Sunday, March 9, 2014

What Did David Silverman Actually Say?

David Silverman, president of American Atheists, has recently been featured in an article on The Raw Story, in which he first asserted that, "Christianity and conservatism are not inextricably linked".

Although it would seem the vast majority of Conservatives are Christian, it is arguable that not all them are, and that some may even be atheists. Silverman confirms that conservative atheists exist and even goes so far as to call himself "fiscally conservative". He also said "that social conservatives are holding down the real conservatives."

Silverman also brought up various social concerns that many Conservatives have, citing theocratic tendencies for those concerns with, perhaps, one exception:

“I will admit there is a secular argument against abortion,” said Silverman. “You can’t deny that it’s there, and it’s maybe not as clean cut as school prayer, right to die, and gay marriage.”

That one quote has sparked quite a bit of unrest in the secular community. I've read several incredibly concerned comments and articles about this quote, and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't concerned, too. However, I have decided to reserve judgment until a clarification has been made.

What Silverman said, exactly, is that "there is a secular argument against abortion". Let's define "secular".

  [sek-yuh-ler]   adjective
1. of or pertaining to worldly things or to things that are not regarded as religious, spiritual, or sacred; temporal: secular interests.            
2. not pertaining to or connected with religion (opposed to sacred ): secular music. 
3. (of education, a school, etc.) concerned with nonreligious subjects.
4. (of members of the clergy) not belonging to a religious order; not bound by monastic vows (opposed to regular ).
5. occurring or celebrated once in an age or century: the secular games of Rome.

Nowhere in this definition is mentioned morality, science, logic, or reason. It is preferable that these things would go hand in hand, but that just isn't always the case. Not all atheists are humanists, and not all atheists are skeptics. It is vastly unfortunate that a trait I thought would really help to separate the wheat from the chaff doesn't quite do the job. There are immoral and bigoted atheists. There are atheists who believe, firmly, in the existence of Big Foot, atheists that don't vaccinate their children, atheists that believe in homeopathy, and even atheist misogynists.

If you really want to understand the secular argument against abortion, feel free to peruse that organization's website. I was pleasantly surprised to see a quasi pro-woman perspective or two when it came to rape and sex education, but they qualify as certifiably misogynistic. They hold that a fertilized egg is a person and worthy of certain rights, namely life. They dismiss the rights of the woman as secondary and claim a moral high ground in defending embryonic and fetal personhood. Being ignorant and/or misogynistic while being secular is very possible, if incredibly sad and infuriating.

I have established that a secular reason against abortion does, in fact, exist. I assert that it is a terrible one fueled by a misguided desire to defend the "helpless" and treat women as second class citizens. It is my hope that Silverman was referencing these reasons as merely existing, and couldn't dismiss all the opponents of abortion as religious because of it. Saying that something is real is not the same as saying that it is good or justified, and I can't, in good conscience, react with condemnation for what he said without some kind of clarification. 

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

A Common Miscarriage

I've certainly taken more than a brief hiatus from writing much over the past few months, and every time I thought to write anything, I kept coming back to the same sore subject. It seemed too personal a thing to write and too full of a sort of hurt I was sure nobody would really understand.

And even when it  happens to other people, nobody talks about it. Not really. It is hushed up and glossed over, and I thought that was how it was supposed to be. My sad story, and many others like it, are common. They are more common than many people realize, and it wasn't until I read of someone else's experiences that I realized it was worth telling.

There is very little comfort to be had when a pregnancy goes awry.

My brother and his wife told the family that they were pregnant exactly two weeks before my husband and I discovered we were pregnant. My entire family was elated, as this would be my brother's first child, and my husband's first child. My mother was over the moon with the idea of having two grandbabies at almost exactly the same time. It was going to be yellow ducks, and tiny socks, bright sunrises, and little people discovering the world in tandem while all the big people watched them. It was going to be just perfect.

I was out of town on business when my brother called me to let me know that they had lost the baby. He was crushed, and I was crushed for him. I felt guilty because I had just announced my own pregnancy, and I felt so much sorrow for him. I realized how common it was, that about twenty percent of pregnancies end in miscarriage, and that it could just as easily have been me. I remember hoping the best for him and his wife, and feeling impotent to do much else.

Two weeks later, I was six weeks along and at my first doctor's appointment with an excited husband, who had taken the day off work to accompany me. I have a ten year old son, and so I had been through this before. However, it felt so very good to be happy about our pregnancy, and so different now, at the age of thirty, instead of being frightened and alone at nineteen. It felt so different and so joyful with someone I trusted there next to me being just as excited as I was. The doctor wasn't able to hear a heartbeat this early, but there was a faint flicker on the ultrasound and a promising little blob. They printed out pictures, and we sent messages to our parents. We basked in the gestational glow of imagined firsts.

Over the next two weeks, I spotted lightly and worried heavily. My morning sickness was coming and going irregularly and I had the looming sense of wrongness that I kept telling myself was in my head. If I could just get through the first trimester, I would be okay. I would travel for work, and friends at conventions would smile at my rotund shape as mine and my husband's hopes grew to fruition. I tried not to dwell on either of these thoughts as I passed through peaks and valleys of optimism and anxiety.

I had another ultrasound to discern a more definite heartbeat when I was eight weeks along, and the morning of my appointment, I discovered a telling black clot when I went to the bathroom. There was a moment of panic before  leaden resolve settled into my stomach. I won't say I didn't hope. I hoped. I went to my appointment alone and I hoped.

The ultrasound confirmed my worry. There was no heartbeat. I tried not to cry and I held out for two and a half seconds before the wave of despair crashed on me as I sit there in my paper gown. The doctor was very comforting, as was the nurse. They let me slip out of the office quietly, and I did. That is how it goes, I guess. Heartbroken mothers-to-be slipping out quietly and crying their many tears in the car. I hadn't yet begun to actually miscarry, but I had another business trip in a little more than a week and couldn't afford to wait, so we scheduled a D&C, and I got down to wrapping my head around what was happening.

My husband came home early. I told him via email because he can't get calls in the office, and he shed his tears in the car, too. I told everyone what had happened via phone and facebook, and then I took to the mommy boards.

For an atheist, it is enraging to read of so many other mothers giving condolences in the form of celestial images of tiny angels and the will of a supposedly loving deity. I can't even begin to describe the anger I felt at reading all of the misbegotten "meant to be". It felt hollow and bitter, like my seemingly blighted uterus. I turned away from the boards online and read sympathy messages on facebook. They were all very well-meaning, and I know that, but I think I learned more about what not to say to a grieving person in those moments than I ever have before.

1. "You'll get pregnant, again."
Will I? And if I do, what then? In the wake of a miscarriage, recalling how hope turns so easily to grief just reminds me that there are no guarantees.

2. A pregnant women suggesting that I'll be just fine.

3. Asking me if there is something medically wrong with me.
Assuring people that my plumbing is probably just fine over and over again to parents, friends, and acquaintances was incredibly strange, especially when people who knew me told me that they regarded me as very "fertile". It made me feel like livestock.

4. Suggesting how long to wait, or not to wait, to try to get pregnant again.
I'm still carrying my dead fetus. Can we just deal with the feelings I am having right now?

5. "At least you know you can get pregnant."
Brilliant. Yes. Proof. Eureka! I feel so much better. Not.
Pointing out the accomplishments of my body, as far as gestation goes, is not going to help, because this pregnancy has just ended in a gut-wrenching failure.

I do understand how it feels to want to say the right thing. I had been consoling my brother over his own loss just weeks before. I know how hard it can be, to want to say something that helps, but unsolicited advice, questions, or generalized statements about what may or may not happen are all hard pills to swallow at a time like this. I don't hold on to any resentment or negativity toward people that unwittingly said something that stung at a hard time. I just want us all to get better, together.

I waited for the day of my D&C, lamenting the loss of this pregnancy and reliving all of the hopes I had. The day of my procedure, I unabashedly asked for all of the drugs, which helped take the edge off both before and after the procedure. I even asked my doctor for a small supply of anti-anxiety medicine to help me get through the next week or two at the insistence of my husband, who knows my dysfunction as well as I do and is less embarrassed of it.

I awoke to the sound of my very rad anesthesiologist talking to the nurse about video games, and in my semi-lucid state I was sure it was Skyrim because he mentioned dragons.  I went with it and blurted out something regarding the ineffectiveness of boob armor and babbled on as the nurse fetched my husband. It wasn't a bad day, actually, thanks largely to the pre-op relaxation drug they gave me. The hubby ushered me to the pharmacy, where I complimented every single person I saw on one article of clothing or another, and then home. Nestled into a nest of blankets on the couch, I napped into reality.

The next two days were agony, but not emotional agony. I had months for that. There was some kind of complication involving my pain meds. It seemed like my entire G.I. tract was swelling and roiling about inside of me while my uterus began to contract painfully back down to normal. After the second day, I could no longer stand it and went back to see the doctor, who prescribed something different and gave me some antibiotics. I don't know what did it, but I felt better the next day and improved well enough over the next week to make my convention.

The months that followed were very hard for me. When you are pregnant, and then become not pregnant, hormones dropping can cause feelings of deep melancholy, also known as baby blues or postpartum depression. When you have a baby, nursing and even just proximity to your baby releases calming hormones. I remember holding Johnny when he was little, and even in the whirlwind clusterfuck that was my life way back when, I felt so happy. There was no biological solace to be had, this time.

The depression settled in for the Fall and stayed for the holidays, and I coped well enough. Every day, waiting to stop bleeding, and then waiting for my cycle to start back up again, I was reminded that my body could malfunction at any time. I thought, if I could just get pregnant again, I would feel better. And we tried. We tried through two erratic and untimely cycles. All those empty consolations rang in my ears and the depression sat in anew when my period came early and then late. My rhythm was off. I was living in a body that was a wretched reminder of failure.

The holidays came, and I was reminded again. My beloved bump was absent amidst all of the people that had been so happy about the possibility. We went out of town and visited my husband's family. I greeted one of his sisters, swollen with her own baby and due in just a few months, and knocked back all the beer I had insisted we bring as small children stampeded about and a new baby fussed and cooed. It should have been happy, but it was agonizing, and I felt guilty for being miserable while in the company of people I love and seldom see. I cried all the way back to where we were staying, glad that my son was passed out in the back seat. It was an hour long ride, and when we got back, I slipped quietly into the house, like I had slipped quietly out of the OB's office a few months before.

That had been the beginning of the end of the worst of it, but the worst of it had lasted months, and in that time, I often wondered about other moms. I couldn't bring myself to look online for fear of seeing further invocations of a silly god. I thought, maybe, I was just more sad, for some reason. Not only was my fetus gone, but perhaps a piece of my sanity was gone with it, and other moms bore this sorrow more gracefully than I. It is most certainly a sad topic, and yet so common that I think it isn't discussed because it could happen to literally anyone, and nobody wants to be reminded that luck is a fickle mistress. So many of us, living in developed nations, are partial to our bliss and our ignorance.

After the holidays were over, after I had faced my entire family and many of my friends empty and sullen, the dire urgency to become pregnant again dissipated, and I was able to enjoy my life without counting down the days to the beginning of my next cycle. I took up hunting deer, having practiced with my bow while we were out of town, shifting my aspiration from one of creating life to one of taking it. Sitting out in the snow covered woods allowed me to clear my head and fully process my thoughts without an emotional filter. Silent and still, the forest forgot I was there, and I felt myself becoming smaller and smaller until my sadness became a trivial thing in a beautiful place where creatures ate other creatures to survive.

It is still like that, now. I read the news and see people being forced out of their homes by flooding and violence. Small tasks and large goals take up my time. My son is almost as tall as I am and he loves me, even before I've had my coffee. I realize how lucky I am, and at the same time, I can remember when my luck ran dry. All the well wishes in the world aren't enough to defy biology. I wish I could say that I'm not sad about it, anymore, but I don't think this is a sadness that goes away, and it is odd to me that so many other women might also carry this sadness and never really speak of it.

The irony of having an uncomplicated unintended pregnancy and losing an intended one is not lost on me. The catch twenty-two of having babies young, when your body can best hold them, and having them when you are older and more stable is also not lost on me. Being a mother is a beautiful, terrible experience, but so is living, and I wouldn't change either of those things. I'm hoping that I am able to become pregnant again, but I know anything and nothing is possible, and that even if it does happen, that it will never be the same. I will always worry just a little bit more because I know that life isn't a promise at all. It is a chance.

It is a chance that I will have to take. 

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Decomposition of Humanity in an Urban Neighborhood

My family lives in a low income housing neighborhood. Some of the houses on our street are rented, and some of them are owned. We own our house. My husband purchased it when he was single, the housing market took a dump, and here we are. This isn't where we will be forever, but it is where we live for now, and living here has given me a unique perspective on racial and socioeconomic stereotypes, the reality of crime in low income areas, and how it feels to be "othered". My family isn't better than any of the other families, but it is different. My neighborhood is mostly black, and I know of only a few families that aren't black among easily a hundred of other families. We are the minority, here, and the experience has been eye-opening.

There are townhouses and apartment complexes. There are playgrounds and basketball courts. There are good neighbors and not so good neighbors. I am immensely thankful for the good neighbors, and find myself still thankful that the bad neighbors and/or their visitors aren't as bad as they could be. My family and I have everything we need and plenty of what we want. We work hard, but our compensation is fair. Many of my neighbors don't have enough of what they need or want. Some of them work harder than we do and have less. What has been made abundantly clear to me is that life isn't fair, and that people generally try to do the best that they can, even if that best seems extremely wanting to someone as privileged as me.

I understand that privilege, and though I may become angry when my son or I is spoken to rudely, I still try to be patient. I am responsible for being a good neighbor, no matter what other people may say or do. I am responsible for being mindful of my chances in life and how very good they have been. I it is my duty, as a human, to use my privilege to try to make my neighborhood better and to try to be patient, tolerant, and kind. I have to tell myself that every day. And on one very, very bad day and the weeks to follow, I learned just how important that patience really is.

Mark and I were one week out from having taken our nuptials in his home state of Michigan. Our house was still littered with boxes from the wedding, boxes from my parents' house, and in general disarray from a week of neglect. There was dust and dog fur covering everything. It was a Saturday, and we needed to go see my parents to collect up the rest of our wedding stuff, as well as liking the idea of just being able to spend some quiet time with them. Hurricane Sandy was on its way up the coast, and it was a little windy, but other than that, we didn't see any reason not to make the 75 minute trip to Annapolis. After giving our german shepherd a good scratch behind the ears, Mark, Johnny, and I hopped into the car, and off we went.

We went out to an early dinner, read our wedding cards, and reminisced about what we thought was the best decision either of us had ever made. Mom and Dad were happy and Dad's jokes were spot-on. On our way home, we laughed and listened to music. I told Mark that we should take Roscoe, our german shepherd, for a walk. Pulling up into our driveway, all seemed right with the world. One of our neighbors walked out of her front door and waved at us. She seemed a little distressed, and I thought she was going to talk to us about the coming storm. The wind had kicked up a bit by this time and I wasn't sure what to expect with all the hype that the hurricane was getting on the news. The three of us got out of the car and approached her.

" lord...this is so hard."

I had no idea what she could have possibly been talking about, but she could be a little over the top sometimes, so I thought she might still be on about the storm.

"They shot Roscoe." Mark and I blinked, unable to take in what she had just told us.

"What?", Mark asked, incredulous. I could feel my heart beat faster, the lump rising up in my throat as I hoped that she meant anything but what she just said.

"The police. They shot him. Right there." She pointed to a rusty splatter on the road behind our driveway that we hadn't noticed until this moment. "He shot him right there in the street."  

"Is he...", Mark trailed off for a moment, and I felt the shape of my nine-year old filling my arms. I gulped back the gelatinous mass of emotion rising from my gut.

"Is he dead?", Mark finished, somewhat matter-of-factly, his face seemingly made of stone as he looked to our now quivering neighbor.

"Yeah...he's dead. They took him away. It just happened this morning."

There it was. We didn't understand how it happened, but the local police shot and killed our dog. Roscoe wasn't just our dog. He was our friend and our guardian. He scared some of the neighbors and barked at anyone that walked in front of our house, but the neighborhood was a little rough, anyway, and he made us feel safe. He never hurt anyone, and he was nothing but loving to his family and people that approached him with a friendly demeanor. Our good neighbors knew him and appreciated him for the steadfast companion that he was. He was a good dog.

Johnny had his head buried in my chest and was sobbing. It was all I could do to not utterly lose my own composure.

"I'm so sorry," our neighbor said. "I saw him. He ran back in the house after. He lay right there on your couch. I looked in and I saw him. I said good-bye to him and I blew him a kiss. Poor baby..."

She looked down at Johnny who was trembling as I rubbed his back and soaking my shirt in his tears, then to me, then to Mark. We were speechless.

"I had to take a xanax, after. It was so terrible," she continued. The silence wasn't just awkward, it was painful.

"I wonder how he could have gotten out," Mark mused quietly.

Mark and I decided to go into the house and try to figure out what happened in the midst of our despair, neither of us showing much emotion at the moment. Our neighbor asked if Johnny would like to stay with her while we called the police and examined our entryways. She had a son a little older than Johnny, and he was watching cartoons. Johnny reluctantly parted from me and was soon distracted by Spongebob Squarepants.

We checked the downstairs windows from the outside and found them to be secure. Upon opening the front door, we found that it didn't require a key. It swung open easily. We didn't even need to turn the knob. A gentle push revealed a scene from something out of a nightmare.

The first thing we noticed was the blood. There was so much of it, everywhere. Our couch was covered in it, with one large, dark, ominous spot spreading out from where we knew Roscoe liked to lay the most. The dining room floor, by the sliding glass door in the back of the house was also covered. A dark, dried up crimson pool spread out from under the table like a rug, and there were tracks of it everywhere.

I finally let go and heaved a sob. Mark and I stood in our house, having been married only a week before, and beheld the wreckage. Not only was there blood everywhere, but the general disarray that existed previously had been overturned into complete chaos. Our boxes looked like they had been pushed around, and some of our electronics were missing. We went upstairs and found the rest of our house thusly ransacked with more items missing, including Mark's handgun.

Johnny stayed with his dad for a few nights, and Mark and I stayed with a friend. In the previous void that were our emotions, we spent the night inundated and consumed with grief, fear, betrayal, anger and just flat out empty sadness. Hurricane Sandy sideswiped us as we cried and lay sleepless, moving north and wreaking havoc on the Atlantic coast while we attempted to make sense of it all. In our own little bubble of personal tragedy, we weren't thinking much of the thousands that would be experiencing their own at the hands of something even more vicious than human misunderstandings and disparity.

We spoke to the police that day and the next. Roscoe was out of the house not long after we left, and one of the neighbors had called to complain about the scary dog running loose. We still aren't exactly sure what happened. We think that we must have forgotten to close the door completely and then the wind blew it open. Once our noble defender was out of the picture, or maybe before, while he was joy-riding around the neighborhood, our door was wide open, and the theft was a crime of opportunity. We will never know for certain, but we are still faced with the fact that someone living close to use stole our belongings, including a dangerous handgun, and our local police misunderstood the excited or perhaps even agitated barking of our dog as an attack. 

It would be enough to make anyone bitter, and we were. It frightened us. We were terrified by the fact that a powerful weapon designed to kill was in the hands of someone that probably didn't respect it. We were angered by the fact that our house was intruded upon in broad daylight and that the police ignored the pleas of our neighbors to not shoot our dog. But, we didn't take to the streets with a gun and shake down any suspicious people that we happened upon, and we didn't launch a media attack against the police, either.

We did take the streets, however. We talked to everyone. We let everyone know what happened, and that we knew that whoever had our gun lived in this neighborhood. I talked to parents at the bus stop. I stopped and talked to gathered groups of people on the sidewalk. I told everyone that I saw.

Mark and I cleaned up the house, and we started to get our lives back to normal. We were still grieved by the loss of our dog, but we started looking to rescue another one. We filled our home back up with love and with laughter. Not even a week after the incident, Mark was leaving for work and found one of our Playstation units set very nicely between our cars in the driveway. Apparently, someone that we spoke to must have seen something. The gun hasn't turned up, yet, and the sound of a dozen odd gunshots rang out through the night air that month at various times. But, there were no injuries reported. I know, because I started attending monthly neighborhood crime meetings. I made sure the police knew my face.

I am wary of some of the people in my neighborhood. More specifically, I am wary of the ones that I don't personally know. I am wary of the man on the sidewalk that won't look me in the eye when I smile and wave at him on a morning walk. I am cautious. But, I still smile, and I still wave. I still hope for the best, and when someone looks like they are hiding something, I give them a wide berth. I have my local police phone number saved in my cell phone, and when I see something that I believe warrants attention, I call them. Even when I become angry by the memory of how impotent and afraid I felt after finding my home bloodied and violated, I don't turn to vigilante justice. I turn to my neighbors and my community. I use my voice, and I make sure that I am heard by everyone, and I encourage them to use their voices, too.

Terrible things happen to people every day in neighborhoods just like mine, and people lose more than their family pets and their belongings. They lose their humanity. They are brought up in circumstances outside of their control, and they become stereotypes and statistics for other people to shake their head at.

It just may have been a boy in a hoodie that reclaimed some small piece of our property and saw it safely back to us. It may have been a boy in a hoodie that stood up for us in private to a group of scared young kids. It might have happened that way. I'll never know for sure. But I do know that talking to that boy in a hoodie, to that suspicious character, has served to shed more light on his true nature than pointing fingers at him.
A boy in a hoodie isn't going to bite you for saying hello. The kids in this neighborhood are just kids, and they are still human, and still worth reaching out to. The people here are not their disadvantages or their crimes or social transgressions, and nothing is going to get better until the people that can do better reach into these communities with both hands. My neighborhood needs good examples, mentors, and acceptance. They've been pushed into a dark corner of town and left to their own devices, separated from the good, upstanding citizens who sneer at their baggy pants.

And why would anyone want to be a part of something that looks down on them? Why wouldn't they grow to resent the people that would judge and ignore them? It is time for that to change. It is passed time. It is time for those of us with more resources, power, and education to be among them, instead of above them. It is time for us to know them, as fellow humans, and to stop treating their setbacks as symptoms of their deviancy and start treating their setbacks as a symptom of our own apathy. 

Thursday, July 18, 2013

11 Reasons Why Atheists Love Their Pets

I love my pets, and I feel a very definite need to have at least one animal in my house. Currently, I have one cat, two large dogs, and one fish, and I very much enjoy the presence of them all. Each one has something different to offer and each one has different requirements for proper care. My house is never completely clean, and I am still wondering how to tackle all of the chewed furniture, wall molding, and window sills. I have replaced several items in my house because of one or more animal chewing, clawing, or defecating on them. I accidentally ingest fur regularly, and I have to take an allergy pill every day or my face swells up like a balloon. And yet, I wouldn't give them up.

It seems that many people in the secular community share my love of animals, so I compiled a list of reasons why atheists, in particular, love their furry, scaly, feathery, creepy, crawly companions.

1. Animals will never, ever tell you that you are going to hell.
The complete lack of judgment makes their company instantly appealing. You can work on your Muhammad portraits while eating Doritos, watching porn, and lighting your workspace with six hundred and sixty six burning Bibles. Fido doesn't care.

2. Animals are atheists, too!
They don't need forgiveness and hate fasting. Naps are a completely appropriate replacement for prayer.

3. We like having live-in reminders of evolution.
Isn't it interesting how much paws look like hands and fins look like wings? And why is it that fish and reptiles are cold-blooded and have scales? Why does the parakeet look more like a tyrannosaurus than my boa constrictor? In daily observations of our animals, we can see just how much we have in common with them and how much in common they may have with each other.

4. Interacting with animals improves our communication skills and conflict resolution.
You can't just politely ask your cat to stop swatting everything off of your dresser. You have to understand the creatures you live with and play by their rules to achieve the desired result. "Bad" behaviors and "good" behaviors are sometimes innate and sometimes require tenacity, patience, and acceptance. Pets remind us that the world doesn't work on our terms, and sometimes, we have to become creative with our solutions.

5. Every day is full of surprises.
You never know what you are going to see, hear, or smell, and you never know if it is going to be adorable or catastrophic, or a sadistic twist of the two, like finding your german shepherd and kitten curled up together in a bed of shredded upholstery.

6. Sharing a living space with animals allows us to demonstrate a blatant disregard for superstitions.
There is an actual belief that black dogs and black cats are somehow related to witches and vampires, as well as the well-known ability of cats to suck the breath from babies. And then, of course, keeping snakes is rather dangerous. They are full of terrible suggestions, I'm told, and very persuasive.

7. We want to help care for our fellow earthlings.
The exchange of trust and companionship makes all the work worthwhile. Forming relationships with animals other than humans and expecting nothing in exchange aside from the pleasure of their company is rewarding.

8. Communing with your animals makes more sense than communing with an invisible entity.
Prayers or pettings? Both have been shown to help with stress, but atheists prefer something more tangible. Petting our dogs, cats, snakes, squirrels, ducks, turtles, or whatever else we may have is one of the ways we relax and recover.

9. They ward off unwanted visitors.
Jehovah's witness knocking at your door? If you don't have a dog to bark at them, then perhaps you and your pet scorpion, Stabby, could hazard a greeting.

10. Love from pets is absolutely and completely unconditional.
They don't love you as long as you follow a list of rules, or as long as you pet them five times a day while facing toward their food bowl. Affection from a pet is genuine and completely free of pretense or obligation.

11. Enthusiasm for our pets helps us to connect to the rest of the non-secular world.
Who doesn't love kittens and puppies? No matter who you are or what you believe, the good and well-intended people of the world are easily identified as ones who care for those who cannot care for themselves, including animals.  

Photo credit for scorpion:

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Disagreements: Being Wrong and Wretched

"Opinion: a view, judgment, or appraisal formed in the mind about a particular matter" - Mirriam-Webster Dictionary

Everyone has opinions. Frequently, one person's opinions differ from another person's opinions. Differing opinions regarding one's own preferences are natural and those differences contribute to the variety and spontaneity of life. I prefer red delicious apples, and my husband prefers gala apples. I have a compelling argument as to why I have such a preference, but the qualities that I find important and appealing may not be the same as the qualities my husband prefers. However, our disagreement on which apple is best doesn't result in either of us not getting what we would like. It just means that our fruit selection varies more than if we were to agree.

Some opinions apply to situations where not everyone will be able to get what they want. This happens with group events such as going to the movies, planning wedding menus, agreeing on a radio station on a road trip, and even things as serious as legislation. I can deal with having to listen to music I might not like, eating food that isn't my favorite, and seeing a movie that I might find less entertaining than another, but when opinion shapes legislation, I might be left with options that strip me of rights and resources. When having an opinion about what other people should or shouldn't be doing with their own resources and their own bodies is met with action, you should expect scrutiny.

"The greatest deception men suffer is from their own opinions." - Leonardo da Vinci

The more serious your opinion, the more anger or frustration you may feel at having your opinion challenged. You might also feel anger and frustration if, when trying to summon up a good reason for holding your opinion, you are reduced to shouting, huffing, eye-rolling, and other non-verbal behavior that signal your deteriorating emotional state to the other party. You may not have considered before that you could be wrong, and this possibility can be extremely troubling. You are good person, and you like to think that you do things for good reasons. At this point, you either have to insist that you are correct while attempting to skirt the issues of reason and evidence, scare off the offending questioner with threats or posturing, or concede that you may be wrong and wither away into a puddle of wrongness under some moldy rock amidst the muck and mire of the dregs of society.

"Opinion is the medium between knowledge and ignorance." - Plato

Everyone has been wrong, even overtly wrong in front of other people. It can be anything from mildly embarrassing to utterly crushing. But, realizing that you may be wrong is a profound state of mind, because it allows you to change. I am not saying that, just because someone disagrees with you, that you are wrong. But, I am saying that, if someone disagrees with you, listening to what they have to say and talking to them is important. Why do you think that way you do? Consider your own motivations and the points that the other person is making. What is important to them, and what is important to you, and why?

"Too often, we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought."  -John F. Kennedy

Frequently, opinions are formed out of an emotional impetus and maintained because we choose to see what supports our opinions and ignore what challenges them. One bad or good experience causes generalizations to be made that shape our perception of our environment. Additionally, people tend to choose company that share their opinions because it is easier to agree and remain amicable. Disagreeing with someone that you like can be uncomfortable, and even if two people may disagree about something, they might mutually decide to never discuss it by avoiding the issue. However, if nobody ever discussed their opinions, society would become static, dull, and unproductive.

Disagreements combined with mutual respect are important. Discussing important issues like politics and religion are important. Disagreements about religion and politics are unavoidable and have great potential for deepening understanding of each other as well as improving the standards by which we live as a society, so don't shy away from conflict. Temper it with patience and see what new ideas arise from not keeping your opinions to yourself. 

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Breast Cancer and Anti-Choicers

Currently Texas, Ohio, and North Carolina are in the process of passing abortion legislation to limit women's access to safe and legal abortions, citing safety for women as one of the reasons. One of the risks that anti-choice advocates speak of frequently and that Crisis Pregnancy Centers tell the women that visit them for guidance, is that abortion greatly increases the risk for breast cancer.
Less than one minute on google will tell you that this is false.
  • The American Cancer Society: "Linking these topics creates a great deal of emotion and debate. But scientific research studies have not found a cause-and-effect relationship between abortion and breast cancer."
  • National Cancer Institute: "They concluded that having an abortion or miscarriage does not increase a woman’s subsequent risk of developing breast cancer."
  • Wikipedia: "The abortion–breast cancer hypothesis has been the subject of extensive scientific inquiry, and the scientific community has concluded that abortion does not cause breast cancer."
Why, then, do those that oppose abortion make this claim? As much as I adamantly disagree with anti-choicers, it is hard for me to think that they just made this up. I decided to look into their reasoning for these claims.

Articles in The New AmericanThe Christian Post, and reference a Danish study that analyzes the relationship between reproductive history and long term mortality rates. I put together a graph of the study's findings to make the observed relationship between certain reproductive history and mortality rates a little easier to see:

While there is a marginally higher risk to women having had abortions than women with natural miscarriages, the greatest risk by far is to women that had never been pregnant. The conclusion of the study was that more study was needed, but the anti-choicers seem to have latched onto this and taken the information out of context. If the entire study is to be considered, then it would be reasonable for people concerned about breast cancer to advocate for pregnancy, since that seems to cut the risk significantly. In fact, the more pregnancies you have, the more your risk is reduced, with a very young start giving the best protection. So, following that line of thinking, those advocating against abortion with the argument of it causing breast cancer should be advocating for teen pregnancy.

That point is made clearly in a Biomed Central article that asserts, "In humans, having a child before the age of 20 decreases risk of breast cancer by half."

The relationship between abortion and breast cancer has nothing to do with the actual procedure of abortion, but it does relate to a lack of pregnancy. The reason why pregnancy drastically reduces the risk of breast cancer is related to a woman's menstrual cycle and the hormones created during this process. Simply put, the more menstrual cycles a woman has, the greater her risk of developing breast cancer. And because there is no menstrual cycle during pregnancy, it causes that risk to decrease. So, having an abortion doesn't increase your risk of having breast cancer, but not having full term pregnancies does.

But is that a good reason to not have an abortion? What are the perks of pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood, and what are the cons? These are questions that need honest answers, not scare tactics and partial information. The breast cancer/abortion relationship is only one such falsehood that anti-choicers use to support their platform. 

Thursday, June 27, 2013

On Love and Cake

Love is a many splendored thing.

Love lifts us up where we belong.

All you need is love.

Love is the mysterious driving force responsible for the very best of what we are. It is the delightful cocktail of chemicals and hormones that our own bodies create as a response to another human. Love is the perfect, organic, specifically contrived emotion usually associated with our own personal lifetime superlatives. Without it, without those fantastically inspirational highs and lows, the way that we view the world would be bland, and unexcitingly monotone. Without love, there would certainly be no cake.

When I mention "cake", I am not talking about some homogenized mass of partially plant-based nutrition held together by gluten and starch. I am talking about decadence. I am talking about something so delicious and so lovely that it is inherently special. I am talking about something that takes attention to detail and devotion  to create. Cake is what happens when we surpass mere survival. Cake is important, and people that love each other, whether it be romantic love between two people, familial love, or neighborly love, eat cake in celebration of happy togetherness.

Why all this love and cake business? Well, DOMA has been struck down, and that got me thinking quite a bit about both of those things. Of course, whether or not someone can have their loved one's health benefits doesn't usually dissuade love from occurring, but it makes the road a lot bumpier, and it makes things like cake difficult to come by.

Love endures hardships, and even makes them easier to bear. And many will suffer hardship for the survival of love to the extent of sacrificing themselves for the object of their affection. Many have endured hardships such as these because their governments have made their love illegal, and even punishable by death. Some governments don't go quite that far, but determine the validity of one person's love for another by definition of gender.

It baffles me that this could be so. I don't understand why the very thing that makes us the happiest would be persecuted. Love is this beautiful, mutual release of chemicals in our brains that makes us euphoric, and doesn't it make sense that happy people are going to be more cooperative and commit less crimes? Additionally, doesn't it make sense that depriving people of what makes them happy would provoke them and make them less cooperative? Why wouldn't the government want us happy?

Everyone deserves to be happy. Not just content, but happy. Bliss should occur from time to time in everyone's lives, and so should cake. Even if your "cake" is pie, or cookies, or wine, there should be some mutual frivolity in the observance of joyous events. Love is beautiful and wonderful and good by itself, but love should be enjoyed, not just endured.

I am a very lucky person. I am lucky that the person I fell in love with and wanted to marry is a man, and that I am a woman, and that it complies with social norms, and that my love for my husband is celebrated and recognized. I wish everyone could be as lucky in, not only finding someone special, but in celebrating that. And when it was announced that the Supreme Court overturned the Defense of Marriage Act, I knew we were one step closer to everyone being able to eat cake.

Brief (haha) tutorial on how to make this Rainbow Sprinkle Cake:
Approximate time to prepare: 3.5 hours 

1. For the cake batter, and the frosting, I used the recipe here:
You can alter the flavorings a little, if you like. I added some lemon to the frosting. The amounts in this recipe are perfect. You will have just enough of everything. Follow the instructions and method the way she says. It seems like a lot of work, but trust me, it is worth every minute. Rosie is my cake goddess, and I do not deviate from her cake dogma.

2. Divide the cake batter up into 6 even amounts. There should be about 1 cup of cake batter in each bowl. Use gel food dye to color the cake batter red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple. You should be able to find gel food color in the grocery store. It won't change the consistency of the cake the way that liquid dye would.

3. Grease and flour two 8" cake pans. I only have two. If you have more, go ahead and grease and flour them, too. Spoon the colored batter into a cake pan. One pan per color. Be sure to drop your cake pans a dozen times or more on a flat surface. Just hold the pan with batter level about six inches above your surface and drop it evenly. I put a dish towel on the counter to make it a little less noisy. I baked each layer side by side in the oven for 14 minutes at 350 F.

4. When each layer is done baking, cool for about 15 minutes and turn out of pan. Wrap the layers in plastic wrap and set aside until all of your layers are ready. This will keep them from drying out.

5. Whip up your frosting!

6. Starting with the purple layer, frost with about six tablespoons of frosting, and add the next layer. Colors from top to bottom should be: purple, blue, green, yellow, orange, red. Repeat until all of your layers have been applied. Frost the sides with a "crumb layer". This is a thin layer of frosting that fills in the sides and seals in the crumbs. Frost the top of the cake with a thin crumb layer, as well. Put the cake in the refrigerator for about 15 minutes to firm up the frosting.

7. After refrigeration, take out the cake and apply most of the remaining frosting. Set aside about half a cup of frosting for piping the top, if you like. Put the cake back in the refrigerator for about 5 minutes. You don't want the frosting too firm, because you need the sprinkles to stick.

8. Sprinkles! I combined rainbow sprinkles, rainbow non-pareils, and rainbow sugar stars in a bowl. You can use whatever sprinkles you like.

9. Take the cake out of the refrigerator and prepare for sprinkles to get into places where you might not normally find them. I grabbed a handful and pressed them against the sides of the cake, cupping my palm around the sprinkles and starting at the bottom. Work your way over the sides of the cake. Sprinkles will probably go everywhere. I am still finding them places in my kitchen. Take precautions, if you like. I wish you luck.

10. Pipe a border on the top edge of the cake. I used a star tip, but you can do whatever you like. After that, apply more sprinkles to the top of the cake. Put the cake back in the refrigerator for at least ten minutes before cutting to firm up the frosting and allow the sprinkles to adhere.

11. Show off (and dish out) your masterpiece!