Politics, Religion, World

Pushing an atheist agenda

By definition, I am technically an agnostic. I don’t believe in god or ghosts or spirits or an afterlife, but I cannot say with complete certainty that any of those things do not exist. It’s a big world, and a bigger universe, and the older and wiser that I get, the more stupider I realize that I am.

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That said, there are some things that I am pretty sure about. I’m pretty sure that some dude named Noah did not build a boat to save the world’s animal kingdom from drowning. I’m pretty sure that the reward for detonating a bomb in a crowded marketplace is not an eternal blowjob from 72 virgins. I’m pretty sure that gay people are not walking abominations. And I’m pretty sure that every organized religion in the world that makes supernatural claims about the origins of our universe is wrong.

That doesn’t mean that I know what the origins of the universe are, but you don’t have to always know the correct answer to a question to know an incorrect answer when you hear one. Author and thinker Sam Harris has made the analogy that, while we can never know what John F. Kennedy was thinking in the moments before his assassination, we can still know some things that he was certainly not thinking—like, for example, if Donald Trump would make a good 45th president or whether or not more than 12 people would read this blog post. Likewise, even though I cannot be sure that there is no god, I still feel pretty confident that the Christian God does not exist.

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This is what makes me an atheist. Even though I can’t explain the mysteries of the universe, I don’t think that religion can either. What is more, even though I don’t know whether or not there is a god, I definitely don’t believe that there is one. Agnosticism is about knowledge, or in this case, lack thereof, but atheism is about belief. And when it comes to what I believe about the universe, it’s that it is all just one big, random accident.

There is another belief that I hold about religion: It’s bad. It’s bad not only because of the wars and the hate and the human rights abuses that it inspires, but because of the millions of nice, peaceful people to whom it promises a better life on the other side—a promise that I believe goes unfulfilled. This promise can lead people into a middling existence, never fully taking advantage of or appreciating their brief moment in the sun due to their belief that they will live under a brighter one in the next life.

Because I subscribe to the belief that religion is cumulatively bad, and that the world would be better with less of it, I also subscribe to a certain amount of the philosophy known as “militant atheism.” Militant atheists don’t believe in god, and they don’t think that others should either.   That may sound elitist (because it is), but if you put yourself in the mindset of someone who truly believes that religion causes massive amounts of unnecessary pain and suffering (which militant atheists do), it would be hard to argue that they should not push an agenda that they feel could help to reduce that unnecessary pain and suffering.

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What is more, militant atheism, as I understand it, is not so much about “converting” the religiously devout as it is about inspiring other non-believers and skeptics to speak out against religion’s more harmful effects. I know a lot of smart people who shy away from the “atheist” label because of the arrogance and pretension that it is often associated with. But while their humility is admirable, it could also be argued that this silence is part of the reason why atheists have had so much trouble in pushing their agenda. In the United States, even though non-religious people make up more than 20% of the population, lack of religious faith is still one of the biggest hurdles to holding public office, as evidenced by the huge lack of representation of openly non-religious people in the United States Congress—1 out of 535 to be exact.

However, in pushing our atheist agenda, militant atheists like myself often exhibit one major flaw—we are enormous douchebags. Our arrogance is unbearable, our presumed certainty, laughable, and the condescension with which we treat the “unenlightened” makes our supposedly benevolent intentions far less than apparent. This perception of atheists, whether deserved or not, obviously has an adverse effect on our ability to push our agenda, in many cases making the intended audience more hostile to our ideas than they otherwise would be.

And this is where us atheists need to do some introspection. If the goal of atheism, militant or otherwise, is truly to make the world a better place, than we need to start behaving like it. Treating religious people like shit is hardly making the world better. If anything, it’s doing the opposite, contributing to the pain and suffering that militant atheists are purportedly against. It also contributes to the extraordinarily harmful divisiveness that currently plagues American society, and once again, exacerbates a problem that atheists are supposed to be trying to solve.

This doesn’t mean that atheists shouldn’t push their views. While the goal should not be to antagonize, the job necessitates some feather ruffling, and no matter how humbly or respectfully one goes about articulating the atheistic worldview, some people will still get offended.   But what atheists cannot do is resort to the mean-spirited mockery that dominates so many online message boards. Atheists must keep in sight what motivates their militancy in the first place—a steadfast commitment to peace, coexistence, and human happiness—and realize that many-to-most religious people share that commitment too.

The devoutly religious Martin Luther King once said that, “Peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal.”   I think that atheists would be wise to emulate those words in their own advocacy. If a better world is truly our commitment, than we should behave like the people that we imagine that better world to be made of. If we cannot do that, than we are no less fraudulent than the outdated dogma that we seek to disprove and dispel.

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Politics, Religion, USA

Thinking Through Orlando

Another day, another mass shooting in the United States of America. That makes 176 and counting for this calendar year depending on who you ask. And even though this one is statistically the biggest, it feels the same. The conversations sound the same. The venue is different, as are the names and faces, but other than that, same.

I’m not sure that I have any answers. I’m not sure about anything. There’s a lot to think about, and this blog is my way of doing that. In some cases, we write not to say what we think, but to think. Hopefully by writing this, I’ll begin to figure out what the hell that it is.

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One of the most salient factors of this particular shooting is the Islamic one. The fact that the Orlando shooter is a Muslim makes this shooting a different animal, even if it shouldn’t. Our political leaders have exemplified the polarization on this issue via their polar opposite reactions. On one end, Donald Trump has renewed his call for a ban on all Muslims seeking entry into the country, whereas on the other Barack Obama has once again refused to even use the words “radical Islam” in describing the attack.

In no way do I sympathize with the sentiments of Donald Trump and other piece of shit Republicans whose animosity towards gays is only temporarily being overshadowed by their even stronger hatred of Muslims, but that doesn’t mean that I agree with Barack Obama either. I understand Obama’s rationale—anti-Islamic rhetoric is exactly what groups like ISIS want. Be it real or perceived, an American “war on Islam” plays right into the Islamic State’s playbook. It would alienate much needed Muslim allies at home and abroad, and in some cases, drive them straight into enemy hands.

What is more, American obsession with combatting the Islamic boogeyman can also create a self-fulfilling prophecy within American Muslims. As in other faiths here in the United States, many Muslims do not see their religion as a salient part of their identities. They identify as Muslim, but other than that, are not overtly religious people. However, when societal voices regularly emphasize the Islamic elements of their identity, especially through sweeping generalizations and/or discriminatory treatment, salience is exactly what their religion gains. In other words, you’re going to be a lot more aware of your own Muslimness if people are constantly reminding you of how Muslim you are.

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That being said, I think that ignoring the role of religion in this attack and others is a mistake. You do not have to be radicalized in order to subscribe to the homophobia inherent in the Islamic religion. In this case, it’s possible that the hatred that shooter Omar Mateen was feeling towards the LGBTQ community was also hatred for himself. Speculation that Mateen may have been gay could help to explain the enormous animosity that he felt towards that group, and as the Catholic Church has demonstrated, it wouldn’t be the first time that religious-based repression of one’s sexual identity led to unspeakable acts.

And while reminders of the violence and hatred also inherent within Christianity are warranted and sometimes necessary, I get a little tired of the liberals who, upon hearing a critique of Islamic ideology, reflexively respond by reminding the critic that other religions are violent too. Islamophobia is a real thing, and I understand why people are a bit touchy about it, but for atheists like myself who see religion in general as a detrimental force to humanity, this impediment to honest dialogue is annoying and counterproductive.

Liberals have also attempted to absolve Islamic ideology by labeling Mateen as a “lone wolf,” a self-radicalized anomaly whose actions were based on a perversion of the Islamic faith. But while it does appear that Mateen acted alone, anyone familiar with Islamic texts should not be surprised that he was able to arrive at such homophobic conclusions. The idea that homosexuality is a sin perhaps punishable by death is not as much of a perversion of Islam as it is a reasonable interpretation of it.

Which is why, in spite of my militant atheism, I have been so supportive of the efforts of people like Maajid Nawaz who seek to combat Islamic extremism through deradicalization and the promotion of more moderate manifestations of the faith. If it were up to me, we’d make John Lennon’s musings a reality and forge a world free from the manufactured divisions and diversions that religion creates. But since religion isn’t going anywhere, I guess that peaceful interpretations of violent texts like the Bible and the Quran would be something I could settle for. The vast majority of the world’s Muslims are already there. In fact, in the United States, Muslims as a group are actually far more accepting of homosexuality than their Evangelical counterparts.

But this attack and the homophobia that fueled it are a reminder of how far the LGBTQ community still has to go in its fight for acceptance and equality. The LGBTQ community has won a lot of battles in recent years. Some of us may have even thought that they had won the war in light of the 2015 Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges. But Orlando was a painful reminder that the war against homophobia is still very much ongoing.

And then there are guns. The United States clearly has a gun problem. I would hope that at this point even the most ardent second amendment supporters could admit that when it comes to protecting the constitutional right to bear arms, the costs are pretty high, particularly in regard to human life. Also, while I suppose that there remains some rationale to argue that gun ownership offers individuals a way to protect themselves, even though statistics suggest otherwise, I am sick of the argument that their gun ownership protects others too. I think that we’ve witnessed enough mass shootings in this country to conclude that those ‘good guy with a gun’ scenarios are complete and total bullshit. No one person with their conceal-and-carry permit could have saved those nightclub victims from Omar Mateen and his semi-automatic assault rifle, and even if they could have, the suggestion that you should need to arm yourself every time that you go out to drink and dance with friends says all you need to know about the out-of-control state of firearms in this country.

Which is why I believe in the necessity and urgency for common-sense gun control legislation—laws that can help to limit the ability to acquire firearms for those people who wish to do others harm. However, the more I read up on the nature of the problem, the less sure I am of exactly what that might look like. To be sure, there are certain measures that should be no-brainers—closing the no-fly list loophole, required background checks prior to weapons purchases, mandatory waiting periods, etc. But while these reforms would technically represent “progress,” I’m not sure how many of the recent mass shootings such reforms would have prevented.

This leads me to believe that perhaps more radical reforms are necessary—something similar to Australia’s assault weapons ban accompanied by a government buyback. But with the lack of political will to pass even the most common sense control measures, more radical, meaningful reform, at least in the foreseeable future, is probably a pipe dream, even following the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.

Which brings us to another point of contention. While recent comparisons would suggest that headlines describing Orlando as the ‘deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history’ are indeed appropriate, critics have pointed out that more historic U.S. massacres, particularly the government-sponsored slaying of Native Americans at Wounded Knee, have witnessed much higher death tolls. In light of such criticisms, perhaps ‘deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history’ would be more historically accurate. However, while I usually consider myself somewhat of a social justice advocate, I feel that such corrections, in this case, are a bit out of place.

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There are always glimmers of hope in tragedies like these. Immense gratitude is due to our public servants, police officers and hospital staff, who prevented the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history from becoming even deadlier. The lines that formed outside of Orlando blood banks of people looking to literally give a part of the themselves to help their fellow Floridians in a time of desperate crisis were inspiring to say the least. Late-night television personalities like Jimmy Fallon attempted to restore our faith in humanity reminding us that this was a case of one bad guy versus forty-nine good, and that at the end of the day, in spite of such tragedies, there will always be more good in the world than evil.

But while that’s a heartwarming message, I’m not sure that I like it. It’s true that the good people in this world outnumber the evil ones, and I’m glad that it’s true. It’s a comforting thought. But I don’t want to be comfortable right now, and I don’t want anyone else to be comfortable either. Comfort inspires inaction, and inaction is something that we’ve had all too much of.

I’ve also had enough of prayers, and not because I’m irreverent. I believe in the power of sending positive energy, religiously or otherwise, to people who need it. But as @igorvolsky has pointed out, prayers don’t mean shit if they’re not accompanied by action, and unfortunately, they rarely are.

And that’s the big question—in light of Orlando, will we finally fucking do something? Will we create real reforms? Will we inspire meaningful change? Or will we find ourselves some weeks or months down the road having the same conversation in light of another massacre? My gut feeling tells me that it’s the latter, but I hope that I’m wrong about that.   As my good buddy Andrew Miller tweeted on the morning of the attack:

I hope that he’s wrong too, or at the very least, that we can change that.

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Correction:  In this blog post, I referred to the shooter’s weapon as a “semi-automatic assault rifle.”  It has since come to my attention that the term “assault rifle” is not an accurate description of this weapon.  Other than an extended clip, this weapon, while scary-looking, does not have the capacity to fire any faster than most semi-automatic hand guns.  What is more, an assault rifle ban would likely not include this particular weapon, another element that makes finding a sensible solution to America’s gun problem even more complicated.

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Religion, World

Islam & the Regressive Left

Throughout my adult life, I have always thought of myself as a social justice advocate—someone who stands up for individual human rights regardless of race, gender, or country of origin. Someone who advocates for equity and equality in all the places that they are lacking, and challenges the systems and structures that help to keep those inequities and inequalities in place.

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Likewise, throughout my adult life, I have always thought of myself as a secularist— someone who not only rejects religion, but views it as a social ill, as something that contributes to the destruction of humanity and/or that oftentimes limits peoples’ ability to reach their full human potential.

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For someone like myself who likes to hang out on the political left, these characteristics are not all that uncommon. Lately, however, I have felt these two identities coming into conflict, like there’s some sort of irreconcilable contradiction that is manifesting between secularism and social justice.   Nowhere has this distinction been clearer than in my struggles around the issue of Islamic extremism.

The simple use of that terminology is illustrative in-and-of-itself of the intellectual dilemma I’ve been facing. Acknowledging the fact that Islamic extremism is a real thing and a real problem in the 21st century is something that can alienate one from mainstream leftist conversation. Certainly the world’s foremost leftist leader, Barack Obama, has been hesitant to use such language in his discourse no matter how many times he has encountered “that” type of terrorism during his two terms as president.

However, I’d be lying to myself if I didn’t admit that most of the cases of international terrorism seem to be associated with a particular religion. Between groups like ISIS, Al Qaeda, and Boko Haram, Islam is undoubtedly the modern leader in the production of sectarian violence. And although such a statement can earn one the title of Islamophobe or racist, very unleftist titles indeed, I still believe that statement to be undeniably true.

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Recently, however, I had a minor breakthrough—an intellectual encounter that helped me to reconcile my two leftist personas. The breakthrough is incomplete in the sense that I’m still wrestling with a lot of it, still searching for an ideological nook that feels right for me, but in the mean time, it has at least lent me a place to put my proverbial feet up.

That encounter took place during a listen to my latest favorite podcast, Waking Up with Sam Harris. The episode, entitled “Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue,” features a conversation between renowned free-thinker Sam Harris and former radical Islamist turned activist-reformer Maajid Nawaz, a Pakistani Muslim seeking to turn back the tide of Islamic extremism through the promotion of a secular Islam and a peaceful interpretation of the Quran.

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It’s an enlightening and thought-provoking conversation that really should be listened to in its entirety for anyone interested in such topics, but as it pertains to my personal dilemma—the want for validation as a social justice secularist—my epiphany was mostly the result of an introduction to new terminology, specifically a term that seemed to describe the mode of thought that was needlessly driving a stake between my two otherwise fairly compatible mindsets. This mode of thought, a mode of thought I now know I reject, is derived from an unofficial group that Nawaz calls the “regressive left.”

The “regressive left” is a term that Nawaz coined to describe well-meaning liberals who, in the interest of social justice and multiculturalism, provide unintended support to highly illiberal beliefs and practices. In regards to Islam, Nawaz uses the term to refer to people who reject criticisms of the Islamic religion in the name of cultural sensitivity and tolerance, but in the process, fail to confront many of the problems that are prominent in the Muslim world at this particular moment in time.

These problems include not only terrorism and jihad, but also issues surrounding freedom of speech, religion, and press, as well as the rights of women, homosexuals, and ethnic minorities. While the defense of such rights and liberties should be top liberal priorities, regressive leftists have attempted to redefine the hierarchal organization of leftist values. This reshuffling has placed a dangerous form of culturally-relativist tolerance on top, a tolerance that oftentimes comes at the expense of defending the rights and liberties above.

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An example: If one were to criticize the forced covering experienced by many women in the Muslim world via the niqab or burqa, a regressive leftist may be more likely to defend Islamic culture than to defend those women oppressed by it.

Another example: If one were to make reference to the problem of Islamic terrorism, a regressive leftist may be more likely to push back against what they perceive to be an unenlightened generalization of Muslims than they would be to sympathize with the victims of such terroristic acts, the vast majority of whom are Muslims themselves.

Nawaz uses the the term “regressive” to imply a contrast with the “progressive” views that are usually associated with the political left, views that seek to advance the common cause of humanity through the espousal of Enlightenment ideals like liberty, equality, and natural human rights. These ideals are thought to be universal principles that transcend the borders that divide us, ideals that are merited to every earthly individual regardless of religion or culture. But in their attempt to embody the principles of multicultural sensitivity, Nawaz argues that regressive leftists are actually working against that “progress,” sometimes to the point where it is actually “regressing.”

What is more, Nawaz also argues, that the ideology of regressive leftists is so backwardly focused on the evasion of racism, that it actually embodies a form of racism itself. In what he calls “the racism of low expectations,” Nawaz describes how the refusal to acknowledge some of the pervasive ills in Islamic culture is representative of the “low expectations” these regressive leftists are sometimes projecting on minority populations, a projection that to many Muslims seems paternalistic and insulting. It suggests that because Muslims are “minorities,” because they are “oppressed,” they should not be held accountable to the same moral standards or expectations that regressive leftists would likely place on, say, white Christians. It would be the equivalent of a teacher such as myself having lower learning or behavioral expectations for my students of color due to the fact that they are “poor,” “disadvantaged,” and in need of the hope and advocacy that only a white liberal like myself can provide.

At this point I would like to say that I have no doubts that Islamophobia is indeed a real thing, and that many critics of Islam do indeed evoke racist rhetoric in making their criticisms, Donald Trump being a perfect example. I also have no illusions about the significant role that U.S. foreign policy has played, both presently and historically, in helping to create and/or exacerbate many of the problems that the Islamic world is suffering. I sometimes wonder if Islamic extremism would even be such a global threat if Western imperialism hadn’t done such a great job creating the perfect conditions for radicalization. All that being said, I do think that the doctrine of Islam is worthy of criticism, that religion is to blame for much of the suffering experienced in the Islamic world, and that our ability to make such criticisms has been limited by the regressive leftists and PC police who have been attempting to hijack the social justice movement for their own misguided endeavors.

The irony is that regressive leftists do not defend all religions from their secularist critics. When secularists go after Christianity for its attacks on a woman’s right to choose or a gay person’s right to marry, regressive leftists are on the sidelines cheering them on.   However, when secularists go after Islam, oftentimes for many of the same reasons that they go after Christianity, the regressive leftists shift their emphasis from universal rights to multicultural tolerance, even when the latter is directly jeopardizing the former.

I sympathize with those leftists who claim that such critiques of Islam can and do lead to harmful stereotypes of Muslims, and would argue that any criticisms of Islam should be made with only the utmost consideration of language and nuance. However, I would also make an important distinction between criticizing Islam as a set of ideas, versus criticizing Muslims as a homogenous group of people. The former is okay. The latter is not. Islam is an ideology that should be no more immune from criticism than Christianity, communism, or conservatism.   It is a set of ideas that people believe in, not a fixed trait like race, gender, or sexual orientation. And when people do it correctly, criticisms of Islam should never be confused with criticisms of Muslims as individuals. No individual Muslim should be held accountable for beliefs that they do no own and deeds that they did not sow.

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Moving forward, that is how all these conversations should be framed—not as a war on Muslims or a war on Islam, but a war on ideas—ideas that are harmful to humans. This war can only be fought in the arena of conversation, through free and open competition in the marketplace of ideas, where hopefully the good ideas defeat the bad ones. That, unfortunately, is becoming increasingly harder to do with regressive leftists, who will often curl up into their social justice shells out of refusal to engage in dialogue with “racists” and “bigots.” This is no way to defeat harmful ideas, nor the real human suffering that those ideas inflict on human beings—on Christians, on Muslims, on secularists, on everyone. But if we can’t even talk about it, how the hell are we ever going to actually do anything?

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I think that the world would be a better place without Islam. I think that the world would be a better place without religion. And I think that the world would be a better place without the regressive left. Of course, none of those things are going to happen. That’s why I am thankful for people like Maajid Nawaz and Sam Harris, for their courage to take part in difficult conversations, for their willingness to speak honestly despite its repercussions, for their push back against ideas that are harmful to humanity, for challenging their listeners to think harder and do better, and for helping to reassure people like me that social justice and secularism are still compatible missions.

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Podcast Plug: Listen to Sam and Maajid’s conversation in full to hear more intellectually stimulating discussion of this issue and others including:

  • The concentric circles of Islamic identities
  • Maajid’s mission of peaceful reform
  • The role of religious motivation in Islamic terrorism
  • And much more super thought-provoking stuff!!!

Like me, you will not agree with everything you hear, but you will be given plenty to wrestle with.

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Religion, USA

Why I for some reason love Christmas

I should fucking hate Christmas. I’m an anti-capitalistic, deity-denying, tradition-questing, cynical, scoffing, scrooge, fucking jackass. Yet, for some reason, the Christmas season is one of my favorite times of the year. I love the songs, the snow, and the giving and receiving. I love the smell of evergreen trees and the glow of Christmas lights. I love the taste of hot chocolate spiked with Peppermint Schnapps. I love The Santa Clause, Prancer, Home Alone 2, and all the other Christmas movies playing round the clock on every other channel.

And although there are some things that I hate about Christmas, I think that, when it’s done right, Christmas is a beautiful thing. When it truly embodies the ideas of sharing, giving, loving, and being together, Christmas is a holiday that is good for the spirit and good for humanity in general.

Many people view Christmas as a birthday bash for Jesus, but it is certainly not a religious holiday for all. Even for many Christian families, Christmas celebrations often have very little religious relevance outside of pre-dinner prayer and the hour-and-change spent at church. Certainly there’s nothing Christian about a flying fucking reindeer or getting blackout drunk at your grandma’s house. Christmas, or at least what Christmas has become here in the States, is pretty damn secular–something celebrated by Christians but certainly not owned by them.

Nor do Christians have a monopoly on the “Christmas Spirit”–the spirit of “giving to” and “giving back” that can make Christmas such a spiritually enriching time of the year. “Giving to” can devolve into senseless commercialism–buying useless, manufactured junk for people who don’t want or need it–but it can also be an exchange of thoughtful gifts that make one another happy. What is more, “giving back” is almost always a mutually beneficial endeavor, fulfilling the spirits of those partaking in the giving of gifts, goods, time, and self, and more importantly, fulfilling the needs of those people and households often skipped by Santa’s sleigh.

Which is why I, as a multicultural advocate and militant atheist, have no problem with the well-intentioned wishing of a “Merry Christmas,” be it by store sign or stranger. I think that people who use it as a bratty retaliation to those wishing them a “Happy Holiday,” or as some sort of verbal ammunition in their war on the “War on Christmas,” are ignorant, jingoist pricks, but I also think that those who take offense to such a well-wishing, particularly holier-than-thou white liberals like myself, are sanctimonious douchebags. Yes, the United States is a multicultural society, but it’s still okay to have federal holidays. Whether you choose to celebrate Christmas or not, the well-intentioned wishing of a “Merry Christmas” should be no more offensive that a “Happy Halloween” or a “Have a nice day.” I’m hardly Mexican, but I never took offense to a hearty “Feliz fill-in-the-blank” during my many months living south of the border. On the contrary, it helped me to feel less alienated and more welcomed.

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Because when it’s done right, the holiday of Christmas should not be offensive nor uninclusive. When stripped of its religious zealotry and materialistic fervor, Christmas brings out the best in humanity—our ability to live, to laugh, to love, to give…Christmas is a time to be thankful for what we have, to make those that we care about feel happy and loved, to not work and to be oh so appreciative of those who must, and to think about, feel for, and serve those less fortunate than we are.

That’s why I love Christmas. After a tumultuous year filled with so much hate, violence, and divisiveness, Christmas gives us an opportunity to close out the year on a positive note–to come together and remind each other of all the good that still exists in the world, and the hope that remains for humanity to get its collective shit together. So Merry Fucking Christmas, everybody. Be good, do good, make people smile, and may you have many more merry Christmases to come.

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And with that being said…

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Poetry, Religion

An atheist’s guide to love and the after life in free verse

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I believe in something,

Not a magical, religious, bullshit type of something,

But a something that we as social creatures create with one another,

Sometimes we call it friendship,

Other times we call it love,

The best are both,

And when that something gains enough strength,

It becomes something real,

Something physical,

Something that exists,

An energy,

And that energy is perceptible to those who participated in its creation,

It can travel great distances to help us share emotions across space and time,

Like car antennas picking up invisible radio waves,

Although no instrument has been designed to measure or perceive that energy,

To prove and explain its existence,

The human body knows it’s there,

And while I don’t believe in any after life that we experience,

Or in which consciousness is maintained,

Perhaps our energy goes on,

Perhaps we can create love that does indeed last forever,

Like two vines sprouting from buried lovers’ adjacent tombs,

Finding each other and wrapping together to become one,

Love that will outlive the survival of our planet,

Our galaxy,

A collection of stardust that makes up the lovers that once were,

Destined to dance and move together,

Through the otherwise cruel and indifferent universe,

For all eternity.

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Immigration, Military, Politics, Race, Religion, USA, World

Thinking through Paris

Paris fucked me up. It was one of those events that seemed to have me reconsidering nearly everything I thought I believed—what I believed about people, what I believed about politics…It threw me into a state of mental disequilibrium so profound that a week-and-change later, I still haven’t really settled back into the post-Paris me. In that sense, this post is a thinking-through, a consideration of the clusterfuck that was last week’s events and the tangled mess of causes and consequences that connect to it, in hopes of finding equilibrium again.

When I first caught wind of the attacks, the radio man was being very cautious about the details he was releasing, but I remember knowing one detail of the attacks right away without anyone needing to tell me: the attackers were radical Islamists.

I didn’t want to be right about that. Upon confirming what I already knew on the World Wide Web, I took to Twitter, and aside from the Parisians directly affected by the attacks, there isn’t any people for whom I felt more pity than the Muslims from around the world who felt compelled to tweet out their opposition to these atrocities lest they be labeled as terrorists themselves.

But the Islamic question is upon us again, and I don’t know where I stand. I know for sure that the vast, vast, vast majority of the world’s Muslims are peaceful people who should not have to explain themselves nor apologize for the actions of these crazy, ISIS assholes. But I also think that thinkers like Sam Harris have a point when they say things like the religion of Islam “has a unique problem at this moment in history.”

When I try to reconcile these ideas in my own head, I find myself trying to differentiate between Muslims as people and Islam as a set of ideas. I don’t agree with any sweeping generalizations that people make about Muslim people, but I do think that you can criticize the religion of Islam, and certain radical Muslims, without being a bigot. As an atheist, I criticize Christianity all the time, and no one ever bigotizes me for it. I also have a life crammed full of Christians who are way better people than I am, people that I love and adore, despite my opposition to the theology they subscribe to. And just like it’s unintellectual to suggest that all Muslims are terrorists, I also find it unintellectual when President Obama and other liberals go out of their way to avoid using the word Islamic to describe the self-described Islamic terrorists they are describing.

But as far as doctrine goes, is Islam really any more violent than a religion like Christianity? The Quran is certainly violent, and Jesus was a peaceful dude, but the god of the Old Testament was a homicidal maniac who indiscriminately killed all those who failed to appease his capricious demands. Furthermore, Christianity experienced millennia of war and violence before it found the relative peaceful epoch that many Christians experience today.

That’s why a big part of me also believes that the violence associated with Islam is less about the religion and more about the places where people who subscribe to that religion happen to live, places where people are generally much more politically and economically disempowered than their Christian brethren in the Western World. Any religion can be radicalized, but radicalization is more likely in certain places than in others, places like war-torn Syria and Iraq or occupied countries like Palestine and Afghanistan.

And then I ask myself what the world would look like if the tables were turned—if Muslims around the world experienced the relative prosperity and stability of Christians today, and Christians the impoverished and violent dystopias of so many Muslims. What it would look like if Islamic countries controlled the UN and the IMF and the Christians nations were still recovering from decades of colonialism and imperialism. How much more vulnerable would Christians be to the radical wings of their own religion, groups like the Westboro Baptist Church and the Ku Klux Klan? Certainly there’s no shortage of things like racism, sexism, xenophobia, and homophobia in the Christian world as it is. How much worse would it be if they were thrown into the desperate and dire circumstances known by so many Muslims, if they really had something to be angry about?

Yet most Muslims aren’t angry. They’re just scared. Scared of the same lunatics that shot up the city of Paris ten days ago. And that’s why they’re running.

Which leads to the questions surrounding the world refugee crisis, questions about the number of refugees we in the United States should accept, questions about the vetting process refugees should be subjected to in order to gain admission.

While I’ve been appalled by many of the racist arguments equating refugees to terrorists, I have to admit that some of those arguments contain a small but significant dose of truth: the more refugees that the United States accepts and the more lenient the vetting process, the more likely it is that that process will be exploited by people who wish to do the United States harm.

I really think that’s undeniable. It doesn’t mean that refugees are terrorists. Refugees are refugees. It does mean, however, that terrorism is a problem in the world, a problem that often comes from the same places as the refugees do, and that those terrorists are not above the exploitation of humanitarian compassion. If you want to make an argument for refugee acceptance, I think that’s a reality that you have to come to terms with.

I do acknowledge that reality, but I also don’t think that it has to dictate our response to our fellow human beings in crisis. I whole-heartedly agree with the overused mantra that to deny refugees based on fears of terrorism would be letting the terrorists win. More importantly, it would be letting the refugees lose, and that would be unacceptable.

Sometimes in discussions like these, the tone seems to take an us-and-them mentality.  “It will put us in danger if we take them in.”  “How are we going to help their people if we can’t even help our own people?”   Fair points, but for me, those words carry little weight when I’m looking at images like these. When I look at these pictures, I don’t see Syrians. I don’t see Muslims. I don’t see us or them. I just see children—children who desperately need a world to do the right thing in spite of any potential consequences.

And while this decision should not be a political one, it does present the United States with a tremendous opportunity to begin reforming its image in the Muslim world. By taking in tens-of-thousands of Muslims (and many non-Muslims) in need, the United States not only provides an essential service to humanity, it also simultaneously delivers a big “fuck you” to radical Islamists everywhere, demonstrating our unwillingness to let their terroristic threats dictate the way that we care for our Muslim brothers and sisters, our fellow human beings in need.

And after the Paris attacks, it is clear that we in the Western World need a reminder of who our fellow human beings are. The outpouring of sympathy for Paris was, in my opinion, beautiful. Changing your Facebook profile picture or retweeting #PrayForParis could be seen as pretty meaningless gestures, but I love the idea of the world coming together across borders and oceans to show support and offer hope, to send prayers and positive energy to a city and a people who desperately need them. No one should be made to feel bad for clicking with their hearts.

But there is something that we should feel bad about, and that is what Paris revealed about who we choose to grieve for.

I remember having this thought while watching the news coverage of Paris two Friday’s ago, but in hindsight, I didn’t know shit about Beirut or Baghdad either, and a week-and-a-half later, it’s still not those attacks that I’m “thinking through.” Black Lives Matter is usually something discussed in relation to domestic issues inside the United States, but Paris made it clear that there is a definite discrepancy in the way that we values the lives of white people compared with those of black and brown people in the rest of the world as well.

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And what about the response? What does France and its allies do to “strike back” at ISIS? It scared me when my gut-reaction to this question was eerily similar to Trump’s idea of “bomb the shit out of them,” the kind of balls-over-brains thinking that helped to create ISIS in the first place. Looking at recent history, military intervention seems to do way more to create terrorism than it ever does to eliminate it. That being said, while I hope our world leaders won’t be making such decisions with their collective gut, I can see why military intervention, in this case, might be called for.

What I know I don’t want is to see some sort of unilateral Western intervention composed of France, the States, and other Western allies. I think critics of intervention are right when they say that this is exactly what ISIS wants, a war on Islam by the West, the ultimate tool to galvanize support among the enlisted and provide additional propaganda for recruitment to ensure that their fucked-up brand of backwards hate will only continue to grow. The West can’t solve this problem alone, no matter how many bombs or drones they drop. This is a worldwide problem, and it needs a worldwide solution.

Perhaps most important to this worldwide solution is the support needed from the Muslim world, the collaborative effort from countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey to take out a group that should be considered an enemy to all Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, atheists, and any other group that considers themselves a part of humanity. Furthermore, it will take cooperation between West and East, between Western Europe and North America and China and Russia, and a dramatic departure from the Machiavellian, balance-of-power bullshit that has defined the conflict thus far. And while a united effort of this magnitude could easily wipe the wanna-be caliphate off the face of the fucking planet, history also tells us that this kind of humanitarian-driven, united effort has zero chance of happening.

And that’s what makes this situation so impossible. That’s why nearly two weeks removed from the Paris attacks I still have no idea what the fuck to think or what the fuck to do. It makes me want to eternally avoid the likes of MPR and CNN and forever hide within the comfortable confines of KFAN and the WWE.

But thinking about these things is the least we can do. Thinking about what we can do in our lives to fight back against ignorance and hatred. Thinking about those who are less fortunate than us, and what we can do to make their existence on this planet a little more tolerable. Thinking about how we can be the best human beings we are capable of being, and inspire others to realize their full human potential as well. And continuing to remember that it is easier to be the ones tasked with thinking about these horrible events, than it is to be the ones tasked with feeling them.

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