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Why Celebrate?

I am an atheist, in case you’re new here.  Raised Catholic, I made the transition from a believer into an agnostic, finally landing on atheism for a number of reasons.  I’m not a “practicing” atheist because there is nothing to practice.  I simply don’t believe in any type of god and I don’t care one way or the other what anyone else believes, so long as they aren’t actively trying to change my mind.  I do however still celebrate Easter (in its commercial form with bunnies and baskets and colorful eggs) and I celebrate the heck out of Christmas.

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My son asked me the other day to explain why we celebrate Christmas.  Since he believes in God (as much as an eight year old can, anyway), I led with the birth of Jesus and a few details of why that is important.  I then told him that his daddy and I celebrate Christmas as a way to have fun with friends, show love to our family, spend quality time together, and to have a blast getting into the spirit and searching for the perfect gifts for the important people in our lives.  He nodded thoughtfully and then said “I love Christmas because I want to be with my family.  And so we can all get presents.  And because I love you guys.”

I don’t know what our boy will grow up to believe, and I really don’t care one way or the other so long as he’s happy, but I do hope that he holds on to the family piece of the holidays.  I’ve had lonely Christmases, either spent physically alone or spent with people who were so focused on both receiving gifts and trying to create a picture perfect meal surrounded by pristine decorations that they forgot to enjoy the people around them.  I prefer my broke Christmas day (when dollar store stockings were hung from a cheap entertainment center) over Christmas spent with family who only cared about whether or not there was something diamond encrusted in their stocking.

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Any idiot can go out and spend a bunch of money, even idiots who don’t have any so long as they can qualify for a credit card or two.  The dollar amount of the gifts you give and receive shouldn’t be what is important.  People always say that it’s the thought that matters, and while I may get tired of hearing it said, I believe it to be true.  My sister-in-law gets me a Coach purse every year because they’re pricey and it’s an impressive looking gift.  I appreciate the gesture but I don’t like or care at all about Coach or any other designer products.  My husband bough me socks one year that look like Chuck Taylor’s and they happen to be one of my absolute favorite accessories, even though the set of three couldn’t have been more than $10 or so.

Outside of the fun I have trying to find the perfect gifts for the people I love, I celebrate Christmas because it’s fun to be with my family.  Watching their expressions as they open a gift I worked hard to track down, laughing together over a freshly cooked meal, settling in under blankets to watch a Christmasy movie, and watching our dog tear into his stocking stuffers.  I don’t care whether or not we take a perfect photo of our morning to throw on social media, I don’t care if we don’t hear from each and every person we know via call or text, and I don’t care (obviously) about making it to any morning mass, sticking to a strict schedule.  I want to have fun, be relaxed, and enjoy the people I’m lucky enough to live my life with.

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I know the origins of Christmas and I understand that some people may not think that I have any business celebrating since I don’t believe that Jesus was the son of God.  But let’s be real; as huge and as commercialized as Christmas has become, people in this country are kind of forced to deal with it whether they want to or not.  Most of us get time off from our employers since most of the world shuts down for at least the first few hours of December 25th.  Like it or not, it’s hard to overlook this holiday.  Why wouldn’t I want to take advantage?  Not only do I get paid time off to spend with my family, I am given the perfect excuse to go all out for the people I care about and put a smile on their face.

As long as you have love in your heart (and your religion or lack thereof allows for it), Christmas is a holiday you can celebrate.  It’s so much more fun to wish people a Merry Christmas than it is to be that grumpy sod insisting people say “Happy Holidays.”  Decorating trees and hanging wreaths in your home is a surefire way to make anyone smile.  If you have children, I don’t need to tell you how much fun it is to play Santa for them.  If it’s important for you to find the “true” meaning of Christmas, go for it.  But understand that the true meaning for you, or even historically, is not the true meaning for us all.  Definitions change and people differ.  As long as we’re all joyous on this occasion, I think it’s safe to say that we’re all doing it right, even if we’re not all doing it the same.

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Trick or Trunk or Treat or…

Halloween was close to magical for me as a kid and still remains one of my favorite days out of the year.  I remember roaming the streets on Long Island, trying to get to as many houses as possible, finally being big enough to switch out the cheap Halloween bag for a pillow case, and working out strategies with friends so we could hit more houses in less time.  I always loved going to haunted houses in the area, especially one that was in what used to be a two-story department store.  My elementary school in Connecticut would allow the 5th grade classrooms to convert to haunted rooms every year, and I remember loving the tours as a young student and feeling so amazing and important when it was my turn to scare the heck out of my younger peers.  My first year in college, I dressed as the Grim Reaper (face paint and all) and scared my dorm mates to death.  I love Halloween.

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I passed a church the other day that will be doing a Trunk or Treat event this coming Sunday.  Children will dress up and go from car to car in the parking lot collecting treats and showing off their costume.  This has been going on for a few years now in various places (mostly churches) and is meant to be a safe alternative to sending your children roaming around your neighborhood.  Other alternatives that seem to be gaining popularity are having a backyard scavenger hunt with neighborhood children, getting a pinata and having all the candy in one place, trick or treating at malls that host such events, or organizing games and other activities that feature candy but aren’t centered around collecting it.

These alternate activities seem to not only be in response to a danger associated with trick or treating, but with the “fact” that Halloween is a very religious holiday and that makes it not okay for everyone to celebrate it and not okay for it to be celebrated in any fashion in schools.  A Pennsylvania school principal stated that “some holidays, like Halloween, are viewed…as having religious overtones. The district must always be mindful of the sensitivity of all the members of the community with regard to holidays and celebrations of a religious, cultural or secular nature. The United States Supreme Court has ruled that school districts may not endorse, prefer, favor, promote or advance any religious beliefs.”

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I’ll spare you the copy and pasting from my Google searches on the origins of Halloween, as there are many details and many theories about whether or not it is okay for someone of Christian faith to celebrate this holiday.  I was baptized and confirmed as a Catholic and not once did anyone associated with my church tell myself or my family that Halloween was wrong in any way.  My son was baptized in a Methodist church and the preacher who performed the ceremony addressed the Halloween issue (in a different service of course) and specifically stated that Halloween is a fun time for children and we should leave it as simple as that.

For a child, Halloween is simply a fun time to dress like a superhero or scary monster and get free candy from people around your home.  It’s a time to watch frightening movies and tell spooky stories with friends.  It’s a time to go to haunted houses, be it the truly frightening ones for the brave or the tame lights-on set ups at children’s museums and the like.  I have never known a child to question whether or not to celebrate Halloween due to religious or moral reasons.  The handful of children I knew that weren’t into Halloween felt that way because they considered themselves too old for it or because their parents pushed them into feeling that the day was silly/childish/not worth their time.

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If your family is that serious about Halloween being against your religion, then keep your child home from school that day and plan an alternative for them.  Maybe go to the movies or have a family outing elsewhere while everyone else is trick or treating so your child(ren) don’t have to sit at home and watch everyone around them have a blast.  What needs to stop happening is uptight parents sticking their nose in EVERYTHING and ruining good times for their own children and everyone else’s.  What is the harm in having decorations in an elementary school or having the cafeteria serve up Halloween-inspired goodies?  What is the harm in picking a parent to walk with a group of kids around the neighborhood?

By taking Halloween out of schools and trick or treating out of neighborhoods, you take childhood away from children.  You aren’t allowing them to simply be kids and have fun.  They are going to be miserable enough when they reach adulthood and find out that you can’t dress like Darth Vader in the office because it’s creepy rather than cute and quirky.  It’s selfish to rush these kids along and take away enjoyable childhood experiences because you have your panties in a twist about cartoon witches being evil and unavoidable sugar rushes.  This “everyone is out to get me” attitude needs to go away.  Halloween has morphed into a frighteningly fun holiday that seeks to exclude no one.  Can we quit nit-picking and simply enjoy?

Dear “Mom”

To my “mother,”

Since you apparently come here to read my words and frequently visit my Twitter page (in spite of your claim of not caring one way or the other about me), I figured it would be appropriate to write you a letter.  And no, it’s not slander as you say.  I’m not writing for a newspaper or a magazine.  I write for myself and welcome anyone who wants to take time to read it.  This is an editorial, if it is anything at all.  I don’t give out your personal information, I don’t post your email address so that people can harass you, and I don’t harass you myself.  If you choose to be here, it’s not my problem if you don’t like what you see.

It amazes me that someone who doesn’t care, as you say you do, is willing to spend so much time obsessing over me.  Do you know what I say to people I don’t care about and who I don’t want in my life?  Nothing.  Jack shit.  Unlike you, I don’t go out of my way to contact people who mean nothing to me.  Your hateful email was not only filled with poor grammar, but it was filled with emotion.  YOU can’t let ME go, not the other way around.  You hate that I’m doing so well.  You hate that I’m raising an amazing kid without your help.  You hate that I’m flourishing and growing.  You hate that I’m not an overweight slob like you were at 32.  You hate that I’m not 100% dependent on a man for my survival like you are.  You hate that I still matter to you, so you seek to bring me down so I’m just as miserable as you are.

You can consider me your godless whore of a child if you wish.  Funny, because I’m fairly sure that as a Christian, you are meant to have the belief that only God can judge.  You have no business damning me to hell as you do.  How well do you think you’ll be judged at the pearly gates for the way you treat me?  Where in the Bible does it say that it’s acceptable to throw stones at your own child?  Your faith is so twisted and perverted that it can hardly be called faith at all.  Luke 6:37 states “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.”  For someone who claims to be so religious, you sure as hell have no clue what you’re talking about.  Maybe you should read the Bible a tad more closely before you think about writing me another letter.

You have treated me like garbage for as long as I can remember.  You love to project this image of being a loving mother and devoted wife, but we both know the truth.  I can remember being three years old and having you yank my hair back and tell me “this is all your fault” after you got into a verbal altercation with my father.  I remember you slamming a door in my face, causing one of my teeth to fall out.  I remember all the things you try to deny and have probably forgotten about.  You never wanted me as your daughter, and that’s fine.  Pushing someone out of your body does not make someone a mother.  You didn’t become a mother until you had your son, your shining star.  You made it obvious that he was the golden child and I was a mistake.  And no, I’m not bitter.  I am lucky enough to have a mother in my life now who loves me to pieces.  My mother-in-law is a saint and I am endlessly thankful to have her.  She has shown me what a mother truly is.

Your threat to me to share all my dirty secrets with the world is such a silly threat.  Feel free to lie away.  Try and convince the world that I am a terrible person.  Open the closet and let all the skeletons out.  I don’t care.  If anyone wants to believe the words from a bitter old woman, let them.  I know the truth and deep down, so do you.  Anyone who chooses to believe your bullshit is clearly as unstable as you are, and therefore their opinion does not and will not matter to me.  If telling people how awful I am cures your loneliness for a moment, have at it.  If sharing stories about what a mess you think I am makes you feel better about yourself, go for it.  The only people who will buy into your crap are people who are just as damaged as you are.

My son is finally old enough to see what lies underneath your mask.  When he returned from his summer visit, one of the first things he said to me was how mean you are.  Without me even bringing you up, he told me how little he enjoys being around you.  He expressed his desire to never see you again and to only see my father.  He doesn’t understand why you speak so cruelly about me.  And no, before you throw another accusation at me, I do not tell him what I really think of you.  I have no desire to put my child in the middle of a petty battle.  YOU have put him there.  You carelessly threw my child in an uncomfortable place and now I have to try to pick up the pieces and make him understand that everything is okay.  Your spiteful attitude is affecting my child, and I’ll be damned if I let that continue.

Corinthians 13:4-7 states “Love is patient; love is kind. Love is not jealous; is not proud; is not conceited; does not act foolishly; is not selfish; is not easily provoked to anger; keeps no record of wrongs; takes no pleasure in unrighteousness, but rejoices in the truth; love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things.”  I’m sure as an avid reader of the Bible and a good Christian, you’re familiar with those verses.  (Yes, that is laced with sarcasm)  You don’t know what love is.  You have perverted and twisted the meaning of love to fit your warped view on the world.  You don’t love my son, you see him as a tool in your arsenal.  You use him to try to hurt me, just as you use everyone else in your life.  On the positive side though, knowing that you don’t have the faintest idea what love is makes me feel a hell of a lot better about the fact that you never loved your own child.  Monsters aren’t capable of such deep emotion.

I don’t hate you.  I nothing you.  The only reason you ever enter my mind is because my son has the unfortunate luck to be stuck with you a few times a year.  If not for that, you would never be so much as a whisper on my lips.  You are damn lucky that you married such a wonderful and understanding man, otherwise you would be doomed to die alone in an empty room with no one around to mourn the loss.  I have tried so many times to repair our relationship until I finally realized that there is no point in reasoning with a soulless person.  I will wake up tomorrow and the next day with a clear conscience.  You are the one who has to wake up and fight against the weight of the terrible things you have said and done.  Good luck with that.

Mother Of The Year

My parents and I don’t exactly see eye to eye on much.  My relationship with my father has improved over the years, but my mother refuses to make any effort to reconcile with me and seems content in acting as if she does not have a daughter.  Unfortunately for me, I don’t have the luxury of severing ties completely, as they have grandparent visitation rights to see my nearly eight year old son.  This is generally not an issue, as most visits are local ones with just my father, but two or three times a year, my son goes down to Georgia to visit with them both for an extended time.  Recently, they had their two week summer visit in Georgia and my son came back with quite a few stories.

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The first story was one I’ve heard before.  My mother has been telling my boy that I am going to hell.  My mother was never big into church until my little brother got very religious and started playing drums in the church band.  Since then, she began reading religious texts and talking about God quite frequently.  A few Christmases ago, she sent me a letter with a bit of scripture and notes describing what a terrible person I am.  It was something she also did before I moved away; highlighted bible verses with notes on why those words meant I was a bad person.  It was something I just had to get used to and learn to ignore.

My son recently let me know about her now telling him that his mother will be going to hell.  In his words, “Grammy said that you’re going to the bad place downstairs because you’re not a nice person.”  I shouldn’t have been shocked, but I was.  For a grown woman to tell this to an impressionable child simply blew my mind.  This is the same woman who gave me all my baby photos and memorabilia about a year ago with a note about how she didn’t “need this stuff” anymore, so I definitely get that she despises me, but I could not believe that she stooped so low as to bring my child into this.  This resulted in a very uncomfortable conversation with my boy.

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Thankfully he understands (I think) that she is talking nonsense.  My mother-in-law is very religious and by comparing her to my mother, my boy was able to see that no one who believes in God should be talking in that way.  He was able to see the difference between a loving person and one who is just confused and bitter.  I hope that he truly does get it and isn’t walking about thinking that his own mother is doomed to burn for all eternity.  At this point, he is old enough to see that she isn’t the nicest person in the world and he has expressed freely that he doesn’t enjoy his time with her; he prefers visits with just my father where he doesn’t have to listen to poisonous words about his parents.

This morning, my boy let me in on a bit more of what my mother says when I’m not around.  According to him, my mother says that I “stole him from her while she was at work” when he was a baby.  It’s pretty damn difficult for me to steal my own child, but I know that she is referring to the time when I decided to leave Georgia in order to begin a life with my husband in Indiana.  We packed up my belongings and hit the road while my mother was at work in order to avoid her interference.  The stealing part is odd, as both my parents knew about my husband and my plans and knew exactly where I was headed.  They simply didn’t like it.

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I didn’t leave them behind due to some selfish reason or out of spite.  I left because my son and I needed to be in a healthy environment so we could flourish.  I needed to get my child away from the woman who tried multiple times to get my son to call HER mother instead of me.  The woman who physically abused me and might do the same to my son.  The woman who fights with poisonous words as she seeks to make others as miserable as she is.  The woman who refuses to take medication to fix whatever is mentally wrong with her as she falsely accuses me of being bipolar.  My life has been fantastic since leaving and she hates that.

I don’t consider myself to be a bad person, especially not in the way my own mother views me.  Yes, I’m an atheist, but I’m not trying to mold my son into a godless person as well.  He believes in God and likes the idea that we go to heaven when we die, and I don’t try to break that belief, I simply tell him about all the various things that people choose to believe in so he can make his own decision.  I’m not on drugs or drinking to excess, wasting my life away on substance abuse.  I sure as hell am not bipolar and “off my medication” as she claims.  I’m not damaging my son, who is at the top of his class, incredibly curious and eager to learn, and one of the sweetest kids you will ever meet.  I’m not the best mom, but I’m a damn good one and my son knows it and loves me for it.

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Every child needs to choose their own path once they reach adulthood, and there is a pretty good chance that the path won’t be one that the parents imagined.  And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.  If my mom had her way, I’d be married to this little shrimp of a guy (because his parents are rich as all get out), living in Georgia as a housewife and raising two or three children, going to the salon weekly, and prancing around town like a little princess with my gorgeous children and my wealthy husband.  The fact that I passed up Mr. Money Bags in favor of a man I love who doesn’t make six figures is incredibly confusing to her.  The improvements I’ve made in my life mean nothing to her because I didn’t do things her way.

Right now, I’m not sure what my next course of action is in order to get her to stop trying to confuse my child and make him think his parents are terrible people.  Reasoning with this woman is next to impossible and due to her health issues, my father is reluctant to interfere and stress her out.  Going back to court is definitely an idea in order to get visitation reduced so that he has less time around her, but that is complicated and timely and sure as hell didn’t go my way the first go round.  I just know I’m going to have to do some serious thinking to solve this because I do not want my son caught in the middle and forced to listen to lies out of the mouth of a broken woman.

Boogey Man

I’m probably something of an oddity when it comes to being an atheist.  I don’t believe in the God I came to know growing up as a Catholic and I don’t believe in any other God from any other religion.  I don’t believe in an unknown higher power and I don’t believe that we were put here for some incredible reason that is meant to make our lives more meaningful.  I believe Jesus existed but I don’t believe that He was the son of a God and that he rose from the dead after being crucified.  I believe every answer for the question of why we are here and how we were created can be answered scientifically.  Yet for some reason, I do believe in the supernatural to some extent.

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I don’t buy into the idea that every single one of us will become a spirit after the last breath of air leaves our body, or that we are reincarnated and able to live on in another form.  It’s more of a belief that sometimes, a part of us is left behind when we pass.  Ghosts and hauntings were always a fun part of my childhood, mostly due to movies and television shows that I enjoyed.  Back when I believed in heaven and hell, I believed that any spirit not bound for one of those locations was doomed to walk the Earth as a ghost until they figured it out.  As I grew up and my beliefs changed, I abandoned that idea of ghosts in favor of one that fit the things I have seen and experienced.

I worked at a restaurant where an 18 year old boy had died while attempting to get high using the soda machine’s CO2 tank.  I had no idea this occurred until one afternoon when an older employee freaked out after yet another of us girls found ourselves locked in the supply room behind a door that had no lock on it.  On a regular basis, the supply room door would show complete disregard for the door stop and the lack of a lock and slam on us, locking us in.  We used to joke about a supply room ghost, but I never gave much thought to it or the random items that would fall from the shelves until the older employee told us that the young boy had died in that room and she believed that his playful spirit was still around.  She would never go into that room herself.

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Was it a ghost?  I have no idea.  But it could have been.  There was never a reason for the door to slam, no reason for a door with no lock to become locked to the person on the inside, and never a reason for items to fall from the shelves.  I didn’t view these events with the serious thought that a spirit could be responsible, just as I didn’t give serious thought to the idea that one of my college dorms was haunted or that my high school gym had a live-in ghost.  Since having an experience that I cannot explain, I became very curious and did a lot of research to see if there truly was something to it or if I was just allowing myself to become part of a joke.

I’m not going to give you a list of scientific explanations that give credibility to the existence of the supernatural because you either believe or you don’t.  It’s not my place to try to convince you and I’m not attempting to start a debate about whether or not a ghost could exist.  I’ve just noticed lately that atheism doesn’t really fit with belief in the supernatural.  And I don’t see why that has to be.  Most atheists like to throw facts and evidence in the face of religious folk, knowing they cannot counter because you cannot show concrete and irrefutable evidence of a God.  My belief that something supernatural could exist, be it spirits or simply residual energy, can be backed up by scientific evidence which is why I see some credibility in it.  Religion has nothing to do with it.

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For me, being an atheist means I don’t have a set of rules regarding my belief system.  I don’t have a God, I don’t have rules about how I spend my Sunday, and I live by a moral code rather than worrying about what counts as a sin and what is acceptable.  But even if I wanted to be an atheist who believes that people are sometimes reincarnated as dogs, I fail to see how that is an issue and how that contradicts my lack of belief in God.  I don’t identify as an atheist because I want to fit a specific mold, I identify as one because I believe in no God whatsoever.  That should have nothing to do with the rest of my life.

With vocal atheists like Ricky Gervais calling attention to the rest of us, atheism as a whole is being scrutinized more closely than it normally would.  Perhaps this whole “atheists can’t believe in ghosts” argument is simply a way at poking holes in my lack of belief and trying to show me that belief in anything intangible means I should believe in God.  It’s really the only explanation I can come up with for this nonsense.  The bottom line is that I will give credibility to things that have earned it.  The supernatural has earned it in my personal life and in the bits of research I’ve done.  It’s as simple as that.

A Fresh Start

There is nothing positive I can say about the Westboro Baptist Church.  Absolutely nothing.  I can’t think of a single thing they have done for this world that isn’t disgusting and hate-filled.  I fully support freedom of religion, but there is no excuse for the horrible ways the WBC takes advantage of this freedom and attacks people who are wholly undeserving of such terrible treatment.  I’m not sure if they are motivated solely by their religious beliefs or if there is a cry for attention there as well, but no reasoning can justify the things they do and the way they treat people, other children of God according to the bible they claim to follow.

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Megan Phelps-Roper, granddaughter of church leader Fred Phelps, has been on my radar since she made a scene at one of Kevin Smith’s movie premieres.  Phelps-Roper left the movie premiere in typical WBC fashion; making a scene and bringing attention to her hate-filled church.  Smith and Phelps-Roper had been engaging in a heated back and forth on Twitter, which continued for a while after the movie premiere.  I followed their argument fairly closely and it honestly just made me sad.  Worse than what the WBC does is the way the younger members of the church are brainwashed into becoming close-minded sheep who waste so much time on hate that they have no time to truly live.

Recently, Phelps-Roper posted a link to her blog on Twitter.  She wrote:

“There’s no fresh start in today’s world. Any twelve-year-old with a cell phone could find out what you did. Everything we do is collated and quantified. Everything sticks.”  Don’t act surprised that I’m quoting Batman. At WBC, reciting lines from pop culture is par for the course. And why not? The sentiments they express are readily identifiable by the masses – and shifting their meaning is as easy as giving them new context. So put Selina Kyle’s words in a different framework:  In a city in a state in the center of a country lives a group of people who believe they are the center of the universe; they know Right and Wrong, and they are Right. They work hard and go to school and get married and have kids who they take to church and teach that continually protesting the lives, deaths, and daily activities of The World is the only genuine statement of compassion that a God-loving human can sincerely make. As parents, they are attentive and engaged, and the children learn their lessons well.

This is my framework.  Until very recently, this is what I lived, breathed, studied, believed, preached – loudly, daily, and for nearly 27 years.  I never thought it would change. I never wanted it to.  Then suddenly: it did.  And I left.  Where do you go from there?  I don’t know, exactly. My sister Grace is with me, though. We’re trying to figure it out together.

There are some things we do know.  We know that we’ve done and said things that hurt people. Inflicting pain on others wasn’t the goal, but it was one of the outcomes. We wish it weren’t so, and regret that hurt.  We know that we dearly love our family. They now consider us betrayers, and we are cut off from their lives, but we know they are well-intentioned. We will never not love them.  We know that we can’t undo our whole lives. We can’t even say we’d want to if we could; we are who we are because of all the experiences that brought us to this point. What we can do is try to find a better way to live from here on. That’s our focus.  Up until now, our names have been synonymous with “God Hates Fags.” Any twelve-year-old with a cell phone could find out what we did. We hope Ms. Kyle was right about the other part, too, though – that everything sticks – and that the changes we make in our lives will speak for themselves.

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Megan Phelps-Roper has had enough.  She has left the WBC, a decision that cuts her off from the majority of her family whether she likes it or not.  She is now faced with the daunting task of starting over and shedding the hate-filled image she has lived in for most of her life.  As Phelps-Roper pointed out, the ease of acquiring information makes it impossible for her to fully escape her past.  To be honest, she doesn’t deserve to escape it fully.  Apologies should be made and bridges should be mended, but the acts should not be forgotten and pushed aside just because she now desires to be free of the WBC.

That said, Phelps-Roper does deserve to be given a chance.  It takes a lot of courage to walk away from something so big, leaving your family and everything you know behind.  It took a lot of guts for her to question the WBC’s message and to finally stand up and say that it isn’t right.  It’s going to be quite the challenge for her to move forward without the support of her family and her church community.  It’s going to be even harder for her to convince people that she has in fact changed and is ready to start over with a new outlook on life and on her community.

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If Phelps-Roper is serious and genuine, and I believe that she is, I wish her the very best of luck and I am hoping for her to find success and happiness in this new path in her life.  The fact that she is stepping away, after all the work she has done in social media to bring attention to the WBC, speaks volumes.  The mentality of the other church members makes me feel certain that she will not be welcomed back if she has a change of heart, so this is a very permanent step for her.  I hope that she is given the chance to prove herself and isn’t instantly dismissed by people who wish to hold her past against her regardless of what she is presently doing.

One thing we should take from Phelps-Roper’s decision is that it’s not only okay to question what we are taught, but it’s an intelligent decision to do so.  The teaching of any church, or even lessons from our parents or other elders, are just words coming from other human beings.  Imperfect human beings, fully capable of making mistakes and being misinformed.  We cannot allow blind trust to override common sense.  We cannot stand by and be content in a world view when deep down we feel that it is wrong.  We have the right to ask questions, we have the right to make our own decisions, and we have the right to educate ourselves.  For all her faults, Phelps-Roper made those first steps.  Here’s hoping more of the WBC, and groups like it, follow suit.

Ten Percent To God

I waited tables at various restaurants for a decent sized chunk of my life.  I’ve received amazing tips and I’ve been stiffed on bills.  I’ve had nights where I take in hundreds and nights where it’s barely worth the drive to and from work.  I’ve had to clean macaroni off of light fixtures and ketchup fingerpaint masterpieces off of windows.  Being a server is a job that I mostly loved, sometimes hated, but am always thankful that I had a chance to work.  It taught me a lot about the food industry and about human nature.  It’s very interesting to see how different people treat those who serve them their food, especially when the service involves a tip that is mostly under the control of the customer (except with large parties if a policy is in place).  Naturally, I was instantly drawn to the recent story involving an Applebee’s server and a tip from a customer who happened to be a pastor.

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The server, Chelsea Welch, was fired from Applebee’s after posting the receipt from Pastor Alois Bell on Reddit.com.  Welch stated that she found the note insulting, but also comical, which is why she shared the photo online.  Bell called the restaurant and complained, and because her signature was visible in the photo and it was obvious that it was her, the restaurant felt justified in firing Welch.  The former Applebee’s server disagrees, saying that it was obvious Bell wanted her note to be seen.  While she may have wanted it to be seen by staff, Bell obviously didn’t count on the receipt going viral and did request that Applebee’s fire everyone involved.  She later apologized and called the note a lapse in judgment, but the damage is already done to the server who lost her job and to her church’s image.

In an email to the Huffington Post, Applebee’s spokesperson Dan Smith stated:  “Our Guests’ personal information – including their meal check – is private, and neither Applebee’s nor its franchisees have a right to share this information publicly. We value our Guests’ trust above all else. Our franchisee has apologized to the Guest and has taken disciplinary action with the Team Member for violating their Guest’s right to privacy. This individual is no longer employed by the franchisee.”

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Waiting tables is a tiring and often thankless job.  The hourly paid wage, generally set at slightly above $2, will usually go entirely to taxes; the only actual paycheck I received from any restaurant I was employed at was the check from my time training.  Many servers also have to share a portion of their tips with the host or hostess, the bussers, the expediter, and the bartenders.  When I was employed at Applebee’s, we were required to add the 18% gratuity to large parties, just as Welch did to Bell’s party.  The customers can tip on top of that amount if they choose, or can leave the bill as is.  My opinion is that an additional tip should be added because large parties add extra work to the server, are more demanding, and reduce the amount of tables the server can turn on their shift.  As long as the server does a good job, they deserve a few dollars on top of the gratuity already added.

Bell claims that she did in fact leave cash on the table on top of the already added gratuity, something that unfortunately can’t be easily verified.  The note she left on the receipt, however, is clear as day.  God receives 10% and it’s unreasonable for Welch to receive 18%, therefore she receives nothing else.  Bell also felt it was key to inform Welch that she is a pastor and therefore qualified to speak on this matter.  The tip amount isn’t what I find issue with, since the gratuity did ensure that Welch was compensated for her work on Bell’s party.  The issue is that Bell felt the need to leave Welch a note and emphasize that the reason she wasn’t entitled to a larger tip was because God required his 10%.

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I have received plenty of crappy tips tucked inside a religious pamphlet, or just the literature and no tip at all.  I’ve had people write me notes asking God to bless me in lieu of a tip.  I got to the point to where I would cringe at the first sight of those pamphlets, knowing they would be lying on the table accompanied by a dollar if I was lucky.  I’ve also had tips in the neighborhood of 50% left by people involved with the local church.  It’s important that no one confuses religious belief with being cheap and stingy, as that is not the case.  Bell was under no obligation whatsoever to add a tip on top of the gratuity, although I believe it should be done.  What she WAS obligated to do was be polite and not make someone feel badly or feel as if they aren’t important enough to be compensated fairly.  It was rude to leave the note and even ruder to emphasize that Welch wasn’t entitled to even the 18% gratuity.

If Bell’s goal was to educate Welch and her fellow employees about God, this was the wrong way to do it.  If she was trying to emphasize that her beliefs and dedication are both strong, this was not the place or the time for it.  What Bell did manage to accomplish was successfully making religious people look cheap and feeding the stereotype that the devout are poor tippers.  Bell successfully made herself look like a fool who thinks it is appropriate to abuse her title as a pastor.  She then took it a step further and demanded Welch lose her job because she was rightfully upset by Bell’s disrespectful note.  Welch was wrong in including Bell’s signature in the photo, but I don’t find fault in her sharing the note online.  Imagine if at the end of your exhausting work day, your boss denied you partial compensation because God was due his share.  You’re lying if you claim you’d be fine with that.

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Customers at any restaurant have the right to tip what they wish and to leave religious pamphlets if they so choose.  Servers have the right to throw those pamphlets in the trash and complain about the crappy tip, or lack thereof, that they received.  I’m unsure why Bell thought it was appropriate to scribble a Godly note all over the receipt that the restaurant keeps in their records, but she did it to make a point and we’ve all heard it loud and clear.  She was within her rights to deny additional tip and to spread the word of God and she was within her rights to complain when the receipt when viral.  But in doing so, she put herself in a position to be scrutinized and to deserve some backlash.  Bell opened the door and now she wants to complain because people are walking through it.  She acted on some bizarre impulse and now she is unhappy because people all over the country are finding out about it.  She realized too late that a note on a receipt with her full name on it wasn’t the proper place for her message.

I hope that Welch is able to secure another job quickly and I hope that something is learned from this event.  There is a right way and a wrong way to go around spreading a message.  There is a level of respect that should be maintained regardless of who you are dealing with and what they are paid to do for you.  There is a certain level of personal responsibility that must be taken if you’re leaving embarrassing things lying around with your name and/or face attached to them.  There are better ways of acting on your frustrations than simply going on impulse.  And there is absolutely no reason whatsoever to be rude to a stranger, especially one who just spent the better part of their evening ensuring that you and your companions are having a good time.

God’s Will And My Body

“You know, this is that issue that every candidate for federal or even state office faces. And I have to certainly stand for life. I know that there are some who disagree, and I respect their point of view. But I believe that life begins at conception. The only exception I have to have an abortion is in that case — of the life of the mother. I struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize life is that gift from God. And I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.”Richard Mourdock

I haven’t always been an atheist heathen.  I was raised Catholic, baptized as a baby, received my communion, and was confirmed as a member of the Catholic church as a teenager.  At 16, I would accompany a friend to youth group in the Baptist church he belonged to.  I prayed when things were good and prayed even more when things got rough.  I believed that my past friends and relatives were watching me from heaven and I hoped that I was a good enough person to land there myself.  And then, I went through a string of awful events in my life that no amount of prayer or belief could fix.  I was even shunned by a local Catholic church for having a child out of wedlock.  I lost my belief and I’m okay with it, but I do still understand and respect those who believe in God and would never insult them for it.

I was trying to avoid weighing in on Mourdock’s comment, but it’s been bothering me and I can’t seem to escape it.  It’s a topic that hits close to home in a way for me; I didn’t get pregnant due to a rape or anything of that nature, but I went through some other things on the list of things a woman should never experience.  I also lost 90% of my belongings, including things that are irreplaceable.  The list goes on and is a tad too personal to list here, but the point is that I suffered and was surrounded by people telling me that it was God’s will and that God had a plan for me.  God was pushing me, testing me, and preparing me for something great.  God would never give me more than I could handle, so I shouldn’t worry.  God knows best.  I’m sorry, but I can’t believe that my personal shit storm was part of some greater being’s plan for me.

I understand the belief that life is a gift from God.  The creation of a human life is a special thing regardless of religion and should be respected.  I understand the belief that life begins at conception; I don’t think the fetus can be considered a life until further into the pregnancy, as it is too underdeveloped in those early stages, but I respect those who believe it begins at the moment the sperm and the egg collide.  What I do not and cannot respect is the idea that God has it in His plan for women to be brutally raped and for a pregnancy to result.  I do not believe God would want these women to be mentally scarred and to bear a child that is a constant reminder of this violent and personal attack.  I do not believe that anyone would continue to worship a God that would cause so much pain and suffering, throwing babies into awful situations with abandon.

This is ultimately an issue of whether or not abortion is right and proper.  Is it wrong for a woman to get an abortion regardless of the situation or is it wrong only when abortion is used as a form of birth control due to the irresponsible actions of the man and woman?  Mourdock isn’t the only one who feels abortion is wrong; Republican Todd Akin stated that women cannot get pregnant if they are victims of “legitimate rape” because their bodies will just say no.  It amazes me what people will say when they are pro-life and believe abortion to be a horrible and unthinkable act.  To say that a pregnancy caused by rape is God’s will or to say that a pregnancy is impossible if the rape isn’t legitimate is insulting, incorrect, ignorant, and pretty idiotic.

The National Abortion Federation states that “surgical abortion is one of the safest types of medical procedures. Complications from having a first-trimester aspiration abortion are considerably less frequent and less serious than those associated with giving birth. Early medical abortion (using medications to end a pregnancy) has a similar safety profile.”  Research shows that abortions performed before the 24th week of pregnancy do not cause the fetus any pain since they happen before cells are specialized, so there can be no pain to the fetus because there are no nerve cells formed yet.  In some cases, choosing abortion is a better option than having the baby.  This naturally doesn’t mesh well with everyone’s beliefs, but women should be given the right to choose and to seek out abortions so long as they are done safely in a clinic and done early on in the pregnancy.

Abortion is now and should remain an option for women who are raped and find themselves pregnant while still reeling from their attack.  Women should have the right to rid themselves of every memory of a rape, especially in the case of incest, without being made to feel guilty, to feel like monsters, or to feel like it wasn’t a rape because they secretly wanted it to happen.  I find it wrong when women get 7 or 8 abortions due to their irresponsibility with birth control, but I respect their right to do what they wish with their body and with the fetus prior to it becoming too developed.  In the case of rape, there should be no question of whether a woman has the right to abortion, and especially no nonsense about the father’s rights; once he made the decision to sexually assault a woman, he lost his rights to any child that may have come from that attack.

It frightens me a bit how much and how strongly religion is brought into politics.  There is meant to be a separation between church and government, and we’ve definitely seen evidence of this in our schools, as Christmas celebrations have become treeless holiday parties, prayers are banned, and God must be absent.  We are so extreme about keeping our children in a religion-free learning environment, yet the people who we elect to lead us, both state and countrywide, are allowed and almost expected to make their religion known and to quote their God while proposing policy?

This is not a country where God is an absolute.  Not to be rude, but you can’t prove His existence and you can’t force every person in this nation to accept Him as their one and only God.  As such, this country should not have to hear politicians throw God around while trying to create such serious policies as the legality of abortion and whether or not a fetus is a viable life during the first trimester of pregnancy.  Of course the politician should use their belief system to guide them, but they should not be coming out and stating that X is true because God says so.  That isn’t law.  To a nonbeliever such as myself, that is fiction.  It’s convenient to say God wills it so, and since God cannot be seen, heard, or confirmed, it’s all too easy to say X and Y is His will since it cannot be questioned.

Everyone is free to believe what they will, but when you are a person who has the power to change our nation, you must base your arguments in logic and provide concrete information and solid reasoning.  Had Mourdock simply stated that he has a moral issue with abortions in any case and while he sympathizes with woman in situations of rape and incest, he simply can’t say that he is in full support of abortion, I doubt people would be hitting him as hard as they are right now.  Instead, he chose to throw God into the mix and declare it His will that victims of rape and incest find themselves pregnant.  He made himself look foolish and he reconfirmed my belief that there are too many politicians using God as their scapegoat when they can’t quite find the right argument to use in order to make their point.

I want to conclude with the words of Reverend Susan Russell, Episcopal priest from California:

As a priest and pastor I can’t count the number of times I have met with, talked with, counseled with and engaged with people who struggle to make sense of “the God thing.” Many of those conversations start out with the statement “I don’t believe in God.” But once I get them to tell me about the God they don’t believe in, it turns out I don’t believe in that God either.  Because here’s the deal: If I thought my only choice was between “Richard Mourdock’s God” (who “intends” that a woman bear the child of her rapist) and “No God,” then I would be an atheist faster than Mitt Romney can change positions on a political issue.

But I am not an atheist. The God I know and serve is one of justice, love and compassion — not judgment, exclusion and condemnation. The Jesus I follow is the one who preached peace, challenged poverty and liberated women. And the church I belong to is one that stands proudly in the prophetic tradition — committed to putting our faith into action on the issues of social justice that challenge our generation just as our forbears did in theirs.

As theologically indefensible as I find his position on a woman’s right to choose, the First Amendment protects his right to be whatever kind of Christian or Muslim or Jew or Buddhist or Atheist they choose to be.  What the First Amendment does NOT protect is the right of any of us to write our theology into our Constitution — something Joe Biden got totally right in his vice presidential debate with Paul Ryan“I accept my church’s position that life begins at conception. That’s the church’s judgment. I accept it in my personal life. But I refuse to impose it on equally devout Christians and Muslims and Jews and — I just refuse to impose that on others, unlike my friend here, the congressman. I do not believe that we have a right to tell other people that women can’t control their body.”

There are many things at stake in this presidential election, but choosing between faith and freedom is not one of them. Protecting the freedom of others to believe what they choose to believe about what “God intends” protects not only our own freedom to believe what “God intends” but defends our democracy from the very real threat of theocracy embodied in the policies of candidates like Richard Mourdock. And that is a battle worth fighting — no matter what you believe or don’t believe about God!

Let Us Pray

This morning, a Captain that used to work in my office returned for his promotion ceremony to the rank of Major.  I decided to attend as soon as I found out about the ceremony, as the Major was always very helpful when we worked together and always threw me extra projects because he knew I wanted the work.  The ceremony was very nice; short and sweet and heartfelt.  It also was opened and closed by a retired Staff Sergeant leading the group in a prayer.

I am a former Catholic who is now an Atheist.  There is no religion out there that satisfies me and my lifestyle.  I celebrate Christmas and Easter still, but as family holidays rather than holidays based around God.  The last time I prayed was when I was living in a shitty room for rent, working a dead-end job, and escaping an abusive relationship.  It was one prayer at the end of many unanswered prayers.  Countless times, I had turned to God only to receive a deaf ear.  Countless times, I reached out to the church community only to have them judge me and tell me how wrong I was rather than offer guidance and help.  As I educated myself further and looked into various areas of Christianity, I came to the conclusion that religion is a fairy tale.  In my opinion.

When I am in a room and everyone bows their head for prayer, I can’t help but feel incredibly awkward.  Out of respect, I don’t play on my cell phone, blow bubbles with my gum, or remain seated while everyone stands to bow their heads.  Outside of standing and staying quiet though, I don’t participate.  My head does not bow down, my hands do not clasp together, and I do not whisper an “amen” when the prayer concludes.  I simple stand, casting sideways glances around the room, until the prayer concludes and I can sit back down.

This definitely could be construed as me being rude to the people trying to pray.  I’ve had it said to me that I should “fake it” when caught in a group prayer, going through the motions and saying “amen” at the conclusion of the prayer.  I don’t see abstaining in the manner I chose to do as rude though.  On the contrary, I think I’m being quite polite.  I didn’t storm out of the room or sit in my chair playing Angry Birds while the rest of the group spoke to God.  I didn’t get offended that I was thrown into a prayer without my consent.  I didn’t feel like religion was being forced on me and I didn’t make a scene.  I was quiet and just ignored it all.

For me, the rudeness comes in when people demand that cashiers no longer wish them a Merry Christmas, when schools aren’t allowed to have fun making Easter baskets, and when fun holiday decorations become an offense instead of something fun and eye-catching.  Freedom of religion is our right, and we can’t have the freedom to our own if we don’t allow everyone else the freedom to theirs.  This is why I don’t understand why Christmas trees aren’t allowed in certain places; why not accommodate everyone instead of taking the joy out of everything?  Why must people take offense to things that aren’t put into place for the purpose of offending?  If it’s not causing injury and if it represents love, what is the harm?

I’m not saying it’s wrong to have an opinion of other religions or lack thereof.  I fault no one for thinking I’m a moron or that I’m hellbound for being an Atheist.  I don’t expect everyone to understand it.  What I do expect is for them to have as much respect for me as I have for them.  For them to confront me about my belief that there is no God is as rude as it would be for me to tarnish their prayers with words of my disbelief and preferences.  Yes, I’m uncomfortable with prayer, but why should my issue be everyone else’s problem?  What right is it of mine to take away from someone else’s experience just because I don’t like it?

I’m no saint, but I think this is one area where I shine a tiny bit.  If more people just put their personal issues aside for a little while and have a little bit of respect for others, perhaps it would lead to more tolerance all across the board.  Rather than snap at the cashier who wishes you Merry Christmas, telling her you’re Jewish, maybe just smile and say thanks with the understanding that she is being polite, not trying to insult you.  Remember that you have the right to abstain from activities that don’t mesh with your beliefs, but you can do so respectfully; unless a survey of religious beliefs was taken beforehand, no one is trying to call you out or make you feel like an outcast.  Maybe becoming tolerant of this and going back to a time where we could put up Christmas trees in public places without backlash from certain groups.  Maybe it will bring on a tolerance for other things; sexual orientation, disabilities, race, social class.  Hell, maybe it won’t do a damn thing, but at least at the end of the day it’ll leave you feeling like a good person because you had a chance to be an asshole and instead decided to act like a nice and normal human being.

Yeah, Yeah, I’m Going To Hell

I recently received a comment on a blog I posted a while back about religion that told me I need to “open my mind” and questioned my beliefs because something must have existed before the big bang and “after the future,” whatever that means.  If you’re not familiar with my religious background, I was raised Catholic but abandoned my belief in God for a number of reasons.  I’m not shy about that fact, but I’m also pretty respectful about it; I don’t go around telling religious folk that they’re wrong/stupid/ill-informed unless they are in fact a moron who uses religion in a harmful way.  If you’re an ass who tells homosexuals they will burn in hell while hiding behind a bible, I’m going to blast you.  If you’re a God-fearing person who goes to church every Sunday and enjoys prayer, I respect your lifestyle and have nothing negative to say about you.

The idiot that commented on my previous blog, telling me to open my mind, represents the kind of religious person I dislike.  If someone asks, I’ll openly say that I don’t believe in God, but I don’t go around broadcasting that news to everyone while questioning those who disagree with me.  It confuses me that certain religious people lack the same respect for others; while waiting tables I was often left God pamphlets, I get told that people will pray for me because I’m not religious, I get questioned and almost harassed by certain people because I lack a belief in God, and I’m told I’ll “come around” or end up in hell.

In my opinion, I’m not the one who needs to open my mind.  My mind is completely open.  I am educated about Catholicism, my former religion, Christianity, as well as numerous other religions that are presently practiced and those that were practiced in the past.  I believe that everyone is entitled to believe whatever they wish and everyone is entitled to believe that others are incorrect if they believe something different.  I also believe that the ability to speak doesn’t give you the right to open your mouth wide and attempt to convert others to your religion because you think you’ve got it right.  You don’t get to tell people like me to open our minds just because we don’t choose to buy into the things you believe in.

I’m not a perfect person by any means, but I’ve never condemned someone for believing in God, for believing prayers can be answered, or believing in any sort of higher power or organized religion.  I may think Scientology is moronic, but I don’t seek out Scientologists and bash them for what they hold to be true.  I don’t think Jesus was anything beyond a great man, but I’m not going to tell people they’re wrong for believing he is the product of a virgin birth and the son of God.  I get to say whatever I damn well please on this blog because it belongs to me.  When I start visiting Christian websites and leaving rude comments on their page, then there is reason for religious people to attack me.  And I’ll tell you right now, it won’t happen.  I have better things to do.

Everyone has the right to publicly bitch though, so I suspect the religious crowd will continue to show up now and then and try to save me from eternal damnation.  What I would like is for them to open THEIR minds a tad and have some damn respect.  There is one person who I went back and forth with in comments for a while who made it clear that it would be great if I changed my mind and embraced the Lord, but who also was incredibly sweet about the whole thing.  They acknowledged that there are religious nutcases out there and they can be intolerable, but they also showed me the brighter side of the devout; the respectful side who wishes to save those they believe need it but who also don’t take it upon themselves to bully people into embracing God.  It was a breath of fresh air but it also made me a bit sad that more people can’t be that way.

If I’m a close-minded moron and if I face eternity in the fiery pits of hell for denying God’s existence, that is my problem and mine alone.  I’m not damning my son by telling him God doesn’t exist (he was baptized and he attends church every so often with my mother-in-law and other family) and I’m not standing on street corners with a megaphone trying to get others to give up religion in favor of Atheism.  I’m simply believing what I think is right and I’m doing so without being a criminal or horrible person.  I’m not being a hypocrite by going to church just because I think I’ll be struck by lightning or judged by my peers if I don’t, nor am I hurting a single solitary soul by believing God is a fictional character.  I’m not the one with the closed mind.

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