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Thursday, April 26, 2012

One More Reason To Support Girl Scouts

  I have read, several times, about the discriminatory practices of the Boy Scouts of America.  Their rules require that you not be gay and that you believe in a god.  I don't believe they specify which god you must believe in, but you have to pick one.  They don't want girls, gays, or godless members.  They legally gained their right to discriminate in 2000 when long-time Boy Scout James Dale had his position as Assistant Scoutmaster and his registration revoked on the basis of his homosexuality.  He took the case to court and, based on their private, non-profit status, the BSA was allowed to claim "freedom of association" as their basis for discriminating legally.

  After reading George Takei's blog post today, I read through some of the comments.  One person claimed that the Girl Scouts discriminate also, which is totally and completely untrue.  She cited a transgender boy who was refused admittance.  When I looked it up, there was a very recent (January 2012) article about a transgender boy named Bobby Montoya who had recently joined the Girl Scouts.  He was, at first, denied acceptance by his local troops, however the Girl Scout organization intervened and, as a result, several troop leaders disbanded their troops and resigned in protest of allowing Bobby to be included.  A group called apparently had a problem with this inclusion and made a YouTube video calling for a boycott of Girl Scout cookies. You can see clips of this video here, but the original was "removed by the user".  The Girl Scouts obviously do NOT describe themselves as an "all-girl experience".  If that were the case, then...there wouldn't be a case.  Watch this awesome video of support from some New Jersey Girl Scouts.

  I just wanted to make sure that everyone understands that the Girl Scouts are a truly all-inclusive organization.   They obviously support girls, even if they were born as boys.  Check out and see for yourself how all-inclusive they are.  It's a website run by a male Girl Scout leader.  I'm very proud to say that I was a Girl Scout for about 15 years and loved every minute.  This story gives me just one more reason to be PROUD to be a Girl Scout!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Spiritual Atheist

  In my short time as an Atheist - less than a year now - I've heard lots of people talking about spirituality and how Atheists have none. This isn't just coming from believers either. Atheists, on several occasions, have contested it. I wasn't sure why, really. I consider myself a spiritual Atheist. I'll explain why later, but let's look at the word "spirit" and how it's used so that I can better define what I'm talking about here.

  The word "spirit" comes from the Latin word spiritus, which means, simply "breath". It was also equated with "courage" and "vigor" as well as "soul". From what I can gather, it is a consensus among religions that "soul" and "spirit" are not the same. "Soul", from a religious standpoint, refers to an eternal part of a person's being that, in some cases, exists before you were born and, in almost every case, will continue to exist after your physical body dies. A religious definition of "spirit", as I understand it, is sort of the "middle-man" between a person's soul and the creator they believe in, but there are many more, regularly used definitions.

  Ghost hunters, I think, would say "spirit" and "soul" are the same. They refer to spirits haunting a house, for example, and that those spirits can't "move on" until some unresolved issue is put to rest. In their world, spirit and soul seem to be synonymous. They seem to believe that sometimes, particularly when there is some injustice in the events of someone's death, the eternal part of a person's being gets caught between worlds, as it were.

  Cheerleader spout the phrase "We've got spirit! Yes, we do! We've got spirit! How 'bout you?" Are they expecting to see ghosts? No. Are they asking everyone to pray? Nope, not that either. They want you to be excited and feel like part of the team. They want you to cheer and holler for their team to win.

  Would you like a glass of spirits? No, I'm not offering you a glass of ghosts, nor am I offering a glass of Jesus blood. This refers to distilled beverages with 20% or more alcohol. Spirit, in this sense, comes from alchemists back in the day who were interested in making medical elixirs. They referred to the vapors given off in the distillation process as the "spirit" of the ingredients used to make it. This is the "breath" definition, I think.

  We also refer to things like "soul food", which doesn't mean it's food made from ghosts or souls. It doesn't really refer to anything like that. Soul food is food that might not be so good for us, but it gives us the "home-cooked" good feeling that reminds us of having a good meal with the people we love.

  Finally, we have phrases that start with "In the spirit of...". When we say that, we don't think that some dead person is standing next to us, cheering us on for doing things the way they did in life. No. It simply means, in most cases, to emulate or otherwise connect with the things that person did in life. We can also connect with ideas in that same way, for example, when we do things "in the spirit of the season".

  It seems to me there is a common theme among all these definitions. They have to do with how we feel about things. Even the use of "spirit" when referring to alcohol seems apt, as it makes us feel different when we drink "spirits". It has to do with connections between not just people, but ideas and ideals. There seem to be a lot more alternative definitions that indicate that it's not really a "religious" word. I think that's what scares some Atheists about spirituality. They feel it's a step backward.

  I've said, in other blogs, that I feel such a great sense of awe when I contemplate the Universe, in general. There are so many things that I think about that bring tears to my eyes on a regular basis. When I listen to Dawkins talk about the "magic of reality" or when Sagan or Tyson talk about the "star stuff" that we're made of, I get that feeling I used to get when I went to church. I want to throw my hands up and weep at the awesomeness of the reality that we live in.

  That's my idea of spirituality. It has to do with feeling connected, as we have proven to be true in many aspects of our existence. If stars hadn't exploded, we wouldn't be here. If the chemistry of Earth had been slightly different or if the Earth had a slightly different orbit, we might not be here. To know that we're but a tiny speck in the vastness of the Universe is humbling, but also, as Tyson puts it, "I actually feel quite large at the end of that. ...We are in the Universe and the Universe is in us". How can someone contemplate Tyson's statement about us all being connected in the "holy trinity" of the Universe and not feel emotional about it? "We're all connected to each other, biologically, to the Earth, chemically and to the rest of the Universe, atomically." To know that we're not made up of common matter, as most of the matter in the Universe is dark matter, from which we were not evolved, makes me feel pretty damn special. We live in a set of uncommon circumstances, as far as we know. We have yet to find life anywhere else. I think it exists somewhere else, but it is obviously uncommon for life to appear in the Universe.

  Let me qualify a bit here. I am in no way suggesting that the Universe has a soul or has feelings of any kind. I don't think there are ANY supernatural forces at work here. I don't feel like I'm "communicating with the Earth" when I have these feelings. I'm not saying that I can hear the thoughts of the animals when I'm contemplating these things. I know, so far, I probably totally sound like a "tree-hugger", but that's not the kind of idea I'm trying to relay here...or maybe it is.

  It's the idea of connectedness that makes me feel good. Connecting is a basic human need. Without it, a baby could turn out to be like Beth Thomas, a.k.a. the Child of Rage, for example. People who don't connect or associate with others, tend to have severe problems dealing with the real world and often perform actions that are detrimental to other people and/or society. Beth Thomas, because she lacked the connection with people in her very early life, was unable to feel emotions. It took years of therapy for her to actually feel negatively for hurting other living things. She wasn't only hurting other people, but also hurting animals. This is proof, I think, that our emotional side doesn't come from a god. If it did, I don't think little Beth would have had such a difficult time because she would have been born with them. It comes from those connections with other people. We learn what emotions are and we learn that other people have them too. We learn what feels good or bad and our empathy makes us want to share the good and avoid the bad when we interact with others.

  But why do those connection need only be personal connections? Why would someone think that if you're not religious, you're not spiritual? Why are people afraid to feel connections with non-living things? We're made of the same elements you find in the Earth. We can contemplate ideas and get the same feelings of connection that we would get if we were believers praising a god whom we thought put the whole thing together. We could be thankful that stars exploded to put the right chemicals into the Universe. We can be excited by the fact that simple chemistry is what made all life on Earth and that evolution and natural selection took over to make us who we are today. Probable or not, that's an amazing notion that brings me great joy.

  Our existence is the result of a series of amazing events. It's hard for me to contemplate these events and not feel moved by each and every one of them. Maybe I'm completely wrong. I don't fully understand my emotional "explosions" when I think about these things. It is my hope that someday we will.

  One final note: Thank you, Dr. Tyson, for your 57 second speech that has made me see things in a whole new way. You are directly responsible for me writing this as well as helping me understand the feelings that I have about meaning and connection since I became an Atheist. Your passion makes me smile and I only hope that more people will take your words into consideration when contemplating their own places in the Universe.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Tombstone Da Deadman - Rise of the Infidel

 I'm a 35-year-old, white girl who grew up in the suburbs.  Before you think I'm not qualified to review a rap album, let me tell you something else.  I fell in love with rap when I first heard...wait for it...Grand Master Flash!  Back in the first days of MTV and there were only about 100 music videos (not really, but you know what I'm getting at here).

  The first thing that hit me when I first heard rap music was the beats, naturally.  I. Love. Bass.  Back then there wasn't as much bass to be had as there is now.  I've been listening to rap evolve for decades and I've loved all the new beats that have come out through the years.  Experiments with sounds has led to some fantastic music in the rap genre.  Now let's talk about lyrics.

  Lyrics in rap are a completely different animal.  Back in the early days, there was "nasty rap", but a bulk of it contained lyrics about the artist's skills as a rapper.  Rap artists would say in their songs that they were the best rapper and demonstrate their skills.  Then another artist would do the same thing and try to top the first artist.  The evolution of "common" rap lyrics has been quite disappointing to me.  Most of the rap I listened to after the 80s had the beats I wanted, but didn't have the same kind of lyrics.  They were still talking about who was better, but it didn't have anything with skills as a rapper anymore.  The lyrics were talking about how many girls they have and how much sex they get while they're touring.  Then they talked about how much money they were making and how many cars and houses they had.   I started turning to artists like DJ Bassboy because I got the beats and bass I wanted and didn't have to worry about lyrics at all.  These days it's all about who went to jail the most times and how many guns they have and how many times they've used them.  Most rappers out there today are making, as Deadman puts it, "cookie-cutta ass gangsta shit".  It's despicable!

  Is this a generalization?  Absolutely!  I'm speaking about the bulk of rap music out there has evolved this way.  I totally recognize the artists like the Fresh Prince, for example.  He's stuck to his guns and managed to be one of the most successful rappers in the business without compromising his moral responsibility as a popular artist.  I have nothing but respect for rappers of his ilk.  That's not the "mainstream" of rap these days, however.  That being said...

  Tombstone Da Deadman a.k.a. Rational Warrior (second name is totally apt btw) has produced the most cerebral album I've heard from just about any artist in any genre.  There are albums that have songs with important messages, but only a song or two most times.  Rise of the Infidel has an important message in every song.

  The first person I thought of when I heard this album for the first time was Busta Rhymes.  I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that Deadman is probably a fan, as am I.  His voice sounds like Busta, but his style is also similar with its polysyllabic beats.  That alone shows a skill that I admire in a rap artist.  Busta is one of my favorite artists for that exact reason, so Deadman kinda "had me at hello" in that aspect.

  He takes that style and puts his own spin on it with some wonderfully intelligent lyrics that encompass all those things that non-believers have been fighting against for decades.  He addresses non-believer morality, the weaving of religion into our politics and schools, manufactured persecution of religion , superstition in general and a lot more.  He also incorporates clips from the likes of Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens as well as clips from movies and shows with excellent form.  He even invoked the imprisonment of Galileo FTW!

  The overall feeling of the album, to me, was angry, but in a constructive way.  It's clear that he's tired of all the same old bullshit we all, as non-believers, deal with - dead horses that the uninformed (willingly or otherwise) people keep beating on, hoping they'll get up again.  He didn't make this album for money.  He didn't make it to be liked.  It seems to me that he made this album to give all non-believers a voice.  He made it to tell the believers what they can do with their childish stories and bigoted legislation and to tell them to provide evidence or shut up and go away.  He made it to light a fire under your ass to join the cause because this problem of a possible theocratic America will not only NOT go away, but will get worse if we don't do something.  He made this album to get some things off his chest in a creative way.  He made it to encourage others not only to step out of the closet, but to speak out against these irrationalities that the ultra-religious want us to take as fact.  He made this album for the same purpose that the Reason Rally was organized, I think, and it's fantastic!

  The first song, called Tribute, is a shout-out to our beloved Hitch.  Just some jazzy background music with a couple of carefully selected Hitchens clips.  This song made me smile.  Props, Deadman, for this very simple, but beautiful tribute.

  Wandering God Rant is a wonderful track!  It's almost like a blog set to music. Dare I call it a "blong"?  He offers his thoughts on how god seemed to keep changing residences as we learned more about the universe, and still does.  I gotta say, it's one of my favorite tracks on the album.

  My absolute favorite song, Silence Us, uses a clip spoken by Captain Picard from the Star Trek: Next Generation episode Who Watches the Watchers.  Picard refuses to help plunge an entire civilization "back into the Dark Ages" by posing as the Overseer, the god of the Mintakans.  This is the "speak out" song of the album.  It features Greydon Square, another of my favorite atheist artists.  This is where Deadman supposes that Theocrats are trying to do the same thing to modern day non-believers that the church successfully did to Galileo.  I would call this a "warrior chant".  It's the kind of song that draws people together.  It's the kind that makes you want to throw your fist in the air and run into battle.  I love it!

  Whether you're a fan of rap or not, this is an album I recommend everyone listen to at least once and share with others.  This is the kind of music that should be mainstream.  It's intelligent, creative, it's got a good beat, and you can dance to it.  Thanks, Rational Warrior!