silent on Facebook and YouTube, or anywhere that discussion or debate can happen online or in the real world, especially if I truly believe and understand what I am talking about. People may argue that debating online does nothing and is a waste of time, but I have to disagree. It was the Internet that made me and so many others I know – aware of the dangers of religion and the threats that it can present to human rights and to scientific progress.” “A lot of my Christian friends post scriptures and other phrases thanking and praising their god on Facebook, and they have that right - which I must respect. If people believe in a higher power and it’s what makes their day go by, then I have no problem with that. But when people post articles in support of a wedding cake shop denying service to a gay couple who are engaged to be married, or when they post articles in support of Duck Dynasty's freedom of speech, but NOT in support of the freedom of all individuals to live with the same rights as everyone else, I tend to have a problem with that.” Regardless of the ramifications of taking a position on what others consider to be controversial or unpopular issues, Dirk believes it’s important that individuals speak up: “I'm very stubborn when it comes to bullying, whether it's physical, psychological or Internet bullying. I can’t just ignore it. I don't like it when people point fingers or say “you're not good enough.” There's no easier choice for me than to step into the ring to fight and protect someone who needs and deserves it. Everyone is human. We are not divided into classes or levels of importance. We all deserve an equal chance in life. Whether you're black, white, gay, straight, or have Down syndrome, we all deserve the same basic fundamental rights. Pretty simple.” Dirk is particularly outspoken about the issue of marriage equality or same-sex marriage, and about equal rights in general: “I feel that religion has spawned this idea - which I can only describe as brainwashing – that makes the religious community believe that being gay is a choice and unnatural, and that they therefore have a “religious responsibility” to deny gay couples the right to marry by voting against it, even though everything we scientifically see in nature says otherwise." "Maybe it was considered a lifestyle choice in the older days because we didn’t understand it or chose not to understand it, but how and why this “choice hypothesis” still holds in the twenty-first century is baffling to me! Even if it was somehow scientifically proven that being gay was a choice, I still think people within the gay community should be able to marry, because it wouldn’t affect the sanctity of MY marriage - when I do get married. To me, the “sanctity” of marriage is based on two PEOPLE who love each other and who are joined in a legal, honest, happy and devoted relationship. And the LGBT community is just as rights-deserving as anyone else.” I asked Dirk to clarify what he meant when he said “I’m for [equality.] They’re not.” Dirk replied: “I'm for the total equality of all humans regardless of the way you're born or the way you choose to live, as long as you’re not harming others. And unfortunately the friends I've lost are not for equality. They call being gay an “abomination” and a “sin” because that's what their holy book tells them it is. Not only is this closed minded and hurtful, but it amazes me that their morals are derived from an ancient book that calls itself holy and sacred. In my opinion, as long as you're not harming anyone, you're good in my book, and you deserve every right I’ve been given.” ***** Dirk told me that he finds it difficult to befriend or to develop close relationships with people who are religious: “I feel like I'm always watching what I say around religious people - with respect to their beliefs - and that I can never be truly honest or myself around them. Then again, if people say they're Christian, but they support gay rights, use the ‘Lord’s’ name in vain, and do everything the Bible tells them they shouldn’t - as much as I probably like them even more because they’re being real - I find that they’re living the typical ‘cherry-picking Christian’ lifestyle. What's the point of calling yourself a Christian if, according to the Bible, you live a life of sin? I want to tell those people, “just admit that you don't really take the Bible seriously.” That’s just my opinion though.” “And if they are serious Christians, at one point I'm going to have to say something they won't like, whether it be intentionally or by accident. I definitely can't be close friends with someone who is against gay rights. Because - what if I was gay? I’m not, but I could be, and that person would be against me getting married. And that’s not right. I can't be serious friends with someone who doesn't hold everyone on the same playing field. I also personally find it very annoying when someone is thanking God for their blessed ’everything’. “What a beautiful day, thank you Lord. I found my car keys, thank you Jesus. This food, wow, thanks God. My son got home safe, thank you, I am blessed!” I find it annoying and oddly hypocritical when people thank God for every breath they take, but then fail to realize or acknowledge what’s happening to our neighbors in other countries who have to deal with war, rape, and disease.” “People believe that God has just blessed them with no traffic, which allows them to ‘miraculously’ arrive to work on time – and yet has not blessed a child who is born with an incurable illness. I find it hypocritical and sometimes ignorant that people dismiss these blatantly obvious real world facts because they want to believe their god is just so perfect in every way. (For the sake of argument, if there is a god, I have yet to see any evidence that he's perfect.)” ***** For Dirk, the role of atheism in today’s society is to offer people an intelligent, scientifically-based, and evolved way of thinking and looking at the world: “And as long as people continue to share ideas, more and more people will start dropping religion. In the future, I think there will be fewer religious people and possibly even religions. It won’t necessarily be intentional, but I think it will be a side effect of having a growing atheist community. From my observations, the religious community is way more outspoken these days than it was twenty years ago, and I can only speculate that the reason is because more and more atheists and agnostics are coming out of the closet and fighting back." "These days, it seems to me that there is considerably more debate about religion than there was twenty years ago. I don't ever remember seeing religious representatives arguing with atheist authors on television when I was growing up. I think these kinds of debates are much more common these days because twenty years ago, many atheists and other non-believers didn't stand up for themselves and religious people therefore didn't feel that they had to justify anything they did or said.” “I think that most religions can only survive if they are taught to children at a very young age. Nowadays, people are breaking free from religion at all ages, and these people are going to have kids who will probably not start off their lives indoctrinated. I'm not saying that it's the job of atheists to reduce the power or influence of religions, but I do think that as the number of atheists and agnostics grow, the power and influence of religions will decline.” Dirk acknowledged that atheists continue to be concerned about the consequences of coming out in a larger American society that remains, for the most part, religious: “Atheists are afraid to admit how they feel for the same reason I'm still uncomfortable talking about it around some of my family. The disbelief in God is considered a controversial and taboo subject for many, so the fear of your friends and family rejecting you is always a concern. Sure, it's their problem, not yours. But when you're dealing with your family – which is the one family you’ve got for the rest of your life – you’ll think twice before you deliver what they would consider ‘bad news.’" "In the very few times someone in my family has tried arguing against science or LGBT rights, my heart was pounding because I knew I had to say something he or she would disagree with and probably not like. If I hadn't spoken up then, I would still be in hiding. When I realized I was an atheist three years ago, I told myself I wouldn't hide anymore. Unfortunately, when atheists do speak up, people tend to take it as a threat. So there may be arguments, which leads to the possibility of anger, followed by discomfort and resentment." Dirk concluded: “I think it's very important to come out in a safe environment. Coming out and spreading the word that “atheism is okay” is the only way we’re going to get rid of the world-wide myth that being an atheist is a bad thing. It's not, it's completely the opposite. We atheists live our lives as if it’s the only one we’re going to get. Therefore, we try to make everyday as special as we can. People will eventually come to learn and understand this. Like anything that has changed through the process of evolution, it will just take time.” To view “Coming Out As an Atheist,” please go to the following link: http://goo.gl/zbncVB ***** Image Credit: Brandin Photography

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Stripes and Solids

by Jeff Musillo

There is a very small light illuminating the pool table in the basement. Just faintly. Everything feels like it’s moving in slow motion around the pool table. The 6-Ball diamond is already set up. The Poolshark comes into view. He walks by the far end of the table. He’s unruffled. Meditatively tranquil. The Poolshark grabs the cue ball and the pool cue, and prepares himself for a game of 6-Ball. He blows the extra chalk off the cue. This is when we see that there is another person in the basement. He is standing on the right side of the table. It’s almost as if he just popped up out of nowhere. His name is The Opponent. “Hey,” says The Opponent. “Dear God! Geez, you scared me. I didn't even hear you come in,” replies The Poolshark. “Ya. I just got here.” “Well it's perfect timing,” says The Poolshark before moving once more toward the cue ball. “I'm just about to get rolling on a little 6-Ball action.” “Nice,” says The Opponent. “Why don't you join me?” “I'm cool, I'll just watch,” says The Opponent. “You sure?” “Ya. I’ve been working all day.” The Poolshark readjusts the cue ball while The Opponent, who pulls up a bar stool and sits down, continues his explanation. “I'm wiped, man. I just need a little time to relax.” The Poolshark hunches over the table, and eyes up the cue ball. “Well, 6-Ball can be truly relaxing in the long run. And you know what they say, ‘That which relaxes you will eventually enlighten you, and that which enlightens will ultimately grant divine felicity.’” “Who says that?” The Opponent asks in a cynical tone. “Truth tellers.” The Opponent laughs to himself and says, “Honestly man, I'm comfortable right where I'm at. You do your thing.” The Poolshark replies, “Seriously though, 6-Ball is a crucial game to play. Actually, I wouldn't even call it a game at all. That would be insulting. It's a spiritual thing. A spiritual quest. Look, there are so many vital indicators going on with this table, so many signs that show the magnitude of pool. Like - right off the bat, think about all the details of a pool table. This table right here, the dimensions are 9 x 4. You multiply those numbers and you get 36.” The Opponent raises his eyebrows. The Poolshark continues, “Then of course there are four sides to the table and six pockets. You multiply 4 and 6 and you get 24. You add the initial 36 with the 24 and you get 60. Then you have to consider the fact that there are four legs and two cue ball starting points. Four plus two is six. You add that six to the sixty and you get 66.” The Poolshark is using his pool cue to accentuate his points. “Obviously I'm playing 6-Ball, so you attach that 6 to the end of 66 and that gives us… 666. The mark of the Devil.” The Opponent’s eyes widen. The Poolshark doesn’t hesitate. “This shows us the great importance of winning, of trouncing what the table symbolizes, of demolishing Satan.” “Wow,” says The Opponent. “I know. It’s great right? So you’re sure you don't want to play?” “I’m very sure.” “That’s alright,” The Poolshark tells The Opponent. “Even those on the sidelines can expand their minds.” The Poolshark takes a moment. Takes his time to make a last assessment of the diamond. He closes his eyes and whispers, “Show me the way.” The Poolshark breaks the 6-Ball rack, grabs the chalk, and chalks his cue with a smirk on his face. He’s only just begun. It’s time for him to explain the meaning of each pool ball before he sends them to the various pockets. “To decimate the wickedness that this billiard board represents, we must align with the cue and expertly utilize each of the six balls on this demonic table. These pool balls are sacred soldiers, and every time one of these little warriors locates righteousness, finds a home in any of the six pockets, a crushing message is forcibly delivered to all who are heinous. It is indeed a imperative duty - and one of great complexity as well.” The Opponent nods his head. “Fortunately, each of the six balls on this table has its own meaning, individual messages that will guide us to victory and illumination… Now, when beginning 6-Ball, when launching off on a sacred mission, the 1-Ball is not only the most obvious target, it's also amazingly inspirational. No matter what it is in this world that we want to accomplish, our road to triumph needs to start somewhere, and the number one signifies that fantastic origin. It represents the beginning of something new.” The Poolshark looks closely at the 1-Ball. “It also urges us to control ourselves,” he says. “To not be besieged by the entire assignment, to not be overwhelmed by everything, but to realize how wonderful it is to embark on something fresh, and to appreciate the supreme beauty of all newness. Unless, of course, it's the life of a child born out of wedlock. That's just repulsive.” He sets up and takes his shot. The 1-Ball fires into the pocket, as planned. The Poolshark makes his way to the 2-Ball. “For me, the next number is the most demoralizing. It's as if it was manipulated by the impious pool table. You see, the 2-Ball, although it's still our little soldier, it is also the symbol of separation - dreadful disconnection. When I think of the number two, I think of some of the most heartbreaking and fear-provoking scenarios. I think of divorce, I think of someone having to lay their loved one to rest... I think of the old Satanic Split.” The Opponent is stunned by what The Poolshark is suggesting. The Poolshark is undeterred. He continues with his preaching. “The Satanic Split. The horribly well-known diabolic torture technique, the tactic where Lucifer sadistically grabs the ankles of the innocent and barbarically tears them in half like a wishbone, ripping his victim from the groin to the top of his convulsing skull.” The Poolshark looks over to The Opponent, who is visibly disgusted. “The 2-Ball reminds us of our grave need to beat the devil. It reminds us that we must defeat the beast before his monstrousness spreads. And by sinking the 2-Ball, we show our biggest adversary that the total termination of all decency is absolutely unattainable.” The Poolshark shoots the 2-Ball into the pocket with force and says sarcastically, “That was difficult.” He shakes off the inconvenience of the 2-Ball, and moves on to explain the 3-Ball. “Luckily, we have the 3-ball to lift our spirits. It's one of the most magical numbers on the table. It stands for unity. It lets us know that when things come together, life can be truly incredible. Such great magnificence, that number three. The Father, The Son, The Holy Spirit… The Holy Trinity. What more could you ask for?” The Opponent says nothing. The Poolshark continues his speech. “There are so many beautiful things that come in threes,” he says. “So many things that remind us of the Holy Trinity. The three leaves of a shamrock, the three wise men...” “The three parts of an atom,” The Opponent says, cutting off The Poolshark. “What? No! No!” The Poolshark fires back. “I was thinking more along the lines of something that's actually valuable - like the three Monastic Vows. Something like that makes you really cherish the number three and everything that digit represents. It is such a remarkable number. In fact, I've spent many sleepless nights wondering why I don't have three testicles.” The Opponent shakes his head. The Poolshark takes his next shot, sinks the 3-Ball, and moves on to his next target. “The 4-Ball rings an awe-inspiring bell,” he says. “The number four not only reminds me of why I'm here, but also why I am the way I am. We are all the Almighty's design. You see, the number four exemplifies God's creative works, which of course is everything. God has created, is creating, and will continue to create all. Accordingly, all that is not wicked is God. People, places, events. Everything is God. And I'd have to imagine that the Father is happy about that, since he never leaves his people hanging. He is never inattentive. He makes sure He takes care of those who appreciate his creations and genuinely follow his ways.” The Poolshark leans in to take his shot. “God makes sure everything works out.” When the Poolshark says this, he truly believes it. The Poolshark takes his shot on the 4-Ball, but it misses the pocket. At that very moment, The Opponent is texting someone on his cell phone. He is not paying attention to The Poolshark. The Poolshark looks up from his missed shot to check on The Opponent, to make sure he is in fact not paying attention. When he feels confident that The Opponent is distracted, The Poolshark uses his hand to slide the 4-Ball toward the pocket. The Poolshark stares darkly at The Opponent, as he finishes cheating at his own game. The 4-Ball drops into the pocket. “Perfection,” he says. The Opponent looks up from his cell phone. “Well done.” There’s a pause between the two men - a hushed moment in the basement. The Poolshark finally speaks up. “Have you been listening to what I've been saying?” “Not really,” The Opponent replies. “Well you really should, especially when it comes to our next soldier - the one and only 5-Ball.” The Poolshark stares at the 5-Ball. Admires it. “The number five personifies style and grace,” The Poolshark says. “It lets us know that even if we're in the midst of harsh combat, even if we're toe to toe, face to face with the King of Hell, there's no need to lose our elegance. The 5-Ball reminds us that even in the most trying dilemmas, we can still keep a poised head on our shoulders and look good defeating our villainous rival. It's one thing to be victorious, it's another thing to prevail while looking classy. And this is what the number five constantly demonstrates - style.” The Poolshark leans in to take his shot. “Why do you think us Christians high-five each other so often?” The 5-Ball drops in with ease. The Poolshark is incredibly energized. “We did it! We made it to our last ball. Are you excited?” The Opponent says nothing. “Good. We're going to need all the enthusiasm we can get. Although there's nothing else on this demonic table to distract us, we still have to remain alert, as focused as we were at the beginning of our mission. In fact, to close out this Satanic bastard, we have to utilize each and every ounce of our mental and physical strength. Thank God the 6-Ball is here to guide us.” The Poolshark takes a deep breath before he resumes his speech. “The number six is a symbol of masculinity. It stands for the greatness of man. The power of man. It reminds us of how amazing it is to be around the effectiveness of a man, to share courage with a man, to have the solid backing of a man. This can sometimes be the most perplexing ball. Homosexuals take it the wrong way. They think it's a gay thing, but they're wrong. They don't understand the true meaning of man. It's not a sexual thing. It's not barnyard. It's brotherly. It's all about camaraderie. And, in life, that incredible, straight companionship is undoubtedly essential. There's nothing like the support of one, two, or even three of my closest male friends.... That's why I love all 6-Balls. A shadow of a smile flickers over The Opponent’s face. “I think you’re a little confused,” says The Opponent. “What're you talking about? I'm not confused!” The Poolshark responds heatedly, “I'm seeing everything clearly. You're the one who’s confused! It's not my fault you can't see the seriousness of 6-Ball.” The Opponent just grins and shrugs his shoulders. This is highly irritating to The Poolshark. “That's really sad,” The Poolshark tells The Opponent. “Shame on you! I've given you so many life lessons here. I've given you so many reasons why 6-Ball is so important, so many examples of why and how we are all affected by The Creator, and you just sit there and pretend as if you're not touched by the hand of God.” The Opponent finally reacts. “Well, I’m an Atheist.” The Poolshark begins to panic. He clutches his pool cue tightly with both hands. He doesn’t know how to respond. His fear escalates. “Uh, alright,” The Poolshark mumbles. “You don't have to preach about it.” The Poolshark fidgets for a few minutes, and then gets into position. The Poolshark takes his last shot. The cue ball rolls toward the 6-Ball. The cue ball makes contact with the 6-Ball. The 6-Ball moves in the direction of the intended pocket. And then... Well, who the hell knows what happened next? ***** Jeff Musillo is the author of The Ease of Access, which was published by AuthorHouse in December 2013. It is available on hardcover, paperback, and in e-book format, and was published by AuthorHouse in December 2013. The Ease of Access is available for sale on Amazon at the following link: http://goo.gl/yHcLTX To follow Jeff Musillo and The Ease of Access on Facebook, please go to: http://goo.gl/Qr4c2Z ***** Image Credit: istockphoto

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The Friendly Atheist

by Hemant Mehta

Based out of Chicago, Hemant Mehta, author of The Young Atheist’s Survival Guide and the charismatic founder and host of The Friendly Atheist, agreed to talk to us about atheism – from a personal perspective. Hemant started The Friendly Atheist about seven years ago, as part of an experiment that he had personally chosen to undertake: “I had never been to a church service, and it's hard to be a vocal atheist in America when you don't really understand how Christians worship. I wanted that first-hand knowledge. I was open to going to other places of worship, but the eBay ad I put up inviting people to send me to church was won by a Christian – who had the highest bid, of $504 - and that's how this all started. In return, I owed him about fifty church services. He suggested going to ten services at various kinds of churches, as a sort of compromise, which I accepted.” Hemant continued: “So - I visited Christian churches for the first time in my life. I learned that the spectrum of Christians was more diverse than I ever knew. There were liberal Christians! I also learned about the wide variety of church services. They weren’t all boring. Many were like staged productions, and I felt like I was at a concert. Very cool. I can see why some people keep going back for more. Part of that experiment involved blogging about my church-going, and I enjoyed the back-and-forth of blogging. I wanted to keep that going, so I created The Friendly Atheist.” As part of his work for The Friendly Atheist, Hemant creates videos that he posts regularly to YouTube channel, The Atheist Voice: “I make my videos with a local professor who handles the filming and editing. I write the material. We meet about once every week or two. The discussion topics are based on current events, ideas we come up with, or ideas suggested by commenters. So far, the response to The Friendly Atheist has been overwhelmingly positive - with occasional trolls. People appreciate hearing simple, non-confrontational atheist advocacy that they can share with their friends. I hope to bring on additional contributors to my blog soon, and to cover a wider range of topics. I hope it becomes the go-to destination for atheism news and views.” ***** In our interview, Hemant - who openly identifies himself as an atheist - told me that he had a religious upbringing: “I was raised in Jainism. It was not too bad, actually. There were rituals and beliefs I performed that I no longer think had any effect, but I was proud to be a Jain, as any young people would be of their childhood faith. I prayed every night. I had a vegetarian diet. I would recite holy words often. Beyond that, it wasn't too different from my life now. I didn't attend anywhere regularly, but only because there wasn’t a Jain temple near us until I was in high school. By then, I wasn’t religious anymore.” Hemant became an atheist in his freshman year of high school: “I just began questioning religion for the first time in my life, searching for my own answers, and I realized the atheist material I was reading online made a lot of sense. I asked myself questions like ‘How come no one else believed what I believed, if I was so right? Why did my beliefs and Christian beliefs contradict each other?’ I never noticed the differences until then, but once I realized I didn't believe any of it, I quickly became an atheist.” Hemant, who described his worldview as naturalistic, rational, and evidence-based, explained that very few of the people who are close to him are “supportive” of his atheism: “Mostly, we just don’t talk about it because we have other things to discuss. Everyone is accepting of it, though, including my parents. No one I'm close with actively opposes me because of it. I know I’d get very defensive or emotional if I had to debate religion with someone - and with my closest friends, I have so many other reasons to like them and be around them. I know that their religious beliefs, while wrong, aren’t among the most harmful kinds of faith I see, so I’d rather focus on the good instead of argue about the bad.” Hemant doesn’t find it difficult to develop close relationships with individuals who are religious: “I usually like or dislike people for reasons that have little to do with religion. And if I like the person, I’ll get past their religious views.” Hemant acknowledges that it is difficult for atheists to come out to their family and friends, and to society in general: “There are lots of false stereotypes about godless people - that we’re untrustworthy or immoral - and people don’t want to carry that baggage. Sometimes, it seems easier to stay silent. I think if atheists came out, though, it would help change those stereotypes. If you feel safe and comfortable doing it, I think you have an obligation to come out. When people realize their friends and family members are atheists, it’s much harder to think badly of atheists as a whole. It’s easy to demonize what you don't know. I understand why some people choose to remain neutral, but again, if you can come out, you should come out.” ***** After describing the deplorable treatment to which American atheist teenagers Nicole Smalkowski and Jessica Ahlquist had been subjected, Hemant wrote the following in The Young Atheist’s Survival Guide - about the overt and sometimes insidious form of bullying and harassment that atheist teens often face in the United States: “Nicole and Jessica aren’t the only students dealing with problems because of their atheism, and I suspect we’ll hear many more stories like theirs in the coming years as atheism becomes more of a potent force in our society. More atheists will be ostracized, more administrators will try to prevent non-religious students from forming groups, and more religious politicians and organizations will try to push their beliefs onto students in retaliation. Atheists may not always be physically beaten up as many young LGBT students have been, but the social pressure to keep their atheism hidden is very real.” Given the foregoing, it is no wonder that Hemant, who is currently working as a math teacher in a Chicago high school, was inspired to write The Young Atheist’s Survival Guide: “On my website, I had posted so many stories of young atheists overcoming a variety of obstacles and I wanted to share their stories and offer advice on how all of us - parents, teachers, friends, etc. - could help them out.” Hemant told me that he’s received a favorable and encouraging response from his readers: “The feedback to the book has been incredibly positive, from students especially. Mostly, they were thrilled to learn they were not alone and that other atheists have overcome the same obstacles they’re going through now.” For young atheists and their parents, who may be dealing with similar difficulties at school or in society at large, Hemant provides the following advice: “Find a community, whether it’s in person or online. Read as much as you can about atheism and religious beliefs. It’s important to educate yourself as much as possible! And don’t be afraid to have conversations about your beliefs with trusted friends.” ***** Since Hemant is an educator, I asked him about his position regarding religion in schools: “I’m fine with Comparative Religion classes that are taught in an unbiased way. I’m fine with religion taught in the context of history. But beyond that, I don’t think there’s much room for it. I understand why religious groups want to start their own schools, and that’s okay as long as tax dollars don’t pay for it. Unfortunately, many of those schools hire untrained educators, discriminate against LGBT students, and teach bad science, to name just a few of the problems. Evolution is a major component of any science class and must be taught. Science would be incomplete without an understanding of it.” On the issue of atheist schools and atheist assemblies, Hemant had the following to say: “I don’t know how an atheist school would be much different from a good public school. I'm opposed to atheists pushing atheism onto kids, but we ought to be teaching critical thinking everywhere. Sunday Assemblies are fine for people who like those in-person communities, and I support them. I don’t buy the argument that they’re too churchlike. The people who say that clearly have never attended one. It’s especially perfect for people making the transition from Christianity to atheism.” As Hemant is also chair of the board of Foundation Beyond Belief, I asked him to describe the work of the organization: “It’s a charity organization aimed at atheists. We know atheists are good people, but studies have shown that Christians give more to charity. We believe this is because Christians just have a better vessel to give money - through their churches. We just want to provide atheists with a way to give money as a community, and it’s been working fantastically.” For Hemant, atheist advocacy is an important priority in his life: “I support critical thinking and evidence-based reasoning. Those are natural allies of atheism. Atheism is the cold water on people’s delusions. People don’t appreciate that, but I see a lot of value in being the voice of reason. I think we’d live in a better society if people moved away from religion.” Hemant can be contacted at The Friendly Atheist: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ To view Hemant’s videos, please go to: http://www.youtube.com/user/TheAtheistVoice References: Hemant Mehta. The Friendly Atheist’s Survival Guide. Published in 2012. Available for purchase on Amazon: http://goo.gl/kQ88LT ***** Image Credit: Used with Hemant Mehta's permission

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