Life Lessons From Water Fowl

I was watching geese the other day.  A mother was leading a whole brood of goslings around a lawn as they all poked around through the grass in search of little food bits.  The little ones were well into their adolescence, and, rather than looking like grey fuzzballs with vague goose-like qualities, they now looked more like adult geese with a few vague fuzz-like qualities.

Childhood duck rebellion: just a phase?

Seeing these gooselets mid-transformation like that made me realize something. I actually had a small epiphany. All by myself. And yes, as dumb as this may be, it was about the story of the ugly duckling.

I have, of course, known this story since childhood (it being a children’s story, and all), and have not given it much thought since. It’s always seemed like a one-trick pony to me as parables go. A duckling is ugly and doesn’t fit in with his peers who mock him about it, until he grows up to discover that he’s not a duck at all but a swan and more beautiful than all those assholes. “You might be ugly now, but someday you can blossom into something beautiful.” Easy enough.

Well, that morning as I watched those geese I realized: I had that story entirely wrong! The moral of the story has absolutely nothing to do with beauty! Looking at it now, it’s easy to see why I made the mistake. I mean even the title The Ugly Duckling leads one to think in terms of ugliness versus non-ugliness.  I’ve always been pretty good at missing the point.

 See, even some swans are ugly…

So I finally get it. That story isn’t about finding your inner beauty or blossoming or any of that bullshit.  It has a much much MUCH better message than that. The Ugly Duckling isn’t the story of an ugly duck who finally achieves beauty, it’s about a fucking swan who’s told his whole life that he’s something he isn’t. It’s about the stories people tell us about ourselves and whether or not we choose to accept those stories. It’s about trying to wedge yourself into a mold that has nothing to do with you in an attempt to fit in.  That little bird’s eventual happiness doesn’t come from finally being beautiful, but from finally understanding what he really is as opposed to what everybody else wanted him to be.

I have no idea whether this was obvious to everyone else or not, but this is a revelation for me and I now LOVE this story. I can relate to it on so many levels! I’m planted firmly in my thirties now, and it’s taken me this long to realize how desperate everyone around me is to make me accept their definition of who I am (and, honestly, how much I do the same bullshit to others).

Anyway, the crux is that if I ever have children, this story is now at the top of my list. I can’t imagine a more important lesson for a child to learn than the notion that they don’t have to accept anyone’s idea of who or what they are except their own. Let ’em tell you you’re a duck all they want- if you feel like a swan, be a damned swan!

Pray For Me

Bill Cosby once did a whole routine about how silly it was that people pray to god for a big win in a casino.  He said god was way too busy to help you get the card you need at the blackjack table. As an alternative, he suggested that you pray to his friend Rudy. Rudy was lazy, you see, and had plenty of time to handle all the frivolous prayers god wasn't going to bother with. And, as Bill put it: "You'll get the same result!"

Indeed.  I've oft wondered why the "same result" factor has not played more prominently into the believer's mindset. The fact of the matter is that when someone prays for some specific outcome, whether it be that grandma gets healed or Suzy does well on a math test, god is off the hook no matter what the actual result. If grandma lives- it's a miracle! If she dies- it's god's will, and she's in a better place now. God has it even better with little Suzy. If she passes her test, well HALLELUJAH! God gets the credit. If she fails, she just didn't work hard enough. The lord helps those who help themselves.

 Praying or hiding a Twinkie? You decide.

As it turns out, being god is a pretty sweet gig.  You get credit for anything good happening, and when everything turns to shit… well, that's somebody else's fault (hint: queer abortionists).

It gets even more absurd when folks start calling on the power of collective prayer. When people ask others to pray with them, presumably in the hope that god will be more likely to respond if more people ask for the same thing. I mean, it's easy for god to ignore one person's call for help, but if the whole congregation is praying together he's gotta hear… right?

I guess they never ask themselves why, if it is god's will that a prayer not be answered when one person is praying, adding more voices to the mix would have an effect. Is it possible that they believe that an omnipotent being can be persuaded?  How do you talk somebody who knows everything into switching his position on a matter? By asking louder?

It's contradictions like this that drive me nutty about belief. It blows my mind when believers can't see these basic obvious truths. I suppose that once you've accepted cognitive dissonance into your heart in one form, all forms are welcome. Of course, the fact that prayer is bullshit is actually not a reason to stop believing in and of itself- but it sure as hell is a reason to stop trying to pray for solutions to your problems. 

So I was poking around the internet with all this in mind, and found a truly remarkable phenomenon- online prayer.  I have no desire to be disrespectful to the people who post prayer online (other than to point out how stupid regular prayer is, let alone the electronic kind), but I LOVE THIS SITE! The way it works is that people post requests for others to pray for something, and then other people write little prayers. Such a simple concept, but when read from an outside perspective it becomes a fascinating window into the sordid and sometimes sad personal lives of bible-belt America.

It may be the only place online where I've felt like almost everybody there is exposing very real stuff about themselves in total sincerity. After all, you don't lie or exaggerate or make up a fake persona when you think god is reading. Where else on the web can you find that kind of honesty? And what they're exposing… I'm such a voyeur!

Some of what you find there is truly touching- requests for prayers for a four year old boy who got "ran over" by a lawn-mower, for instance.  Talk about a downer! Most, however, are tiny real-life soap operas. Little glimpses into some Midwest housewife's crumbling marriage, or the tragic and devil-inspired blossoming of a teenager's sexuality. Some are just crazy ramblings. Here are a few favs:

Joddy has had a bad toothache since Tuesday. It's given him no end of pain and it's getting unbearable for me as well because I am kept awake with his moaning and groaning. Plus, the stench and decay is nearly unbearable. We are making a dentist's appointment for Tuesday. Please pray that we get it. Thanks! And God's richest blessings. :-)

Please pray for my health&strength/protection from the seen&unseen enemies&evil forces that my be around me. Please pray that(GOD)may/will forgive me for any seen or unseen sins,sometime I fill that you can sin and dont even no it.Please pray for my health,if I have any seen or unseen health problems or disease's please pray that(GOD)may/will(BLESS)me with(MIRACLES&BLESSINGS,SPIRITUAL HEALINGS)in(ALL AREAS THRU-OUT)my body mind&soul.I am self employed please pray that(GOD)may/will(BLESS)me with jobs that I can complete with success and have any problems with pay.Please pray that(GOD)may/will(BLESS)me with nothing but(MIRACLES&BLESSINGS)in(ALL AREAS THRU-OUT)my(LIFE)SPIRITUAL,HEALTH,FINANCE,PROTECTION OF LIFE PROBLEMS,COMPANIONSHIP,ETC!!Thank you all for your prayer,as I always pray for all. 

Please pray that me & my husband draw closer to God. Pray that our love and desire for each other grows. Pray that the ex-girlfriend moves on with her life and leaves my husband alone. Please pray that God molds me to be the mature woman, wife and mother he has called me to be. Please pray that God reveals to my husband how truly special I am and not to worry about me and for the both of us to rely on God about our marriage and lives. I am looking for God to move in a mighty way. I trust in God alone.

The ex-girlfriend??? I gotta say- 99% of the marriage related prayer requests I've read should probably be reworded to simply "Please pray that I will find a better divorce attorney than my good-for-nothing husband. Amen"

In fairness, I know that not all believers pray this way. I have an Orthodox Christian friend who thinks this kind of prayer is as silly as I do. His prayers, as I understand them, are basically ceremonial or thankful. He does all the prayers that are required of him by tradition, and he says thanks for life being generally good.  I can respect that. It's a little weak-sauce, but at least it doesn't imply any expectation that god will ever do anything. That's as much as I can hope for, I suppose.

And the Lord Said [unintelligible screaming]

In my last post, I posted a picture of a product somebody was trying to pawn off on believers called “Baby’s First Bible.” I saw it at Barnes and Noble, and was astonished to find that it was not, as I first suspected, a dumbed-down book of child-friendly bible stories. It’s just the bible with a duck on the cover. Horrifying. Well, as fortune would have it, an astute friend of mine recently sent me a link to a video which, I can only assume, shows us the direct result of giving one of these to an actual baby:

This video represents one of three things:

1. Child abuse

2. A very convincing sign of the apocalypse, or

3. An extremely compelling case for mandating mental health screenings for evangelical christians.

Makin’ Money in the Lord’s Service

“Yes, Bible sales.

The trade is not a complicated one; There’re but two things to learn: one bein’ where to find a wholesaler- the word of God in bulk, as it were. Two bein’ how to rekanize your customer. Who’re you dealing with? An exercise in psychology, so to speak. And it is that which I propose to give you a lesson in right now.”

-Big Dan Teague

And the Lord said unto the duckie…

I’ve got a project in the works for this site about which I am extremely excited (no, I’m not going to tell you what it is yet). Unfortunately for me, though, my research for the project involves actually having to read the bible.  Oy.  It’s such a mixed bag, that book.  There are some truly interesting stories there separated by the most amazingly boring lists of who-begat-whom. But you gotta read it all, because if you skim, you could miss the one or two verses that would totally blow your mind if you were paying attention. It’s especially fun if you think you know the story you’re reading, because if you read carefully you’re almost bound to find some utterly messed-up detail that they skipped in Sunday school.

As you may know, there are dozens of versions on the market these days. Unsatisfied with the dusty old King James version (KJV for those in the know), the believers have come up with all sorts of alternatives.  There’s the New King James version (not quite sure where they found a new King James…), the Standard, the Revised Standard, the New revised Standard, the American Standard, the New American standard… they got new versions of new versions coming out of their patoots!  For the most part, the differences are things like using the word “lads” as opposed to “children,” or “dome” instead of “firmament”- basically taking the poetry out and replacing it with updated dumbed-down bullshit.

So I’ve been bible shopping. Uggh. Barnes and Noble had many bibles for sale, including the ridiculous one pictured above (I guess it makes sense to give a bible to a baby- most adults who own a bible don’t read it either). First complaint: every bible I found, even the leather-bound fancy ones, has those flimsy see-through pages. What’s the deal with that? What I really wanted was a bible with space to make notes and pages that could withstand highlighting. No dice. And on top of that, all the bibles were at least $20!  For that price I could just check into some sleazy motel, do, y’know, whatever it is I happen to do at such establishments (hint: the meth I bring is not for me- it’s for the animals), and then just steal the damned bible from the dresser (it’s the New Gideon Standard Revised version).

Fortunately, I managed to find a totally acceptable used bible at a local thrift shop for a couple of bucks. It’s working just fine. I’m actually kind of having fun with it- I keep waiting for somebody to see me studying this thing and gleefully approach me. What a fun conversation we’ll have!

They Had Gold?

Ok- I'm going to tell you a story, and you tell me if it makes any sense at all:

 "Hey- check out those frogs!"

Imagine, if you will, that you are a slave.  Every day for you consists of waking up, going to back-breaking labor building enormous structures out of giant pieces of solid stone, then coming home, only to start it all again the next day.  You eat, you drink, you worship a single god, and you do slave labor. This is your life.

Now imagine that a man steps forward (one of your people), and starts to speak up. He says "God has told me he will see to it that you will all be free.  Soon!" Well, I'm sure you've heard that mess before, so you don't bother to pay much attention. But pretty soon after that, some truly bizarre shit starts happening!

Rivers turn to blood. Frogs swarm in by the millions. All your captors get horrible boils. Locusts descend on you.  I don't remember all ten of the plagues… I think flying monkeys swoop in and kidnap folks… little hazy on that one. I do remember that HAIL FALLS FROM THE SKY AND CATCHES ON FIRE ON THE GROUND! And then, to top all that, you're told to put blood on your doorway, because scary magic juju is going to kill the first-born son of every household that doesn't have the blood. And the juju actually comes! The sons of your captors are slaughtered left and right. It's a damned massacre!

Your captors, the very people who have managed to keep your people enslaved since before anyone can remember, possibly the most powerful race of people on the planet, are so terrified by the whole affair, that they actually let everybody go! Everybody packs whatever they have (which can't be much- remember these are poor slaves), and follow this prophet into the wilderness.

Just to be clear- this is actually not possible

But WAIT!  Your captors have changed their minds! They send a battalion of soldiers after you to kick your ass! What are you going to do? You have no way of defending yourself, you'll be slaughtered for sure, right?  Wrong! God swoops in again to help out. He sends a pillar of fire to stop the soldiers and then parts a fucking sea so you can escape! 

You get the gist. In the span of, who knows- a few months, maybe, you have personally witnessed some of the most unmistakable miracles the world has ever known. You went your whole life without seeing anything amazing at all, and then POW- you see shit that would make David Copperfield blow his colon.

My question is this: If you saw ALL THAT, and as a result went from a life of slavery and misery to a life of freedom in the blink of an eye, and you knew that all these miracles

Ain't no party like a gold-cow party!

were gifts from the god that you've worshipped your whole life… would you ever (and I mean EVER) think to yourself "I don't know… maybe I should worship somebody else for a bit- y'know, like a cow made of metal."

I mean what the hell?  It's just not plausible. I recognize that multi-theism was common at that time (though not among the "children of Israel" according to the bible), but honestly. They're going to turn their backs on that god? The one who not only brought them out of slavery, but did it in the most spectacular fashion imaginable? Right. I don't care who you are- you're not going to ditch pillar-of-fire part-the-seas god for a damned cow. It's too stupid.

Also- where the fuck did they get gold to make this idol? Moses ("the great babysitter") goes away for a bit to talk to god, and by the time he gets back, somebody has come up with enough gold that they've made an idol out of it.  They were SLAVES! Where is all this gold coming from? It's not like it was just littering the desert floor as they traveled around…

NONE OF THIS SHIT MAKES ANY SENSE! We're supposed to believe that all this bullshit actually happened???  Damned Bible makes me feel like I'm taking crazy pills!

A Peek Behind the Curtain…

I recently had a remarkable conversation with one of the most brilliant minds I know (and I know some really smart people).  I had commented to him that even though I don't believe in a god, I had to admit that my life had been full of almost shocking serendipity.  I don't remember the source (buddhism? hinduism? Enter the Dragon?), but I've heard the sentiment that when the student is ready, the master appears.  I know that in my life, when I was ready for a new kind of wisdom or when I was prepared to take my life to the next level, someone or something always seemed to magically fall into my lap.  It's an amazing phenomenon, and I've never had any explanation for it.

There have been a few believers in my life who have been more than a little irked at my willingness to acknowledge this series of events, and my seeming unwillingness to give credence to the notion that these gifts come from a god.  The truth is that I've played with a lot of ideas as to where these fortuitous events come from.  Is there some benevolent force in the universe that is guiding my life? Am I connecting to some cosmic energy for good? Do I just have a high mediclorian count? Or… gasp… could it possibly be that… gulp… there actually is a god?

In all that exploration, I had never come across an answer that was the least bit satisfying, or had any ring of truth at all. Then I discussed it with my friend.

"I don't know what it is," I confided "but whenever I really need something to go well for me, or whenever I'm ready for a lesson, the perfect person magically shows up to teach me. It's way too frequent an occurence for it to be coincidence!"

 The Universal Smorgasbord

His response was perfect. "It's not magic. It's not coincidence, either. There's no great force pushing these good things to you. What you're not seeing is that this world is just enormously abundant.  The reason that help seems to always show up the moment you're ready for it has nothing to do with any mystical guidance. It's simply that all that help you could ever need and much, much more than you will ever use is already there. All around you."

I can't tell you how much I adore those moments when my understanding of the universe is suddenly and unexpectedly broadened. Of course it's all there already! As auntie Mame said, "Life is a smorgasbord and most poor suckers are starving to death." It's remarkable how simple and easy it all really is. There's no need for superstitions or magic- there's already plenty of good to go around.

Of course, nobody's going to try to help someone who wouldn't be able to receive that help, or if they do, that person won't be able to accept the help, because they aren't ready. But as soon as someone makes themself open to new learning, or ready to make a big change, they'll find that everything they need to make it happen is already right at their fingertips. 

How Easter Ruins Spring

As some of you know, today is Easter. Well, it is for practitioners of Eastern Orthodox christianity.  I gotta say, of all christians, the orthos are my favorite. Far from the bible literalist that American fundies turn out to be, the orthos are much more "mystical," which means that they believe in biblical metaphor and have a much less dogmatic view of things.  More importantly for my purposes, however, their bishops and such still grow really impressive beards and wear funny hats and stuff.  I love that.

I spent other Easter (or zombie Jesus day, as it's oft refered to by those unencumbered by religious respect) with my girlfriend's family. They are, of course, believers one and all and every religious holliday I get to watch the specticle of their belief paraded around. It's cute. They ply the little ones with a candy scavenger hunt, and tales of magic bunnies, and get them all giddy. Then they tell them stories of a magic man who was murdered but then came back to life. Then all the tykes get to spend the next few years trying to figure out which story their supposed to believe and why their parents lied to them about the other.

Happy Easter! 
 There, he's dead- can I have my candy now?

Honestly, I don't really object to the goofy bunny stuff (or Santa, for that matter), it's a little weird, but whatever.  What did kind of bother me was when my girlfriend's father sat everyone down and forced them to sit through a pretty gruesome Jesus snuff film.  On the day that is meant to be a celebration of Jesus' resurrection, this hour-long film spent 55 minutes showing Jesus get tortured, betrayed, beaten and bloodied with extremely sad and serious music playing in the background. Why was this ok? They would never have allowed these children to watch that kind of violence if it was happening to a real person instead of Jesus. It was horrific! 

My biggest objection to Easter, however, is this- they're trying to ruin spring!  Centuries ago, the christians got sick of watching the pagans having all the fun with their spring celebration.  So, as they did with Christmas, they took it over, and made it all about Jesus.  Well it's NOT about Jesus!  It's about renewal and birth and life and all the joys that come with spring!  That's why the rabbit is such a great symbol- 'cause rabbits are furry and nice and they have lots of sex and make babies! That's why eggs are a symbol, and fuzzy little baby chicks. It aint got shit to do with some guy getting murdered.  Actually, you can make it about Jesus if you want- just keep your focus on the idea that he came back, not on his gruesome death. That's all I'm asking! Quit being such a damned downer in my favorite season! 

Thank you.

Hope for a Beloved Believer

My girlfriend and I were out a couple of nights ago with her sister, who is a devout believer.  The thing is that she's a really smart lady, and the way she uses those smarts both gives me hope and makes me worry.  We're convinced that one strong, well-timed push could force her to actually examine (and therefore subsequently abandon) her faith, or could land her squarely and permanently in fundamentalist-style conspiracy-theorist crazy town. It really is the finest of lines she walks. Well the other night we had a lovely talk, and I saw glimmers of hope that rational thought and intellectual inquiry might win out… someday.

For over a year now, she's been saying that she wants to homeschool her kids.  Now I have nothing too strong against homeschooling as a rule (although the national spelling bees don't do homeschooling advocates any favors…), but in her case, I could see it was going to be a problem. 

And he said "suffer the children, that they may go to recess"
 Jesus hates school more than I did…

 As with so many homeschoolers, one of the major reasons she wanted to homeschool her children was that they weren't going to get any (or enough) Jesus talk at public school.  To me this was a bit of a weird argument because she's not an intelligent design freak or a literal-bible type, so there's not much public school curricula that I imagine she could object to. I tried to point out the obvious: that she would still be teaching all that religion stuff at home and at church anyway, and that pluralism of thought and experience helps a child learn to process information better, and that interaction with other kids their age would aid her children socially. I stopped short of pointing out that pretty much everybody in their entire community goes to the same church she does, so it's not like there's some danger of activist Satan-worshipping teachers tricking her kids into bad beliefs…

The truth is that my main reason for wanting to talk her out of it had nothing to do with any of that. Her kids are great, but they are way more than a handful, and she was really struggling as a parent. My thought was simply that if she was having that much trouble dealing with her kids at home all day, why the hell would she want to keep them there??? Public school is free!

Here's where religion muddies all the waters, though: she had a dark feeling about public school. Ugh. The dark feeling– the argument for which there is no counter. The intuition which you never need question, 'cause it's from god. God told her personally (though without anything so concrete as, y'know, language) that she should homeschool. Here endeth the discussion.

I HATE this crap. It is such obvious bullshit! We all have dark feelings and light feelings about things.  We all have intuitive notions about situations. If we're scared or worried about something, we get a dark feeling; if we're excited or happy about something, we get a light feeling. If it's nighttime and the lights are off, we get a dark feeling; if it's daytime and the sun is out… you get the idea. This isn't divine inspiration, it's psychology.

Even if I believed in a god and that he could communicate with me I'd have to wonder: Why the fuck would god give two shits about whether or not I homeschooled my kids? I realize that there's a lot of pressure on parents because your choices for your kids could have long-term impacts and all that, but be reasonable! This is not good vs. evil here- it's my kid gets educated one way or he gets a slightly different education another way. Some public schools are great, some suck- same with parents who teach.  Whichever you choose, there are pros and cons, but neither choice is sinful and neither is exalted.

Anyhoo, the upshot of my story is this: she's decided to put her kid in public school! I'll reiterate that I don't really care much whether or not she homeschools her kids. What I'm excited about is that reason and thought won out over supernatural sensations. It may not mean that she's anywhere near abandoning her beliefs, but at least we can have a conversation.

(By the way, here's another homeschooler-at-the-spelling-bee clip for your viewing terror/enjoyment)

The Trouble with Miracles

I was thinking today about healthcare. And Jesus. And miracles.  Here's what I came up with: miracles are nothing but dangerous!  They don't help. They only hurt.

"But miracles are so much fun," you might say, "how could they possibly be bad?"  Well, hypothetical reader, I'll tell you.  The real trouble with miracles is that, aphorisms to the contrary, they don't happen every day.  They certainly don't happen to everyone. The promise, however, is that everyone could have a miracle, if they live good enough lives and their mercurial god happens to be in a miracle-type mood that day.

 But they're praying so hard…

Therein lies the problem: if folks think that a miracle can happen to them, especially if they think that all they need to do is have enough faith to make it happen, they start acting accordingly- and getting screwed!!! They take what they read about in the bible as true (always a problem), and they think that if some chick can be healed of her leprosy or whatever just by touching the hem of Jesus' garment, surely Jesus can cure their cancer.  The problem is, how do I show Jesus that I have enough faith to earn my own healing?

I could pray every day and read the scriptures… but my grandma did that, and the lord saw fit to kick her ass. I could ask my congregation to pray for me, but we all prayed for sweet sister so-and-so, and she died a painful, horrible death. How do I show Jesus that I have faith in his healing power?  Well, if I'm trying to show faith, what kind of message is it sending that I'm actually letting the doctors try to treat me? As long as I'm going to doctors, Jesus is going to think that I don't fully believe he'll heal me… My chemo is killing my miracle!!!

So, the truly faithful stop treatment, believe in the lord, and die. Or they trust the lord will save them from the jaws of a wild animal and they pray rather than learning and utilizing appropriate wild animal evasive maneuvers. Or, and this is one of my favorites, they stop to pray instead of taking emergency action.

The real shit of it is that every once in a blue moon, somebody does something they shouldn't, and it works out well.  And of course, while hundreds of morons the world over are dying and getting horribly sick because they think Jesus is more reliable than the hospital, what gets publicity? That one "miraculous" recovery.  So the whole ridiculous process propagates itself, and a new generation of miracle seekers is born. 

But hang on a tic- if people are stupid enough to think that prayer will keep them alive, and it kills them, perhaps it's just a Darwinian means of thinning the weak-minded out of the gene pool! I'm going at this all wrong… by pointing this out, I'm slowing human evolutionary progress… I should be encouraging people to let god heal them!

The new official ThankGodImAtheist stance of faith-healing: If you think there is the remotest chance that Jesus will cure you- stop all other treatments immediately, and take to praying! Blessed be. Amen.