On Lockdown

As I write this, yesterday was the first time in a month that I had left my street, when I went over to my brother and sister-in-law’s house for the afternoon to visit them and the girls for Easter. Nobody in their house is currently ill, my sister-in-law and the girls have been in relative isolation like me for about the last month or so while my brother has been alternating weeks of working outside the house and working from home; he works for a nearby county government doing maintenance on traffic signals and stuff like that, so his job is considered “essential”. (His department has been split into two teams, that way if a person on one team is diagnosed with the virus, only that team has to go into quarantine, not the entire department.) I made sure to sanitize my hands before leaving my house and upon returning. I might write more about my afternoon with them some other time, but today it’s back to business as usual.

Before that, the last shopping trip I made was on March 7. Since the COVID-19 pandemic has put a lot of social distancing measures into place, only my dad has left the house and at that just to get groceries, cigarettes, and our mail; we use a P.O. Box, so we get our mail at the local post office. We’ve also found out that the theme park where my dad works will be closed for at least another month, and he’ll be getting a pay cut during the next part of the closure.

But he’s lucky, he could have been furloughed. Many employees at the theme parks are going through this right now as a cost-cutting measure. Basically what’s going on is that these employees have been temporarily laid off from their jobs, with the promise from the employer that they will be rehired at a later time when the workplace reopens. However, most of the workers being furloughed are the lower wage workers, much more numerous than those in the department my dad works in; he’s a technician. While they usually get paid more than the lower wage workers (everyone from ride operators to custodians to people working in the gift shops and restaurants on-site), there’s not as many of them and they’re considered skilled workers and not quite as easy to hire. So, for us, we’ll be okay with a pay cut at this time. He’s already offloading some services we don’t use as much and funds that don’t necessarily need payment on right now (like retirement funds) won’t be receiving payment for a while. At least when my dad has been getting groceries, his impulse buys are on food, not on yarn like I do. We’ve been through worse, and we got through it.

Our governor also instituted a statewide stay-at-home order through at least the end of this month. Here at our house it hasn’t been much of a problem since due to my mother’s requirement of round-the-clock care we’re kind of isolated anyway (and there is always at least one of us between me and my dad at home with her). Schools are closed, but students are taking their classes online.

Projections seem to be showing that the peak of the outbreak here in the United States is occurring right now, although it will probably be a couple of months before we know for sure. The outbreak seems to have hit New York state the worst. As of last week, New York has had around 160,000 confirmed cases and around 7,000 deaths. Compare that to Florida, whose confirmed cases are at around 15-16,000 and around 700 deaths. The death rate compared to the confirmed cases in both states is around 4%, which is small, but is much higher than what you’d get with the seasonal flu (typically around 0.1% in the United States). There have been a lot of unknowns with this virus, and the relatively slow response to it here in the United States compared to most of the rest of the world have not done us any favors. The hot spots here in Florida seem to have stayed in South Florida, primarily Miami-Dade and Broward Counties, one of the biggest urban areas in Florida (Broward County is directly north of Miami-Dade). Orange County (where Orlando is) has also been a bit of a hot spot, but thankfully not as bad as it has been in South Florida.

What is messed up is that our governor decided to make an exemption for religious services (which I could get into the political implications of why he decided to do that, but this is an apolitical blog). In a situation like this, gathering in a church or any other religious institution right now is a Petri dish waiting to happen. There are more opportunities for this virus to spread the more people gather together in such a closed space, and right now it’s just not a smart idea to do that. I’ve seen people on the news claiming that Jesus will protect them from the virus, and that’s why they’re still going to church, although Jesus himself said in his Sermon on the Mount that this kind of worship is basically for show.

“Whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, because they love to pray while standing in synagogues and on street corners so that people can see them. Truly I say to you, they have their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you.”

Matthew 6:5-6

As mentioned in my previous post, I myself am not religious, but I have a feeling that this verse in particular is why my dad does not attend church. Why attend church for one’s own reputation and for show when he can talk to his god whenever and wherever he wants? Why aren’t more people following this example, especially in a time where being in a closed space packed with people is the last thing we should be doing? But I digress.

I’m thankful for how far communication technology has come, because it has been essential in how we all have been dealing with the cabin fever that inevitably comes with the preventative measures we are taking right now to mitigate the spread of this virus. Movies and gaming have been a couple of escapes for us. I’m still playing Assassin’s Creed Odyssey when I’ve had some downtime (although my dad, who has not gone to work since my birthday, usually gets up before me so I haven’t had as many opportunities to play), and my dad has started its predecessor (although it’s set about 400 years after Odyssey), Assassin’s Creed Origins while he patiently waits for me to finish Odyssey. I quite enjoyed Origins, actually; the graphics, storyline, and gameplay were all excellent. I watched Tiger King (which actually managed to make my dad bored within the first 10 minutes; I later watched it on my own, and it was an entertaining slow burn of a trainwreck…I couldn’t look away), and I also finished series 4 of The Tribe. I watched the first three episodes of series 5, although I’m looking for some more down time to watch more of it.

I finished The Fountains of Silence a few days ago and am gonna try to start Children of Virtue and Vengeance by Tomi Adeyemi soon (I haven’t quite brought myself to open the book yet). With the ebooks, though…for some reason they haven’t been sticking with me. I’m hoping to remedy that by starting Dune by Frank Herbert. It’s a bit out of my ordinary reading material in that it’s a sci-fi novel, but perhaps out of the ordinary may just be what my brain is looking for. We’ll see how it turns out. The last time I touched upon what I was reading, I had failed to mention that I added three new books to my physical collection. They are:

  • Daisy Jones and The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid — I’d seen this one all over Bookstagram (basically the nickname for the book lovers’ community on Instagram) and it seemed interesting. From what I gathered, it’s set in the 1970s and is about a young woman and her interactions with a fictional rock band called The Six. I’ve never read any of her books, but apparently her previous novel The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo was also a huge hit.
  • The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas — The novel’s title comes from an acronym devised by legendary rapper Tupac Shakur, and while the full acronym’s meaning is a bit too vulgar for me to write here, the letters spell out the phrase “THUG LIFE”. Thomas was inspired to write the novel in response to her emotions after the 2009 shooting of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old African-American man who was shot and killed by police in Oakland, California on New Year’s Day 2009. While the genesis of the novel predates the founding of the Black Lives Matter movement, the novel itself was published in 2017 and tells the story of a 16-year-old African-American girl who lives in a rough neighborhood but also attends a private, mostly white school. She watches her best friend (a young African-American man) get shot and killed by a police officer, and the novel is about the aftermath and her response to it. This can be a hot button issue, but I think Angie’s novel should at least be worth a read, to try and understand the issue from the point of view from within the African-American community.
  • Born a Crime by Trevor Noah — Nonfiction and a memoir at that! Comedian Trevor Noah, who is best known for being the current host of The Daily Show, talks about his life, in particular his childhood growing up in South Africa, which at the time of his birth in 1984 was still under rule by the apartheid regime (a political system similar to the post-Reconstruction Jim Crow South where the government was run by the minority white population and enforced strict segregation between the races in South Africa to ensure their dominance in the government). At the time of his birth, miscegenation (relations or marriage between races) was illegal in South Africa (his father was a White man from Switzerland and his mother was a Black South African of Xhosa descent) and the law preventing this was overturned the year after his birth; because of this, he often mentions in his standup comedy that he was literally “born a crime”. Apartheid was finally abolished in the early 1990s through a series of negotiations between the government (represented by then-President F. W. de Klerk) and the leading anti-apartheid party, the African National Congress (represented by Nelson Mandela). This led the way for universal suffrage (all eligible citizens getting the right to vote) and the first free presidential election in South Africa in 1994 (which, of course, saw the election of Nelson Mandela as President of South Africa). Mandela and de Klerk were recognized for their roles in ending apartheid by being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. Mandela died in 2013, but de Klerk is still alive and is now 84.

I hope everybody reading has been doing their best to stay safe and healthy during this crazy time and staying mentally sound as well. These have been really weird times that we’re going through. But remember: even the Black Death eventually came to an end. While this won’t be nearly as deadly as the Black Death, there will eventually be a light at the end of this uncharted tunnel, and we will eventually get there. In the meantime, let’s do as much as we can to lift each other up and keep a positive outlook despite all the crap 💩. We’ve got this. It’ll take time, but we’ve got this.

Stay healthy, everyone!

Losing My Religion

A few months ago, the website FiveThirtyEight.com (primarily known for covering American politics) published a story called “Millennials Are Leaving Religion And Not Coming Back”, which explores why American Millennials are leaving religion and identifying as nonreligious at higher rates than in previous generations. I tend not to comment as much on social issues here, but this is one that affects me personally, which is why I’ve opted to share my own experiences with religion and why i ultimately chose to leave it.

Before I get to my own personal story, I’d like to comment a bit on how American culture tends to approach religion. Among many other things, Americans tend to be stereotyped as hyperreligious and puritanical when it comes to the social acceptability of things like female toplessness, the presentation and discussion of sex and sexuality, and the consumption of alcohol. Where I come from, especially, religion (specifically the Protestant denominations of Christianity) has a major influence on most people’s lives. I’m from the very southern edge of a region informally known as the “Bible Belt”, a region covering most of the Southeastern United States and portions of the Midwest and Great Plains where conservative evangelical Christianity is at its most influential. I was lucky to grow up in a place where the influence wasn’t as strong, otherwise I think I would have been incredibly steeped in it.

I was kinda lucky, I guess, when it came to my circumstances in regards to how much I was going to be indoctrinated into religion in the first place. For one thing, my parents came from somewhat different religious backgrounds but had a similar attitude to its influence: my mother was raised Catholic, but had long since lapsed from the church by the time she married my dad (I remember her telling me she hated how much the church had become like a business to her, and I think her parents each being divorced twice might have also had something to do with it — each of her parents had been previously married, with my mother’s brother being a product of their mother’s first marriage, then each of them divorced their respective spouses and had my mother out of wedlock; they married when my mother was four, and then divorced in the early 1970s, neither of them remarrying although they remained on friendly and civil terms until my grandmother died in 2004). My father grew up Baptist, and while he still considers himself a believer in Christ, he has set foot in a church exactly three times in my entire memory of him: two weddings (one was for a family friend, the other for the same friend’s sister) and an Easter passion play (that was put on by another family friend’s church; my brother and I were attending it at the time). He has said he attends “The Church of NASCAR” and would rather spend a Sunday watching that day’s NASCAR Cup race than in a church listening to a sermon. So, even though they both identified as Christian, they obviously had a very laid-back attitude towards the practice of it. My brother and I were the only kids in the neighborhood who seemingly weren’t baptized into any particular church or brought into any particular belief system. There were Bibles in our house, but we weren’t discouraged from exploring other belief systems, either. We were taught the basics in kindness and manners, and I don’t remember either of us ever being forced into going to church or a Bible study. I do remember getting into an argument over the theory of evolution with my dad when I was 8 and he tried taking the creationist side of the argument, though. It was the first of many disputes I’d get into with my dad. That argument should have raised a red flag for me to begin with, of what would be to come.

My brother and I began attending a church when I was maybe 11 and he was 9, going to a Baptist church with a family friend and her son (and sometimes her daughter as well). I remember being a bit heartbroken the first time because it wasn’t Catholic (and I had always imagined at that point that I’d go to a Catholic Church like my mother and grandmother did). I would go most Sundays (to two different churches) for the next five years. I don’t remember much about the sermons, but I do remember the songs. Honestly, the music was the only thing I really connected with during those five years. I otherwise felt a major disconnect not just during sermons, but also when it came to Sunday school; it wasn’t one thing in particular, but I just felt like I never fully fit in with the congregation or the people in my age group. It just seemed like I was just not getting any spiritual fulfillment during that period.

What really sent me over the edge, though, was the issue of marriage equality. I first heard about the issue when I was 15 or so, and it seemed that all that certain politicians wanted to talk about was the “sanctity of marriage”. It incensed me that people wanted to use their religious beliefs to try and treat gay people like second-class citizens. I was still incredibly naïve at that point and I hadn’t really befriended any out LGBT people at that time, although the latter would change over the next couple of years. And just a year or so earlier, I had seen the damage that the perversion of religion had caused when 9/11 happened. The spiritual disconnect I had experienced at church combined with the use of religion as a weapon to either demonize people who didn’t deserve to be demonized or to kill people who didn’t fit whatever extremist version of religion those responsible believed in made me realize that I no longer wanted to be a part of religion. I felt that religion was responsible for so much evil in the world…I didn’t want to be a part of that evil. So, when I was 16, I made a deconversion within myself. I decided to stop identifying as Christian and I started identifying as Atheist. I didn’t realize at this point that nonreligion is a bit more complex than that, but I felt that since I lacked a belief in God, the label fit.

At first, I started to become vocal about my deconversion to friends and teachers, but after a while, I realized that this made me come across as an asshole, and I was being no different from the people I was trying to distance myself from (those who like to shove their beliefs down people’s throats). Once I realized this, I knew I had to change my attitude towards believers (which is what I call people who practice religion; I prefer this term over the term “theists”, which is the term normally used in the atheist, agnostic, and nonreligious community…I find the term “believers” to be more personal and less scientific, since most of the people in my friends circle are at least believers in something). So now, I usually have a “live and let live” approach when it comes to believers: as long as you don’t push your beliefs down my throat, I won’t push mine. We mutually respect each other, and try to find what we have in common. There are obviously gonna be people out there who think I’m either evil or immoral because I choose not to follow a god or a religion, but in this situation, I think Jesus’ advice of “turning the other cheek” (all four of them) is appropriate here.

I do bring up Jesus here, but I should clarify that I think of Jesus as a philosopher and teacher, not as a divine being. I do think he existed as a man, a human being, but I do not consider him to be an incarnation of a god or anything like that. He was just as much of a man as the Gautama Buddha or Muhammad, all of them influential teachers and thinkers of their periods in history. But so were people like Socrates, Plato, Confucius, Descartes, and De Beauvoir.

It wasn’t until a few years ago that I started feeling that calling myself solely an atheist didn’t quite fit how I saw the world around me. I started feeling like it was only describing a part of me. Then I learned of the term “humanist”. Once I learned of the term’s meaning in relation to secularism, I knew I’d found the missing piece of my view of the world around me.

These days, I call myself a “Humanist Atheist”. While the term “atheist” describes how I see the universe and its origins (I don’t believe that the universe and its laws were created by any sentient being, and I don’t see any conclusive proof that a supreme sentient being exists), the term “humanist” describes how I see the human race around me. I believe that humans are responsible for their own destiny, that prayer is not a supreme being acting through humans but rather humans subconsciously finding their own successes. Humans have free will and can choose to do with it what they wish. It is up to us to figure out how the universe works, and the way we do that is through reason, logic, experimentation, and using the evidence we find to make conclusions on our hypotheses. We don’t change facts to fit our biases, we use facts to eliminate biases. We learn truths by seeking them out ourselves, not through revelation by the supernatural. We are powerful enough on our own. And most importantly, our worth as good, upstanding human beings is not contingent on the belief in a supreme being or adherence to scripture and holy books. A person can live a good, morally sound life without having to believe in gods. We can be law-abiding, active citizens, participants in society, and public servants without religion. It is entirely possible to do good in the world without gods.

I’m the only nonreligious person in my immediate family. I don’t really talk about it much with family members, though. My dad and my sister-in-law actually still don’t know about it; my dad because he’s never really asked me about it (and I think the reactions he had to finding out I was liberal as a teenager kinda scared me out of wanting to tell him, I figured I’d spare him any more disappointment), and my sister-in-law because she’s already pretty conservative. I mean, my brother is a believer, but he has sort of the same attitude toward church that my dad has (as in one doesn’t need to go to church every Sunday to be a good Christian). She’s more of a church-goer, but I’d place her as “devout” but not “fundamentalist”. She jokingly calls my brother an “atheist”, believe it or not. I laughed when my brother told me that.

Now, while the R.E.M. song “Losing My Religion” is referenced in the post title, it’s not actually about religion. The title is actually a slang term in parts of the American Southeast (the band was based out of Athens, Georgia) which basically means, “losing my temper” or composure. But, I’ve decided to share a few songs that are critical of religion.

“God” by John Lennon – The first lines of this song sum up perfectly what I personally think God is: a concept, an idea, not a living being. This song is actually more atheistic in nature than “Imagine” is, believe it or not.

“Dear God” by XTC – If there’s any song that’s the Atheist’s Theme Song, this is it. I love this one section in particular: “Did you make disease / And the diamond blue? / Did you make mankind / After we made you? / And the Devil, too?”

“Take Me to Church” by Hozier – This one touches more on the sexual hangups that religions tend to have. He compares being with his lover to a spiritual experience, and in interviews he has talked openly about being sex positive (in other words, having a positive attitude towards sex as a natural human act), especially coming from a country as heavily religious as Ireland. Although most of Ireland is Catholic, Hozier himself was raised as a Quaker. In my part of the country, especially, purity culture (which is practiced a lot in the evangelical and fundamentalist Protestant denominations) has caused quite a lot of damage to the self-worth and self-esteem of young people, especially girls, whose entire worth has seemingly been placed on their sexual purity. I will admit it has taken myself a long time to become sex positive (despite never having had a partner of my own), even though I wasn’t brought up in purity culture, but it was so prevalent in lots of places around the South. Even though the song talks about his female lover, the music video features a male couple. Still a very powerful song, one of my favorites of the 2010s. I don’t follow a lot of contemporary singers on social media, but Hozier is one of them. (I also follow Lizzo and Demi Lovato, in case you’re curious.)

“Every Sperm is Sacred” by Monty Python – This song comes from their final film, Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, in a segment poking fun at Catholics and their stance against birth control. A working class English Catholic family ends up having to sell their children (from the looks, well over 60 of them) for the purpose of medical experiments, but not before a huge musical number takes place. It is then followed by a scene of a Protestant couple talking about how the husband can use a condom to practice birth control, but apparently they already practice it because the joke is they’ve had sex as many times in their marriage as they’ve had children: twice.

“Freewill” by Rush – Written by the late, great Neil Peart (who was Rush’s drummer), I like to call this the “Humanist Theme Song”. The chorus sums it up pretty nicely: “You can choose a ready guide in some celestial voice / If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice / You can choose from phantom fears and kindness that can kill / I will choose the path that’s clear, I will choose free will.” Peart was heavily influenced by Ayn Rand in his younger years (with the 2112 liner notes inspiring a 12-year-old Sebastian Bierk, who would later find fame as heavy metal singer Sebastian Bach, to go and read The Fountainhead), although in later life he distanced himself from her and referred to himself as a “bleeding-heart libertarian” (or what we’d call a “left-libertarian”, someone who values both personal freedom and social equality). Although the world lost Peart back in January, this song (along with much of Rush’s catalog) remains part of his lasting legacy.

My story is not intended to be representative of every nonreligious person’s. I can only speak for myself. But Millennials like me are increasingly leaving religion, and we deserve to be listened to. If any readers out there have left religion like I did, don’t be afraid to share your story. Speaking out about our experiences helps to lessen the stigma surrounding nonreligious people.