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!

Monday, June 24, 2013

You're going to hell, kid.

"You're going to hell."

If you are an atheist, then you've most certainly heard this uttered in one way or another. And if you are a Christian or a Muslim, then you've heard or read this put in terms of consequences for "sinful" actions or thoughts, only one of these being disbelief.

Hell (or Jahannam), as it is described in the Bible and in the Qu'ran is pretty serious. In both versions, your entire life is scrutinized, and upon being found less than worthy, you are cast into some pit involving fire. I've burned my fingers on hot dishes and I've been splattered countless times by hot grease, and I know from experience that hot things can be pretty painful, so I can only assume that the sensation of being burned over your entire body, for a longer period of time than I can fathom, would be indescribably miserable. There are many more descriptions of that, but I am pretty sure that the purpose is to lay out the worst possible situation, create a fear response, and then use that fear to keep the sheep from wandering too far astray.

Many people believe that Hell is real, and when they find out that your thoughts and ideas have you on a fast track to the absolute worst thing ever, some of them want to save you. I have to admire their effort and their good intentions, so when people try to talk to me, I choose not to be rude or blunt, but merely conversational. I used to be a believer, and I know how they feel. I'm an adult, and I can conduct myself responsibly, even when I disagree with the person in front of me.
But what about children?

Let's think about that one for a minute. Some kids can hack it. Some kids are master negotiators at the age of five, but some of them aren't. Even the best of them still have yet-developing child brains that tend to soak up everything around them, for better or worse. So, a well-indoctrinated child has very few, if any, doubts that what they have been learning might not be true, or even that it might be oppressive. And these well-indoctrinated children are playing with other kids. Some of them might also be children raised with a religious consideration, but some of them might not. So what do you do when those kids tell yours that they are going to hell?

When my nine-year-old son came home and told me that his friends told him that he was going to hell, he wasn't upset, so much as concerned and confused. These kids are good and they mean well, but they've been brought up in religious households. They have invited my son to church several times, telling him that he gets candy and cookies for reading Bible verses, and he has declined them every time. My son's nickname is "The Cookie Accountant," so don't mistake his motivations. My husband and I even told him that he was free to go, if he wanted to, even if it was just to spend time with his friends and indulge in a few treats. Still, he declined. He said that he just really didn't want to go, and we told him that was okay.

His friends persisted, and he kept telling them every time they asked (a few times a week), that he didn't want to go. Eventually, he had to tell them that he didn't believe in God and that he wasn't a Christian. They had trouble believing that. How could he not believe in God? Doesn't everyone believe in God? God is real. Right?

It wasn't easy for him to come out to his friends, and it was something that he had been agonizing over because he was afraid that they wouldn't want to play with him anymore if they knew that he didn't believe as they did. He asked my husband and I for advice, and we told him that he could come out and take his chances, even though we believed that it would be fine, or that he could avoid that line of questioning, or that he could even blame us, if he wanted to, and say that we didn't want him going to church. We tried to make it his decision, and we didn't want to force something that should come from him, and not from parental pressure.

Upon coming out to his friends, they accepted it easily enough, but then said, "Well, you are going to become a Christian eventually, right?" This question stuck in my mind when my son told me about the encounter. He asked them why they thought he was going to become a Christian, and that is when they said it. "If you don't become a Christian, then you are going know," with index fingers pointing ominously downward. Our son knows what hell is, and he has a basic grasp of the Christian dogma, but this concerned him. I do believe that it would give anyone at least a moment's pause, if someone they cared about declared that something bad would happen to them.

Of course, when I heard about this, the first thing out of my mouth was, "You're not going to hell." But the truth is, I don't know where we are going. I know what happens to the human body after it dies, which is the same thing that happens to every other thing after it dies. But I don't know if there is some kind of lingering sentience, or a soul. I know that there is no quantifiable evidence that something like that exists. However, my knowing or not knowing or believing or not believing won't change the experience.

"But how do you know?," he asked.

"I don't know. Nobody can really be sure because everyone who would know is dead. But let's suppose that God is real for a moment. And he made everything and all of us and he knows everything. Do you really think that God would make some of us, knowing what we would do and how we would think, and then just send us to hell? And not just a few of us, but most of us."
He thought for a moment, concern still showing on his face and then responded with a soft, dubious, "No."

"Well, God is supposed to love everyone unconditionally, right?"


"And God is supposed to be perfect. He never makes mistakes."

"Yeah, if he was real. That is what they say." Internally, I applauded ecstatically at this.

"Well, I am not perfect, and I only have one child. And I love you, no matter what, too. I would love you no matter what you did. I might not be happy about what you did, and I would try to get you to not do it again, but I would never stop loving you, and I certainly wouldn't send you someplace bad or make you suffer forever for doing something bad. I would never do that, no matter what. And If I can love you no matter what, does it really makes sense that a God that is better than me would send you to hell for any reason?"


"You aren't going to hell. Whatever happens, is going to happen to everyone else. That is just what your friends were taught by their parents and in church, and that is because that is what their parents were taught."

"Didn't you and Mark believe in that stuff?"

"Yes, we did. And then we read. And we researched. And we asked questions, and we started thinking for ourselves. And I want you to think for yourself. But I don't want you to worry about going to hell."

"I'm not worried about it anymore."

", do your homework."

It was an emotional conversation for me because I remember feeling those fears and worrying about going to hell. I don't want my son to grow up with irrational fears, and this is one less hurdle for him. Being a secular parent is difficult because you can teach your kids and counsel your kids, but in the end, they are the ones making the decisions. You can't be there every time someone offers them some off-the-wall opinion or statement, and it is scary to think that our child has to wage intellectual warfare and have the same kind of struggles that I do, but without the knowledge that I have. He has never believed, and he doesn't understand what it is like to believe. It is hard for me to explain to him that some people believe that crackers and grape juice literally turn into flesh and blood upon consumption, or that the earth is only a few thousand years old, or that there are evil things lurking among us waiting to take over our bodies or make us do terrible things. How do you tell your son that more people than don't  believe in things that are seemingly more farcical than the bogeyman?

It could be argued that we are indoctrinating our son, too. And I could see how it would look that way to someone on the other side of the argument, but we have science, facts, data, and morality supporting us. So, I take some pride in knowing that my son might make mistakes, but he will be one less man oppressing women simply because religion dictates that they are lesser creatures. And he will be one more human that understands the value of treating others with kindness without the ulterior motive of a plush afterlife. I realize that my son belongs to a small percentage of people that were not indoctrinated by their parents, and I hope to see that percentage increase as our children learn the value of humanism and put all notions of bigotry behind them. Humanity changes one generation at a time, and I believe that my son is definitely one generation better.