November 26, 2008

A Few Irreligious Thoughts to Ponder

You've probably heard by now about a certain presumptuous jackass of a columnist named Jim Griffith who writes for the Newnan, Georgia Times-Herald. Griffith has achieved 15 minutes of Internet infamy by penning a column entitled "A few religious thoughts to ponder." In it, he explains how terrible Thanksgiving is for atheists:

Thanksgiving must be a terrible time for atheists. They have no God to thank.

They do not have the privilege of gathering with family and friends to express gratitude by saying: "Praise God from whom all blessings flow." An atheist on his deathbed faces serious uncertainties. Gazing upward, he pleads: "Oh God, if there is a God, please save my soul -- if I have one."
The column was found out and replied to by a series of atheists objecting to such nonsense and, after less than two days, the newspaper saw fit to close the comments so that no more respondents could rake Griffith over the coals for being, as I said, a presumptuous jackass. I've checked other items in the newspaper, including other columns by Griffith, and none of them have had their comments closed after many days or weeks. Just this one. Apparently, the Newnan Times-Herald didn't want too many atheists to have the chance to debunk Griffith's garbage by mentioning how they celebrate Thanksgiving — at least not in a forum that locals were likely to see. It just won't do for a newspaper to report inadvertently that atheists celebrate the holiday in much the same way that non-atheists do and that the atheists are, after all, human beings with families, affections and gratitude. At least, it won't do for the small-time newspaper to reveal these truths to the residents of Newnan, GA.

As a result, those of us who didn't have the chance to respond to Jim Griffith's "few thoughts," which I suspect are a very few, at the paper's website during the 36 hours in which the opportunity to do so was available will have to do it elsewhere. I'll do it here.

I have a lot of things for which to be thankful this year, and not a single iota of it requires or has anything to do with any deities whatsoever.

Like many people across America, regardless of their beliefs, I will be joining my family to celebrate the holiday. LL and I will be leaving within the next couple of hours to head to north central Pennsylvania, just as we did last year. You may not see it readily, but there's a lot of gratitude embodied in that last sentence.

First off, I'm thankful for having gotten through another year during which a blindly religious president mismanaged the country in which I live into numerous hardships. I survived that year despite the existence of religious radicals in other countries who would like to see people like me dead... and when I say "people like me," I mean Americans. They want to inflict pain upon us because their religious fundamentalism calls for violence against people with whom they disagree. I'm thankful that this faith-stuffed anti-intellectual will soon be a former president and that his replacement might actually turn out to be a person of intelligence and ability who could wind up improving things, even if only a little. 2008 hasn't been a very good year for my country and I'm glad it's almost over. I'm thankful to the 7,000,000 people, too, who may well have changed the course of history during the last election. We shall see what really happens in the months and years ahead, but I'm thankful for at least having the hope that it won't be the same as what's gone before.

I'm thankful that I'm getting to spend another Thanksgiving with my sister, niece and brother-in-law. My sister and I had no contact at all for more than a decade, and this was in no small part due to religious belief. My parents found much to hate about the world and about differences of opinion and about people who are different from them thanks to their faith, you see, and they disowned first me in part because of that faith. They told my sister that I was a drug addict, that I was in jail and probably dead, to make as sure as they could that she wouldn't try to find me. When I finally tracked her down, I learned that she had been similarly disowned for the grievous sin of falling in love with someone of a different faith than that of our parents — even though neither my sister nor he practiced any religion at all. When they got married, nobody from my family came to the wedding other than myself. I gave the bride away. Tomorrow, we'll celebrate Thanksgiving together, along with my rather precocious niece and the rest of our non-traditional clan, none of whom are particularly religious and several of whom are outright non-believers. How could I not be grateful for this? The only involvement of a deity here, at least the imagining of one, was to drive people apart.

LL is coming with me, of course. This year, we celebrated our twelfth anniversary together. LL comes from a country in which religious differences led to a generation-long civil war in which members of her family and friends of her family died in terrible and inhumane ways. Her cousin, for example, was detained by a Syrian-backed militia, hauled away to Syria, and tortured for years. She spent long stretches of time huddled with her family in an underground parking garage hoping to avoid being shot or blown up by Syrians and Israelis and their proxies — all on the basis of ancient religious divisions. Survive it she did, though, and this year she became a US citizen and voted in an election for the first time in her entire life. I am thankful that LL is here with me, relatively safe and about to enjoy the holiday. I'm thankful that she survived a long and terrible war, that she made it to the US, and that she's stuck by me all these years, through the best of times and the not-so-good.

I'm thankful to the university I attend and to the people there who give of their time and knowledge as I grind away at earning a graduate degree. There was a time in my life, not so long ago, during which I never thought that I could get this far. I worked hard and here I am, but the opportunity had to be offered by others, too. I have that opportunity and am grateful for it.

I'm thankful that Tycho, a lizard who has practically been family, has survived another year, despite last year's unwarranted death sentence. He's sitting near my shoulder as I write this, probably wondering when breakfast is coming. Alas, the weather is too cold for Tycho to make the trip to Pennsylvania with us this year. He's going to be rather bored with no humans to entertain him for the four days we'll be gone. Tycho has worked out a lot of things in his long lizard lifetime, but how to work the TV remote isn't one of them. I expect that he'll spend much of his time asleep. In any case, he's exceeded the average lifetime of a member of his species in captivity by nearly a third now and is still in good health. Thank you, Tycho, for sticking around for so long. There will be lobster roaches and macaroni and cheese when we return. I suppose someone could argue that some deity is allowing Tycho to go on living. You know, Lizard-Jesus or HerpAllah or something. That would be a very childish person, but I'm sure someone who will read this will have the thought cross their mind.

Which brings me to another bunch for which I'm thankful, and that is the many people who have fought and are still fighting to reverse the ever-threatening flood of irrationality that might otherwise engulf us all and snuff out the light of the Enlightenment. They keep us progressing, sometimes at great cost. They're the ones who hope to remove the motivations for these religious wars and faith-based familial decay, who object to and dissect and defeat all the magical thinking that is only a hair's breadth away from complete ascendancy at times. I'm grateful to the teachers, the scientists, the historians, the living human memory-banks who remember the past and dedicate themselves to our not repeating it.

There is more — much more — but I have to get ready now to hit the road. It's a long drive from here to there. All things considered, I'm thankful to be making that six hour schlep today.

And you know what, Jim Griffith of the Newnan, Georgia Times-Herald? I'm even grateful to you today. You've given me one more reminder of how low we humans can sink if we decide to measure the worth of others with yardsticks designed and built of our own narrow views. You're a good cautionary example of just how wrong we can be, and thus how wrong whole societies can go, when our eyes get so full of our own self-esteem that we place ourselves in judgment of the rest of the world based on nothing but the desire to be thankful to anything other than that little fraction of humanity it is our privilege, and sometimes our burden, to actually know.

Like the majority of Americans, I'll be celebrating Thanksgiving with a ridiculously large meal on Thursday evening. Like those millions of other Americans, there's something else I'll be doing early on Friday morning. It's then that I will be thinking most of Mr. Griffith.

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