Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Reading list

Just a few notes on books I've read lately...

I recently finished Atheist Voices of Minnesota, a collection of personal essays by atheists from, or living in, Minnesota. They're varying quality (as is to be expected), but by and large, really well written. I don't know if they had an editor working overtime, or if we just are great writers, as a whole. But either way, I really recommend this. I'll be going back to it time after time.

And I just started Joseph Anton: a Memoir, Salman Rushdie's account of his years in hiding following the issuance of the fatwa. I'm nowhere near done with it but so far, I absolutely love it. I really enjoy Rushdie's writing, and this is no exception. It's also an interesting meditation on just how much religion has influenced Rushdie, an atheist - both in his writing, then through the fatwa that caused him to spend years in hiding, fearing for his life.

So there you go - two books, two thumbs up!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Your Health Care Needs Are Met.

Spotted this sign on the way to work this morning...

It reads: "Your health care needs are met here! ***Science & Health***  Quickly, clean, affordable, safe, lasting - customed to your life!"

I'm sure you're wondering where this was - a doctor's office? Pharmacy? Clinic? No...

This was in the window of a Christian Science Reading Room. Oh, Christian Science, with your wacky tales of people who prayed away their underbites without orthodontia.

If only your followers didn't refuse to treat their children's illnesses, allowing needless suffering and death. It'd almost be sweet, this faith in the power of prayer.

Yeah, too bad.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Talking About Religion

I've found in hanging out with atheists, in real life and online, the question of "how to talk to your kids about religion" comes up a lot. It's popped up at a Freethinking Females meetup I went to, in my online moms community, on the awesome Atheist Plus forum, and even in my book club (Are You There God, It's Me, Margaret was our selection)!

There are a lot of different ways that atheist parents have handled the "religion question." When my older daughter asked us what a church was, my husband explained that "some people believe in magic! And a church is where they go to talk about it. But we don't believe in magic, do we?" Children: Noooooo! "Right, we know that magic is just pretend. So we don't go to church." The kids have watched movies and TV shows with magic, so it was an easy parallel to draw. Magic is in the same category as ghosts, witches, and some other things I can't think of right now: fun to pretend sometimes, but not real.

One of the more common answers I've seen, though, puts the question back to the child: Some people believe X, some people believe Y, I believe Z, what do you think? And I have to say... I really disagree with this approach.

My feelings on this are probably influenced by my kids' ages - the older just started Kindergarten, so they're pretty little yet. They don't have a whole lot of critical thinking skills yet, and didn't pick up much formal logic in preschool. So when they ask me a question - it's my job, as a parent, to give them the best answer I can. And since I have gone through the work of reading about different religions, learning about history and biology and evolution, and putting my best efforts into this... why wouldn't I tell them that Daddy and I don't believe in gods? That some people do, but we think they're wrong? Framing it as "some people think X" minimizes the importance of the question, makes it a matter of opinion, and obscures the fact that religion really does present truth claims. It isn't a matter of opinion that you can have light-hearted little jokes about, like whether mushrooms are delicious or taste like dirt. This is important.

The other reason I happily tell my kids that we don't believe in magic is because religious people certainly have NO problem indoctrinating their children. Infants are baptized or circumcized, small children to go Sunday School and learn prayers, older children are catchecized, given First Communion, confirmed, and bar or bat mitzvahed. My Catholic co-worker isn't telling her kids "I believe all of this... but you think about it and tell me what you think." She's just taking them to mass every week.

So that's why we answered the religion question with a resounding "not real!", and I'd encourage other atheist parents to do the same. I'd be interested in hearing other people's thoughts on the matter - how you addressed it with your kids or young people in your life, if you have any, or how your parents addressed it with you!

Thursday, September 6, 2012

School days begin...

My older daughter just started school - kindergarten. She's enjoying riding the bus, meeting new people, all the usual kindergarten things. I can't believe she's so big already... lolsob!

She was in preschool for the last few years, but her kindergarten is very different. Her preschool was pretty homogenous - some racial diversity, a few same-sex parents, but overall solidly middle- to upper-middle-class families. Most families had a parent (or two, even!) who was a professional of some sort (doctor, lawyer, engineer, etc.); many had a parent who didn't work outside the home. These were kids whose parents went to college, and who'd be going to college themselves. This isn't a fault of the school - we loved it. It just wasn't a very diverse community in that respect.

Her current school is completely different. Where the preschool was small (maybe 150 kids, prek-6th), her current school is large (almost 900 kids, k-8). More than 20% of the students are English language learners, who speak Spanish, Hmong, and Oromo in their homes. White students (like my daughter) make up less than 50% of the student body.

I am very happy that we're part of such a diverse school community. After all, if I wanted my kids to grow up with people who looked exactly like them, we'd move to the suburbs or something instead of living in the middle of a city. I myself grew up in a small town where "ethnic diversity" was Germans, Italians, Swedes, and Czechs, and I am glad that my children will have the exposure to diversity that I did not.

The only thing that I'm not looking forward to discussing is (you guessed it!) - religious expression. There's a fairly large number of Somali students at this school, who are mostly Muslim. The boys don't generally dress any differently, but the girls I've noticed tend to dress conservatively. Long sleeves, long skirts, and headscarves.

Although we've discussed religion before with our girls (in broad terms, when asked questions like "what's a church?"), religious expressions like Muslim headscarves haven't come up. I'm not sure how I'll explain it, if asked, given my own feelings on the subject, which are colored by the explanation I've heard from a former colleague who's Muslim: women dress modestly so that men will take them seriously, listening to their thoughts and words instead of being distracted by their bodies. My take on it is, why is it a woman's responsibility alone? Why isn't it a man's responsibility to control himself and behave professionally? Isn't this one tiny step away from victim-blaming for rapes and assaults?? And hey, don't women sometimes have the lusty thoughts too? Why aren't men covering up and dressing modestly too? Don't WE get to have sexual desires?!?

That's usually the point where I get all RELIGION POISONS EVERYTHING!!! and have to take a break! So in hopes of avoiding that with my daughter, I'm trying to think ahead a little bit, anticipate the conversation, and give some thought to how I might explain it honestly, without getting all Hitchensy on her. She's only five; it might be a little much for right now. :)

Monday, September 3, 2012

Religion & mental illness

Yesterday while my husband and I were talking, our conversation took a tangent that ended up with me telling him about a guy, C, I went to school with who didn't believe in mental illness. This came to light when a mutual friend of mine and C's, D, was struggling in school, due to school-related anxiety that manifested in an obsessive-compulsive type disorder. D told me that when he shared his diagnosis with C, C told him that he didn't believe in mental illness, and that D would be fine if he'd just "pull himself together." D was horribly offended and hurt; I was shocked that C would say that to D, even if he privately believed it.

C was (and probably still is; I haven't seen him in years) super, super conservative - Republican with a strong streak of Ayn Randian "no handouts, DIY" mentality. He also was (and probably still is) super, super religious. Catholic, if I recall correctly, not a Scientologist or any other group that thinks that psychology is a fraud.

 Anyway, my husband was floored by this. Just floored. He asked, "Do you think it's because it's an invisible disability? I mean, you wouldn't tell someone in a wheelchair that they're just not trying hard enough to walk!" And I definitely think that's part of it - I have a friend with chronic fatigue who has had similar experiences, where people think she's just lazy or something. Take a nap and you'll be fine! Whereas oh, if only it were that easy. Depression is the same way. Come on, just stop crying and get off the floor! Everyone gets bummed out from time to time, you can't let it get to you. Yeah, and again... if only it were that easy.

I wondered out loud whether C's religious beliefs influenced his disbelief in mental illness. After all, if God is inerrant, and made each of us... then how do you explain the obvious, well, fuckups? Not just mental illness, but cystic fibrosis? Spina bifada? Etc. etc. etc.? It's probably easier just to deny the fuckups exist, at least in the case of the ones that are invisible, than to try to explain how an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God allows these things to happen.

Husband said that the typical Christian answer to that is to point at the story of Job, and to say that it's a test of one's faith. Most often, he said, the faith of the parent of a child born with whatever condition, which is a pretty awful way to look at a child, if you ask me - not as their own person, but as a vehicle for testing you.

All I could do at the end of the conversation was shake my head. How sad for a person to think that their child was deliberately inflicted with a terrible condition like CF, as a test of YOUR faith. And if your faith was stronger, perhaps the test wouldn't have been needed and your child could've been born healthy? I can't imagine the guilt. How horrible that must feel, to hold such a belief. And how do you see treatment? Do you alleviate your child's suffering, or do you think that if god intended it, then god can cure it? Down that road lies the rejection of science-based medicine in favor of prayer, which has led to much needless suffering and death.

I cannot for the life of me imagine how a person could look at their own child's suffering, believe it was intentionally caused, and still believe in a loving, all-powerful god. To my way of thinking, any being that would deliberately cause a child pain is more monster than god, and definitely not worthy of any worship.

 Good thing no such creature exists, then.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Trip to the State Fair

My kids & I took our annual trip to the Minnesota State Fair this weekend. It was, as always, a glorious time: rides, food, animals, and lots and lots of people.

I just love the Fair!

Anyway, I came away with two observations, one positive and one negative, that I wanted to share here.

First, the thing I didn't like so much: somehow I never noticed before that right next to the Kidway (Midway, but with kids' rides) is a church. A church!! And not just one of those Lutheran dining halls that serves strong coffee and cheap breakfasts as a fundraiser; it's an actual church called Crossroads Chapel. Because we were there on Sunday morning (figured there'd be fewer crowds!), we passed right by one of what I now realize is one of several church services that take place on Sundays at the Fair.

I don't think this is a church/state separation problem - according to their website, the Fair is a quasi-state agency that hasn't received any public money or government appropriations since 1949. But still, ugh. Not a big deal in the grand scheme of things... but not my favorite, anyway. My kids somehow didn't notice the activity tables set up outside, fortunately, because otherwise they would've wanted to stop by. It's right up there with the Tea Partiers who have balloons and candy. I kind of feel like a mean mama when I say No! You cannot have one of those balloons! But as long as we get stickers from the Democrats, they're happy in the end, and so am I. Hee hee.

But the coolest thing! We stopped by the Miracle of Birth center when a cow was in labor, and my older daughter was fascinated! I was surprised, because she'd been holding her nose and acting all squeamish through all the other animal barns we tried to tour. But this she wanted to see! We found seats on the bleachers and sat and watched the cow's labor for probably half an hour, while she peppered me with questions: What's that coming out now? Is she pooping him out? Why is she pooping? What does the baby eat when it's inside the mama? Does it hurt the baby to be born? Does it hurt the mama? Will it be cute when it comes out? Is that how I was born?!?

We haven't had much of a birds-and-bees talk, and this was a great way to get some of those questions asked and answered at her initiative. We talked about how some animals lay eggs, and other animals' babies are born alive, and I answered all the questions she asked (doing my best to keep it age-appropriate - honest answers, but not too complicated).

I was really proud of her for asking such good questions. It was an especially nice moment out of our lovely day.

Friday, August 24, 2012

The anti-science anti-vax madness continues...

Because Donald Trump is, y'know, an expert on these things... from his Twitter feed:
Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) Massive combined inoculations to small children is the cause for big increase in autism....

Argh! What a way to start my Friday.

Hopefully nobody will take him seriously, right? Right, guys?


Thursday, August 23, 2012

Soulemama, and why vaccines aren't a private decision.

So there's this mommyblogger called "Soulemama" - easy enough to find via Google; I'm not going to link to her here - who lives a charmed pastoral life in Maine. She 'unschools' her five kids, grows her own vegetables, sews their clothes, etc. etc. etc. You know the drill.

Recently, following a "pertussis party," all five of her kids came down with whooping cough. WHOOPING COUGH. You know, that incredibly dangerous disease that (in the words of the CDC) causes violent coughing spells so bad that children cannot breathe, leading to pneumonia, seizures, and even brain damage or death? And for which there is a vaccine? But which is making a comeback now, due to people who opt out of vaccines because they feel like they can treat diseases with homeopathy and natural remedies by rubbing garlic on their kids' feet?

ARGH! There's so much wrong with this situation that I don't know where to begin!! So I am going to stick with unpacking just one of the points that made me all ragey.

Soulemama never directly addresses whether or not her kids are vaccinated (I mean, obviously they aren't, because who would vaccinate their kids and then directly expose them to an infectious disease?!? We vaccinate because we want our kids to stay healthy!!), instead sidestepping the issue by saying (in the comments to her post): "if you read my post, never do I say that we did not vaccinate. I think that is entirely beside the point, completely personal, and only leads to finger pointing."

Head: asplode. Because actually? Whether or not you vaccinate your kids is not a completely personal decision. It's a question of PUBLIC HEALTH.

Not everyone can be vaccinated. People who are immuno-compromised, for instance, may not be able to tolerate the vaccine. Children under 2 months of age don't get the vaccine. And (as Soulemama points out, thinking it's a reason not to vaccinate) the vaccine isn't always 100% effective. That's why it's so important that EVERYONE vaccinate - to build the community (or herd) immunity.

If enough people are vaccinated, the spread of a disease becomes sufficiently unlikely that even those who can't be vaccinated, who aren't immune, are protected. But if people start opting out of vaccination... the community isn't immune. And these communicable diseases start making a comeback.

The website Science-Based Medicine has a nice explanation of herd immunity, and what happens when people start opting out, which I'll excerpt briefly:

Published in Pediatrics this month is a paper that looked at the effect of vaccine refusers on laboratory confirmed (PCR or cultures) pertussis in Colorado (13).  They had 158 cases of pertussis  in the Kaiser system between 1996 and 2007.
Infected children were significantly more likely to have parents who refused vaccinations  (11.5%) than the controls (0.5%). The difference translated to a 22.8-fold increased risk of pertussis in the unvaccinated children.
At the time in Colorado, vaccination refusal was less than 1%, but they accounted for 11% of the cases of pertussis.  That’s not surprising.  With a bacterial disease like pertussis, a small slip in the vaccine rate can lead to a big jump in disease.
The vaccine is not 100%.  So there will be cases in vaccinated children as well.  What is striking is ALL the cases in the unvaccinated group could be attributed to not having the vaccine.

So, in short: No, Soulemama, whether or not you vaccinate your kids isn't a "completely personal" decision.  Maintaining community immunity against infectious, deadly diseases requires EVERYONE to vaccinate who can. This protects people whose vaccines didn't take or whose vaccines need a booster; it protects small babies and elderly folks and people who are immuno-compromised. It protects all of us.

So if keeping your own kids safe and healthy isn't enough of a motivation for you to vaccinate them (to which, as a parent, I must say WTF?!?) - fine. But then do it for my kids.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Welcome to the blog

I created this blog a while ago, but haven't gotten around to posting at it. It's funny; for the longest time I thought and thought about all the different things I would write here, and then when I finally got around to creating this - bam! My inspiration all dried up.

So as I wrote in my "about me" post, I'm the mother of two kids. I'm an atheist, but also a freethinker - an "Atheist plus" as it's being defined over at Freethought Blogs! What that means is that I do my best to apply my skepticism and rational thinking not just to religion, but to all areas of life. This leads me to feminism; anti-racism; anti-homophobia... basically, a belief in human equality, and that all these issues are just as important as your more 'traditional' skeptic/atheist concerns. Because whether or not someone believes in Bigfoot doesn't really affect my life or the lives of those I love quite as much as someone does who's trying to limit access to affordable birth control, or get marriage discrimination written into our state Constitution.

Because I'm a parent, I'm trying to raise my kids in that light. I'm also interested in secular issues that do and will affect them - for instance, separation of church and state, especially in public schools.

And of course, I have the sort of typical parenting concerns that anyone has who's trying to raise healthy, happy, freethinking kids (girls, to boot!) in a society that's all to often affected by the worst influences of religion.

Anyway, I certainly don't pretend to have any answers! My hope is that I can find other parents who are on this journey - either starting out, or further down the road than I am - to share thoughts, ideas, tough times, and triumphs.

Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, July 25, 2012